Saturday, June 30, 2018

Film Review: Ready Player One

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

Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One has been called "nostalgia porn" for its plethora of inside-joke, '80's geek references spread throughout the film.

I'm not going to dispute the point, seeing as how part of the film's charm is in discovering the Easter Eggs of obscure things from my childhood.  However, this label obscures the fact that this movie is one very good, very exciting film.

Ready Player One takes place in the near future where environmental damage and economic distress are rampant.  Here people look for an escape into something called the Oasis: a virtual reality platform where anyone can change the circumstances of where they are and who they are.  It is very much like the Internet is today as a tool of commerce, communication, and education, but much more immersive.  In fact, it is so immersive that people most of their lives in the Oasis despite all of the pressing needs of the real world.

The Oasis was created by a genius named James Haliday (Mark Rylance)  He is like Steve Jobs if he were someone clearly on the autism spectrum.  Haliday created this revolutionary free technology.  When Haliday dies, he inserted a game into the Oasis, a high-tech geek scavenger hunt if you will.  The winner of this game will receive complete control of the Oasis, which includes the hundreds of billions of dollars that it is worth.

Enter main character Wade Watts (Ty Sheridan)  who lives in the slums of Columbus, Ohio called "the stacks" because the living spaces consist of of make-shift high-rises composed of old trailers and RVs.   Wade is a typical teenager who looks suspiciously like an adolescent Steven Spielberg.  He is shy and introverted, but inside the Oasis he is a confident young man Parzival with friends like Aech, who looks like a giant goblin.  He spends his time in the Oasis searching for Haliday's egg in competition with his female rival Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and their mutual adversary: the evil corporation IOI, led by the greedy Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn).  The plot kicks off when Wade comes up with an insight into Haliday's game that no one else sees and begins a race to the finish against conspiring forces both inside the Oasis and in the real world. 

So how good is Ready Player One?

The film's weakest points are the performances.  With the exception of the always amazing Rylance, the acting ranges from serviceable to bad.  Sheridan lacks the charisma that a leading man needs for a movie like this.  Granted that his character is introverted, but the plot requires us to see a great internal transformation into a believable leader of an uprising and Sheridan does not meet the challenge.  His performances isn't bad, but just average enough not to be distracting.  Mendelsohn, who bears a striking resemblance to Principal Vernon from The Breakfast Club, fails to bring a strong sense of menace, which is desperately needed for a movie like this to raise the stakes.  If you die in the Oasis, you merely lose all of your accumulated virtual wealth.  So a tangible physical threat in the real world is needed to create a believable sense of tension.  Cooke is fine as the older-for-her-age resistance fighter and she and Sheridan have fine chemistry.  Rylance, as I said, is the exception.  He does an amazing job of showing Haliday's struggle with human interaction in the real world and then showing us his complete transformation of voice and body language when he becomes his Oasis avatar.  And this is key to really understanding the Oasis: it is not just an escape, but a transformation.  It captures the way shy actors can put on a completely new persona in the right context.  Rylance captures this essence with his trademark subtlety.

And yet Ready Player One is a great deal of fun.  The virtual world is gorgeous.  I know many people might be turned off by its artificiality, but I found it to be a new and creative way to film and frame the action in ways not bound by the real world.  Often movies that look like video games can feel passive, like someone else is playing that video game and you are only watching.  But the way the movie is filmed, Spielberg makes you feel as if you are the one leading the action.  The visual dynamic was incredibly exciting.  The nostalgia factor added layers of texture to what is already a thrilling spectacle.  Spielberg still employs is trademark single shots to get across the emotional effect he desires.  The environment of the stacks makes you feel closed in and claustrophobic.  He also does a great job of distinguishing how he films the real world and the Oasis, employing hard lighting and hand-held cameras for the former and using bold colors and smooth camera moves for the latter.  Spielberg shows us the wonders of the Oasis, but wisely shows us how ridiculous people look from the outside with their VR gear on.  He constantly tries to show the balance so that you don't make the false choice of one world over the other.

I am also a sucker for a good treasure hunt movie, whether it be Indiana Jones, The Goonies, National Treasure, or the much underrated 1980's Disney film Midnight MadnessReady Player One is just a scavenger hunt on a large scale that overlaps with my personal wheelhouse of 80's pop culture.  The narrative moves well as each discovery leads to the next clue which leads to the next challenge and so on.  This continues as our heroes grow closer bonds to each other as the story progresses. 

In the most stunning scene in the film, our heroes have to enter into a famous movie that Haliday loved.  When I say "enter into the movie" I mean that in a literal sense.  This was one of my favorite visual spectacles in years as the digital avatars enter into the movie's environment faithfully recreated with film grain, lighting, and music.  It was so completely immersive that I found myself having to often look away (you will understand what this means when you see the movie).  I have honestly never seen anything like this scene.

Haliday is Spielberg.  Spielberg helped create the popular culture we all live in.  He was a kid who dreamed of becoming the greatest filmmaker in history, which he has.  Movies are expensive and this is understandable.  But in many ways he has become a corporation.  And in that there is a loss of that innocent artistic purity.  The same thing is seen in Haliday, who knows that something has been lost along the way and hopes that the next generation will set right what he did wrong.  Both Haliday and Spielberg want to draw you in to a fantasy world in order to enrich life in the real world.  But how many of us get stuck in fantasy.  The movie asks the question whether or not our interactions with games and art are making life in the real world better or worse.

To be sure, Spielberg good have gone much deeper with implication of technology as he did with AI and Minority Report.  Instead he just wanted to tell a fun adventure story, which is no bad thing.

So whether you know what the Glave is from the movie Krull or you are only a casual movie-goer, Ready Player One is a fun, visual spectacle that you will enjoy watching.

image by Yasir72.multan

Friday, June 29, 2018

Tactile Time Machines

Toys R Us is closing today.

