Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Trailer Time: X-Men- Days of Future Past

This movie is ambitious to say the least.  It is a huge gamble to try and meld these two different X-Men franchises into one, and so far I've been skeptical.

But darn it if I didn't get caught up in this teaser.  The story elements are still vague.  I've heard Kitty Pryde plays a much bigger role in this movie, but the teaser doesn't reflect it.  But I think it's smart to once again let Wolverine be the narrative glue that holds the movie together.  And I love Xavier's last line.

Here's hoping:


New Evangelizers Post: Why Moral Relativism is Impossible

I have a new article up at

Pope Benedict XVI often spoke about the dictatorship of relativism.  It is a horribly destructive moral theory that has done more damage to modern society than almost any other philosophy.  You have probably encountered this in one form or another in your life.

Moral relativism is the belief that there is no absolute standard of morality and that moral rules vary from society to society.  

Take, for example, polygamy.  A moral objectivist, as all Christians are, would say that God created us with certain natural ends and thus we must follow the natural law for all people.  Human beings, therefore, should not engage in polygamy regardless of societal traditions.

A relativist would say that if one society objects to polygamy and another accepts it, neither is wrong.  Morality is whatever the culture says that it is and bends to no universal standard.  The common way to say this would be, “Different strokes for different folks.”  But before you can say “Whatchoo talkin’ about, Grayson?”  moral relativism runs into some severe logical problems (forgive the 80′s sitcom joke, I couldn’t help myself).

It should be noted first that moral relativism is a frequent sanctuary for atheists who wish to adhere to some kind of morality.  There are some, like Sartre, who embrace the black void of nihilism, which is the belief that there is no morality; there is no right or wrong.  But most atheists I have met still express a desire to do good.  But since they are materialists (which means that there exists nothing beyond the material world), they rarely make an appeal to a universal, transcendent standard.

You can read the whole thing here.

Film Flash: Ender's Game

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

Intriguing premise and neat action bogged down by incredibly clunky storytelling.  Harrison Ford looks tired

2 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sunday Best: Actors of All Time #15 - Kenneth Branagh

photo by Melinda Seckington

Henry V
Swing Kids
Much Ado About Nothing
Dead Again
Love's Labors Lost
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

I admit this one may be the most controversial on the list.

It is particularly difficult if you recall his putrid performance in Wild Wild West.   It may also be hard to see the strength of his performance in Frankenstein, considering how poorly he directed it and how terrible DeNiro is as the Creature.  And some my caricature his performance in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets as hamish over-acting.

 But Wild Wild West was a movie that tainted every great actor in it, including Will Smith and Kevin Kline.  The core of his performance as the obsessive Dr. Frankenstein was dynamic and electric.  And his Gilderoy Lockhart was meant to be the brazen, egotistical, over-the-top blowhard that Branagh made him.

I first really noticed Branagh in Dead Again, my favorite thriller of all time.  His performance as Mike Church was so convincing, I actually thought he was American and not a Brit.  What was particularly powerful about this role on subsequent viewings was the seething anger bubbling underneath the surface.  Mike tries to be cool and quiet, which Branagh accomplishes with expert charm.  But he is always trying to keep his volcanic anger in check.  In the scene where it does finally explode on "Grace" you can feel Branagh getting lost in his performance and then he makes you feel the overwhelming guilt as he calms down.

But I was convinced we was a great actor when I saw him in Henry V.  His first scene as the dread sovereign is weighed with much gravitas.  It feels as though the slightest change in tone or body language could kill you.  As the movie progresses, and we get deeper into Henry's mind, we feel the pull from his old life to his new one.  I never forget Henry's face as Bardolph is hanged.  It is an expression of sorrow and resolve.  His prayer before the battle of Agincourt, illuminated only by pale blue moonlight highlights the emotional depths Branagh takes his king.  And perhaps most importantly, his St. Crispin's Day speech, the prototype for all pre-battle speeches, is invigorating and inspiring, all while never feeling artificial or false.

He followed this up with a small role in the tragically underrated Swing Kids.  He brought all of the humor and charm of his Mike Church performance into his role of Herr Knopp.  But he used that to show the seductive faux-fatherliness of the Nazis.  The main character in the movie is a fatherless German teen.  Knopp tries to bring him into the Hitler Youth.  Branagh's Knopp makes every word and gesture feel sympathetic and supportive.  It is unnerving how pleasant to the ear he makes his horrible propaganda sound, and that is a testament to Branagh's skill.

But his comedic side is also very strong.  His Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing is comedic gold.  I had never really considered that Shakespeare was actually a funny writer until I saw how Branagh let the Bard's words come alive and tickle the funny bone.  His Benedick is a puffed up, arrogant man of swagger who is completely at a loss on how to behave when in love.  To this day I can watch his monologues and laugh out loud.

