Sunday, June 28, 2020

Sunday Best - 4th of July Movies 2020

(repost and update.)

On this weekend before Independence Day, I thought we'd take a moment to look at movies that instill in us a sense of patriotism.

Right now in current year 2020, there is a great deal of strife that divides us.  But we are Americans and united we stand, divided we fall.  No nation is without sin.  But Independence Day should be a time to focus on what brings us all together and the ideals to which we strive.

These films are not necessarily about valor on the battlefield.  They are movies that remind us of American exceptionalism and how we live in the greatest country in the history of the world.

Captain America: The First Avenger

Some say that this movie is cheesy.  I say it captures a less cynical time in our culture.  Steve Rogers is the perfect embodiment of America.  He doesn't see himself as above anyone (I'm just a kid from Brooklyn), he always seeks to do more, and he lays down his life for the freedom of others.  I still get excited when I hear that Captain America theme as he and the soldiers he rescues come over the hill.


Yes, there are a lot of fictionalized characterizations in this musical.  But you will be struck by the vision and genius of our founding fathers and how they put into words the necessity of a new nation.


There are some movies that seem more patriotic than they are (Rocky IV) and there are others that are more patriotic than they seem.  Glory is the latter.  It seems like its about how horribly treated the first black regiment in the Union army was treated.  There is even a long dialogue about one of the main characters is so disgusted with America that he doesn't want to carry the flag.  But all of that is overwhelmed by watching the flag raised and rally the soldiers to battle.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939 poster).jpg

There is a lot of genius in this film.  Some look at it as too simplistic.  But watch it again and you will see the corruption and cynicism surrounding Jefferson Smith, even by his "friends."  And yet this movie is about standing up for what is right and making a difference and show what real statesmanship looks like.

American Sniper

Not only is this a harrowing account of war and valor, but it is a movie that will remind you that in the modern age, America is still a country worth fighting for.  Though we have our problems and our soldiers are not saints, there is an unsleeping evil in the world from which we are only protected by our soldiers.  It is a reminder that we have a debt to those who fight to keep us safe.

Apollo 13

I can understand people being cynical about the moon race in retrospect.  And just when that cynicism was sinking in, NASA had to deal with their greatest space crisis.  It is a movie about American ingenuity, determination, and ambition.  It will make you feel pride in what we are able to do.

(TV version edited for content)

I dare anyone to listen to that theme and not feel more American.  Yes, in the post-Vietnam era there is a lot of humor directed at the military, but ultimately the movie is a love letter to our soldiers.  And I love Bill Murray's amazing performance as he delivers his "America" speech.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

This movie makes you appreciate the safety and freedom we enjoy in America and appreciate them those who put themselves into harm's way for

Hacksaw Ridge

One of the great things about this movie is the unquestioning patriotism of its characters.  Desmond Doss does not deny the righteousness of his country's cause.  And he wants to serve as best as his conscience will allow him.  Mel Gibson does a fantastic job of showing the horror of war without any romance or glamour while at the same time showing the soldiers with all of their righteousness and valor.  It also has a great intersection of faith an patriotism that doesn't equate the two but shows how each can benefit from the other.


Lincoln 2012 Teaser Poster.jpg

I dare anyone to watch this movie and not be in awe of this great man.  Here we see the battle over slavery fought not only on the battlefield and in the political arena, but in the hearts and minds of men and women.  This is one of Spielberg's best movie in years with a performance by Daniel Day-Lewis that is for the ages.  There is something so quintessentially American about how Lincoln is portrayed.  There is no attempt to deconstruct him, but the is show with all of his flaws.  And through this, he pushes against seemingly impossible odds to remind us that in this land of freedom and opportunity, we are called to guarantee the same to all of its people.  That is the promise of America.


Saturday, June 27, 2020

Film Flash: Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga


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

McAdams elevates a mediocre Ferrell movie into an enjoyable, silly romp.  Though weirdly anti-American.


Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Film Review: Uncut Gems

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

From the opening minutes of Uncut Gems, you can feel the power and talent that went into making this film.  The Safdie Brothers and co-writer Ronald Bronstein craft a sharp, frenetic, and raw movie with its center being an electric Adam Sandler.  It is very obvious that this movie was created by people using the height of their storytelling skills.

Too bad it isn't a story worth telling.

Uncut Gems is the story of Howard Ratner (Sandler), a New York City jeweler who is as shifty as he is sleazy.  He hustles and struggles to pay off his gambling debts.  The problem is that as soon as he gets any kind of capital, he immediately lays it all on a shakey bet.  His marriage to his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) is disintegrating completely even as he continues his affair with his employee Julia (Julia Fox).  To make matters worse, he owes over $100,000 to Dinah's brother Arno (Eric Bogosian).  This is the world in which Howard begins.  But he receives a smuggled in rare black opal that he believes will be the solution to all of his problems.  Complications occur when NBA star Kevin Garnett (playing himself), wants the opal and superstitiously wants to hold on to it.  From there things continue to spiral out of control.

