Friday, August 31, 2012

Film Review: Premium Rush

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of his generations most charismatic actors. He is the center of this glossy, fast-paced film. It's a shame that his charisma couldn't keep the flat story afloat.

The movie follows a day in the life a NYC bicycle messenger Wilee (pronounced like the coyote) who picks up a parcel that he has to take to Chinatown. But a seemingly psycho played with over the top hamminess by Michael Shannon chases him through the streets of the city in a race against time. But Wilee is no ordinary bike messenger. He intentionally quit law school, so we know he's smart. And he rides on a bike with NO gears and NO brakes, so we know he's fearless! And despite this, the movie cannot generate the interest necessary to carry it through.

Some of the visuals are a good deal of fun. Watching Wilee come to a stop without brakes by having to constantly fish-tail is actually a nice bit of visual flair. We also get to see into his mind as he has to make split-second decisions as he weaves through the traffic to avoid getting clobbered by obstacle after obstacle. And in the early parts of the movie, the tension rises nicely, pulling you deeper into the mystery of the package he has.

But then it all falls apart. In order to jump right into the action, the movie skips quickly to the moment Wilee picks up his envelope. In order to understand the motivations of those who are after the package, the script employs a series of flashbacks at various junctures. This actually slows the movie down and I immediately thought back to 2008's Vantage Point, a film that was decent enough but weighed down by its own rewind gimmick The flashbacks in Premium Rush don't help much because the characters are so flimsy.

Shannon's character is so obviously bad that he should be twirling a mustache. And Wilee is such a rebel that there is no way he can ever be outfoxed. Gordon-Levitt and Shannon do what they can with these characters, but it is an exercise in futility. If these fine actors come off badly, then I don't even want to talk about how poorly the supporting cast seems.

Like last weeks review of The Expendables 2, there is less focus on story and more on style. That would be fine, but Premium Rush makes a fundamental mistake opposite of Stallone's movie. Whereas The Expendables 2 built to a conclusion that was an orgy of blood and bullets, Premium Rush starts with lots of slick, speedy cycling. But then the end is such a let-down.

I'm not saying that the end is necessarily silly, but it felt like the writers envisioned something bigger and then gave up. In the movie Gleaming the Cube, Christian Slater gets an army of his skateboarding friends to help take down an arms smuggler. In Quicksilver, Kevin Bacon gets other bike messengers to aid him to do battle with a drug dealer. Both ideas in the film are silly on their face, but it fits with the tone of the movie and it feels right. Premium Rush builds to a crescendo and then stops. It's like someone inhaling right before a big sneeze and then... nothing.

Premium Rush is not a bad movie. But it also isn't a very good one either.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Chaplet for the Unborn

On Tuesday it will be exactly 9 weeks until the next election.  I would like to invite anyone who wishes to pray a novena for our country.

The Catholic tradition of praying a novena is traditionally done over the course of 9 days.  But I think we can all agree that our great country is always in need of prayers.

Particularly, I would offer to you the Chaplet for the Unborn.

I encountered this prayer about 4 years ago before the last presidential election, and I have been praying it every day since.

Like other chaplets, you pray it on a standard Rosary.

The opening prayers are:

1.  Glory Be to the Father... (x3)
2.  Our Father...

For each decade:
On the Our Father beads:
"Hail Mary..."

On the Hail Mary beads:
"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph: we love you.  Save souls and unborn children."

After the 5 decades, the Closing Prayer is the Memorare:
"Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thine intercession was left unaided.
Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my mother; to thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me.

Generous Generation

Why do we have children?

I know that sounds like a silly question seeing as how our parents and their parents before them and so on and so forth all chose to have children. In fact, most people who have ever lived have had children or sought to have them. This question may seem as self-evidently silly as the question “Why do we have to sleep?” There is a part of us that says the answer is “We just do.”

But that isn't good enough for me. I'm a philosopher by training, and I know that the desire to have kids is not like our other natural desires. If we don't eat, sleep, breathe, we die. But we won't die from being childless. Yes, there is the sexual urge, but the pleasure principle can't explain the desire for children. In fact, our society has sadly been able to put up a barrier between the pleasure and the progeny. Of course that barrier is often times latex-thin, but it is still there.

So I come back to the question of “why?”

Some say that it is our desire for immortality. We may leave this world and mingle with the dust, but our name, our genes, our indelible biological imprint has been stamped onto the world. But this answer does not satisfy me. If Christianity is true, then our souls are immortal. We will live forever beyond anything done in the material world per se. And if it is not true, then the immortality that children bring to you is empty. We like to say that the parent lives on in the child. But that is mere sentiment. There is no “you” in the child. You are gone. And there is no way to experience that life as yourself, so your “immortality” is empty. Not only that, it is vain. No matter the work or man, it will all come to naught as the blistered feet of Ozymandias remind us.

And some others see in children the fulfillment of their desires. I remember reading a story about a teenage girl who intentionally got pregnant. Her reasoning was that she wanted someone who would love her unconditionally no matter what. What a horrible inversion of love! To have children in order to BE loved seems so horribly cruel to me. The fruit of the womb is not something that you squeeze all of the affection out of until it is dry and empty.

And still there is the desire to live vicariously through the child. How many of us have seen scenes from shows like “Toddlers and Tiaras” and cringed with pain as we wagged our proverbial fingers at these domineering stage moms. And yet let's be honest: how often to we picture raising our children to love the things we love, not for their sake, but for ours. We want to see them be great at our high school sport or to look beautiful in their prom dress or, in my case, drive around the neighborhood dressed like Batman and Robin.

