ReasonForOurHope

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Film Review: Booksmart



Sexuality/Nudity Offensive
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity Offensive
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Offensive

Booksmart is one of the most vulgar and vile movies I have seen in a long time.  If this is an accurate representation of all of America's youth, I would be tempted to ask God to burn the country down and start over.

This movie has a lot in common with a much superior film: Can't Hardly Wait.  Both movies are about graduated or soon-to-be-graduated seniors who go on journeys of discoveries at a big party.  Both movies have drinking, partying, and a bathroom hook-up.  But whereas Can't Hardly Wait feels like a night of youthful excess to be played for comedy, Booksmart feels like an empty and vulgar screed of existential emptiness.

The story revolves around two graduating seniors.  Molly (Beanie Feldstein) is an over-achieving, class president who thinks that she is better and smarter than her classmates.  Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) is the beta of the pair, a shy lesbian who is afraid to tell her crush about her feelings.  These two have avoided the party scene in high school to concentrate on their studies in order to get into good schools.  Molly has a mini-breakdown when she has a revelation that the party animals of the school also got into good colleges.  Determined to get that party experience, Molly forces Amy to accompany her on a quest to find the best graduation party of their class.

It is hard for me to describe how ugly this movie is.  The characters lack any kind of redeeming qualities.  The impetus for the quest is Molly's insane envy.  She is completely filled with an inflated pride and it shakes her to the core that anyone could be as smart as her without working as hard.  Their success takes nothing away from her own achievements, but she is so enraged by their good fortune.  The only reason that you feel even a little sympathetic with her is that all of her other classmates are portrayed as horrid.  They are mean, selfish, sexually promiscuous, intoxicated, vulgarians.

The thing is that Molly and Amy are really no different.  They talk explicitly about their own sexual indulgences, look at pornography together, and they rip apart all those they see as different than them.  The only thing that separates our heroes from their perceived antagonists is that they don't publicly display their sins.  For example, the two look down on a girl with slutty reputation called "Triple A" (Molly Gordon).  And yet, Molly and Amy are open to engaging in random sexual encounters too.  Also in a particularly mean spirited scene, Molly decides to mess with Amy's Christian parents (Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow).  They are obviously struggling with their faith and how Amy's sexuality affects their family dynamic.  The scene is meant to gently rib them for their discomfort with their "homophobia," but it comes off as very hurtful.

You could make the argument that a movie like Can't Hardly Wait is morally worse than Booksmart because it sanitizes the ugliness of sin and makes it more acceptable to watch.  I am open to those arguments, but Can't Hardly Wait had a setting which is a bit scandalous, but it had a great deal of heart.  It didn't seem to revel in the ugliness of the sin and Booksmart does.  It wants to be "in your face" and shock you.  Writers Emily Halpirn, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman have given us two very unlikeable, lecturing lead characters surrounded by flat, unfunny characters.

That is also one of the cardinal sins of the movie: it isn't funny.  Bad comedians replace humor with shock, hoping that the vulgarity will be so great that it will provoke laughs, like in Borat.  But that wears off quickly.  I chuckled maybe once or twice in the entire film.  Nothing was funny.  Each new adventure should have been a ludicrous laugh riot.  Instead I felt like Dante going deeper and deeper into the concentric circles of hell.

The movie tries to do an end run around their flat characters by trying to give them depth in the last act.  But this almost makes it worse.  Instead of complete caricatures engaging in deviant behavior, we had more realistic characters debasing themselves.  No one seems to have grown from the experience.

What makes this even worse is that director Olivia Wilde actually displayed some real talent.  There are about 5 minutes of the movie that are actually incredibly well-directed.  There is a scene in a pool that is lyrical and heart-breaking which transitions into a single-camera shot that is expertly crafted both in technique and emotion.  It's like she kept all of her directing ammo dry for these moments and then let everything else fall apart.  But there wasn't much to do with the script.

The performances are mostly wooden or bad.  Dever is the best, making her incredibly sympathetic in all of her pursuits.  Feldstein does okay, but she is hampered by the wet-blanket that is Molly.  Billie Lourd show some real charisma as the wild and unpredictable Gigi and Skylar Gisondo is sympathetically pathetic as the rich and lonely Jared.  Other than that, everyone is completely forgettable.

This movie died a horrible death at the box office.  And I don't think there has ever been a more just cinematic execution in movie history.

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Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Wednesday Comics: Undoing King's Tragedy - Flash Forward #1 and #2



Image result for flash forward # 1

I have made no secret that Heroes in Crisis #8 is the worst comic book I have ever read in my life.

After the horrible debacle of that book, after Tom King wiped his nose with Wally West, and after the fan response has been overwhelming negative, DC had a choice: either double down on making Wally a villain or immediately being unraveling the travesty of what King wrote.

Luckily DC chose the latter.

I know that I often complain that storylines are disregarded by the next writer.  But Heroes in Crisis is the exception.  None of the characters in that book were written with any sense of continuity to who they were.  Wally was the worst example, but characters like Booster Gold sounded nothing like who they were meant to be.

Writer Scott Lobdell had his task set out for him with Flash Forward.  Wally is currently serving a prison term for the crimes he committed in Heroes in Crisis.  I was worried that this new mini-series would be a complete angst-fest.  And Lobdell takes the bull by the horns and tackles Wally's sense of guilt.  In prison, he is surrounded by his former enemies.  Some try to kill him.  But others want him to stay alive because his living with his guilt is a worse punishment.

Luckily, this is only the set up.  While in his cell, a cosmic being named Tempus Fuginaut (who I believe was created for the recent comic book Sideways) comes to Wally and tells him that he is needed for a mission to save the multiverse.  At first, Wally is reluctant, but what follows is a fun adventure.

Freed from the shackles of Tom King, Wally runs with excitement and cheer.  Lobdell does not ignore Heroes in Crisis, but this story feels much more in line with the Wally written by Mark Waid and Geoff Johns.  This story is also very much a classic Flash/Multiverse story.  We get re-introduced to the "President Superman" universe and all of the exciting characters there.  And the last page of the second issue had my jaw on the floor.

What Lobdell gets and what King does not is that comic book readers have a relationship with these characters.  The affection we feel for them is internalized like friendship.  Lobdell gets this and helps us spend time with our friend again.  Artists Brett Booth and Norm Rapmund make the story pop with dynamic action and big splashes of character and color.

Reading this book feels like waking up from a bad dream.  And I cannot wait for the next issue.

Film Flash: Ford vs. Ferrari



15 words or less film review (full review to follow soon)

Like A Star is Born,  the final 10 minutes completely ruin an otherwise good movie.


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Sunday, November 17, 2019

Sunday Best: Movies Inspired by Shakespeare Plays



Last week, I made a list of the Top Ten Adaptations of Shakespeare to Movies.  However, I received some feedback asking where movies like 10 Things I Hate About You were.  This would require a different category.  Movies like this are based on Shakespearean plots, but they do not incorporate his words. 