Sandler has been getting an incredible amount of praise for this role and he should.  He completely sheds his likability and instead dons the snake skin of a villain.  Howard is so incredibly unlikeable and Sandler does not rely on his usual comedic charm to get you on his side.  Howard is a sleaze that will constantly frustrate you with every imprudent and immoral decision.  Sandler reigns in all of the twinkle in his eye and instead you have this man who looks at everyone and everything like a predator stalking his prey.  The only thing that holds you to Howard is Sandler's dark charisma.  The other performances are also wonderfully unpolished.  There is an edge to what everyone says and does in the film that scratches.  If Quentin Tarantino's dialogue is smooth like silk, all of the characters here are rough like sandpaper.

This is completely intentional on the part of the filmmakers.  The Safdie brothers walk you into a world that is bleak and gritty.  Their New York City feels like it was filmed in the middle of the 1970's, full of wanton sex, drugs, and general grime.  They move the camera around in a very loose, documentary style while framing everything in an incredibly claustrophobic way.  As Howard feels the walls closing in, the visuals make you feel like there is no escape.  Even the nicer areas like Howard's family's luxury apartment feel cold in their opulence, lacking all the warmth and heart of a family home.  Everything in this film screams that this a movie about terrible things happening to a terrible person.

And while this can be skillfully done, it makes for a thoroughly unpleasant movie experience.  While I was interested in Howard's journey, I could never become invested in it.  His character was so flawed that I knew that any victory he achieved would be thrown away.  I don't know that I would say that the character was irredeemable.  There are moments when he seems to reach out for a lifeline to his wife or his girlfriend.  He knows that there is something horribly wrong with his heart.  In one of Sandler's best scenes, Howard is struggling with the reality of his own ugliness, crying uncomprehendingly as to why his girlfriend would love someone as unloveable as him.

The movie doesn't go for easy answers, and I applaud that.  Howard's self-hatred is not enough to redeem him.  But like Claudius in Hamlet, Howard cannot truly repent because he cannot give up the horrible life he is living.  The truth is that Howard likes the filth in which he is wallowing.  He wants all of the sinful pleasures without any of the sinful consequences.  He is a loser in the truest sense of the word.  You know that even if all of his plans come to fruition, he will doom himself after the credits roll.

There is an argument to be made that this in itself is a morality tale, a warning to stay on the straight and narrow.  And to be sure I am not opposed to movies that show horrible people doing things as long as it shows that they are bad.  The Godfather and the TV show Breaking Bad did this masterfully.  

The difference here is that in both of the above cases you had men (Michael Corleone and Walter White) who were flawed but basically decent men who slowly made choices that damned them.  And each choice they made was understandable, if not acceptable, until they fell off the moral cliff.  In Uncut Gems, Howard is already at the bottom of the cliff and he is only looking to climb high enough not to be devoured by the wolves.

When you start with a character this vile, the film makers take a big gamble as to whether or not their skill is strong enough to make the audience find their protagonist compelling enough to take the movie's journey.  It is a big gamble, like the kind Howard would take.

In the case of Uncut Gems, the gamble does not pay off.

File:Star rating 1 of 5.png

Monday, June 22, 2020

New Evangelizers Post: They Want You To Feel Alone

I have a new article up at  

Have you ever felt like the world no longer makes sense to you?

Do you look at the chaos on the news and the general breakdown of all of the moral pillars on which you were raised and think “I don’t recognize this world anymore?” On top of that, things that you used to believe seem completely out of the mainstream, so that you feel like you are the only one who is out of touch with the modern world. You feel like civilization is passing you by and that you alone are holding to traditional beliefs. And it gets to the point where you start to think that maybe it is YOU who are the problem. Perhaps you really are the closed-minded anachronism that the popular media calls you out to be.

When these thoughts come to you, remember:

They want you to feel alone.

By “they,” I mean those forces that attack our Christian faith. The gates of hell have always been at war with the Church. And make no mistake, psychological warfare is an important part of the evil one’s campaign.

People who feel alone are more likely to give in to despair and they are easier to manipulate. It is always the case in abusive relationships that the abuser isolates their victim from friends and family. Even though the victim may have a powerful support system, they are led to believe that they are alone and dependent on their abuser. The same is true of those who attack the faith. You are meant to think that there is nowhere for you to turn. You are told that the Church is shrinking because it is dying and that their victory over our culture is inevitable.

So with this overwhelming sense of loss as the world continues its seeming march towards oblivion, how are we to respond?

Here are a few points to keep in mind.

1.We have always been the remnant.

It is important to reflect on history and on Scripture in these times. When you look back at the Old Testament, it is the story of a world of faithful believers who are occasionally assailed by small pockets of revolutionaries who want to tear down the faith?