This got me to thinking about toys and what they mean.

I am a big toy collector.  My basement is like a geek haven of action figures.  People who visit my home for the first time see this room and don't know whether to laugh or cry. 

Like most children in the 1980's I had a large collection of Star Wars, GI Joe, Transformers, and He-Man toys.  They were all well-worn and broken down from overuse. 

As I got older, I got further away from toy buying until 1999 when Toys R Us had a midnight sale of Phantom Menace figures.  It was a great Star Wars event and the lines were huge.  It was a wonderful moment of fun and fellowship.  It was then that I really began collecting and my hobby has exploded ever since.

I used to buy multiple copies of a figure: one to open and one to keep mint in box.  But as I've gotten older, I find that most of the figures I buy will come out of their packages and find a place somewhere in my home.  Not only is this more in keeping with the spirit of toys, but it makes for more enjoyable displays.

I began frequenting the trade shows and becoming a connoisseur of the figures and their values.  I enjoyed the sport of it, the hunt for that one toy I had been searching for.  And often I would find myself back at Toys R Us.

Toys, I believe, are a huge part of a child's life.

There is an argument to be made about how stores like Toys R Us instill an unhealthy materialism in children.  Or we could make the case that, especially around the holidays, our consumerist tendencies make us overlook the spirit of the season.  And I am not here to argue against those points.  I just know that when I remember Toys R Us, my memories are fun and fond.

The first thing I always would notice was the smell: that heavy presence of fresh plastic that covered everything.  The bright colors of the toys themselves bouncing off the white floors and ceiling would hit your eyes as you walked in.  And then your vision would narrow and the hunt would begin. 

Toys, particularly action figures, are very important for boys.  When you are a child, you often feel powerless.  The larger-than-life grown ups move you around and control your choices.  Or maybe larger boys at school bully you and make you feel small.  The world outside is also incomprehensible and confusing.  But with action figures, you have finally a sense of control.  You become the larger-than-life grown up pulling the strings.  You can begin exercising your own power and imagination in an imaginary world right before your eyes.  You can begin to make things as you want them to be.  Want Robin to be able to beat Wolverine in a fight?  It can happen if you want it to, no matter the logic or illogic of it.  It is your world.  Maybe then you open up your collection to another kid.  You begin to learn skills of negotiation and trade.  You learn to be careful with other people's toys or they won't want to play with you.  You begin to make believe together and inadvertently make friends. 

For me, there is something incarnational about a toy.  In addition to action figures, I have an extensive comic book collection.  A friend once asked me which one I preferred: comics or action figures.  Without hesitation I said, "Action figures."  He pressed the point and asked why. 

"Because," I said, "when you read a comic book, or watch a movie or TV show for that matter, you open up a window into another world.  That world can be beautiful, scary, and fantastic.  And you watch the events in that world unfold from the safety of your sofa.  But with an action figure, you are not looking into another world.  With action figures, the characters that you know, love, and admire have now somehow entered into our own world.  I am not limited to viewing them from a single flat image.  I can see how they have entered into my space and occupy the same plane of existence.  I can reach out and touch them and make them pose and behave in that space."

I think this may be why Catholics have such a rich history of statues in our art.  Beautiful paintings have their important place.  But a well-done sculpture almost looks like it could come to life at any moment.  We've reached into our collective imagination and brought them to exist in our world.  In that way they become more real.  We hear stories of Jesus and the saints and we see paintings of them.  But with a statue, they feel closer to us because we know that we can feel the contours of their being.  Their depth is not a illusion of perspective, but a result of their reality.  What a powerful way to make the ethereal past feel concrete in the present.

And with toys we have that on a much smaller scale.  I can reach over my desk and grab my action figure of Strong Guy from the comic X-Force.  I can feel his oddly formed physique and remember the drama of his story and his pain.  I can reach over to the shelf next to me and pick up one of my favorite action figures, a Dick Grayson Robin based on the design of George Perez.  When I grab that figure I'm reminded of all the adventures I read with this character and those memories become immediately present in a powerful way.  Or I can go into my basement and grab my old, beat-up Optimus Prime from the 1980's (missing his detachable hands of course).  And then I can let my muscle memory transform him back and forth as I have hundreds of times over the years.  I can pick up a lightsaber and swing it around with abandon the way I did as a child. 

And in all of those cases, for the briefest of moments, I am once again that little boy reading that X-Force or New Teen Titans comic book.  I'm that child deepening my voice shouting, "Autobots, roll out!"  And I am that crazy kid imagining myself standing up to Darth Vader and all of the other large bullies in my life, confident that I could be every much the hero as Luke Skywalker.

That's what toys mean to me: they are tactile time machines.  One touch and the memories are so thick that I am briefly transported away.

And hopefully when I come back from where they take me, I can bring a little bit of that magic back to this world.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Film Review: Pitch Perfect 3

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

This review will be short as my memory of this film is hazy at best; it was that forgettable.

Pitch Perfect 3 is the last gasp of a one-and-done movie that was stretched into a trilogy.  Most of the Barton Bellas, the a capella group we've followed over the series, have graduated and have jobs in the real world.  Beca (Anna Kendrick) has just been fired from her job at a record company.  Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) is her roommate and is also at a dead end in her career.  Chloe (Brittany Snow) is an unfulfilled veternarian, and the like.  Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) is leading a new group of younger Bellas, causing the older ones to feel awful.  So they decide to join a USO tour through Europe with other bands and the best one will be signed with DJ Khaled.

Oh, and also Fat Amy's father (Jon Lithgow) comes back into her life but is a shady person.