While many would reject the above reasons, they still want to be parents. And this desire is large and looms over us. Some do not feel it as keenly as others, but it nestles in our hearts like thorny spurs, urging us onward. But what does this desire promise? After all, giving into hunger promises satisfaction, sleep promises rest, sex promises pleasure. But what does the desire for children promise?

Nothing. We have wishes and desires, but there is no promise of good times ahead. You could be the best parent in the world and your child could still make all of the wrong choices or evil people can impose their wickedness on them. You have no idea if your child will love you or hate you or not care. You can probably guarantee a lifetime of anxiety. I am in my mid 30's and I'm sure my parents still worry about me. When a child enters the world, a perpetual knot enters the stomach of the parent, and I don't think it ever goes away.

Now I am speaking all from supposition. I do not have children. As I wrote earlier, my wife and I are seeking adoption. But I have had a lot of time to think about it. For some, having children comes easy, for some it is a long difficult effort. When looking to adopt, it is a sustained act of the will that gets you anywhere. And our will has been set for a very long time.

But I had to have a good reason to hold on. I couldn't look to my vanity or desires vicarious living. Having the desire does not justify its satisfaction. I needed another reason.

And this is what I have concluded.

First, the desire for kids is universal. There is something in our bones that demands that we have children. Fr. Larry Richards once told the story about the night before he took his promise of celibacy. He woke up in a cold sweat and said to God, sad and desperately honest, “God, I want kids!” But he knew that he was giving them up forever.

The next day he went be ordained a deacon and he was asked if he would be a celibate for the kingdom. Understanding the sacrifice, he did not hesitate in saying yes. After the ceremony, the children from the youth group he led came to congratulate him and give him a gift. It was a medal of St. Christopher. He thanked them but they yelled at him to turn it over. On the other side was an inscription:

“Congratulations. We Love You. -Larry's Kids.”

In the space of a few minutes, Fr. Larry went from never having kids to having 160 of them. He really is their spiritual father, just as he is to me and thousands of others. He has kids. Fr. Larry said that you cannot out-give God in generosity. And that's when it hit me.

It isn't about generation. It's about generosity.

God made us. He is our ultimate Father. But he didn't need to make us. He was perfectly happy with Himself in Trinity. Perfect love and harmony forever. We cannot make Him any happier, we do not add to his glory. And yet He made us. Not out some kind of need but from the utter overflowing fury of his generosity. He gives us life for no other reason than for our good, not His.

And we are in the imagio Dei. We are made in God's image. We reflect Him. And in His wisdom he placed that generosity into our hearts. But small and simple creatures that we are, the intensity of that generosity is felt like us to be a need. A desire.

A desire for children.

We need to be parents because we need to love. And children require love in ways that parents, friends, and lovers don't. The demand of children is complete and constant. Children require us to give up our lives for them day in and day out. Children require us to be generous. A parent who is not heroically generous to a child is a bad parent. We must empty all of who we are to the child because that is what God Himself did.

On the cross, Jesus held nothing back. There is no limit to how much He loves us. He is the Inferno that gives flame to our candle-hearts. We know it in our souls that our child will have not just part of us, but all of us.

And that is how it should be.

I am bound and focused on one day becoming a father and having my wife be a mother. I am compelled because the love that I see in her, and the pale reflection of it that I return to her, is made to overflow from us. It is made to be finally be incarnate in another. Our child will fill our lives by emptying us. We will be made rich by giving everything away.

And we will be most like God when we give like parents.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Wednesday Comics: Top 14 Batman Stories



I belong to a comic book and pop culture club that I regularly attend on Monday nights, but I wasn’t able to do so this week.  It’s a shame, because the discussion topic was all about Batman.


This iconic comic character has had a rich history and not all of it has been good.  But one of the reasons he is such an enduring figurehead in the industry is that he has had some of the greatest stories in comics.

There are a lot of good Batman stories from movies, TV, novels, video games, etc.  But I want to concentrate on how the Batman of comics is portrayed.  So here is my list of the greatest Batman Stories Ever Told (in no particular order):


1.        The Dark Knight Returns

This is an obvious choice, but a necessary one.   Some people glorify this book as the end-all-be-all of Batman, but it isn’t.  There is much in Miller’s story that doesn’t hold up or acts as a distraction from the main story.  But the parts that work are unbelievably good.  Unlike Superman, Batman has to face the daily disintegration of his body through age and wear.  So how does Batman meet his end?  That is the question that Miller answers with epic gusto.

2.       The Ten Nights of the KGBEast

This story appeared in comics and it was a taught, tense thriller.  Batman faced a threat that was brutal and vicious and every bit as smart as him.  Batman was pushed to the limit and had to face his ultimate questions.  The final moments show us how Batman’s cold heart can sometimes be his greatest asset.

3.       Knightfall

Bane is famous for breaking the Bat.  But the entire story is excellent.  Before their eventual confrontation, Bruce Wayne is at the end of his rope, barely able to hold on.  He exhausted to the point of death.  And then Bane breaks all of Batman’s enemies from the Arkham Asylum.  The moment after Batman realizes this and screams in frustration is one of the character’s lowest points.  And because no one else is capable of doing it, Batman one by one brings them in.  And when he can take it no more, Bane shows up to finish the job.   Batman, in the minds of many, is unbreakable.  Seeing Bane’s methodology made his fall believable.

4.       The Killing Joke

Many would argue that this is mainly a Joker story, not a Batman story.  But the two are intrinsically linked.  It is Batman who gets the ball rolling by trying to reach out to the Joker and redeem him.  And even after everything that happens in the book, Batman never gives up.