The Old Testament is the story of a world of violence, sin, and godlessness with one tiny Middle-Eastern people descended from nomads and slaves who are chosen as God’s own. They are a small remnant of humanity that keeps aflame the light of God’s Word. And these people are not perfect saints, but susceptible to the overwhelming corruption of the world around. Very often within this Chosen People there are only a remnant of faithful ones like the Prophets, who feel assailed even by God’s people. Read, for example, the indignities that the Prophet Jeremiah had to suffer from those he was sent to serve. How alone, he must have felt.

With the coming of Christ, we were still the remnant. There was a time when the number of faithful disciples included only those handful at the foot of the cross. After Christianity was legalized in 313 by Constantine, the Roman culture found a great influx of Christians who were not as devout. Even though our numbers increased, the intensely faithful still remained a remnant. Baptized Emperors would still commit murder and the select few holy bishops like St. Ambrose would stand up to them.

You are always going to find the truly faithful smaller in number than the general population of so-called believers. That is one of the reasons Christ said, “Narrow is the path to salvation and very few find it.” (Matthew 7:14)

2.Everyone Feels Out of Touch

You may feel more alone today because the outer signs of Christian culture seem to grow fainter than when you were young. That is actually fairly normal.

Since ancient times, people who get older have lamented the slide of civilization. Our childhood experiences, especially of our faith, are foundational to who we are. They seem to be a bedrock on which our lives are built. But when that bedrock seems to shift, it seems like a corruption. In the parish I grew up, the pastor constantly spoke about the evils of abortion. It is one of the reasons I am so strongly pro-life. Nowadays, it seems I almost never hear a homily on the subject. You can imagine that this might cause me to wonder if the Culture of Death is winning?

But as civilizations change, those who grew up in the earlier generations always begin to feel the backslide. Ecclesiastes says “Do not say ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For this is not wise to ask.” (Ecclesiastes 7:10) There are many reasons why this is not wise, but one of them is that even in our day, the world was in the middle of spiritual war, but we may not have noticed because we were growing up in it and have now come through it. In the same way, the young do not see the spiritual war around them for their souls.

3.You Stand With The Past and The Present

Chesterton often appealed to what he called “The Democracy of the Dead.” This means that when surveying humanity, we must not just look to how humans live now but have always lived. And most humans who have ever walked the face of the earth believed in some Higher Power, believed that kindness was greater than cruelty, that civilization was better than anarchy, and held that tradition and history must be preserved or we can never grow beyond what we are.

When you stand for traditional virtues, even if they are no longer fashionable today, you stand with most people who have ever lived.

And when you look to the future, remember that our destiny is in Heaven. You are standing with the saints yet to be born, who will be your co-citizens in eternity. And perhaps they were able to stand strong in their future days because we were able to stand strong in the present.

4.Above All Else, You Stand With Christ

I remember I was teaching something controversial in class one day, I believe it was the Church’s teaching on contraception. This is an area where around 90% of Catholics admittedly disobey the Church. But my job as a teacher is to give my students the fullness of truth. One of my incredulous students heard what I had to say and replied, “No one believes that anymore.” The statement was clearly to make me feel out of touch with the modern world as it is. Rather than argue with him about how many people are faithful to the truth, I simply responded:

“I believe it. My wife believes it. And if we are the only ones who do, if the Church is reduced in size to only her and me, then so be it.”

I think of poor saints John Fischer and Thomas Moore, whose feast day is the day of this posting. King Henry VIII of England forced the clergy and public officials to swear allegiance to him as head of the Church. These two men were the only ones who refused and so were subjected to imprisonment and death. Can you imagine how alone they were made to feel when all their friends, their peers, and their leaders abandoned the Catholic Church and left them alone?

But they were not alone.

They were standing with Christ.

He gave them the strength to endure until the end.

You are not alone.

You can read the whole article here.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Fathers' Day 2020 - Man of Superman

Superman is the greatest superhero.  

Batman and Spider-Man may be at times more popular.  But all of them find their foundation in Superman.  

There have been so many superheroes that have made it to the page and the screen, but Superman endures.  To anyone who understands the genre, he is the icon, the archetype of heroism.

When he was first published, Superman grabbed attention with his flashy, colorful costume and his fantastical powers.  In him the public, especially children, vicariously lived out their power fantasies to be faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and to leap tall buildings in a single bound.  As the Golden Age of comics moved into the Silver Age, Superman's adventures became more bizarre and fantastic, along with a whole new array of incredible powers from heat vision to super breath and even super ventriloquism (don't ask).

But one of the great innovations of the Marvel line was that it focused on the personal lives of the heroes as well as their grand adventures.  No matter how amazing the power set or how crazy the crisis they faced, if we did not connect to them on a personal level, the stories found less success.  Spider-Man could easily be destroyed by the Beyonder, but no one really cares about the Beyonder anymore.

This brings us back to Superman.  If the powers are not what make a super hero so great, then is Superman still the greatest?


Even in those early days of flash and spectacle, there was always the core to his character.  He was someone lived up to an ideal.  He embodied our country's best spirit, fighting for "truth, justice, and the American way!"  And even as those ideals seemed old fashioned and out of date, Superman still stood by them like the Man of Steel that he is.  Sure, some writers have tried to drag him down into the dirt with us, but he always seems to rise above it and return to his soaring heights.

