Thursday, June 30, 2016

Film Review: The BFG

Sexuality/Nudity No Objection
Violence No Objection
Vulgarity No Objection
Anti-Catholic Philosophy No Objection

This is much more a Disney movie than a Spielberg movie.

Specifically, I am referring to the classic Disney Live-Action films of the 1960's-1970's like Mary Poppins, Bednobs and Broomsticks, The Absent-Minded Professor, and Swiss Family Robinson.  They only real difference is that the cinematic technology is much more advanced.

This is not necessarily a negative.  I love the above movies and they are sweetly innocent in their way.  And so is Spielberg's latest: The BFG.

The BFG (meaning the "Big Friendly Giant") is based on the Rohld Dahl book of the same name.  It involves a precocious orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) who one dark night spies a giant (Mark Rylance) on the streets of London.  The giant steals her away to Giant Country where she soon discovers that he is a friendly giant.  But he has to hide her away because the other giants, who are much larger and more brutal, will eat Sophie if they find her.  While living in Giant Country, Sophie accompanies BFG as he collects dreams and then gives them to sleeping humans.  But the menace of the larger giants looms.

Visually, the movie is big and bold and colorful.  There is something very childlike and wonderful about exploring a world that is magnitudes larger than yourself.  I think that it touches on that perspective we had as children but lost as we grew up, where the world seems so horribly huge and wondrous.  And there is some real beauty to the world created that children will very much love.

And the performances of the two leads is excellent.  Barnhill shows great charisma and screen presence.  Rylance also is incredibly effective and affective as BFG.  In a movie where he plays a fantastical looking giant, it's the subtlety he brings that makes him work so well.  BFG pulls at your heartstrings in the silent moment when Rylance shows the strain of feeling something complicated and big without having the vocabulary to express it.

The big problem with the movie is its complete lack of depth.  ET was a children's movie that didn't talk down to children.  The parallels to ET are there: lonely child and lonely fantastic creature form an unlikely friendship.  In fact, not only Spielberg the director of both, but both movies are written by the late Melissa Mathison.  Yet The BFG feels like adult filmmakers have taken a knee to get eye-level with their audience and talk in slow small words so we can understand.  This may be a result of the source material (I have not read it).  But if that was the case, more depth could have been added.  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (one of my favorite books) does not have incredibly sophisticated character relationships and development.  But in the movie version, the filmmakers wisely added dimension to the story.  The BFG could have benefited from such treatment.

In terms of character, much is left out of the motivations.  We know that Sophie is an orphan, but we really don't get a sense of her orphan life.  We don't understand why she is so brave.  In terms of the world we see, it also doesn't hold together very well.  Why does BFG have a job and other giants don't?  Who gave it to him?  I know that these may be silly questions, but the challenged my suspension of disbelief.  The narrative structure was jarring as well.  You are thrown in to the story without much time for rest and reflection.  And the development of the third act seems to come out of nowhere.

And there are few moments that feel very much in Spielberg's wheelhouse of wonder.  But he really is making a "kids movie" in a way we haven't seen him do since Hook.  It feels much more like he adapted his directing to the material rather than adapting the material to his aesthetic.

But maybe I'm being too hard on the movie.  It is a good deal of fun.  It has the longest build up to a fart joke I have seen in a movie and every little kid in the theater was giggling uncontrollably.  Maybe this is a movie made really just for kids and I should be okay with that.

As a Catholic, I noted some lovely moments of love and affection in the relation between Sophie and BFG that is reminiscent of the relationship of us to God.  The analogy isn't perfect, but BFG tells Sophie that he always hears her even if she can't see him.  There is one scene in particular that was so wonderfully beautiful: Sophie is standing on a balcony and calls out to BFG, though she cannot see him.  She struggles believing if he is there or if he was a figment of her imagination.  But in the end, she decides to make a leap of faith.  It was a beautiful reminder that all of our relationships, whether with each other or with God, must involve taking this leap.  If we do not, then we will never have a strong relationship.

Although I'm guessing that The BFG will not be revered as Disney Classic, it is a colorful and pleasant movie that little children will enjoy.

3 out of 5 stars.

Batman v. Superman: the First 10 Minutes

The first ten minutes of Batman v. Superman: The Ultimate Edition can be found on YouTube now.

Click this link to see it.

I cannot wait to see the Ultimate Edition when it comes out this July!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Film Review: Independence Day - Resurgence

Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity Acceptable
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

The power of the original Independence Day was that it looked at what would happen if a massive alien invasion imposed itself on our "real world."  Watching the wholesale destruction of our landmarks and seeing how our fighter jets went up flying saucers was iconically impressive.  Those of us old enough to really remember the first time we saw the streets of New York during the 9/11 attack would all visually compare it to the destruction we saw in Independence Day.  This mixing of the real and the fantastic is completely missing from the sequel Independence Day - Resurgence.