The movie isn't terrible and it is at times mildly diverting.  But everything about it feels wasteful.  Kendrick somehow manages to shine in everything that she does and Wilson can be incredibly funny if you give her the right material.  But that doesn't happen here.

The musical sequences are fine but nothing as memorable as the first movie.  The stakes are low.  I mean, honestly, who is going to care about DJ Khaled in ten years?  I don't care about him now.  It reminded me of when CeeLo Green cameoed in Begin Again.  I thought to myself "In a few years people are going to ask who the hell this guy is."

In fact, the stakes are so low that they have to add artificial peril by creating a life or death situation with the Bellas.  But because you care so little for the story, it doesn't register very much.

When you end a trilogy, the emotional stakes should be what holds you.  But in the first few minutes they jettison Beca's romantic storyline (key in the first movie) and Fat Amy's romantic storyline (key in the second movie) and blank-slate the entire emotional landscape.  Instead of building on an foundation of character to get us to care about what happens, the filmmakers ignore any emotional investment you may have made.

The Bellas seem to have no growth or development over three movies.  In fact, they seem to have devolved.  When they decide they need to make a bigger impression, even Beca's first thought is to go "sluttier."  You would think that the filmmakers would give the characters a bit more self-respect.

The humor is crude and usually doesn't land very well.  But I didn't find myself wanting to tear my hair out, which is better than something like The Hangover III.

So while the first movie came on to the scene like a bang, the series now ends with a whimper.

image by Yasir72.multan

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Film Review: Jurassic World - Fallen Kingdom

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

The movie Independence Day is a good movie with some really stupid parts (e.g. the Randy Quaid drunk pilot storyline).  After this movie was a hit, the makers of that movie went on to make Godzilla.  When they made that movie it felt like they said, "You know all of the stupid parts of Independence Day, let's make a movie just like that but with none of the good stuff!"

And that is how it feels watching Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.

The movie takes place three years after the last movie.  The park has shut down and the dinosaurs run freely.  However, the active volcano underneath the island is about to erupt.  Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is now a dinosaur rights activist who is trying to evacuate the animals before they go extinct again.  She runs an organization that has Paleo-veterinarian Zia (Daniella Pineda) and IT nerd Franklin (Justice Smith).  She is made an offer by Mr. Bob Evil- I'm sorry, by Mr. Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), who runs the fortune of John Hammond's old partner Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell).  Mills needs Claire to access the tracking systems so they can evacuate the dinosaurs, but especially Blue the Raptor.  To do this, they also need Owen (Chris Pratt) to give his help.

There are several places that this movie goes wrong:

First, it makes the same mistake that Spielberg made when he directed The Lost World.  It is important to understand that the dinosaurs represent nature itself in all of its horror and glory.  The first Jurassic Park and Jurassic World had very real scares and thrills.  But they also filled you with a sense of wonder at these creatures.  You not only felt fear, but you felt grandeur and majesty.  Both The Lost World and Fallen Kingdom remove the awe and leave only the action and the fear.  These sequels devolve into monster movies.  You can see this most clearly when the main evil dinosaur literally climbs through the bedroom window of a little girl (Isabella Sermon) and stalks over to her bed to eat her.  There's nothing wrong with monster movies per se, but when dealing with the Jurassic franchise, you disengage one of your strongest emotional tethers.

Second, the story is really stupid.

Please forgive this digression, but it will help illustrate my point.  The dumbest part of the first Jurassic World was Vincent D'Onofrio's character wanting to weaponize the dinosaurs.  This is pure idiocy and I think most of the audience understood that.  The makers of this movie built the entire storyline around this idea.  At one point in the movie, an evil auctioneer (Toby Jones) introduces their assassin-sauraus and demonstrates how to us it:  A man with a rifle and laser scope will point the red dot laser at the target.  He will then hit a button that makes a siren noise.  This will cause the assassin-sauraus to eat the the target.

[Hand raised in the back]  I have a few questions:
1.  Why use the dinosaur when the laser is attached to perfectly good rifle that can be shot at a distance?
2.  If you can afford the gun, why are you spending millions on a dinosaur assassin?
3.  Why would make it so that both the gunman and the dinosaur had be both within line of sight to the target and earshot?
4.  How much would it cost to transport that large dinosaur from location to location to kill people?
5.  How do you sneak the dinosaur close enough to the target without them noticing that a large, snarling predator  is getting closer?
6.  If the target has even a small security detail, wouldn't their bullets (like the ones in the gun with the laser pointer) kill the dinosaur?
7.  Once the dinosaur has eaten the target, how do you escape unnoticed?  Do we have dino-disguise with an oversized trench coat and fedora waiting?
8.  If this works with dinosaurs, why hasn't anyone tried it with lions and tigers and bears? (Oh my!)

As you can see, the filmmakers decided to abandon reason and instead embrace mindless thrills.

Third, there is absolutely no character development.  In the first movie, Claire goes through a journey where she comes to connect to the dinosaurs emotionally and grows closer to her nephews.  In this movie she does have a connection to the little girl Maisie, but it is too fast and forced.  The script doesn't give any of the characters room to grow.  And all of the new characters are flat.  The sadistic military man (Ted Levine, who played Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs), is given every nasty trait imaginable for no reason other than the plot depends on it.  He has this horrible desire to pull teeth out of living dinosaurs simply because it makes him look more evil.  Zia is just a tough girl and Franklin is a wimp.  The only character that has any layers is Benjamin Lockwood, but the story doesn't explore the emotional depths and secrets he holds.

Fourth, the movie has an insane moral view.