Superman has the power to do almost anything.  And yet he does not set himself up as a king above us.  In the early 2000's there were lots of "heroes" who chose to impose their will on the human race because they knew better.  Superman probably does have more wisdom than most, but he trusts us.  His job is not to impose, but persuade.  And he persuades by example.  He says by his actions "When you have the power to help, do not use it for your own gain.  Look to the good of your fellow man."  They say that power corrupts, so why isn't Superman corrupted.

It is because of his father.

I do not mean here Jor-El, his Kryptonian father who put him in the rocket and saved his life.  From him, he received his powers and it made him super.

But it was Jonathan Kent who made him into a man.

This is not to neglect the importance of mothers.  Martha's love and affection have as profound and impact on him as on any child of a loving mother.  But there is some things that only can be given by a father.  The most important of which is the example of manhood.  A wonderful mother can teach a son all about the virtuous masculine qualities.  But a father must live them.

Jonathan Kent was a farmer.  That meant that his life was hard.  Working the land is not easy work.  But it keeps you humble as you till the soil and wait for the weather to be right.  It teaches you patience as you can't microwave your crops into growing.  It teaches you resilience through bad harvests.  It teaches you appreciation as you can have a personal connection to the food that is put onto your plate.  

All of these things, young Clark would have seen.  And like those seeds in the ground, he would have absorbed all of the necessary things into his soul that formed him into a man.  I'm sure Jonathan Kent was not perfect.  But seeing how much power his son had, he knew that he was shaping someone who could shape the world.  He knew he had to become a model for the great role model.

In other words, he made the man of Superman.

Even if Clark lost all of his powers, he would still be someone to admire, because he is his father's son.  And with his powers, he is what his father would be if had the same gifts.

You who are fathers, you may be limited by your circumstances.  Maybe you had to give up your own dreams and ambitions to provide for your family.  Maybe you lacked some opportunity or education that you are no providing for your children.  But you know that it is worth it so that your children have the ability to soar.  And if you have sons, they will one day become the men who run the world.

But no matter the opportunities they have, they will never be the men they are truly meant to be unless you show them what it is to be a man.  

As difficult as my relationship was with my father growing up, I nevertheless learned all the while how to model manhood.  My father worked for his family, providing for others generously, always giving no matter the ingratitude returned to him, and he put his family first.  I hope to stand even half as tall as him one day.  To this day he gives me someone to look up to and admire and he someone against whom I still hold up to see how I measure as a man.

Jonathan Kent was the man he wanted his son to be.

Every father who strives to this will be their child's favorite super hero.

Happy Father's Day!

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Film Review: Artemis Fowl

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

I want you to imagine going to see The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring on opening night, as I did.  When the credits rolled, even though we had been in the theater for more than three hours, there were people who said out loud, "What?  That's it?"  As great as that movie is, it is incomplete because it is only the first chapter of a larger trilogy.

Now, imagine instead of ending with the breaking of the Fellowship, the movie ends right at the Council of Elrond when the Fellowship is formed.  Or better yet, imagine the movie ends right after the four hobbits make it across Buckleberry Ferry.

That is what it is like to watch Artemis Fowl.

I have to say at the outset that I am almost wholly ignorant of the book series on which the movie is based.  How faitfully the plot, themes, and characters are translated into film, I have no idea.

The story centers around Artemis Fowl Jr. (Ferdia Shaw).  He is a precocsious junior high genious living in an Irish castle with his father Artemis Fowl Sr. (Colin Farrell).  The father travels extesnively and trains his son on the lore of the fairies.  Young Artemis is attended to by the bodyguard/butler Domovoi Butler (Nonso Anozie) who brings on his niece Juliet (Tamara Smart) to help.  Things take a turn when the elder Artemis is kidnapped by a mysterious figure who demands that Artemis retrieve something dcalled the Aculos in exchange for his father's release.  Young Artemis does not know what the Aculous is or that it has recently been stolen from Haven City, the underground land of the faries.  In this underground civilization, the magical folk keep their existence a secret from the humans.  One fairy in particular, Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), wants to investigate the death of her father.  While visiting the place of his death, she is captured by Artemis and this sets off a series of events leads to a large scale confrontation at the Fowl Castle.

This movie has a lot of elements in its favor: it has a built in audience from a popular book series, it has one of the best directors working in movies today (Kenneth Bragnagh), and the backing of Disney's entire arsenal of movie-making wonders.

And as much as I liked it, the movie never really soared.

The main problem is the one stated at the outset: the movie feels incomplete.  MINOR SPOILER THIS PARAGRAPH.  Almost the entire movie takes place at Fowl Castle, with only occasional diversions elsewhere.  Containig a story to one location is not a sin.  But everything felt like it was building to a wider story that never materialized.  When the story at the castle was finally resolved, I kept waiting for the final act to begin, only to realize that it had already passed.  