There is also another added level of difficulty in that ideas, themes, dialogue, and plot points have been borrowed from the Bard in a myriad of movies.  So this list current list must be selective.  The plot must have large enough plot similarities to the original Shakespearean story in order to be here. 


So here are the Top 5 Movies Inspired by Shakespeare Plays


10 Things I Hate About You
(based on The Taming of the Shrew)
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While the dialogue is often not great and most of the acting is sub-par, this movie works primarily because of the fantastic charisma of Heath Ledger.  He elevates this material by being incredibly masculine and sensitive.  One of the greatest romantic moments in movies that I have seen is Ledger effortlessly sliding down the light pole while singing Frankie Valley. 

Warm Bodies
(based on Romeo and Juliet)
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It is scary how much this movie adheres to the source material, but transposes It into a zombie apocalypse.  The movie is clever and funny and surprisingly strong in its theme about how love can bring us back to life.  Wonderful performances by Teresa Palmer and Nicholas Hoult

The Lion King
(based on Hamlet)
In an African savannah, several animals stare at a lion atop a tall rock. A lion's head can be seen in the clouds above. Atop the image is the text "Walt Disney Pictures presents The Lion King".
The story of Hamlet is complex, but it is primal.  This means that it can be whittled down to its essence and folded into a children's film.  The story parallels have been pointed out all over the Internet.  And while this movie does not end as tragically as the other, it does a wonderful job of capturing how Hamlet's inaction leads to more tragedy.



Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
(based on Othello)
Below a dark metal mask, a young man with long hair is front and center, with a woman at his left and a bearded man at his right. Two warriers hold lightsabers on either side, and below them in the middle, two men clash in a lightsaber duel. Starfighters fly towards us on the lower left, and a sinister hooded man sneers at the lower right.
The parallels between the main story line of this movie and Othello are too strong to ignore.  Palpatine acts as the villainous Iago, poisoning Anakin's soul under the guise of friendship until he is so enraged by jealousy that he strangles his wife to the point where he "kills" her.  I've always felt that this movie was a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.


West Side Story
(based on Romeo and Juliet)
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Dare I say that this story is actually an improvement on the original.  Shakespeare writes some of his most romantic lines for his play.  But I firmly believe that Romeo and Juliet is horribly misinterpreted by modern audiences.  I believe Shakespeare meant to show Romeo as the villain, like Macbeth, who resorts to murder because of his passions.  West Side Story not only makes Tony a complete hero (albeit one who falters in a moment of shock and grief), but the music  elevates the emotion.  I do not think anyone could make a better movie inspired by a Shakespeare play.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

New Evangelizers Post: Clarity and Confusion

I have a new article up at NewEvangelizers.com.  
There is a song that was particularly dear to me many years ago when I came to my conversion experience. One of the lyrics goes “Lord, take the darkness from my min, when confusion makes me blind, come renew me with your truth.” A short while later, a friend of mine changed the lyrics when we sang to “when temptation makes me blind…” He reasoned that temptation was a spiritual problem, but confusion was not.

Over the years I have come to see that my friend was wrong.

Confusion, like temptation, is not necessarily a spiritual weakness. Jesus was tempted, after all. And God can use our confusion as a means to his will. Sometimes in our confusion, we come to realize how in the dark we truly are. As the great Rich Mullins wrote, sometimes God allows us to be confused so that I can come to the place “where I’m lost enough to let myself be led.”

But there is another kind of confusion that is incredibly problematic for Catholics: moral confusion.
One of the things that I have found in all my years of teaching is that my students want to know the answers to their questions. Even if they don’t like the answers, they want clear responses from their teacher. I can see how many of them roll their eyes when I tell them how is too far to go with their boyfriend or girlfriend. Some of them bristle when I inform them that intentionally skipping the Lord’s Day Mass is a mortal sin. I understand the temptation that some teachers have in avoiding the difficult topics. But it is the responsibility of the theology teacher to speak the truth, whether convenient or inconvenient.
To be sure, not all answers are cut and dried. When I get a question like, “Is it true that if someone kills themselves, they are going to hell?” it requires a great deal of sensitive explanation. But even with cases like these, it is important to be absolutely clear. There are some who would shy away from the Church’s teaching here so as not to offend those who have lost their loved ones to suicide. But this leads to more problems, not less.

Take a concrete issue from recent days. Inside of the Church of Santa Maria, close to the Vatican, were displayed statues of Pachamama in recognition of the Amazon Synod. The problem was that Pachamama is a god to some people who reverence and worship Pachamama as an idol. So some Catholics took the statues and threw them into the Tiber. Pope Francis apologized for this desecration of Pachamama. This whole event has led to a great deal of confusion.

Was this an idol? And if so, shouldn’t they be removed from the Church? If they are not idols, but they are not sacred images, why are they on display in the Church? If they are simply symbols of planet earth, then why did people bow down and reverence them? If they were not reverencing them, what were they doing?

All of this confusion leads to even bigger problems. Can we revere and image that is being used by some as an idol for worship? It would seem the answer is obviously no. That is, unless there is absolute clarity on the part of all involved that Pachamama is only a symbol. But this is problematic, since the lived experience seems to say the opposite.

When Peter was at Antioch, he made sure to eat with the Jewish Christians and follow the Jewish dietary laws. Paul took Peter in front of everyone and scolded him. Peter’s actions caused confusion among the Gentile Christians, and Paul wasn’t having it. Paul understood that this confusion could be used for diabolical doubt and the erosion of true faith.

In America, Pope Paul VI refused to excommunicate Catholic leaders who openly defied his teaching on artificial contraception. Many, like author Philip Jenkins, believed that Paul feared if he did so it would lead to a schism with the American Catholics. And to be sure, a Schism would be disastrous. But even more disastrous is what followed. In the confusion, many people came to the conclusion that they could be full-fledged Catholics and reject essential Catholic teaching. If the pope wasn’t going to kick them out, then it must be okay, right? This is why we have so many “pro-choice” Catholics and Catholics who support things like same-sex “marriage” while other fundamental teachings like the Real Presence of the Eucharist.

I believe that there are some (and feel free to disagree with me on this point), that use the confusion as a moral smoke-screen. Thinking that the moral teachings are the Church are too difficult, they create an atmosphere where the answers are intentionally murky. They think that as long as people act in good conscience, then the confusion excuses their rejection of the moral law.

But this overlooks one of the most important lessons about the moral law: that it exists for our good. Sin is not just bad, it is bad for us. Yes, confusion may lessen the culpability, but it doesn’t change the disastrous effect it has on our lives and the world. If you raised by an alcoholic, you may have less culpability if you become an alcoholic yourself. But whether it is your fault or not, alcoholism can destroy your life.



