Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sunday Best: Sitcoms of All Time #4 - Community


Community is a cult.

At least that is what my friend Rick O. says about those of us who are fans of the show.

We Community devotees speak in a kind of Greendale shorthand when they talk with each other, with the different references opening up a cornucopia of inside jokes.

It is strange that a show that started out in such a generic fashion should be so fanatically embraced.  But to anyone who watched the show through the first three seasons, we saw a metamorphosis that opened up the show into something never seen on television.

There are 3 reasons why Community is so high on this list, this low-rated, nearly dead show:

1.  Genre-breaking:  The show is a master's class in movie/tv genres.  In fact, in the film class that I teach I do not have time to show movies in all of the major genres.  Instead, I use episodes of Community because of the show's mastery of how to move the camera for a fantasy adventure or use the lighting in a zombie horror film.  And it isn't simply a matter of being showy.  Yes, it gets a bit meta.  But the use of the genre is a means to deliver the story.  Video games are used to explore familial tension, the Western is used to express betrayal, GI Joe is used to wrestle with fear of aging.  The genre-breaking is not an end in itself but serves a high story function.

2.  Deep Jokes:  By "deep" I don't mean profound, although it has its share of those ("I think not being racist is the new racism.")

By this I mean deep background jokes.  The most famous of which is the Beetlejuice joke which was 3 years in the making:

Inside jokes are always a trade off because they keep new viewers at a distance but it rewards those who watch regularly.  And Community builds its jokes deep across the series.  And the further in you go, the the more rewarding the jokes.  When you hear them you feels streets ahead.

3.  Thematic Richness:  The show is silly, there is no question about that.  But Dan Harmon, the creator, uses the wackiness to say something about life and friendship and love.  I especially love the arc of Jeff Winger (played by the mighty Joel McHale as an obvious nod to Bill Murray) in the first 3 seasons.  Particularly, it was amazing to watch Jeff start in the pilot with his defense of moral relativism and end up at a place at the end of season 3 bringing up that exact conversation and understanding how Greendale has taught him that there are real and good things in this world.

As a Catholic I recognize how much growing the characters still need to do.  But I love the fact that show starts by taking a character who believes that there is no such thing as truth to a place where he has been changed by the love of others (or his "Community" if you will).  And Shirley (Brown) is one of the best mainstream portrayal of a devout Christian I've seen in modern television.  She is not above mocking and she has her faults like all of us.  But the show actually uses her faith in a fairly respectful way.  I particularly love the storyline where she and her husband come to reconcile and discuss the nature of marriage.

And the work of the writers is fantastic, as well as the directing of the Russo Brothers (who eventually went on to direct Captain America: The Winter Soldier).  And the cast was fantastic.  Besides McHale, Gillian Jacobs, Danny Pudi, Yvette Nicole Brown, Donald Glover, Chevy Chase, Jim Rash, Ken Jeong, and Jonathan Banks create one of the funniest casts I've ever seen on television.

"Debate 109 (1x09)

This episode has a fantastic mix of all of the strangeness that is Community.  It focuses on Jeff and Annie (Brie) learning from each other on how to be better.  This is also the first episode that real sets those two characters apart to show their amazing chemistry.

It also has the horrible insanity of Abed (Pudi) predicting the future with his movies.  It is so outrageous and strange that you can't help but buy into it, especially when Shirley sees the scene where she gets attacked by a werewolf.

This is the episode where the show really begins to feel different than all of the other shows out there.  If you fall in love with this show at this point, you are in for life.

"Paranormal Parentage" (4x02)

Season 4 is often understood as the "lost" season of Community.  Creator and show runner Dan Harmon was famously fired from his won show after season 3.  As a result, the fourth season just feels… off.  To paraphrase what a good friend of mine said about the Steven Moffat-run Doctor Who, this season of Community feels less like Community and more like Community fan fiction.  It has all of the parts and all of the actors, but the spark is missing something.  This is strange especially since it was directed by Tristam Shapeero, who directed several previous episodes.

The first episode of the season was sub-par, but it had its moments.  But in this episode, everything felt a little cheaper, a little cheesier, and just a little faker.  I know that last one might sound strange considering how crazy earlier episodes were, but I felt like I was watching a low budget parody of Community.

Not all of the episodes in this season are terrible (I particularly love the puppet episode).  And Harmon did return for the 5th season, but the show still hasn't reach the greatness of the first 3 seasons.

Here's hoping for the 6th on Yahoo Screens.

"Remideal Chaos Theory" (3x03)

This is a marvel of writing, directing, and acting.  I am so in awe of the sophistication of the plot structure.

In this episode, Troy (Glover) and Abed are throwing a housewarming party at their apartment.  And then the buzzer rings and someone has to go get the pizza.  In order to decide Jeff rolls a die and says whosever number comes up has to get the pizza.  Abed says that Jeff is creating 6 different timelines.

What follows is sweet insanity.  We get different vignettes showing what would happen to the group if a different person got the pizza.  What is amazing about it is they show how the slightest change to the circumstances radically and logically alters the entire story.

