Thursday, July 31, 2014

Trailer Time: Into the Woods

The first teaser trailer for Disney's Into the Woods is up online.  I know that there have been a lot of complaints about how the original show has to be toned down in its darker elements to be suitable for Disney dollars.  But I actually think that this is a good thing.

I love Into the Woods, but it is, ultimately, an ode to moral relativism.  If they can take the same basic elements and sidestep that ethical landmine, they may actually have a hit.  They are trying to do what Les Miserables did by opening on Christmas Day.  But that fits because that movie is all about how sacrificial love helps us see the face of God.  If Into the Woods keeps its central theme, the message would be that life has no inherent meaning and that traditional concepts of right and wrong are mere fairy tales.

Merry Christmas.

Anyway, here is the trailer


Film Review: Begin Again

I am a gigantic fan of Once, a small budget Irish musical that one an Oscar for best song.

Now the same writer/director John Carney has a slightly higher budget and once again tells a story about lost people finding themselves and each other through music.

Begin Again is about two broken people, Dan (Mark Ruffalo) and Gretta (Keira Knightly).  Dan is a divorced, functioning alcoholic who has just been fired from his own music producing company.  Gretta has just been dumped by her longtime boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) with whom she collaborated on song writing before his career took off.  Both end up in a dive bar where Gretta performs and Dan hears greatness in her music and wants to produce her album.  What follows is an exploration of music and life.

In one scene, Dan hears Gretta play for the first time.  And we get into Dan's head how he can hear all of the accompanying instruments creating a fuller, more realized version of the song.  It struck me as a beautiful way to show how the right people can literally harmonize with your music to take it to the next level.

What this movie gets right is how music not only adds flavor to life, but it is an expression of life itself, the good and the bad.  Gretta has something to say and Dan wants to get away from the overly produced and manicured sounds.  He wants something raw and emotional.  And the music in the movie, while never getting to the soul-stirring level of Once, acts as an emotional catalyst.

Part of the struggle is that Dan is not very likable.  Ruffalo plays him with an affable charm, but he comes off as an angry, scuzzy guy.  But as the movie unfolds, the script and Ruffalo show the layers that help us understand him.  And there is no doubt he and Knightly have great chemistry.  Dan sees something pure and redemptive in her and it inspires him to be better.

One of the things I liked about this movie was that it treated marriage, even broken marriage, with some real weight.  Dan and his ex-wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) fight often, but have some real chemistry as well. In addition, there is something sad about the brokenness of the family, especially with the slightly lost teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Stanfield).  And as Dan and Gretta are drawn closer together, the movie never lets you forget that he has been ripped from another life.

The most annoying thing in the movie is an extended cameo by Ceelo Green.  Not only can he not act at all, it seemed so pandering to the audience.  There is also a line early on in a song where Gretta sings that you shouldn't talk to God because he won't answer back.  But this is earlier in the movie when she is at a low point.  In fact, right before Dan finds Gretta someone tells him that God will speak to him if he listens, which makes the song lyric more ironic than cynical.

Overall, Begin Again falls short of the raw musical and emotional power of Once.  But it is an admirable and emotionally satisfying movie musical experience.

3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Film Flash: Wish I Was Here

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

Lacking the poetic power of Braff's Garden State. But thoughtful, emotional, and reflectively spiritual.

3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Wednesday Comics: I'm Batman

This year we celebrate the 75th anniversary of Batman, who made his first appearance in Detective Comics #27 in the story titled "The Case of the Chemical Syndicate."

And while many heroes have come and gone in the last 3 quarters of a century, The Dark Knight has endured.  Not only has he endured, but he has thrived as one of the most critically and commercially bankable icons.

The 1960's television show is a cacophony of camp, but it was recently announced that it would be released on blu-ray because of the incredibly high demand.  Batman: The Animated Series of the 1990's was such a phenomenon that it led to further spinoffs for decades with Superman and the Justice League.  The Batman Arkham video games have enthralled both video game afficiandos and comic book geeks.  And all of that is before mentioning the movies that have grossed $2.7 billion in adjusted dollars.

And his stories have shaped the comics medium.  He was the first to add the sidekick, and soon hero had a young squire.  The Dark Knight Returns is considered by many as a genre defining work alongside Watchmen.  His titles are some of these strongest selling in the market.

The question should be raised: why?

There are several "HERO"-man characters all over:  Superman, Hawkman, Aquaman, Antman, Starman, Iron Man, Power Man, etc.  But what separates Batman from the rest?

I think it comes down to the fact that Batman is me.

When I wrote about Superman last year during his 75th anniversary, I pointed out that he was the ideal soaring high above us.  But Batman is different.  Whereas Superman has preternatural gifts and powers fueled by a sense of virtue, Batman is a self-made man.

First of all, he is born out of the scariest of childhood fears.  The iconic image of the young boy kneeling besides his parents is haunting.  You can see it as he is alone, lit only by the streetlight, the rest of the world obscured by darkness, a darkness from which mommy and daddy can no longer protect you.  He is the most wounded of the original Golden Age heroes.  Superman never knew his Kryptonian parents.  Batman had to know them and lose them.

But Batman offers us dark hope.  He is pierced by tragedy, but he is not crushed by it.  He turned his stumbling block into a stepping stone.  All of suffer senseless loss and tragedy.  In Batman you have someone who has their world around them shattered only to have him pick up the pieces and start over.