You can read the whole article here.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Sunday Best: Top 10 Shakespeare Movies

This is the opening week for the second Shakespeare play I have directed.  I adore William Shakespeare, though I will not vouch myself an expert.  Instead I will say that I am enthusiastic student of his work.  His plays have been adapted hundreds of times in hundreds of different ways for the stage and screen.

With that in mind, it would be good to look at the best ways in which the immortal writer's stories were captured on the sliver screen.





10. Love's Labour's Lost (2000)
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You are going to see a lot of movies directed by Kenneth Branagh on this list.  Those familiar with this blog know that I am not shy about my partiality towards his work.  This time he does something quite experimental: he combined the play with 1930's Broadway hits.  The combination is odd and works sporadically well.  The modest budget of $13 million forced the film to look a bit almost all the sets looking artificial like a film from the era of the songs the cast was singing.  The reason this film makes it into the top ten is that when Branagh is able to get it to work, the movie is incredibly charming.  Like many of his comedies, the story is incredibly silly.  But Branagh and his cast do an admirable job of moving the movie along with some toe-tapping numbers in between.  I particularly enjoyed Branagh's monologue about love towards the end of the film.

9. As You Like It (2006)
As U Like It 2006 poster.jpg
Another Branagh adaptation, this one transposes Shakespeare's characters to feudal Japan.  The scenery is simple, but beautiful.  But what really makes this one work are the performances.  I was surprised at how good Bryce Dallas Howard was in the lead role.  She was both charismatic and charming, showing intelligence and feminine grace.  Kevin Kline showed wonderful range as the melancholy Jaques.  Alfred Molina also does a wonderfully comedic job as Touchstone the jester.

8. Much Ado About Nothing (2012)
A man wearing scuba googles and snorkle, his head is just above water. In his hand is a red cocktail, the image is otherwise black and white.
Joss Whedon adapted this version of the classic comedy and shot it with friends almost exclusively at his home.  The simple black and white piece captures the universality of the story and why it is so familiar and resonant whenever it is adapted.  The war of the sexes should always end in mutual surrender to love.  Alexis Denisof and and Amy Acker lost none of their chemistry from their time on the TV show Angel.  Nate Fillion is particularly good as the dead serious, but dead stupid Dogberry.

7. The Hollow Crown: Henry IV Part I (2012)
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This adaptation is the best I have seen of this story.  Most of that falls on the shoulders of Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal.  He carries with him his roguish Loki grin, but he pushes all of his dramatic buttons to really peel back the layers of this incredibly complex character.  Jeremy Irons does a great job as the imposing Henry IV, but the one who brings both the comedy and tragedy to all of this is Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff.  The play-within-a-play scene turns from hilarious to heartbreaking because he and Hiddleston play the subtext to perfection.


6. Julius Caesar (1970)
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There is no getting around the fact that Jason Robards as Brutus Is awful in this movie.  But as bad as his casting is, you will completely overlook it because of the magnificence of the mighty Charlton Heston.  His performance as Antony, especially at the funeral speech is one of the all-time greatest Shakespearean performances.  You can see how Shakespeare understood the power of words and how they can sway people's hearts, even when they are insincere.  Heston squeezes every drop of dramatic blood from those words to conjure a rhetorical storm so that you believe the power of his speech could move a city to riot.


5. A Performance of Macbeth (1978)

This one is a little bit of a cheat.  It is a recording of something that is essentially a stage play.  But the filming of it is very specifically used to make it feel more than a theatrical performance.  The performance space is bare and so the entire movie must hang on the faces of the actors.  And these performances are world-class.  Ian McKellen knocks it out of the park as you see the slow erosion of MacBeth's soul.  Judi Dench is every much his equal as she goes from evil to insane as the sins she commits come back to destroy her.  This is dark and haunting the way Macbeth should be.

4. Hamlet (1990)
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This was my first exposure to Hamlet.  I was only twelve, but I was shocked at how much I was able to understand.  Not only was this because of Franco Zeffirelli's direction, but it was primarily because of Mel Gibson.  I had known him primarily as an action star and hadn't thought of him much beyond that.  But he gives a tour-de-force performance that knocked my socks off.  There is a wildness in his eyes, a madness that sets the movie on fire.  I could feel his intensity in my own heart and it resonated with me like few other Shakespeare performances.  Helena Bonham Carter's waifish Ophelia, who collapse into madness, haunted me with her crazy, sunken eyes.  A dark and tragic take on the classic story.


3. Henry V (1989)
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This film received a number of Oscar nominations, all of them well deserved.  I did not know the story of Henry V when I went to watch it and Branagh drew me in with his directing and his performance.  Everything fires on all cylinders in this movie.  I absolutely adore everything from the night before the battle of Agincort through to the final tracking shot.  It is so beautifully filmed with such long, sweeping takes.  The Patrick Doyle score has been sampled dozens of times for film trailers because it captures the uplift and drama presented on the screen.  I still get chills watching Branagh give his St. Crispin's Day speech.  It is the perfect antithesis of Heston's Caesar speech.  Whereas I believed Heston's words could spurn others to vile destruction, Branagh made me believe his words could inspire hopelessly outnumbered men that they were privileged to stand their ground and fight with him.  A great film.


2. Hamlet (1996)
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This movie is absolutely beautiful.  Branagh took all of his skills as a visual filmmaker and brought to life the best version of Hamlet I have seen.  It is the only movie that captures the entire entire text of the play, clocking in at just above four hours long.  The icy landscape ultra-wide and ultra-wide format give a scale reminiscent of Doctor Zhivago.  All of the performances are excellent and are complimented by the incredible visual design.  Patrick Doyle's score is passionate and haunting.  The movie is a who's who of acting greats with Branagh in the lead, but also featuring Derek Jacobi, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Charlton Heston, Richard Attenborough, Billy Crystal, and Robin Williams.  And yet none of the casting feels like a stunt as each actors executes their role to great effect.  Crystal's gravedigger is a particular highlight for me.  The film requires endurance to sit through because of the length, but doing so rewards you with a unique and beautiful cinematic experience.

1. Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
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I've said this before about this movie: it was a revelation to me because it taught me that Shakespeare was actually funny.  That revelation made me realize that his words were not cold and distant, but alive and relevant.  The movie is pure romance, and I mean that in both the modern and medieval way.  It captures to pomp and poetry of the age.  Branagh is fantastic as Benedick and Emma Thompson shines as Beatrice.  Denzel Washington brings his princely bearing to the proceedings and Michael Keaton shows off all of his manic comedic skills as Dogberry.  This movie is a joy and triumph.  The subject matter may be whimsical, but it captures the pain, poignancy, and pleasures of romance.  If I were ever to show a movie to help someone fall in love with Shakespeare it would be this one.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Film Review: Ad Astra



Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable
Violence Mature 
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature

I've always said that if you want to sound smart to people, either quote them Latin or Shakespeare.  The makers of this movie desperately want to sound smart.  To the Stars didn't sound pretentious enough, so they Latinized the title: Ad Astra.