And he took the complete opposite tack with his Hamlet.  His Prince of Denmark is awash in melancholy.  His emotions, dark and bright, move through him like a storm.  Because much of the movie are long, wide shots much of his performance is big and loud.  But that fits with Hamlet's emotional states.  And when the camera rests on him, Branagh shows an amazing stillness.  I was deeply moved by his "readiness is all" speech and tone of acceptance in his voice.

 Hamlet is difficult to capture as a character even by the best actors.  Some play him as mad.  Some play his as pretending.  What I see in Branagh is a man pretending to be mad who gets caught up in his own pretend madness.  It is a layered performance that can be mined for more insight with each viewing.

I feel like I owe Branagh a lot.  I had a passing familiarity with Shakespeare before I saw his movies.  But his performances helped me to truly experience Shakespeare, whose writings are now very dear to me.  And to awaken that aesthetic in a silly teenager takes some truly great skill as an actor.

(Here's a little bonus: Kenneth Branagh talking about making Wild Wild West.  Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but it feels like he's trying to pick his words carefully to not accidentally be too mean)

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Director of "Priest" Dead at Age 54

Antonia Bird directed the horribly anti-Catholic film Priest.

She said the reason why she made the film, about horrible hypocrisy (especially regarding sexuality) among parish priests, was that she was angry that the Church refused to change its teaching on contraception.  Rather than make a movie about contraception per se, she attacked the priesthood.

This should be an important reminder for all of us.  She understood something fundamental to the Church that some Catholic may have forgotten.  The priesthood is the pillar of the Church.  If we have no priests, we lose many of the sacraments, particularly Eucharist and Confession.  If you destroy the priesthood, the Church will wither.

Bird understood this, which is why she attacked not just priests, but the priesthood itself.  Sadly, I don't know how good of a job we as Catholics in America are doing of building the priesthood up.  I'm not saying we don't support those with vocations.  But do we encourage our sons, our friends, our friends to explore this path the same way we encourage careers in medicine, law, teaching, etc.? The harvest is many, but the laborers are few.

Some are doing their part.  Bird understood the power of the visual media.  The US Catholic Bishops put out this video a few years ago and it is stirring:

Even though Antonia Bird attacked the priesthood of our Catholic faith, let us return her attack with love and mercy.  Let us pray for the repose of her soul this day.  And let us pray for more laborers to minister in the vineyard of the Lord.

Film Review: Gravity

I consider Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban to be the worst of the Harry Potter movies.  For the longest time I chalked it up to the utter incompetence of the director: Alfonso Cuarón   The directing choices for that movie baffle me.  And what baffled me even more was how so many movie critics consider that chapter to be the best of the series.  So you can imagine how skeptical I was when critics started lavishing praise on his new movie, Gravity.

I was greatly relieved to find that in the case of Gravity, the critics were right.

Some people have been speaking in hyperbole about this film, saying it will change moviemaking.  That takes it a little too far, but I acknowledge the visual majesty of this film.  Cuarón throws you right into the cold depths of outer space with no set up or introduction.  I usually enjoy films that build up more to the grand setting, films that start by getting to know the characters before the real action begins.  But that would not work with Cuarón s movie.  He is a wizard casting a spell.  When the movie begins, you enter into his universe and are trapped, for good or for ill, inside.

The film is straightforward enough.  Sandra Bullock plays Ryan Stone, a specialist in the medical field who is sent up on the space shuttle with minimal training because they want to use some of her lens designs on the Hubble telescope.  George Clooney (at his George Clooney-est) plays veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski who is gamboling around the shuttle in a new space jet pack.  But what was a routine mission becomes an epic struggle for survival as a wave of debris from a Russian satellite explosion hits the shuttle.

The plot takes a backseat, however, to the visual spectacle.  Very little of what I say can be added to the praise critics have given Cuarón s vision.  His view of space is beautiful and deadly.  It is a vast abyss and claustrophobic at the same time.  The IMAX experience of the film is worth the extra money.  I don't think that seeing a flat, 2-D image would do justice to what accomplishes.  You can almost feel as if you are flying, floating, and falling with the characters as they hang on for dear life.  I felt swept up in the world.

And he creates an actual sense of danger.  For many movies, I have to pretend that I don't know the heroes will make it out alive.  But there is no way to tell from Cuarón s movie if Stone and Kowalski will make it.  This added tension, mixed up with the thrilling visuals, makes for an amazingly powerful and exhilarating, edge-of-your-seat experience.  And all of it is compacted into a tight 90-minutes.  Not a moment of the movie feels wasted.

I want to also make a note about the acting.  Clooney is headlined here, but make no mistake: this is Sandra Bullock's movie.  The movie completely about her.  During the first half I found her performance acceptable and fine.  But about halfway through, she focuses her talent and her skill to give one of the most viscerally emotional performances I have seen on screen.  It is, without a doubt, the best performance of her career.  There has been Oscar buzz regarding her this year, and it is absolutely deserved.