Batman is what any of us could be.  He is the pinnacle of physical and mental perfection.  Young Bruce Wayne did not appear to be any kind of child prodigy.  He wasn't born great.  He chose greatness.  Batman is the ultimate warrior, whose physical prowess is only surpassed by his strategic mind.  Becoming Batman implies that any person with the proper motivation can become him.  That is why he is closer to us than other heroes.  We aren't born with powers or gain them from strange radioactive creatures.  Most of us aren't born super-geniuses who can make suits of super armor or wings of flight.

But we can study and we can train.

Batman tells us that we are the uncut stones waiting to be polished into diamonds.  All that is required is the proper effort and motivation.

What also makes Batman fantastic is that despite his darkness, he is not out on a quest for vengeance.  He is not seeking to find the man who killed his parents nor is his sole purpose in punishing the guilty.  His goal is to save the innocent.  He is not a vigilante.  He is a protector.  His war on crime is not about hurting those who are like those who hurt him.  It is about trying to prevent others from experiencing the same loss that he endured.

That means that while it could be argued that Batman is obsessed with his mission, he is not borne of hatred but of love.  Batman loves his city.  He loves the innocent.  He even loves his enemies.  This is obvious by the fact that he refuses to kill.  Sure, he will beat them to a bloody pulp to prevent their dastardly schemes, but he leaves them alive because killing would be to close to vengeance and it would end all hope.

That is why the Joker is his greatest adversary.  This villain's sole goal is not to kill Batman, but to kill his hope.  Batman without hope, hope in Gotham and in the goodness of his fellow man, would soon turn into a villainous tyrant.  But Batman's success is not measured in his eradication of crime, something that can never happen.  It is measured in the lives saved and the hope that he inspires.

He symbolizes that any one of us can be heroes.  If we hold ourselves to the highest standards physically, mentally, and principally, then we have it within ourselves to look at ourselves in the mirror and say:

I'm Batman.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sunday Best: Sitcoms of All Time #16 - The Golden Girls

7 SEASONS (1985-1992)

This show should not work, at least demographically.

Targeting hip, young viewers has always been a mainstay of television.  And yet here was a show that was about 4 single women who were in the golden years of their lives.  On paper, this show should be a boring disaster.  And yet it works so well.

The main reason is the chemistry between the characters and the actors.  They play off of and against each other so well.  Betty White's Rose is such a ditzy sweetheart.  Rue MacClanahan's Blanche is an odd contradiction of sophistication and slutty.  Bea Arthur's Dorothy is a though, no-nonsense, liberated woman.  And Estelle Getty's Sophia is matronly without being matriarchal.

I remember being in high school and mentioning to the guys at my lab table that I watched Golden Girls and they teased me for enjoying the show.  I thought that I was just strange.  But then I mentioned this to Rick O. and he said, "Are you kidding?  That show is hysterical.  I could listen to Sophia all day."  It was then that I knew I wasn't crazy.  (or maybe it just meant both of us were crazy)

The producers of this show understood that what would make this show so great was allowing this fantastic comedic actresses the space they need through the plot to let their different personalities clash against each other in comedic explosions.  How much laughter was mined at Dorothy's exhaserbated expressions as Rose went on and on about St. Olaf?  How many witty zingers were lobbed at Blanche by Sophia because she was the only one not polite enough to be candid?

Each episode's plot is, in the end, unimportant.  Yes, they did raise many "issues" in this show like Alzheimer's, homelessness, sexual harassment, and the like.  This tended to be actually where the show was weakest.  There are very few things on television as tedious as being preached at by a show.  But the show never forgot to keep bringing the funny and mine even the most serious topic for the greatest of laughs (more on this later).

The other biggest detriment was the surprisingly loose morals of the women in the house, particularly Blanche.  What's strange is that the show would often address things like her illicit behavior and how bad it was.  But then it would completely throw out the lesson for the next episode.  The characters, for the most part remained static.

But even in that static state, the comedic energy was palpable.


"The Way We Met" (1x25)
The first season was the roughest for the show.  As with most series, the writers and the actors were still trying to find their rhythm.  There is a lot of mediocrity in that first season, filled with every kind of TV trope.

But the season finale is told mostly in flashback about how the girls all met each other and came together.  At that point, if you are not bowled over by their chemistry, you will never be.

"There Goes the Bride pt 2" (5x17)
Dorothy's ex husband Stan (Herbert Edelmen) had been a recurring character on the show and was always the butt of jokes a no good lout.  He still was a no good lout, but Dorothy was falling for him again.  At this point, the show started to lose its shine because they began to run out of story ideas.  They had hit tons of serious issues twice, like homosexuality and artificial insemination.  Blanche, in fact, had twice, in two different episodes, accidentally began dating men before realizing that each was physically handicapped.  And by this episode, the futility of this story was apparent from the start.  It became difficult to get invested.  And at this point, it began to feel like that the show was not trying as hard as it should.