Also missing: most of the fun.

The story takes place twenty years after the original.  The Earth has united under one government and its main goal is to defend itself against another attack.  The human beings have appropriated much of the alien technology to make us and advanced, space-faring society.  If this had been explored properly, it would have added much to the movie.  Instead, by setting the movie in a science-fiction alternate 2016, it loses the emotional real-world anchor that the original had.  The original was about aliens attacking us as we are now.  This movie feels like aliens attacking us in a now that is more like our distant future.

The sequel also tries to do what Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens did: mix new and younger characters with members of the original cast.  Unfortunately, none of the fresh-faced heroes are very compelling.  We've got the cocky pilot (Liam Hemsworth) and his partner Charlie (Travis Tope).  There's the cocky pilot's girlfriend (Maika Monroe), daughter of the President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) from the first film.  She is best friends with Will Smith's character's son (Jessie T. Usher).   These characters are so bland and generic that I cannot remember any of their names. The only real positives to the cast are William Fichtner as the commanding general and Deobia Oparei as an African warlord who fought a ten-year ground war with the aliens (which we never get to see).

The best part about the movie is the returning cast.  Jeff Goldblum is still as Jeff Goldblumy as ever and can carry even the silliest scenes with great charisma.  Brent Spiner actually does a fairly good comedic turn as the crazy Dr. Okun.  Vivica A. Fox and Judd Hirsch really add nothing to the story, but at least Hirsh has a cranky charm.  And it was touching for me to see the late Robert Loggia one last time on the big screen.

But the best returning actor is Bill Pullman as President Whitmore.  I would have loved to have seen a whole movie based around him.  Because of his telepathic communication with the aliens in the first movie, his mind has been flooded with visions.  He has been pushed to the sidelines like Churchill after WWII, and yet he desperately needs people to take him seriously.  Whereas Pullman played this character originally as a weak but good man who learns to become strong, this time Whitmore is a broken man is ready to do whatever it takes to save the ones he loves.  This is some Pullman's best work in years and it is a shame it is going to be lost in this mediocre film.  But his story and Pullman's performance make this movie worth watching.

The loss of Will Smith, though is a huge blow to this movie.  Imagine The Force Awakens without Han Solo.  The reason why the first ID4 made Smith such a star was that he brought strength, dynamism, and an overall sense of fun to the movie.  His reaction to firs seeing the alien was so joyfully unexpected that it solidified his relationship with the audience.  No one in this current movie comes close to matching what his character did in the original.

The action is top of the line.  But it does suffer from a third-act action fatigue.  This is where the action set piece goes on so long that a lot of its excitement and forward momentum is a bit deflated.  You can only sustain that level of intensity for so long before the audience needs a breather.  This can be managed well (like in The Avengers), but more commonly it is getting a bit out of hand (like in the last two Transformers movies).

There was nothing specifically Catholic or anti-Catholic in this film.  Although I did very much enjoy the moment when General Adams address the world right before the third act and asked everyone to pray for them as the moved ahead with their final plan.  There is a gay couple in the movie, but they never explicitly address their relationship as romantic.  The only reason I know with certainty that the couple is gay is because I read an interview with the openly gay director Roland Emmerich.

And the movie also cuts out a lot of the emotion that was in the first.  Yes, the original had an often silly tone.  But I still get a little chocked up at the final scene with Whitmore and his wife saying their goodbyes.  And this emotional resonance held out throughout the end of the movie.  In this movie when a character dies, everyone else seems to get over it fairly quickly.

Ultimately, this movie makes the mistake that a lot of sequels, especially direct-to-DVD sequels have: they ape the plot structure and characters of the original but just make everything bigger.  In this movie, all of the story beats are essentially the same in a compressed time frame.  Only this time, the main ship is as big as the Atlantic Ocean.  There are a few other differences, set primarily to push us into more sequels, but they don't add much.

This isn't a terrible film.  But if you had two decades to make this movie, more time should have gone into fixing the story.  Because with just a little tweaking of plot and character, something very good could have come out of this.

But if you just want to go and have some fun watching lots of explosions and visual spectacle, then you could do worse.

At least it doesn't have drunk Randy Quaid saving the world.

3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sunday Best: TV Dramas of All Time # 1

So let us review our list of top 25 TV Dramas of all time thus far:

25. The Flash
24.  24
23.  Daredevil
22.  Broadchurch
21.  Star Trek
20.  Sherlock
19.  Dawson's Creek
18.  Quantum Leap
17.  Angel
16.  Alias
15.  Law & Order
14.  Firefly
13.  Star Trek: The Next Generation
12.  Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
11.  Arrow
10.  Doctor Who
9.  Gilmore Girls
8.  Veronica Mars
7.  The Walking Dead
6.  Fargo
5.  Freaks and Geeks
4.  Battlestar Galactica
3.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer
2.  Breaking Bad

And so now we have arrived at the number one best TV drama of all time.  I had the opportunity to re-watch the entire series once again in preparation for this final article and I am very confident in my judgment that the best TV drama ever made is:

Image result for lost tv show


I have never seen a show like Lost.