The film centers around Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), an emotionally walled-off astronaut in the not-too distant future.  A calamity befalls the people of earth and the powers that be think that the source of the problem is Roy's father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones).  Clifford went on a mission to Neptune and from there seek out intelligent life outside of the solar system.  SpaceCom lost all contact with the expedition decades earlier, but they have reason to believe that some kind of energy wave is emanating from their ship and affecting Earth.  Roy is tasked to go to Mars to make radio contact with his long-lost father and see if they can resolve this crisis.

I don't know what it is about space movies that brings out the pretension in directors.  This movie desperately wants to be 2001: A Space Odyssey.  To be sure, writer/director James Gray does some fine visual work.  But the space opera feels like it is trying too hard to be lofty.  Even the great Christopher Nolan fumbled a little with his finale to Interstellar.  Gray wants to make a movie with big themes, sweeping emotions and potent visuals.  But he forgets that first and foremost he is telling a story.  And none of those other things matter if you do not have characters that you want to follow. 

There is absolutely nothing interesting about Roy.  He is a block of wood in a space suit.  That is not an insult to Pitt's performance.  I am sure he was told to play the part of someone with the emotional depth of a thimble.  I suppose this was meant to show how Roy's abandonment as a child has stunted his full emotional growth.  Donald Sutherland has an extended cameo as a friend of Clifford, but he exits the movie too soon to have any impact.  The movie builds to our potential reunion between Roy and his father, but everything about it is hollow.

The world-building is excellent.  In fact, it is so good that you almost wish they would jettison the main story and explore some of the side ones.  Usually in good writing, you create a detailed environment for the story to take place in, while explicit showing only about 10% of the foundation that you imagined.  But the story that is told in this movie isn't worth telling.  Some of the fascinating tidbits include commercial trips to the moon, where it has been colonized.  But factions have broken things down in some areas like the Old West.  When traveling beyond safe borders, moon pirates attack travelers for supplies.  Also, there is a space ship that is in distress because the baboons being used for research animals escaped and started eating the crew.  All of these things are much more interesting than what we end up watching.

One of the things that the film tries to capture is the tedium of space travel and the long loneliness that it engenders.  While this is interesting on paper, it was unenjoyable in execution.  You begin to feel like a child in a long car ride, waiting for it to end. 

One of the other annoying things was how the film used religion.  Many movies about the future remove all mention of Christianity, seemingly under the assumption that humans will outgrow religion.  So it would have been refreshing to see that a movie recognizes the deeply rooted religious instinct in human beings.  But any good will is undercut by the cliched use of religiosity as a sign of irrationality.  Whenever a character speaks of God or prays in the movie, you know that they are either crazy or stupid.

MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW

One of the most frustrating things about the movie is how pointless all of it is.  When contact is finally made with Clifford, Roy is not allowed to go on the mission from Mars to Neptune because of his emotional connection.  He fears that the ones they are sending will simply nuke his father's ship and call it a day.  So Roy sneaks onto the ship and during the struggle, all three of the other astronauts are killed.  Instead of Roy realizing that he made a mistake, he caries on for months through space alone to Neptune.  When he gets there, he decides to nuke the ship anyway and his father commits suicide in a moment where Roy has to literally let him go that is about a subtle as a sledgehammer.  The only thing Roy accomplished was getting three people killed who were only doing their jobs.  Roy does bring back the data of the lifeless worlds his father found, but that seems a poor exchange of value.

END SPOILERS

This movie was a mistake.  It is a spectacle devoid of character, emotion, and catharsis.  Instead of this one going "To the Stars" it is going "To the Dollar Bin" at Walmart.



Friday, November 8, 2019

Happy I'm Still Sad

CS Lewis said that "No one ever told me that grief was so much like fear." 

On dealing with the death of his wife, Lewis was overcome with a grief that shrouded his mind for a long time.  He spent a great deal of mental and spiritual effort to work through his grief.  He did not need to live with it very long as he followed his wife into eternal rest three years later.

For me, the biggest loss I've had so far in my life has been my mom.  Those weeks and months of her hospitalization had been filled with fear and sadness.  After her passing, only the sadness remained.  Oddly, there was a calming sense of relief.  It was a very strange feeling, but I think I understand it.  One the thing I had feared came to pass, there was no longer anything to be afraid of.  All we had to do was process the loss we endured.

For weeks and months later, I would describe to people what I would call "sadness attacks."  It is the best way I can describe it.  They similar to people having panic attacks, where the overwhelming feeling comes out of nowhere and takes over your emotions.  I would be doing something simple like wrapping some leftovers in foil, and I would remember how the first time my mom made me a school lunch it was KFC wrapped in foil.  As innocuous as these memories seem, it only reinforced that this person whom I loved and loved me was no longer here.  And then the sadness would come.

It has been over two years since her passing.  And time does do a great deal to heal.  Yet every once and a while, I will remember and my heart will ache.  Just recently, there was an episode of the TV show The Goldbergs that aired where the dad wanted to do something special for his sons.  So he bought them Wrestlemania tickets even though he hated wrestling.  I've written before about how one of my favorite memories with my mom was when she took me to see Wrestlemania III even though she hated it.  Watching the show I got oddly emotional.

I share all of this not to complain.  With all of life's challenges, I am still incredibly blessed and happy.  And yet this grief has become a constant, though not debilitating, part of my life.

Hitting middle age, you lose people from your life.  I've lost relatives and friends.  And I will lose more.  There are those for whom the loss is felt, but does not persist.  I had a very close friend named Scott from grade school.  I remember for my third grade birthday, my parents took me out and only allowed me to bring one friend and it was Scott.  We were close all the way through junior high.  We went to different high schools and lost touch.  He hooked up with a bad crowd and his life ended way too early.  When I found out about Scott, I was incredibly sad.  But even now as I think back, the feeling is more akin to pity than to grief.

I think this is because Scott had not been a part of my life for so long.  I am sorry for his loss and he is missed.  But the loss of someone like my mom feels more akin to a piece of who I am being torn from me.  When people lose limbs, they often experience phantom pain, which is the feeling of pain coming from a body part that isn't there.  There is a phantom pain in my heart for the piece that is missing that was my mom.

And here's the thing: I don't want this pain to go away.

I think that if ever I completely "get over" my mother's death, it would be a loss for my soul.  This doesn't mean that I shouldn't go on with life and enjoy the days ahead.  But if I ever come to a place where I don't miss her, then I know I've come to a place where my love for her has diminished.  And I don't want that.  My wife will sometimes feel the same way about my mom's loss and it will bring her to tears.  As much as I hate to see her cry, it fills my heart with great relief to know that other people still miss my mom.  She was that important and that loved.  And that loss is in proportion to that love.

