Saturday, June 29, 2019

Film Review: John Wick - Chapter 3 - Parabellum

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

I do not think it would be a stretch to say that John Wick may be the greatest action franchise of the last 10 years.  The first movie was modestly budgeted and made a fair $43 million at the box office.  But as more people experienced that movie through home video, appreciation for it grew.  The second one more than doubled the first's box office haul and this third one has already made over $100 million more than the first.


John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum picks up almost exact moment the last movie ends.  Because John (an ageless Keanu Reeves) has broken the rules of his assassin society and murdered someone on the sanctuary grounds of the Continental Hotel, he has been "excomunicato" from the society.  On top of this, a multi-million dollar bounty is placed on his head.  The first act of the movie finds John trying to get out of New York before the excommunicato takes effect.  Once the time is up, he has to cut a bloody swath through the streets of the city in order to find any sanctuary and begin his mysterious quest.  But the "High Table," the rulers of this assassin society, want to make sure there are consequences to John's actions.  They send an Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) to New York.  She enlists the aid of Zero (Mark Dacoscos) to help her confront those who have aided John in the past.  These include Winston (Ian McShane), the owner of the continental, the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), who gave John sanctuary in the last movie, and The Director (Anjelica Houston), to whom John seeks refuge after his excommunicato.  Meanwhile, John has crossed the ocean and enlists the aid of Sofia (Halle Berry), the manager of another Continental hotel, to help him track down the "man above the High Table."  Together, they also leave a trail of bloody destruction.

If you are someone offended by graphic violence and gunplay, then this movie and the entire franchise are not for you.  The body count for this movie is high and it is brutal.  But director Chad Stahelski, who has helmed all of John Wick's adventures, gives the movie a strange beauty.  At one point John ends up at a ballet rehearsal.  It was not lost on me how the graceful choreography of the dancers mirrored the action choreography of the director, only with a higher body count.  Stahelski knows how to shoot an action scene and how to keep it interesting.  Simply pointing and shooting will get boring after a while.  Part of the fun is watching John go into a new location and use that location to take down his enemies.  Library?  Hit them with a book.  Stable?  Fatally time the horse kicks.  He keeps you on your toes and scratches that violent itch you have when watching.

To be sure, not everyone finds this type of violence entertaining.  John himself is disgusted by it, but sees it as a means to an end.  He simply wants to survive because as long has he is alive, the memory of his dead wife will live.  And everyone he kills in this movie is in self-defense.  This lessens the moral gravity of his killing just enough to make it palpable.  It also helps that those who are trying to kill him are all evil.  The closest John came to being an out-and-out villain was in the second movie, which very adeptly side-stepped that problem.  Here, the movie wants you to enjoy guilt-free mayhem.

With each film, the John Wick universe gets more expansive.  The shape of the entire society begins to really come into full view.  The religious imagery that is present in all of the films is more than just scenery.  The hierarchy of the society is analogous to that of the Church.  Each territory is like a diocese.  The directors of the Continental hotels are like the bishops.  The High Table is like the Vatican.  There is even an analog to the Pope.  The Adjudicator comes down like the Inquisition, bringing people back into line.  They are reminded that they are at the service of the High Table.  They must pledge, "I have served.  I will be of service."  This makes John Wick an analog to Martin Luther.  He refuses to play by the hierarchy's rules and chooses to live by his own.  He chooses freedom over subservience even if the consequences are violent.

I could not tell if this was a thematic attack on the Catholic Church or if the film makers were only using trappings of that ancient institution to show how old and far-reaching the High Table is.  Either way, as a Catholic it made me uncomfortable more so than the violence.  The religious imagery then lent itself less to redemptive symbolism and more to this dark analogy.  At one point, John has the image of an upside-down cross burned into his flesh to signify that he is outcast.  Moments like this made it feel more like The DaVinci Code than John Wick, though I don't know how many people in the audience would get it.

In terms of performance, Reeves has lost none of his potency.  He is every bit the action star as he ever was.  As deadly as John is, Reeves never lets him be a painless Terminator.  John is almost routed at every turn.  Every encounter takes a little more out of him, with too many close calls.  This makes the stakes and the excitement of the action even better.  This is also one of the better performances I've seen Berry give in years.  She is strong, charismatic, and deadly; she is every bit a match for John on the battlefield.  McShane is finally allowed to do more than sagely advise John.  This time he has an actual arc, where he must be an active player on the stage.  The same is true of Charon the Consierge (Lance Reddick) who also gets into the thick of the action.  But my favorite new performance is Dacascos.  He has spent most of his career in B-movies and TV shows and is probably best known for his role on Iron Chef America.  But here he can let the full use of his actions skills appear on the big screen.  He also tempers his deadly assassin with the wide-eyed wonder of a fanboy.  Huston adds a nice level of history and gravitas and Fishburne brings a great deal of cynical charm.  Dillon's Adjudicator may be there to be hated, but she also had no charisma.  She carried with her no existential menace.  All she had was the snark of someone above you in middle management.

I honestly don't see this franchise slowing down any time soon.  If the quality continues at this level, I will be at opening night to every John Wick movie.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Film Review: Toy Story 4

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

Francis Ford Coppola stated that his Godfather trilogy is misunderstood because it actually isn't a trilogy.  The first two are one complete story.  The third Godfather movie is an epilogue.  It is not meant to be the final act of the main journey.  It is there to explain the fate of the main character.

And that is how you should watch Toy Story 4.

The movie begins with a flashback to nine years earlier.  Woody (Tom Hanks) is in the midst of rescuing a struggling toy when his love, Bo Peep (Annie Potts), is sold to someone else.  This moment explains her complete absence from Toy Story 3 (which I always thought was the only thing missing from that film).  Back in the present, Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) is getting ready for kindergarten.  She finds consolation playing with her toys: Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusak), and the rest of the gang from the previous film, except for Woody.  In kindergarten, Bonnie decides to make a little makeshift toy out of a spork, glue, popsickle sticks, pipe cleaner, and silly eyes.  She names him Forky (Tony Hale).  Because he is made of trash, he constantly tries to throw himself away and it is up to Woody to make sure Forky is saved for Bonnie.  While on a road trip, Forky gets himself lost and Woody must leave the group to help him.  If that plot point feels very similar to other Toy Story movies, you would be right.  But the movie wisely only uses this as one of its plot points.  Their adventures lead to a dangerous antique story and carnival where Woody must look into his soul and find his life's meaning.

