Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Cinematic Genius of Steven Spielberg (Video)

Readers of this blog know of my overwhelming admiration for the genius of Steven Spielberg.  I believe he is the greatest director of all time.

Sometimes I find it difficult to convey the poetry and magic of his work.  Then I found the below video online by Steven Benedict and it is such a wonderfully brief analysis of his work.  Some of the things I had picked up before, but others were incredibly insightful.

I especially love the part where the narrator  highlights the spiritual aspects of Spielberg's work.  I do not know if Spielberg is particularly religious, but he understands that most humans who have ever lived believe in something beyond us and he wisely taps into that universal human experience.

If you love Spielberg like I do, it is worth your time.

Trailer Time: 13 Hours - The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

I agree very much with Joss Whedon that some of the best dramatic actors come from comedic backgrounds.  Doing comedy with excellence and honesty takes a lot of acting skill.

So when I heard that John Krasinski of The Office was going to be in a drama, I took note.  If you look at the great dramatic work that his British Office counterpart Martin Freeman has done, I can only hope for that same potential to be realized.

Also, this is a Michael Bay film.  I know that he has a lot of detractors online.  But I am a staunch defender of his skills with a camera.  The failings of his movies tend to be the scripts, not the visuals.

And then I saw this trailer and it gave me chills.  I am quite frankly shocked, like I was with the upcoming movie Captive, that so many big names were attached to this movie.  What happened at Benghazi is a political football.  But if Bay plays it right, like Zero Dark Thirty, he will focus on the lives of these brave Americans on the ground and let the audience draw their own political conclusions.


Monday, July 27, 2015

A Letter to Those in Favor of “Gay Marriage.”

Dear Friends,

If you are a regular reader to this site or my twitter feed, you probably noticed a surge in rhetoric from me regarding my defense of Traditional Marriage, especially right around the recent Supreme Court decision.  I am sure there will be more written here about this arguing for renewal and return to the importance of matrimony between one man and one woman.

But that is not the purpose of today’s letter.

Before any of those arguments are laid out, I want to take a moment and have us simply meet eye to eye.  I don’t mean that we must start with some mutual agreement.  No, this letter is not the place for argument.  I will not be defending my position or trying to refute yours.

Instead, I would like to look across the divide that separates us and see each other as we are.  One of the easiest logical fallacies to fall into on a topic like this is to win the argument but lose the arguer.  We get so caught up in using our words like sharp weapons to defeat a person rather than gentle weapons to heal them.  There is a time and a place for harsh words, as Jesus Himself knew.  But that is not now.  I want us to look across the casym, this deep and emotional divide over the definition of marriage, and I want us to recognize the beautiful humanity in the other.  Only in that context should we proceed with this issue that so often boils the blood and grieves the heart.

I should like to begin by saying that I do see you and understand you.  I think one of the frustrations for people who are for “gay marriage” is that your arguments and your perspective do not seem to penetrate the worldview of those who are entrenched in old traditions.

That may be the case with some, but not with me.

I used to be in favor of “gay marriage.”  I could, at a time, see no logical impediment to it.  When you lay out your case and express yourself on this issue, your thoughts are very familiar to me because they used to have residence in my own mind.  

Here is your position as best as I understand it.  I believe it is accurate:

All human experience, history, and art have shown us that the deepest need of the human heart is to love and be loved.  We ache for the affection that only comes from fully knowing and being known by another.  We are born with this need etched into our hearts.  We are forged in the fires of our human passions.  

And romantic love is that wonderfully horrible and horribly wonderful thing that we discover on the road of life.  It hits us like a thunderbolt and thrills us down to the soul the way of no other feeling in the world.  And who can choose to fall in love?  We cannot select our passion.  We are afflicted, delighted, and consumed by something beyond our own control.  And this passion draws us to another, like gravity.  And beyond simple desire, this romance ideally blossoms into real friendship and charity to the other.  And in that unity, we experience that knowing and being fully known.

And for some of us that attraction is to someone of the same sex.  Traditionally these feelings were suppressed and persecuted in society.  But as we just said, passion cannot be chosen.  Just because someone is uncomfortable with your romantic attachments, does that mean they have the right to veto your love?  Racists in this country had a problem with marriage between blacks and whites and we rightly saw that this was a violation of civil rights.  

Objections to marriage equality are rooted in religious opposition.  But this is a country where we are free from an imposed religion and can choose to pursue our own happiness.  Jehovah’s Witnesses believe donating blood is immoral, but does it follow that they should impose that belief on others?  If you do not want to marry someone of the same sex, you do not have to.  But how does it harm you if two people, whose love your religion finds immoral, declare their love to each other till death do they part?  

The answer is that it doesn’t.

To deny these persons their rights is to deny some of the most basic rights we extend to heterosexual couples in our society.  To deny insurance benefits, parental rights, property inheritance, medical dependency, and the like to people in same-sex relationships is the height of injustice.  It judges one love as superior to another when the truth is simple and obvious as all of the great truths are: love is love.

