Friday, July 31, 2020

Sunday Best: Emmy Nominations 2020

In the last few years, I have lost most interest in award shows like the Emmys.  I still hold out hope for the Oscars, but very little.  The problem is that there is an incredible disconnect between the awards and the general movie audiences.  While I don't think a completely populist system is what is needed, there is clearly an elitist mentality.

However, this year's Emmys have a few interesting surprises.  Here are the nominees with some thoughts of my own:

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series
Anthony Anderson, “black-ish”
Don Cheadle, “Black Monday”
Ted Danson, “The Good Place”
Michael Douglas, “The Kominsky Method”
Eugene Levy, “Schitt’s Creek”
Ramy Youssef, “Ramy”

-The only show that I watched from this list is The Good Place.  Danson was fantastic in this series and I hope he is recognized for his work.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series
Christina Applegate, “Dead to Me”
Rachel Brosnahan, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”
Linda Cardellini, “Dead to Me”
Catherine O’Hara, “Schitt’s Creek”
Issa Rae, “Insecure”
Tracee Ellis Ross, “Black-ish”

-I don't watch any of these shows.

Outstanding Variety Talk Series
“The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” (Comedy Central)
“Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” (TBS)
“Jimmy Kimmel Live!” (ABC)
“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” (HBO)
“The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” (CBS)

-Once again, Conan O'Brien, the only one with a talk show who is remotely funny, was not nominated.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series
Jason Bateman, “Ozark”
Brian Cox, “Succession”
Sterling K. Brown, “This Is Us”
Steve Carrell “The Morning Show”
Jeremy Strong, “Succession”
Billy Porter, “Pose”

-I've seen Ozark, This is Us, and a bit of The Morning Show.  The best actor from here is Brown, who always goes to such interesting places as an actor in the series.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series
Jennifer Aniston, “The Morning Show”
Olivia Colman, “The Crown”
Jodie Comer, “Killing Eve”
Laura Linney, “Ozark”
Sandra Oh, “Killing Eve”
Zendaya, “Euphoria”

-again, only watched Ozark and The Morning Show.  Of the two, I would say Linney was better.

Outstanding Competition Program
“The Masked Singer” (Fox)
“Nailed It!” (Netflix)
“RuPaul’s Drag Race” (VH1)
“Top Chef” (Bravo)
“The Voice” (NBC)

-Only watched The Masked Singer, and it was oddly engaging.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or TV Movie
Jeremy Irons, “Watchmen”
Hugh Jackman, “Bad Education”
Paul Mescal, “Normal People”
Jeremy Pope, “Hollywood”
Mark Ruffalo, “I Know This Much Is True”

-didn't see any of these shows.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or TV Movie
Cate Blanchett, “Mrs. America”
Shira Haas, “Unorthodox”
Regina King, “Watchmen”
Octavia Spencer, “Self-Made”
Kerry Washington, “Little Fires Everywhere”

-didn't see any of these shows.

Outstanding Limited Series
“Watchmen” (HBO)
“Mrs. America” (FX on Hulu)
“Unbelievable” (Netflix)
“Unorthodox” (Netflix)
“Little Fires Everywhere” (Hulu)

-didn't see any of these shows.

Outstanding Comedy Series
“Curb Your Enthusiasm” (HBO)
“The Good Place” (NBC)
“Dead to Me” (Netflix)
“Insecure” (HBO)
“The Kominsky Method” (Netflix)
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (Amazon Prime Video)
“Schitt’s Creek” (Pop TV)
“What We Do in the Shadows” (FX)

-The Good Place was probably the best comedy I saw this year and I hope that the show gets recognized for what it has accomplished.  It was a show that balanced silly, broad humor with deep questions about morality and life.

Outstanding Drama Series
“Better Call Saul” (AMC)
“The Crown” (Netflix)
“The Handmaid’s Tale” (Hulu)
“Killing Eve” (BBC America)
“The Mandalorian” (Disney+)
“Ozark” (Netflix)
“Stranger Things” (Netflix)
“Succession” (HBO)

I've seen Ozark, Stranger Things, and The Mandelorean.

I'm excited that both Stranger Things and The Mandelorean received were not overlooked this year.  I was very pleasantly surprised that a Star Wars show has been nominated, especially one that I gave my award for best show of the year.  The cynical part of me thinks that Disney spent some big bucks in securing an award for their streaming service.  Regardless, this is a show that is regarded well by critics and general audiences.  And it is this convergence that should determine the award winners.


Wednesday, July 29, 2020

TV Review: The Floor is Lava Season 1

There are some TV show concepts are so silly that they are genius.

That is the case with The Floor is Lava.

The premise is simple.  Teams of three have to get across an obstacle course where the floor is covered in red liquid "lava."  Contestants have to leap from familiar houshold objects like chairs and tables to get to finish line.  If they fall into the "lava" they are out.

The show works for a number of reasons, but most of all it is because it a primal touchstone to childhood.  Who doesn't remember playing "The Floor is Lava" as a kid and the thrill you had as you navigated your house from one safe destination to another.  As a kid you felt like an adventuring parkour genius and your home became a little more magical.  Watching this show awakens that same sense.