If that last part sounds deep and heavy, that's because it is.  But PIXAR has always masterfully been able to create stories that plum the depths of the human heart while creating a magical adventure that is accessible to all the children who watch it.  Toy Story 4 really is a movie for all ages to enjoy.

I constantly marveled at how beautiful the movie is.  Computer animated movies are a dime a dozen now.  And while the textures and the motion of most of them are top notch, technology is not a substitute for artistry.  You have to know how to use the colors and the lighting to give the movie its maximum emotional appeal.  This is the feature directorial debut for Josh Cooley, and his style fits in perfectly with all that has come before him.  And Randy Newman's score is as powerful as ever, full of adventure, joy, and sadness.

The new characters that have been added are just as wonderful as any in the franchise.  Hale's Forky is so odd and vulnerable.  He is like an alien being terrified of his own surroundings.  Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Micahel Key and Jordan Peele) and some wonderfully aggressive humor to the adventure.  The main villain of the piece is a doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) who appears to be in the mold of Lotso from Toy Story 3, but whose story takes a few surprising turns.  But the best addition is Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), a stunt-cycle toy who has never been able to live up to the action ability promised in the commercials that advertised him.  Reeves' roles in the last few years have been so serious that I forgot that he can deliver his lines with such wonderful comedic timing.

In fact, the movie is incredibly funny.  Caboom brings a number of jokes, but the film constantly hits you jokes both spoken and visual.  My absolute favorite is a running gag about Combat Carl (Carl Weathers) in a snow suit seeking a high-five.  The film is a delight that will make you laugh, or at the very least make you smile throughout.  And as with most Toy Story films, the humor is balanced nicely against the heartache that this movie evokes.  I found myself getting excessively emotional during the film's finale as some characters said goodbye to each other, perhaps forever.

The biggest flaw in the film is a problem of focus.  This is not so much a Toy Story movie as it is a Woody movie.  While Woody and Buzz have been the main characters for the entire series, all of the other characters were incredibly important and had their own particular story arcs.  Here, everyone is used as supporting players to Woody's journey.  This is especially noticeable with Buzz.  Even though he has more screen time than most of the other toys, he really doesn't go on any journey of incredible depth.  Of course, the running gag of him listening to his "inner voice" is a great one.  But overall, I had a mild sense of disappointment that I didn't also get to spend more time with these characters I've come to love.

This is why I stated that the film should be taken like an epilogue.  Its purpose is to focus on what happens to Woody now that Andy is gone.  Woody's whole arc in Toy Story 2 was to be there for Andy until he grew up.  But that ended with Toy Story 3.  With Bonnie, Woody isn't needed.  So what does he do?

The relationship between Woody and Forky is a fantastic place of growth to explore.  Essentially, Woody becomes a dad.  Forky is like a child who is innocent but self-destructive.  Woody has to constantly pluck Forky from the jaws of death in the way that dads have to use their "dad-reflexes" to stop their children from injuring themselves.  You can see the constant wear and frustration that this has on Woody who now has to be responsible in a way that he has never had to before.

But the question lingers: what is Woody's purpose?  And even more importantly, what is his reward?  It is said that virtue is its own reward and the same can be seen in Woody's vocation to make Andy happy.  I love the way the film explores why toys are just frivolities but are actual important.  Toys are the means of bringing joy, exciting the imagination, and giving comfort and courage in times of darkness.  Woody has done all of that and he treasures those times.  But Andy is gone and Woody is still here.  Thankfully, the movie isn't simply ponderous, naval-gazing.  Woody is a toy of action and it is through he deeds that he discovers what he should do and who he should be.

The only other flaw I see in the film is the fact that Bo is constantly emasculating Woody.  Their relationship has turned more antagonistic than ever.  She has been living "in the wild" for years and has become jaded and aggressive.  She constantly berates Woody for his naivete and she consistently lectures him when he screws up.  This would be a bigger problem if Woody simply rolled over.  While he does acknowledge her leadership and value, he stays true to his optimistic attitude and challenges Bo to find the joy she has since lost.

This is not the best of the series.  But do not let that dissuade you.  If you love this world and love these characters, then this is the Toy Story four you.

Monday, June 24, 2019

New Evangelizers Post: Public Sin vs. Private Sin

I have a new article up at  
Brebeuf Jesuit High School in Indiana has been at the center of a news story. One of their faculty members has entered into a same-sex “marriage.” The Archbishop of Indianapolis urged the school to dismiss the teacher for giving public scandal to Catholic teaching. Brebeuf has refused and the Archbishop has disallowed them the label of “Catholic” in his archdiocese.

Today’s article is not about this issue per se. Instead, I want to focus on a response by Fr. James Martin SJ, who took to Twitter to condemn the actions of the archdiocese. He tweeted:

“If employees’ “professional and private lives must convey and be supportive of Catholic Church teaching” that means that, to be consistent, all Catholic institutions (schools, parishes, hospitals, retreat centers) in the Archdiocese would also have to fire the following people:
1) Catholic straight individuals living with someone before being married.
2) Catholic married couples who use birth control.
3) Catholic straight individuals who are divorced and remarried without an annulment.
4) Catholic couples who use in vitro fertilization.”

He goes on, but I think we need an important clarification here on the difference between public sin and private sin.

Always the problem with public sin is that it can lead to the additional problem of scandal. We are all called to be witnesses to Christ in our lives. Because we are broken by Original Sin, we almost always fall short of that high calling. At the very least, I know that I am constantly struggling to overcome sin in my life. We are all sinners, no one disputes this. Fr. Martin sees people with same-sex attractions as being particularly hounded for their sins. To bolster his perspective, I will say that in my years teaching high school, students with same-sex attractions feel like they are being particularly singled out for any sinful behavior regarding their sexuality.

