Thursday, April 30, 2020

Film Review: Onward

Sexuality/Nudity Mature (for a children's movie)
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity Acceptable
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature (for a children's movie)

Like most PIXAR films, Onward is incredibly clever.  Its premise is creative and its story has some intelligent twists and turns.  But what keeps this movie from really soaring is the excessive melancholy present in the film.

Onward takes place in a magical world of fairies, centaurs, and the like.  However, instead of continuing to rely on magic, these mythical beings embraced technology to create a world like ours, where magic has been relegated to legends and myths.  The story centers around Ian (Tom Holland), a geeky high school kid who is the yin to his boisterous, magic-obsessed brother Barley (Chris Pratt).  Their father died several years earlier so that Ian doesn't have any real memories of him and yearns for that connection that has been missing in his life.  On his birthday, their mother Laurel (Julia-Louis Dreyfus) presents them with a magical staff that their father willed to the boys when they were both of age.  It turns out that Ian has the power to use the staff to bring back their father for 24 hours.  He attempts the spell, but something goes wrong and their father only manifests from the waist down.  So the boys have 24 hours to find a magical crystal to complete the spell before their father is gone forever.

As I said, the movie is very clever.  The jokes and gags are witty and the brother are written to be incredibly likable.  Pratt's ability to infect his character with his child-like energy is uncanny.  Barley should be insufferably frustrating in his devil-may-care attitude.  But Pratt's voice makes him innocent and enthusiastic enough to be on his side the entire time.

The animation is also top-notch.  Director Dan Scanlon makes the movie a bold and colorful blend of the technical and magical.  The production design believable merges the worlds of technology and magic in a way that feels incredibly natural to the story.  Anyone who has played Dungeons and Dragons or Magic: the Gathering will be able to easily pick up on all the subtle and not-so-subtle references to the fantasy genre that give the movie a lot of its fun texture.  Barley constantly spouts things that sound familiar to fantasy fans.  The movie humorously blends the mythical with the absurd.  The Manticor (Octavia Spencer) has moved on from her role in dispensing mythical quest items to running a Chuck E. Cheese style restaurant.  The juxtaposition is so silly that it works very well.

There is one sequence by a draw bridge that not only hearkens back to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but it was a thrilling and uplifting character moment.  Moments like this made me almost love this movie.

And I wanted to love this movie.  I really did.

But I couldn't.  It is a good movie, but it has a horrible flaw at its heart.

Ian and Barley's father is present in most of the movie only with his lower half.  He cannot talk, he cannot see.  He stumbles around, unable to communicate with his sons, nor have any idea what is happening around him.  I don't think the writers truly grasped what a horrific idea this is.  Parents, imagine you got trapped under something with only your bottom half exposed.  You know your kids are present, but you cannot hear them or see them.  Everyone once and a while they make contact with you, but you don't know what is happening and you know that time is running out.  This made the race against time aspect of the movie drastically unpleasant.  Every obstacle was not only a challenge to overcome, but another nail in the coffin.  I don't think writers Scanlon, Jason Headley, and Keith Bunin thought their story through enough.


As the movie progresses, it pivots from a story about fathers and sons to a story primarily about brothers.  This move should have felt more natural and cathartic, but with the tragic-time crunch of the botched spell with the father created too much of an emotional investment in that story to move on to the new focus in the third act.


I would not recommend this movie for kids.  That was probably my biggest gripe.  A great kids movie could be enjoyed by both children and adults.  But this is something that is packaged to kids but geared towards adults.  When I said that the movie was melancholy, that doesn't mean that sadness is a deal-breaker.  Finding Nemo and Up have some of the saddest moments in animation and I would whole-heartedly recommend that film for children.  But the difference is that those movies front-load the sadness to the beginning and then show our heroes finding joy after tragedy.  People once asked GK Chesterton if it was a bad thing to teach children fairy stories since it presented an unrealistic view of the world.  Chesterton said that children already know that there are monsters in the world.  Fairy stories tell them that there are heroes who can defeat them.  In the same way, children already know that there is sadness in the world.  They want to know that there is a way to overcome it.

I was also on alert for the insertion of same-sex relationships in this film.  I will admit that the moment happens so quickly that you may not notice it at all, as it was in The Rise of Skywalker.  But it's insignificance also is part of its insidiousness.  If a movie wanted to be about characters with same-sex attractions and have it be marketed to children and families, I would prefer they do it openly so that parents can decide if they think their children are mature enough to engage the material.  But do not sneak in these agenda-driven moments like poison mixed into a drink.  Maybe the culture is at a point where this kind of movie would be a hit.  But don't try to sucker punch the audience.