It is a big mistake that studios make by turning the first movie in a potential series into the first act of a story.  The original Star Wars famously starts in Episode IV because George Lucas thought that it was the only one of the episodes that could stand on its own without require a sequel or a prequel to be enjoyed.  Could you imagine if that first Star Wars ended before Luke got off of Tatooine?  The original Iron Man is a complete movie that teases something larger.  It was okay for The Fellowship of the Ring to end where it did because the following two films were already a part of the accepted package.

But I don't know Artemis Fowl.  I need a more complete arc before I can get invested.

The second major flaw is the casting of the lead.  Shaw looks like a young Matt Damon and he is perfectly decent for a child actor.  I tend to give child actors a lot more leeway, since they are asked to do something at a level that most people need years of experience to pull off.  I found the venom loosed on Jake Lloyd in The Phantom Menace appauling.  Shaw's performance isn't bad.  But Artemis is such charismatic and intelligent character.  He has to believeably outsmart his adversaries at every turn.  Unfortunately, Shaw is not up for this enormous task.  This is especially evident when he is paired up with McDonnell, who absolutely shines as Holly.  She displays so much energy, emotion, and charisma that I wished the movie was about her and not Artemis.

The rest of the cast is fine.  Farrell may have fairy blood in him because he hasn't seemed to age in twenty years and is still has a strong screen presence.  Josh Gad has a fun turn as a "giant dwarf" who becomes a part of Artemis' world.  Dame Judy Dench looks haggared and bored, but I assume she is dealing with the fallout of being in CATS.

Bragnagh's longtime musical collaborator Patrick Doyle elevates the material with his epic score.  Branagh does an excellent job with the look and feel of the movie.  His visuals are sweeping and exciting.  It is difficult to come up with a new and compelling take on the fantasy world that has not been covered by Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or Game of Thrones.  But Artemis Fowl, sets up an intriguing and fun hidden world that is geared to a younger audience than the above mentioned franchises.  There is an element of whimsy to the fairy world that works in all of its silly fun.

As a Catholic, it is was incredibly annoying how they incorporated "The Irish Blessing" into the story.  The traditional Irish Blessing goes:

May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face; the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

In the movie, Artemis' father always ends all of his stories with the blessing.  Only in the movie they replace "may God hold you in the palm of His hand," with "May a friend be always near."  I have no idea if this is in the original book or it was innovation of the movie to be more "inclusive," but it seems like a vulgar desecration of a prayer.  It would be like praying "Hail Mary, a friend is with you, special are you among women and special is whoever it is in your womb."  I understand not wanting to explicitly bring up God, even if you are a Christian fantasy writer like Tolkien or Rowling.  But to gut God out of something explicitly Christian to use in your story seems very disrespectful.

I've noticed a lot of venom thrown at this movie and I think it is unwarranted.  It is not bad film.  It is simply held from greatness due to its incompleteness.

And even though this first film did not knock it out of the park, I wouldn't mind revisiting these characters in a sequel.


Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Film Review: Midway (2019)

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

The secret to enjoying this movie is to watch it like a documentary.

Midway is the story of one of the most pivotal battles in American history.  The Japanese successfully pulled off their sneak attack at Pearl Harbor, severely wounding the American navy.  If the enemy was able to get a further foothold in the Pacific, they could invade Hawaii and then proceed to terrorize the West Coast of the US.  The stakes for the counter-offensive could not have been higher.

The movie is an ensemble piece that follows a variety of different characters including:

Dick Best (Ed Skrein): a hotshot pilot who lost his best friend at Pearl Harbor
Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson): an intelligence officer who is in charge of predicting where the Japanese fleet will move.
Admiral Nimitz (Woody Harrelson): The reluctant commander of the Pacific fleet in charge of pushing back the Japanese.
Ann Best (Mandy Moore): Dick's devoted and resilient wife.
James Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart): the leader of the counter-attack bombing run on Tokyo.
Admiral Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa): a war-weary commander who is a commander in the Japanese fleet.

There are several other parts played by actors like Dennis Quaid and Nick Jonas.  The cast is sprawling and impressive, but that is also part of its problem.  The movie has too big a subject for too small a time.  There are so many characters and storylines, that it requires something like a mini-series in order to resolve all of the story elements.  I couldn't help but feel so much of the movie was left on the cutting room floor.  Any single storyline could be a movie unto itself.

If there is a central character, it would be Dick Best.  This is the other major flaw of the film.  Skrein is a decent actor, but his '40's American accent is so jarring, he feels like a caricature of a GI being done on a British sketch show.  His performance of Best never really connects, which is a big problem, since he is the one who is supposed to hold the movie together.

But despite those two flaws, the movie was moving and enjoyable.  You can tell that writer Wes Tooke worked hard to get the history correct in this story.  What he is attempting to show is that the battle was undertaken not just by the commanders or the pilots, but every person was needed to meet the enemy.  He captured the courage and patriotism of the day.  This is a story that reminds us that though the commanders make the plans, it is the individual soldiers that determine victory or defeat on the battlefield.   He takes you into the sometimes horrific consequences of putting yourself on the line for your country.  You can see this especially in the aftermath of the Doolittle raid.