One of my greatest fears in this world is the loss of my wife.  As the years march on, I know that the day of our separation is getting closer.  In this mortal world, there is no avoiding it.  That's the deal.  If she should leave before me, I could not imagine the hole that it would tear in my life.  It is such a loss that I don't know how much of me would be left.

And yet, by the grace of God, I know He can bring healing, especially over time.  But there would never be a time where I wouldn't want to feel the loss of her.  There would never be a time when I would ever want to not miss her.  Even in our life now, when I am not with her, I miss her every moment.  That ache in my heart reminds me of the place she has there.  It is as if her place has been reserved for her and no one else.  And without her, it is empty.

That is how I now feel about my mom.  But I know that the vacancy is only temporary.  The rooms are closed, but not shut up and shuttered.  We will be reunited one day and all of that emptiness will be filled. 

Until then, I want my sadness to be like a candle in the window: a sign that the place in my heart for her and those I've loved is still here.  I have not forgotten.  And because I have not forgotten, even though they are not here, they are still a part of me until the day I die.  In that way, their memory has not left this world.

And for that reason, I am happy that I am still sad.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

New Evangelizers Post: No Detente with the World


I have a new article up at NewEvangelizers.com.  
“I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.” (John 17:14-15)

There has been a lot of talk recently about how best to evangelize to the world. While every generation has its own challenges, there are things that this modern world faces the likes of which we have never seen before. Unlike the pagans of old, in many ways, we live in a post-Christian society. CS Lewis made the observation in Mere Christianity that preaching to the pagans was like preaching marriage to a virgin about marriage while speaking to modern non-Christians is like speaking to a divorcee about marriage. Both are unmarried, but one has never experienced marriage and the other one has and rejected it.
In our modern world, many people have rejected Christianity or at least what they think is Christianity. So when we speak to them about the faith, their hearts close up against something that they think is antiquated, outdated, discredited, and thoroughly unmodern.

One of the purposes of Vatican II was to open the windows of the Church to reach out to the modern world as it. There is no point in preaching to a world in which you have no understanding or engagement. In the post-modern society, a world that has in many ways become smaller and larger, the Church must constantly learn the best ways to engage and dialogue with modernity.

But dialogue is not the end. It is only a means.

I have noticed that in many circles, there appears to be a kind of detente (meaning a kind of peace with the modern world that accepts it as it is) mentality when it comes to the Church and the modern world: . In the name of tolerance and diversity, there seems to be an acceptance of the ways in which modern society is at odds with the Church. This is, of course, not a blanket statement. But when we reach out to communities at odds with our faith, what is the end or purpose?

Our ultimate goal must always be to bring them into communion with salvific love of Jesus Christ. The Gospel of Matthew ends with the great commission: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20) Our goal must always be to bring people to Jesus. As long as this is the ultimate goal, then there can be some legitimate disagreement on methods. For example, many in proposed during the Amazon Synod that missionaries do not impose a Western style of Christianity if it will not make sense to the people. This may be wise or foolish. But as long as the ultimate goal is to bring people to Christ, then we can have a legitimate debate.



You can read the whole article here.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Sunday Best: Top 10 Movies About the Afterlife

Welcome back, gentle readers!

Thank you for your patience as I took care of the number of projects I had in October.  Now that there is a little bit less of an issue with time, I can return to writing for all of you.

I thought that since we just celebrated Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day, it would be nice to rank the best movies about the afterlife.

To be clear, I am not ranking these movies on how well they ascribe to Catholic orthodoxy.  Some of these movies have very different views of what happens after we have shuffled off this mortal coil than what the Church says.  These movies are simply being ranked on their quality and their qualification that they be about some kind of life after death.  That last part means that in order to qualify, the movie must be ABOUT the afterlife.  There are number of fantastic movies like Somewhere in Time or Titanic that have elements of the afterlife in there.  But they are not major parts of the plot or the theme, so they are not on this list.


10.  Defending Your Life

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This is a unique film.  The concept is that after you die, you are placed on trial to see if you have overcome fear in your life.  If you have, you move on to a higher level of consciousness.  If not, you are reincarnated.  The story centers around a thoroughly average man played by Albert Brooks.  This version of the afterlife is simplistic in its wish fulfillment (e.g. all food tastes amazing and you never get too full).  What makes this film even more interesting is that Brooks' character falls for a woman played by Meryl Streep.  This breaks through the established convention of the movie to an incredibly satisfying finale.


9.  The Frighteners
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I remember being shocked the first time I saw this film.  It does an amazing job of transitioning from Ghostbusters-like horror/comedy to an outright horror film.  The story centers on Michael J. Fox as a man who is part fraud/ part actual psychic who gets caught up in a real ghostly mystery that could spell doom for everyone he knows.  You can see how adept Peter Jackson became at visual storytelling and how this translated later into The Lord of the Rings

8.  Chances Are
Chances are poster.jpg
This film is so effortlessly charming, thanks in no small part to Robert Downey Jr.'s performance.  In this movie, he plays a man who gets reincarnated and finds his wife 20 years later and rekindles the romance.  But things get incredibly complicated with how her life has moved on.  It is a nice, feel-good movie that has some of my favorite performances by Cybill Shepherd and Ryan O'Neil.

7.  Flatliners
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This was such an original concept (the first movie, not the remake).  5 medical students decide to induce death to be resuscitated soon after so that they can explore whether or not there is an afterlife. Not only did it capture the raw competitiveness of medical school, but it explored the afterlife in a truly unique way.  The last act devolves a bit into too much sentiment, but the journey to get there was strong enough to be invested in the end.

6.  Exorcist III
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This is one of the scariest films I have ever seen.  And what it implies about the afterlife can be horribly disturbing.  But the movie does it so effectively.  The soul of a serial killer (who may be attached to a demon), has possessed the body of the priest who died at the end of the first Exorcist.  That priest's soul is trapped in torment in that body as the serial killer continues to do his evil work.  This is not a film for the easily frightened.  It is masterfully written and directed by William Peter Blatty.  Everything puts you on edge until the very end.

5. Ghost
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This movie received a nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and it was well deserved.  It does such a good job of embodying that Scriptural ideal of "love stronger than death."  Sam (Patrick Swayze) dies and cannot leave behind his love (Demi Moore), and must communicate through psychic Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg) and solve his own murder.  The movie makes you yearn for the simply things we take for granted, like reaching out and touching the ones we love.  It's image of damnation is so incredibly terrifying.  And the last line of the movie still haunts me: "It's amazing, Molly.  The love inside, you take it with you."