It is brilliant and mind-blowing.  And it is also hysterical (especially the burning troll).


It is hard to describe Community to someone who has never really experienced it.  It is especially difficult to explain its brilliance to someone who only saw episodes in the 4th season.

But I have never seen a show like Community in all my years of TV watching.

And I don't think I ever will again.

Cool cool cool.


Saturday, November 29, 2014

New Evangelizers Post: The Church Uses Live Ammo

I have a new article up at

I’ve observed a general feeling in much of the world today that looks at the Catholic Church as an outdated group with quaint, if not retrograde, beliefs that just can’t leave well enough alone.

“Who cares if people of the same sex want to get ‘married?’  How does that hurt me?”

“What’s the big deal with allowing divorced and remarried people (without annulment) to receive Eucharist?  If it makes them feel more connected to the God, then why not?

“Why shouldn’t a priest be allowed to report child molesters who confess to them?  

Wouldn’t it be irresponsible not to do so?”

I’m sure you could think of more questions like these that you’ve encountered in your discussions about the Catholic Church.  We are cast as moral busybodies who cannot get with the times.

The thing is that I can completely understand objections like this.  They make total and complete sense…IF the Church is just a Church made by man.  

But of course, we know that it is not.  It is the Church of God.  And God uses live ammo.

You can read the entire article here.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Trailer Time: Star Wars - The Force Awakens Teaser

So here it is, the first official footage of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens!

First thoughts:

1.  Not what I was expecting (and that is not a bad thing)
2.  Very clearly a JJ Abrams Star Wars.  It has his feel all over this much more than Lucas.
3.  I want that new lightsaber.
4.  I wanted to see the original cast more than the new people.
5.  Stormtroopers seem much more important in this one.
6.  That last shot gave me thrills and chills
7.  We have to wait another YEAR!!!!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving 2014

I just read Lincoln's Thanksgiving Day Proclamation.  He was the President who established that Thanksgiving should be at the last Thursday of November.

What amazed me was that it was written during our nation's worst war: brother against brother.  And yet even in all of this, Lincoln understood how important it was to give thanks to God for all of His blessings even in the midst of great destruction.

So my prayer for all of you is that you have a blessed Thanksgiving and can fully enjoy all of God's blessings to us.

Washington, D.C.
October 3, 1863
By the President of the United States of America.
A Proclamation.
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.
By the President: Abraham Lincoln
William H. Seward,
Secretary of State

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sunday Best: Sitcoms of All Time #5 - The Big Bang Theory


A couple of years ago I had emergency surgery and I had to convalesce on my couch for a few days.  The one piece of entertainment that made the time pass nicely was The Big Bang Theory.

The Big Bang Theory is my comfort show.  It is bread and butter.  It is simple and satisfying.

I have a friend of mine whose taste I very much respect who says that she uses The Big Bang Theory as a filter show: if people like it, she decides that have bad taste.  She critiqued the show as having broad, flat characters and an undertone of misogyny.

If you look at other shows by producer Chuck Lorre, you can see a similar pattern.  Two and 1/2 Men is a tired show that is a unfunny as it is lame.  I would also say the same thing about his other shows, Mike and Molly, Mom, etc.  And for the first 3 years I felt somewhat the same way about The Big Bang Theory.

I watched the show because it was one of the few mainstream shows that new its stuff regarding geek culture.  They knew that Wednesday is New Comic Book Day and that Jay Garrick was the Golden Age Flash in the Justice Society of America.  Outside of local geek dens and internet forums, you did see this as often.

So for several years I watched, less invested in the show and more enjoying the inside jokes.

And if that's all there was to the show, I would also have eventually thrown it on the trash heap of Lorre shows.

But around Season 3, the show slowly began to change.  Instead of being simply "Four Geeks and a Hot Chick," the show added more elements and relationships.  While Jim Parsons, Johnny Galecki, Kaley Cuoco, Simon Helberg, and Kunal Nayar all have their strong comedic talent, the addition of Melissa Rauch and Mayim Bialick breathed new life into the show.  It shifted it to being simply about 4 man-boys in their arrested development and it became a true comedy of relationships.

And it was here that The Big Bang Theory finally found its way out of being a niche program and touched on something universal.  In a few years several of the pop culture references on the show are going to be too obscure to be funny.  But beneath that is a big beating heart that mines comedy from the experience man and woman.

The comedy is broad.  There is no question about that.  But that is not a sin.  Sometimes a pleasant and enjoyable laughing diversion is exactly what the doctor ordered.

But what separates this show even more from Lorre's other shows is character development.  You don't really see a lot of change in these flat characters in the first few years.  But look at them now.  Sheldon stiller retains much of his quirks, but he has grown.  I especially look at the character of Howard.  I hated him for several years.  He was a lecherous jerk who reveled in his perversions (even frequenting prostitutes).  But he has grown up.  More on this later.