But what I was not prepared for was the spiritual aspect of the film.  Gravity confronts the viewers with the reality of death and their own mortality.  In isolation, trapped in the void, who else can be called on but God.  And yet Bullock's character we find out, is an atheist.  She then says one of the most heartbreaking lines, not only of the movie, but of nearly any movie I've seen (MILD SPOILER AHEAD.  SKIP PARAGRAPH IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO READ THE LINE).  She asks if anyone will pray for her soul.  Then she says, "I've never prayed before.  No one ever taught me how."  As she says this, her tears float towards the camera in the vacuum of zero gravity.  As a teacher of the Catholic faith, it reminded me how important my mission is.  It is second nature for me to turn to God for strength, guidance, forgiveness, and praise.  But I have to remember that there are so many people who do not know the joy of the Lord simply because no one shared Him with them.  How can people meet Jesus if no one will introduce Him.

Cuarón has triumphed with this movie.  I now understand his failure with Harry Potter was that he did not understand JK Rowling's world.  But having written this movie with his son, he has a complete and total vision of his own that he thoroughly understands how it works and how to execute it.

Gravity is a movie that is unlike most I have seen.  It is transportation to another world.  It is nerve-wracking thrill-ride.  It is a showcase of amazing acting.  And it is a meditation on human spirituality.

If I had to sum up this movie in word, from the opening credits to the final shot, it would be this:


4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Trailer Time: Captain America - The Winter Soldier

I enjoyed Captain America: The First Avenger's nostalgic feel.  But this one has a much more dire, serious tone.  I like the fact that they'll be exploring more of the "man out of time" element.

And that scene in the elevator looks all kinds of awesome.


Sunday, October 20, 2013

Fall and Holiday Movie Season 2013

Now that Summer Movie Season is over, it is time to look at the Fall and Holiday movie season. This tends to be the time of year for “important” films that get awards. Emanuel Levy points out that in the 1980's 64% of all the films nominated for best picture were released between September and December. This is done to make sure that the film is fresh in the minds of Academy Voters and that it doesn't get drowned out by Summer Blockbusters.

So what movies are remaining in 2013? Here is a list, with a few brief thoughts of my own, including on a scale of 1-5 stars my likelihood of seeing it in theaters (1 being “Not at all” 5 being “Cannot wait!”).

Feel free to chime in.

October 18
Carrie : I don't like horror movies anymore (*)

Escape Plan : I'm a sucker for 80's style action movies (***)

All is Lost : I've Redford is incredible, but I'm worried that the movie is going to be nihilistic (**)

The Fifth Estate : Curious, but Netflix-curious (**)

Kill Your Darlings : Doesn't look very good (*)

October 25
The Counselor : I know that this has an impressive cast, but I just can't seem to get interested (*)

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa : This could be wild or awful. But will definetly be vulgar (**)

Blue is the Warmest Color : No it isn't (*)

November 1
Dallas Buyers Club : I'm not a fan of McConnahey, but the premise looks very intriguing. (***)

Ender's Game : I've heard good things about the book and the movie looks pretty good. (****)

Last Vegas (Wide) This could also be very funny with a good cast, but I'm not sure if I want to pay full price (***)

Free Birds (Wide) I don't know, this movie does not seem good at all. It feels like it was produced by PETA (*)

About Time (Limited) This could be a nice charmer or an indie-snoozer. I'm hoping for the former (****)

Diana (Limited) I'm just not interested in this story. At all. (*)

November 8
Thor: The Dark World (Wide) I am hooked on the Marvel movies and I actually really like the original Thor (*****)

How I Live Now (Limited) Its a post-apocalyptic love story, but I can't seem to connect to the idea (*)

The Book Thief (Exclusive) It looks like it should be good, but I am not in a hurry to see it (**)

November 15
The Best Man Holiday (Wide) I didn't see The Best Man (*)

The Wolf of Wall Street (Wide) I am one of the few people who think that Scorcese's movies have gotten better over time. I might be persuaded to see this one in theaters (***)

November 22
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Wide) I was so thouroughly impressed with the first one that I read the other two sequels. I will be there opening night (*****)

Delivery Man (Wide) I'm sorry, I'm a sucker for a Vince Vaughn Comedy (****)
December 13

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Wide) I am going to get my tickets way in advance and see it on the large IMAX 48-fps screen! (*****)

Saving Mr. Banks (Limited) This could be just the right combination of childlike nostalgia and adult catharsis (****)

American Hustle (Limited) Great cast, but I don't know if I care for the story (**)
December 18

The Monuments Men (Wide) An outstanding cast with an original plot. This could be something (***)