This is such a shame, because if the shadow of melancholy and agenda evaporated, Onward would be a classic tale for the ages.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Wednesday Comics: Can Comics Survive?

Lauded comic book writer Grant Morrison said that comic books as an art form will endure.  He said even if it evolves into a weird technology that beams the image directly into your eyeball, there will be some kind of persistence.

With the shutdown of the major publishers and hundreds of comic book shops, the entire industry is hurting.  The main way the comic book industry has maintained itself is through the direct market to the individual comic book stores.  They ship new comics to the stores that release them on Wednesdays.  Long time collectors like myself make up the majority of their business.  They also release digital comics through apps like Comixology, but not nearly in the numbers that they do at the brick and mortar stores.  Because of the massive shut downs, there has been a month of no new comics being made, shipped, or sold.

Will it survive in its current form?

There are many people who are more learned than I about the ins and outs of the comic book industry.  I am writing from the perspective of an avid customer and an enthusiastic amateur.  These are my observations.


If comics in the current form is to survive, it will depend on the local comic book shops staying open.  The major companies have to do everything that they can to support them.  A store owner could probably give you a better perspective on what DC, Marvel, and the other companies can do to help.

The most important thing that I can think of is returning unsold comics.  DC offered to do this at the start of the outbreak.  To understand, the standard practice was for a company like Marvel or DC to sell a set number of each title like Iron Man or Batman to the store each week.  The store own buys them for a certain price below the cover price and then sell the comic for the cover price (standard now is $3.99 per comic book) and then they keep the difference as profit.  The problem is that if the comic does not sell with customers, the shop owner is left with a lot of product that they paid for to sit there and not sell.

For example, imagine you bought 30 copies Captain Marvel #1.  Cover price is $3.99 and you buy them for $1.99 each (these are only example numbers).  You then sell 10 copies.  You've taken in $39.90, but you've paid $59.70.  So you are at a loss on your investment.  Add to that shipping costs and other basic expenses of running a business, and you can see the problem.  Especially with first issues of a series, companies push high numbers on the stores and the stores might want to speculate as well.  But if the stores would be able to return the unsold comics, it could prevent them from taking a loss on poorly selling comics.

This would also help with the second issue


Every industry calls for this, but there is a real need for quality control in the comic book industry.  This is not exclusive to comics.  Movie box office numbers have been declining for years.  Even with record-breaking hits like Avengers: Endgame, the overall amount of people purchasing tickets continues to decline.  There are several reasons for this, but we have to take into account the poor quality of many of the movies Hollywood is producing.

The same thing applies to comics.  Avengers: Endgame is the highest grossing film of all time.  Why isn't the Avengers comic book being given this same investment of quality?  Marvel keeps pushing low-selling characters like Ms. Marvel.  Look at the debacle of the upcoming New Warriors, which has so much negative buzz that I am shocked that they are still making it.  Like Hollywood, so many comic book writers have forgotten that the most important thing is to create an entertaining and exciting story.  Instead, many of them want to make "important" stories that impact the culture.  This agenda-driven approach always harms the stories because people want to be to transported away to another world, not be lectured to about the world. 


While the local comic stores have been struggling, there are some creators that have been doing incredibly well with crowd-funding.  They pitch a story through the internet and comic book fans can pay them to produce the stories they want to read.  It is really an inversion of the current model where many of the big companies create lots of comics that most people don't want to read or purchase.  Hasbro did something similar with their HASLABS where they crowdfunded massive toys like Jabba's Sail Barge. 

The success of people like Ethan Van Sciver and Richard C. Meyer is actually quite stunning.  Other professionals I love like Chuck Dixon and Scott McDaniel are also doing well here.  Todd McFarlane recently crowdfunded an action figure of his comic book creation Spawn and he made over $2 million in 2 days. 

The advantage of a system like this is that it gives you an immediate gauge of what fans want and what they don't and it gets you the money upfront even before you've spent in on writers and artists to create it.  Right now, crowdfunding results in comics being directly mailed to customers.  But if these campaigns made enough profit, they could work to have them distributed to comic book stores.  In fact, Meyer was planning to do this with his first crowdfunded comic Jawbreakers: Lost Souls.  However, because he is disliked by other comic professionals, it is alleged that his distributor was pressured into dropping him.  This is actually the subject of a current lawsuit.