"Not Another Monday" (5x07)
This is hands-down, the best episode.  The plot is another "very special" topic: Sophia has a friend that wants to commit suicide and she wants Sophia to be there with her.  But this show highlights the show's strengths.  While struck with her moral dilemma, Sophia turns to her roommates.  Even in the midsts of the seriousness, the funniest jokes fly.  Particularly Rose's monologue:

Gunilla Olfstadter was a nurse at Cedars of St. Olaf hospital. She was taking care of Sven Bjornson and he asked her if she would get him some mouth moisteners and then kill him.  She got the mouth moisteners right away, but well, the killing thing, it seemed to go against everything she'd been taught.  He begged and begged and, by her coffee break, she pulled the plug.  She was racked with guilt.  Not only had she parked her car in a doctor's spot, but she was never sure if Sven's pleading was the pain talking, the medication talking or the guy in the next bed talking.  You see, the guy in the next bed was Ingmar Von Bergen, St. Olaf's meanest ventriloquist.

Golden Girls is a nice, pleasant distraction of a show.  It is a lesson in comedic chemistry and can still be enjoyed years later.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Film Flash: Let's Be Cops

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

Funny premise and good chemistry, but long comedies need to learn that less is more.

2 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

New Evangelizers Post: Jesus - The Word of God

I have a new article up at

John’s Gospel begins:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
It is perhaps one of the most profound openings to any story ever written.  When I teach this Gospel in class, we spend a good deal of time just on this one verse alone.  John’s Gospel is like that.  I read a quote from Rev. Charles Spurgeon  that said that this Gospel is “Shallow enough for a child to wade in and deep enough to drown an elephant.”

This means that you can enjoy the story that John tells just on the surface.  And it is a wonderfully dramatic and compelling plot, written with great skill.  But each part is pregnant with spiritual significance. 

And the deeper you look, the more layers can be found underneath.  And there is much to reflect upon, particular about who Christ is.  The Word is Jesus. 

What does it mean that Jesus is the Word of God?

I would like to spend some time with this first verse.  I am not going to be able to expound all of its meaning.  I don’t know if anyone could.  I could write books about the ideas that John, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is trying to convey

You can read the entire article here.

Film Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I have always been lukewarm to the Planet of the Apes franchise, with its pessimistic to nihilistic tone. The bleak hopelessness never really appealed to me, even while I acknowledge the skill of storytelling that many of the installments display.

I felt the same way about the last film. Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Apart from the amazing-as-always Andy Serkis, I found that the movie was nothing to write home about. So it was with little enthusiasm that I went to see the sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

And it is the best movie in the franchise.  This includes the original Heston Classic.

Dawn takes place about a decade after the end of Rise. The simian flu has destroyed most of humanity. The apes, led by Caesar (Serkis) have kept to themselves and we find them working and hunting in primal harmony. But the last remnants of humans led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) incur into ape territory to try one last effort to get electricity for their people. The result is a mounting conflict between humans and apes as there are faction fighting for peace and others aching for war.

While the plot seems simple, it yields incredibly rich results. What makes the stakes so strong is that most of the characters are three-dimensional. While watching both sides of the rising conflict, I completely understood the rationale of all sides. This could have easily devolved into dumb-oppressive humans against freedom-loving apes, as Rise portrayed. But the tension kept increasing because the decisions that most of the characters make, human and ape, are choices we would make in those situations and they can lead tragically to violence. Based on the trailers, I thought that Dreyfuss (Gary Oldman) as the co-leader of the human community was going to be a simple revenge-driven ape hater. But I was so pleasantly surprised to find this wasn't the case. He espouses violence, but he is not a reactionary. He is a wounded man cautious about the safety of his people.

Director Matt Reeves has an incredibly confident style about him, relying on his mastery of visuals to tell the story in a profoundly affective way. He works from an incredibly smart script from Matt Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver. The post-apocalyptic landscape is moody and full of character and foreboding. He relies heavily on the special effects, not so much for spectacle (of which there is plenty) but for emotion, story, and character. The apes speak, but are not nearly as loquacious as the humans. Most of their character has to be conveyed with their non-verbals.

A word here about the ape design and motion capture, which is incredible. The design is fantastic and doesn't fall into the trap of making most of the apes indistinguishable from each other. Caesar is pensive and noble in appearance. Koba (Toby Kebbel), his friend and general, has a scarred and grizzled look. Caesar's son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) looks like midway point between Caesar and Koba: scarred but idealistic. M uch of the drama centers around the fight for Blue Eyes' soul. And several other minor ape characters are immediately recognizable.

The motion capture is some of the best I've ever had. Serkis' skill is diffused to the much of the rest of the cast. Reeves understands that cool-looking CGI must be subservient to real emotion. I cared about Caesar and his struggle. And much of that is based on how effectively the motion capture can convey Serkis' amazing performance. It is one of the best acting jobs I have seen this year and I think that he will once again be snubbed of an Oscar nomination, which he richly deserves. Caesar is a bag of contradictions all rolled into one: he is the leader of a people who has more sympathy for enemy humans than most of his people. He is a warrior who hates violence. And Serkis plays him with incredible conviction and charisma.

As a Catholic, I love how the movie shows the waste of war. So much of human conflict comes from our inability to get along and those agitating elements that desire conflict. Peace seems so close and yet just out of grasp. It also shows how violence and hatred can erode the soul. Without giving too much away, Koba begins as an incredibly sympathetic friend who is haunted by the cruelty of his former human torturers. But he uses that wound to nurture his hatred. It is a stark warning that even justifiable anger can eventually warp the soul if it uses that pain to justify horror.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a fantastic story and excellent mediation of violence set in a bleak, but visually spectacular future. If you only see one Planet of the Apes movie, see this one.