But that really isn’t the issue. The issue for the employment is not the same-sex sin as such, but the public scandal of it.

Scandal has been a serious issue from the beginning. In 1 Corinthians, Paul is furious that Christians in Corinth are suing each other in public court. He says that this gives horrible witness to the love we are supposed to have for each other. He writes:

“I say this to shame you. Can it be that there is not one among you wise enough to be able to settle a case between brothers? But rather brother goes to court against brother, and that before unbelievers? Now indeed [then] it is, in any case, a failure on your part that you have lawsuits against one another” (1 Corinthians 6:5-7)

The problem is not just that some Christians are taking things without returning them. The problem is that their brother and sister Christians are taking them to court and that this is causing scandal. This could cause confusion, frustration, and rejection of the true faith.

I had a former student who asked me if it would be okay to move in with her boyfriend as long as they were not engaging in pre-marital sex. She was a devout Catholic, but they both had trouble maintaining to two residents. I told her not to do so. Even if she was living correctly. Cohabitation of a romantically linked couple implies sexual activity. This would lead to a negative witness that sex outside of marriage was morally acceptable for Catholics, even if they themselves were not engaging in it.

In 2 Maccabees, the old man Eleazar is forced to choose between eating pork (which defies God’s Kosher laws) or death. Some of his friends sneak him some lamb meat that he can eat and pretend it is pork, thereby saving his life and not sinning. But Eleazar refuses. He says:

““At our age it would be unbecoming to make such a pretense; many of the young would think the ninety-year-old Eleazar had gone over to an alien religion. If I dissemble to gain a brief moment of life, they would be led astray by me, while I would bring defilement and dishonor on my old age.” (2 Maccabees 6:24-25)

He understands that even if he does not personally sin, the scandal could lead others astray. And that is what is at issue with Brebeuf High School. Fr. Martin is probably correct that there are many others who are not living in perfect accord with Christian morality. You will find that in any community. But a civil “marriage” is not a private matter but a public one.

We need to make a further distinction between persistent and non-persistent public sin. In a persistent public sin, a person is clearly and visibly living in defiance to Christian morality and appears to have no intention of changing. A non-persistent public sin could be some horrible offense that is past. The non-persistent kind is not what is at issue at Brebeuf. If it was discovered that, for example, a Catholic couple working at a school had engaged in fornication with each other in the past. If it was a one-time fall from grace, from which both had repented, then the scandal would be less. If that couple, instead, decided to publicly flaunt their illicit sexual relationship to the world, this would cause scandal.

At Brebeuf, it is not simply a matter of having someone who has same-sex attractions on the staff. It isn’t even a matter of someone on the staff having engaged in sexual activity with someone of the same sex. The issue is that someone on the staff is publicly and persistently engaged in sexual activity that is at odds with the Gospel message. And now we run an even greater risk, as the wise Eleazar understood, of leading many other young people into error.

I must take a few moments and speak about private sin. Please do not think that simply because scandal is attached to public sin that it is somehow less horrible than private sin. In some ways, private sin is worse for the soul.

You can read the whole article here.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Sunday Best: TOP 10 PIXAR Movies

With the opening of Toy Story 4 a few days ago, I thought it would be appropriate to go back and rank the top 10 PIXAR films thus far.

Very few studios have maintained such high quality for so long.  Cars was the first movie that I thought was sub-par, but not bad.  And there have been others like Brave that never met their full potential.  Regardless, it is incredible to me that they are still able to make excellent films.

10.  Toy Story 4

This latest epilogue to the Toy Story trilogy is as thrilling and fun and emotional as any in the franchise.  Less of an ensemble, focusing mainly on Woody, this story explores what the hero does when they complete their mission.

9.  A Bug's Life
The poster features Flik peeking out of the leaf with the rest of the circus bugs including Francis, Dot, Heimlich, and Slim.
This was the movie that made me realize that PIXAR could be profound.  After Flick the Ant is beaten by Hopper and his hordes, he struggles to his feet and stands in defiance.  The way that scene was visually rendered was incredibly powerful and it showcased foreshadowed the depths that PIXAR would explore in the future.

8.  WALL-E
While the rest of the movie does not live up to the first act (with the exception of the finale), the opening to WALL-E is an amazing example of brave, confident storytelling through the visuals.  We come to fall in love with our hero in this desolate world and are completely drawn in to his fascinating story.

7.  Inside Out

No one does "high concept" like PIXAR.  The fully-realized emotional world of this movie is not only incredibly funny, but has so much to say thematically about how our emotions get out of balance when as we grow up and why its okay to be sad.  It also has what is maybe the best scene in all of PIXAR when we see into the mind of the young man who bumps into our main character at a hockey game.

6.  The Incredibles
Theatrical release poster depicting the Incredibles running from an explosion
I've often said that this is the best Fantastic Four movie ever made.  It is slick and stylish while at the same time being a strong message about the importance of intact families and strong marriages.  Here, PIXAR shows us how to make real superhero films that are accessible to all ages.

5.  Toy Story
The poster features Woody anxiously holding onto Buzz Lightyear as he flies in Andy's room. Below them sitting on the bed are Bo Peep, Mr. Potato Head, Troll, Hamm, Slinky, Sergeant and Rex. In the lower right center of the image is the film's title. The background shows the cloud wallpaper featured in the bedroom.
The one that started it all is still one of the most re-watchable of the franchise.  The premise is so simple: what if our toys came to life when we weren't looking?  But more than that, it gave us a strong emotional thru-line with Woody's jealousy of Buzz and their inevitable friendship as they are forced to journey into danger together.  And that score... magic!

4.  Toy Story 2

This is superior to the first by adding the emotional complexities that will be the trademark of all the Toy Story movies going forward.  This was also the movie that made beautiful melancholy a hallmark of PIXAR with Jessie's flashback of her old owner.  That scene alone is so full of heartbreak that it is surprising that the movie is able to bring itself back.  And the airport chase at the end is thrilling!