Animals are not persons.  One human life is worth more than an entire island of dinosaurs.  The thing I hated the most about The Lost World was the Vince Vaughn character.  Because that character tried to save the dinosaurs, he is responsible for every death on that island.  The only way you could see him in any way other than a villain would be to say there is some sort of moral equivalence between humans and dinosaurs.  Fallen Kingdom seems to fall into this trap.  When dinosaurs die, we are supposed to feel sad.  When most of the humans dies, we are supposed to cheer.  I don't care if the humans who are killed had questionable morals.  Even Denis Nedry's death wasn't played for laughs.

One of the only things preventing this movie from spiraling into a complete disaster is Pratt.  He retains all of his well-earned charisma.  He brings life and enjoyment to every scene that he is in.  He isn't in the movie enough, which is saying something since he is in most of the movie.  Like Jurassic World, the sequel tells the story primarily from Claire's perspective when Owen is so much more interesting.  He is the voice of reason and logic.

The second thing is that director JA Bayona actually managed to put in some real thrills in the movie.  As I said, it devolves into a monster movie, but that doesn't mean that is a bad monster movie.  There is a sequence with a tranquilized T-Rex that is incredibly fun to watch.

Bayona also has one scene with a dinosaur on a shipping dock that pulls at your heartstrings in a way that I wasn't prepared for.  It is a moment of visual excellence that makes you wish the entire movie was made with the same care.

If you want a movie of the quality of Jurassic Park or Jurassic World, then skip Fallen Kingdom.  But if you want to shut your brain off for two hours and enjoy the dumb roller-coaster, then this is worth your money.

image by Yasir72.multan

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Trailer Time: Welcome to Marwen

I am a huge fan of Robert Zemeckis, though I have missed his last few films in the theater.  This one, however combines two things that I love: Steve Carell and Action Figures!

Carell is actually an excellent actor whose work should have been recognized with awards a long time ago.

I love the imaginative nature of it and how he is seeking to express himself artistically when he loses his ability to draw.  There is a danger that this could veer too much into the corny, but I'm hoping Zemeckis will keep it from falling off the rails.


Monday, June 25, 2018

New Evangelizers Post: Immigration and the Catholic Church

I have a new article up at  

There has been a lot of talk in the news and online about immigration to the United States, particularly illegal immigration along the southern border. Images of detention facilities from the previous and current presidential administrations have stirred up passions in the people. Many Catholic bishops, such as Bishop Robert Barron, have weighed in strenuously on the topic. This is especially the case where families are separated at the border.

There are some who are comparing the detention of illegal immigrant families to concentration camps and that those who are in favor of it are like the Nazis. There are those who say that separating children in the womb from their mothers through abortion is much more worthy of our political outrage. These opinions may be on the extreme, but I am having more and more difficulty finding the non-extreme.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that the solution must be found in the middle ground (though it very well could be). What I am observing is that on both sides there seems to be a moral certitude in how we should act. Among Catholics this conviction is rooted in faith.

So how is a Catholic to respond?

Before anything else, we must remember to proceed with caution. We are now beginning to mix politics and faith. It is not that these two things shouldn’t overlap. Hopefully your religious convictions inform your political positions. But if these two areas are brought together incorrectly, the results can be volatile.
I am a man of very strong political convictions. But I do my best to never confuse them with my religious principles. By God’s grace I would lay down my life in defense of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. I would not go to the cross over what I believe to be a fair federal income tax rate.

This is even more confusing because there are some areas where politics and religion must overlap. Catholics are forbidden from voting for something that would intentionally make it easier to murder children in the womb or euthanize the disabled.

Regarding the hot button issue of immigration, we are walking into a gray area.

You can read the whole article here.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Film Flash: Jurassic World - Fallen Kingdom

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

Jurassic World - Fallen Kingdom:Jurassic World::Lost World:Jurassic Park.  That's not a compliment.

image by Yasir72.multan

Friday, June 22, 2018

Film Review: Incredibles 2

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

I know I've said this before on this blog, but the Incredibles is the best film version of the Fantastic Four.  And the sequel proves this to still be true.

Incredibles 2 takes place immediately after the final moments of the last film.  The Underminer (John Ratzenberg) is attacking the city.  So the family of Mr. Incredible/Bob (Craig T. Nelson), Elastigirl/Helen (Holly Hunter), Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Huck Milner), and Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) all do their part to help along with their friend Fro-Zone/Lucius (Samuel L. Jackson).  But the resulting destruction causes the family to lose their protection from the superhero relocation program.  With little options, they are approached by tech billionaire Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and his sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener) to boost the profile of supers by placing Elastigirl in the spotlight, much to Bob's chagrin.  The forces Bob into the Mr. Mom role while Helen fights crime and unravels a larger mystery afoot.

Visually, the story is gorgeous.  Writer/Director Brad Bird has not lost a step when coming back into this franchise.  A number of PIXAR sequels feel like lesser imitations of the original.  But Incredibles 2 feels like a genuine continuation of the hero story the way Superman 2 does.  The colors are vivid, the style is retro-cool, the camera work is smooth and dynamic.  It has some of the best-directed superhero action scenes in movies lately, and that is saying a lot. 

But what really struck me was the script.  It has some of the best dialogue of any movie this year.  In what is ostensibly a children's film, the characters get into surprisingly deep and complex issues.  At the dinner table, Bob and Helen debate in front of the children about their actions as supers.  Supers are outlawed.  So should they have broken the law?  What if the law is unjust?  Do you break it to prove it's unjust?  Or do you wait for the law to change before you do that which you believe morally right?  Was it bad to save people if the law said they shouldn't?  I was surprised that the movie would raise issues like this throughout, but it did it in a way that didn't talk down to the audience. 

The film also introduces a group of wannabe heroes whose powers and costumes seem silly and lame.  But Bird did something that I found so interesting and exciting with these characters that I felt wonderfully surprised.

The only big detriment to the script is that the big twist that you aren't supposed to see coming is something that is obvious within seconds of reflection. 