4 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Logic Lessons Pt 12 - Kinds of Definitions

Once we have established the rules for definitions, it important to list the kinds of definitions.

1.  Nominal.
     This is a definition of a word rather than the thing that the word designates.  This means that it the definition is in reference to how a word is used rather than what it is.  A nominal definition is something that Webster is interested in when giving the different ways that word "soul" is used in the English language.  But a real definition is what Plato is interested in when asking question in through his dialogues to discover what is the soul's essence.

Nominal definitions are not true or false.  It is simply a matter of their usage.

Of nominal definitions, they are men to convey
a. Conventional Meanings - this refers what is commonly held as the definition, whether or not it is accurate.  The conventional meaning of "education" is schooling by teachers over students.  But the thing itself is not limited to that.
b.  Specialized Meanings - this refers to definitions agreed upon in a discussion.  For example, if you are trying to define human life, you can say, "Let's stipulate that any creature that has reason is human."  And if you and your interlocutor agree, it is a specialized meaning.
c.  Synonym.  - this is the simple word replacement for an equivalent word.
d.  Etymology - understanding the word's origin as definition.  For example "philosophy" is based on two Greek words "phileo" meaning "love" and "sophia" meaning wisdom."  So philosophy is the "love of wisdom."
e. Examples - These are not strictly definitions but they are helpful to get the idea across to someone.  Try defining the color red.  You'll find t"3-hat more often than anything, you point out red things rather than define the thing itself.

2.  Essential
     This should give the genus and specific difference (or property) of the thing being defined.  This is what Socrates always strove for.  He wanted to understand a thing's essence.

When using a genus, you should use the narrowest of genus available.  You could use the genus "shape" or "plane figure" for "triangle."  "Plane figure" is a narrower genus and so it is preferable.

The specific difference tells us how the thing being defined is different than all the other things in the genus.  "3-Sided, enclosed, whose angles equal 180 degrees" is the specific difference.

Together, the genus and specific difference gives us the species.

For example, the species of human is the animal (genus) that is rational (specific difference).  We are like all the other beasts because we share the fact that we are all animals.  But we are different because we are the only ones who have reason.

3.  By Property.
  This is a quality that flows from the essence.  For example, if you said that "Humans are animals that write poetry," you are defining "humans" by a quality that comes only from its essence.  Since the essence of human beings is that we are rational and only those who have reason have language and only those who have language have poetry, therefore human beings are the animals that write poetry."

4.  By Accidents.
   Accidental properties are changeable, non-essential aspects of a thing.  You could define the "clouds" to a child as "the white things in the sky."  But those qualities of "whiteness" and "in-the-skyness" are not essential to a cloud.  Clouds can be different colors.  They can also be be in other locations.  But even though accidents cannot give you an essential definition, if you add enough of them you can convey a clear picture of the subject another person.

5.  By Efficient Cause.
  This is the an explanation of a things origins.  E.g. "AIDS is a disease caused by HIV."

6.  By Final Cause.
  This defining a thing by the purpose for which it is designed.  E.g. "A pen is an instrument for writing."

7. From  Material Cause
  This is defining a thing by its composition.  E.g. "Water is 2 parts hydrogen and 1 part oxygen."

8.  From Effects.
   This is usually done as a catch-all for something that cannot be defined in any other way than the effect it causes.  E.g. a "carcinogen" is defined as "anything the causes cancer."

Film Review: Jersey Boys

This review will be short, unlike the movie I am reviewing.

Jersey Boys is a "musical" about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.  It is not a musical in the traditional sense of characters breaking into spontaneous song.  This can be done well, as in the movies Once and Begin Again (to be reviewed later).  And to be sure, the music is the best part of this movie.  But the film is long, vulgar, and boring.

The story starts with Tommy Devito (Vincent Piazza) narrating about life in "the neighborhood" in '50's Jersey.  He works for mob boss Gyp Decarlo (Christopher Walken) and is best friends with Frankie (John Lloyd Young).  Tommy is an amoral, two-bit nogoodnick who helps nurture the overly talented Frankie.  Later they meet songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) who is much more clean-cut and wants the group to be about the music.  Bob and Tommy have competing narrations.  Later the other member of the Four Seasons, Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) also chimes in as a moderating perspective.  Ostensibly, the story is about Frankie, but he gets no narration until a few lines at the very end.  The quartet navigate the trials and tribulations of rising to stardom and dealing with the excesses.

The movie is filled with problems.

1.  The characters are just plain unlikeable.  They feel like characters from The Sopranos, with all of their self-centered machismo.  Even Frankie, who is supposed to be the sweet innocent, is actually kind of scummy.  He marries early, but he simply takes it for granted that he should sleep with other women on the road.

2. The movie is too long.  At 134 minutes, it drags and drags.  This is a common problems in movie directed by Clint Eastwood.

3.  It is too episodic.  One of the main problems of biopics is that they tend to wander in the narrative.  It feels like we wander into vignettes about a person's life with no real sense of plot structure.