4.  Scrooged
Scrooged film poster.JPG
Even though this is traditionally a "Christmas movie," the supernatural element, particularly regarding death and judgment, are essential to the story.  There have been several iterations of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, but few have captured its pure, life-changing ecstasy of the Christmas spirit.  This movie is a wonderful Memento Mori to remind us that this world is not our home and that the only thing we take with us is the love we give away.

3. Field of Dreams
Field of Dreams poster.jpg
I think that you and your father ever shared a game of catch, this movie would resonate with you in a way that it does not with me.  Nevertheless, the movie is so powerful that it breaks through my deficit in this traditional father/son activity and still strikes at the heart.  Kevin Costner plays a farmer who hears a voice and receives a vision to build a baseball field in his corn field.  The movie is one whose logic is completely fluid.  There is almost never any kind of rational explanation for anything that happens.  But the emotional truth that runs throughout the entire movie becomes the structural glue that binds everything together until the final, touching conclusion.  For many people, the final scene may be the most cathartic moment in movie history.

2.  Ghostbusters
Ghostbusters (1984) theatrical poster.png
It's Ghostbusters.


1.  Dead Again
Dead Again poster.JPG
This is the story of a woman with amnesia (Emma Thompson) who thinks that she is the reincarnation of a murdered musician who was killed by her composer husband (Kenneth Branagh).  This woman gets involved with a private detective who also might be the reincarnation of her husband.  This movie is one of the best mystery/thrillers that I have ever seen.  It is charming, funny, scary, and shocking.  I witnessed an entire theater jump simply because someone said the name "Margret."  It explores the idea of reincarnation and karma and how it would affect something like love and murder.  A fantastic film!


Honorable Mentions:


Hamlet (1990 and 1996)
Coco
Beetlejuice
Almost an Angel
Made in Heaven
Always
Ghostbusters 2
Just Like Heaven
Heaven is for Real
What Lies Beneath

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Lack of Updates - October 2019

Dear Reader,

Thank you for you patience.  You may have noticed that I've only been able to get out a couple of articles a week for the last few weeks.  The reason for this is because of the following:

-I have a major writing project that must be completed by the end of the month that has been taking up most of my writing time.
-I am currently taking a Master's Degree class in Aristotle and I have been writing and reading about the Philosopher for the last two months.
-The grading quarter is coming to an end and I am spending a great deal of time grading.
-I am directing a play and we are less than a month away from opening.

For these reasons, my blogging time is going to be very limited until the end of October.

As always, your loyalty to reading this blog means a great deal to me and I never want to take you for granted.  Once November rolls around, I should have more time to write.  Some things to look forward to:

-Film Review of Brittany Runs a Marathon
-Film Review of Ad Astra
-My next in the countdown to the Best Spielberg Movies
-A reflection on the final season of Game of Thrones
-An essay about qualitative rise and fall of writer Tom King
-Reaction to the final The Rise of Skywalker trailer
-Poll results for Fantastic Four Casting Call.
-and much more.

Until then, thank you again for reading.

Monday, October 14, 2019

New Evangelizers Post: The Failure of the Saints


I have a new article up at NewEvangelizers.com.  
St. Francis of Assisi went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. When he returned, he found out that two of his vicars has made changes to the Franciscan community. Francis was shocked to find his brothers living in a wealthy monastery in Bolonia. His dream of a community completely dedicated to poverty appeared compromised. He worked the rest of his life to restore this vision.

St. Joan of Arc put all of her faith in God that she had been called to lead the armies of France, expel the English invaders, and place the rightful prince of France on the throne. All of this she did. Her reward: she was betrayed by the man she placed on the throne. He allowed her to be captured by the English, who burned her at the stake as a heretic.

St. Francis Xavier had a life-changing friendship with St. Ignatius of Loyola. Filled with zeal, he wanted to preach the Gospel to mainland China. He was able to go throughout all of Southeast Asia, but he kept missing opportunities to get to his goal. At one point he was on a boat setting sail for mainland China when he remembered he left his essential paperwork at his last port. He waited and waited for the opportunity to preach in mainland China. He died of a fever while waiting.

St. Charles Borromeo wanted to throw a jubilee celebration for his home city of Milan. He worked tirelessly to bring this about until his dream came to fruition. Several people came from all over the region to celebrate. Unfortunately, they also brought with them the plague. Charles emptied out all his and the church’s treasuries to deal with the crisis.

Dorothy Day had a deep conversion to the Catholic faith from her atheistic world-view. Unfortunately, the man she loved and the father of her child, Forster Batterham, refused to come to the Lord. She had to choose God over her romantic love. This caused her so much distress that she had to be hospitalized.
St. Paul met the disciples of Socrates in Athens and was able to explain to them that the Unknown God that the Socrates worshiped was, in fact, Jesus. Despite this, Paul was grieved because he found very few converts in Athens.

St. Peter was the first pope. And yet at Antioch, he behaved so scandalously that Paul had to criticize him in front of the entire Church.

The list goes on and on. I could write an entire book about the failure of the saints.

What is the point?

Failure is a part of the journey.

All things are possible for God (Matt 19:26). With Him there is no limit to what we can accomplish. But some people become discouraged when on the road to righteousness, we stumble. Of course there is the constant struggle of sin, but that isn’t really what I’m talking about here. When we decide to follow God, we may be surprised to find that we still fail at our mission. If God is with us, shouldn’t we have success? Is this because we lack faith?

I can tell you that I have been teaching Theology for twenty years and I am constantly confronted by my own failures. I have a deep, burning desire to share the love of God with my school community. Often that fire appears to only be barely keeping a few embers warm rather than setting the world on fire. Why is that?

In my case, I’m sure I have a lot of spiritual growth to do. I am not a saint, so there are probably a great deal of spiritual graces I’m failing to bring into my community because of my own lack of holiness.
But even the saints experienced failure. How do we account for their failures if they were holy? There are few things to keep in mind:

1.Failure is a Matter of Perspective.
Did Joan of Arc fail? If her mission was to free France, then no. She could have died gloriously in battle, but then she would have remembered mainly for her military campaigns. But Joan was called to witness to her complete faith in God even when all the powers of the world and the church turn against you. She was true to the end. In fact, she was able to receive the Eucharist before her execution (which proves her conviction was a sham) and was able to look upon a crucifix as she endured her martyrdom. God allowed a perceived failure in order for her to witness to a greater glory.
2.God’s Plans are Not Our Plans

We have plans and ideas and goals. But God knows what will work out better for us and for the world. We are only failures if our plans are not completely surrendered to the Divine Plan. If this wasn’t the case, then Christ would have been a failure, dying abandoned on the cross. But of course this isn’t the case. As Jesus said, “Not my will, but Your will be done!” (Luke 22:42). God’s will was done and Christ mission is not a failure.