It is also nostalgic in that it is reminscent of the great obstacle course shows like Double Dare but with adults.  Ironically, I almost think kids would do better on this show.

The show is oddly compelling.  As a contestant teeters on the edge of a wobbly make-shift bridge, I found myself a bit more on the edge of my seat.  I could easily see myself in that situation and either roll my eyes in judgment or stare in disbelief.  

What's important too is that the show does not take itself seriously at all.  It knows how silly it is and lets you in on the joke.  But since contestants are playing for a significant amount of money, there are actual stakes.  As you watch, you pick your favorite team and then root for them.  You critique the obstacles as too hard or too easy.  You thrill as anyone leaps to the finish line.  And you jump when someone falls down into the "lava" below.

This review is brief, because the show is so simple in its delights that it does not take a lot of words to describe how fun it is.  I was actually sad when it came to an end and I hope to see the next season soon.

Wednesday Comics: GI JOE - SNAKE EYES - DEADGAME #1

Snake Eyes: Deadgame - Wikipedia

I haven't read a GI Joe comic in a long time.  

For years, the franchise has been run by people who fundamentally do not understand the property.  Here are the fundamentals of GI Joe for fans:

-It is action in nature
-As one comic critic has stated, it is essentially a loyalty fantasy.
-It is unapologetically patriotic
-Each character brings something unique to the table
-Snake Eyes is the most popular character.

From everything I've seen in the last few years, writers do not seem to understand this.  That isn't to say that some very good stories have not been made.  GI Joe: Cobra was an amazing story, but it was much more in the vein of 24 than GI Joe.  GI Joe: Hearts and Minds was very well written, but it made the lives of the Joes look like hell and the lives of Cobra much more appealing.  Lately, things have been worse.  In a recent issue, Quick Kick beat up and humiliated Snake Eyes in a one-on-one fight for no apparant reason.

But Rob Liefeld has come to save the day.

If you are anything like me, my memories of Liefeld primarily focus on his work in the 90's with New Mutants, X-Force, and his Image comics.  His style was very much of the over-the-top violence and costumes with dozens of unnecessary pouches.  Modern readers look back on that time as being a lot of style and very little substance.  For the most part I agree, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Liefeld is the Michael Bay of comics.  He has a strong, visceral style that is interested in entertaining you with a fun and exciting story that does not try to weigh you down.  His comics are the equivalent of popcorn movies.

And this is exactly what GI Joe needs.

The first thing he gets right is doing a story that focuses on Snake Eyes.  The very first GI Joe comic I ever read was issue #26, which was the secret origin of this character.  I read that issue over and over again because. it was endlessly fascinating.  Snake Eyes is such a stoic and masculine character whose actions are so powerful that he doesn't even need to speak.  He is in all ways a man of action.  Liefeld gets this in his description of Snake Eyes.  One of my favorite moments is where he is killing some enemies with his sword and it says (I'm paraphrasing) "Not an action is wasted.  No one suffers more than is necessary."  It is such odd an compelling mixture of cold and compassionate.  He can kill without hesitation, but he is careful to minimize his enemies' suffering.

Leifeld also gets the loyalty and character elements correct.  Roadblock, Tripwire, and Scarlett are pitch-perfect.  Things aren't all hugs and kisses between them, but there is a palpable trust and camaraderie.  And through it all, we have a strong sense of duty.  The odds are always against Snake Eyes, but it is clear that even it it hopeless it wouldn't matter: Snake Eyes would throw himself into the jaws of death if it was the right thing to do.

The art is also pleasantly nostalgic.  It is true that Liefeld over-idealizes the physiques of his characters but it works very well.

Like some of the best GI Joe cartoons, there is an odd supernatural element in play in this story.  An ancient evil master of combat has arisen and it seems like it will be up to Snake Eyes to take him down.  Their first encounter sets up the stakes and now the hunt begins.  

I enjoyed this comic more than I expected and I am looking forward to how this story plays out.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Film Review: Palm Springs


Violence Mature
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature

The comparisons to Palm Springs and Groundhog Day are inevitable and unfortunate.  It is inevitable because when Groundhog Day came out, the idea of reliving the same day over and over again seemed fresh and original.  Not it feels so well-trod as lacking in surprise or delight.  It is also unfortunate, because Palm Springs suffers even more by comparison.

The movie begins on the day of a wedding at a resort in Palm Springs.  Nyles (Andy Samdberg) wakes up in his girlfriend's room and spends the day lazing his way through to the wedding.  There he catches the eye of Sarah (Christin Milioti) and the two go to the desert to hook up.  However, Nyles gets attacked by a man with a bow-and-arrow and retreats to a cave with a glowing light.  Though Nyles warns Sarah not to come closer, she does and she finds herself waking up at the beginning of that same day.  When she finds Nyles and confronts him, she finds that they are both caught in an infinite time loop with no means of escape.  What follows is an examination of the questions raised by Groundhog Day, particularly how to find meaning in a life without any external consequences.

The best thing about the movie are the leads.  Samberg and Milioti have instant chemistry and they play off of each other incredibly well.  Their personalities are different enough to make the pairing interesting while making their mutual attraction and shared humor seem effortless.  If they were given a better movie, this film could push them into the higher levels of stardom.