3.  Toy Story 3
All of the toys packed close together, holding up a large numeral '3', with Buzz, who is putting a friendly arm around Woody's shoulder, and Woody holding the top of the 3.
There are many people who say that this is the greatest of all the PIXAR films and I respect that decision.  This movie takes us to the dark days forecast in the previous film, where Andy has grown up.  What are the value of the toys now?  The movie is an emotional wallop.  First, the scene at the dump is harrowing.  Watching Buzz's silent reaction when Jesse asks what they are going to do is so moving and tragic.  But the final goodbye playtime at the movie's very end perfectly captures the inescapable sadness of growing up and moving on.

2.  Monsters, Inc.
Monsters Inc.JPG
To this day there are gags in this movie that make me laugh out loud at the thought of them.  Billy Crystal and John Goodman are a pitch-perfect duo in this wonderfully inventive film that was the most beautifully rendered up until that point.  Exploring deep themes in accessible ways while nearly overdosing on cuteness with Boo, this movie is amazing up until the final perfect shot of the movie as it fades to credits.

1.  Up
A house is floating in the air, lifted by balloons. A dog, a boy and an old man hang beneath on a garden hose. "UP" is written in the top right corner.
I don't think they will ever top this film.  It is quite amazing that they built a fantastic adventure around an old, hobbled widower.  Most people remember the montage in the first act as the best part of the film.  And it is truly one of the great movie montages of all time.  But unlike WALL-E, the rest of the movie matches the excellence presented in that beginning.  With one of the best movie scores of all time, the movie has PIXAR's most beautiful imagery.  All the while the adventure touches on timeless truths about loss and relationships and letting go.  But for me, the greatest message of all is that an ordinary life filled with love is the greatest adventure there is.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Film Flash: Toy Story 4

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

Toy Story franchise is four-for-four in making animated classics. Wonderful trilogy epilogue.

Film Flash: Late Night

Late Night poster.jpeg

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

Not bad.  But to work, movies about comedians must be extremely funny.  This isn't.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Film Review: The Public

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

I have been a fan of Emilio Estevez for a long time.  His last film, The Way, is a thing of beauty that is insightful and inspiring with its visual beauty and thematic depth.  So I was eager to see his follow up, The Public.  Once again Estevez aims high to tell a story of importance.

Unfortunately, this movie falls short.

Estevez stars as Stuart Goodson, one of the floor managers at the Cincinnati Public Library in the downtown area.  For him, the library is almost hallowed ground.  It is a place where ideas can change people's lives.  However, most of the people around him do not see that majesty.  Mostly, Stuart's job is managing the homeless population who seek shelter in the library during operating hours.  The city is experiencing a cold snap and the shelters are pushed to capacity.  The homeless patrons led by Jackson (Michael Kenneth Williams) decide to occupy the library at closing and refuse to leave.  Stuart has choose: does he stand with the rule of law or the safety of the homeless.  That choice defines the rest of the film.

As a director, Estevez is still at the top of his game.  He makes us feel the bitter chill of the Cincinnati streets and the warmth, both literal and figurative, of the library.  He makes the location a kind of character throughout the film.

He is also fantastic at casting.  The cast includes Alec Baldwin, Taylor Schilling, Jena Malone, Gabrielle Union, Jeffrey Wright, and Christian Slater.  Wright is a particular standout as an actor who portrays all his characters with a strong sense of truth about them.  Even when he gets emotional, I never catch him "acting."  

The movie wants to use this cast and this setting to raise important and controversial questions about when morality and legality clash.  The set-up is fairly strong and the first act is fairly even-handed in its approach to the problem.  But the movie never gets to where it wants to go because of the shortcomings of the script.

In general, I am not a fan of "Christian movies."  Though I obviously am receptive to their themes, this films tend to fail artistically.  One of the main reasons this happens is that they put message over storytelling.  They are so concerned with telling you the moral of the story that they forget to tell the story well.  While they have moments of inspiration and uplift, they tend to collapse under their own moral weight because they have not built a solid story structure to support it.

And that is the case with The Public.

There is no place where this is more evident than in the villain played by Christian Slater.  The "bad guy" is a district attorney running for mayor of Cincinnati.  He cares for nothing instead of his own political ambitions and he sees the library incident as a means to bump his poll numbers.  He lies about Stuart and the protest and maligns them maliciously to the media.  As in most Christian films, the antagonist is painted in such broad brush strokes as to be cartoonish.  The film would have been so much more interesting if they can made it a movie without bad guys: just good people on opposite sides of an important and dangerous confrontation.  To his credit, Estevez does not fully idealize the homeless patrons, bringing up their struggles with addiction.  And even his allies, like co-worker Myra (Jenna Malone), display shallowness as they strive for depth.  But it never feels like a fair moral fight.

The other problem is that the plot doesn't seem to know where it wants to go.  The tensions between the two sides build and build to a point.  But the resolution to the confrontation is so... odd.

I really can't explain why without spoiling the film.  But I got the distinct sense that as the story points came to a head, Estevez tried to come up with a novel solution to the problem.  But it is so bizarre that it was much more confusing than cathartic.

Having said all this, like most Christian movies, there are moments of inspiration and uplift.  Estevez makes us feel the courage of Stuart grow as the film progresses.  The movie moved me to reach out more to the homeless and those in need.  Estevez wants very much to get the audience to see the presence of God in the poor.  It is clear that he is following the lead of his father, Martin Sheen, and trying to be a good son (or in the case of this movie, "Goodson.").  

In The Way, he let us see the slowly unfolding humanity and beauty of four flawed travelers.  He did not feel the need to spell out the main morals as he does in The Public, because in that film, he trusted his audience to see it for themselves.  If he had done that with this movie, it would have ranked much higher.

However, I would rather have a director that swings for the fences and misses than one that never really tries.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Wednesday Comics: Superman - Year One #1

Image result for superman year one #1

"You can't have justice without truth."

Did we really need another Superman origin story.

After reading the first issue of Superman: Year One, the answer is a resounding "YES!"

This is the latest outing for writer/artist Frank Miller.  Miller is, of course, a legend to anyone in the comic book world.  His biggest hit is the seminal The Dark Knight Returns, which is always paired along with Watchmen as the two masterpieces of the 1980's.  Miller is also responsible for other great work like the "Born Again" story in Daredevil, his critically acclaimed Sin City, the historical action epic 300, and Batman: Year One.