(this is from my original post on 10/3/13)
"The Creepy Candy Coating Corollary."  (3x09)

This episode had just the perfect mixture of jokes and funny characters including:

-the introduction of Bernadette
-the introduction of Will Wheaton
-Sheldon quoting Kahn
-Sheldon quoting Kirk in Wrath of Kahn

And it has, for me, one of the funniest moments in the shows history.  Check out the clip below (skip to 0:49 for the joke)

It was hear that things really began to click and The Big Bang Theory started to become appointment watching, and not "I'll catch later on Tivo" watching.  The show got better by adding Bernadette as a permanent cast member and also bringing on Amy.

I should also note the moment I went from really liking to loving this show.  It was an episode in Season 5 called "The Stag Convergence" where Howard has his bachelor party and Bernadette finds out all the perverted things he used to do.  Her disgust summed up a lot of my disgust from earlier seasons.  But then Howard shows up and gives one of the best monologues I've seen on television, because it really encapsulated how Howard and the show itself had grown:

I can now look back on those earlier episodes and enjoy them, because I know that the characters are going to get better.  As a Catholic I had a really hard time staying with a show where characters engaged in such horribly perverse behavior.  But they are growing out of that.  They are slowly being redeemed away from selfish pleasure and giving in to love.



As of right now, the show has not yet jumped the shark (though I am not crazy about Penny's hair this season).


"The Recombination Hypothesis" (5x13)

This was the 100th episode of the series.  SPOILERS AHEAD.

Penny and Leonard had dated and then broken up.  The episode begins with Leonard staring into her apartment as she, Bernadette, and Amy are unpacking some things.  Suddenly, Leonard comes in and asks her on a date again.

What follows is not only incredibly funny but incredibly painful.  Their attraction and affection draw them together but their differences pull them apart.  

Leonard asks Penny why they are doing this because every scenario in his head ends badly.  Penny responds that Leonard over thinks everything.  Suddenly, we are caught back to the scene where Leonard was staring in at Penny and we realize the whole episode was Leonard working out all the pros and cons of getting back together.  

Honestly, when that happened, I was expecting a typical cynical ending.  Instead, Leonard goes in and asks Penny on a date.  She asks, "Have you thought about this?"  He responds, "Yes, but I think we should do it anyway."

And this moment reminded me of something CS Lewis wrote about Romantic Love.  Even if we know that it will end tragically, the heart cannot help but want it.  Eros cries out "Let our hearts break, so long as they break together."  

For a show that specializes in jokes about Klingon Boggle and Wil Wheaton, I was surprisingly moved.


To this day, The Big Bang Theory is my comfort show.  I have loved watching the characters grow up with all of the silly struggles along the way.

The Big Bang Theory is not trying to change culture or change television.  It is simply trying (and succeeding) to add more mirth to the world.  And I have returned to episode after episode fully caught up in the silliness.


Monday, November 17, 2014

Reaching Past the Stars - A Catholic Reflection on Interstellar Part I: Love and Gravity

This is not a review of Christopher Nolan's Interstellar.

For that, you can read my review written earlier.

And this is not an exegesis of Nolan's story.  I have no idea if any of the Christian elements I found were intentional or not.  Though what fan of CS Lewis who saw the mountainous waves of Miller's planet and did not think of Perelandra?

Rather, this article is about how Interstellar has affected me and made me reflect on some elements of Catholic theology and life.

Be warned, in order to speak cogently there are MAJOR SPOILERS IN THE REST OF THE ARTICLE.  Please only read on if you have seen the movie.

1.  Gravity and Love.

CS Lewis fought against a reductionist view of the world.  Too often, we try to take the great things about life and reduce them to the smallest possible parts.  Freudians for example said that belief in God is just a subconscious need for a father figure or that love was simply a sublimated desire for sex.

Lewis said that while that sounded fine, there was no logical reason why it had to be this way.  For example, we think of human beings inventing words and then ornamenting them with poetry and ornamenting that poetry with music.  But Lewis (influenced by Tolkien no doubt) asked why it couldn't be the other way around.  Perhaps music is the original language and that poetry is fallen music and that prose is fallen poetry.

If God is the great and harmonious artist, then shouldn't the world look like this?

I bring this up because Dr. Peter Kreeft once said the same thing about love.  If God is love, should the universe be at its core a reflection of that love?  And if it does, how is it reflected in the physical world?  Kreeft answer to that is simple: gravity.

Gravity is the attraction between objects.  Love is also attraction.  Love calls us to unification.  Gravity pulls us closer together.  Love moves our hearts and souls; Gravity moves our bodies, both human and heavenly.

At first, I thought this was just a flight of fancy or creative theology by a sophisticated mind like Kreeft's.

But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense.  I'm not saying I completely agree with him yet.  But the more evidence we learn about how essential gravity is to the universe, the more Kreeft makes sense.

This takes us to Interstellar.  The two forces that are most at work here are love and gravity.