The movie also has a great deal of relatable laughs.  Watching Bob manage the family was something that made me laugh constantly.  I would imagine most parents, especially when they have to handle things alone, could relate to the weariness that ensues.  But we also see the story from the perspective of Helen, who wants to do the best job she can, but is torn about being away from her family and has to field phone calls about missing shoes when she in pursuit of a runaway train.  Violet's story is particularly relatable as she begins to explore young romance and is faced with interfering parents and heartbreak.

That is one of the reasons this movie work and the Fantastic Four movies don't: The Incredibles are a believable family.  We can see ourselves in them and find something to which we can relate.  They aren't idealized in their relationships.  When Helen is chosen over Bob to be in the spotlight and be the bread-winner, he feels left out and emasculated.  This isn't presented as positive, but it is realistic.  And baby Jack-Jack feels like a chaotic monster.  Who hasn't taken care of an infant and felt it's uninhibited, chaotic presence. 

But the story never forgets that it is a spectacle.  I found the third act to be a fun adventure, not overly long as many blockbusters tend to be.  Incredibles 2 found the right balance.

The sequel does not match the originality of the first, but it is a worthy sequel that makes you want to see Incredibles 3.

image by Yasir72.multan

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Film Review: Thor - Ragnarok

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

(In the next few weeks I hope to get caught up on all the film reviews I meant to do when my mom got sick.  Thank you for your patience, dear reader.)

It's the end of Thor's world and he's laughing.

I was a fan of Kenneth Branagh's original Thor and Alan Taylor's Thor: The Dark World was not a bad film.  But whereas Captain America's film grew his prominence, people tended to be lukewarm to Thor's adventures.  So Marvel decided to reinvent Thor by way of the Guardians of the Galaxy.

In other words, they made Thor funny.

Thor: Ragnarok finds Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returning to Asgard to discover that his father Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins) has been replaced with an imposter in the form of his evil adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston).  Thor forces Loki to reveal where there father is, but Odin warns the boys of a worse evil coming for them: their long-banished sister Hela (Cate Blanchett).  Her power is greater than either Thor or Loki and (through happenstance I won't reveal here), they end up on savage, but technologically advanced planet run by a space Caesar named the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum).  They are captured by his henchman Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and Thor is forced to fight in gladiatory areas where he is reunited with the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).  All the while, Thor tries to conceive an escape and return to his home of Asgard before Hela kills the innocents.

The plot is standard Marvel fare.  What sets this apart that it is played mostly for laughs.  The movie veers so much to comedy that it boarders on parody ala Deadpool.

This isn't to say the movie was bad.  In fact, I was quite entertained throughout the whole thing.  Director Taika Waititi does a fine job of action/comedy.  The movie moves along at a fine pace and the production design is wonderfully colorful.  But the movie is so light that it lacks substance.

I want to sink my teeth into something thematically meaty, but it never happens.  There isn't much to criticize here because there isn't much here.  It's like a fortune cookie: as irresistible as it is empty.  For most films, this wouldn't be any kind of an issue.  But Thor is part of a cinematic universe that people are supposed to emotionally invest in.  Even Guardians of the Galaxy knew how to pull at heartstrings in a powerful way through the jokes.  On this level, Thor Ragnarok is much closer to the fine but forgettable Ant-Man.

Odin's last scene should be a culmination of the emotional journey of himself and the brothers.  But all of this is brushed aside quickly.  Other characters we've seen in the franchise are also brushed aside quickly and unceremoniously to make room for more naked Hulk jokes.

All of the performances are fine, except for Goldblum.  I would call it a performance, but that would be generous.  Instead, Jeff Goldblum put on a costume and read lines in a script.  He does no character work.  He is Jeff Goldblum in space.  This is disappointing beacause he is a fine actor who phoned in a performance.  Hemsworth, Hiddleston, and Ruffalo are all able to let their comedic skills, which are not meager, shine.  Blanchett is fine as Hela, but the script doens't allow her to be too terribly interesting.

The elephant in the room, now that I am writing this review months later, is that repeat viewings of this film are somewhat tainted by the opening scene of Avengers: Infinity War.  The lighter tone feels like a calm before the storm, with impending tragedy waiting in the wings.

Thor: Ragnarok is a fun, but insubstantial film.  It tries very hard to be different from what the series has been, but it always feels like it's trying to be something that its not.

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image by Yasir72.multan

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Chris Pratt Falls for God

image by Gordon Correll
Chris Pratt is not a saint.

I want to get this out of the way.  This is not a statement of judgment against the man, but in our celebrity culture, we tend to rush role model status on anyone in the spotlight who does something we like.  Pratt would be the first to tell you (as we will see below) that he is imperfect.

I have been a fan of Pratt's since his days as Andy on Parks and Recreation.  He was a ball of comedic energy.  I never would have pegged him to be an action star nor a fine dramatic actor.  But he has encounter great success and I am very happy for him.

Because of this success, Pratt won the MTV "Generation Award" at the MTV Movie Awards recently.  Pratt was on hand to receive the award and he gave a speech.

I have a friend of mine who calls MTV a cesspool.  It is not hard to see why.  Someone had once said that MTV decided a long time ago to stop being a music channel and became a lifestyle channel.  And the lifestyle they promote is, for the most part, morally toxic.  It is even more pernicious to see how kids are ushered from Nickelodeon (owned by the same company) into MTV and all of its corruption.