However, Miller's name is not without stain.  Two of his two most high profile works: The Dark Knight Strikes Again and All-Star Batman and Robin are so notoriously awful that any mockery of them seems better than the work itself.  So hiring Miller to take on the central DC hero is not a sure thing.  Even though John Romita Jr. comes with talent to aid Miller in this telling, I approached this story with very low expectations.

It begins, as usual, on doomed Krypton.  Miller does an excellent job of painting the scene with the words as well as the pencils.  He describes "crystalline structures meant to last eons shattering like porcelain."  That line particularly struck me in the way that it reduced the hefty accomplishments of this advance culture into a fragile edifice, destined for collapse.

Miller also does something incredibly interesting with the narration.  Instead of the word boxes being simple third-person omniscient or first person monologue, he blends the two together.  You read what seems like an objective statement, but you realize that he is infusing it with the voice and point of view of one of the characters.  And Miller slyly slips from one voice to another in a way that is never jarring.

When baby Kal El arrives, Jonathan Kent finds him and the little Kryptonian scans his brain to find he is not hostile.  Kal seems almost like a manipulative monster-child in that moment.  When I read this, I was worried that Miller was about to take Superman's origin down a dark path like the horror movie Brightburn.  Instead, what Miller deftly does is create just enough sense of unease and tension to give the story a sense of uncertainty that it needs.  If what you are reading is literally the same old story, then we lose the thrill of the surprise.  Will young Clark Kent become an overbearing monster?  That possibility is left dangling in the air.

The real meat of the story is in Clark's first year of high school.  He could easily side with the popular students, but he decides to hang out with "the weirdos."  He tries to look out for them as they are harassed and bullied.  All the while, you keep waiting for the possibility that he could snap and go full killer.  But he works so hard at restraint.

This is also one of the book's greatest strengths.  Superman is understood as the one with the greatest power.  But honestly, his solution to most of the great villains is to punch them really, really hard.  But Clark finds that his interventions sometimes make things even worse.  Escalation seems to be the rule, rather than the exception.  And here is where we begin to see why Clark started on a path towards his career as a reporter.  The best way to get justice is to pursue truth.

The doomed romance between Clark and Lana is also one of the most beautiful things about this book.  It feels very slow and natural, filled with the endless possibilities of high school love.  And the more you root for them, the more it hurts knowing that they are not destined to be together.

But the best part of the story is Jonathan Kent.  He teaches his son restraint, but he is not afraid of his son's power.  Martha is, of course, appalled at the idea of ever using force to solve problems.  But Jonathan tells Clark that he should always try and find a non-violent solution to everything.  But when that fails, sometimes you need to act decisively.  The humanity and the morals that Superman has are products of his earthly parents' upbringing.  But the MAN in SuperMAN is all from Jonathan.  This story demonstrates how much we need fathers to teach our sons not only to be good men, but simply to be men.

The story ends by taking Clark on a path never explored before in comics.  It feels fresh and different and I look forward to the next chapter.

Superman: Year One is done in the oversized format of the DC Black label, but it is worth the added price.  This helps give the story its larger-than life feel.  Nothing about the story felt rushed.  About half-way through I felt like I was reading something big and special.  The art matches the tone of the book beautifully.

Recently, there have been a lot of books that have started strong, but failed to stick the landing.  I'm hoping that the quality of this mini-series remains.  I highly recommend going out and picking up this book today.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Film Flash: All is True

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

Beautiful directing and great acting cannot overcome this terrible, terrible script.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Who a Father Is

Today, Father's Day, is a day to reflect on what it is to be a father.

A child's relationship with the father is different than the mother, as it should be.  God knew what He was doing when he set up the family so that there could be both the influence of the male and the female.  We need both parents to inform who we are as people.  Neither is more important, but it is a mistake to see them as the same.

My experience tells me that the father is the one who provides.  I do not simply mean financially, though that is a part of it.  The mother has a special nurturing closeness.  Fathers can be close and nurturing, but they are there to provide all that the child needs to become an adult.  Sometimes there is a distance between fathers and children because the father is less interested in those immediate affections from their children and more interested in their children's future happiness.  Perhaps I should restate: it is not that the father does not want their children's affection, it's that the father intuitively understands that he does not have a right to claim them.

There was a father who had a baby girl.  But the mother left him and left the state.  She married another man and sent the father papers for him to sign to relinquish parental rights.  This was before it was easy to track someone on the Internet, so he did not know where his child was.  Years later, he hired a private detective who tracked them down.  The detective told him that the daughter was doing well and was happy, believing that the man who was raising her was her biological father.  After listening to the detective, that man decided never to contact her.  He yearned to see his child and tell her how much he cared for her.  But he didn't.  That is because a father understands that the happiness of a child comes before his own.

You can see this in small things as well as big things.  There was a father who planned a big family trip to Florida.  The one thing that he wanted to do was see the swimming "Mermaids" in an aquatic show that he found enchanting.  His children complained and whined and moaned.  And even though it was unfair of them, he relented and went and did something that they all wanted to do.  Parents know this life, taking your kids to see movies you hate or to concerts of whoever the inane child star is at the time.

But even more so, fathers are ready to be the villain to their children.  There was a father whose wife left him.  They had four children, most of them still in grade school.  The court system being what it is, tends to have it so mothers win custody the vast majority of the time.  This father knew that he could not let this happen.  It wasn't that the mother was abusive or bad.  But he knew that the best lives for his children would be if he raised them.  He had made a good living and could give his children a stability that she could not.  He fought like hell to keep his kids.  He was willing to give anything, even his own home, to make sure that his kids could stay with him.  It eventually worked out where he retained full custody, but she had unlimited access to the kids.

He didn't want her to leave and was willing to do anything to get her to stay.  She refused.  Because children tend to have closer affection for their mothers, blame for the divorce fell on the father.  Never once did he dispute this.  Never once did he imply that she was the one who wanted to leave.  He allowed his children to think he was the bad guy so that they could have a good relationship with their mother.