Ultimately, those who oppose marriage equality are in the wrong because they are opposed not only to basic civil rights but they are opposed to that highest and most elevating human force: love.  Marriage equality increases love in the world and is therefore good for all.


I know that there are other arguments that could be made, but that is the main.

I understand the thought behind your belief.  And I see in you a strong sense of fairness.  I see in your belief a person whose motives are rooted in justice and kindness.  

You desire your own rights or you see the rights of others being denied and reach out to them in solidarity and empathy.  

I admire the compassion rooted in your heart.

And I believe that I see you as you are.

So why am I not with you on your side of the divide?  If I can see you clearly why cannot I not see my way to where you stand?

I shall now explain why I am making my stand here.  I want to be clear that in this letter I am not making an argument.  In other words, I am not trying to convince you about the truth of my position.  I am merely going to explain my conviction.  Whether it is right or wrong is an important topic, but it is for another day.  For now, my hope is that you may see why I stand where I stand.

I oppose “gay marriage” because of the conclusions drawn from human nature  

Human beings are social beings.  We form ourselves into societies.  We were never meant to be alone.  We are not born independent of our parents like sea turtles.  We are also not merely physically dependent on maternal care like kangaroos.  We are rational animals.  We need someone to physically care for us.  But to be fully human in accord with our nature, we need education.  The most important part of this education is the part that instructs us how not only to live but to live well.  We call this moral education.  This is a 24/7 commitment that shapes the life of another.  And those who are most naturally (though not exclusively) invested in this education are the parents of that person.  And that we call the family.  It is the most fundamental and basic unit of society.  It is the atom that is used to build all the substances of human civilization.

Imagine all of human civilization being laid upon the billions of these tiny foundations.  But suppose something were to come along and alter its essential nature.  Should not altering the foundation cause a major shift in society?

Up until a few years ago, no society, secular or religions, had ever said that marriage was anything except a union between the opposite sexes.  To alter a thing’s essence is to alter the thing itself.  The problem with such a fundamental change is that there is now no reason to keep from altering it further.  If same sex couples can marry, why not polygamous and polyandrous groups?  

Why not fathers and daughters, brothers and brothers?  You may say that no one is asking for this.  Or you may even say that as long as it doesn’t harm you, you are okay with it.  But to stretch the definition of marriage to these extremes and beyond, as there is now no legal impediment, would make the definition so broad that it would cease to have any meaning.

Marriage would be undone.

Destroy marriage and you destroy the family.

Destroy the family and society will collapse.

This may seem like fear-mongering, but have you noticed how since the introduction of no-fault divorce, our social ills have multiplied like never before?

But my main motivation for defending traditional marriage is the same as yours: love.

We are created with a nature.  To live in a way contrary to that nature harms us.  

In later essays I shall make detailed arguments.  But for now I am only explaining with a metaphor: can your iPhone be used as a hammer?  Yes it can, but it will do the job poorly and it will bring harm to the iPhone.  Why?  Because it was not designed to be a “hammer.”  It was designed to be an “iPhone.”  A thing working against its nature is harmful to itself.  

The end (or purpose) of a human being is happiness.  We all desire happiness.  We try many ways in life to get it but sadly we learn that a great deal of our most present desires do not lead to that ultimate destination.  We may be truly sincere in our belief that pursuing a particular desire will bring us happiness.  But if the object of that desire is opposed to our own nature, we cannot be happy.

And above all, I want all people to be happy.  I firmly believe that living in a way that is in opposition to our nature will make it more difficult for each person to find true happiness.

As I wrote at the beginning, I do not mean to try and convince you about the truth of my position here.  In fact, you may read what I have written and think me foolish.  Very well, we shall one day meet in the land of argument.  We, of course, cannot both be correct at the same time.  Our positions too much contradict the other.  

But my goal was not to convince you about the truth of my beliefs.  I simply wanted you see me as I am, just as I see you.

I believe we both care about people.  I believe we both want people to be happy.  I believe that we are both motivated by love and not hate.

I believe you are motivated by a good heart and good intentions.

Do you see that in me?

If we can now see each other, then maybe we can, from this point, use our words not as weapons, but as tools to build a bridge to each other and to the destination of Truth.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Sunday Best: TV Dramas of All Time #24- 24


The pure intensity of this show was like nothing I had experienced up until this point.  This series hit right after 9/11, when the national mood was pointedly anti-terrorist and we rallied behind the ones who could keep us safe.

The show followed the exploits of Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), as he would go through the gauntlet of horrors each day to keep the country safe.  Along the way, Jack would break all manner of laws, both of man and God, in his quests.  Whether Jack is a hero or a villain is something that is open for debate (I would actually argue that on balance, Jack is a bad person).  But the reason why we remained attached to Jack was that every morally bad decision he made tore at his soul, and we saw that in Sutherland's performance.  And no matter what, Jack wants to do what is right, even if he thinks that he must compromise his morals.  He rarely does the violence he does out of spite or vengeance.  Instead, he always does it for "the greater good."  There was one episode where someone wanted a pardon from the President in advance for killing Jack.  Jack told the President to give the pardon if it meant that his murderer would help solve the current crisis.  That doesn't make him right, but it does make him relatable.  And it is the only thing that keeps him from becoming Walter White from Breaking Bad.  But through Jack, we get to put ourselves into the Jack's shoes and imagine how we would act.