As written above, the stakes were incredibly high.  The American pilots were outnumbered and they had to take a big risk on anticipating the movement of the Japanese fleet.  The tension to the build up of the battle is intense.

Besides Skrein, the rest of the cast is actually quite good.  Harrelson actually comes off as stately and strong as Nimitz.  Wilson gives Layton a subtle strength underneath his bookish exterior.  Moore adds a lot of heart to Best's storyline.  Toyokawa has a fatalistic melancholy of a man who knows better than his superiors, but is honor-bound to fulfill his duty.

Director Roland Emmerich does an excellent job recreating the look and feel of the time.  There is a little too much CGI, but he makes this $100 million dollar movie look like it was made for $200 million.  The vistas are grand and epic and the battles are visceral and exciting.  I was on the edge of my seat, despite knowing the historical outcome.  You will feel a strong sense of awe at how men had to fly straight into hellfire at just the possibility of turning the tide.

This movie made me want to follow up and learn more about this time in history and brave Americans who stood in the way of evil taking over the world.  And that is a testament to the strength of Midway.


Sunday, June 14, 2020

Sunday Best: Zack Snyder Movies Ranked

(photo by Gage Skidmore)

With the announcement of the Snyder Cut of Justice League coming to HBO Max, I thought it would be a good time to look back at Snyder's career.

When you look at Zack Snyder's films, you can understand why he has such a passionate fan base.  Even if you do not like his style, you cannot deny that he has a strong visual sense that makes him stand out from most other directors.  When you go into a Snyder film, you are going into something unlike most movies out there.  I happen to truly appreciate his artistry and his boldness in tackling his subject.

Below are all seven of his films ranked.  (I have not seen Legend of the Guardians, so I have left it off the list and am only looking at his live action films).

#7 - Sucker Punch
Sucker Punch film poster.jpg
This is a movie that wants to be more than it is.  Snyder wants to say something about how using your imagination, even if it is a form of insanity, can be escape from the prison of life.  As with most of his films, the visuals are strong and the actions scenes intense and creative.  Unfortunately, the characters are nearly as compelling as they could be.  This movie is a case where the visuals try to make up for the lack of substance.

#6 - Justice League
Justice League film poster.jpg
I enjoyed this movie so much, but it was so radically different than its predecessor that it was jarring.  I will always maintain that the scene where Superman turns his eye to see the Flash coming at him is one of the best in any super hero film.  It's hard to judge this as a Snyder film since he recently said that only 25% of what he shot made it into the theatrical film.

#5 - Dawn of the Dead
Dawn of the Dead 2004 movie.jpg
I do not enjoy this movie.  At all.  But when I saw it, I could not help but be impressed by this first-time feature film director.  Dawn of the Dead has a visceral energy that pushes the story forward with incredible intensity while surrounding the characters with crushing despair.  You can see the influence of this movie on other zombie fare like The Walking Dead.  What impressed me too was that Snyder was able to bring depth to characters that could easily be flat and uninteresting.  All of this he did while creating an incredibly scary zombie film.

#4 - Watchmen
A rainy New York City. Six people, five men and one woman, stand there, all but one: a masked man in hat and trench coat, staring at the viewer, a muscular, nude and glowing blue man, a blonde man in a spandex armor, a man in an armor with a cape and wearing a helmet resembling an owl, a woman in a yellow and black latex suit, and a mustached man in a leather vest who smokes a cigar and holds a shotgun. Text at the top of the image includes "From the visionary director of 300". Text at the bottom of the poster reveals the title, production credits, and release date.
This movie has two major flaws.  The first is that is too slavish to the structure of the comic book.  It makes the movie feel episodic and disrupts the flow.  The second is that Ozymandias is horribly miscast.  I was not as big a fan of this movie when it first came out, but I find that I revisit it more than I thought I would.  In many scenes the visuals are almost hypnotic.  It feels like the comic come to life.  The bold colors pop out brightly making it ironically juxtaposed to the increasingly darker world presented.  And Jackie Earl Haley was inspired as Rorschach, who was able to convey so much of the character through just the voice and body language.  Snyder fully realized the Watchmen world and made it stand out.

#3 - 300
Theatrical release poster of 300
As I've written previously on this blog:

The story is very basic and has been told in so many different ways: a small fighting group must face an overwhelming force.  But what sets that movie apart is the visual spectacle that is 100% Snyder.

First there was the decision to film all on green screen rather than on location.  That was a very risky move, considering how it makes the world feel much less real.  But with a simple trick of color correcting the whole movie to highlight sepias and reds, it takes on a ethereal quality that makes you accept the hyper-reality of the world.

Second, he knows how to manipulate time.  He did the same thing in Dawn of the Dead, where he would play between slow motion and fast motion, almost like switching tempos in music, to create an arresting image on the screen.