The problem is that this movie takes the lessons of Groundhog Day and views them through a post-modern lens.  In both movies, our heroes try to first find meaning in illicit pleasures, followed by suicidal despair.  The difference though is that Groundhog Day wisely understands if you draw happiness from being a good an moral person, then the external consequences have less meaning.  Palm Springs uses morality like a Pelagian bargain where good actions should somehow earn grace.  And if they do not, then the good actions are viewed as pointless.  The closest the movie gets to the depths of Groundhog Day is when Nyles explains why he doesn't murder people. He says that everyone else resets, but he has to live with what he's done.  But all this does is set a low bar for not doing evil rather than the high bar of doing good.

The movie is also incredibly vulgar, not only its graphic language, but in its raunchy approach to sexuality.  While there is no nudity, sex acts are shown in explicit detail for comedic effect.  But instead, it all serves as a gross turn off.  Samberg is famous for getting great laughs out of incredibly juvenile humor, and more power to him.  But Palm Springs is not helped by this tone.  It depicts Nyles as cavalierly engaging in depraved sex acts with women and men out of some kind of sheer desperation out of the morass of his meaninglessness.  But the humor never takes gets insightful enough about the nihilism that this movie offers.

There is also a joke that is so pointedly anti-religious, that I cannot understand why it is put in there.  I suppose that it there to show how Nyles is adrift in a sea of meaninglessness, but he never seems to come in to shore and find purpose.  True, the love story is supposed to be the heart, but there is something lacking here too.  It feels too narcissistic, like two people who turn their back on the consequences of the world and the moral life to focus on each other.  I've known couples like this who look at life as "You and me against the world," and it isn't a healthy philosophy.  

Now, you may think I am trying to get too deep with a silly romantic comedy.  But if you make a movie that wants to ask the big questions, you need to be ready to grapple with the big answers.  

And Palm Springs is not.


"I'm Home!"

The first time I met him, he affected me like Mt. Rushmore.

I was invited to the house of a friend of mine for the first time.  When I came in, her father was sitting in his favortie chair.  He did not get up to greet me, but held out his hand and waited for me to come to him.  This was not a man easily moved by the whims of others.  He was solid, like granite.  His head balding, lines in his face like the hard-earned chisled marks of a life of labor.  He was a sheet-mettle worker.  Blue-collar, through and through with no aires about him.  

He was a hard man.  I don't mean that in any negative sense.  There are hard men and there are soft men.  I grew an upper-middle class nerd who never had yet to have a job.  I was sensitive and leaned towards creative endevours.  I was soft.  When a soft man enters the presence of a hard man, the soft man can almost feel the hard man's weight crushing him.  The inadequecesis of soft men are made very clear when standing next to a hard man.

I was shocked by this man.  His daughter in many ways was the opposite.  She was light, sweet, with her heart on her sleeve for all to see.  She was always quick with a kind word in her dulcet falcetto voice.  I had met her mother and the apple did not fall far from that tree.  But her father sat like a mighty oak from which his daughter flowered.  This youngest daughter would greet her father by singing "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine... you make me happy when skies are gray..."  And he would sit there in his favorite chair and graciously accept this abundant affection while remaining this immovable pillar.

Needless to say I was intimidate by him from the start.

This was even more the case when I began dating his daughter.

Whether it was all in my head or not, I could not shake the feeling that he could sense my softness.  This was a man who committed his body to back-breaking labor each day to provide for his family.  And here I was, with callous-free hands going to college so I could break into the low-paying theology teacher field.  Could that kind of man provide for his daughter?

At gatherings, I barely spoke with him.  Then one day, his wife brought out their wedding photo and began to tease him about how he had aged.  He insisted he hadn't aged as much as she had.  Wanting a second opinion, she brought the photo to me and asked, "So what do you think?"  

I looked at the young, smoothed-faced man with a full head of hair in the picture and back to the older man sitting in his favorite chair.

She asked again, "Does he look as good as he did on our wedding day?"

I looked up and said, "As good?  No.  Better."

And this hard man who intimidated me so much began to laugh.  From that point on, our relationship changed.

Over the years I learned more about him.  His mother was an alcoholic.  When he was a baby, she used to put mashed potatoes in his baby bottle.  This means that he would try to drink from the bottle, but would get nothing and cry.  His mother did it because she thought it was funny.  He had a sister who also became an alcoholic.  Knowing that level of abuse in that house, it completely changed my perspective on the man.  What I at first thought in my ignorance was a rough, antisocial man was in fact a person who, under the circumstances, was heroically well-adjusted.  There was no drinking in his house.  But there was faith.

Some people, like me, are very chatty about our faith.  Others hold it close to themselves like a precious secret.  This man was not big on outward evangelization, but he made faith into the bedrock of his life.  When he found out what his daughters were learning at PSR, he made a point of correcting all of the errors so that they could know the true faith.  When his parish began making aesthetic changes to their worship space, there was some talk of switching parishes.  But he said, "I'm not leaving my church."  There was strong moral urge of fidelity in him that permeated his life.

And his life was not easy.  As I said, his labor took its toll on his body.  In later years, his knees caused him great pain.  When his youngest daughter contracted juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, he would take the long drive back and forth to Rainbow Babies and Children's hospital for her treatments.  There are very few things more difficult for a parent than the heartache over a sick child.  But in all the years he was a solid rock of dependence for her.