I don't think I will ever see another show like Lost.

In order to understand my absolute enchantment with this show you have to understand something about me: I love magic.

I'm not talking about the elements of legends and lore like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter (though I love that as well).  I'm talking about the art of the illusionist.  It is a rare thing because the enjoyment of that art is found in its ability to deceive.  When I go to see a stage magician I don't want to be able to figure out how they are going to do their trick or how they have done it.  I want to be surprised and mesmerized.

And that is one of the main reasons I love Lost.

The series starts off as a high concept show that makes it stand out from most prime-time fare.  Survivors of a plane crash are stuck on a mysterious island.  The first 7-and-a-half minutes of the show are the best first 7-and-a-half minutes of any show I have ever seen.  It was mysterious and dangerous and exciting.

The show also did something unthinkable: it started with 14 main characters.  That is way too many and shouldn't work even a little bit.  It would leave too little time for any serious character development for any of them and the show would have to scale back and focus on only a few.  But they didn't do that.  Instead they threw all 14 of them into this crazy blender and slowly revealed who they were through their actions and through the extensive use of flashbacks.

In another incredible feat, the entire cast was incredibly distinctive in look and character.  It is shocking how quickly we came to know each individual person and their personality.  We started with:

Jack - headstrong doctor and natural leader
Locke - mysterious and dangerous man of belief
Kate - brave tough woman
Sawyer - villainous, hoarding con man
Hurley - fat, funny comic relief
Sayid - Iraqi tech genius
Boone - impetuous wanna be leader
Shannon - spoiled rich girl
Sun - shy Korean wife
Jin - controlling and possibly abusive husband
Michael - struggling single father
Walt - innocent who may have special powers
Charlie - drug-addicted rock musician
Claire - young pregnant girl

Many people noted the incredibly diverse cast.  What I note about it is how unnotable it is.  Nothing about the diversity feels like it is either politically correct quota-filling and it does not belabor the racial differences (except with Sayid in the first season when the show was airing while troops were fighting in Iraq).  Race was acknowledged but then dismissed as anything essential to the human person, which was quite refreshing for a modern show.

Somewhere around the middle of the fourth episode I thought I had everyone figured out.  I could see the trajectory of their story arcs and the eventual movement of the plot.  It deduced that it was going to turn into something like Lord of the Flies and The Stand with other sci-elements involved where these characters would divide into camps of good and evil.

Thankfully I was way off base.

While there are elements like the above I mentioned, the show managed to throw out so many of my expectations, especially in terms of character.  So much of what I thought I knew turned out to be untrue.  I believe this was completely intentional.  The creators, particularly JJ Abrams, played with first impressions and regular TV tropes and expectations and twisted them.  He pulled off some real storytelling magic.  I was tricked and I loved it.

And this was done with great care to the characters so that the surprises did not seem artificial.  By using the flashbacks, the show added layers and layers of character development that informed how they acted on the island.  And it was immensely satisfying to watch the characters grow, develop, or even devolve due to the events on the island.  I never expected the story developments I found in characters like Jin, who I wrote off as one-dimensional obstacle to Sun's development.  And I never imagined Hurley developing from the one-note joke he was in the first episodes into what he became by the end of his character's run.   But watching Jack's change from the beginning to the end of the series was so enlightening to me.  Aristotle said plot is character expressed in action.  Lost understood that everything about the show's outlandish plot revolved around making characters to whom we became deeply attached.

The acting is also some of the best I have seen on TV.  I mentioned before that Bryan Cranston is possibly the greatest TV actor of all time.  But close to him I would have to put Terry O'Quinn as John Locke.  His body of work on the show is a tour-de-force of power, passion, weakness, despair, and confidence.  He plays all of those contradictions in a way that attracts us to him even at times when we should be repulsed.  There was always something more going on behind that amazing charisma.  But Matthew Fox, Evangeline Lilly, Jorge Garcia, Josh Holloway, and so many others brought their A-game to their performances.  (Maggie Grace comes off a bit artificial but that may be partly due to the shallowness of how her character was written)

From an artistic point of view, the show had an amazing cinematic style.  The special effects were great (for television), and they spent a lot of time making the shots capture the epic vistas and the emotional cataclysms.  I love how expertly they move the camera around in a shot to maximized the emotional effect.

And that is part of the show's brilliance as well: the emotion.  Every artistic choice was made to maximize the emotional impact of the story, whether it was the cinematography, the acting, the set design or the music.  Special mention should be made here for Michael Gianchinno's absolutely beautiful score.  It is one of the finest, most evocative orchestrations and I have ever heard in the visual arts.  The "Shepherd's Theme" is so simple and profound.  And his finale "Moving On" never fails to stir my spirit.