Gravity bends time and space.  Gravity pulls all the objects towards each other and gravity manipulates the events of the film.  It is a gravitational anomaly that first brings Cooper to NASA.  Dr. Brand says that the problem of gravity needs to be solved in order to save humanity.

And it is love, with its pull, that shapes the entire story.  The love that Cooper has for Murph is an irresistible pull that draws him home.  Amelia is in love with Edmunds and she argues that it has to have a meaning.  Love has to have a deeper significance than simple biochemical reactions in the brain.  Simple evolution does not explain the love we experience.

And that is the point: love is gravity.  Gravity is love.

The reason why Brand could not solve the problem of gravity is that he did not have enough love.  He gave up hope, he gave up on the love for the people on earth.  Murph was able to solve the problem of gravity because she let the pull of her father's love draw her back to the answer.

Love and gravity must be accepted.  Cooper must let go and let the gravity of Gargantua pull him into the black hole.  If he did not let gravity (love) take him, then he would not have been able to help his daughter solve the problem of gravity (love).

And even in the end, love is constantly drawing Cooper forward.  With Amelia out there, love (gravity) pulls him out into the future.

Love (gravity) shapes the universe on not just a physical but a metaphysical level.  This makes complete and total sense since God is love.

In my next article, we will look at Interstellar's non-linear view of time and how it relates to the Catholic view of God.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Film Flash: Big Hero 6

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

A fun superhero cartoon, though not as nostalgic as Wreck-It-Ralph or as magical as Frozen.

3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Sunday Best: Sitcoms of All Time - Importance vs. Greatness

Before I finish my list of greatest sitcoms of all time, I thought it was appropriate to visit the issue of importance vs. greatness.

Some of my friends have been taken aback by some of the absences so far from the list and have been surprised by some of my more obscure choices.  But when reading this list it is important to remember:

Importance ≠ Greatness.

First, we have to understand what we mean by importance.  Usually it means that the show has a strong impact either on the medium or on society as a whole.  But that does not mean that the work is therefore of a high or good quality.

The example I like to use is Star Trek vs. Star Trek: The Next Generation.  As Wayne said, "like Star Trek: The Next Generation. In many ways it's superior but will never be as recognized as the original."

No on can deny the influence Star Trek has had on not only televised science fiction but also on science in the real world.  How many people were inspired to pursue science because of the wonder they felt at watching Kirk and his crew go where no man had gone before.

But if you look at it in terms of pure quality of acting, spectacle, directing, etc, I believe many would say that The Next Generation is a better show, though less important.

For this list, I am looking at the best sitcoms of ALL TIME.  One of the big drawbacks of a show if it is cutting edge and modern.  That is because the modern becomes dated very quickly.  As CS Lewis said something akin to: nothing is so quickly out of fashion that that which is in fashion.

One sitcom that is not on my list, to the chagrin of more than a few, is All in the Family.

There is no doubt that this is an important show.  It brought up subjects that were taboo in that day like racial strife and sexual assault.  It spawned many imitators and spinoffs.  To this day, many shows still use the Bunkers as a model of sitcom success.  And to be sure there are many admirable qualities to this show, not the least of which is Carol O'Connor's amazing performance as Archie Bunker.  It is a further testament to its impact that Archie's chair is currently residing in the Smithsonian Institute.

But in its overwhelming desire to be cutting edge, the show firmly planted itself in its own era.  The show is dated in a way that works against it.  Most shows are set in a very specific time or place, but All in the Family wanted to say something about "today."  But now, "today" is "yesterday" and it doesn't speak as strongly as it once did.  The urgency of topics such as the ERA and interracial dating don't have the same impact because the ERA is dead and most people don't care about two people of different races dating.

The way a show sidesteps this problem is to make the show more universal.  Yes, hairstyles and pop culture references will pin it down in the timeline somewhat.  But if the humor and themes are universal, then it can transcend its place and time.

The difficulty with any judgment of how well a current show will hold up in the future is that none of us knows.  We can only guess.  There are always things that used to make us laugh that we simply outgrow or move on from.  This list is constantly open to revision, as it should be as I grow and (hopefully) mature.  But from my vantage point here at the tail end of 2014, this is how I see things.

Now, even though I respect popular opinion, I am not a pure populist.  Just because a show is revered or successful does not make it great.  Full House was awful but had high ratings.  Freaks and Geeks was cancelled after only 10 episodes, but I defy anyone not to watch it and be in awe of the fact that they managed to make every character three-dimensional and real.

But I strive not to fall into the hipster trap of elevating things because they are obscure.  I don't dislike something because it many people like it.  I remember someone once said to me that they refused to see Titanic in the theaters because everyone else they know had seen it.  It was their way of showing that they couldn't be influenced.  But they didn't see the irony that other people did make the decision for them, it was only a negative decision: a decision not to see it.

I know that some of my choice have been a bit off the beaten path (I am still catching flack about Clerks).  But it is only because I truly believe that they are still funny, regardless of how popular or unpopular they were.

So as we get down to the final five, keep in mind that there are many important shows that have not and will not show up on this list.