5.       A Death in the Family

This was a real turning point for the comic.  Jason Todd may have been unlikeable, but he was still a part of the family.  And Batman’s war on crime suffered its most major casualty.  This failure still haunts the Dark Knight to this day.  I’ve read this story several times and I still feel the tension as Batman races back desperately to save the doomed Robin

6.       A Lonely Place For Dying

If A Death in the Family started Batman on a downward spiral, A Lonely Place for Dying slowly starts bring him back into the light.  Batman has been pushing himself full throttle, like he has a death wish.  This story explains why Batman needs Robin.  I know there are a lot of people who prefer a solo Caped Crusader, but the truth is that who Batman is can be defined in large part to his relationships.  The Knight needs his squire to remind him what he is fighting for.  This story also introduces us in a major way to Tim Drake, who has carved out his own niche in the Batman legacy.

7.       Batman Earth One

This book is not only beautiful to look at, but it is a dark, suspenseful story.  It stands alone very well and offers a fresh take on an amateur Batman

8.       Batman Year One

Like Dark Knight Returns, this book is often over hyped, but the core of Miller’s story is solid and provides a very gritty, real world for Batman to inhabit.

9.       Batman Year Two

This is the story that shows that Batman is not an avenger but a crusader.  Bruce finally gets his chance to have revenge on the man who killed his family.  But Batman is not about revenge, no matter how much it is desired.  He is about helping those who are in danger.  Batman is about saving, not killing.

10.   Under the Hood

I was shocked at how much I enjoyed this story.  Character resurrections are a dime-a-dozen in comics, but Judd Winick proved that the manner of the return is less important as the compelling character questions that arise from the return.  Batman’s whole world gets turned upside down and insights into the heroes and villains of Gotham are revealed.

11.   The Long Halloween/Dark Victory

You could almost see a through line between Year One to Dark Victory.  The brilliance of this book is not only its noir-ish style, but that it is an actual mystery.  Seeing as how Batman began in Detective Comics, it is a pleasure to see him exercise those skills in a long story format.

12.   Gotham by Gaslight

This is a wonderful “What If?” type story, setting Batman in late 1800’s Gotham tracking down an immigrated Jack the Ripper.  Mike Mignola’s art is moody and darkly perfect.

13.   Venom

This prelude to Knightfall is its own powerful epic.  When Batman doesn’t have the strength to save a young girl from death, he decides to take a drug to increase his strength.  But he soon becomes an addict and loses control of himself.  We understand why Batman chose to give into the pills, but it is fascinating to watch him slowly overcome his addiction.

14.   War on Crime

This extra large book by Paul Dini and Alex Ross once again reminds us that Batman is set on a never-ending battle.  He has quixotic impossible dream of fighting all crime.  He will never win, but the book reminds us that winning is not found in the eradication of crime, but in the lives and souls saved in the daily battles.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Thing Action Figure Commercial

Here's the sad part.  If this was real and I saw this commercial in the '80's, I wouldn't have thought anything was strange about it.

Aquaman Casting Poll Winner

And the winner of our Aquaman casting poll is:
photo by Tony Shek


I think he would be an excellent choice to play the regal yet rebellious king of Atlantis

The Catholic Vote

We are in full tilt election season, and I saw this video about the Catholic vote:

As I wrote earlier, I am less comfortable espousing political opinions on this blog because I do not want to confuse my political convictions with my religious convictions.

But what I like about this spot is that it reminds us that three most important issues for Catholics go beyond everyday politics.  These are about the fundamentals of human existence: Life, Liberty, and Marriage.

If every Catholic voted together, we would be the largest voting block in America.

United we stand...

Monday, August 27, 2012

Monday Poetry: The Second Coming

This poem by Yeats is often quoted but as often debated.  Some say that it is a reflection of his occultist visions.  Others say it is an indictment of his age.  I can see someone have a pro or anti Christian interpretation of his words; it is that vague.

To me, the poem is about fallen human nature.  When the falcon does not hear the falconer, as when we do not hear Christ, the center does not hold.  Christianity is the most empowering, redemptive, civilizing force on the planet.  But our fallen human nature gnaws at us through our temptations.

If we live in a culture that choose to make vice a virtue, then innocence will be drowned and the spirit of the world will be one of chaos and destruction.  But that is only if we let it.  So we need to listen to the falconer before the widening gyre opens into nothingness.

The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Sunday Best: Director 2007

photo by Elen Nivrae

Zach Snyder: 300
So much of this movie’s success depended upon Zach Snyder’s vision.  It was a 
risk to film the entire movie on green screen and engage in the hyper-violence.  
But instead of making it a rehashed video-game knock off, Snyder made a unique 
visual experience.  As I noted in my last post about Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, 
green screen can kill believability.  But in order for you
to accept the stylized reality being created, the visuals
make you understand that you are not experiencing reality
as we know it.  And through all of the gore, he still hits
the emotional core that stirs the audience desire to fight
for freedom
Jason Reitman: Juno
Edgar Wright: Hot Fuzz
Adam Shankman: Hairspray
David Yates: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Saturday, August 25, 2012

"Who's Laughing Now?"

Fixing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

The last Indiana Jones movie was the worst of the set. Or as I like to say, it is The Phantom Menace of the series. Both movies had the disadvantage of being produce after and ultra-long hiatus, thus raising expectations colored by nostalgia to fever pitch. Also, there are many bad film-making habits that both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have developed over the years that they did not have as young men.