The show also had a rich mythology that kept pulling you in.  Abrams calls this storytelling principle the "Mystery Box."  This means that you draw the audience in with a mystery, but the answer to that mystery leads to more questions and then those answers lead to more questions, and so on and so forth.  That is a fantastic way to hook the viewer.  For those who watched the show, remember how intriguing it was to hear about things like, "The Others" or "The Black Rock?"  

However, the "Mystery Box" principle is a good way to start a story, but a terrible way to carry it and finish it.  If you leave your audience hanging too long, they will get too frustrated.  That is why so much more of Lost's ultimate success and why it wasn't just a flash in the pan (like Heroes) is because of Damon Lindoff and Carlton Cuse who took over the show (though Lindoff was there from the beginning).  They understood something incredibly important regarding the show's main mystery: no answer would completely satisfy the audience.  But they had to give the most satisfying answer possible.  Their method of answering this problem was simple and brilliant: begin with the end in mind.

It is very clear that when JJ Abrams began this show, he did not have answers as to what the island was, what was the monster, who are the others, what was in the hatch, etc.  For three seasons Lost kept adding mystery on top of mystery.  But Lindoff and Cuse began the fourth season by announcing that the show was going end in season six.  Keep in mind, season three had the highest ratings of the entire series and the show could have gone on for a decade like X-Files.  But by making this choice, the creators now had a target to reach.  All of their storytelling elements were about inserting plot points that they planned to resolve by the end.  And no, not every single question gets answered (nor should it).  But you can see the years-long planning that went in to getting the characters to the last four episodes.

A great mystery should have an ending that is surprising and inevitable.  And that is how Lost played it out.  I would feel so smart if I was able to figure out one of the key mysteries years in advance, but most of the time I was off.  (As a point of pride, I figured out something that no one I talked to and no one on the internet at the time that I saw had figured out either.  I felt smart for once).

But to go a level even deeper: Lost is the most Catholic show I have seen in modern television.

There are some who will object to this statement and I do understand.  The two places to attack my position best would be to point out the sexual content typical of most things on prime-time television (particularly of unmarried couples) and the fact that most of the spirituality brought up is very generic and pan-religious.  Let me address these two objections head-on and then give you my reasons for thinking Lost to be unmistakably Catholic.

Yes, there are a number of sexual encounters outside of marriage that occur on the show, but much, much less than on typical prime time.  But it needs to be remembered that, especially towards the beginning of the show, the main characters are all deeply flawed and broken in some way.  Quite often, these sexual encounters are a demonstration of that brokenness.  Also I noticed that often when these encounters happen, something very sad and tragic follows.  These illicit sexual encounters have a very brief euphoric shelf life until sadness enters in.  In addition to this, marriage is help up as the ideal expression of these relationships and the best and strongest romances are the ones bound by matrimony.  And in an age when homosexual relationships are highlighted and strenuously promoted on TV, on Lost it only comes up once (to my recollection) and it is so tangential to the story that it has little impact on the sexual morality of the show.

As to the second objection regarding the bland non-denominational nature of the religious images: I have to make a cultural point here.  There are many people who immediately become closed off at the mention of Christianity and orthodoxy spirituality.  An interior wall often goes up that makes it difficult for the storyteller to convey the tale.  The show itself acknowledges this when someone says something that sounds like religious advice, the other characters become interiorly defensive at the idea of a sermon.  By talking about spirituality in a general sense rather than specially Catholic, the show can convey very Catholic ideas.

Tolkien understood this when he wrote The Lord of the Rings when he was very careful not to include any religion in the story so that his Catholic faith could be conveyed to the reader unopposed.  CS Lewis was able to bring in these themes by transposing them to the magical land of Narnia.  But Lost takes place in our world and in a place of many religions.  By allowing for expressions of other faiths (Sayid's Islam, Hinduism in the Dharma Initiative), the creators were able to include other specifically Catholic elements like characters who are Catholic monks and priests and include talk of King Josiah and St. Thomas the Apostle.  And in those extreme moments on the show, you have beautiful Catholic expressions like someone making the sign on the cross right before they die.

And I defy anyone to watch the final season of Lost and not find deeply Catholic imagery.  The sacramental nature of the last four episodes alone was enough to convince me of how rooted the show is in the truths of the Catholic faith.  See the use of the blood and water, the blessings, the cup, the light, the original sin, the sacrifice, the salvation and redemption.