Her (Oscar Qualifying Run) I think I'm going to have to see this. It will either be awful or amazing. I don't think there is going to be an in between (****)

December 20

Anchorman: The Legend Continues (Wide)I'm not the biggest fan of the original, but they might sucker me in to this sequel (**)

December 25
47 Ronin (Wide) This looks like it could be a fun action romp (***)

August: Osage County (Wide) NNNNOOOOOOO! (*)

Jack Ryan (Wide) Looks like it could better than Sum of All Fears (***)

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Wide) A beatiful trailer does not a great movie make, but it bodes well I think. I want to see more (****)

The Invisible Woman (Limited) I like Dickens, but this seems like one of those “Marriage is a Prison” movies (*)

Sunday Best: Actors of All Time #16 - Jim Caviezel

photo by Genevieve

The Passion of the Christ
The Count of Monte Cristo
Pay It Forward
The Thin Red Line

The actor on this list with probably the thinnest resume is Jim Caviezel. He has been acting for many years but has only had a handful of leading roles.

His big breakout moment was in Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line. It was nominated for an Oscar and received glowing critical acclaim. I hated it. I thought it was boring and pretentious. But I found Caviezel to be captivating in what little screen time he had. The movie essentially opens and closes with his story, a GI who wants to escape the madness and meaninglessness of war. I was fascinated by how he would often have a little, barely noticeable smile on his face, almost Buddha-like, as if he had some secret knowledge hidden in his small performance.

Caviezel continued to do small, but effective parts, like that of the druggie in Pay it Forward. Again, with very little screen time, Caviezel convincingly showed the despair and hope of a character who has no reason to go on besides his next fix.

He began to show his leading man chops in movies like Frequency. This underrated film showed his ability to mine emotional depths of a character trying to connect to a long-lost father while desperately racing against the clock to stop a murder that he set into motion. A lot of that emotion has to be done over the radio, so he had employ all of his talent in his voice acting to convey his character.  He showed a much more action-oriented leading man stature when he starred in Outlander, a fun and scary sci-fi Beowulf.

But the role that made me really take note of his acting abilities was The Count of Monte Cristo. This movie is also very underrated, especially as an epic character journey. Caviezel takes his Edmond Dantes on a soul-harrowing journey into darkness, hope, vengeance, and life. I'm amazed when I watch Caviezel walk around with a wide-eyed, earnest innocence that is slowly stripped away through years of torture and replaced with a cruel, cold fury. What amazed me was how despite the extremes of character, not a single note of it rang false from his performance. I completely believed him as the naïve innocent an as the world-weary warrior. Watch the subtle way his body language, like posture and gait, change to create a completely different type of man while still remaining Dantes.  To this day I watch that performance in awe.

But his best role is of course his portrayal of Jesus in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. I do not believe that my judgment is persuaded simply because I am a devout Catholic. From a purely performance based assessment, what he did in that movie was truly remarkable. So few people have played the God-Man convincingly. He is either too distant and alien or he is too flawed and common. Caviezel's Jesus is neither. He is both in control and filled with emotion. His opening in the Garden of Gethsemane is filled with such anxiety that I could not tangibly understand how a man could be so afraid that he would sweat blood. But even in those moments of agony, it never felt like his Jesus was not in control. Not only did Caviezel have to speak all of his lines in Aramaic and Latin, but he had to do most of his most intense work non-verbally. Look at the mixture of fear and courage on his face right before they use the scourge. The physical toll that the role took on him is well documented, but you can feel the full force of a great actor's skill and talent being used to bring the story to life.

And I believe that Caviezel is still only getting started. Right now he is working heavily in television, but there are still amazing performances left in him for years to come.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

A Note on My Wife

If you do not like sappy stuff, skip this post.

I was reflecting a few days ago on marriage.  I told my students that my wife and I never fight and they were incredulous.

But it is true.  We have never had a fight.  I attribute this to 3 things:

1.  We don't have kids yet.  I can imagine that when our children come into our lives and learn how to try and play one of us against the other, it may fray a few edges.  The fatigue alone might wear away at us.

2.  Faith.  We dedicated our marriage to the Lord and pledged to do our best to love each other as Christ loved us.

3.  Her.  I often fail at the pledge mentioned in #2, but she has not.  I often marvel that out of all the men in the world, she chose me.  I feel like George Bailey saying to his wife, "You could have had your pick of any guy in town...why'd you pick a broken old guy like me?"  But she did.  And when I screw up, act thoughtlessly, interrupt her plans, ask more of her than I ought, she is kind and patient and giving.

Everyone who knows us can see how blessed I am with her.  (Meanwhile they give her that pitying look of "Well, if that's who you want, who am I to judge?")

I often think how close we came to not meeting.  I was signed up to make a retreat weekend where my best friends were not going.  It was the first time I had been on my own like that.  I honestly don't know why I went.  Based on who I was at the time, I shouldn't have and yet I did.