High expectations with flawed storytelling led to the general sense of disappointment many felt in the movie. But was this all avoidable?


The corps theme is very strong: life is still and adventure as you get older. Early in the movie Indy reflects that at a certain point life takes away more than it gives you. But the whole point of the story was to show that there is still a lot more left to be lived. This idea would resonate not only with those who grew up with Indy but with audiences in general. So how do we fix it?

Here's a list of ways to fix Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in no particular order.

  1. Change Mac with Sallah.
    In the beginning of the movie, Indy finds himself in hot water with an old buddy Mac. But the audience has to take this on faith, since we have never seen Mac until this movie. And then he betrays Indy to the Reds. But you can't feel anything for this betrayal because you've never felt anything for their friendship. If Mac was only in this one scene, that would be fine, but he comes back up over and over, telling Indy he's a double agent, but then betraying him again, until he is sucked up by the “space-between-spaces” guys.
    Here's why Sallah would be a much better choice:
    a. There is a history that the audience has seen with him and Indy in two previous movies. When he betrays Indy, the audience would gasp. Not only would this be a big betrayal, but he would be a powerful enemy because he knows how Indy works.
    b. When Sallah tells Indy that he's a double agent, the audience would believe him and quickly forgive because they have an affection for him from the first movie. And then they would be with Indy, who though conflicted at the constant betrayal would still want to save him.
    c. Losing Sallah at the end of the movie would give it the emotional weight that it needed for the end of the journey. When Mac dies, we don't care. Which brings us to...
  2. Make Mac's (or Sallah's) death heroic.
    Inexplicably, Mac says before he lets go of Indy's whip “I'll be alright” First of all, there is no way that he could know this. Imagine Frodo looking up at Sam and saying that right before he plummets to the lava river below. Second, if he let go of all of his gold, he would have been saved, so he dies simply by greed.
    Instead, imagine that one of the “space-between-spaces” guys began to pull in Indy and the other heroes but Mac can see that if he lets go he will fly into them and save the rest of the humans. It would give him a poignant last act of heroism.
  3. Have a different MacGuffin. Indiana Jones deals with the supernatural and the occult. Science Fiction is not a good fit for him. It would be like if the next Batman movie had him fighting vampires. You could do it, but the context is a bit off. Aliens are not Indy's wheelhouse. It is actually an easy fix. Just make the Crystal Skull guys actual pre-Columbian gods who for some reason went into retreat or “died.”
  4. Skip the Atomic Fridge.
    After Indy escapes from Area 51, you could cut immediately to him back with Americans. Having him survive the a-bomb pushes the suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. And this is from a series that told us that you could survive a plane crash with an inflatable raft.
  5. Don't do Mutt's monkey swing digitally.

    I actually don't have a problem with Mutt swinging like a monkey per se. You can film someone swinging through vines and make it look cool, as Arnold did in Predator. If you did that scene as a practical effect, where he wasn't swinging for what seemed like the length of a football field, then it wouldn't be bad. The digital option made it look too fake and out of line. If he just took one or two major swings, like Indy did when he crashed through the truck at the beginning of the movie, it could have been a cool moment.
  6. Show us what the Crystal Skull sees.
    Indy is tied to a chair and forced to mind meld with the Crystal Skull. All we see is Harrison Ford looking like he's holding back waves of diarrhea It would have been a lot better if we could see inside Indy's mind and get glimpses of his vision. It would guide the rest of the movie's trajectory
  7. Have a better introduction for Marion Ravenwood.
    I love that they bring back the original Indy girl. But on screen, she just kind of shows up. It is a wide shot of her walking through a tent flap. There should have been a much bigger build up and close in with reaction shots between her and Indy. It would have added the emotional weight that the first movie had. Think about how Indy first walks in to Marion's bar in Raiders of the Lost Ark, his shadow looming large on the wall in front of her. Wouldn't it have been great if they had done the reverse with Marion's shadow to give the movies some symmetry But instead, this scene is played for very cheap laughs
  8. Have Indy do something to save the day.
    One of my biggest problems with Raiders of the Lost Ark is the same problem I have with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: Indy doesn't actually do anything in the end. In both movies, the bad guys tick off the powers that be and Indy escapes after they have their faces blown off. In Temple of Doom and Last Crusade, Indy is much more active in securing his fate. But in half of his movies, he lets someone else do the work for him. He's outsourcing his hero job.
  9. Make the inhabitants of the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull more of a character.
    In the Last Crusade, the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword appear early and are peppered throughout the movie as obstacles (and aids) to the hero's quest. In Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the inhabitants of that Kingdom show up at the end and are basically Native American battle droids. They have no personality. They don't even have a clear connection to the Indian Monkey Ninjas from the burial ground earlier in the film.
    Wouldn't it have been better if for generations these inhabitants have trained and sent out their warriors to keep the Kingdom safe by dispatching those who try and find it? And instead of nameless hordes, wouldn't it be better for Indy to interact with them and understand their culture. Granted at the end of the movie, the pace needs to pick up, but the introduction of such a 1-dimensional threat is boring
  10. Don't call John Hurt's character “Ox.”
    I know its meant to be a term of endearment in a series with weird names like Indiana and Mutt. But it means that you can't take this supposedly brilliant man as seriously.
  11. Don't do the jungle chase on green screen.
    This is related to the Mutt-monkey swing, but the entire sequence has an artificiality to it that you don't have in things like the mine cart scene from Temple of Doom. Because of the limitations of special effects back in the day, they used more practical effects that felt much more tangible. The digital environment works well in alien worlds like in Star Wars or Avatar, but not in and Indiana Jones movie.
  12. Put Sean Connery in the movie.
    This is not the fault of the film-makers, since they reportedly offered him $1 million to shoot a single scene, but he refuse because he was retired. But to see Henry Jones Sr. die at the beginning would solidify Indy's arc and make the introduction of the son character a completion of his circle of life.
  13. Connect the plot resolution to the theme
    Indy finds out that life is worth living when he gets older and that his real treasure is his family. But that doesn't play a role in how he wins the day In Temple of Doom, Indy learns that fortune and glory are not the end all be all of archeology and that the stones are not his to take. This gives him insight to call upon Shiva. In the Last Crusade, he only wants to save his father and he is not interested in worldly glory unlike Donovan. This leads him to make the correct choices to get the grail. And he can let his father save him because his treasure is his relationship with his dad. But in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Indy just kind of stands there and runs away.
  14. Have a different introduction.
    In every other Indy movie, the opening adventure is only tangentially connected to the main story (the idol, the diamond, the Cross of Coronado). But they jump right into the main plot with the first set piece. But instead, they should have shown Indy interacting with Dean Stanforth (Jim Broadbent) earlier so that when he comes back and says that he's been fired too, you have some kind of emotional response. But if a total stranger tells you he's been fired, you might have pity, but it doesn’t break your heart. The opening should have shown Indy trying to be out in the field, but failing badly not because he's outsmarted by Beloc or Lou Che, but because he has lost all confidence in himself because of his age. This would give him a powerful arc where Mutt's youthful energy would renew Indy's sense of adventure.