His stoic nature in no way dissuaded her affections for him.  When she was little, he would have to get up very early in the morning before dawn to prepare for the long work day ahead.  He would come into the kitchen and sit at the table to drink his morning coffee and then begin the work day.  His little daughter discovered this and she would wake herself up so that she could have some father/daughter time each morning.  She got her a little golden mug and poured her a tincture of coffee and the two would talk.  Actually, she did most of the talking and he smiled and nodded.  Even as he walked to the bathroom, she would stand outside the door, still talking to him, eager to have has much time with her father as possible.  And though he never said it, I know he treasured those mornings.

About five years ago, after he retired, his health began to deteriorate.  We taken to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with severe COPD.  It took a while before they realized that he was building up toxic levels of CO2 in his body, causing him to hallucinate.  However, even when treatments began to work, he had to be placed in a nursing home for several months has he began his hospital rehab.  He was placed on oxygen, which he continued taking for the rest of his life.  But, by the grace of God, he recovered enough to come home.

I will never forget the moment he stepped through the door.  He had an oxygen tube around his nose and he was leaning heavily on his walker.  But as he stepped over the threshold, I saw a smile on his face wider than I had ever seen it.  For a moment, all of the hardness of his life seemed to melt away and his face was almsot that of a giddy child as he shouted, "I'm home!"

And he remained home for the over four years.  His days consisted mostly of well-earned leisure in drinking his coffee and watching TV.  He also had with him his several prayer books.  He made sure to pray the rosary every day in devotion to our Blessed Mother.

When the COVID lockdowns began, his life did not change much, since he was mostly homebound.  But because of this, we visited much less, for fear that would could inadvertently pass something on.  At the end of May, we got a call that he was going to have to be taken by ambulance to the hospital because of an infection.  My wife and I dropped everything and went to see him before they took him away.  Because of the restrictions, we could not visit him in the hospital.  We would have to wait on calls from there to us.

From what we were able to gather, he had an infection and they were treating it.  But news was sparse.  Then on the second night, my wife got a call from the hospital.  She answered, and on the other end of the line was the rough, but melodious voice of her father sining:

"You are my sunshine, my only sunshine... you make me happy when skies are gray..."

Even in the hospital with all he was enduring, his first thought was to cheer up his baby girl.

After a few days he recovered.  Over the next two months, my wife and I visited much more often, bringing groceries, dinner, and simply visiting.  I had the privilege of bringing him the Holy Eucharist because he could not leave the house.

But then one morning he would not wake up.

They brought him to the hospital again.  He was in and out of consciousness.  He was allowed one visitor every 24 hours.  His eldest daughter was able to see him.  On one of his good days, my wife was able to video chat with him.  She was able to sing to him:

"You are my sunshine... my only sunshine...."

She told him she loved him and he loved her too.  And he smiled for her.

(And in his signature candor he commented, "My ass hurts.")

Five days later he was gone.

I look back on his life and I see so much that I admire.  We came from very different backgrounds, but he showed me the value of hard-work.  But more importantly, he knew what he was working for.  People talk about having careers.  This man did not have a career.  He had a job.  His job was what he did so that he could provide for the truly important thing in his life: his family.  

His legacy is his 57 year marriage and the successful raising of two wonderful daughters, one of whom is the greatest woman in the world, my wife.  Stoic as he was, he never withheld his love and affection from his daughters.  Love and faith were the pillars of his home.  Every day, my wife brings me closer to our Lord and that is because her father brought her closer to Him.  His legacy is the eternal life in knowing Jesus.  And that is the greatest gift you could possibly give.

His last few years were hard, but now all of his grief and pain are behind him.  By God's grace he was able to receive Extreme Unction before he began his final journey.  And I cannot help but imagine him stepping over the threshold of Heaven, no more oxygen tank and no more walker, with a smile on his face of a giddy child as he looks up and shouts:

"I'm home!"

Friday, July 17, 2020

Lack of Updates - July 2020

Dear Reader,

As you may have noticed, I haven't posted anything in the last week or so.

Right now, we have a family member in the hospital and it is very serious.  Most of our free time is involved with these concerns.  

As a result, there will be a pause in the content.  But I promise to return.  Your loyal readership is not taken for granted.

Any prayers you can send our way, would be greatly appreciated.

God Bless,


Saturday, July 11, 2020

Film Flash: Palm Springs


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

Rom-Com Groundhog Day remake with likable leads that drowns in its own vulgarity and nihilism.  


Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Permanence of Conversation

When I was in high school and college I kept a journal.  

As I began to lose the urge to write down my thoughts, I looked back on what I wrote.  It was enlightening and nostalgic.  But most of all, it was embarrassing.  I was amazed by the things that became the center of my thoughts and worries.  Everything was written in that overly-dramatic tone that is common to that time of life.  

The poems were particularly cringe-worthy.

I've been thinking about that journal recently and about the strange ideas of youth.  I began to think of all those evenings where my friends and I would stay up until we heard the chimes at midnight together.  And as you find those friends, you begin to unpack your mind with ideas, many of which are not fully formed.  You batter your thoughts around between you to see if they have any merit.  But as you start forming your own identity there is a great yearning to be heard, known, and understood.