And that is when I met her.

My life has never been the same, nor will it ever be.  Even with all of my recent struggles with my health, I can honestly say that my life has gotten better each day because there is more of her in it.

She is irresistible, iridescent, and irreplaceable.

And I am blessed to say that she is my wife.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Film Review: Thanks for Sharing

(This review is very much overdue and it will be brief)

We live in a very sensual world.  You cannot turn on the TV without seeing something, anything that is meant to elicit a lustful response.  As a result, more and more people are becoming to addicted to sex and pornography.  Most people treat this as a joke, but the movie Thanks for Sharing takes a sobering look at this real problem.

The story follows three main characters in a sex addiction group.  Adam (Mark Ruffalo) is 5 years sober.  His sponsor is the aphorism spouting Mike (Tim Robbins).  And Adam is sponsoring new member Neil (Josh Gad).  These characters give us a window into the different stages of living a life of temperance, from Neil's initial denial to Mike's long term relationship scarring.  But the movie is centered on Adam as he meets Phoebe (Gwyneth Paltrow) and he struggles between his attraction to her and awaking the beast of lust inside of him.

The good part about this film is that it handles an ugly subject with relative grace.  There is a lot of talk of pornography without actually showing it (unlike the the in-your-face style of Joseph Gordon-Leavitt's Don Jon).  It takes the subject seriously and shows how wounded these men are.  The are not cured.  They walk a tightrope every day.  If they stray even a little, they will be lost.

I very much appreciated how they approached the subject.  It shows how lust dehumanizes us.  In a nice bit of visual metaphor, there is a scene where Neil tries to give up both pornography and donuts.  He turns off his computer and he throws out the donuts.  But he returns to the garbage on the internet and he also reaches into the garbage to grab another donut.

The performances were very good especially Ruffalo and Gad.  You can see the seething layers of lust that Adam has only learned to tame with constant habit.  Gad has Neil both pathetic and sympathetic, getting to laugh at him and root for him.

Having said all of that, I wish the movie was better.

The movie has two big problems.  The first is that it is kinda boring.  The story moves at a snails pace.  And at just under 2 hours, it feels longer.

The second is the lack of chemistry between Ruffalo and Paltrow.  This is surprising since I think that they are both talented actors.  But there was some spark lacking on screen.  I could see how they fit together, it made logical sense.  But emotionally I could never root for the relationship to work out.  There are other women characters played by Joely Richardson and Pink (credited as Alicia Moore) who also do fine jobs, but they seem to be there only to service the character arc of the men.

The movie also is just on the good side of preachy.  Mike keeps spouting so many wise one-liners about sobriety that other characters have to call him on it.  It felt like the movie was acknowledging that it was preaching, but wanted to diffuse the tension.  Writer/director Stuart Blumburg seems more interested in the subject of addiction than the characters going through it.

In the end, Thanks for Sharing is not a bad movie.  It just does not have enough power to be a good movie.

New Evangelizers Post: Jekyll and Hyde Morality

I have a new post up at


Am I a good person?

This is a deep question of self reflection that is at the heart of the moral life.  It is also one of the most difficult to answer because the answer is covered in limited perspective and self-delusion.

Very often we like ourselves.  Yes, there are things that we wish we could improve and maybe there are some things about ourselves that we would go so far as to say we “hate.”  But we hate our imperfections so much primarily because we like ourselves.  We enjoy ourselves.  We are the heroes of our own stories and we always want the hero have a happy ending.

As a result, we compartmentalize our souls.  What I mean by that is that we see ourselves and our actions in parts and not as a whole.  We focus on our good qualities or our bad qualities as separate parts of ourselves but not as an insight of the total person.

What do I mean?

Have you ever complained to a friend about someone you know that is a huge gossip?  Never mind the fact that you are now engaging in that same behavior against that person.  It’s okay, you tell yourself, because I’m not REALLY gossiping, not like that person.

Have you have been looked at someone like Miley Cyrus and tsk-tsked at the runaway unbridled lust of this generation and then you spend way too much time letting your eyes linger over images that excite that same lust in you?  It’s not as bad, you say, because I’m not causing scandal by being publicly indecent.

We commonly call this problem hypocrisy, but it is much deeper than that.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his classic tale The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hydemany years ago.  But there is a deep insight into morality and the unity of the soul.

You can read the whole thing here.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Sunday Best: Actors of All Time #17 - Alan Rickman

photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Bottle Shock
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Love Actually
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Galaxy Quest
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
Closet Land
Die Hard

Alan Rickman entered the acting profession very late in life. And yet he has given some of the most memorable performances that the silver screen has seen.