So those are my suggestions.

I know that they are exploring another Indy movie, so I hope they learn from the mistakes of the last one.


Friday, August 24, 2012

Don't Get Turned Into An Internet Meme

Film Review: The Expendables 2

One of the joys of the first Expendables movie was the cameos of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis in Sylvester Stallone’s already man-tastic mega-muscle movie. The Expendables 2 takes the stunt casting to a whole new level.

Seriously, this movie is basically an excuse to take even more 80's action icons and pack them into as many explosive frames as possible. That is not a bad thing, exactly The Expendables 2 is a movie that is long on mindless fun but short on story.

The movie picks up a few years after the last film. Barney (Stallone), the leader of this bloody A-Team has to deal with the consequences from his crisis of conscience from the first movie. Now he owes Mr. Church (Willis) the shifty CIA agent, who collects by having the mercs recover some data from a crashed plane. This time he adds his own person to Barney's team: Maggie (Nan Yu). The rest of the original team returns for at least part of the action, and this time they have a sniper protege Billy (Liam Hemsworth) who looks less like his character Gale from The Hunger Games and more like his real life big brother Chris in Thor. But it all takes a turn when they encounter Jean-Claude Van Damme as the movie's villain: Villain. (No, that is not a type-o. That villain's name is “Villain” only its pronounced “Vil-lane.”)

The best piece of casting was actually Van Damme. Unlike the others in his fraternity of Reagan-Era butt-kickers, he does not carry with him the same nostalgic affection. He fits very well into the role of the bad guy and he plays it with delicious cheesiness. You enjoy hating him from start to finish, and it is actually one of his best performances. Yu is a pleasant addition, but she doesn't have the same charisma as the others, and she serves to remind you how depopulated this movie is of women (not counting Charisma Carpenter's brief reprisal)

The rest of the story turns on this first meeting, but it plays like a by-the-numbers action film that you can see on Saturday night cable movie. This is not necessarily an insult, but it also isn't a compliment. The movie doesn't try to be anything more than an excuse to have some fun. The other members of the team have big personalities, but there is no depth behind them. The joke with each other and then kill the bad guys and that's all. Or as Barney puts it “We keep it light until its time to get dark.” And while there is fun to be had, there is nothing special about most of it. The only thing that sets it apart is the stunt casting.

In fact, the moment Church Norris enters the film, you can feel the tone of the movie turn a corner. The first Expendables was a throwback to some gritty, dark action, close to the last Rambo movie. This movie plays close to a parody of the first, but not quite. It winks way too much at the camera (Arnold actually breaks through a wall and says “I'm back!”), but doesn't commit to full comedy.

And yet, I couldn't help but smile from ear to ear as I saw the great stars of yesterday joining forces and dramatically march, raining bullets on the those who deserve their righteous fury. For that alone, I felt like I got my money's worth. And the final fight between Stallone and Van Damme, while not like the classic Bruce Lee/Chuck Norris, is one of the better set pieces.

I have to mention a scene where the heroes set a trap for the bad guys in a lonely village. Second in command Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) poses as a priest and waits for the thugs in the church. He then dispatches them with brutal flair, including bludgeoning them with censer. This was a little much for me. It made me very uncomfortable to see the hero dressed as priest of God doing such horribly violent things in that sacred place. I know that Stallone has renewed his Catholic faith in recent years and I don't think he imagined what he did as disrespectful, but there's something wrong with stabbing people in the house of the One who said “Turn the other cheek.”

If you are in the mood for some mindless action, then The Expendables 2 is for you. Just be sure to not to think about it too hard.

Film Flash: Premium Rush

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

If Gleaming the Cube and Quicksilver had a baby, it would be Premium Rush.

Star Wars: DETOURS

I'm a sucker for parodies, especially when they're done by someone like Seth Green who loves the thing he is mocking.