If they do, it will only be because they are great.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Film Review: Interstellar

This is Christopher Nolan's most ambitious film in scope and depth.  And it soars to great heights like few movies can.

But Nolan's ambition exceeds his grasp.  (more on this later)

The story centers around Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) a former pilot who is trying to survive in the not-too-distant future where something called "the Blight" has slowly destroyed most of the world's food supply and turned Earth into a dustbowl.  He has turned in his flightsuit for farmer's clothes and he raises corn with his teenage son Tom (Timothee Chalamet) and 10-year-old daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), along with the father of his dead wife (Jon Lithgow).

Through a series of events, Cooper finds a secret NASA project that is looking to save humanity by finding a habitable planet.  A wormhole has appeared near Saturn that opens to a solar system in another galaxy.  A dozen astronauts went before to explore possible habitable worlds orbiting a black hole called Gargantua.  Only 3 sent signals for possible habitable planets.  Cooper is asked to lead a group of scientists including Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway) and a robot named TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) to find a habitable world.  But because of relativity, time will pass more slowly for him, so he may never return or might not return in time to see his children again.

I don't want to speak more about the plot, which is wonderfully complex and has several twists and turns.  But as in most great movies, things never go as planned.

The stakes are high and Nolan wisely keeps raising them as the movie progresses.  And unlike a lot of movies with a forgone conclusion, you never lose your sense of impending calamity.

This Nolan's most emotional movie.  That isn't to say that his other movies are cold, but there is a strong level of restraint to his character's feelings in films like Memento or Inception.  But this is new territory for him.  And McConaughey more than delivers on the part.  He conveys not only strong and believable intelligence, but his heart is on his sleeve, especially when it comes to his children.  You can feel the tearing of his heart as he is put into an impossible situation and must deal with the pain of leaving.  Cooper, like Cobb in Inception, only wants to get home to his children.  But Interstellar surpasses that catharsis because of the raw power of the father's love and his desperation to return home that we see because of Nolan and McConaughey.  These deeply emotional scenes are still sticking with me a week after seeing Interstellar.  He touched on something primal in the heart.

The other actors are also fantastic.  Hathaway brings great resolve and strength to the role without falling into the trap of being masculine.  Irwin's delivery as TARS is one of the most delightful parts of the script.  Michael Caine as Brand's father, a scientist who must solve the problem of gravity to save humanity, brings resolve, depth, and sorrow to every scene he's in.  Wes Bently and David Gyasi also add some important humanity to the mission.  There is a surprisingly famous actor who comes around late in the movie, but I think that it was one of the best performances from them in recent years.

The script is wonderful in its exploration of deep themes.  This isn't just a visual spectacle.  Make no mistake, the look of the film is spectacular and I was drawn in completely by the world that Nolan makes.  But he uses that as a backdrop to discuss and explore things like exploration itself,  the nature of love, human capacities of good and evil.  As a Catholic, I saw reflected what we believe about us: little less than gods but broken by original sin.  Nolan deals with these ideas with a grown up sensibility and treats the material with great maturity.  And the ideas are not flights of philosophical flourish.  They are integral to the story.  The ideas matter.  That is one of the things that I love most about Nolan's movies: ideas matter.

But the design of the film does not suffer because of the intellectual pursuit.  The ships, the planets, the technology... it all is stunning.  I am particularly crazy about the design of the robots.  Too often the robots in movies are humanoid.  Nolan's design is brilliant in the opposite direction.  Here, the robots are obelisk-like rectangles with moving parts to help them walk and do labor.  One of the most interesting and refreshing parts of this is that Nolan allows you to feel a connection to the robots and he gives them personality, but he never lets you forget that they are not living creatures on the same level as humans.  They are like Wilson from Castaway: less a reflection of humanity but of humanity's ability to empathize.

And this points to one of the movie's great strengths: originality.  Not only do his robots feel fresh, but his post-apocalypse is like nothing I've ever seen.  It amazed me how normal everything seemed.  Even with massive calamities and food problems and dust storms, people still had parent/teacher conferences and go to ball games.  (As a side note, I love Nolan's little dig at modern teaching textbooks regarding the moon landing).  His future feels tangible in a way that few others do.  It feels just around the corner.  I haven't encountered that in a good long while.

 Now, the film's main deficit lies in its final act and resolution.  I will attempt to be as vague as possible, but it is nearly impossible to express my reservations without getting into the 3rd act.


Nolan's favorite film is 2001: A Space Odyssey, a movie that I detest.  And the DNA of that movie is layered throughout Interstellar, no more so than the final act.  Here, I believe is where the movie will either stand or fall with viewers.  Like Dave in 2001, Cooper goes on a mystical, metaphysical trip.  Unlike 2001, Interstellar attempts to explain to the audience what is happening.  I think Nolan was afraid people wouldn't understand what was happening with Cooper's cosmic odyssey, so he spends too much time here.  The causes the movie, which was moving along at a brisk pace even with a 3-hour running time, to screech to a halt.  The emotional truth of the scene is strong, but here was the one time I felt pulled out of the film and I couldn't help but roll my eyes a little.  I understand that Nolan was saying something profound about love and gravity (which actually as a Catholic reader of Dr. Peter Kreeft was amazingly deep), but I don't think the execution was quite what it should have been.  I wanted it to work, but I think he reached just a little too high and he just missed the mark.