Let's start with his first and, arguably, his most iconic role: Hans Gruber in Die Hard. I think people often forget what a surprise Die Hard was in its day. It was a big action film with the star of Moonlighting. What could have easily been a direct-to-HBO movie was instead an action masterpiece. And Rickman's villain is a huge part of that. Rickman conveys raw ruthlessness and intelligence. You have no trouble believing that he could kill a whole building full of innocent people but he there was a part of you that kind of pulled for him. When he gets the vault open, you get a little happy for him because he sees his plan come to fruition. He charms you by his skill and makes you want to be him a little bit.

But above all he showed great restraint and I will speak more about this later. First, it should be noted that he can turn up the volume on a performance in a way that few actors can. Watch his deliciously over-the-top turn as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. He has none of Gruber's silent menace. He is all puffed-up bluster. The character is written in a very one-dimensional way, but Rickman makes his horrid personality so big and lively that cannot take your eyes off of him. He just chews the scenery up and it is fun.

And he can also bring the volume way down. I loved his performance as Steven Spurrier in Bottle Shock. A frustrated, small man, he seems well worn from living. There is a hang-dog melancholy to his character, but his absolute love of wine makes him endearing. He loves the beauty of wine and wants other people to see it too. He does all this while maintaining his deflated tone and stature.

He can disappear into roles like few others. His alternately sympathetic and sadistic interrogator in Closet Land is riveting. He is also the only good thing in Kevin Smith's blasphemous movie Dogma. His Eeyore-voiced Marvin in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the galaxy provided the film's biggest laughs.   He even brings both gravitas and goofiness to his frustrated tv-star in Galaxy Quest

But his most amazing work was his role as Severus Snape from the Harry Potter movies.


On the surface, he appears to be only playing the “mean teacher” stereotype from so many school stories; he's a wizard-world Assistant Principal Vernon. Look at some of his deliveries in Sorcerer's Stone and Goblet of Fire and it could seem that he's simply rolling out lines dripping with venom and condescension

But the brilliance of casting Rickman was his restraint. Severus Snape is a character who must constantly be in control of every thought, word, and action. He cannot give away what he is really thinking or feeling. He needs to be inscrutable. It would me much simpler and easier to play the character as a blank slate. But when you watch what Rickman does, you feel his hand on the brakes, keeping the torrent of feeling from coming through. This leads to that signature Snape style of slowly speaking out each word so that every syllable lands a punch with either dramatic weight or comedic flair.  And only on the rarest of occasions do you see the weight of it behind the words.  The last line he ever delivers in the series is one word: "Always."  And that one word spoken by Rickman is more eloquent than pages and pages of heart-felt dialogue.

Rickman uses every acting tool at his disposal and none of them are wasted. His change in voice inflection or subtle shift in eye contact do more to convey his character than what most actors could do. He seamlessly transitions from comedy to drama, knowing the exact right tone to take with his characters and he disappears into them in order to create something truly great on screen.

Film Flash: Gravity

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

Visually arresting, emotionally stirring, and surprisingly spiritual.  Don't think non-IMAX version will be as good.

4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Jumping the Shark: Downton Abbey

photo by Andrew Davidson at

(Jumping the Shark = the episode after which a series spirals downhill)

I have been a huge fan of Downton Abbey since my wife and I started watching it.  It was a fascinating look into the lives of the English aristocracy and those who serve them.  I liked that you came to care about the problems of the Grantham dynasty as much as poor valet Mr. Bates.

They have just begun their fourth season and I think the show has now Jumped the Shark.



A lot of people like myself have been concerned since they killed off a major character at the end of the Christmas Special last year.  And it wasn't even that they killed him off so much as it was that the death had little to do with the overall story.  It seemed tacked on and ham-fisted.

However, my wife and I stayed on and the season was not too bad.  Mosley is out of work.  Mary is in a depression.  Tom feels out of place.  And there is drama about a will, yadda-yadda-yadda.

As I wrote earlier, one of the things that the show does well is make you care as much about the precarious social lives of the rich as you do the gritty struggles of the servants.  But the third episode pushed it way too far.  AGAIN SPOILERS AHEAD.

In this episode, everyone, including the staff are watching an opera singer in the main hall.  One of the servants goes down to the kitchens where she gets raped.  But because everyone is in the hall at the concert, no one hears.

In and of itself, this is not the big issue.  But after the concert is over, the show follows the other dangling threads of the episode like Edith's boyfriend trying to ingratiate himself with Lord Grantham and Thomas feeling like he doesn't belong with the aristocracy and on an on before we find out what happened to the servant downstairs.  I remember watching these other story arcs and thinking: "I don't care!"  And that is the problem.

The magic spell of the show is getting you to care about everyone's problems.  At that point I could care less about anyone except the poor servant down in the kitchens.  With this episode, the spell was broken.