What's great about something like this is that I can see people who love Star Wars loving this and I can see people who hate Star Wars liking it too.  Granted, it seems to be mostly made out of inside jokes, but I think those who don't enjoy the galaxy far, far away will still find the laughs hitting close to home.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Fellowship, Not a Ring

CS Lewis once wrote very eloquently about the constant human ambition towards the “Inner Ring.” We have this innate social sense that there are others more on the inside of of the know and we feel perpetually outside of the ring. I've been watching a lot of The West Wing lately and I've noticed how they ask each other “Are you inside?” meaning “Are you in the inner ring of the know regarding this particular pressing problem?”

Lewis goes on to say that we spend much of our time here on Earth trying to penetrate deeper and deeper into the inner ring. At work and school there seem to be an elite few who have most of the influence. We feel the rush of being invited into that ring, only to find that in that group, there are those who are closer and more influential than the others, so we strive to enter that ring. And so on and so forth. It starts by being invited to the lunch table, and then to this or that party, and then to just socialize. At work it can be being asked to some particular meeting or social event and so forth.

But we never seem to get to the final ring. We always feel we are on the outside trying to get in. And thus many of us always feel like the pitiful urchin in the cold peering into the homes of the happy and fat, burning with jealousy for those who have what you want. Honestly, how many of us wished that we were taken more seriously at work or while in school wanted to be one of the (oh help me for using this spectacularly awful phrase) “cool kids?”

And I say that all of it, all of the striving deeper and deeper into the inner rings, is pointless.

I mean this in the literal sense: it has no point. Of course we can gain power and influence for some greater end, but that usually isn't the reason why try to ingratiate ourselves by those we perceive as our betters. We want to be well thought of and admired by those whom we admire. But why? Seeking admiration for its own sake is what has led to our celebrity-crazed, facebook-tell-all culture. We seek to be famous, even if we are infamous, because we think it will generate some kind of affection or attention.

I remember years ago I spoke to a girl in high school who wore a Playboy bunny necklace. When I asked her about it, she said that her life's goal was to be a Playboy playmate. She wanted to be desired and to have the men of the world burn with lust for her. She wanted to be in the inner ring of those whose bodies would cause men to lose control of their wills and their morals. Very little I said could convince her otherwise. And before anyone condemns her too harshly, how many of us airbrush our idiosyncratic personalities in order to be appealing to our bosses, colleagues, and those in our inner ring?

The reason why I said it was pointless is that ultimately a ring is something with no center. It is empty. If your experience of society is climbing the social ladder then you missed the point of being social. The main point of engaging in others socially is friendship.

Friendship is one of the greatest pleasures in all the world. It is not simple affection, because we can feel that for anyone, even total strangers. It is not romantic love, because so much of that depends on the passions, which come and go like the seasons. Friendship is more solid than that. It is more real. What are we seeking when socializing with others if not friendship? If we are seeking to move further into the inner ring, then the people we meet are means and not ends in themselves. Our friends are our friends for no other reason than that they are.

Here are a few reasons why friendship is so important:

  1. Friendship is a choice. You cannot choose your family; Providence has done this for you. These are people you will hopefully love and be loved by no matter what because of the fact of your blood. Marriage is a bond forged in a vow, and vows by definition are unbreakable (although the courts are curiously filled by those who do not believe so). But with friends, the bond you hold is only by the constant and persistent choice. Like our grip on the Monkey Bars, once we attach we only stay that way as long as our will and our strength hold out. Every person who is a friend in your life has chosen you freely. And you have chosen them. 

    Yes, circumstances may push you together, but you are the ones who choose to stay together. This means that not only do you acknowledge the value of this person simply for who they are, but they do the same for you

  2. Friendship crosses space. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” is hardly true for most long distant relationships. Most of them don't last. Romantic love needs the other with them. The person is desired bodily. This is not a bad thing since the ultimate goal is the sharing of bodily intimacy in marriage. But friendship is less about the body, but more about the mind. Lewis said that you make the bond of friendship when you and another see the same truth. 

     One of my best friendships started after I did a show and tell piece for my junior high class (please do not ask me why were were doing show and tell in junior high) about my comic book collection. After feeling and sounding like a total geek, one of my classmates came to me and talked to me about his copy of Wolverine issue #25, which I had not read. It was a moment when I realized that I was not alone in how I saw the world. Someone else occupied the same mental space. And since our minds and thoughts our immaterial, we can share that mental space across large distances through letters, email, texts, phone calls, assassinating each other in Halo Reach on XBOX live, etc. Distance only matters if you let it cut off your thoughts from your friends.

  3. Friendship defines you. There is so much of who I am as a man that is from my parents. But there is much that is not. I am a devout Catholic. My parents are practicing and were sure to get me through Catholic School and Sunday Masses. But in all those in between times, I found myself curiously surrounded by men and women of faith my own age. My friends treated women with respect and honor, even when they fought with their girlfriends. My friends avoided the drug scene (either out of principle or because we never got invited to the "cool parties"). My friends would look me in the eye and tell me when I was being a selfish jerk and I needed to hear it. 

    Friends should be that thorn in your flesh that prevents you from being too elated at your own seeming magnificence. It's hard to have vanity when your friends remember that your 11th birthday party was at the Ice Capades starring Barbie (junior high, as you can tell was not the highlight reel of my youth). And my friends opened up my eyes to faith. Don't get me wrong, none of us were saints. We have a long history of horrid missteps, one involving cops knocking on the door a birthday party letting us know that they were chasing down a number of the attendants through the woods at midnight for robbing a construction site (again, don't ask).