The genius of 24 was the crunch of time.  It wasn't so much the sound of the countdown (although that iconic sound helped add to the overall aesthetic).  But by getting rid of the standard film convention of cutting ahead in time through editing, every second of screen time was meant to matter.

The problem of 24 was actually the fact that it was "24" and not "12."  An average season of a TV show is 22 episodes.  This show had to add 2 episodes more than normal and all of those episodes had to be filled.  This constantly led to what people would call filler.  Whether it was hillbilly robbers, cougars, crazy First Ladies.  For that reason, the show is not higher on this list.  Especially in the middle of each season, the episodes tended to be a mixed bag.  While Jack Bauer was flying in a chopper from here or there, we would have to spend time on sub plots that we did not care about.  This also led to horribly reused plot devices.  I can't count how many members of CTU were traitors and how many times their headquarters had been invaded.  And the show had Kim Bauer, one of the worst television characters ever, not in terms of morality but in terms of mind-numbing inanity.  She was so terribly written and shoehorned into the stories that getting rid of her was a big relief to the show.

But the core of the show was Sutherland.  His performance is one of the great ones of television.  Sutherland pulls off the intelligence and ruthless desperation that Jack needs while making him horribly vulnerable.

DAY 1 - 5:00AM-6:00AM

Up until this point, the show had been a fairly intense show.  But apart from the real-time aspect, it wasn't yet anything special.  Jack was on the hunt.  His daughter Kim and her friend Janet had been kidnapped.  Jack's wife Terri and Janet's dad had been trying to find the girls.

But then 3/4 of the way through the show, everything you think you know is thrown for a loop.  And this is part of the show's signature.  It would hit you with horribly unpredictable plot twists.  You never knew who to trust and you never knew who would live and die.  At this point, everything was up for grabs and watching became a dangerous thing.  24 was a show that threw out a lot of the basic rules of storytelling, including the necessity for cathartic happy endings.  You never new how the show was going to turn out.


Day 3: 5:00 P.M.-6:00 P.M.

Jack has to spring a drug kingpin from a prison.  And it all goes horribly wrong.  While there are a lot of horrific things that happen on this show, in this episode escaped prisoners force prison guards to play Russian Roulette.  What is so distasteful about this episode that all the innocent deaths that occur in that episode are Jack's fault.  And it wasn't part of some grand plan.  Jack stupidly set free all of the prisoners to cover his escape and as a result, murder upon murder occurs.  When we find out why Jack is doing what he is doing, we find out that all of it was absolutely needless.


Day 8: 5:00P.M. - 6:00P.M.


This episode stuffed in every single bad 24 cliche that could be found.  There were obvious misdirects, personal problems of side characters we don't care about, moles, and the worst was that once again everyone suspects and second guess Jack.  This made sense in seasons 1-2.  But after saving the country multiple times, it was nothing but frustrating to hear the head of CTU tell the President that they should arrest Jack... AGAIN!


Day 2: 10:00 P.M.-11:00 P.M.

In this episode, someone has to fly a nuclear bomb into the desert to keep it from killing everyone in LA.  Of course, Jack volunteers.  Not only was this episode horribly intense, it has Sutherland's best performance as he says goodbye to his daughter.  The episode was amazingly well-crafted and had a rare moment of heart and meaning.


24 was a bold experiment that could have easily devolved into a gimmick.

But the acting and intensity makes this the 24th greatest drama of all time.

Friday, July 24, 2015

New Evangelizers Post: Chastity is a Waltz

I have a new article up at  

A few months ago I was speaking to a friend of mine regarding how we teach chastity to our young people.  The frustration she shared with me was that the entire burden of chastity seemed to fall on the women.  They were expected to be the guardians of virtue and purity while men escaped much of the focus.  If a woman is thought to have loose sexual values, she is excoriated and ostracized by a good number of men and women.  If a man is thought to have loose sexual values, there is a lot of eye-rolling and tsk-tsking, but there is an underlying sense of, “Well, that’s just how guys are.  Boys will be boys.”

I remember an episode of Seinfeld where Jerry asked Elaine if she preferred to be on a certain side when engaging in romantic activity.  She said, “Women don’t have sides.  We just play defense.”  The expectation being that the man is expected to be the initiator of sexual activity and it is the job of the woman to slow that activity down.  A female student once summed up the thinking this way (she said she got this from Facebook), “A lock that can be opened by any key is a bad lock.  But a key that can open any lock is a master key.”

I believe that my friend had a point regarding how we teach chastity to men.  The impression I have (which may be much different than your experience), is that we emphasize sexual responsibility with our young ladies with great gravity.  This is not unreasonable seeing as how women bear so much of the tangible consequences of sex, especially pregnancy.  But with men my impression is that we talk about it, but not with nearly the same sense of gravity.