He takes this very ugly Spartan world (and make no mistake that there are several morally problematic things with that society), but he does not sugar coat it.  He presents them, warts and all, but still highlights that which makes them noble.

Even looking past all of the exaggerated characters, the strong themes of courage and sacrifice shine through in the end.  He touches upon the truth that civilization is something that must be paid for, often with the blood of patriots.  What could have been just another action film became a unique and moving film experience.

#2 - Man of Steel
Superman, bearing his traditional red and blue costume, is shown flying towards the viewer, with the city Metropolis below. The film's title, production credits, rating and release date is written underneath.
As I wrote previously on this blog:

Man of Steel is a true spectacle.  This is where Snyder is the strongest.  I spent much of the movie drinking in the visuals.  When Zod and Superman first exchange blows, I got my money's worth from the film.  I remember watching The Matrix Revolutions fight between Neo and Smith thinking that this would be cool if it was between Superman and Zod.  Well, that fight has nothing on the climatic battle in Man of Steel.  If you just want to see spectacular scenes of super people punching each other, this movie rocks.  In the IMAX, you could feel each punch resonate through your chest.

#1 - Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice
The two titular heroes, Batman and Superman, are confronting each other, with the film's logo behind them, and the film's title, credits, release date and billing below.
As I wrote previously on this blog:

My respect of Zack Snyder as a director increased greatly with this film, and I already held his talent in high regard... Man of Steel was very much an atypical Snyder film, with its hard lighting and non-stationary camera work in physical locations rather than green screen.  In Batman v. Superman, the director melts the Man of Steel aesthetic with sometime closer to what we've seen of him in 300 and Watchmen.  Surprisingly both styles blend very well.  I love the fact that Snyder forces his actors to put on real muscle bulk.  Even in the midst of fighting CGI monsters you always have a concrete sense of the heroes' strength.  The action sequences were high-octane, visually rich moments."  

On how he uses the camera I wrote: "But what director Zach Snyder skillfully does is keep the camera at street level as Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) races through the chaos to his friends at the Metropolis' branch of Wayne Financial.  This scene is tense and harrowing.  Even though I saw it in the previews, the shot of Bruce running straight into the dust clouds still give me that visceral flashback to all the footage from 9/11.  And by keeping the camera at street level, Snyder visually sets up the contrast of perspectives between our main heroes:  Superman (Henry Cavill) is isolated from humanity because he is so far above and Batman is filled with fear and rage by all the damage felt below."

And all the while, Snyder never forgets to tell you the emotional story at the heart of this movie.  He succeeds brilliantly in Batman v. Superman where Gareth Edwards failed miserably in Rogue One: he tells the story visually.  This can be seen best at the end of the battle between our main characters and Superman says that oh-so-important name.  In that moment, Snyder shows the desperation in Clark's face, the confusion and vulnerability in Bruce's and his visual call-backs in that moment to the murder of Bruce's parents immediately put you into Bruce's head and heart space.  In that moment, all his childlike pain and rage come to him and he can see it all reflected in Clark's eyes.  And all of this is captured by how Snyder uses the camera to tell his story.


Saturday, June 13, 2020

Film Flash: Artemis Fowl


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

Poorly cast lead and weak 3rd act keep this enjoyable story from being great.


Friday, June 12, 2020

Film Review: Zombieland - Double Tap

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

I enjoyed the heck out of the original Zombieland.  It was a fun, scary, shocking, action-packed film, reminiscent of Shaun of the Dead.  On top of that it was actually incredibly smart while being incredibly silly.  The only time I really tuned out of that first film was during the infamous "Bill Murray Scene," which had its charm and humor.  The problem was that this sequence went on way too long and the humor turned to tedium.

Unfortunately, the sequel increases, rather than decreases, these types of scenes.

Zombieland: Double Tap picks up soon after the events of the original film, even though ten years have gone by between the first and second film.  Our heroes begin the film together: we have the beta-male Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), the tough-girl Wichita (Emma Stone), here younger "sister" Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), and the crazy patriarch Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson).  At the beginning of movie, they decide to move into the White House and they settle into a kind of bland domestic bliss.  However, Little Rock is tired of being treated like a child and like wants to find people her age to spend time with.  Wichita and Columbus have settled into a romantic rut, which comes to a head when she rebuffs his proposal of marriage.  The women decide to leave the men.  Feeling abandoned, the men decide to do a little zombie hunting where they encounter the airheaded survivor Madison (Zoey Deutch), who immediately hooks up with Columbus.  This complicates things when Wichita returns to let the men know that Little Rock has run off with a hippie to some human commune called "Babylon."  So the group abandons the White House on a quest to reclaim Little Rock.  This is complicated by the fact that the zombies have evolved into a deadlier foe and danger lurks for them everywhere.