A real man, a real father, looks past the those affections that parents desire from their children.  He has to.  Sometimes he has to push his children because he knows they cannot stay children.  His little boys and baby girls must grow up to be men and women.  He has to push them to the point where they no longer need him.  Sometimes they will run to him with problems, but he will not bail them out.  They resent him for this, but he needs them to grow up.

There was a father who pushed his kids, particularly in the area of academics.  He allowed them to do sports and extra-curriculars, but he did not allow them to get jobs.  He said that school was their job and they needed to excel.  He sent them to Catholic school, despite the cost.  He knew that this would not only give them a leg up academically, but it would lay out a foundation of spirituality and morality that could govern the rest of their lives.  Often his kids struggled, but he would not accept their mediocrity.  He pushed them and they detested his unfairness.  But he pushed them to be the best that they could be so they could get into any school they wanted and could pursue whatever career they desired so they could maximize their happiness.  But this pressure strained so much of his relationships with his kids.  Fights would often break out and things became antagonistic in other personal areas.  He would yell and criticize everything about them.  They treated him with snark.  One of them hated him.  One of them did not want him to be at their wedding.  One of them decided that after graduating college, he would have nothing to do with him.

Children can be unfair, but a father cannot care.

There was a father whose children had a confrontation with him one day about one of the kids.  This father did everything he could to provide for his children, but in their eyes, it was not good enough.  He was not the father they thought they deserved.  At this confrontation, his children (some of them adults), yelled, cried, and said that his home was not safe emotionally.  They laid at his feet all of the problems that one of the children was facing and intimated that it was his fault, even though it wasn't.

Children can be unfair.

And this father stood his ground, knowing that their attacks were rooted in care for their sibling.  But he allowed himself a moment of vulnerability.  Not everyone can be a stoic stone all the time.  That night, he was sitting on the couch, watching TV with his son, both a bit numb to the emotional events of the day.  It was quiet, they way it is when two men sit and watch TV together.  And then out of the blue, he asked his son, with complete vulnerability and honesty:

"Am I a bad father?"

This is the question that every father is afraid of.  You have to be strong and push your kids.  But how do you know if you push them too hard or push them away?  How do you know when you've made one mistake too many?  It's okay let your kids think you are the bad guy, but what if you become so domineering that you actually become the bad guy?

This father asked the question few fathers ever dare ask.  And after the events of the day,  I'm sure he could guess the answer.

His son looked at him as if for the first time.  He did not see that grand authoritative father.  He saw a man.  He saw a man just like him, one who struggled every day with trying to figure out what is right and having the strength to do it.  The father had made himself more vulnerable in that moment than his son had ever seen in his life.  The son knew that his next words could destroy him in a way that no other words could.  What was this son, one who struggled with this father for his entire life, to do?  How was he to respond?  He laid his head against his father's chest, the way John did to Christ at the Last Supper.

And I said, "You're a good father."

All of these stories are about my dad.  More than anyone I have ever known, he has taught me what it is to be a man.

Like my late mother, my father is not a saint.  I do not say this as a criticism, but an acknowledgment of our fallen reality.  He made many mistakes along the way, as all fathers do.  But he is a better man than I could ever hope to be.  I pray always that he is proud of me in proportion to how honored I am to be his son.  For whatever reason, from all eternity, God chose him to be dad.  So much of who I am has been shaped by him.  He never gave up on me, never let me settle for less.  No matter the highs and lows of our relationship, this much I know to be true:

I am a man because of my father.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Trailer Time: Doctor Sleep

There have been many, many bad Stephen King adaptations.  But you hold out for the really good ones like 2017's IT.

I have a feeling like this could be one of the better ones.  The movie leans very heavily into the visual imary from The Shining, and that is a good thing.  That final shot of Danny looking through the door with the same framing as Jack is powerful.  Ewan McGreggor doesn't seem to have aged in the last ten years.

I need to see more, but I am kind of excited.


Thursday, June 13, 2019

It Matters Because It Doesn't

I often reflect on the nature of this blog.  It is meant to be a convergence of theology, philosophy, and pop culture.  But it is that third thing that keeps nagging at me.  I am very much enamored of popular culture, but it is often very clearly at antagonistic ends with my own convictions.  But even if it wasn't, how does discussing the perfect Justice League line-up or which Caddyshack movie is best compare to the deeper questions about life, the universe, and everything.

In other words, why does pop culture matter?

We cannot simply assume that it does because it is by its nature popular.  There are many popular things that do not have stamped on it the timelessness of lasting cultural significance.  Anyone here still into the POG craze?  How many people still play Pokemon Go?

A thing may be popular because it strikes a deep chord into our common humanity.  I think this is the case with some great works like The Lord of the Rings or Schindler's List.  But there are some that come on boldly because we also crave the new and exciting.  Game of Thrones rose to popularity because of how novel it was in its vulgarity.  Will we still be talking about it in 10 years?

Compare that to the eternal questions of the soul and salvation.  Is there a God?  How can I know Him?  How can I even know myself?  I seem to be a mystery even to me.  If I cannot figure out the subject whom I am closest to, how can I hope to sound the depths of any other mystery.

When I die and I stand before God, He may ask me to account for how I used my time to make the world a better place.  I don't think He is going to check and see if I watched all the episodes of The Office.

So again, what does pop culture matter?

I think the answer is clear: it doesn't.

But that is why it matters.

We have to remember that human beings are not automatons governed purely by logic.  Our passions serve as the fuel the moves us to action.  And it is in those action that we live our lives.  This is why we constantly seek out things that not only increase our knowledge base, but more often we seek things that stimulate our emotions.  We want to laugh and cry and scream.  We want to our hearts to be filled and to break.  We want to feel.

And we don't just want this feeling to be passive.  We want to be active.  We want to be passionately engaged.

But here is the problem: the greater the active engagement, the greater risk of damage.

Here, I am talking about how we interact with each other.

There are very few convictions that we hold that compare to our religious and political convictions.  Get people together of a like mind on these subjects and they can whip themselves into a veritable frenzy, feeding off of each other's energy as their ideas harmonize, converge, and rise.  We feel validated and lifted.