4.  The women are 1-dimensional.  I know that this is a common problem in film, but the women in the movie are flagrantly used as ornaments to the men in the story and serve no other function as to help shape the emotions of the men.  It is so blatant that it gets quite annoying.

The only saving grace of the movie is the music.  Those songs will be stuck in your head and you will remember with nostalgia how fun it is to listen to Frankie Valli's falsetto.

2 out of 5 stars

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sunday Best: Sitcoms of All Time #17 - Raising Hope

4 Seasons (2010-2014)

I remember watching the pilot to Raising Hope and not being terribly impressed.  The premise was that Jimmy Chance (Lucas Neff) is an idiot slacker son of idiot parents Burt (Garret Dillahunt) and Virginia (Martha Plimpton) who all live in with Jimmy's great grandmother Maw Maw (Cloris Leachman).  Jimmy has a one night stand with a girl who turns out to be a serial killer.  She gives birth to the baby and is executed, leading Jimmy the responsibility to raise the baby, named Hope, with his quirky family.

As dark as that premise is, the film is long on the silly.  And yet the one of the last scenes in the pilot was filled with a lot of surprising heart.

But it didn't hook me, so I let it go.  But then a year later there was an episode with Ashley Tisdale in it.  My wife and I being fans of the High School Musical series, we watched.  And it was fantastic.  So we finished the rest of the season and went back and watch everything that had come before.

Here is the key to understand Raising Hope: it is a smartly written show about stupid people.  There are a lot of low-brow comedies that are low brow because the writers have no wit.  But the creators of Raising Hope use the characters to come up with not only incredibly clever turns of phrase, but deal with complex ideas.  I've never seen a television episode of a sitcom so clearly and succinctly explain the problem of inflation and national borrowing debt in a way that was silly and intelligent at the same time.

On a small note, I liked the fact that the Chances went to church regularly.  Like the Simpsons, they are not saints, but even as they fell short of the Christian ideals, they acknowledged that there was something of value in the faith.

The show was extremely broad in its comedy, with no room for subtlety or any real drama.  But that's okay.  It never intended to have any seriousness to it.  It reveled in its silliness.  And it succeeded in being the type of show it set out to be.

Particularly Plimpton was fantastic as Virginia.  On of my favorite parts of the show was her constant mis-remembering of famous sayings or even common words.

And Dillahunt for me was a breakout star.  His Burt was so full of enthusiasm and sincerity, he through himself completely into whatever excited him.  It was so fun to watch him get excited or upset but lacking the intelligence or vocabulary to explain why.  His complete commitment to the character brought out major laughs.


"Jimmy's Fake Girlfriend" (2x14)
As you can see, Raising Hope has a long threshold.  It begins with Burt and Virginia trying to find a hobby to share in common.  Their are attempts are as varied as they are hysterical.  But the crux of the episode is around Jimmy's love for Sabrina (Shannon Woodward), who has a jerk boyfriend named Wyatt.  This had been the running romantic tension of the series.  But Virginia decides to step up Jimmy's game by making Sabrina jealous.  She gets a local actress, Tisdale, to pretend to be his girlfriend.

The results are not only incredibly funny, but the last 10 minutes are incredibly romantic and sweet with all of the silly energy that this show can muster.

The reason why this is the threshold, is because it reflects back on all that has come before it and you see how the events, the tone, and the style all fit together to create a very nice and humorous journey.  It is easy to mistake Raising Hope as a stinging satire of stupid Americans.  But that is not what it is about.  The Chances may not have brains, but they have heart and they have drive.   You can now go back and see the rest of the series in this warm, comforting light.

"Modern Wedding" (3x14)
The "Moonlighting Curse" referes to a show that loses its luster after the 2 leads end the will-they-won't-they and finally get together.  That didn't happen in Raising Hope until Jimmy and Sabrina get married.  The episode is actually very good and has a lot of heart.  But this radically shifts the dynamic of the show.  Not only do Jimmy and Sabrina no longer live in the funny squalor of the Chance home, but the center of the show shifts from Jimmy raising Hope to the adventures of Burt and Virginia.

This should have been an improvement because Plimpton and Dillahunt are the best and funniest performers on the show.  But because of this, the original main character's adventures are relegated to B-story level and it you feel some of the wind removed from the creative sales.

"I Want My Baby Back, Baby Back, Baby Back." (2x22)
It turns out that Hope's mother survived her execution and she wants custody of her baby.  The result is a loony legal fiasco and a trial that revisits the highlights of the series.  This is the funniest episode of the show that I've watched over and over.

The best part is the ending.  It is one of the only times these show feels like it touches some more serious emotions.  I remember watching and feeling a little surprised by this and touched.  And then it ends with a gag that had me on the floor.


Raising Hope is good television in the sense that you watch an episode and you feel better.  It's goal is simply to get an audience lose themselves in a world sillier than our own and feel the pleasure of some spontaneous laughs.  And that is no bad thing.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Film Flash: Begin Again

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

A charming little movie about people finding healing and redemption through music.

3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Wednesday Comics: Race and Gender in Comic Books

Marvel made an unusual move this week by making a major comic book announcement on The View: The new wielder of the power of Thor is going to be a woman.

Is this Thor being replaced or is this Thor turned into a woman?  We don't know all the details yet, but Marvel's gambit has worked and people who don't really pay attention to comics have taken notice.