     Friendships, as Lewis said, not only are places to strengthen virtues but it can be a place to cultivate vices. And how many of us wink at the “small” sins of our fellowship because, “oh, that's just how So-and-So is.” But who we are, for good or ill, is defined by our friends. One of my best friends once said to me “I've grown up with you and because of you.” I don't think I can put it better.

Pushing further and further into the inner ring is pointless. Because even if you stand in the most central of circles, you are always looking into that empty center. But a circle of friends is not looking at the empty center. Friends are looking at each other. And seeing each other, they enjoy each other.

I wrote an article for my high school year book where I said “I love my friends very much, and I hope that our friendship will stand the test of time.” I stand by that to this day. My best friends from high school and earlier are still my best friends today.  I would not be writing this blog if not for the encouragement of my friends. In fact if there is any virtue in me, I would not have an ounce of it if not for my friends, especially my wife who is my best friend. To this day they support, challenge, and love me. And I them. I can say without hyperbole, that I would not trade any of them for all of the riches of the earth. Because without them I would be truly poor and empty.

I think this is why Christ made clear on the night He was betrayed that those seated with Him were His friends. “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 5:15) 

 He then says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.”(5:16) Jesus made the choice to come to each one of us and offer His friendship. By our creation, He is Our God and is due our adoration. But He also asks our friendship. 

 And though He ascends to the Father, He is with us always. “Where two or more are gathered in my name, so am I there in their midst.” (Matt 18:20) This is not mere sentiment, but an metaphysical reality Our minds and our souls mingle with the Master when we call upon Him in prayer. Space is no barrier to the One Who fills eternity.

 And He, more than any friend, should define who we are. Paul said it best when he wrote “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor 2:2) Christ shaped so much of Paul that “ I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (Gal 2:19)

Christ wants us to follow Him not just as a disciple but as a friend. The road upwards through the Church toward the communion of saints is not a incursion into the ultimate inner ring.

It is an invitation to be part of the Fellowship of the King.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Trailer Time: 10 Years

I love the movie Can't Hardly Wait, a silly movie about the last night of high school.  I even came up with a sequel as a script-making exercise that took place at a 10-Year high school reunion.  I couldn't help of think of that story when I saw this trailer.

In fact, after I saw this trailer I did a quick google search to find out if this was based on Can't Hardly Wait, but it doesn't seem to be the case.  It looks a bit more serious than Can't Hardly Wait.  But it has very funny actors like Chris Pratt and Aubrey Plaza, so here's hoping.


Wednesday Comics: Liefeld Out!

photo by Pinguino

A breaking story via says that Rob Liefeld is leaving DC.

I do not wish to pile on, as there are may internet haters.  And I do think that he does have talent, but that it has not been used very well in DC.

The sad fact is that every time he took more control of a book, the quality of the book suffered.  As I noted in my article last week, Hawk and Dove started out strong, but when writer Sterling Gates was out and Liefeld directed the story, it lost all of its steam.  He had a similar effect on me for Deathstroke and Grifter.  I was unaware that he was heavily involved in The Savage Hawkman, but that was the first book I cut from my pull list, though I do not know if he was on it from the start.

I think that it was a mistake to hire him in the first place, unless he was able to sell his vision to the editors at DC.  But sadly he was not able to sell it to the consumers.

I wish him well, but I hope that this means that the quality of the books at DC will improve.

Wednesday Comics: Before Watchmen

Without a doubt the most critically acclaimed piece of comic book literature is Alan Moore's and Dave Gibbon's nihilistic masterpiece Watchmen. What originally started as a slanted take on the Charlton Comics characters (e.g. Captain Atom = Dr. Manhattan) became a phenomenon that gets rediscovered by every generation of comic book readers who find out how excellent comics can be.

DC has been trying to capitalize on this for years with movies and action figures. But their latest experiment has been to round up a bunch of top notch writers like Brian Azzarello and Darwyn Cooke, as well as hot artists like Amanda Connors to create a number of miniseries prequels to the original titled Before Watchmen. It was a grand experiment.

The experiment failed.

I don't mean that it failed in terms of sales. In fact, the opposite is true and sales are through the roof from what I understand. And I don't mean all of it is bad. Some of the writing is sharp and some of the art is beautiful to look at. But for the life of me, the stories cannot hold my interest.

Prequels are notoriously difficult to do, because we know not only the ending of the story, but the major arch that brings the main characters to that place. This is especially true with Moore's story because one of its central themes is the futility of the costumed hero. And yet all of these books are about the life of a costumed hero, doomed to end not with a bang but with a whimper (to paraphrase TS Eliot).

For example, the Silk Spectre comic is charming enough. But the main story is about how Laurie fights against her destiny to become a crime fighter. Not only do we know that she will, which takes a a lot of the dramatic tension out of the air, but we know because of Watchmen that she won't accomplish anything from it.

The most interesting of the mini-series, The Minutemen, brings with it Moore's satiric tone, but that's part of the problem. This book is about the original Golden Age heroes. I want to care about the old guard, but writer/artist Cook keeps most of them at bay. They are interesting, but distant. For example, Silhouette is smart, savage, and is interested in smashing a human smuggling ring. But the Minutemen are basically a publicity exercise I feel her frustration, but I can't hope that things get better, because I know that they do not. And I know that in the end most of them die pointlessly.

The most overblown is the Ozymandias book. Jae Lee's art is grandiose, but I was bored by the story that seemed to not tell me much of anything I did not already know from the original. The Rorschach book would be much more interesting if I thought it would go anywhere. In this book, comic's favorite sociopath runs afoul of some bad guys and gets beaten pretty badly. Somehow this will relate to a serial killer, but I couldn't hold on.