The show was a constant struggle between faith versus sin, doubt, and bad faith.  Just when belief seemed possible in something magical occurring on the island, that belief was snatched away by some scientific alternative explanation or some seemingly pointless tragedy.  And in that way it mirrored the world in which we Catholics experience our faith.  Most struggle with faith, hope, and love in a world that makes it so difficult to believe, and to see the good, and do the good.  And in this fallen world, there is no victory without sacrifice.  To attain the glory, we must take up the cross.

Which brings me to the final point about this show: it is transcendent.

For six years I thought I was watching one kind of show.  And though it evolved, I was not prepared for its ultimate message.  Much of what I thought I understood turned out to be me my own faulty perception and I realized I completely missed the most important things.   That is part of the magic trick.  The show made my thoughts move from simple entertainment to deeper thoughts of philosophy and beauty and then finally directed me to something even higher.   I have since re-watched much of that final season and it still fills me with wonder like no other show ever has and I don't believe ever will.

Sometimes it takes a few episodes to really understand what it is that you are watching.  The pilot to Lost was fantastic, but I've talked to a lot of people who say that the first Locke-centric episode, "Walkabout," is the moment that the penny dropped and they understood what the show really was.  I remember seeing the episode and being enthralled by Terry O'Quinn's performance.  But when the big reveal happens at the end I felt exhilaration and the thrill of the unexpected.  "If this show can do this to me on a regular basis, I will keep coming back," I thought.  Looking back at the episodes before, I now understood the groundwork that was laid to work on such a high-concept show.

By this point in the series, many of our main characters were separated on the Island and there was a strong sense of disconnection in the story.  To make matters worse, the creators of the show tried to foist two terrible characters on us: Nikki and Paulo.  Other characters had been introduced in very organic ways.  And we didn't mind focus an entire episode on non-main characters like Rose and Bernard.  But Nikki and Paulo were introduced to us as background characters that we just didn't notice from the beginning.  On top of that, they were incredibly unlikeable.  All of this led to a perfect storm when this Nikki/Paulo-centric episode hit the airwaves it began to feel like the show was running out of steam.  But then...

"Through the Looking Glass"
Seven episodes later, Lost did an amazing course correction.  This was the turning point of the series where everything changed.  All the old tropes they had used before and began to seem tired, like the flashbacks, suddenly took on a whole new meaning.  The anticipations we were feeling came from a much different perspective.  I remember the moment it dawned on me what I was watching and I was shocked that the producers were willing to so radically change the formula of the show.  And that made all the difference.

(see above)

"The End"
In the last few seasons, Lost became a teleological show: it all became about the ending.  So the show had to deliver.  And it did.  I have been trying my best to keep as free from spoilers as I can, and I will continue to do so here.  But it is very difficult to convey what was so moving about this episode without ruining it.  First of all, the show understood that finales are not the place to do something edgy and hip (like the horrible Sopranos finale).  Instead, finales are a place where you say goodbye to characters you know and love.  Second, the episode was an incredible mixture of action, humor, melodrama, and mysticism.  It closed the loop on so many character arcs and relationships.  Third, the finale had such an amazing cinematic symmetry.  If I said that Lost had the greatest opening 7-and-a-half minutes of any show, it also has the greatest final 7-and-a-half minutes of any show.  When the penny finally dropped for me, Lost went from being profound to something so rare on television: it was sublime.


Lost is a show the likes of which I don't think I will ever see again.  Many people tried to duplicate its high concept, its large ensemble, philosophical jargon, its transcendent spirituality, but none have ever come close.  This show opened up a whole new window into life and truth and I cannot think of a higher compliment than that.

I am so glad I found Lost.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Film Review: Central Intelligence

Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

Rush Hour starring Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker was a big hit because it was primarily an action movie with big, exciting, dynamic set pieces with a lot of humor mixed in.  But even if the jokes fell a bit flat, it was okay because you were there primarily for the action.  If it was a comedy with action elements mixed in, the jokes would have to be more hit than miss and the action thrill could be negligible.  But if in this second case, the comedy was not as good, the movie would suffer despite the action.

And that is the case with Central Intelligence.

The concept is actually full of potential.  Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart) was the big man on campus at his high school twenty years ago, nicknamed the Golden Jet.  Bob Weirdik (Dwayne Johnson) was a fat weirdo who is horribly publicly humiliated in school and only Calvin showed him any compassion.  Now that the years have passed, Calvin is in a rocky marriage with his high school sweetheart Maggie (Danielle Nicolet) and stuck in a dead end job when Bob contacts him and appears bold and buff.  One thing leads to another as Bob pulls Calvin into a comedic spy adventure.

The biggest problem with the movie is comedy/action dilemma mentioned above.  The movie decides to play to the comedy more than the action.  But the problem is that the jokes don't really connect.  There are a few laughs, but there are no incredibly memorable gags.  I can always tell when the jokes sail because I will find myself quoting them right after we leave the theater.  I am having a hard time thinking of more than one or two jokes I remember.  And because the action comes second, if the movie is not as funny, the movie drags.