But what I would like to address is a trend in comics of changing the race and gender of characters.

Introducing new characters into a title isn't anything new.  The Silver Age brought in new versions of characters like Green Lantern and the Flash.  And then later, even these characters were replaced (at least for a time).  DC introduced a black Green Lantern, John Stewart.  He still serves as a Green Lantern along with Simon Baz, an American of Arabic descent.

Over at Marvel, they replaced Peter Parker in the Ultimate universe with half-black/half-hispanic Miles Morales.  Carol Danvers, known as Ms. Marvel, has taken the previously male role of Captain Marvel.  And now the name Ms. Marvel is being used my an Arab-American girl in her own comic.

The two major companies constantly try to outdo each other in diversity outreach.  It makes sense in an attempt to increase the market by accessing new customers.  One of the primary pulls of the superhero genre is the ability of those (especially the young) to see themselves in the role of the hero.  The more that the character has in common with the reader, the easier it is to identify with them.

I can give you a non-comic book example of this.  When I was younger, I self identified much more with the Asian side of my ethnicity.  As a result, I became very attached to Asian characters in movies and TV.  I watched Bruce Lee's movies over and over.  I loved imagining I was Short Round, accompanying Indy on his adventures.  Now, this didn't mean that I couldn't identify with non-Asian characters, but I can see how the racial or gender component can aid in making that emotional connection.

For the most part, I haven't noticed people in the comic book community very bothered by this.  Most geeks like me see the superhero cannon as a big tent with lots of room.

The problem occurs when they change the race or gender of a character.  For example, Wally West was recently introduced into the New 52.  He is no longer the red-headed family man, but a bi-racial teen.  And now the news of Thor possibly becoming a woman is upsetting to some.

Now, I hesitate even bringing this topic up, seeing as they are hot-button issues and there is already a heightened sense of emotion in this matter.  But it should be addressed.

Giving a superhero code name to someone of a different race or gender is very different than changing the race or gender of the character per se.

The popular internet opinion is that anyone who disagrees with a race/sex change has an objection rooted in racism or sexism.  But I think that is simply a red herring, meant to shame those who have a disagreeing view.

I want to limit my discussion to comic books alone and not to movie and TV adaptation where racial and gender changes are common.  Instead, we have to take the comic genre by itself.  The reason why is that comics are a purely visual medium.

The entire experience of reading a comic book is the visual.  Unlike a movie that employs sound, motion, music, and the like, the only information provided is what you see.  Your imagination has to fill in the details regarding what the character sounds like, what the environment feels like, etc.  Because of this, the visual design and details can be more important than in other media.

We comic book readers become very attached to the way a character looks because that is the most identifiable and unique feature about them.  Changing race and gender in movies and TV adaptions is much more acceptable because of the elements of voice, talent, physical prowess and other qualities that are not needed in depicting a character in a comic book.

This is one of the reasons comic book fans get very opinionated about even the slightest costume change.  Even the smallest change has a strong impact on how you encounter the character.

And then when you change the race or gender, it is obviously a much deeper change.  We are used to people changing clothes, but changing skin color or sex is much more radical.  The reason why is because it would be an intense physical change.  But this is not rooted in any kind of racism or sexism, but with our given expectations of the character.

Imagine a blond Superman?
A male Wonder Woman?
An Asian Luke Cage?

Racial changes are neither good nor bad in and of themselves.  But it is a big change.  To deny that is to   ignore the purely visual nature of comics.  Going back to Wally West, I very much miss his red hair.  But this has nothing to do with his race.  If they kept him caucasian and made him a brunette, it would be just as jarring to me.

Changing sex is a much bigger deal.  Unlike race, sexual differences are rooted in our nature.  And these differences are essential.  You can say that Wally West is the same character no matter his race and it could be true.  But if you say that Thor is the same character no matter his gender, this is incorrect.   I am not saying that you cannot have interesting and entertaining stories about a female wielder of Mjolnir.  But you can't change genders the way you change costumes.

So to sum up, racial and gender changes are big deals because they radically change the look of a character in a medium that is purely visual.  This change is neither good nor bad by its nature but that doesn't change the fact that it is a radical change.  Finally, changing gender is a much bigger deal than changing race because sexual differences changes the character at their essence.


Logic Lessons pt 11 - Rules for Definitions

At our last session we discussed the nature of definitions.  Now here are the rules.

     Definitions must be:

  1. Coextensive with thing defined (neither too narrow nor too broad)
    To define "triangle" as "plane figure" or human as "animal" is problematic because, while true, the definition is too broad.  "Plane figure" could include non-triangles like squares and trapezoids.  "Animal" could include non-humans like orangoutangs, armadillos, and duck-billed platypuses.  

    But to define "triangle" as "3-sided, enclosed plane figure whose interior angles equal 180 degrees and lines are equal to each other," is also problematic because it excludes triangles whose 3 lines are not equal (e.g. right triangles).  To define "human" as "rational male animals" is too limiting because it excludes women from the definition of human.  

    Definitions need to be precise so as not to confuse.  The more precise we are in our definitions, the easier time we will have in talking with each other.  

    This is the hardest of the rules to obey.

