Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Feast of the Assumption - 2017

(repost from 2012)

The Blessed Mother has been very important to my life, especially after my conversion.  I know I am not devoted as I should be, but I try to commit myself every day to her Immaculate Heart.  

But on a day like today I cannot help but be happy for her.  She lived a life free of sin and no gets a sneak preview of the Resurrection.  No wonder this day is a holy day of obligation!

I wish that I had words to honor her properly.  So instead I want to share with you some thoughts from Pope Benedict XVI via  

The story says that he "set aside his prepared text for much of his homily."  George Weigel once said that Joseph Ratzinger was the only person he knew who spoke in paragraphs.  His mind and his words are so well ordered that even spontaneously they flow with eloquence.  

Below is a portion of the text of the article

On Assumption, pope says Mary is with God, listening to prayers

By Catholic News Service

CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy (CNS) -- Assumed into heaven, Mary is with God and is ready to listen and respond to cries for help, Pope Benedict XVI said.

Joining God in heaven, Mary "does not draw away from us, does not go to an unknown galaxy," but becomes "even closer to each one of us," the pope said Aug. 15 during his homily at Mass for the feast of the Assumption.


Mary's assumption, he said, gives believers "a sure hope: God expects us, he awaits us. We are not moving toward a void."

"And going to that other world, we will find the goodness of the Mother (Mary), we will find our loved ones, we will find eternal love," the pope said.

Pope Benedict... said that Mary's closeness to God ensures her closeness to all God's creatures.

"Mary, totally united with God, has a heart that is so big that all creation can find a place there," a fact illustrated by the votive offerings people around the world leave at Marian shrines and statues when their prayers are answered, he said.

Mary's presence in heaven shows that "in God there is room for man," he said.

At the same time, he said, she demonstrates that "in man there is room for God," and when God is present within individuals and they allow God to influence the way they act in the world, the world becomes a better place.

Many people today speak of their hopes for a better world, he said. 

"If and when this better world will come, we do not know. But one thing is certain: A world that moves away from God will not become better, but worse. Only the presence of God can guarantee a better world."

The Christian hope for a better world and for finding a place with God for eternity "is not just yearning for heaven," but allowing one's desire for God to "make us untiring pilgrims, increasing our courage and strength of faith, which is at the same time the courage and strength of love," he said.

Hail Holy Queen,
Mother of Mercy
Our life, our sweetness, and our hope.
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve.
To thee do we send up our sighs, mornings, and weepings
in this valley of tears.
Turn then, Most Gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy
towards us.
And after this our exile, show unto us the Blessed Fruit
of Thy Womb, Jesus
O Clement
O Loving
O Sweet Virgin Mary

Monday, August 14, 2017

New Evangelizers Post: Crafty Virtue

I have a new article up at  
One of Jesus’ most challenging parables is the one about the Dishonest Steward in Luke 16. In that story, a wealthy man is about to dismiss one of his stewards for being dishonest. The steward, wanting to ingratiate himself with those in debt to his master, reduces their debt to the master. The parable ends with the master commending the dishonest steward for acting prudently.

It is important to enter into its context, where the dishonesty of the steward was in the beginning of the story, not the end. Many misunderstand the parable, thinking that the master is rewarding the steward for dishonestly cheating him out of the debts owed. Instead, the steward is being dismissed at the beginning of the story for his graft in overcharging the debtors, something that would have been understood as common to Jesus’ original audience. For example, if Jesus told a similar parable today and began it by describing a dishonest banker, we would naturally assume that his dishonesty was in stealing from the bank. We would not need to be told this. In the original parable, the steward forgoes his cheating profits and has the debtors pay the actual amount they owe.

Because of this, the master commends the steward for being practical.

There are several lessons that one can draw from this story. For this article, I would like to focus only on one idea:

Crafty Virtue.

You can read the whole article here.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Sunday Best: Top 5 Stephen King Films

With The Dark Tower premiering last week and It coming out soon, I thought it would be a good time to take stock of the best movies that have been adapted from Stephen King stories.

This list will only include feature films and not those found only on television.  This is a shame since there is a great deal to admire about the TV versions of The Stand, The Shining, and It.