Both Johnson and Hart are likable enough.  But they both have the same acting problem, Johnson in particular.  They don't seem to know the difference between making a persona and creating a character.  Johnson was an expert and building up is persona of "The Rock" when he was a wrestler and it served him well.  This involved being distinctively expressive in your face and body and exuding charisma, which Johnson has in spades.  But when it comes to him and Hart, there is nothing underneath the exterior.  When we first meet Bob, he comes on really strong and I kept waiting for Johnson to let us peak behind the curtain and see the character behind the outward crazy.  But there was nothing there, not even and inward crazy.  Hart also is incredibly expressive, but it never went any deeper.  This is a real shame because they are very talented and I do think that Dwayne Johnson has the raw talent to become an incredibly solid actor.  But he needs someone to discipline and sharpen his skills the way great directors did for Robin Williams and Jim Carrey.

And this lack of believability makes it harder to connect to the story.  None of the peril felt real and the comedic situations felt forced.  There is a mystery involving villain called the "Black Badger," but the answer to that mystery can be seen coming a mile away.

The movie almost has a really unexpected and powerful moment when one of Bob's high school bullies asks him for forgiveness.  It was a chance to do something mildly refreshing, and rarely explicitly Christian, but the writers took the easy way out.  Yet the script does capture how much high school bullying can effect how you see yourself, even as an adult.

Central Intelligence feels like a wasted opportunity. It's not that the movie is bad; there was nothing in it that significantly bothered or offended me.  It does have some wit and some charm but nothing to make it break through the glut of summer movies.

It is a quality that is not very high nor very low.  Central Intelligence is central in its mediocrity.

2 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Friday, June 24, 2016

Film Flash: Independence Day - Resurgence


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

Like a Direct-to-DVD sequel with an outlandish budget.  Lacks the fun of the original.

3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Film Flash: The BFG

The BFG poster.jpg

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

Spielberg makes a 1960's Disney style movie with 21st Century technology.  The results are mixed.

3 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Film Review: Finding Dory

Sexuality/Nudity No Objection
Violence No Objection
Vulgarity No Objection
Anti-Catholic Philosophy No Objection

The best part about this movie is that it has some of the most beautiful representations of patient love I have seen on the big screen.

Finding Dory is the sequel to PIXAR's wildly successful Finding Nemo, a movie about a clown fish father Marlin (Albert Brooks) trying to find his lost son Nemo (Alexander Gould) in the vast ocean with the help forgetful fish Dory (Ellen Degeneres).  This film centers around memory-challenged Dory as she searches for the family she has mostly forgotten.  

The film begins with flashbacks of Dory's childhood and the challenges her parents (Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy) have in dealing with her special needs.  Dory has short term memory loss and cannot hold on to most of the things she is told.  These flashbacks are some of the most affective in the whole film.  It is amazing to me that a movie about talking fish can capture something so real for so many families.  Dory's parents worry and frustration are real, though masked with great compassion.  And poor Dory knows that something is wrong and it somehow involves her, and yet she is powerless to fix it.  As a teacher, I've come across a number of special needs students who sadly conflate the challenges they face because of their disability with the feeling that "I did something bad."

But when Dory begins to remember fragmented details about her past, she begins a quest to find her parents, this time with Marlin and Nemo (this time voiced by Hayden Rolence) helping.  Along the way they encounter other strange aquatic creatures, not the least of which is Hank (Ed O'Neill), a cynical octopus that makes a perfect foil to the ever-optimistic Dory.  

Visually, the movie is beautiful to watch.  Not only has the PIXAR kicked up the technological side of things, but directors Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane know how to use it most effectively.  The waterworld they create is alternately magical and malicious.  I was either on the edge of my seat scared (though this may stem more from my fear of the ocean instilled in my from Jaws) or wide-eyed with delight.

Thematically, the movie is very strong in the above-mentioned area of special needs.  It surprisingly does not sugarcoat the challenge.  Dory IS frustrating at times and this has consequences.  But the movie does a wonderful job of showing others not only must help Dory, but Dory as she is helps teach others.  The phrase "What Would Dory Do" becomes almost a mantra of the film.

(I know that there may be some concerns from some parents as the internet was awash with rumors about lesbian couples and transgendered fish.  But honestly, there is nothing like that from what I saw in the movie at all.)

And the movie does a fantastic job of building on earlier elements in the story so that the payoffs work.  This is particularly true in what the film does with sea shells.  I won't spoil it, but what I saw from a purely visual storytelling standpoint moved me very deeply.

The biggest detriment the movie has is that it lacks a feeling of freshness.  It has been 13 years since Finding Nemo, but this feels like it should have been made ten years ago.  Whereas the Toy Story films kept adding scope and dimension, this film feels about on par with the original, but seems more of a rehash with the characters roles reversed.  This doesn't make the movie bad in any way.   But because it has a tad of the "been-there-done-that" feel, some of the film's effectiveness, especially in humor, is lessened.