And all the while, we would try to make each other laugh.  Some jokes light up the room.  Others land with a solid thud.  I can't recall all of them, but I'm sure that not all of them were in good taste.  When I was much, much younger, my brother and I found a book of the most vile and disgusting jokes you could imagine.  I probably didn't understand half of them, but I repeated them anyway because they got laughs.  I would be mortified if those horrid words from my ignoble youth were ever to be repeated.

Yet this is the situation that many people find themselves in today.

With the advent of social media, we have a phenomenon I don't think we've ever seen before which is the permanence of conversation.  This was a phrase that was proposed to me by a very good friend.  All the private words of a journal or the late night bad-taste jokes only live on the memory of those who were experienced them.  But social media has changed this.

Facebook encourages people to share their thoughts with the entire social network.  Twitter is a bit more of an edge in that it lends itself much more to impulsive reactions rather than reasoned restraint.  Even blogs like this act as a kind of online journal, with a wider readership than the one I put to paper.

The downside is that this digital conversation is permanent conversation.  The words you share are permanently chiseled into the uneraseable internet.  A lapse in judgment online, even for a moment, can come back to haunt you.  It can be immediate, as we saw with Roseanne Barr when she lost her hit TV show because of a tweet.  Or it can linger for years and resurface out of nowhere.  Hartley Sawyer, the actor who played The Elongated Man on The Flash, was fired when tweets from eight years earlier were found and people were offended.  I even wrote about James Gunn when he was fired from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 for old social media posts.  The justice or injustice of the outrage from these posts, I will leave up to the reader.  My point is simply that once someone you put something up online, it is permanent and can be eventually held against you.

I have always been cognizant of this reality when I started this blog 8 years ago.  Even though I publish it anonymously, I have always held as my principle that everything I put here would be something I would be proud to have published.  Anonymity online is something that can never be guaranteed, so I always keep in mind on how my words reflect on my family, my friends, my employer, and my community.  It is one of the reasons I try very hard to steer clear of politics on this page and only engage them tangentially as they touch on philosophy, faith, or pop culture.  I pray that the only controversial things I have written have been controversial because they stand with the Catholic faith against the fashions of the world.  In the current climate of cancel culture, I believe my social media crime I could be accused of is my orthodoxy.  

And yet I have found a good deal of writing on the internet to be intemperate.  People react swiftly and emotionally.  This is not always a bad thing.  And being up front with your ideas is a healthy thing for defenders of free speech.  But when our words are enshrined on the web forever, we should employ a bit more caution.  

This is especially problematic for the young.  As I wrote, as we grow up we want to be heard, known, and understood.  But like that teenager who wrote that cringe-worthy journal, my thoughts lacked a coherent maturity.  And that is perfectly okay for a teenager trying to find out who they are.  But when that same teenager puts those thoughts online, I don't believe they realize that what they could be planting the seed of a very bitter harvest.  

Before my conversion experience, I held to beliefs that were against the Catholic faith in which I was raised.  I was in favor of women's ordination, contraceptives, and same-sex "marriage."  By God's grace, when I had my encounter with Christ, He led me towards joy of orthodox Catholicism.  But if I had posted these heterodox ideas online, I wonder how that would affect getting hired for my job teaching theology or the scandal it would cause should they resurface.  Thankfully, the internet was not what it is today.  And I only share my old heterodox beliefs by way of repudiation.

This problem is not limited to the young, though the impetuosity of youth compounds this.  Another issues is that ideas that were not scandalous at one point are now no longer socially acceptable.  But when old social media posts are found, they are presented to the world as a fresh conversation.  Often we don't take into account how the world has changed or how the person has matured.  

Back in 2013, I wrote about how Orson Scott Card was fired from writing a Superman comic book because he opposed same-sex "marriage."  While this position is no longer in the main stream of popular thought, it is still the moral teaching of the Catholic faith.  But even more so, it was the official position of all presidential candidates until the year before.  Within the space of one year, a belief that was once socially acceptable became unacceptable and any social media posts before the change can be held against you.

If things continue this way, perhaps all of the socially acceptable thoughts of today will soon be socially heterodox.  In this case, we will all have built up ammunition against ourselves that we stored online.

But with that in mind, I pray we can look at others with even greater patience and understanding.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Film Review: Hamilton

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

I don't think there is a Broadway musical that has been more hyped than Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton.  When the touring production came to my city, the tickets were so ridiculously expensive that I missed out on seeing it.  So it was with great curiosity that I watched the movie on Disney+ a few days ago to see if it lived up to the the bar that it set.

And boy did it ever!

Hamilton is one of the greatest musicals of all time.  I would put it up there with Les Miserables, The Sound of Music, and The Phantom of the Opera.  It deserves all of its accolades.

The musical is about the founding father Alexander Hamilton (Miranda).  It attempts to encapsulate his entire life from his birth in the Caribbean to his death at in a duel by his rival Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.).  Along the way, we his friendship with the revolutionaries Hercules Mulligan (Okieriete Onaodowan), John Lurens (Anthony Ramos), and Lafayette (Daveed Diggs) through his involvement in the war under George Washington (Chris Jackson).  But the story also delves deep into his personal life with his wife Eliza (Phillipa Soo) and her sister Angelica (Renee Elise Goldsberry).  