3.Humility
The deepest spiritual pitfall on the journey is pride. God’s power can allow for miraculous successes. And this is a great thing. But the person through whom these things are accomplished may make the mistake that the power to change lives comes from themselves and not from God. This could have a much worse effect on the soul of the potential saint. But failure reminds us that we are in constant need of God. This humility is more valuable than any perceived victory. Those we are trying to reach have the freedom to accept or reject the word. We have to remember that any change comes not from us, but God in us.


You can read the whole article here.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Sunday Best: Ranking Movie Jokers


I don't know what it is about the Joker that inspires so many actors to give great performances.  My guess is that his extreme insanity pushes the actor beyond their normal range and forces them to a higher level of performance.

Not every Joker has been great.  But here are the performances ranked from worst to best.  I've only included theatrical movie performances, so there will be a few people who will not make it to the list who only performed the character on TV, video games, or direct to video movies.

The Lego Batman Movie PromotionalPoster.jpg
7. Zach Galifianakis - The Batman Lego Movie

There is nothing wrong with his vocal performance as Joker, but it is so forgettable, that I actually had to look up who did the voice work.


Suicide Squad (film) Poster.png

6. Jared Leto - Suicide Squad

Leto got a lot of flack for his portrayal.  I think he had the unfortunate disadvantage of being the first on-screen Joker after Heath Ledger.  I wasn't a big fan of his take either, but it is not an intrinsically bad performance.  I think the production design was flawed from the start.  To make him a tatted-up gangster made him feel more like a punk than a psychopath.  His relationship to Harley also served to undercut his cold-bloodedness.  I think if Leto was given a better starting point, he would have turned in a better performance.  But as it is, it is sub-par.


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5. Caesar Romero - The Batman Movie

This performance is burned into my mind as the foundation, the base for what the Joker is.  All other performances, even the ones that improve on it, have to begin here.  As campy and as silly as the 1960's Batman was, Romero leaned heavily into that tone but still managed to make a wonderful performance.  The key was that the Joker took glee in mayhem and that is core to his character.


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4. Mark Hamill - Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

The only reason Hamill is not higher on this list is that I have to limit my scope of his Joker work to this one film.  Hamill might be the most prolific Joker actor, with work in TV, video games, and movies.  One of the great things about him is that rather than phoning it in as the years went on, he got better and better.  In Mask of the Phantasm, Hamill gives us a classic Joker vocal performance.  I would have to say that when I hear the Joker's voice in my mind, Hamill's voice is what I hear.


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3. Jack Nicholson - Batman

Stan Lee once said that Tim Burton didn't make a Batman movie, he made a Joker movie.  And he is mostly correct.  You can see how much Nicholson built off of Romero, except that Nicholson went way more murder-y.  His performance is especially fun when you see his pre-Joker Jack Napier, who is cool, refined, and restrained at time (though still very murder-y).  To see that character cut loose was a great deal of fun.  I remember the first time I saw him step out of the shadows in full makeup, I felt like the comic book had come to life.  The best scene, though, is the one where he talks to the mob boss he just murdered.  That gives you a real window into his utter madness and it is actually pretty terrifying.


Joker (2019 film) poster.jpg

2. Joaquin Phoenix - Joker

This was a tough choice.  As I wrote about in my review for the movie, his performance is stunning.  The talent and technique on display is evidence of an actor at the top of his game.  Phoenix pulls us into Arthur Flecks insanity as we see him slowly lose the tenuous grip he had on his soul.  If he does not win an Oscar for this, it would be another Academy injustice.

Image result for dark knight movie poster 2008 joker

1. Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight

It really was a toss up between Phoenix and Ledger.  And I hate to take anything away from Phoenix's performance, which does something completely different.  Phoenix is in every scene of Joker whereas Ledger is only in 33 minutes of The Dark Knight.  Ledger's job is to be mysterious, charismatic, and electric, and then get off the stage to let his performance linger in the air.  In some ways that is more difficult, because he has to make such an impression that you feel him present in the entire film, even when he is nowhere to be found.  And Ledger does this.  Whenever he is on screen I cannot help but be drawn in.  I remember the first time I saw the movie I was shocked by his acting choices.  Every choice I would have made as an actor, he did the opposite.  When I would have brought my voice low, he went high.  When I would have gone menacing, he was nonchalant.  It was such a rebellious performance that it embodied the chaos of the character.  Some of complained that his Joker was the least in line with the comic book version and that is a fair criticism.  But Ledger captured the essence of the character with his "agent of chaos" speech.  My theory is that his Joker is literally, not symbolically, the devil: the embodiment of evil.  And Ledger captured that perfectly.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

New Evangelizers Post: All That Lasts Forever


I have a new article up at NewEvangelizers.com.  
A short reflection this Monday:
According to our best scientists, the universe will end.

Entropy is a real thing where all of the energy will eventually be used up. The cosmos will then either fade away like the dying embers of a late-night campfire. Or the universe will collapse in on itself in a final gravitational crunch. Of course by then, the Earth will be long gone. Eons before the universe runs out of fuel, our sun will grow into an old red giant that will consume our planet before it too will eventually be destroyed.

Perspective.

Sometimes in life we need a little perspective.

Today, think about things that are important to you. They could be the worries of the day, the project that needs to be finished, that job that is still not done. Or it could our larger life goals. They could be the ways that we hope to leave our mark on this world. There is a strong urge in most of us to have something on this Earth that will be around for generations to come. Some of us want build the tallest building. Some of us want to write the great novel. Others seek after the great scientific discovers. And others still seek power either in politics or the world in general.

And yet all this is going away.

Every work of art, every building, every invention, every nation, every part of our physical world will become cosmic ash. And even if we slip the surly bonds of Earth and colonize other planets, there is nowhere to escape from the final entropy that will consume all physical things. Soon or later, every physical thing dies.

So do we give in to despair? Of course not. The reason is because we do encounter things that will last beyond the destruction of our world: each other.

CS Lewis once wrote, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.” (The Weight of Glory)
If we measure a thing’s value by how long it lasts, then the most valuable thing in the world is a human soul. Twenty billion years from now, the Earth will be no more. But Seventeen trillion years from now we will be living our eternal existence. All of the people we encounter each day: they are the ones who will last. And while we may be the ones to build the tallest building or the greatest novel, the greatest art we can engage in is in the shaping of the human soul. It is something we already do, whether we want to or not. The way we live affects the souls of the people around us.

And Lewis made it very clear that we have one of two destinies: “immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” That is who we are all becoming, one or the other.

When you are in a hurry today to finish you pursuits, do you do so at the expense of others? Do you accomplish your tasks while ignoring the people in your life? In the end, all of it is rubbish if it isn’t rooted in cultivating these immortal works of art. Because when we do that, we are living out God’s calling for us. He is the great artist and we are His art. As the Scripture says in Jeremiah 18, He is the potter and we are the clay. He is cultivating us to grow in His eternal garden of delights, a new Eden forever.