I know that I am over-generalizing.  There are some fantastic speakers out there now who are speaking about the destructive power things like pornography have on the male soul.  But as a culture, we have not taken a firm stance.

I am not advocating we let women off the hook.  They are called to be heroically chaste in our society.  But so are men.  Chastity is not an either/or virtue when it comes to the sexes.  It is both.  It only works when they work together.  That is why chastity is like a waltz.

I am far from an expert, but I took waltz lessons right before a wedding.  What struck me about it was that it required a very clear understanding of the rules and the steps, good communication between the partners, and above all keeping in time together.  The dance would not have worked if only one of us followed the rules.  We needed to work together.
I think that this is a very good model for chastity.

You can read the entire article here.

Film Review: Pixels

Nostalgia is what sells this movie.

Like Adam Sandler's other 1980's nostalgia-fest The Wedding Singer, Pixels will have a transportive effect on anyone who grew up in the 1980's.  Beyond that, the appeal may lessen.

The story centers around Brenner (Sandler) who plays a video game genius from the 1980's who is now a lowly customer service tech specialist.  But then aliens invade the planet using the mode of giant, larger than life pixelated video games from that decade.  He is enlisted by his friend who is President of the United States (Kevin James), along other master gamers including conspiracy nut Ludlow (Josh Gad) and criminal Eddie "Fireblaster" (Peter Dinklage).  With the help of weapons developed by Lt. Col Violet Van Patten (Michelle Monoghan), the go forth to fight for the fate of the Earth.

It is silly.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that it borders on stupid.

While this is reminiscent of The Wedding Singer in its love of the Reagan Era, the script is much, much lazier.  The plot is simply there to fill the movie with gags.

And for me that is okay for 2 reasons:

1.  Good Will.  I like Adam Sandler.  Yes he has done some awful comedies (e.g. You Don't Mess With The Zohan), but he has done enough thoughroly enjoyable outings (e.g. Billy Madison, Grown-Ups, Click), to earn my good will.  I see reflected in Sandler someone very likable who is having fun with his friends and isn't taking himself too seriously.  Pixels is comedy without edge or cynicism.  It may play as too broad for some audiences, but the good will earned let me enjoy much of the shenanigans.

2.  Nostalgia.  I know I've already used this word a lot in this review, but that is the driving force behind this film.  Director Chris Columbus knows this and crams as much of that decade into this film.  I can imagine someone who is not an 80's child watching this and not being as entertained.  But I soaked up every cameo and every note of the amazing soundtrack.  And the movie taps into the old childhood fantasy of seeing classic video games come to life.  And Columbus does a great job of making the special effects look photorealistic and cartoonish at the same time.

The cast is equally affable.  James usually plays the over-excited Chris Farley character, but this time that role is given to Gad who goes for it with full gusto.  In this group, James is more of the straight man, but he does deliver some funny lines.  Dinklage's character is way too flat, but he exudes enough charisma to make him watchable.

The women characters are not there to be much other than love interests or eye candy.  Monoghan works well with this ensemble but doesn't have much to do with her character.

You aren't going to find much morally enlightening or objectionable with Pixels.

But if you like Sandler, broad comedy, and classic video games, you will enjoy this film.

4 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

StarWars Contra Gentiles: Episode IV

If any of you are not regular readers of the Catholic Movie Nerd blog, you should be.  His reviews are unlike mine in that they are concise and to the point whereas I tend to ramble on.  He also mixes up old and new movie reviews and reflections, which is nice.

But he fired a shot across the bow when he wrote this:  Star Wars, later subtitled Episode IV – A New Hope, may be a definitive childhood favorite along with its successors, but watching it as a critical thinker, it’s little more than bland, silly, rainy day-type entertainment. …Not that writer/director George Lucas meant for this first entry to be much more than a way to relive the family-friendly Saturday matinee thrills of his own childhood, and perhaps its place in pop culture is too high – the characters are generic, and the plot features gaping holes. Plus, it introduces the concept of the Force: a magical energy field that sounds more like a pagan, New Age deity the more it’s explained throughout the movies. Yet, I’ll take the charms of its authentic production values, joyous spirit of heroism and adventure, tongue-in-cheek wit, and immortal musical score over most of the popcorny nonsense that spawned from here. Nostalgia is the best thing that this series can offer me at this point, so if its upcoming revival touches my inner child, I’ll be satisfied.

This of course cannot stand!

So allow me this response in the style of St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Contra Gentiles


Obj. 1 - It would seem that it would be bland because the characters are too generic.  A thing is considered excellent in that is distinct and better than others in its own genus.  If the characters are too much alike of their genus then they cannot be distinct and better.

Obj. 2 - It would seem that it would be silly because the gaping plot holes in the story.  An intelligent story would have few logical inconsistencies.  But seeing as how Star Wars has many, it fails to be intelligent and therefore silly.