But throughout, the heart of the story he and his foil Burr.  We see in the men two stark contrasts.  They are both ambitious.  But Burr plays the game of politics, holding his true beliefs close to the chest and learns how to tell men what they want to hear.  Hamilton, on the other hand, cannot help but make his mind known.  He has no time for niceties and will always tell you where he stands and if you don't live up to his ideals.  It becomes a constant source of envy that despite his abrasive nature, Hamilton seems to achieve more success than Burr.

But let us return to the main point: why is this musical so beloved?

The key to understanding this is that the primary purpose of any dramatic art, but most particularly in a musical, is that it must make you feel something deeply.  All other considerations must be secondary to the emotional impact of the musical.  And this is why Hamilton is a work of genius.  

I am not a big fan of hip-hop.  Watching the first half of the show, I would say that it caused me to greatly admire the skill involved in making it.  The production values are top-notch.  The choreography is fantastic.  The performances are also excellent.  But if the entire show were just like that first half, then Hamilton would have achieved greatness.  The hip-hop styling of the first half capture that aggressive and active tone of youth, with all of its drama and bravado.  But in the second half, we begin to see emerge a more complete portrait of Hamilton's entire life.  The bravado gives way to betrayal, disappointment, and tragedy.  This is the magic and the power of the show: it lowers your emotional guard by and then hits you with emotional wallop.  For the last hour, I found myself openly weeping several times.

Allow me to elaborate.  One of the things that is often overlooked in the reviews I've read for this show is how utterly masculine it is.  This is where the hip-hop stylings really help the tone of the show.  As I said, I'm not a fan of hip-hop, but even its biggest detractors would acknowledge that it tends to be a intensely masculine form of artistic expression.  The main revolutionaries are all very manly men, full of courage and ready to do righteous violence.  Burr is portrayed as cautious, but he is never portrayed as cowardly (until perhaps the end).  George Washington stands as a giant.  Even in his even-handed carefulness, he is clearly a man of action.  This is all juxtaposed to the completely effete and effeminate King George III (Jonathan Groff) who is a show-stealing comedic character that is so loathsome in his lack of masculinity.

But the show is not a simple glorification of the masculine.  In the second act, we see how these qualities, if not tempered with virtue, especially the kind offered by the feminine, can lead to destruction.  There is a solid thru-line from the "young, scrappy, and hungry" Hamilton of the first act to the devastated, haunted Hamilton of the final scenes.  And yet, even in this, there we get the sense that there is wisdom gained in the suffering.  Hamilton makes mistakes that cause so much destruction.  And in the show's most amazing song, "It's Quiet Uptown," you get a glimpse of transcendent beauty.  I loved every part of this song.  But I was most amazed and moved by these lines, after Hamilton has experienced a great tragedy:

I spend hours in the garden
I walk alone to the store
And it's quiet uptown
I never liked the quiet before
I take the children to church on Sunday
A sign of the cross at the door
And I pray
That never used to happen before

His sins have brought him low.  But instead of breaking him, they have humbled him.  And the power of that moved more than most anything I've seen on stage.

Speaking of the stage, Disney was very smart to make this movie a "concert" version of the full stage musical instead a full cinematic film like 2012's Les Miserables.  I get the distinct impression that Hamilton would not translate to this style nearly as well.  The show has a deceptively simple set that actually contains hidden complexities to allow rapid scene changes.  The production design is a strange combinations of anachronistic and time-appropriate styles.  The costumes and props are all of the period, but the behavior, hairstyles, language all belong to the modern era.  There is a special kind of artificiality to live-theater that allows us to accept more readily a story's lack of reality.  Making this a cinematic endeavor would draw too much attention to the anachronisms.  The fact that no attempt is made to make the cast look like the historical figures they represent has no impact on the play if you buy into its emotional core.  And when you do, you are dazzled by all of the technical craft on display on stage.

The performances and singing is also outstanding.  Soo is amazing as Eliza.  Her song "Burn" is so devastating in its hurt and betrayal.  Goldsberry's Angelica conveys such sharpness and stifled sadness that her song "Satisfied" is like a cathartic explosion.  Odom Jr. is every bit a match for Miranda's Hamilton and even though he is the "villain" of the story I could not help but feel constant sympathy for him.  Jackson's Washington has a deep an commanding voice which does its best to cover up his deep-seated anxieties at knowing only he can get the job done but not sure if he can do it.  But everything centers around Miranda.  His performance is appropriately theatrical, almost going a little over the top.  But in the final act, there is a moment when he has such a look of gratitude mixed with utter shame that was so honest and devastating.

While I try to keep current year issues out of movie reviews, Hamilton is a very timely film.  The founding fathers are portrayed not as distant demi-gods.  They are great men who are also flawed like all of us.  But those flaws do not stop them from being recognized as great.  Hamilton leaves a legacy that is in some ways divisive, but even his enemies admit of his impact.  There is hopefully something in Hamilton that could unite people of different worldviews.  Maybe this could be some of the common pop culture space where we can all meet each other and talk.  