It could be argued that Pratt should have rejected the award because of this.  Instead, he went and gave an acceptance speech.  Part of it included the following:

"Nine Rules from Chris Pratt, Generation Award Winner", which went as follows: 

(1) "Breathe. If you don’t, you will suffocate."
(2) "You have a soul. Be careful with it."
(3) "Don’t be a turd. If you are strong, be a protector. If you are smart, be a humble influencer. Strength and intelligence can be weapons, so do not wield them against the weak. That makes you a bully. Be bigger than that."
(4) "When giving a dog medicine, put the medicine in a little piece of hamburger and they won't even know they're eating medicine."
(5) "It doesn't matter what it is. Earn it. A good deed. Reach out to someone in pain. Be of service. It feels good and it's good for your soul."
(6) "God is real. God loves you, God wants the best for you. Believe that, I do."
(7) "If you have to poop at a party, but you're embarrassed because you're going to stink up the bathroom, just do what I do. Lock the door, sit down, get all of the pee out first. And then, once all the pee is done, poop, flush, boom! You minimize the amount of time that the poop's touching the air."
"Because if you poop first, it takes you longer to pee and then you're peeing on top of it, stirring up the poop particles, create a cloud, goes out, then everyone at the party will know that you pooped. Just trust me, it's science."
(8) "Learn to pray. It's easy, and it is so good for your soul."
(9) "Nobody is perfect. People will tell you that you are perfect just the way that you are, you are not! You are imperfect. You always will be, but there is a powerful force that designed you that way, and if you are willing to accept that, you will have grace."
"And grace is a gift. Like the freedom that we enjoy in this country, that grace was paid for with somebody else's blood. Do not forget that. Don't take that for granted."

I have few observations about his speech:

1.  Knowing Your Audience  Pratt is speaking to an audience who would put up walls if there immediately called out on their immoral lifestyles.  Pratt was not there to do finger-wagging.  Instead, he surmised that the best way to reach them was by open invitation to the good he has received by his faith.

2.  Using Humor.  A third of his rules were jokes.  But instead of diluting the strength of the message, it served to put is audience more at ease.  This is especially true with the gross language of rule seven.  Pratt demonstrates that he is the same silly person we expect him to be.  His faith is an augmentation, not a contradiction of his character.

3.  Prominence of the Soul.  Pratt mentions the soul three times in his speech.  He makes clear that the soul is real and what is good for the soul (prayer and acts of charity).  This is an important and fundamental message.  In this world, there is a movement to reduce the person to the body and focus on bodily pleasures.  If we tell young people this, they will begin to pursue their happiness only in material things and when they find that these pleasures don't satisfy, they will despair.  I believe this is the main cause of suicide increase in our country.  Pratt is making clear that we are more than the body, we are bodies and souls.  And our soul will find its happiness not in material things, but in love and spirituality.

4.  Broken, but Redeemed.  I love that he rejects that we are perfect the way we are.  This message of perfection has been something I've noticed creeping into movies and TV shows.  We are broken in so many ways.  So many young people feel broken and it does them no good to tell them that they are not broken.  If they feel awful and we tell them that the state they are in is perfect, then awfulness becomes their primary reality.  But God's grace is stronger than our brokenness.  He is the way out.  Pratt invites them to accept that gift, paid for by His Blood.

Based on a brief survey of social media, there has been a generally positive reception to this message. 

Pratt used his moment in the spotlight to invite people in to a relationship with God.

And that is a good thing.


Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Film Flash: Incredibles 2

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

Best script of the year wrapped in a superhero film with a fun 3rd act.

image by Yasir72.multan

Friday, June 15, 2018

Film Review: Tag

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

This is one of those movies that is difficult to review without getting into spoiler territory.  I have a natural diversion to spoilers because I think that they rob a good deal of the enjoyment people get from a story.  But I think there is a difference between a surprise and a sucker punch.  I don't know that the filmmakers were intending to do the latter, but that is how it felt to me.  I will do my best to be as vague as possible, but be warned:


Tag is about a group of 5 friends from grade school who, for the entire month of May, play a cut-throat game of tag.  Over the years, they've grown up and moved to different states, but they still play tag during the month.  And they take it deadly seriously with signed rules and amendments as well as elaborate tricks and traps to get their target.  The movie beings with one of the men, Hoagie (Ed Helms) gets a job as a janitor at a company where Callahan (Jon Hamm) is a high ranking executive.  While Callahan is being interviewed by Rebecca (Annabelle Wallis), a reporter from the Wall Street Journal, Hoagie engages Callahan in tag.  Hoagie tells him that Jerry (Jeremy Renner) is getting married in a few days and then is planning to retire from Tag having never been "it."  They resolve to get their other tag partners, the stoner-loser Chili (Jake Johnson) and the neurotic Sable (Hannibal Buress) to get Jerry once and for all.  Accompanying them is Hoagie's wife Anna (Isla Fisher) who cannot play because "no girls allowed," but encourages and supports them in taking down Jerry.  What follows are expected Hollywood hijinks.

Director Tomsic should be given special credit because he does what not enough comedy directors do: he uses the camera comically.  This sounds like a no-brainer, but most comedies rely mainly on the writing and the actors and ignore the visual element.  Tomsic creates great anticipation and tension.  He also has studied other genres and kicks in to action or horror mode when the scene requires it for maximum laughs.  Anyone who has seen the movie Predator will be particularly tickled by the homage in the middle of the film.

The actors also do their jobs incredibly well.  Helms captures some of the charm he had in the middle of his run on The Office.  He is a bit annoying, but he infuses his character with enough humor and heart to make him likable.  As always, Hamm tries to hard in his comedic roles, but he is very believable as the manchild executive.  Johnson goes big with some of the movie's most outlandish and scandalizing lines, but delivers them with comedic conviction.  Buress spends most of the movie acting as if he is on ambien, but his deadpan delivery still works.  But the breakout of this film is Fischer.  As she was in The Wedding Crashers and Keeping Up With the Joneses, Fischer is a comedic star.  She has a crazy energy that is so outrageous that it forces laughs out of you.  I found myself wanting more of her in the story than there was.