But we are constantly warned not to talk about religion and politics in polite company.  Why not?  Because we hold these convictions so tightly that when disagreements occur, we argue.  And when we argue and attack someone's convictions, that person feels personally attacked.  Relationships, even family relationships, can wither and crack under that kind of pressure.  I don't want to be told I'm a racist or Communist because of who I voted for.  I don't want other people to tell me I'm going to hell because of my beliefs about the Virgin Mary.  Now, I may need these types of corrections, but I certainly don't enjoy them.  And I may feel particular animus at the person who directs this critical eye towards me.

And yet there is a joy in the fight.  We feel our hearts swell as we take up a noble stand and defend our beliefs with great conviction.  We argue and defend.  We get into a war of words and we feel like veterans in a war of words.  If not for the carnage wrought on the relationships with our interlocutors, this would be a fantastic joy.

And that is where the pop culture comes in.

When we argue about movies, music, TV, books, comic books, sports, video games, etc, we do so because we feel passionately about something.  A student tells me that Star Wars is stupid.  I immediately spring into action go through the movie's genius.

"I guess Spielberg is an okay director," someone says.  I hop in and defend him, citing his resume of timeless films.

"The Lost finale was terrible," another says.  I spend the next half-of-an-hour explaining how they are wrong.

And my opponents will give as good as they get.  Any time a conversation is dominated by one side, it tends to be unpleasant.  We begin to joust with words.  And we do so with same level of passion (though not importance) as we would about religion or politics.

My friends and I once got into a heated debate over the question of whether or not Padme Amidala is evil.  The email texts came out to over 30 pages.  The arguments were impassioned, the data was scrutinized, questions of morality and personal responsibility were raised.

One of these same friends just called me on Tuesday to yell at me about my ranking of X-Men movies and how I had it all wrong.  As I sat in the parking lot of the movie theater, we debated back and forth for 30 minutes, going over whether the flaws of X-Men: The Last Stand are significant enough to ruin the work as a whole.  Voices were raised.  Arguments were interrupted and cut off.  And yet as forceful as we were with each other, we know that there will be no damage at all to our friendship.  Imagine taking that passion and focus it on something that matters, like if you have to tell a friend that they are dating the wrong person.  You can see how that friendship could be damaged.

The pop culture is not an end in itself.  It is really should be looked at like culture in a biological sense.  It is a medium in which life can take place.  It is a means to an end.  Some people only want to talk about the "important" things because they matter more.  While these things are more important, it does not always facilitate an ease of conversation.  You want to connect to your little niece or nephew?  You may not get anywhere by asking the big questions like, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"  You start with asking about Frozen or slime (kids today love slime).  Then when the relationship is stronger, they open up.

My friends and I sometimes reflect on the fact that we are still talking about the same crap we did in high school: movies, comics, video games, comics...  But I think that is part of the reason why we still talk to each other all these years after high school.  It doesn't really matter what the subject is, as long as it isn't immoral.  A common interest can make fruitful connections.

CS Lewis became lifelong friends with Arthur Greeves when they were boys.  They had nothing in common except they loved Norse Mythology.  Years later, they still reveled in those stories.  But the friendship that grew out of that connection was the real prize.  It created a connection in which something greater could flourish.  I think about that scene in City Slickers were one of the characters says that no matter how bad his relationship with father became, he could always talk to him about baseball.

In my school, I run a film club.  It always amazes me when I see so many young people, many of whom are incredibly shy, begin to interact with each other and make deep friendships simply because they watched the same movie together and wanted to talk about it.

Online, especially on Twitter, I have made some friendships with people simply because we could talk about our common interests in pop culture.  We interact with each other, encourage each other, and we pray for each other.

My own family has several philosophical divides about religion, politics, economics, morality and the like.  And yet, no matter where we are or what history has past, we can always start any conversation by discussing an episode of I Love Lucy or the awesomeness of the movie Willow.  Even if life pulls us in so many different directions where we can no longer see the same truth together, this pop culture connection can gives at least a tenuous tether.  It is keeps the door open just enough so that we can still connect to each other and still talk to each other.  We can even fight without really fighting.  We can argue without really arguing.  In other words, we can have fully human and passionate exchanges of ideas without driving the other away.

And we won't drive each other away because in the end, the pop culture doesn't matter.

That is why it matters.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Why Do We Love Keanu Reeves?

Keanu Reeves (25448963336) (2).jpg
image by Gordon Correll

I can't think of a single person right now who does not like Keanu Reeves.

This is odd because growing up it was common to make him to butt of jokes, citing his wooden acting or his catch phrase "Whoa."  And yet today all of that seems a distant memory.  He was just at E3, the gaming convention, and brought the house down.

So why, now, is Reeves so popular.

I have a few possible reasons:

1. Body of Work

In his career, Reeves has been in nearly 100 movies.  And in that time he has made some truly bad films (e.g. The Day the Earth Stood Still).  But in that time he has also delivered films of incredible quality.  Granted, he may not have been the main reason for all of these films doing well, but here are a list of movies that were either critically or commercially very well-received:
-Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure
-Point Break
-My Own Private Idaho
-Bram Stoker's Dracula
-Much Ado About Nothing
-Little Buddha
-A Walk in the Clouds
-The Devil's Advocate
-The Matrix Trilogy
-Knock, Knock
-The John Wick Movies

Not only has his career spanned four decades (which is of itself an incredible accomplishment), but he has a shockingly diverse filmography.  As much as people made fun of his acting range, he has stepped into so many different genres:  Sports (The Replacements, Hardball), Historical Drama (Dangerous Liaisons), Children's films (Babes in Toyland, Toy Story 4), Independent Darlings (My Own Private Idaho), Comic Book (Constantine), Romance (A Walk in the Clouds, The Lake House), Horror (Knock, Knock), Morality Tale (The Devil's Advocate), and the list goes on.

Because of this, most of the public has experienced Keanu Reeves in some form, usually in multiple genres.  We have gotten to see many different sides of him.  And his body of work that is still watched and enjoyed today is larger than most working actors his age.