Hamilton left me emotionally drained in a good way.  When it was over, I felt like I didn't just watch a musical, but that I had an experience.

And that is the highest compliment I can give a musical.


Sunday, July 5, 2020

New Evangelizers Post: What Will You Give Up For the Kingdom?

I have a new article up at  

I was just reading about a teacher who asked his students to imagine that they were living in the South during the height of slavery. He asked all of them if they would have publicly opposed this evil institution. Naturally, all of them raised their hands and said they would. But then he asked them for evidence of this courage in their own life today. He asked them when they have publicly opposed something that would cost them their job, their freedom, and the disdain of the powerful forces in the culture.

When we read about history, we all like to believe that we would have had the moral strength to stand against the tide, especially when it comes to things that moderns have clear moral certainty about. Every rational modern person recognizes the evil of things like slavery and the Holocaust. If we ever imagine ourselves in those circumstances, we often concoct an image of someone unbowed to these evils and giving aid to those who are oppressed.

But is that how we behave now?

In this age of “cancel culture,” do we have the courage to say things that are out of the mainstream, even if they are true. Do we dare speak the Church’s truth about human sexuality or the sanctity of human life, even when it is unpopular? This is not about political sides. As someone who adheres to the Church’s pro-life principles, I must speak out in defense of all human life. This means I could incur the wrath of the political left when speaking against abortion or the political right when in opposition to the death penalty.

However, all too often we reduce these questions to things in the public sphere. This also applies to our personal lives. When you are sitting with your co-workers at lunch and they are badmouthing a fellow employee, are you going to be the unpopular one who says, “Maybe we shouldn’t gossip about other people?” It’s something that sounds so easy in principle, but can be difficult for many.

And being true to the Gospel will cost you.

Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to be my disciple, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Matt 16:24)

We often think of the cross in terms of pain, which is perfectly valid. But we should also remember the cross as humiliation. The condemned person is forced to carry the implement of their own death. It is like being forced to carry the rope to scaffolding where you will be hanged or carrying the bullet that they will use to shoot you. All the while, He was crowned with thorns because He told them that He was the King. Because of this, they mocked Him as King.

Can we endure to be mocked? If we cannot then we are less like Christ and more like Satan. St. Thomas Moore once wrote “The devil… the prowde spirit… cannot endure to be mocked.” No one deserved mockery less than Jesus, but He allowed it to happen because He trusted that His love would shine through. Do we have that same trust? There is nothing wrong with defending yourself, but do we do so for God’s glory or our own wounded pride.

The price of discipleship can be high.

My wife and I prayed for children since the day we were married. After many years, we prayed about adoption. We worked through several avenues, but with very few results. If you’ve never gone through the process, you may not know that before you can do almost anything, you have to have a space created for the child. We had a baby’s room with a crib all ready. Our home was inspected, car seats and strollers were purchased, parenting classes were taken, and several other things. And for years, the nest we furnished remained empty.

Until one day, we were chosen by a birth mother for an interview. We both dressed as maturely as we could and we went to the agency to meet her in the presence of the social workers. When the birth mother saw me in my red bowtie, she commented how I looked like the Doctor from Doctor Who. At this, I produced a replica of the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver from my pocket. For the next 20 minutes, the three of us bonded over our love of all things pop culture. We learned about her life and her circumstances and she learned about us. Then after about an hour or so, she said this:

“Religion was sort of forced on me growing up. It’s very important to me that whoever adopts this baby lets them choose their own religion and doesn’t have it forced on them.”

I looked at my wife and without saying anything, we both knew the choice we were about to make and what it would cost us.

You can read the whole article here.


12. Bridge of Spies. 

Bridge of Spies poster.jpg

Hoffman: OK, well, listen, I understand attorney-client privilege. I understand all the legal gamesmanship, and I understand that's how you make your living, but I'm talking to you about something else, the security of your country. I'm sorry if the way I put it offends you, but we need to know what Abel is telling you. You understand me, Donovan? Don't go Boy Scout on me. We don't have a rule book here.
James Donovan: You're Agent Hoffman, yeah?
Hoffman: Yeah.
James Donovan: German extraction.
Hoffman: Yeah, so?
James Donovan: My name's Donovan. Irish, both sides. Mother and father. I'm Irish and you're German. But what makes us both Americans? Just one thing. One. Only one. The rule book. We call it the Constitution, and we agree to the rules, and that's what makes us Americans. That's all that makes us Americans. So don't tell me there's no rule book, and don't nod at me like that you son of a b****.

This bit of dialogue is the central point of the Spielberg/Hanks collaboration Bridge of Spies.  While this movie was marketed as a thriller with political intrigue, that really isn't what its about.

The story revolves around James Donovan (Tom Hanks) who has been assigned to to a pro bono case for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance in the role that won him an Oscar).  The first half of the film is an examination of civil liberties in relation to national security.  That story, in and of itself, would have been enough for a complete narrative.  But instead, Bridge of Spies takes a turn in the second half and it becomes about a potential prisoner exchange of Abel for U2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) with the Soviets.

This movie falls into the category of other political Spielberg fare like The Post and Munich.  But this one is the best of those in his collection.  The main reason for this is that he is smart enough in here to not flog a political message as he did in The Post or attempt some kind of vague moral equivalency as he did in Munich.  