After this, the resolution is a bit too drawn out.  Also in the end, Nolan tries to shift the central emotional relationship to something else.  This would be acceptable, but the relationship that he ends on did not have enough emotional set up in the first 2 acts.   The end is an inverse of the formula for the rest of the movie: the finale makes intellectual sense but does not have the same emotional punch.


Interstellar is not a perfect movie.  It has its flaws and it fails to fully cash the thematic check it writes in the first 2 acts.  But it is still one of the best movies I've seen this year.  It reminds me of a quote.

"Shoot for the moon.  Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars."

4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

New Evangelizers Post: Infectious Sin

I have a new article up at

We had an Ebola scare in my region of the country.  Before all of the facts were out, there was a lot of confusion and nervous laughter as people joked about the disease all the while masking their fear.

I asked my students to imagine that someone in our class came down with Ebola and the entire school was dismissed so that it could be decontaminated.  I again asked them to imagine returning to my classroom and asking if the room had been cleaned and I had told them, “It has been 98% cleaned!”
What do you think their reaction was?  What would your reaction be?

Most of my students said that they would refuse to enter, even with only a 2% area of possible contamination.  Why?  Because even the smallest part of the disease could infect and kill.

And the same is true with sin.

In the Bible, God would sometimes put entire populations under the “herem” or “the ban.”  In these cases, the Israelites were commanded to kill all that lived there: men, women, children, and livestock…all of it.  

Why did God order the death off all that lived in those areas?  Because they were infected with deep and pernicious sin.  If these people coexisted with the Israelites, that sin would have infected them and destroyed their spirits.  That is not what might have happened.  It is what didhappen over and over in the Old Testament.  

These passages often give believers a bit of discomfort when reading them.  St. Augustine back in the 4th century was no different.  But it wasn’t until he met St. Ambrose that he was taught to look deeper into the Scripture to find the spiritual message.

In our own lives, we have sin.  Some sin for us is a source of guilt and struggle.  But some sin we excuse and accept.  We wink at our little pet vices.  “Oh, I’m just a creature of habit.”  “Oh, I have a little bit of a temper.”  “Oh, I only get drunk at weddings.”
When Christ came He did so to take away the sins of the world.  All sins. 

We come to the Lord and surrender to Him not just the mortal sins, but all the vices that we carry within our hearts.  It is not enough to only give him the “biggies.”  We have to give over all sin.

Because sin is infectious.  

You can read the entire article here.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Sunday Best: Top Christopher Nolan Movies

With Interstellar out in theaters, I thought I would take moment to look back at the films of Christopher Nolan.  (Also Screen Junkies just did a panel discussing this same topic and I thought it would be good for this blog)

The man has not made a bad movie in his entire directorial career.  It helps that he is very selective about his films and he has incredible personal control over all of the stories he's ever filmed.

So below are all 9 of Nolan's movies ranked in order from least to greatest.

9.  Insomnia

Of all Nolan's movies, this one is the one that feels the least Nolan-y.  And as far as I know it is the only one that is a remake of another film.  But it is still very dark and moody with some excellent performances.  Pacino's guilt is so visibly felt throughout the film and Robin William's turn as a mastermind killer showed a bold choice.  And the film still deals with big ideas about truth and conscience.

8.  Following

I caught this one on Netflix and it is a fascinating noir film about a man who becomes obsessed with following random people that he sees in public.  This could have easily devolved into some kind of psycho-sexual nonsense.  But he sets out early on that it about this a man who cannot connect to people who is drawn into a strange world of pulling the curtain back on people's lives.  It also is the first film that shows Nolan's funky use of chronology.

7.  The Prestige

This is a movie that will mess with your head.  Even when you figure out one twist (which I did a bit too early), when the film finishes and you understand the implications of what the last 5 minutes reveals about obsession… it sticks with you long after the movie is over.

6.  Batman Begins

Nolan modeled this film after Richard Donner's Superman and it shows.  He tells a story that is epic in its scope and takes us on Bruce Wayne's journey in a way that no other cinematic Batman has.

5.  Interstellar

I will give my full review for this later, but it is easily Nolan's most emotional movie.  It is not that his other movies are cold or are not moving.  But this was the first time I ever saw him reach deep and pull at the heartstrings while once again wrestling with the big ideas of life.

4.  The Dark Knight Rises

Unlike many of its detractors, I think the final chapter of Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy is fantastic.  He does an excellent job of drawing elements from the previous movies and weaving them into a film that feels like a definitive goodbye to his story.  To this day I get chills when Selina Kyle tries to get Bruce to leave with her saying that he doesn't owe anything to people of Gotham and that he already gave them everything, to which he responds: "Not everything.  Not yet."