The movie constantly mocks and admires the tag players.  It vacillates from looking down on them as immature man/children.  But at the same time it looks at the bonds of friendship that form over the silliest of things.  It makes me think about how my friends and I can engage in the most passionate and heated debates about pop culture things like The Last Jedi, but the arguments are ultimately a medium in which our friendships connect and grow.  The same thing is visible in this movie, showing how it is the bonds between us, not the things that bind us, that matter.

However there is a line between being child-like and childish.  This movie does show the child-like sense of fun and wonder that these men have.  But it also shows them as being stunted and childish, especially Chili.

I also have an aversion to drug humor.  It doesn't mean that drug abuse is the worst of all sins, but when I see it in a movie played for laughs, it bothers me.  But this is my own personal issue.  When Chili jokes to an addict at an AA meeting that he is high, I found it more off-putting than funny.  And during the credits there is a needless brief shot of full frontal male nudity that makes this movie even more difficult to recommend.

This now brings us to the main problem with the movie: the last act gets dark.  Adding a little shadowing to a light story can give it some substance and depth.  But this was a bit much.  On top of that, the movie really didn't prepare you.  It didn't feel like it played fair.

In the movie (500) Days of Summer, the narrator warns you in the beginning that the movie was a story about love, but not a love story.  In Fanboys, they introduce to you in the first act that one of the main characters is dying so they decide to steal a copy of The Phantom Menace.  In those movies, you laughed at the jokes, but then when it got serious, you were prepared.  It didn't feel like the rug was pulled out from under you.  Tag does give a bit of foreshadowing, but it is not enough to emotionally prepare. 

This doesn't necessarily make the movie bad.  I'm sure that the filmmakers were seeking to uplift and pull at heartstrings.  However, I think their emotional arithmetic was off and they made a narrative miscalculation. 

Watching Tag is like eating a juicy steak dinner and finishing it with teaspoon of cod-liver oil.  As good as everything is that came before, it just leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

image by Yasir72.multan

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Jakob's Ladder

Life is unfair.

That is one of the hardest truths to learn.  And even when things happen to us that reinforce this, we feel shocked and surprised. 

There are many bad things that happen to us in life that we can trace back to our own sinful behavior: our addictions overtake us, our lies catch up to us, our laziness robs us of opportunities, and many other such things.

But there are times when horrible things happen no fault can be found at its cause.

That's what happened my student, Jakob, was diagnosed with cancer.

Less than two years ago, Jakob received the news towards the beginning of his junior year.  I had him as a freshmen and he was always kind and quick with a smile.  I never heard anyone, faculty or student, have a negative word about him. 

No one ever deserves something like cancer.  But it feels especially egregious when it falls on someone so young, with so much life ahead of them.  The path of life ahead appears to be cut short.

The original diagnosis left us feeling more optimistic about treatment.  But things did not go as hoped.

Treatments weren't having the effect desired.  Jakob was even admitted to an experimental program out on the west coast that had great potential.  But his cancer would not abate.

I would often think of Jakob and how each kind of obstacle was thrown in his way.  He was originally in the hospital for a fractured vertebrae.  Then came the cancer diagnosis.  After that there was the hopeful prognosis, followed by the decline.  There was the experimental treatment, but the results were not what was desired.  Every time it seemed like there was a path forward for him, a new stumbling block was thrown in front of him.

Perhaps I am too self-centered, but I could not help imagining how I would cope in such a position.  As I have gotten older, more anxiety and fear has crept into my life.  When the smallest thing goes wrong, my stomach turns and my mind goes a whirligig.  The thought of facing such an enormously painful challenge as cancer gives me such pause.

But then I saw Jakob.

Right before Valentine's Day this past year, there was a prayer service for Jakob at my parish.  He was there, standing tall.  He had grown into a man.  His hair was gone was wearing a medical mask to protect himself from infections, a side effect of his treatments.

We prayed as a community, but then Jakob came up to the pulpit and spoke.  He kept apologizing for his lack of eloquence.  He wasn't there to give a fancy speech or turn a poetic phrase.  He said in words plain and firm that he was good.  And he was good because he knew that God was with Him the entire time.

Sometimes we talk about God's blessings or His presence like easy pleasantries, as simple as saying "God bless you" at a sneeze.  We tell people we will pray for them and often we enter our prayers with distracted minds, not allowing His presence to with us.

God's presence was with Jakob.

I saw it as clear as day.  I wish I had words to describe it.  There was something so beautiful and peaceful in his soul, like a still sunrise over the mountains.  It was not fancy, it was not ornamented.  But it was real.  Its lack of polish gave it more substance.  He wasn't some distant saintly figure you only read about.  He was real.  He was right in front of us.  I knew I was in the presence of holiness.

It is a cliche to say that teachers learn more from their students.  In Jakob's case, that is the truth.  Jakob taught me what a real, lived faith looks like.  He taught me how to suffer in a way that brings hope and not despair.  He taught me that it isn't about how long we spend on earth but how we live while we are here.

And he taught me that if God is with you, there are no stumbling blocks on our path.  We are so laser- focused on our plans and our goals ahead of us, that we don't look above.  Jakob did not see stumbling blocks.  He saw stepping stones.  Each one was a step that led him not to a life ahead but a life above.  He turned those stumbling blocks into rungs on a ladder that led him to God.

Yesterday, Jakob reached the top of that ladder. 

He is with God now and can enjoy His presence without the cross he carried so bravely.

Please pray for his family.  While he is at peace, the ones who are left behind must now mourn.  But just as God is with him, Jakob will be with us.  In Christ, we know that death does not get the last say.

He will be us until we walk beside once more after we all climb Jakob's Ladder.