The list is based on how good the movies are and not on how well they adapt Stephen King's actual story.  Some of the movies on this list are very unfaithful adaptations.  And yet as films in and of themselves, they are excellent.  So for the King fan, these movies may be considered sub par.  But I am judging the movies per se.

5.  Misery

This movie is ultimately a battle of minds that required to outstanding performances.  Kathy Bates won an Oscar for her portrayal of the psychotic Annie.  But James Caan is often overlooked for his amazing performance as a man so completely physically helpless against this monster so that he has to use all of his wits just to stay alive a little longer for the hope of escape.  Most of the action is contained in a very small space and yet director Rob Reiner makes the film incredibly watchable.

4.  The Shining
The Shining poster.jpg
A horror masterpiece.  And this is coming from someone who does not enjoy horror films.  The movie works its creeping fingers of terror around your throat and then squeezes.  The horrible sense of unease never leaves the movie from the very first shot and the descent into madness feels ineveitable.  It is like being trapped in an oddly beautiful nightmare.

3.  Stand By Me
Stand By Me 1986 American Theatrical Release Poster.jpg
This is a movie that perfectly captures that odd time when you fall from the innocence of childhood but still are not old enough to be taken at all seriously in any adult way.  The four friends in this movie have relationships that feel real and identifiable to any boy who grew up with some close buddies.  Even as they revel in gross out vomit stories, there is a child-like naiveté to it that we can feel slipping away by the end of the film.  I love how when the boys part at the end, they fade away like ghosts, reminding us that even though we may not have them in our lives anymore, the events we shared with them will haunt our lives.

And the soundtrack is outstanding.

2.  The Green Mile
The words Tom Hanks, a prison guard looking to the distance, below the words The Green Mile, in the middle of the words, a small silhouette of a big man and small man walking towards a light.
Tom Hanks gives one of his best performances in this movie as he comes to discover that his death row inmate may be a miracle from Heaven.  The late Michael Clarke Duncan got an Oscar nomination for his role and it is well deserved.  There is something about his portrayal as John Coffey that has an aura of mystery and even danger.  His innocence could come off as mere stupidity.  But his final monologue where talks about people "being ugly to each other" always gets me.  And I have never heard a more pro-life sentence in a movie than: "On the day of my judgment, when I stand before God, and He asks me why did I kill one of his true miracles, what am I going say?

1.  The Shawshank Redemption

Probably to no one's surprise, this movie is at the top of the list.  It is on the top films on most people's lists.  Director Frank Darabont is a poet with the camera and the movie works on every level: visually, thematically, emotionally, dramatically...   From the opening scene to the final shot, everything about this movie is great.  It is optimistic and hopeful, but it not a naiive hope.  Instead this movie looks the nastiness of the world right in the eye and it dares you to give in and then it dares you to believe that despite all of that, there can be a better tomorrow, that for all of us there can be a redemption.

Monday, August 7, 2017

New Evangelizers Post: Reflecting on Jesus’ Grandparents

I have a new article up at  
A few days ago we celebrated the feast of Sts. Anne and Joachim, the parents of the Virgin Mary. Very little can be said about them with certainty. Neither of Mary’s parents are named in the Scriptures. We find these names in The Gospel of James, a book that is not one of the inspired books of the Bible.
Is the information found in this book and found in the human tradition reliable?

Who can say.

Then what do we know with certainty?

We know that they lived in Nazareth with their daughter Mary. We know that their union produced the Immaculate Conception. And we know that their grandchild is the Incarnate Word.

Like St. Joseph, Anne and Joachim were born into the same fallen humanity that we all possess. I imagine that when they welcomed their daughter into the world they wanted to give her a better life than they had. I spoke recently with some friends of mine who have children and they said that they always wonder what will be the thing they do that will start a chain reaction of unalterably forming their child’s character. They hope that they say and do things that will make them holier and more moral. But an ill-tempered word or disinterested slight is something that they fear may be the source of a lifetime of hurt.

I don’t know that Anne and Joachim were any different. Sometimes I think we imagine Jesus and Mary were born with fully formed personalities. And to be sure in His Divinity, Christ had a perfect and unchanging Personhood. But in their humanity, both Jesus and Mary had to learn the way all of us learn.