Part of me has no desire to continue on.  It left a sick feeling in my stomach not just because of the horrible crime, but it felt minimized.  It seemed like just another bit of drama that goes on at the Abbey. But doing that only highlights how petty much of the other problems seem.


Saturday, October 12, 2013

Characters Who Ruin Movies

Some movies are bad from start to finish.

But some movies have a decent chance of being above average.  But then there is that one thing that throws it off.  Maybe its a heavy handed message.  Maybe its an overly intrusive score.  But today I would like to focus on movies where a single character ruins (or nearly ruins) a movie.

Michael J. Nelson: "If Roger Rabbit were designed by Satan."

The most obvious example is Jar Jar Binks.  I am one of the few people who defend the idea of Jar Jar. Lucas never had a true comic relief character in the series.  If Jar Jar had worked, I think that he would have been a great asset.  Think about how all of the laughs in The Avengers help cement that movie's place in your heart.  But the problem was in the execution.  Something didn't translate.  Apparently Liam Neeson and Natalie Portman were cracked up in hysterics on set with Jar Jar actor Ahmed Best.  They told him he would be loved and embraced.  But Jar Jar did not connect and for many people, he was the straw that broke the tauntaun's back.

One character who I think deserves universal ridicule is Vince Vaughn's Nick Van Owen from Steven Spielberg's The Lost World.  Every single person who dies on that island is his fault.  This eco nut releases a bunch of savage dinosaurs to run riot over humans.  He then brings a wounded baby T-Rex to his camp, where the parents promptly arrive and eat Richard Schiff.

No wonder Tobey always looked so depressed
(photo by User: perneau

Not only that, when there is a chance to kill the T-Rex, he switches out the ammo so that Pete Postalwaite can't kill it.  And so this monster wreaks havoc on the mainland.  Van Owen should have died a horrible death for his moral insanity and intellectual stupidity.  He actual yells at the T-Rex "We tried to help you!"  This character made me so angry, I could barely watch the whole movie.

The Matrix Revolutions had several problems, but one of the biggest was adding the little girl Sati.  She plays no part in the events of the final movie and yet they build her up as some kind of little digital savior how does.... nothing!  Whenever I rewatched the movie her very presence made me viscerally angry.  I did an editing experiment where I re-cut The Matrix Revolutions and edited her completely out.  It was a much better movie.

A more obscure example is the character Alasdair MacGregor in the Liam Neeson movie Rob Roy.  He is the younger brother to the hero.  He is such a horribly bad brother that I cannot believe they tried to make you feel sad when he died.  His list of sins include:
-falling asleep during guard duty so that the English could come and destroy Rob Roy's property and rape his wife
-murdering one of the few people that could clear his brother's name as an act of post-vengence for his sister-in-law
-shooting at English soldiers when Rob Roy told him that they were outgunned.  He then proceeds to laugh about it as they run away and gets shot and Rob Roy is captured.
-as he lays dying, he tells Rob Roy what happened to his wife, when there is really nothing that can be done about it at this point except cause tension in his marriage.

I hated this character so much I have not watched the movie since I saw it theaters 18 years ago.

My good friend, The Doctor, gave me two suggestions:

The first is Randy Quaid's character from Independence Day.  This is a good example of a character almost completely derailing a film.  The movie isn't perfect, but I dig it for some reason.  But the thing that takes me out of it more than anything is Quaid's awful mugging at the camera as he flies his ship into the alien weapon.  And to think, it could have been worse (see the original cut).

The other that The Doctor suggested was the character Mack from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  But that movie was already pretty awful, so there wasn't much to ruin.

So what are your thoughts?

Email, tweet, or leave a message on this post as to characters that you think ruin (or nearly ruin) a movie and I'll publish here on my blog.

Katy Perry Desecrates Muslim Religion and Media Loves It!

  Check out this excerpt from an article at about Katy Perry's recent appearance on Jimmy Fallon's show:

We love it when Katy Perry gets playful! The singer appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in NYC on Thursday night in a wonderfully whimsical outfit featuring a pleated leather burka and House of Holland Prophet Mohhamad-print collared top. Spiritual! Naughty! Adorbz! ... See how easily she transitions from cute Teenage Dream to sophisticated lady and back again?! Just one of her many skills! 

Over at, they wrote:

K-Pezza is no stranger to a controversial look so this one is actually pretty reserved for her. Pairing an awesome, Prophet Mohammed print shirt with a burka... After seeing this, we're kinda considering raiding our wardrobe for our old hijab, but what do you reckon - think Katy's got the right idea or should we be backing away from the Sharia chic?

Of course, this is a joke.  No sane celebrity would dare be this insensitive to a religion with a billion members.  

Unless of course its the Catholic Church.

Take the two above excerpts and replace "Prophet Mohammed" with "Virgin Mary" and "burka" with something akin to "Catholic school girl outfit."