Credit must also be given especially to the John Wick movies, which has helped cement his current status as an action icon of the past and the present.

2.  Timeless

This is a reference to a number of his movies, but also to the man himself.  Even though a number of his films are very much of their era (e.g. Bill and Ted), they can still be enjoyed completely today.  I recently showed Bill and Ted's excellent adventure to my students.  Even though the movie is over 30 years old, it still made all of them laugh.

But Reeves himself seems to be timeless.  Or rather, he seems to be ageless.  His current beard and hair configuration may hide some wrinkles, but he has lost none of his potency nor his energy.  Watching the last John Wick, I marveled at his level of physicality, something that would take its toll on a young man in his prime, let alone someone who is 54-years-old!

I don't think we like to admit the fact that we don't like watching our favorite stars get old.  Seeing our old movie heroes lose that power that we remember in our minds can be daunting.  Reeves is doing his best to not let that happen.  When I go in to see the next Indiana Jones movie, I will not expect the same level of action as Raiders of the Lost Ark or even Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  But when I see the next John Wick, I will expect even more out of Reeves, and so far he has not disappointed.

This doesn't just apply to the action.  He plays a romantic interest to Ali Wong in Always Be My Maybe which just came out on Netflix.  Even though he is nearly 20 years older than her, it doesn't feel out of place or time.

3.  Personal Life

I know very little about Keanu Reeve's personal life, and I think that is a great thing.  He has kept his name out of the tabloids and seems like someone who is more interested in being an actor than in being a star.

What I do know is that he lives very modestly.  He has given much of his fortune to charity, particularly cancer charities.  He took a pay cut so that the CGI team on The Matrix Revolutions could get paid what they were owed.  He gets to know the crew on the movies he films.  They all say that he sees himself as just another part of the team, equal to them.  Many of have seen the viral video of Reeves giving up his seat on a subway to a lady who was standing, a simple act of decency, but one that is endearing.

People tell stories about encountering him and relay his graciousness.  I heard one account (one that I cannot verify), that he was eating by himself in a restaurant.  A fan who was eating with his friends, saw Reeves and invited him to dine with them.  To their surprise, he did and was apparently very nice and down-to earth.

I do not know his politics and he has made sure not to foist them on the public.  He is not interested in alienating any potential fans.

4.  Talent and Charisma

As I wrote earlier, people would often make fun of his lack of range.  And to be sure, you can see some of that stiffness in his earlier films.  But Reeves did something that not a lot of movie stars do over four decades: he kept getting better.  In fact, I would say that he is at the height of his powers now.  But even in years past, his growth was tremendous.  His emotional range in The Matrix Revolutions or The Devil's Advocate is phenomenal.  And over time, you can see that he has a more relaxed control over his technique.  He appears much more sure of himself and comfortable in his own skin.

But he also has that X-factor of charisma.  While some take his delivery as wooden, over the years it has become iconic.  No one delivers a line like Keanu Reeves.  No one acts like Keanu Reeves.  Over the years we have become so attuned to Keanu Reeves that he is able to deliver a cinematic shorthand to his performances that creates a deeper connection to his audience.

Very few people will have a career like Keanu Reeves and few ever will.

And the best part is, it feels like he's only getting started.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Film Flash: Aladdin

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

Aladdin (1992) > Aladdin (2019), but an entertaining musical (though the song they added sucks.)

Monday, June 10, 2019

New Evangelizers Post: Responses to Abortion Memes

I have a new article up at  
As I wrote in my last article, the culture war surrounding abortion has heated up.

One of the things that I’ve noted is new and strange memes that the pro-abortion side has unleashed. A meme is an idea that gets passed along to individuals in our culture by coming into contact with it. Most of the memes that people are familiar with are pictures like “Grumpy Cat” or “Overly Attached Girlfriend.” But memes can also be slogans that get filtered through social media.

Over the last few weeks, with more and more states passing stronger restrictions to abortion, these memes have been saturating the internet. I have noticed them filtering down into the classroom setting with students bringing them up in class.

In this article, I will go over the most popular ones I have seen and I will refute them. Please keep in mind, most of the people who use these slogans are not arguing from reason. No matter how logical your arguments are, chances are you will not be able to change their minds.

So why bother? My experience tells me that while the person spreading this meme is closed-minded, many people who are listening to the discussion or observing on social media are open-minded. The refutations are for the rational, not the irrational.


This is one is the only meme that has any weight to it, because it deals with a very serious emotional and moral dilemma. I dealt with the pro-life side of the argument in my last article. But this meme is meant to shame pro-lifers into shutting up so that they don’t further injure the survivor of a terrible crime.

But this meme is a complete distraction. As March For Life speaker Ben Shapiro pointed out, going to the extreme case makes no sense if the common case is still in dispute. If someone sends out this meme, respond by asking, “So you are against abortion in all other cases besides rape and incest?” They will most likely respond, “No!”

“Well,” you should reply, “Why in the world are we talking about the extreme cases! If abortion should be legal in all circumstances, then the extreme case doesn’t matter. It is only when we get to a place where all other abortions are illegal that cases of rape and incest should even be an issue.”


This one is particularly noxious because of how self-satisfied the memers present themselves, as if they have come up with a devastating, unanswerable analogy. A professor at UC San Diego School of Medicine recently compared the fetus to an invading parasite that feeds off of the host. I read one meme on Twitter that said something akin to this: “If you get a tapeworm, remember that tapeworm is alive and living off of your body just like a fetus, so if you are pro-life, it would be wrong to kill that tapeworm life.”
First, the fetus is human life. It is not a virus, germ, bacteria, or any other kind of life.

Second, the human body is designed to fight off parasites. A parasite invades the host and drains its life unnaturally. But the human body is designed for reproduction. Particularly, the woman’s body is designed to conceived, grow, and birth a child. Her body is not designed to take in, grow, and flourish a parasite. The parasite is foreign. The fetus is natural. It is true that there is strain on the woman’s body. But strain is not a sign that something is working against nature. If that were the case, no one would experience growing pains.


You can read the whole article here.