Obj. 3 - It would seem that it cannot be more than bland and silly because it is less than bland and silly in that it is pagan.  The concept of the Force is strongly connected to New Age and pagan ideas and is therefore potentially harmful to the Catholic soul.

ON THE CONTRARY - Scripture says, "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." Phil 4:8

I ANSWER THAT to limit a thing's excellence because of its simplicity is an error.
God is one.  Therefore truth is one.  God and Truth form a oneness that with other excellencies such as Beauty, Love, etc.  They are, at its highest, the same thing.  Oneness is simplicity itself.  The deepest truths are sometimes the simplest (e.g. Love your neighbor as yourself).
Simplicity also does not contradict depth.  This is nowhere better seen than in the Gospel of John.  The Evangelist writes many simple stories that can be understood and comprehended correctly and helpfully on a simple read.  But there are layers underneath that simplicity that can be mined for rich material.  Take for example, the story of the Wedding Feast at Cana.  The story is very straightforward and can be read so as to apprehend the point: Christ can do great miracles.  The story works and is simple.  The setting and the characters are simple (only Christ is named in the story).
It is perfectly acceptable to read the story as simple.
But it is incorrect to read the story as lacking depth.
Should you wish to plumb the depths, you can look to the parallels to Genesis and how both that book and John have a wedding on the 6th day.  You can see how in Exodus the first plague (the sign of God's power) was to turn water into blood "even in the… stone jars."  And we can see Christ show the first sign of his power by turning water into "the blood of grapes" even in the stone jars.
More could be said, but this is used to demonstrate that a thing's simplicity is no impediment to its depth and greatness.  If a story is too complex to be enjoyed at a basic level, it is not a good story.  A child can enjoy the Star Wars Episode IV immensely and an adult can enjoy it at the basic level and the deeper levels.
A thing's silliness should also not be an impediment to its greatness, if we understand silliness to mean humorous.  Jokes can be profound.  In fact, the best jokes are funny because they touch on some deep truth.  In fact, the last profound statement of Socrates, the father of philosophy, was a joke.

Reply Obj 1.  The Universal Myth - Star Wars is cinematic mythology.  There have been other literary mythologies created, most notably JRR Tolkein's Middle Earth.  But Star Wars is purely cinematic.    George Lucas created endure characters because he tapped in to our collective unconscious and produced a myth that taps into the universal mind of humanity.  There is a right and there is a wrong.  Therefore the Force has a light side and a dark side.  We need mentors to show us the path, hence Obi-wan Kenobi.  We face overwhelmingly scary odds, represented by Darth Vader and the Death Star.  It is primal and universal.  One should not conflate generic and universal.  To be generic is to be universal but lacking any strong distinction in the species.  We can see the similarities between the characters in Star Wars with other characters in literature.  It is not because Star Wars is a copy of the others.  It is because Star Wars taps more powerfully into the mythology than other stories.

Reply Obj 2.  Nearly all stories have plot holes.  But if the plot holes do not take away from the overall excellence of the piece then their presence should not constitute a major deficiency.  Without specifics to be addressed, a more detail response cannot be given.

Reply Obj 3.  Tolkien responded to the lack of religion in his books and he said, "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like 'religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism. "  In the same way, Star Wars is not meant as an evangelical tool.  But it is meant to tap into the universal experience of all humans and their innate religious sense.  Unlike Tolkien's work which was Catholic in nature, Star Wars is about religion and spirituality per se.  If it was meant to be Catholic, it could be argued to have failed.  But it it is not meant to be Catholic, but to be catholic.

Film Flash: Pixels

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

Silly (bordering on stupid) fun. '80's children will get swept up in glorious nostalgia.

4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Film Review: Ant-Man

I don't know about you, but when I was a kid, I used to put my eye up really close to the carpet, the record player, and especially to my toys and I'd imagine what it would be like to be really, really small.  I thought about how cool it would be to sit in an X-Wing or to run through the fibers of the carpet like giant stalks of vegetation.

Ant-Man is best when it makes this spark of my childhood imagination come to life.

Everything else is only okay.

The story is set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) used to be a hero who could shrink in size known as the Ant-Man.  But he is older now and fears that this technology will fall into the evil hands of his protege Darren Cross (Corey Stoll).  So with the help of his long-suffering daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), Hank seeks the aid of Robin Hood-like cat burglar named Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), who is an ex-con looking to earn enough money to gain visitation rights to his young estranged daughter Cassie (an adorable Abby Rider Fortson).  What follows is a typical Marvel origin story.

This movie works very well when it concentrates on the action set before it, whether it involves training sequences, heists, or battles.  When the movie slows down it has some real issues.  The main problem with the movie is that the exposition is SO clunky and horribly shoehorned into scenes that have no business being related.  All movies do this to some extent and we accept it as a contrivance.  But Ant-Man jams so much exposition down your throat between action sequences that it took me out of the film.  To give you an idea, here is an approximation of what some of the dialogue is like:

Scott: Who taught you how to punch?
Hope: My mother who died so many years ago and my father is lying about how she died, which is why I resent him so much.  And that is probably why he won't allow me to wear the Ant-Man suit and why I dislike you so much because my father doesn't believe in my but he believes in a no-good criminal like you.
Scott: Oh.