    In fact, I just had a phone call from Rick O., who criticized my inclusion of Clerks: The Animated Series into my top 25 sitcoms of all time.  

    The thrust of the argument centered around my criteria (i.e. definition) of what makes a great TV sitcom.  He thought my definition was too broad because Clerks had only 6 episodes and was less in total length than most movies.  I said his definition was too narrow, because there were many great shows that only last a short amount of time (Firefly, Freaks and Geeks).  

    By the end of the discussion, he understood my reasoning a little better.  "Your thinking is consistent," he concluded, "but awful."  The point is that even though we disagreed, we at least understood each other better because we were better able to define more precisely our definitions and articulate how we thought the other violated this first rule.

  2. Clear, not obscure
    Clarity in definition is important.  If you say that a "quarvat" is "an 8523rd century version of a Gravity Rod," you have a coextensive definition, but unless you are fan of James Robinson's writing, the definition is too obscure to matter.  Clarity requires you to put the commons sense of the definition as plainly as possible and as accessibly as possible.

  3. Literal, not metaphorical
    "Writing a novel is like giving birth."  There is great truth in that statement, but that is a terrible definition of novel writing.  "Lies are a tangled web."  Again, a true aphorism, but it is a bad definition because it uses metaphor.  I know now what writing a novel and lies are like, but I don't, from these definition, know what they are.

  4. Brief, not long
    This may not always be possible.  But you want to give the simplest version of the definition because it will be the easiest to understand and therefore the easiest to either accept of refute.

  5. Positive, not negative (if possible)
    Negative definitions tend to be too broad.  If you say "human" is "any creature that is not rational" becomes problematic because it excludes angels.  

    The only time to use a negative definition is for something negative.  "Darkness" can only be defined by a negative: "Absence of light."  "Never" = "Not ever."

  6. Not Circular: term defined cannot appear in the definition
    If I were to say that a "quarvat" is a "quarvat-shaped object," you will not have learned anything because you are using the word you are trying to define inside of your definition.  You need to predicate something new about your subject in a definition in order for it to have any meaning.

    Next time we will go over kinds of definitions.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Film Flash: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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

Best Planet of the Apes movie.  Great, complex characters and plot. Serkis needs an Oscar.

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday Best: Sitcoms of All Time #18 - Clerks: The Animated Series

1 Season (2000)

Like Andy Barker PI, Clerks is one of the shortest series on this list, lasting only 6 episodes.  It never had a chance hit its stride, but it also never had a chance to lose any of its steam.

Based on Kevin Smith's debut directorial effort, Clerks takes place primarily in and around the the Quick Stop wear our protagonist, the pit upon Dante Hicks works in a dead end job next the video store where his childhood friend Randall works. Throw in other View Askew regulars like Jay and Silent Bob along with recurring villain Leonardo Leonardo, create for a strange, but hilarious brew.

I used to be a fan of the original Clerks movie.  As I've gotten older it's raw vulgarity is wears in me. But the cartoon show forced Smith to fit his humor into a network television format.  There are some who have argued that this censorship stifled his natural funniness. I disagree. The censoring forced him to be more creative and achieve humor that lasts beyond the I total shock humor.  I believe that if Clerks had a chance to continue, it had the potential to become another Simpsons.

The show had a completely silly feels with a pulse on the pop culture which is more common today than when it debuted in 2000.  The jokes were broad but witty. It also seriously doubled down on its geek cred. I never saw a show that came up with a plot that mashed together Temple if Doom and The Last Starfighter

"The Clipshow Wherein Dante and Randal are Locked in the Freezer and Remember Some of the Great Moments in Their Lives" (1x02)

Perhaps other shows did this, but I thought the premise was fantastic: on the second episode of your series, do a clip show. This device, usually used in a 3rd season slump, gives the production team a break by splicing together funny moments from earlier eps. But Clerks twists the trope by doing it so early (this was actually the first episode to air). Not only was it pure ridiculousness, but the clips were actually quite hysterical, down to the Stand By Me ending.


Again like Andy Barker, because the run was so short, the show never had a chance to jump the shark. The show and it's ideas may have eventually been played out. But it never did.

Every single episode is completely hysterical. Even though it had a short life, I can still quote some of its best jokes (understood in context):

Dante: Why are we walking like this?

Randall: Hey, Lando.
Lando: Hey.

Big Mac: Nothing can kill the Grimace.

Every episode is great. Very few series can say that. And for that reason Clerks is one of the best sitcoms of all time.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Film Flash: Jersey Boys

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

Like a musical episode of The Sopranos (that's not a compliment).  

2 out of 5 stars

Film Review: Transformers - Age of Extinction

It is hard for me to be disappointed by a Transformers movie because, honestly, I expect so little from them.

The last 3 movies have been tolerable spectacles.  I enjoyed the action but cringe at every scene with Shia LeBouf.  It isn't entirely his fault.  The part of Sam was terribly written, as was everyone in his life.  But I enjoyed the good parts of Transformers and ignored the bad parts.  Director Michael Bay knows how to make a movie visually dynamic, but his movies often have other deficits.

The usual critiques of the Transformers films were these:

1.  The human characters are stupid
2.  The comedy is too silly
3.  The Transformers are indistinguishable from each other.

Usually by the fourth movie in a series, you hit a low in terms of quality (Alien 4, Jaws the Revenge…).