I am, of course, not advocating that people take sacred symbols of Muslims and desecrate them.  We saw worldwide violence erupt whenever event he rumor of something like this occurs.  But adorn your intentionally over-sexualized outfit with the Holy Mother of the Catholic Church?  Adorbz!

But I think the larger cultural issue is the desecration of the sacred.  A completely permissive society can have nothing sacred where souls can take refuge.  Old churches are turned into night clubs.  Movies and books like The DaVinci Code slander the faith.  And our sacred, timeless images are subsumed to some flash-in-the-pan chic fad.

But we are Catholics.  And so we don't respond with violent outrage.  We are called to respond to hatred with love.  We don't end up with a Theo VanGough situation.  That is why we are the favorite target of the pop culture bullies.  

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Casting Call: Jim Gordon Poll Results

Thank you to everyone who voted in our Jim Gordon casting poll.

This one was neck and neck.  And the winner is:


He is a fantastic actor and could bring a lot to the series.  So hopefully Hollywood listens to us again like they did about Batfleck.


Sunday Best: Actors of All Time #18 - Robert Downey Jr.

Iron Man 3
The Avengers
Sherlock Holmes
Tropic Thunder
Iron Man
Heart and Souls
Chances Are
Less Than Zero

Robert Downey Jr. is arguably the biggest movie star in the world right now. If you calculate a star's power by how much money they can demand and receive, then there is no question that he is at the top of his game. I have a soft spot in my heart for him after watching him nearly lose everything through addiction and then struggling to get everything back through hard work. His personal life is almost worth of a movie.

But even without the box office draw, Downey Jr. is one of the finest actors working. Watch him in any movie that he is in and you can see the work going on behind his eyes. He is completely present in each moment in a way that most actors are not. He has fun with his audience without winking at the camera. But you can't feel like he is letting just you in on the joke.

First, let's start with the obvious: Iron Man. I have maintained several times on this blog that there would be no cinematic Marvel Universe if anyone other than Robert Downey Jr. was cast as Tony Stark. He had to make Tony an unapologetic scoundrel and yet we had to care enough about him to follow his journey. Downey Jr. emanates charisma and he let that happen with Tony in a way that did not ring false. He tries so hard to never let that smirking veneer down. And yet his performance is not of simple ironic detachment. There is a beating heart underneath it. In his last moment with Yinsen, Downey Jr. delivers his line with utter vulnerability and simplicity: “You saved me.”

You can find this charming performance in many of his films including the very much underrated Chances Are, which also shows off his comedic side. His has a sense of timing and a deadpan delivery that makes the jokes fly off of the screen. Even when he took a horrible risk in playing an actor pretending to be a black man in Tropic Thunder, he played it with the intensity of the most passionate human drama that he became the only truly funny thing in that movie.

But when I think of movies where his talent truly shines I actually think back to earlier in his career. It is true that his performances are more mature and seasoned. But as a younger man, he was still bristling with talent. Heartwarmers like Chances Are and Heart and Souls showcased his ability to pull heartstrings. But he was capable of so much more.

Watching Less Than Zero is heartbreaking mainly because it is hard to distinguish the actor from his part. As a young man who is spiraling out of control and yet still reaches out to his friends for comfort and help, Downey Jr. makes you yearn to reach your hand out as well. You can see the toll that the drugs and his empty pursuits have on him. You are disappointed, but never fully repelled by him, making his descent all the more tragic.

But his greatest performance to my mind was his leading role in Chaplin. I remember when I heard about him being cast in the part, I did not think he was up to it. Those are (literally) some big shoes to fill. Downey Jr. would not only have to inhabit a believable character, but he would have to convincingly match the physical genius of the iconic actor. And I was blown away by the result.

Watching Chaplain was a revelation to me, not just of Downey Jr. as an actor, but of the art of acting itself. Perhaps I am being overly effusive in my praise, considering that the movie itself is a bit on the long side, bordering on tedious. But Downey Jr.'s Chaplain is egotistical, kind, infuriating, perverted, profound, sympathetic, cold, and warm alternately and at the same time. Watching his incredible portrayal of Chaplain showed me the difference playing a character and doing an impression. It is much easier to pick up on the superficial traits to do a good impression. Watch some of the talented impressionists they've had on SNL over the years to learn more. But Downey Jr.'s body language and action are not mere pantomimes. He brings them forth from the depths of his character so that they have an emotional impact. When he is playing the jester with his food at a fancy dinner party, it is his way of showing his utter disdain for those around him. When he does a pratfall in full costume, you can see the concentration of a dedicated perfectionist. And all the while you come to feel as though you've experienced not Robert Downey Jr., but Charlie Chaplain himself.

While enjoying his current career Renaissance, Robert Downey Jr. has his pick of projects. And I can't wait to see what he does next.