3.  Inception

I have seen this movie over and over and I find it fascinating every time.  The layers that stack upon layers never suffocate the action through line of the story that holds you up until the very last second.

2.  The Dark Knight

Arguably the greatest super hero film ever made, Nolan understood that he could make a film that transcends traditional genre walls and talk about something deep about human nature.   People often play up the violent and dark nature of the Joker, but it shouldn't overlook Nolan's ultimate message which is that people are naturally decent.  That is a radical message in today's cinema.

1.  Memento

I have never seen a movie like this.  The level of complexity, artistry, execution, and transcendence continues to blow me away more than a decade later.  When people see this movie they rethink what movies can be.  And that is why this is his best film.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Film Flash: Interstellar

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

Like 2001, but good.  Epic scope and emotional depth.  (Beware the chunky 3rd act)

4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Trailer Time: The Hobbit - The Battle of Five Armies

Peter Jackson doesn't have to convince me to see the final part of the trilogy, but I like that this trailer feels epic.  I love the emphasis on the corruption of Thorin.  He gets wrong what Aragorn gets right.


Star Wars Episode VII Title Announced

So there has been a lot of speculation about the title of the new Star Wars.  I have to admit it is one of the things I loved anticipating about the Prequel Trilogy

TITLE: The Phantom Menace

TITLE: Attack of the Clones

TITLE: Revenge of the Sith
MY REACTION:  Perfect!

So now the title for Star Wars Episode VII is revealed:


Some thoughts

1.  It implies beginnings.  A good title to imply further action
2.  Even though rumors have surfaced that this movie is going to be Han-centric, the emphasis on the Force implies a heavy dose of Jedi goodness (or badness)
3.  It doesn't give us any strong plot elements, so what this could mean is up in the air.


Monday, November 3, 2014

Film Review: Gone Girl

Marriage is war.

At least that is one of the themes of the hit movie Gone Girl.

I was looking forward to this movie since I saw the trailer.  It looked intriguing and I have become more and more a fan of Ben Affleck over the years.

The story begins on the morning of the wedding anniversay of Nick (Affleck) and Amy (Rosmund Pike).  Nick heads to the bar he runs with his twin sister Margo Dunne (Carrie Coon) where he vents about his unhappy marriage.  When he comes home he finds a broken coffee table and some blood, but no Amy.  The police investigate, led by Det. Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens), but there are more questions than answers.  The film intersperses the investigation with flashbacks from Amy's journals about how she and Nick met, fell in love, and began to disintegrate.

The more that is revealed, the more it appears Nick is hiding.  Is he a hapless victim of circumstance or is he a cold-blooded killer with a painted smile?  There are some shady characters around to be sure like one of Amy's old boyfriends Desi (Neil Patrick Harris) who comes to help with the search party.  But is he a real suspect or is this just a red herring?

Direct David Fincher does an amazing job of creating mood and atmosphere and an aire of ambiguity that creates a wonderful tension.  You want to like and identify with Nick, but like everyone else you can't help but wonder what else he is hiding.

It is difficult to continue a review because of some fairly significant plot twists.  What I will say is this: halfway through the movie it stops being a mystery.  All of the answers are given in the middle of the movie.

This is actually a terrible shame because the movie loses most of its strength here.

It reminds me of the movie 28 Days Later.  It starts as a terrifying zombie horror movie.  And then about half-way in it decides to be a commentary on human violence.  Or No Country for Old Men that began as an amazing thriller and then turns into a meditation on age and death.

Gone Girl goes the same unconventional route.  And actually for a good portion of the second act, the movie is still enjoyable.  As I said, it ceases to be a mystery and instead becomes a stressful game of wits.  But then everthing eventually degenerates in the third act.

Fincher and writer Gillian Flynn are trying to say something fairly dark about modern marriages, about how they are simple power struggles where people use each other for mutual advantage.  The great film reviewer John Nolte overlooks this because he says that this theme is tucked away deeply.  I disagree.  It is so blatant as that you can't help but feel its ugly message linger.  They also want to say somethings about the news media and their drive-by tactics, and those ring true but by the end you cease caring.

And the ugliness is so very intentional.  Fincher casts everything in drap tones and shadows.  It almost feels like there is a depression linger over the air.  And all of the characters are ugly, including Nick.  The only redeemable character is Margo, who is explicitly called the voice of reason.  But reason is drowned out by the darkness.

The performances are fantastic.  Affleck is excellent as the put-upon man who does and doesn't earn your sympathy.  Pike also displays an emotional range that is transformative.  The entire rest of the supporting cast also brings their A-Game.  Tyler Perry is charming and cold as Nick's lawyer.  Dickens brings intelligence and conviction to her officer that is reminiscent of the recent good work that Amy Adams has done.

The skill used in making this film is evident.  But it is used for an ugly end.  I know I've used the word "ugly" several times in this review, but that is the one word that keeps coming back up.  The people, the actions, the themes, the morals are all repulsive.