I am over exaggerating.  But you get the point.  And none of these exposition moments feel organic.  I can almost hear the Marvel exec saying, "You need to have her say this thing about her father so we can have the scene where Hank explain what happened and set up something we'll cover in Ant-Man part V!"

But that is the biggest drawback.  Beyond these, it is actually a very nice movie.  The performances are very charming, especially the ever affable Rudd who makes our main hero, who is essentially a criminal and a dead-beat dad, very endearing.  Lilly and Douglas also do very well in grounding this fantastic story.  The major laughs come through Michael Pena as Scott's criminal buddy Luis.  His exuberance and cadence perfectly capture the personality of many students I have had, so his character felt very real.  Stoll's performance as the main villain is a bit over the top.  The plot tries to explain why this is, but it never feels terribly believable.

Themeatically, there isn't a whole lot of depth.  Scott does go on a journey of growth towards responsibility, but it feels tacked on.  The movie also goes the Mrs. Doubtfire route of accepting the brokenness of the family and tries to navigate that social mine-field.  It at least does a good job of not making the Cassie's step father Paxton (Bobby Cavanale) not feel like a one-note obstacle.  It also has a little bit of carry-over vibe from the Occupy Wall Street movement from a few years back, but this is very subtle and minor.  The most Catholic thing about the movie is the idea of atonement and redemption.  Scott has to make up for his past wrongs, as does Hank.  But as I said, this never gets deep enough to make to large of an impact.

The real treat, though is when we join Scott in the over-sized version of our world.  All of the sudden, everyday things look brand new and in some cases terrifying.  Despite the story problems, I couldn't help but get caught up in the magic of Ant-Man's world view.  Director Peyton Reed deserves a good deal of credit for making some of my favorite special effects of the year because they really were special.  I wanted to spend so much more time bouncing around a briefcase or traveling around on top of Thomas the Tank Engine.

Perhaps I am being overly harsh on this movie.  I have come to expect a higher quality from Marvel after delivering amazing films like Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Guardians of the Galaxy.  Ant-Man would probably rank just above Iron Man 2.  But with so much of the exposition out of the way, future Ant-Man stories should be much better.

With this movie, the bad parts drag but the good parts soar.

3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Monday, July 20, 2015

TARDIS Travels: Exploring Doctor Who Part 4 - A Big Improvement

I am late in updating my continued exploration of the rebooted Doctor Who.  I've already written about my impressions of Season 1 and how I believe the TV Threshold can be found in the fourth episode of season 2, "The Girl in the Fireplace." 

I have also completed my Season 2 review. 

So now here are my impressions of the 3rd Season (SPOILERS BELOW).

1.  Martha Jones was Big Improvement.
I was very relieved to see that Catherine Tate would not be the companion after she appeared in the first episode of the season.  Having watched her on the American version of The Office, I very much did not like her.
Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) was chosen to be the companion and I hate to say it, but she is much better than Rose Tyler.
While Rose and the Doctor had chemistry, I couldn't see anything wonderfully special about her.  She did not convey the intelligence that Martha does.  Martha comes across as much smarter and more sophisticated in a good way.  She seems more of an intellectual match for the Doctor.  She and the Doctor also had good chemistry, but it was completely one-sided.  I am actually glad about this, because even though I like Martha better, it wouldn't feel right for the Doctor to simply throw away his affection for Rose.

2.  Great Single Episodes
I was so impressed by the single (or two-episode) stories this season.  Not all of them were great, but the ones that were still stick in my mind.  Here are a few points:
a. The Shakespeare Code - I loved the thematic relationship between stories and magic.  And this is one of my favorite depictions of William Shakespeare I have seen
b. Gridlock - I thought this episode would be a silly lark, but the second half turned me for a loop and it moved me deeply with those last words: "You are not alone."
c. Human Nature and The Family of Blood - Again, I thought that this episode was just going to be a lark about the Doctor living out a human life.  But the last half of the second episode is heartbreaking.  It was a powerhouse performance by David Tennant.  

It was an episode that showed everything that was best about the Doctor and at the same time his worst.  I understood then that the Doctor is a man who has vengeance and cruelty always bubbling under the surface.  Watch the terrifying, almost evil expression on his face as he doles out the final punishments.  That is why he tries so hard to be a man of goodness, to be a doctor.
d. Blink - Pure brilliance.  

An example of science-fiction writing at its finest.  And what is amazing is how tangential to the story the Doctor and Martha are and yet this is a quintessential Doctor Who story that introduces the most terrifying villains: the Weeping Angels.  The montage at the end is particularly disturbing and it is wonderful in the way it gets you to feel something different about everyday objects in the real world.

3.  The Anti-Doctor
The re-introduction of the Master was fascinating.  It would have been better if there had been some anticipatory build up to this, but I thought Derek Jacobi was marvelous.  For me, the best part of the story was delving into the Gallifreyan culture and the horrible ritual that had the children look into the time vortex.  It was at times like these that I could understand how the Doctor could love and hate his own culture.