But if you are looking for a good summer movie to see with the whole family that will reinforce the values of love, patience, and courage, you will find it with Dory.

4 out of 5 stars.

Monday, June 20, 2016

New Evangelizers Post: St. Francis of Assisi and Pope Francis

I have a new article up at  

When Jorge Bergoglio was elected to the papacy, I wrote about his choice of name “Francis.” As a Jesuit I wondered if he meant Francis Xavier. But it turns out that he made took on the name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. I speculated the implications of the name and I think it is very helpful to look at how Saint Francis informs the papacy of Pope Francis.

There are many who contrast his pontificate with that of his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI. It should be important to note at the outset that these difference are difference is style and difference in emphasis. They are not differences in doctrine. Particularly, I would say that the main difference is between emphasizing orthodoxy and orthopraxis.

Orthodoxy is “correct teaching.” This involves making sure that all of the teachings of the church in all parts of her body are in alignment with the holy truth that comes from the Sacred Deposit of Faith given to us by Christ.

Orthopraxis is “correct action.” This means going out in to the world and living the way Christ wants us to and by our actions changing things for the better.

I think it is very instructive to look at the most influential saints in each of their lives: For Pope Benedict it was St. Augustine.  For Pope Francis it was his namesake: Francis of Assisi.

You can read the entire article here.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Sunday Best: 25 Father's Day Movies

There so many movies about fathers and fatherhood. And not all of those movies have something good to say. 

But here are the top 25 movies for Father's Day

25. Life is Beautiful
One of the great things about the movie is the father here is not manly in the traditional sense, but he express the masculine traits of protective fatherhood in his own way.

24. Les Miserables (1998)
You can see here how peaceful and fulfilling fatherhood is, so that the words ring true at the end when Valjean says to Cosette "I stole something... I stole happiness with you. I don't mind paying."

23. Return of the Jedi
Great movie about the redemptive love of a son for the father

22. Interstellar
Like Life is Beautiful, the truth about how fathers will do anything to make sure their children aren't afraid is in full display. This is true even when children are unfair to parents 

21. Shadowlands
The movie reminds us that he most important thing about being a father, even in a blended family, is to simply to be there for your child especially in their grief

20. Road to Perdition
What do you do if your son is evil and hurting your life? What do you do if your father is evil but he is giving everything to protect you? As complex as those questions are, the last line of the movie sums up everything.

19. The Godfather
This is more of a model of what not to do as a father. I know most people see Vito is he good father and Michael as the bad one, but it should never be forgotten, no matter how much Vito loves his children, he sets them on the road to hell.

18. It's a Wonderful Life
A beautiful model of what a father does to provide, even if it means giving up his own dreams

17. Dan in Real Life
While not a model of fatherhood, Dan reflects the wonderful stresses of being a dad of 3 daughters

16. A Man For All Seasons
As his daughter begs him to compromise his conscience in order to be set free and be with her, St. Thomas More must refuse her because he knows that a good father must be a model of morality

15. Armageddon 
Harry Stamper behaves as a father to his daughter and to his entire crew. He takes things into his own hands because he knows that his responsibility as a dad means he has to be the one to step up

14. The Way
A father who loses their only child is still a father and this movie shows how that bond is forever 

13. Man of Steel
It is important that the first word in this Superman movie is "man." It is about a hero is trying to learn first what it means to be a man. And both Jor-El and Jonathan say and do some foolish things, but they are completely devoted to their son and make him the man he is 

12. The Incredibles
A good father is not only a hero to his children, but he helps them become the heroes of their own story.

11. Rocky Balboa
One of the toughest transitions in fatherhood is going from being the protector so that your children can grow up. Stallone's speech right before the last act is a fantastic representation of that

10. Father of the Bride
Every dad I've spoken to who has had a daughter get married tells me that this movie captures that painfully hilarious insanity

9. The Pursuit of Happyness 
A dad who is not trying to gain riches apart from his family, but making every sacrifice imaginable to give his son a decent shot at life 

8. Heaven is for Real
Reverend Burpo is a fine, upstanding manly man of God, but God puts him through purifying fire and must learn that a good father will also learn from a child

7. Finding Nemo
A children's film that captures the terror of parenthood and the perpetual fear for their safety while at the same time showing the resilient love of a father

6. Cloak and Dagger
A boy comes up with an idealized fictional version of his father, not seeing the heroic everyday hero in front of him until the final line of the movie

5. Liar Liar
What Mrs. Doubtfire got wrong, this movie got right: a good father must be honest, put his children before his career, and be a loving man to his child's mother.