This could even be a model that the bigger companies use.  They could experiment with prestige projects and then see how that it could work on the series level.  McFarlane, Meyer, and Van Sciver have together raised millions of dollars and proven that there are people who want to spend their hard-earned money on stories that they want to read.  If Marvel and DC catered to their audience in a similar way, they could create more comics that fans like me will want to buy.

Will the big companies adapt?  I see that DC has been doing a lot to try to adjust to these new circumstances.  Also, they have some great writers like Geoff Johns and Robert Venditti producing some incredible work.  I don't know about Marvel.  In order for local comic shops to do well, both of the major companies need to have healthy sales. 

We will see.

Monday, April 27, 2020

New Evangelizers Post: The End of Penance

I have a new article up at  

We have now left the penitential season of Lent. For many of us, as soon as this time ended, we dropped our Lenten sacrifices like a bad habit. In some sense, this is right and proper since we are not celebrating Easter joy.

But the question remains: how much have we changed and drawn closer to God?

The end or purpose of our penitential practices is to detach ourselves from our sins and our worldly desires so that we can become more single-hearted in our devotion to God. The reason why many of us give up chocolate for Lent is not because there is something inherently evil about chocolate or the enjoyment of its sweetness. But we deny ourselves so that we can become more self possessed and not as beholden to our appetites and desires.

We also take on more devotional practices like the rosary and the Stations of the Cross during this season partly because we are sacrificing our time to show our devotion to the Lord. All of this is good and proper. But the addition of more penances and prayers is not the end or purpose of penance. In other words, God is not interested in having us do more simply for the sake of doing more.

In his novel The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevski has the buffoonish character Fyodor upbraid the inhabitant of a nearby monastery. He tells them that they are foolish because they think they are saving their souls by living in self-imposed poverty. And while Fyodor is no sage, his words have a point.
It is very important that we begin by understanding that there is nothing we can do to make God love us more than He does at this very moment. The Pelagian heresy held that we could earn our way to heaven by our devotion. St. Augustine was adamant that this was a contradiction to the Gospel. If I could earn my own way to salvation, then I would not need a Savior.

Some of my students ask if I think I am good enough to enter Heaven when I die. I tell them in no uncertain terms that I am not good enough. This fact is not a statement of despair, but of simple fact. The Lord’s gift of salvation is one that I will never earn. I feel the same way about my relationship with my wife. I don’t know why she chose to marry a bum like me, but I’m just grateful that she did. I will never be good enough, but I will spend the rest of my life doing my best to be worthy of her.

And that is essentially the end or purpose of penance. Ultimately, it is about our relationship to the Lord. It is not a cold , calculous, like some kind of spiritual economy. On the sitcom The Good Place, they describe an afterlife where you are punished or rewarded based on some kind of ethical point system. This is completely contrary to how Christianity teaches judgment will occur, though this may be how many Christians believe it will go. God is not our Spiritual Accountant. He is our Father.

Actions and works do matter. In the story of the final judgment in Matthew 25, those that are sent to hell are the ones who do not take care of the needs of the poor. Our penitential actions matter as well. But all these actions of penance and charity must be done from a good heart, a good soul. St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13 “If I speak with human and angelic tongues but do not have love, then I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal… and if I give over my body to be burned so that I may boast, it profits me nothing.” Paul is not saying that speaking well and dying a martyr are bad things. He himself did both. What he is saying is that they are expressions of a holy heart.

This brings us back to penance. Returning to The Brothers Karamazov, there is a dying elder in that same monastery. Like the buffoonish Fyodor, he speaks of penance. There is a strange harmony between the vulgar attack from Fyodor and the wise dying words of the elder. The dying sage reminds the monks that they do penance in the monastery and mortify their lives not because they are spiritually strong.

They do it because they are spiritually weak.

You can read the whole article here.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Sunday Best: Movies of My Life - Updated 2020

I usually don't participate in Facebook lists (especially since I am not on Facebook), but this one intrigued me.

The challenge is to go through your life and list the best movie from each year of your life.  You can have a tie once per decade.

I found this idea challenging and interesting.  What I found the most interesting is how little interest I had in most of the movies that came out just before I was born, but I have a strong affection for movies from my early childhood.  I wonder if that is common to most people who do this?

Anyway, here is my list.  For the sake of anonymity, I have started my list with the decade of my birth rather than my birth year (maybe).