But Transformers: Age of Extinction is the best Transformers yet.

The plot takes place years after the Battle of Chicago from Dark of the Moon.  A division of the government as turned on all Transformers, Autobot and Decepticon.  With the help of the mysterious Transformer Lockdown, the Autobots are being hunted.  Struggle single dad and Texas handyman/inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), discovers a derelict truck that he intends to strip for parts, but turns out to be Optimus Prime.  This leads to a series of events that has Cade and Optimus on the run and hunting their hunters.

My biggest critique of the movie is that it is way too long.  At nearly 3 hours, the film drags in ways it shouldn't.  Many sequences and story lines could have been cut to get it down to a lean 2 hours.

But other than that, this movie is head and shoulders above its predecessors.

It fixes the above problems.

Wahlberg is a breath of fresh air after watching LeBouf's twitchy performance.  Instead of a man-child who metrosexually stumbles his way through the action, Wahlberg is the epitome of can-do masculinity and plays believably as a human fighting along side giant robots.  It is a nice tonal shift from following Sam's journey to adulthood into Cade's struggles as a man with responsibilities.  The supporting characters don't meet Wahlberg's level.  His daughter (Nicola Peltz), her boyfriend (Jack Reynor), and Steve Jobs-lite Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), are still a bit to bland.  Kelsey Grammar, however, delivers a deliciously evil and serious performance as CIA Black Ops leader Harold Attinger.  Peltz particularly serves as this movie's eye candy, which is strange.  We are supposed to identify with Cade's frustration as his daughter acting wild and rebellious as he lectures her on inappropriate dressing, and yet the camera lingers on her body.  Oh, and she's plays a 17-year-old, so it feels kind of icky.

And while the comedy is just a little much on the side of silly in this film, it is much more serious than in the previous ones.  The banter between Cade and his daughter's boyfriend is particularly fun.  But the movie wisely tones down the slapstick.  There is no 10 minute sequence of Autobots hiding in a backyard.  And this movie wisely starts killing characters, something the other Transformers movies were hesitant to do.  But with character deaths in the first act, it gives the movie more tension and weight.

But one of the best improvements was the character design on the Autobots.  Instead of dozens of indistinguishable robots, there are only 5 Autobot heroes, each with their own distinct voices, shapes, colors, and attitudes.  The standout is John Goodman as Hound.  Reminiscent of Tom Siezmore's character in Saving Private Ryan, he's an old violent veteran who cracks wise in the face of battle while fragging dozens of enemies.  Each Autobot occupies a very specific character space and it makes for nice chemistry.  The new enemy Lockdown is what Shockwave from the last movie should have been: ruthless, calculating, unrelenting.

The story is convoluted, but it involves the creators of the Transformers and Dinobots.  The latter only show up towards the end of the movie, but they are a real visual treat.  Their entrance into the story doesn't make a lot of sense and it feels like there is a storyline missing that explains them.  But by that point it doesn't matter.  To see Optimus Prime riding a fire-breathing Grimlock… 80's child heaven!

Speaking of Optimus, this is his movie.  I have never seen this character his PO'd.  And it works so well.  We feel his dilemma.  He fought and sacrificed so much for humans (or as he always says, "huuuumans.").  And in return they have killed his friends and hunted him.  He feels betrayed.  He is betrayed.  But with that rage we see a powerful, aggressive, kick-butt side to him that is so much darn fun to watch play out on the screen.

If you've given up on Transformers movies, give this one a shot.  It may seem like mindless action but, pardon the phrase, its more than meets the eye.

4 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Casting Call Poll Results: The New Indiana Jones

This was an interesting poll.

Of the choice given, there was a tie between two.  And they were by far and away far above the other choices.  They were Nathan Fillion and Josh Holloway.

So I did something I had not done before:  I had a run-off vote.  And to my surprise, it wasn't even close.  The CatholicSkywalker blog readers have chosen as their new Indiana Jones:

photo by Kristin Dos Santos
Josh Holloway!

I think is an excellent, non-obvious choice that has tremendous possibilities.  Now if only Hollywood listens to us like they did about Batffleck....

New Evangelizers Post: Prayer is Not Magic

I have a new article up at

“I prayed, but nothing happened.”

How often have we heard these words?  Maybe they came from someone in an argument about faith.  Maybe they came from a child trying to understand God’s plan.  Or maybe these words came from ourselves as we struggled with our faith.

We are often told about the power of prayer.  Christ told us to pray all the time.  He said that by prayer and fasting, demons could be expelled and miracles could occur.  And to be sure we can find stories of miraculous events occurring because of the power of prayer.
So why doesn’t it work all the time?  I mean, Jesus said that whatever I ask for in His Name, the Father will give me.  I once asked in Jesus’ name that a girl I liked in college would date me.  She didn’t.  So what the heck?

And I know that was a silly example.  Sometimes we ask for the health of a loved one or the return of a child to the faith.  Sometimes we pray for signs of God’s existence seem to go unanswered.  

Couldn’t God answer all of these prayers with His miraculous power?  Every time I ask for health, couldn’t God cure me?  

The answer, of course, is yes.

So why doesn’t God do it? If prayer really has power, then why doesn’t it work all the time?

The simplest answer is this: prayer is not magic.

You can read the entire article here.