Human beings are interesting creatures, unique in this world. Think of how many species have young that walk right from birth or engage in self-reliant behavior immediately with no parenting. Human children require years and years of parenting because we are so different. That is because we, unlike all other earthly creatures, are rational animals. We find the fulfillment of our natural potential not only in physical perfection (as beasts do), but in mental perfection as well. This requires a great deal of education. Here, I do not mean anything as formal as school, though that can be a part of it. The most important education of all is the one that teaches them how to live rightly. We call this moral education. And this is something that is not simply taught in platitudes and lessons. It is something that usually has its best chance of being taught through example and modeling.

You can read the whole article here.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Sunday Best: Top 25 Superhero Movies of All Time #8 - Iron Man

There is little doubt that this is the movie that changed Hollywood franchises.

The original X-Men movie renewed interest in comic book films after the disastrous Batman and Robin.  But Iron Man changed everything.

In retrospect, you can see the brilliance of many of the choices, but so much of what was done was a gamble.

I have always maintained that at least half of the success of the entire Marvel Cinematic Marvel Universe is due to Robert Downey Jr.  Without him, I do not think you would have the MCU.

But it is important to remember what a risk he was to cast.  The studios always want to cast younger actors so that as the years go on, the heroes don't age out too quickly.  This can often have disastrous effects like Kate Boseworth as Lois Lane.  Instead, director Jon Favreau wanted Downey Jr. who was already in his 40's.  On top of that, it is important to remember that Downey Jr. had not been doing mostly supporting roles at this time or leads in smaller productions.  And don't forget about his very public issues with drugs and prison.

In addition to this, Iron Man was not one of the A-List Marvel heroes.  Director Favreau had only directed three movies up until this point, two of which had only barely made back its budget.  The studio was also opening the movie only a week an a half before the hugely anticipated (though eventually derided) Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Despite all of that, Iron Man rose to the top.

The movie does something that I always advise filmmakers with unlikeable leads to do: make your leads charming.  Tony is not a likable person when the movie starts.  He is a lothario who is thoughtless, greedy, and arrogant.  If these were his only qualities, audiences would check out of the story immediately.  But Downey Jr. makes you like him despite his flaws.  The opening scene is so brilliant because it does two things:  first it makes you attach to Tony because he is the cool/funny guy who is being cool and funny with us "normal" people.  Second, he is immeadelty put into mortal danger so we feel for his safety right away.

The entire first act of Iron Man is fantastic.  Downey Jr.'s chemistry with Yinsen (Shaun Toub) is the heart of the movie.  Toub's understated and noble performance works to break through the snarky and sarcastic exterior of Tony.  Not to enter into the realm of politics, but the movie came out towards the end of the George W. Bush administration when terrorism was a primary focus.  By setting Tony's capture in the mountains of Afghanistan by radical Islamists, it struck a collective chord with a lot of people and gave us a superhero that felt like he was the enemy to our enemies.  It was the movie equivalent of the cover of Captain America #1 where he punches Hitler.

The sequence of the escape is also fantastic, as we see our hero turn the tables on the villains and use his genius to overcome them and be the architect for his own escape along with Yinsen.  After watching Tony suffer so much at the hands of these terrorists, it is a wonderfully cathartic release to see him exact justice.

But the goodbye to Yinsen always gets me.  Again, Downey Jr. needs so much credit here.  He can crank up the charm to 11, but he can also bring the proper emotion.  Watch when he says to him, "Thank you for saving me."  You can see how he means more than just saving his life.  Yinsen saved his soul.  It is a fantastic moment, not overdone or underdone.  It is a moment of man who feels overwhelming gratitude and genuine emotion but doesn't really know how to do it anymore.  His feelings are almost alien to him as he confesses his thanks.    So when Yinsen says, "Don't wast your life," you can see how it propels the rest of the movie.

It is true that the second two acts do not match the level of the first act, but there is still much to admire.  The development of the armor is fascinating to watch.  This is not an easy feat because these sequences are essentially a man in a workshop building stuff.  But Favreau makes each step of the journey fascinating to watch.  And his first flight is still a real joy to watch, you feel Tony's exhilaration as he shouts with joy.