The only political message here is the belief in the Constitution.  Spielberg presents the protections and pitfalls of a system where even an enemy of the state gets a fair trial.  The movie never calls into question Abel's guilt.  In fact, Spielberg has a wonderful dialogue-less scene showing Abel at work in his treasonous work that is so completely fascinating and lacking any kind of obvious visual flourish.  Spielberg films his 1950's America with all of its nostalgic glory and innocence.  This is not a naive world, but there is a wholesomeness that seems worth preserving.  Even as shadowy government forces pressure Donovan to compromise Constitutional rights, the movie makes clear that Abel is trying to harm a good and free land.

The second half emphasizes this even more when Donovan must go to East Berlin right around the construction of the wall.  Spielberg does an amazing job of not only capturing the bleak blight of life under Communism, but he does so in a way that wonderfully contrasts the country Donovan has left behind.  Spielberg uses incredibly subtle visual tweaks to create a mood and tone that is oppressive.  Everything is cold and unforgiving in this Communist hell hole.  The color is all muted away.  Everyone is an actor, not showing you their true face.  

It would have been easy and lazy to try and set up an equivalency between America and the Communists.  Instead, he does something much more complicated.  He presents the good and the bad in the people on both sides and lets you, the audience, be the judge.  He does not sugar coat Communism as movies like Pan's Labyrinth did.  And he does not present our own government agencies as purely altruistic.

This is best exemplified when an American student named Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) is arrested by the Stasi and the American government is willing to let him rot in an East German prison as long as they can secure Powers.  Spielberg deftly shows Donavan's maneuvering for Pryor's release in the most intense showdown of the movie on the bridge in the final act.  The movie is about standing for what is right and good when everyone else stands against you.  And in one of the movie's most powerful moments, it shows that sometimes the only way to see those principles through is if someone, even the most unlikely person, stands with you.

11. Poltergeist

This is the most controversial choice on the list because Steven Spielberg is not credited with directing this movie.  Instead, Tobe Hooper, most famous for directing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is credited for this film.

Spielberg co-wrote the story, cast the actors, directed actors performances, produced, made most (if not all) of the storyboards, adjusted Hooper's shots while filming, made most of the creative and editorial decisions, and was on set every day of filming except for three.  There was a stipulation in Spielberg's contract that he could not officially direct anything while working on ET, which was constantly being delayed.  

I am open to being proven wrong, but Poltergeist is clearly a Spielberg movie.  Compare directing style of this movie to both Hooper and Spielberg and there is little question.  You could make the argument that Hooper was imitating Spielberg's style, but it doesn't ring true.  Look at the use of light and shadow, color and music, humor and drama, and it all screams Spielberg.

Poltergeist is a terrifying film.  But it is terrifying in a very Spielberg way.  One of the keys to much of Spielberg's work is his insatiable sense of wonder.  This film opens a window into the undiscovered country of the afterlife.  It is both beautiful and terrifying.  He draws you in with fascination but then you realize too late that this is a door you may not be able to close.

Some of the special effects might be dated, but Spielberg knows how to makes something terrifying with the camera.  I will never forget the clown sitting there staring at Robbie (Oliver Robbins).  And even worse, is when Robbie looks and the clown is gone.  The moment is so quietly scary because Spielberg is able to capture the silent terror of late night fears.  Is this all in my head?  Or is there a monster under my bed.

What's amazing to me too is how much Spielberg is able to break the maxim "Show, don't tell" and do it effectively.  We never see the inside of the ghost world, we can only hear Carol Anne's  (Heather O'Roarke) haunting echo in the TV.  When she describes she's not alone or when Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) describes "the Beast," your emotions are primed for terror.

The entire film has an ominous quality that you cannot shake.  But what is amazing and so Spielbergian is that it is not an existential dread that is fueled by nihilism.  There is an overwhelming cosmic horror at being helpless to forces beyond your control.  But there is always a continual hope that things might turn out for the best.

At its heart, Poltergeist is the story about a family in crisis.  Steve (Craig T. Nelson) and Diane (JoBeth Williams) are an average middle-class couple just sleepwalking through suburban life.  But when Carol Anne gets taken, the family's complacency is shattered.  The movie explores the strain and stress of having a child in distress and how that effects the relationship of the parents, their children, and their whole lives.  Watch how Steven is worn away by his own helplessness and Diane's relentlessness is almost off-putting.  This culminates in the amazing scene where Diane must enter into the light to get her daughter.  In the most desperate and ominous line, Diane looks back at Steven, who is holding the only tether that she has to this world as she is about to plunge in.  She screams, "Steven!  Don't let go!"  These are not superheroes, but an ordinary man and woman who will most likely fail.  It never fails to put me on the edge of my seat.

The also has some amazing laughs, which Spielberg uses not to mitigate the horror but to intensify its effect.  The jokes don't make you wink at the camera.  Instead, it lowers your defenses so when the scares occur, you are not ready and it hits you even harder.  The only time we are allowed to let a joke truly sink in is in the very last shot.  And it is Spielberg's parting gift to the audience, giving them a chance to laugh together one last time after sharing so many screams.