4.  Still Cheap.
I have commented much on the cheapness already, and this season was a bit of an improvement.  But not much.  I like how Blink got around this by using creative directing techniques to make tangible intimate objects visually stunning and scary.

Overall, I found this season to be big on unexpected emotion, which was a real treat.  I found this season even more enjoyable and David Tennant really owns the character in a way that is becoming indelible.

Stay tuned for my reflections of Season 4.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Film Review: Trainwreck

I love Judd Apatow's directorial debut: The 40-Year-Old Virgin.  It was crass and vulgar, but it was wildly funny and buried within it was actually a strong message about saving yourself for marriage.  I remember I got into a long discussion with a devoutly Catholic friend of mine who was horrified at my praise of the film because she thought the vulgar images and situations were morally corrosive.

Well Judd Apatow has once again delivered a movie that is sexually graphic and tawdry, but idealizes the traditional ideas of romance and family.

Trainwreck is written by "of-the-moment" sensation Amy Schumer, in which she also stars as a young woman named Amy who gets drunk, gets high, and has a long series of one-night-stands.  This is in stark contrast to her younger sister Kim (a fantastic Brie Larson) who is married to a very boring man with a nerdy stepson and living in traditional domestic bliss that Amy reviles.  Amy's world changes though when she assigned to interview an up and coming sports doctor Aaron (Bill Hader), who is kind and thoughtful and has strong friendships with big name stars like LeBron James, who plays himself in the movie.  Amy is a "bad girl" and Aaron is straight-laced... you can see where this romantic odd couple is going

Be warned, this is a graphic movie to watch.  There is no frontal nudity, but the sex scenes are long and descriptive and rather icky.  The talk about all different kinds of sex is sometimes rather squirm-worthy and shocking, which is kind of the raison d'etre of Schumer.  So if those kinds of things are deal-breakers for you, I would avoid this movie.

The movie is also weirdly schizophrenic about its theme.  Throughout the movie, Schumer mocks all that the "normal" social things from cheerleading, to sports, to marriage, to actual romantic love.  She narrates the entire movie with a "don't judge me" attitude.  But the movie clearly shows Amy's life as ultimately unsatisfying and distasteful.  She is an awful person hiding behind snark.  But it is her relationship with Aaron that seems to be the only thing that brings out her humanity.  So traditional life is looked at as square, homophobic, and the like.  But Amy's life is empty and gross, and only embracing this traditional life can save it.

The performances are quite good by most of the cast.  Schumer is fantastic; even if I didn't enjoy a lot of her "bad girl" antics, she has real charisma and acting ability.  Hader does a very nice every-man in Aaron.  I particularly liked his reactions when Amy first makes a move on him and how unprepared he is for those attentions.  Larson, though, is horribly underused.  The more I watched her in the movie, the more I wished that the story was about her and not Amy.  And I was horribly surprised by Lebron James, who could deliver some excellent deadpan jokes.

  (On a side note, this is the first film where I've seen Ezra Miller who is cast in the big screen Justice League movie as the Flash.  Based on this movie, I am very, very worried).

The real problem with this movie is the length.  Comedy requires proper pacing, as the old saying goes "Timing is everything."  One of the reason The 40-Year-Old Virgin is so good is that every single scene is funny.  But every other Apatow movie tends to drag.  He adds scenes that are totally unnecessary and don't generate enough laughs to power the movie forward.  If you take 40 minutes out of this film it would work so much better.  There is even a dramatic subplot involving Amy's curmudgeony father (Colin Quinn) in a nursing home.

Because of this, instead of bouncing from joke to joke, there are long lulls, which is not good for a comedy.  Some of the jokes are funny, but most are mild.  (There is one line about an obscure 80's wrestler that had me rolling).  Despite this, the movie manages to stick the landing.  The last 10 minutes are actually charming, funny, and a bit heartwarming.  And the movie ends with one of my absolute favorite songs of all time that is criminally under-recognized as one of the greatest rock-love ballads of all time.

The friend I mentioned at the beginning of this review did not think that you could use raunchy humor like this to convey a good theme.  She believed that too much would get lost in translation and the message would be lost in moral corruption.  Trainwreck would not dissuade her from her thesis.

But there is some truth hidden deep within the muck.  Whether you want to take the time see for yourself is up to you.

2 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Trailer Time: Creed

This is one of the few Rocky movies that Stallone did not either write or direct.  I am curious.

It almost seems to be a redo of Rocky V.


Sunday Best: TV Dramas of All Time #25 - The Flash

1 Season

This show is still in its very early stages, so I can understand how people could be confused by its placement on this list of best dramas.  But this show has already fused science fiction, action, and melodrama all the while making the show incredibly fun to watch.

The Flash follows the story of police scienticst Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) who is struck by lightning and given miraculous super-speed.  He then takes up the mantle of a super-hero to protect Central City.  The connective tissue of the series are the various super-powered criminals that Barry encounters throughout the show.