Gone Girl is a well made film about a dark, ugly theme,  I wanted to like it more, but what could have been a satisfying mystery turned into a disturbing tale that uncomfortably lingers.

3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Sunday Best: Sitcoms of All Time #6 - The Office (US)


This show almost didn't make.

The first season was only six episodes and it was very low rated.  Audiences weren't watching.  And the ones that did compared it unfavorably to the original British version.

And for the most part, audiences were right.  The show, while enjoyable, seemed more like a pale, watered down imitation of the genuine thing.  You had the oblivious, egotistical boss in Michael Scott (Steve Carell).  You had the everyman Jim Halpert (John Krasinski) pining for secretary Pam (Jenna Fischer) and sitting across from desk-mate from hell Dwight (Rainn Wilson).

The pieces were there, but there was very little to connect with.  Carell was very unlikable.  And Krasinski's Jim was too much of a jock to be the everyman that Tim Canterburry (Martin Freeman) was in Britain.

But even in those rough moments, you could see the germ of greatness.  There was nothing quite like The Office on American TV.  The mockumentary style took a while to get used to.  And the humor tended to be less punchlines and more the awkward humor of everyday life: stories that are only funny when told in retrospect.  But even then there was something... special.

When they reconvened for the second season, the producers wisely understood that audiences would only tolerate the foibles of the characters if we could come to care about them.  Particularly this was true of Michael Scott.  His overbearing nature was shown to be overcompensation for the affection-starved child living inside him.  Once this happened, everything started to click.  The envelope could be be pushed more and more because we cared.

From here, the humor really exploded.  It tapped into the mundane inanity of daily work life in way that was both funny and universal.  We all know a Michael Scott.  We all have had to deal with a Dwight.

And the romance factor cannot be over estimated.  Jim and Pam might be one of the best TV couples ever.  There was something honest and real about them.  They milked the will-they-won't-they for just long enough but lost none of the humor when they got together.

The supporting cast also became more prominent with some hilarious performances by Ed Helms as Andy, Mindy Kaling as Kelly, Ellie Kemper as Erin, and Angela Kinsey as Angela.  They allowed these characters to grow and fill the show with sweet insanity.

This is especially true of the character Andy.  Originally introduced as a villain, they slowly rehabilitated him to become almost the lead character.  Of course they destroyed all of that work in the final season, which is one of the series biggest deficits.

The show did veer into some vulgar territory, but usually not too much.  I was annoyed at how they kept playing up Angela's Christianity as a hallmark of her judgmental nature.  But one of the most powerful moments on the show was a moment where the Scripture is read and it is the most important moment of, arguably, the entire series.

"Office Olympics" (2x03)

Season 2 gave Michael Scott better hair and they let you see his sympathetic side.  His bad qualities were still there and he still made things horribly awkward.  But because you had greater affection for him, you could stay for the awkwardness to the humor that was on the other side.

This episode was fun and creative with the different office games like "Flaunkerton."  But what was most important was the very end where Michael received a small bit of affection from the people in the office.  And that little bit of unrequested kindness touched him deeply.  It was here that I finally understood him and could enjoy the rest of the series.

"Welcome Party" (7x20)

A lot of people believe that show jumped the shark after Steve Carrel left.  But that actually isn't the case.  Promoting Andy to the position of manager actually worked out just fine.  Andy, like Michael, was a bit annoyting but he had a soft heart.  Some also cite the addition of Robert California (James Spader) as a detracting influence.  But still, this wasn't the problem.

It was Nellie.

Nellie (Catherine Tate) became a regular member of the Scranton Branch of Dunder Mifflin with this episode and it was all downhill from there.

Here entire presence was simply unenjoyable.  I don't think I laughed at a single one of her lines.  I don't know that I fault Tate for this.  But the show which did such a good job of turning unlikable people into heroes failed here.  The more Nellie in the show, the less enjoyable the show became.

"Goodbye, Toby" (4x18-19)

There are a lot of great episodes of The Office and a lot of great moments.  There are a few things that make this episode the best.

First, it has Michael Scott at his best and his worst.  We see him being an unreasonable, childish jerk to the put upon Toby.  But we also see him at his vulnerable, likable best when he begins to fall for Holly (Amy Ryan).  

It also has some wonderful moments of office insanity where something as simple as an office party into an overwrought, crazy affair.

But the best part is the running joke about Kevin (Brian Baumgartner).  On the show he plays the typical big, dumb guy.  In this episode Dwight convinces Holly that Kevin is mentally retarded.  What makes this joke go from being awful to being hysterical is how Kevin's typical behavior on the show when seen through that lens, lends itself completely to Holly's belief.  I laughed and laughed.


I have rewatched the entire series of this show several times and each time I find something new or some little joke I never noticed before..  But even deeper than that is the humanity that beats beneath the quirky exterior.  At first the show seemed to be mocking everyday work life.

But as the last line of the series says, "There's beauty in ordinary things.  And in the end, isn't that the point?"