And the Nite Owl book took a turn in the second issue towards outright pornography.

The “prequel problem” is something that everyone involved with this book I'm sure took very seriously. But whatever steps they took to overcome it failed. There is no dramatic tension and not enough good will to propel the story. The original Watchmen had the advantage of being new and daring, while also making us care what happened to Rorschach, Nite Owl, and Silk Spectre, while also drawing us in with a good mystery. Subsequent re-reads are enjoyable because of the multi-layered symbolism folded into all the parts of the narrative. For example, I never knew until a few years ago that the chapter “Fearful Symmetry” was a palindromic story where the pages mirror each other from the middle outward.

There is nothing that poetic in Before Watchmen.

Something to remember is that the Watchmen universe is not a fun place to be. There are no “adventures” to be had here, just dark tales of despair. And unless you have the genius hand of Alan Moore guiding those tales like the Black Freighter to shore, you will run aground on the jagged rocks of depression (sorry, the metaphor got away from me a little).

Before Watchmen is not an exercise in nostalgia but in futility.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Film Review: The Odd Life of Timothy Green

Forgive me for being a little bit autobiographical, but it may explain my review. My wife and I have wanted children since we first were married, but God has not gifted us in that we. We have been in the adoption process for 3 years and we feel like we are in limbo. All pain is relative and there are certain types of suffering which I cannot grasp because I have not experienced them. But there is a special kind of kind of ache from childlessness. Everything on the outside looks fine. But there is a gnawing emptiness in your heart digs deeper and deeper as the years go by. You feel sad, jealous, and guilty (over the jealousy). But above all you feel powerless.

And this is how the main characters begin the story of The Odd Life of Timothy Green. Cindy and Jim Green (played by Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton) begin their tale with a doctor telling them that they cannot have children. They return to their small town caught up in their own grief, trying to move on. But before they do, they write out all of the things that they wanted for their child that they will never experience. They wanted him to be “Picasso with a pencil” and to be “Honest to a fault” and so on. They then put these notes in a box and bury it in their backyard That night, some Disney magic happens, and a young boy grows from the ground and enters their lives.

There is a lot of suspension of disbelief for the appearance of the mysterious child. That is one of the flaws of the movie. The other is that most of the other characters are one dimensional. There is Jim's distant father, the funny old uncle, the competitive sister, the old crone boss, the rich manager who is also the company owner's son, etc. They all serve a little story targets for odd Timothy to hit with his odd ways.

And Timothy is an odd one with leaves growing on his legs and he has a habit of standing Jesus-like with open arms in front of the sunlight at the most inappropriate moments. But Timothy's oddness shakes up the lives of everyone he meets. It is the classic story of the saintly innocent whose ways seem strange to us normal people, only to have his oddness bring out the extraordinariness of everyone he meets.

And while the script does have real deficiencies (including a creepy scene where he draws the old crone played by Diane Wiest), I could not help but fall for the movie. There are a few reasons for this.

First off all, even though most of the characters are flat, I thought the 3 leads were terrific. Garner walked us through the silent depths of her sadness until she showed the elation and terror of motherhood. Edgerton brings a strong earthiness to his role as the practical provider who tries to help his family any way he can. And the two of them also show us the uglier side of parenting, as they sometimes use the wonder of their son to show up those who did not support them in their lives. And CJ Adams is wonderful as Timothy, who plays him as loving and endearing, but always with a quiet secret sadness, which becomes understood the further the movie develops.

Second, the cinematography and music are great. Fall in the farmland is the stuff of pastoral poems, and you can see why with this film. It is beautifully shot and captures the simple majesty of a colorful country autumn. Director Peter Hedges, also of the under rated Dan in Real Life, brings a warm visual feel to the movie. And Geoff Zanelli's score is childlike and moving. It plays with you while hitting the underlying emotion.

But the most important for me was the personal connection I immediately made with the material. There are some movies that, even with their deficits, speak to you because of where you are in life. As a kid I went through my Monster Squad and Goonies phase. As a teen I implicitly understood Breakfast Club and Pump Up the Volume. As a young man I felt at home with the guys from Swingers and Beautiful Girls. And right now odd Tim Green's parents connect to me.

I understand that this may not be the reaction everyone has. And I get that the lack of sophistication in the supporting characters may detract from someone's enjoyment. But sometimes if an emotional chord strikes the perfect heart strings, we forgive what is lacking and love what is good.

The Odd Life of Timothy Green is not for everyone. But if you know the ache I spoke of, then this movie will fill you with a little joy and a lot of hope.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Casting Call: Aquaman

While he is the butt of many jokes, not only is Aquaman one of the most popular superheroes in terms of name recognition. And right now in the comic book industry, his book has beaten X-Men in terms of sales. He is a stalwart of the Justice League, so it would make sense to put him in it.

So who could play the King of Atlantis? It would have to be someone who can convey a sense of alienation while also being regal. Aquaman is someone who helps others even if they think he's a joke.
And yet you need to make him savage enough to understand he's a threat.

Here are our choices:

Bradley Cooper

He has skill as an actor and can pull of action.

Jeremy Renner

photo by Eva Rinaldi

Even though he's already an Avenger, he could also cross universes to DC

Ryan Gosling
photo by Tony Shek

His range as an actor could bring a lot more to the table with Aquaman

Aaron Eckhart
photo by Mutari

A bit on the older side, this would be an Aquaman that is more beaten down by life and doesn't play around

Jamie Bamber

photo by pinguino k
I had him down as a possible Flash, but he fits this role better.