Underneath this is a story of redemption.  Tony has been given a second chance to make his life count.  The movie is about the slow awakening of his soul.  The story wisely gives his character room to grow over the course of several films, but his first strides feel significant.  It is wonderful to watch his first "metanoia," which is a Greek word for "complete change of heart."  This happens thematically and symbolically with his Arc Light in his chest.  His past sins are killing him, but his current heroism is saving him.  But if he ever stops being a hero, he will slide back into his deadly sin.

And his first real fight in the new armor is great to watch.  Again, Iron Man is not fighting a super-villain here, but Islamist (alebiet in this case fictional) terrorists.  You get the sense of a hero touching, tangentially, the evils of the world.

The movie's biggest detriment is in its villain.  Jeff Bridges' Obediah Stane is too simple and obviously evil.  That isn't to say that Bridges doesn't do the best he has with that material.  Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts has great chemistry with Downey Jr.  Even Terrance Howard does a decent job as James Rhodes.

Also I think people forget how bold the ending is with Tony eschewing the necessity of a secret identity.  While that is standard for most Marvel movies now, it was a brand new idea.

But above all of this, Iron Man is a fun movie.  Never underestimate the power of fun entertainment.  That doesn't undercut any of the drama involved, but most people finish Iron Man and they feel charmed and exhilarated.  This movie permanently planted Robert Downey Jr. into their affections, and by association Iron Man and the entire MCU.

Nearly ten years later, Iron Man is still one of the best in the genre and deserves its place as the eight greatest superhero film of al time.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Who Knows the Savior

So I was at a Comic Con today and got a chance to meet David Tennant.  In honor of that event, I decided to dress up like the 10th Doctor.  My wife and I waited in line for hours until we got a chance to briefly meet him face to face and then get our picture taken.

After that, we walked around the convention center looking at all of what was there.  At one place they had a life-size TARDIS and a man dressed as the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker).  He never broke character and asked if I wanted to get a picture with him or just me and the TARDIS.  I said both and we took both pictures.

Right before I left, he said (again, never breaking character as the Fourth Doctor), "What is this medal you have around your neck?"

I grabbed my Miraculous Medal and explained what it was and showed him that I was wearing a crucifix I received when I was seventeen.

The Fourth Doctor said, "Oh!  You know, I met Jesus once.  He did something I could never do: save the world!"


Comic Con.


Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Film Review: Dunkirk

Sexuality/Nudity No Objection 
Violence Mature
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

If Christopher Nolan does not get an Oscar nomination for Best Director, nothing will.

Dunkirk is a marvel of cinematic storytelling once again proving that Nolan is one of the best artists behind the camera working today.

The movie once again uses Nolan's signature obsession with multiple and overlapping timelines to tell the story of the retreat at Dunkirk.  The Allied forces were pushed back by the Nazis all the way to the coast of France at Dunkirk.  Nearly 400, 000 men were stranded on the beaches there.  Assembling on the beach left them open to the German air force.  The large military destroyer ships were prone to attack from the air and from u-boats under the sea.  The British military held back much of its navy and air force in preparation of the inevitable Battle of Britain.  As a result, civilian ships were called in to help with the evacuation.

In this movie, Nolan interweaves three convergent storylines.

1.  Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is a young British soldier who falls in with another soldier (Damien Bonnard) as they make several attempts to finagle their way onto any ship taking them off the beach.  During this time the encounter Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D'Arcy) and come to understand how desperate their situation is.  Their story plays out over several days at Dunkirk.

2.  Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) is a British citizen who answers the call for rescue boats.  He sets off to Dunkirk with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his friend George (Barry Keoghan).  Along the way they pick up a drifting shivering soldier (Cillian Murphy) who is shell shocked and does not want to return to Dunkirk.  Their story takes place over one day.

3.  Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Loweden) are RAF pilots who, with almost no other support, must fend off the German Air force threatening escaping Dunkirk.  This story takes place over the course of a single hour.