Perspective.



You can read the whole article here.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Film Review: Joker


Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable
Violence Mature 
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

"I don't believe in anything."

This simply delivered line towards the end of Joker is actually the black heart at the center of this look into the moral void.

Joker is an original take on the famous Batman villain that is completely divorced from any origin story to have come before.  Writer/director Todd Philips, best known for comedies like The Hangover, has produced what many are calling a dark masterpiece.  I will say that at the very least, this is one of the most disturbing films I have seen in years.

The story follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a mentally ill, poverty-stricken man who lives in the slums of Gotham City with his ailing mother Penny (Frances Conroy).  By day, Arthur tries to make a living as a street clown, hired out by a run-down agency.  The city is infested with piles of garbage and the streets are filled with hopeless and violent people.  Arthur dreams of one day becoming a stand up comedian, even though his desires clearly overshoot his talent and skill.  He  even fantasizes about being embraced by a Johnny Carson-like late night host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro).  To matters worse, Arthur is plagued by a brain-damage-induced tick that causes him to laugh uncontrollably when he gets tense.  This often leads to even more awkward confrontations.  The only one who seems to show him any real warmth and compassion is his neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz), but life keeps tearing him down.  But then an act of violence sends him on a collision course to utter chaos in Gotham.

Much has been written about Phoenix's performance and it is not hyperbole.  It is the best acting I have seen all year and as of now I cannot imagine anyone more deserving of an Oscar.  A lot of people have focused on Phoenix's facial expressions and laughs.  And to be sure, he has masterful technique on display in these areas.  His expression can go from helplessness to demonic with subtle speed.  And his voice carries with it both pain and menace.  But what kept captivating me was his body language.  Watching him slowly awaken the monster within was captivating.  Phoenix played it out methodically and horribly with the way he carried himself.  Arthur's evil and violence became his armor against the cruel world that hurt him.  Phoenix makes every move, every gesture, every word count.  I would often use the word "mesmerizing" regarding Heath Ledger's take on the Joker in The Dark Knight.  I would use the same language to describe Phoenix.  But whereas Ledger's Clown Prince of Crime was a supremely confident mastermind, Phoenix's Joker is a man who is nothing but a ball of rage at the powerlessness he feels in life and acts out like short-fused monster.  The rest of the supporting cast does a fine job, but there is no mistake that this is Phoenix's movie.  He is in every single scene and everyone else is scene the lens of his experience.

Philips, along with cinematographer Lawrence Sher and Production Designer Mark Friedberg,  deserve a great deal of credit for creating such an amazing atmosphere film.  Gotham is an oppressive 1970's hell hole from which there appears to be no escape.  All beauty and safety are removed from the film and it forces you into the claustrophobic landscape that slowly turns you a little mad too.  Philips makes the movie intentionally ugly, but endlessly fascinating.  If there is a complaint I have about the film is that the script by Philips and Scott Silver lacks focus in the first two acts.  The story meanders from scene to scene.  I suppose that Philips would argue that his point was not to make a plot-centric film.  Instead, he was letting the audience experience the emotional conditions that created the Joker.

The score by Hildur Guðnadóttir is haunting and tense.  It was reminiscent of the score from the British show Broadchurch that filled you with a sense of sadness and dread.

Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight is often cited as being an incredibly dark (no pun intended) film especially with the presence of the Joker.  That is not an accurate analysis, as the movie ultimately says that normal people are decent and good.  Joker has the opposite message about the human condition.  It says that people are not only capable of great evil, but the little human compassion that seems to be the antidote to this darkness is sorely lacking in the world.  Arthur is constantly turned away from the compassion and understanding he so desperately needs.  He has no friends.  He is alone.

However, Philips is clearly not laying the blame for Arthur's evil at the feet of society.  Arthur himself blames the heartlessness of the world for his own acts of violence.  But Philips never makes it that easy.  Arthur is too self-centered to see that he lacks the compassion that he yearns for.  Being a victim of ridicule does not mean that you are a virtuous hero.

I usually try to avoid any reviews for a movie before I write my own, but I came across one that had such an amazing insight into how this movie works.  The reviewer said that human beings are naturally empathetic.  So at the beginning of the movie, our hearts go out to Arthur and we yearn for him to overcome his odds and be treated with dignity.  But the reviewer pointed out that Arthur doesn't become a monster.  He always is a monster who only slowly lets go of his inhibitions.  As this happens, we also slowly lose our empathy with him.  Arthur revels in his violence.  After his first murder, he takes a moment in a public bathroom to do a slow dance of triumph and ecstasy.  It is as lyrical as it is disturbing and ugly.  He is finding glory in literal and moral filth. While Philips brings into Joker's messed-up world, he is clearly not advocating for his deranged world-view.

There has been a lot of talk about whether the movie is political.  It is, but it is not partisan.  It points out that when elites do not take care of basic services and those at the bottom are overly burdened, social unrest follows.  The wealthy leaders are viewed with the same level of ugliness as the violent rioters.  Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) calls the protestors "clowns."  The protestors embrace that image and escalate their actions.  There really are no good sides in this fight, but it points out that creating a deeper divide will eventually reach a tipping point.  The movie reminded me that Church's emphasis on taking care of the poor is not just a spiritual necessity but also a pragmatic one too.  If their needs and their dignity are not addressed, then society collapses.  If there is a political message, it is that mob mentality will lead to chaos.

This brings us back to the quote at the beginning.  Arthur is asked towards the end of the film if he is political.  He responds that he doesn't believe in anything.  More-so than his mental illness, this is the root cause of the moral void inside of him.  He believes in nothing bigger than himself.  He says at another point, "I used to think my life was a tragedy, but now I now it's a comedy."  That is actually a horrifying shift.  Life is tragic if the pain we experience is not the way it's suppose to be.  All suffering in this world is the tragic effect of Original Sin.  But there is hope because we know that there is a higher ideal, even if it is not something we are currently experiencing.  But Arthur's view that his life is comedy means that life is a joke: an empty meaningless practical joke that is playing out to his expense.  His only response to to return the pain of this practical joke in kind to those who dish it out to him.  This is what I see more and more in the world with those who act out in large-scale violence.  Life, to them, is a horrible joke.  And in their minds, the only way we will get the joke is when they lash out at us.  As good as this movie was, I cannot say it was enjoyable and I'm not sure I would want to sit through the whole thing again.

I left the theater much more uneasy than when I walked in.  My eyes looked with more suspicion at the people that surrounded me.  I am not saying the movie is at fault for my heightened paranoia.  All it did was make me realize even more horrible insight:

If the Joker's nihilism takes a deeper hold onto our world today, then the last laugh will be on all of us.