4. The Nativity Story
I always think of the portrayal of St. Joseph in this movie as a model of manhood to the Son of Man

3. Taken
This movie touched a primal belief in all fathers that they could turn into unstoppable killing machines to protect their kids

2. Field of Dreams
Most people would out this as the number one, and rightly so. Using the medium of baseball, the movie shows  that no matter how much we twist out fatherly relationships into knots, it is sometimes the simplest things, like playing catch, that mean the most

1. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
In a movie where the treasure is the Holy Grail, it would take something truly amazing to overshadow that. And Spielberg expertly understands that the real treasure is the relationship between Indy and his dad. Too much history and too many similarities keep them apart, but it's the acknowledgement of how they are the same and different at the same time. It all is there in the finale: Indy tries his best to make his father's lifelong dream come true even if it kills him. It takes his father's acknowledgement that his son has grown up (calling him Indiana for the only time) and telling him it is okay to let it go. And Indy knows I that moment what every child should know: that the child is he treasure of the father.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Film Flash: Central Intelligence

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

Mediocre.  Would have worked better as a funny action movie than a comedy with action.

2 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Film Flash: Finding Dory

Finding Dory.jpg

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

A fine follow-up about loving someone with mental special needs, though Finding Nemo is better
4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Trailer Time: Pete's Dragon

I loved Pete's Dragon as a kid, so this movie is near and dear to my heart.  I am very protective of this story and was very skeptical of a remake.

But I have to say, the trailer has some real heart and gave me a sense of wonder and magic.  I like that you never get a good look at Eliot's face, but only a sense of his dragon-ness.


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Agape is Love

I remember in my class we were talking about whether or not people were born gay or straight.  I mentioned that there is evidence that the homosexual tendency may be genetic, but nothing conclusive.

But I told them flat out that if they ever were able to isolate the "gay gene," and were able to test for it, then I would be terrified.  I asked my students why I would be terrified.

Most of the answers were things like,
-it would disprove your religion
-it would mean I would have to support gay right
-it means the Bible is wrong
-it would lead to more acceptance of homosexuality in the Church.

I made clear that all of the Church's current teachings would still be consistent even if it was proved that the "gay gene" determined their orientation.  None of their answers were the reason.  I told them it was a practical effect that I am positive would happen.

It was finally one student, who was gay, who raised her hand and said, "Because a lot of the babies with the 'gay gene' would get aborted."

And that was exactly it.

I said to them that my fear would be that some parents would see the "gay gene" as a defect that they would rather not deal with and would rather abort the child than deal with the challenges.  Perhaps I am overly pessimistic, but I know that there is a large percentage of parent who abort children who are found to carry genetic markers for Down's Syndrome.  I told my students that it horrifies me to think that someone would think that because someone is gay that their life somehow has less value.

What I found was that a lot of my students looked at me like I had two heads.  I had just spent the previous week standing boldly for the Church's orthodox teaching on human sexuality (whether I did it effectively is another question).  But many of them could not understand how I could passionately defend the belief that homosexual sex is sinful while at the same time get so passionately worked up about the horrors of aborted homosexual children.  For many of them, there is no separation between a person and their actions.

And to be sure, the way we live affects who we are as people.  But Christ told always that we are not to judge persons but actions.  We are called to have unconditional love, also known is agape, for everyone.  I am horrified when someone is treated inhumanely because of their sexual orientation, just as I am when anyone is treated inhumanely for any reason.

So often, our culture conditions the young to think that acknowledging the immorality of homosexual sex means that we also hate those who engage in those acts.  But we are not called to hate.  In fact, I never understood how someone being homosexual was supposed to impel me to hate.  The most negative emotion I can muster is sadness for those who separate themselves from the truth of Christ.  And that is how I feel about anyone who commits sin, including myself.  I separate myself of the truth of Christ every time I sin and that fills me with sadness.  While I know what actions are right and wrong, how could a sinner like me judge another sinner?

But a person is a person and agape is love.

When the terrorist attack occurred in Orlando a few days ago in the gay nightclub, the overwhelming response from Christians all over the world has been prayers and charity.  All the Christians I follow online have been urging all of us to unite in prayer.  Chick-fil-a, which is often labeled an anti-gay business, opened their grills on Sunday and gave away free food to people in Florida who were donating blood for the victims.  Priests from our pulpits preached Christ's words of love and compassion.

My heart is broken for all those who were murdered in Orlando.  And I cannot imagine the suffering of those who lost loved ones in that horror.  Now is the time for comfort to those who are afraid.

We are called to give the unconditional love of God to everyone.  We are all made in God's image.  It is not our job to wait for others to live according to the Gospel before we share with them Gospel charity.  This is not a compromise of our orthodox beliefs.  It is the fulfillment of the New Commandment to love one another as Christ loves us.

So let us continue to pray and offer charity to our brothers and sisters who are suffering and remind them that Christ suffers with them.