If that sounds confusion, don't worry it really isn't.  Nolan understands that the human mind longs for complexity in its stories but he also understands that the human mind doesn't want to be too frustrated.  He messes with the converging timelines primarily to create suspense and tension.

This might be Nolan's best work in terms of purely visual storytelling.  Hardly a word is said throughout most of the movie.  In fact, it wouldn't be too far off to see Dunkirk as a silent movie.  Or at the very least it carries with it the principle of telling the story with the bare minimum of dialog.  In Tommy's sequence, I don't think he or his friend say a single line for the first forty minutes.  Instead, Nolan wants you to follow them with your eyes.  Nolan is one of the few directors working at his level who trusts his audience to keep up with him.  Rather than have Tommy and his friend have a long conversation about how to sneak onto a boat, he shows us how come across an injured man on a stretcher who has been abandoned on the beach and takes it from there.

The colors of the film help set its tone.  The soldiers languish in a washed-out blue-gray purgatory of despair.  They are exposed and helpless with only the strange sea foam for cover.

And the threat is always there and impending.  Nolan takes a cue from Jaws and barely ever shows us the invading force, but they are there all the time.  We can hear them always surrounding.  While I said this movie had a silent film aesthetic, it use of sound is masterful.  Not only is the score tense and powerful, but the shock and violence of the sound effects makes us feel the oppression of that unseen fear.  And his use of the watch ticking is the most effective I've heard in a film.

Nolan traps us into his characters' perspectives in such an effective way.  One of the things that he did better than in any movie I've seen is capture the claustrophobia of air battles.  Often in films we get to stand outside and watch the exciting movements of the planes throughout the three-dimensional space in which they fight.  But Nolan forces you into that cockpit where your field of vision is so limited and you don't know if you are alone in the sky or if an enemy is closing in.

This movie does have a drawback and it is not insignificant: it lacks heart.  What I mean by this is that there is an intentional absence of all things resembling sentiment from the film.  As we saw in Interstellar, Nolan is perfectly capable of tugging at the heartstrings.  But for Dunkirk, he assiduously avoids them.  It would be wrong to say that the movie is unemotional or callous.  The emotions of fear, sadness, and desperation are powerful and intense.  Many of the soldiers on the beach at Dunkirk were strangers who fall in together for an intense experience.  But because of that, they never really form strong emotional bonds to each other.  The same is true of the audience.  You care about many of the characters on a human level, but not a personal level.  I honestly could not tell you the names of most of the main characters from memory.  And much of the dialogue was difficult to hear.

I think that Nolan wants this distance because he wants to remove these men from the audience's judgment.  Some of them do some horrible things through the course of the movie.  But Nolan never casts judgment on their horrible actions.  Instead, he simply shows you the horror they endure and reminds you that war is hell.

And that isn't to say that he doesn't show great heroism at the same time.  Rylance's Dawson has such an understated nobility that it is hard to define.  Dawson is tenacious and daring and pushes his crew because "We might be able to help!"  He is an ordinary man with extraordinary character.  Farrier also has to often put his courage to the sticking place.  And the last shot of Bolton in the movie stands as an emblem of iconic valor.  In fact, the very last shot of the film feels like a challenge to the audience to match up to the heroism displayed at Dunkirk.

The problem is that Nolan is becoming more and more like his favorite director: Stanley Kubrick.  Kubrick was a man who could create some of the most iconic images every made in cinema.  But his films had a coldness that borders on pathological.  Nolan seems to be following in his stylistic footsteps, which I think will ultimately hurt his storytelling.

All of the performances are great.  Newcomer Whitehead has to carry so much of the movie without saying anything, so all of his subtle emotion must be constantly present.  Hardy, as he did when he played Bane in Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, must do most of his work with only his voice and his eyes.  And Rylance proves once again why he earned his Oscar a few years back.  There is absolutely nothing showy about his performance.  And yet it is so charismatic that he lingers with you long after the movie ends.  He refuses to chew scenery.  But when he says lines like "We have a job to do," it does it in a way that is so plain and firm that you cannot help but agree.

Dunkirk is a great film told by a master of the visual form.  But if he had just given his film a bit more heart, it could have been one of the greatest.

4 out of 5 stars