The best part of the film is the fact that the chemistry between the leads is still fantastic.  All of them play to their opposing personality types which creates fun conflicts and connections.  Underneath all of the zombie horror/comedy are the truths of human relationships between parents, children, siblings, and lovers.  Because of that, the characters and their struggles are immediately recognizable.  Since the movie shifts from comedy to horror, it must be able to turn on its head from funny to dramatic or the scares will not work.  And these actor are able to go from joking in the face of death, to turning to each other saying heart-felt final words of love before death comes to them.  

Harrelson is particularly good as Tallahassee.  His politically incorrect character is played for maximum laughs, but it never feels like the character is judged.  His rage at all things hippieish is over the top but it taps into the rage of a parent whose child is rebelling against their upbringing.  Harrelson plays him with full gusto, but that only makes us love him more.  The rest of the cast does a fine job picking up their roles from before, but there isn't much growth between films.  Deutch is a welcome addition.  Like Harrelson, she completely gives herself over to her "dumb blonde" persona, but she does so with such charisma and good humor that you can never really hate her, no matter how much she gets on your nerves.  Rosario Dawson also has a supporting part as the tough-talking Nevada.  While she isn't given much to do, she does it very well and falls into a nice rhythm with the cast.

Despite all of this, the movie drags under its own weight.  Like the "Bill Murray Scene" from the first one, the film indulges in long sequences that fail to push the story forward in any significant way.  This would be fine if these diversions were so entertaining that they become welcome pitstops on the journey.  But they go on too long and overstay their welcome.  This is particularly the case when the group encounters Albuquerque (Luke Wilson) and Flagstaff (Thomas Middleditch).  Just like the scene with Murray from the first, it is an extended sequence that diminsish its return that ultimately goes nowhere.  Not only does it drag out this particular part of the movie, but it frustrates the rest of the journey where you just want to "get through" the movie.  And this is never a feeling you should have for a good story.  

Upon reflection, most of the things that were good in this film feel like repeats of the first (with the exception of Deutch).  The final showdown feels so much like the amusement park sequence from the original that you could almost interchange them.  The movie falls into the big problem with sequels: if you make it too different, fans of the first will hate it.  But if you make it too similar, fans will wonder what the point was.  Director Ruben Fleischer has created a world where the actors clearly are having a good time, and a good deal of that translates to the audience.  But with just a little tightening of the narrative, this movie could be greatly improved.  

I would probably be game for a third trip to Zombieland, but I'm not super excited.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Film Review: Gemini Man

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

Will Smith is one of those rare stars that made the jump from music to TV to movies with incredible success.  He is an actor of incredible charisma who has aged gracefully and believably as an older action star.  Fans of his look back on his earlier hits with great nostalgia.  His latest film Gemini Man tries to split the difference between fans of his newer and older performances.

Gemini Man is about a middle-aged sniper Henry Brogan (Smith), a man who has dedicated his life to putting down evil threats to the world.  But the weight of his actions, righteous as he may feel them to be, have taken their toll and he retires.  Despite this, he is still shadowed by undercover agent Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), whom he quickly sniffs out and begins a friendship of sorts.  However, he finds out that his last mark may have been innocent.  Receiving this information puts him in danger with a shadowy man from his past, Clay Varris (Clive Owen).  Varris dispatches an assassin to kill Brogan and Danny, and this assassin happens to be a younger version of Henry.  With the help of Henry's friend Baron (Benedict Wong) they go on the run and try to solve the mystery behind their pursuers.

Director Ang Lee thankfully eschews his more experimental style like we saw in Hulk, and instead creates a more straight-forward action style.  And this is where the movie works at its best.  These sequences are exciting and entertaining.  They are grounded enough to be gritty and believable, but there is just enough over-the-top action to let it stand out.  I particularly like the moment when one character deflects a grenade by shooting it.

Lee also did a great job casting the movie.  Smith is able to pull off both the world-weary veteran and the wide-eyed innocent (with the help digital de-aging).  He makes both versions of him sympathetic while being at clear odds with each other.  I have long been a big fan of Winstead.  Being placed next to Smith runs the risk of being outshined.  But she is every bit as intelligent, strong, and charismatic as he is in the role.  Wong is allowed to be the comic relief and he adds and important element of levity to the story.  Owen is decent as the main antagonist, but he never rises to the level of the heroes and is bit too much in the line of "generic bad guy."

The main problem with the movie is the story.  The film necessitates a sci-fi element of cloning, but this is where the movie is weakest.  When it focuses on the action, the film sails.  But when it has to get into the science and ethics of cloning, it grinds to a halt.  This is a shame, because there are some interesting issues brought up.  As a Catholic, it is easy to see how artificially creating human life leads to it being devalued.  But no matter a person comes into this world, they are still made in God's image and deserve dignity.  The movie wants to explore the ethics of genetic improvement and national security, but all of these points fall flat.  They feel like obligatory exposition to allow for the more entertaining action set pieces.

The movie is generally considered a bomb financially with very poor critic reviews.  But despite its flaws, Gemini Man is a fun, inoffensive action film that isn't great, but may provide some mild thrills.