Monday, June 11, 2018

New Evangelizers Post: God of the Old Testament, God of the New Testament

I have a new article up at  

A common attack that believers receive from antagonistic atheists is one that involves the Old Testament.
The challenger will often quote some law from Leviticus or Deuteronomy like not touching women during menstruation (Leviticus 15:19). Or they will point out something seemingly barbaric ordered by God. This is especially true with the herem or “the ban,” where God orders the people of Israel to slaughter all living things (men, women, children, cattle, etc.) in a condemned area. The sheer ridiculousness or savagery of such dictates is then held up for ridicule to show the absurdity of Judeo-Christian beliefs.

There is quite a bit that could be given here in response. But for the sake of this article I would like to focus on a particularly bad defense of the faith that I’ve found often regarding these attacks.

Essentially, the counter-argument I hear is “That’s the Old Testament. We don’t really follow the Old Testament. We follow the New Testament, which ignores most of those silly things.” The unbeliever is trying to use the Old Testament as a cudgel to beat over the head of the believer. The believer who uses this counter argument thinks that they are able to disarm the unbeliever’s objection by removing the force of that cudgel. But what they are really doing is cutting themselves off at the knees.

The implication is that we seem to have two different Gods: a God of the Old Testament and a God of the New Testament. The God of the Old Testament is violent, vengeful, and severe. The God of the New Testament is gentle, forgiving, and cuddly. This is a very old heresy called Manichaeism, which set these two Gods in opposition. The alternate view, which is not much better, is that God radically changed in disposition and nature. He was angry all the time, then He took His divine Prozac and became much more mellow after. I’m not sure that everyone who holds this view would articulate their positions in either of these ways, but it is nevertheless what they boil down to.

There are two main problems with this.

You can read the whole article here.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Trailer Time: Bumblebee

The Transformers franchise lost most of its steam with the horrendous The Last Knight

This feels like a last ditch attempt to get milk this series for all that its worth.

Setting this movie in the 1980's is obviously meant to appeal to Gen-Xers like me who first encounter the Transformers when were children in the Reagan decade.  They are clearly trying to appeal to our sense of nostalgia to give this movie series another chance.

And darn it, it's working. 

I love the classic VW Beetle look as well as the overall aesthetic.  But for me, as silly as it sounds, the thing that has me the most excited is that the Transformers seem to be transforming the way they did as the original toys.

Part of the fun of the old cartoon show was to watch the robots transform into their various shapes and then to re-enact it with our own die-cast metal and plastic replicas (while making the transforming sound effects without our mouths.  You know the one). 

This teaser is light on plot but it has me intrigued enough to want to see more.


Thursday, June 7, 2018

Film Review: Coco

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

As a devout Catholic, one of the ways to enjoy this movie is to suspend your religious objections to their portrayl of the afterlife.  This may be difficult for some and others may not want to.  I completely respect this choice.  But Coco is not intended to portray life (or afterlife) as it actually is.  Just as in movies like Chances Are, Defending Your Life, or Field of Dreams, the filmmakers are using the narrative device of the afterlife to explore other universal themes.

Coco is the story of Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a young boy with a passion for music in a family where music is forbidden.  The only person with whom he feels an affinity is Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a famous movie star and musician who passed away many years ago.  His family is preparing for the Day of the Dead by placing photos of loved ones on the ofrenda (a special shelf for the memory of loved ones).  He takes a photo from the ofrenda when he sees that his great grandfather is holding the exact same guitar as Ernesto.  Miguel, now believing he has the blood of a great musicisan in his veins, decides to take Ernesto's guitar from his crypt to enter into a music contest.  However, when he does this, Miguel enters the spirit world.

In the spirit world, he encounters the put-upon Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) who is trying to come to Earth on the Day of the Dead but can't.  Miguel also encounters his dead relatives like his grandmother Imelda (Alanna Ubach).  If Miguel does not return to Earth before dawn, he will remain among the dead.  Only one of Miguel's relatives can send him back.  Imelda is willing to send him on the condition that he gives up music.  Not willing to make this sacrifice, Miguel uses Hector as a guide in the spirit world to find Ernesto who Miguel believes will send him home without having to give up music.

One of the things that makes this movie work so well is that Coco very intelligently and wonderfully deals with the question of which comes first: your love or your dreams.  Miguel loves his family, but he loves music.  Must he abandon one to have the other?  This is not simply a hypothetical question.  This is something that many of us have to face on some level.  I remember that I had considered pursuing acting professionally.  But when I realized actors had a 90% unemployment rate in their profession, I demurred.  I knew at this point that I was going to be married and I had to take care of my family first.  I in no way regret that choice and I am blissfully happy.  But there are those for whom the choice is not as easy.  And who can deny the sacrifices one must make in their personal lives to achieve fame and success in their given field.

Like most PIXAR movies, the film is gorgeous.  The production design is top notch and will keep your attention the entire time.  Their interpretation of the the afterlife is both bold and colorful without ever letting you forget that that those inhabitants are deceased.  And the music was both fun and emotional.

The story also has a few more complicated twists and turns than I expected, which is a very enjoyable thing to find in a children's movie.  And with each new wrinkle, we delve deeper into the core themes of dreams and family.  Above all, PIXAR knows how to pull at the heartstrings in the correct way and they do so with Coco again. 

As a Catholic, I enjoyed the copious amounts of religious imagery, especially Our Lady of Guadalupe.  And even though I mentioned that this portrayal of the afterlife is not fairly compatible with the faith, it reminds us that our relationship to our loved ones does not end with death.  Some may find this a bit too somber of a message to bring to a children's film.  But I think that the more we remind them that death is not the end, the better equipped they will be to deal with this when they are adults.

For all these reasons, I recommend Coco for any age. 

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image by Yasir72.multan