1970Julius CaesarHeston as Marc Antony is cinematic gold.
1971The Big BossBruce Lee's first starring feature. A bit violent, but you can see the star power
1972The GodfatherAn unquestionable masterpiece that changed cinema.
1973American GraffitiThe influence of this movie is unnoticed but powerful, especially on television
Enter the DragonThe gold standard of modern martial arts movies
1974The Godfather Part IIDarker and a bit overly long, but the best movie of this year
1975JawsA nearly perfect film
1976RockyDespite being sequalized repeatedly, it is still raw and strong
1977Star Wars Episode IV: A New HopeMovie magic.
1978SupermanThe best superhero movie ever.
1979Time After TimeA tense and clever thriller. Malcolm McDowall's best performance
1980Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes BackEven better than the original Star Wars
1981Raiders of the Lost ArkFor the sword fight alone
1982ET: Extra-TerrestrialOne of the most transcendentally child-like films
1983Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the JediThe best of the Star Wars Saga
1984GhostbustersUnrepeatable comedy/action/adventure/horror
1985Back to the FutureExtreme laughs, thrills, and nostalgia all at the same time
1986AliensThe greatest action movie ever made.
1987The UntouchablesBrian DePalma's best film. Powerful.
PredatorManliest movie of the 1980's.
1988Young GunsIt has one of the strongest last lines of any film
1989Indiana Jones and the Last CrusadeThe greatest adventure movie off all time.
1990Presumed InnocentThe best legal drama of all time.
1991Dead AgainThe best thriller of all time.
1992Noises Off!One of the funniest films I have ever seen.
1993Schindler's ListEvery frame, every angle, every cut is genius.
1994The Shawshank RedemptionOverlooked when released, it has stood the test of time.
1995BraveheartEpic in scope, action, and human spirit
1996HamletVisually stunning and enveloping
SwingersA small, indie comedy with confidence and cool
1997TitanicDespite the haters, this is actually a fantastic, moving film.
1998Life is BeautifulA unique film that uplifts with laughs and tears
1999The Green MileSad and profound. It sticks with you long after its over
2000MementoOne of the best films ever made. Unlike anything else.
2001The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the RingA fantasy with some real gravitas
2002The Lord of the Rings: The Two TowersImproves upon the first
2003The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the KingOne of the most emotionally satisfying movies.
2004The Passion of the ChristThe greatest film ever made.
2005Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the SithThe best of the prequels.
2006Casino RoyaleThe bond reboot works on so many levels. Best of the Bond films.
2007JunoSimple premise with lots of heart. Sneaks into your heart like a
child's laugh.
Lars and the Real GirlA strange movie that should be filthy but is richly innocent
2008The Dark KnightThe best Batman movie ever.
2009UpDevastating, hilarious, and uplifting.
2010InceptionA puzzle wrapped in an enigma
2011Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2The best of this franchise
2012Les MiserablesPure emotional power
2013Man of SteelVisually and thematically mature take on Superman
2014Captain America: The Winter SoldierTaught political thriller and action film
InterstellarAmazingly bold in concept and emotion
2015Star Wars Episode VII: The Force AwakensA worth successor to the series that is full for fun and heart.
2016Batman v. Superman: Dawn of JusticeThe most underrated superhero film. An unappreciated
2017LoganA bold and violent end to a character that is as touching as it is melancholy
2018Avengers: Infinity WarLess catharsis than the sequel, but an incredibly tight yet
epic story
2019JokerA truly disturbing look at human nature with a great performance.
2020 (so far).     The Way Back                      One of Affleck's best performances to date.

A few observations on my own list:

-5 movies directed by Steven Spielberg
-4 movies directed by Christopher Nolan
-3 movies directed by Peter Jackson
-3 movies directed by George Lucas
-3 movies directed by Kenneth Brannagh
-only 4 movies are comedies (not to be confused with drama-dies)
-only 9 are tragedies (in the sense that they do not have a "happy ending")
-4 of the 9 Star Wars Saga movies are represented
-8 of the movies are superhero films (this counts Joker as well), 5 DC, 3 Marvel 3 of them are about Superman, 3 have Bruce Wayne as a character
-2 movies based on Shakespeare plays
-2 movies not in English
-only 1 Western
-only 1 Musical
-only 1 Animated movie
-3 movies involve time travel
-only 4 of the movies have a woman as the lead.
-7 Harrison Ford movies