The show could have fallen into just another "freak of the week" show.  The challenges of making a fast-running hero intersesting are not to be underestimated.  Keep in mind CBS tried to make this same show in the 1990's and it was never able to rise too high or go too deep.

 But the makers of the show have anchored it in a strong emotional core.  The main struggles of Barry's life are all incredibly personal.  His father (John Wesley-Shipp) is in prison for a crime he didn't commit.  Some of the shows most emotional scenes are the conversations between these two.  To complicate things, while his father was in prison, Barry was raised by Detective Joe West (Jesse L. Martin) who has to play the strange balancing act of being every bit Barry's father while always understanding that Barry has a father.  And to make things even more complicated, Barry is in love with Joe's daughter Iris (Candace Patton) who only looks at him like a brother.

As you can see the emotional web is already complex.  But the show also goes out of its way to create some of the biggest and boldest spectacles I have seen on television.  It isn't that the special effects are good (they are), its that the creators unleash the power of imagination onto the small screen.

One of the joys of reading comic books is that the writers are never bound by the expense of depicting something visually.  A special effect that would cost millions in TV and movies can be drawn in a comic book for the cost of pencils and inks.  As a result, comics often explore big, cosmic spectacles all the time, whereas TV shows would scale back a lot of what they would like to show for budgetary reasons.  The Flash uses its special effects budget well, but the most important thing they do is to not constrain themeselves by anything but their imagination.

Time-travel, fancy physics, and mind-bending action are the order of the day in a way that I have really not seen outside of comic books.

Pilot 1x01
(From my earlier mini-review)
Barry becomes a perpetually tardy forensic scientist for Central City.  One of the parts that I really dug was watching Barry's mind work as he figured out the details of a crime scene.  It reminded me of how the way they show Holmes' mind observe evidence on the BBC show Sherlock.

Thematically, I like the idea of Barry struggling with what responsibility he has with his powers.  Wells talks about the greater good, but Barry wants to help out the people immeadiatly in the area.  Neither is wrong, but it reminded me of the Catholic need to help people out in the concrete, not just the abstract.

As a comic book geek I noticed a ton of inside jokes and gags.  But even for the uninitiated, there is plenty of fun.  The special effects are excellent for television.  The adventures seem fun while keeping an emotional core throughout.


"Out of Time" and "Rogue Time" (2 parter)
This two part episode was a real game changer.  In it, Barry faces the worst crisis he has ever faced thus far as the Flash, but through unforseen circumstances, he travels back in time and relives the day over again.   It pushed all of the emotional buttons so that Barry's heart is stretched to its breaking point.  It also has a breakout performance by Carolos Valdes as Cisco and Tom Cavanaugh as Harrison Wells that is terrifying and heartbreaking.  But these two episodes do what a great super-hero science fiction show does best: marry overwhelming emotion with brain-twisting sci-fi.


The show already started strong and only improved as the season went on.  Even though I enjoy it greatly, I am waiting to see how it continues ot develop.

But as of now, it is the show that I look forward to the most each week.  And I don't see that changing any time soon.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Film Review: Minions

My favorite parts of the Despicable Me were the Minions.  They were funny and overwhelmingingly adorable.  These gibberish-talking mash between Umpa-loompas and Twinkies have a huge following.  So it was no shock that they decided to make a movie staring these wonderfully silly creatures.

The result fine and funny, but nothing terribly special.

The story revolves around these creatures who are predisposed to serve the most evil person they can find. But their overwhelming incompetence always brings ruin to the person they are serving.  At the beginning of the main story, the Minions had been living for years in a frozen cave without anyone to serve.  Without any meaning in their lives, they begin to languish.  So one of the Minions, a bright one named Kevin decides to search out in the world for a new boss.  He takes with him an adorable sidekick of Bob and the rock-n-roll troublemaker Stuart.  If you have trouble keeping these Minions distinct use the below conversion:

Stuart =Alvin
Kevin =Simon
Bob =Theadore

They come to 1960's New York and go on a big city adventure that eventually takes them into the thrall of the world's greatest villain Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock).  The rest involves silly animated hijinks.

Minions is a perfectly enjoyable film.  I was never bored and I smiled the entire time.  There were even a few moments of nice laughs.  The power of Minions is that the characters are completely and overwhelmingly endearing.  You just want to grab them and hug them, even when they screw up.

But beyond that, there is nothing incredibly special.  When compare to the work of PIXAR and Disney in this medium, Minions could have done a great deal more.  There was such an opportunity to do some really inventive slapstick reminiscent of Chaplin and Keaton, but that never materialized.  The jokes never reach hysteria and the plot never becomes in any way transcendent.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  Children will love this movie.  It may be a little too much for very young children.  There are a few comical deaths that still might be a bit much.

This movie was an opportunity to let the Minions shine.

But it would seem they work best as supporting characters.

3 out of 5 stars.

Film Flash: Ant-Man

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

Weighed down with clunky exposition, movie really pops when engulfed in magically oversized world. 3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars