15 words or less film review (full review to follow soon)
|image by James Caws|
Yesterday, there was a mini-Vince Vaughn movie marathon on TV. It got me to thinking about him and his career. He's been making movies for over 20 years and that is nothing to sneeze at. I've been acutely aware of his career with his and Jon Favreau's breakout film Swingers. I found that there is something strangely relatable to a number of his films. It might be the fact that he is only a few years older than me. It could be that he has the coolness that the average man wishes they had. Or it could be that he seems like a genuinely relatable guy that you sit down and have a beer with.
Regardless, I reflected on his film career and decided to break down his ten best movies.
These are not all movies in which he stars. Sometimes his screen time is limited. The following movies are ranked not according to the specific quality of his performance but on the overall quality of the movie. Often the two things are linked.
And there a number of films of his that I haven't seen where I heard were excellent, like Riot in Cell Block 99 or Dragged Across Concrete. This list is based only on the films of his I have seen.
10. Four Christmases
The movie has many flaws and it never quiet makes it to the level that it needs to be. But what holds this thing together is Vaughn's performance. He absolutely commits to every situation, like the utter terror when he is about to be punched in the face by a child or his absolute certitude in lines like "Honey, haircuts don't lie." He carries the ball all the way into the end zone.
9. Return to Paradise
I don't think I could watch this movie again. It wasn't because it was bad, but that it was so upsetting to watch. In the movie, Vaughn's character must decide whether he will accept a prison sentence in a foreign country, which is the only way to save the life of his friend played by Joaquim Phoenix. The movie takes some truly harrowing emotional turns that stick with you in a very unpleasant way. I recognize that this was the intent of the film makers, so I acknowledge it here on this list.
8. Fighting With My Family
Vaughn takes a supporting role as a talent scout for the WWE. There is a maturing element to his performance here. It is not as showy as some of his earlier parts. There is a quiet mean, mentorship that you only find out later is tough love. He makes sure to ground his aloofness in actual care. He perfectly facilitates the main character's transformation from the beginning to the end.
7. Wedding Crashers
This movie would be much higher on the list if it wasn't a bit too long. This movie has so many funny moments that it is hard to recount them all here. It is hysterical to watch Vaughn move from his typical cocky ladies' man into a man trapped and hunted. To be sure the movie is on the vulgar side, but it ultimately moves the characters into a place of growth. His chemistry with Owen Wilson and Isla Fisher is fantastic.
Vaughn's part in this movie is very small. But the movie itself is excellent. It does a great job of giving you and emotional investment in the modest dreams of the title college student so that you want to cheer his name along with the crowd in the final game.
This is a very underrated film directed and Favraeu. Not only is the movie completely quotable, but Vaughn's character has an unhinged, wild side to him that is at times likable, but sometimes takes a dark turn. In fact, as the movie goes on Vaughn's Ricky Slade gets so dark that you are tempted to write him off completely. But Vaughn's performance keeps him just on the right side of endearing to make sure that you stick with him until the end.
4. Couples Retreat
Like Wedding Crashers, this one is a bit too long, but also like Wedding Crashers, the funny moments are too many to count. This is a film that is helped by having an incredibly good cast that all bring the right elements of chemistry to this group dynamic. Besides being hysterical, the movie is also incredibly relatable. Within the 4 couples, we can find dynamics in marriages and friendships that will have some aspects that are familiar to the audience. I also love how this movie marks a very clear point in Vaughn's film trajectory from ladies' man to family man.
This movie is pure silliness and it that is perfect. There is no depth here. There is no deeper meaning other than the desire to make the audience laugh. Whenever this movie is on TV, I end up watching it because I know that I'm going to have a good time. It is over-the-top and cartoonish and it absolutely works, with lines that I still quote to this day. It also has one of my favorite film jokes of all time: "Allow me the pleasure of introducing you to: Blade! Laser!... Blazer!"
I encountered this movie at just the right time in my life, when I was a young, single guy in college. This movie struck a chord in a way that few movies do because it harmonizes with something true in your real-life experience. It captures the depression of heart-break, the agony of being single, and bond that good buddies have where they may fight but they have each other's backs. It's roughness is part of its charm and Vaughn became a well-deserved star after this film.
1. Hacksaw Ridge
Vaughn only has a supporting role here, but he is excellent. As Sgt. Howell, he is a commanding presence who belittles and berates his men, whipping them into shape from carefree boys into well-trained soldiers. He is tough-as-nails, but he is able to show a paternal side when needs be. While Vaughn is not the center of the film, he certainly adds to the overall quality of this masterful war movie by Mel Gibson. The movie is harrowing, exciting, heartbreaking, and uplifting. And Vaughn's "man's man" quality as an actor is perfect in this role.
Sexuality/Nudity No Objection
Anti-Catholic Philosophy No Objection
Tom Hanks has earned a lot of cache in the genre of World War II stories. His iconic performance in Saving Private Ryan notwithstanding, he has also produced the series Band of Brothers and The Pacific. Outside of film, he was a huge supporter of the World War II memorial in Washington DC.
This time Hanks returns to WWII with a script he wrote himself called Greyhound. The title refers to the code name for the ship that he captains. Hanks plays Captain Krause, who is given here his first command of an Allied convoy. Battleships like his must protect cargo ships transporting, troops, fuel, supplies, weapons, and all manner of help for the war. The problem is the German U-Boats. The convoy is safe when they are within a certain distance from an Allied airbase where planes can bomb the subs out of the water. But for several days during the crossing, the convoy is vulnerable at every moment. The battle ships must keep constant watch for attack at any moment. Any single bad choice could jeopardize the lives of everyone in the convoy.
Unlike Saving Private Ryan, this is not a movie that is a character study soldiers on the field of battle. I would venture to say that most people would have a hard time remembering the names of any of the characters. There are no big speeches about life back home or the inhumanities of war. The sailors are too busy with fighting to talk about fighting. While this is a bit of problem, Hanks and director Aaron Schneider compensate for it in two ways.
The first is that the movie is an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride. Every moment is soaking with tension. We do not have an omniscient view of all of the events happening. We tend to be locked completely into Captain Krause's perspective. We never see what the captains of the other boats are doing or feeling. Like Krause, we have to discern how they are doing from brief flashes of communication. The U-Boats are actually quite terrifying. Like the shark in Jaws, they are a mostly unseen menace in the ocean that can pop up at any time to bring death. How many U-Boats are following them? Krause doesn't know, and neither do you. You take the ride along with him as you white-knuckle your way through hoping to buy more time.
The second thing that helps is that the movie is utterly fascinating to watch. Schneider throws us right into the thick of things. When a U-Boat is spotted, we see the well-oiled machine of naval training kick in. The navigator plots a course, measures time and speed, the captain assesses the field and tries to strategically uses his limited artillery to blast them out of the water. I couldn't take my eyes off of the screen and even though I did not understand a great deal of what was being said, I felt like I was experiencing real life on a battle ship. You are not only in Krause's position, but you also feel like a member of the crew when he makes a decision you think is wrong. You have to trust the chain of command, but you are uneasy as your life is in the captain's fallible hands.
Hanks holds the movie together with the power of his charisma. Like his performance in Cast Away, Hanks is able to draw you in with very little dialogue or action. You cannot wait to see what he is going to do next, but he never goes over-the-top.
As a Catholic I absolutely loved the spirituality that is present in the movie. Krause is a religious man, a man of prayer. He begins his day on his knees before God. He is humble and pious while being bold and courageous. Hanks and Schneider treat Krause's spirituality with great dignity and respect.
Because it never tries to delve too deeply into the characters the way Saving Private Ryan does, Greyhound never quite achieves the heights of that film. But if you want a fun, thrilling, and fascinating couple of hours, I would check this movie out.
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Offensive
A few minutes into Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, I came to realize that this wasn't a movie. This was a play.
I found out later that this movie is in fact a stage play by August Wilson. Adapting a play to a movie is actually a tricky business. Theater is really an actor's medium whereas film is a director's medium. A movie is primarily told through the decisions and vision of the director. But on stage, the actor must command the attention of the audience for the entire time and use every technique they can to draw in the audience. This is one of the reasons that the movie does not work as well.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom takes place almost entirely at a recording studio in 1927 Chicago where Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is recording an album. Her band is made up of the talented and cocky Levee (Chadwick Boseman), lead musician Cutler (Colman Domingo), common sense piano player Toledo (Glynn Turman), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts). The day is hot and tensions flare up as delays and conflicts in the group build with dramatic and devastating results.
This is a difficult movie to accurately review without giving spoilers so be warned: SPOILERS FOR THE REST OF THE REVIEW.
As I said, theater is an actor's medium and the performances are fantastic. You can see how an actor would love to be in this movie. The best of all the performances is Boseman as Levee. As I wrote in an earlier article, "Boseman's performance as Levee is utterly fantastic. His character has a heart that is a black hole of self-centeredness that he covers with swagger. But when the damn breaks, Boseman pushes Levee to emotional depths that are so incredibly difficult to perform well without going over the edge. Leevee is charming, funny, scary, detestable, and sympathetic, sometimes all at the same time. And Boseman plays those contradictions wonderfully.
If you are anything like me, watching the news about our country is very upsetting. We are all Americans and yet we often appear more and more divided. To be honest, I have spent less and less time watching the news and instead focusing on praying for our people.
Everywhere it seems like all we find is bad news.
Why are we so divided?
I won’t pretend to have all of the answers here. But one of the things that I see happening is that we are no longer talking to each other. We are talking at each other. We are quick to think of those who are on different sides than our own as villains who need to be defeated.
This made me think about the mission of evangelization. Christ commanded us to “make disciples of all nations.” (Matt: 28:19) We are called to engage the world and bring them to the Gospel message. We cannot be shut up in our own little closed lives. We must engage the world. And sometimes, people may not be receptive to the message.
An easy trap to fall into is to think about evangelization or apologetics the same way we look at other debate tools. We think that the best way to bring people into the kingdom is to argue them into belief.
Before proceeding, I want to be absolutely clear that apologetics and logical argumentation are an indispensable part of our mission. Our God is a God reason. The charge against people of faith is often that they abandon reason, science, and logic in favor or irrational belief. This is a big stumbling block for many people in the modern world. They have bought into this lie about Christianity. Great theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas and CS Lewis do a wonderful job of removing that accusation against the Christian faith.
But as I have written in previous articles, we must remember that apologetics has its place. Many people have these mental impediments to coming to faith. For example, someone may have a problem believe that a good and love God would allow suffering. Reading a book like The Problem of Pain can help remove these stumbling blocks to faith. But even if all of these obstacles are removed, this does not guarantee faith. In other words, you cannot argue someone into believing, you can only argue away their obstacles. In the end, they must make the choice whether or not to make the leap of faith.
But why will they make that leap?
Recently, someone asked Fr. Larry Richards what was the best way to convert an atheist. He responded that too often we try to hit people with the truth of God before they’ve ever experienced the love of God.
God is love.
Love is the beginning and the end of evangelization.
As a high school theology teacher, I am sometimes able to argue students out of their objections to the faith. This act on my part is not all that impressive since I have spent many years studying these things and often their arguments are ones that they have heard from others (lately a lot of them are coming from YouTube). But even when I am able to refute their argument, faith is not immediately kindled in them.
Faith is a relationship. This is why Jesus wants us to believe IN Him, not simply believe THAT He is the Son of God. To believe IN someone is to have a relationship with them.
A student once asked me how they could believe in a God they have never met. I told them that they couldn’t. You can’t believe in someone, even God, if you have never met them.
So how do we help people meet God?
The first and most important thing is to love them.
One thing I have learned in my years of teaching is that the will can often override the intellect. You can remove every logical objection to faith, but if the person feels like they are being bullied or pushed towards God, they may reject faith simply out of a desire to not give in.
But when the people know that God truly loves them, they are drawn to Him in a deep and profound way. And this is part of our job in spreading the Gospel. We must give people the love of God.
When speaking with others, we must let them know that they are loved. Their lives are uniquely and particularly special. We must listen to them and care for them. We must show them that we care about them, not just in a general sense of Christian charity, but in a particular sense of human friendship.
If a person experiences that love and acceptance in us, it will turn them to the perfect love and acceptance that comes from God.
I remember listening to a speaker at a conference set up by my bishop. The speaker was a woman with same-sex attractions who was not raised Catholic. But in college, she somehow fell in with a Catholic college group. She was very up front about her attractions and her lifestyle, but she said that no one in that group ever put conditions on their friendship. She felt loved and accepted just as she was. To be clear, they never compromised the Church’s teachings on human sexuality, but they let her know that living in accordance with the Gospel was not a prerequisite to being loved by them or by God. As a result, she developed a deep longing for God, particularly in the Eucharist. The speaker came to realize that she wanted to be with Christ who loved her and so she embraced the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexuality.
The point is that the best way to bring people to the love of God is simply to love them. I know that seems obvious, but in these days, we are so quick to turn people who disagree with us into the villains of our story.
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature
The most frustrating thing about this movie is that it is almost a modern holiday classic. If only they stuck the landing, this would be approaching the same stratosphere as movies like Elf or Enchanted. But it falls short.
Godmothered centers around Eleanor (Jillian Bell) who lives in a magical school that trains women to be fairy godmothers. She is the worst in her class but makes up for it with pluck and enthusiasm. However because of the rigidness of the headmistress Moira (Jane Curtin), the school is falling apart because no one is turning to their fairy godmothers. Eleanor decides to do something about it: she finds a letter in the archives from a little girl named Mackenzie who asks for help finding her true love. Our hero travels from her magical land to our world only to find that Mackenzie is now a grown-up single mother played by Isla Fisher. Undeterred, Eleanor unloads her unpredictable toolbox of fairy godmother tricks to help Mackenzie, often resulting in hilarity.
I was so impressed with Bell in Brittany Runs a Marathon. She handled the mature material of that movie with great humor and charisma and she does equally well in Godmothered. Her enthusiasm is contagious. Playing a character like this could easily devolve in to cloying Pollyannaishness that serves as a portrait of naïveté in a fallen world. Instead, Bell makes us believe in Eleanor's drive and desire to spread joy. She is not a perfect figure. She is incredibly flawed and has to overcome those flaws throughout the movie, which provides a nice character arc. And requires Eleanor to be someone who has to do a lot of physical comedy and sell a silly joke. I must admit, the movie began to own me when she told a truck driver that she was looking for a place called "Mass-a-cahoo-sets."
Fisher is a perfect foil to Bell. I've always thought that Fisher should be a marquee-name, A-list comedienne. Watching her world spin out of control by the chaotic Eleanor is a great deal of fun. She allows us to see the different layers of personality to her character and she hones in how to get the funniest take on those layers.
The script is not meant to be too terribly complex or deep. In many ways, it is a very by-the-numbers Disney fairytale/fish-out-of-water film. Mackenzie's world is defined by fear and the desire to protect her family. Eleanor's job is to help Mackenzie learn not how to be safer but braver. You can see these same themes play out in movies like Finding Nemo.
Director Sharon Maguire hits just the right silly and sweet tone throughout. There is a delightful moment that sticks out where Eleanor is helping Mackenzie's daughter Jane (Jillian Shea Spaeder) overcome her fear of singing in public. They sing "My Favorite Things" on a public street full of cynical city-dwellers. But as the persist in their song, it draws in the crowd and the audience at the same time. I'm not ashamed to say that my wife and I began to sing along as well. Maguire not only is able to set up scenes like that as well while making the film a fun and colorful spectacle.
The only real problem with the movie is the ending. Everything builds to a confrontation between Eleanor and Moira. It involves Eleanor calling for us to redefine happily-ever-after. And while there is something interesting there, the film-makers took it as an opportunity to try to be more cutting edge of social issues. They try to do it the same way they did in the live-action Beauty and the Beast or Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. All three of these films try to introduce commentaries on modern issues in a way that has nothing to do with anything that has come before. As a result, these moments have only one result: they break the spell the movie is casting on the audience. Once that happened, Godmothered makes you feel like Cinderella after the clock strikes midnight.
And that is the real shame here. This movie should be more present in my consciousness and memory because so much of it is admirable, enjoyable, and magical. But when you are casting a spell like this, you have to carry it all the way to the end.
My good friend the Doctor said that I should do a parallel list to my Kal-El Awards that reflect to worst in pop culture from the year. He suggested that I call them the "Lenny Luthors" after the horrible Jon Cryer character from Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. The rational for choosing Lenny was that "he is terrible in every way that Superman is awesome."
The fundamental issues is that the director Cathy Yan isn't really interested in making a fun, super hero film. Instead it wants to say something about men and women, while at the same time be a fourth-wall-breaking meta comedy like Deadpool. But that is an ambitious undertaking and Yan is clearly not up for the task...
As I said, Yan wants to say something about men and women. And that message comes down to this: men are awful. I wish there was more nuance than this, but there isn't. Every man, and I do mean EVERY man in the entire movie is awful. It was like Yan told every guy in the film, "Okay, in this scene, I want you to look smug and condescending because you are talking to a woman, and all men hate women." If you see this film, you will understand that this is not an exaggeration. A lot of movies can be critiqued for objectifying and demeaning women. But this feels like an over correction. Catholic teaching is clear that men and women, though clearly distinct, have equal dignity.
Christina Hodson's screenplay fails to give us anything resembling a sympathetic lead character. Even Deadpool used its first act to show the tortured Wade Wilson become the Merc with a Mouth. Seeing his horrible pain, we immediately empathize and thus follow him even during his more morally questionable turns. But Harley is simply a woman who was dumped. And while that is a common experience, it isn't enough to follow her horrid violence. Early on, she spills a drink on a man. When he complains, she breaks his kneecaps. And the film makers don't seem to understand that this excess is actually repugnant.
They also don't have any idea how to write these characters. I understand that there have to be adjustments when adapting any character to the screen. And tweaking their circumstances can change how they behave. But all of the great texture of the source characters is lost in big broad strokes. In the comics, Zsasz is a fearsome psychopath on the level of Hannibal Lector. Here, he is just a thug. Sionis was originally written as a sophisticated, cold-blooded mob boss. Here he is insane like Joker-Lite. The worst example, though is Cassandra Cain. In the comics, she is someone who was raised by the world's greatest assassin who only really communicates through fighting. All of that uniqueness is tossed into the garbage can for some super-generic latch-key kid thief. What a waste!
Every year we make New Year’s resolutions. When the calendar resets, we often take that as a moment to hit the reset button on our lives. There is nothing magical about the change in date, but it speaks to the deep human need to start over.
I once read about a true insomniac, someone who never slept. It was very interesting, but the part that I thought was most harrowing was that for this person, their day never ended. The sun would rise and set, but it would continue to be one long, unending day.
Before this, I had never considered what a night’s sleep, even a bad night’s sleep, gives me from day to day. When I sleep, I end that chapter of my life that I call that day. And whether it was good or bad, I get to start my day all over again.
As I wrote, we have a deep need to start over, to begin again. We sometimes feel trapped by our own history, particularly our failures. We carry with us the fruit of poor decisions, whether they are the extra pounds around our mid-section, the small numbers in our paychecks, or the fractures in our family relationships. It is especially true when it comes to our sins.
Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas point out that our moral choices are done in a vacuum, divorced from who we are. Our virtues shape our character into who we are supposed to be. But our vices warp who we are down to our core. Movies like The Godfather or TV shows like Breaking Bad do a wonderful job of showing how when good people make sinful choices, the very core of their character twists into something wicked.
The same is true about all of us. We make choices every day, some large but most small, that shape the contours of our soul. The change is so incremental that we tend not to notice it until a gulf has formed between who we are and who we were. I wake up one day to discover that I’ve lost the courage to stand up for my convictions or that I’ve closed my heart to the affections of the people in my life.
This epiphany is a gift from God, but the problem is that the deficit in our character seems so insurmountable that we are too far gone.
That is why God lets us start over.
John’s Gospel begins with the same three words that open up the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning…”
The coming of Jesus was not another link the the chain of Salvation History. He was not simply the successor to the kings and the prophets of the Old Testament. In fact the reason why we divide the Bible into Old Testament and New Testament is because Jesus’ arrival into this world is so radical. It is not the next step in the story.
The coming of Jesus is a new beginning. Redemption is Re-Creation. God is starting over.
And what is true on the macro-scale of history is true on the micro-scale of our own lives. We are called to have a new beginning.
The personal history that we try to escape from can be the fertile soil from which springs forth a vine in the vineyard of the Lord. That language may seem overly flowery and optimistic, but it is rooted in the reality of Christ’s saving power. We get to begin again.
When the Prodigal Son returns to the father, he is clothed with a robe, sandals are put on his feet, and a ring is put on his finger. In the Bible, clothing represents authority, slaves would be the ones to walk around barefoot, and the family ring would give the son access to the family fortune. Upon his return, the Prodigal Son is immediately restored to full sonship.
That is what happens to us when we return to the Lord. Christ has given us the sacraments of Baptism and Confession. Here, the entire accumulated sins of our lives are washed away and we become a New Creation. We get to start over.
In God’s eyes, the sin is no more. However, we mortals let our bad memories linger. And worse, the bad habits of vice may still be firmly rooted in our daily lives. But this doesn’t mean we cannot truly start over.
To begin again, we need to live as if we believe in the new creation God has made us. This doesn’t mean that the consequences of all of my past behavior magically vanish. If I repent of my gluttonous ways, it does not mean my body immediately becomes fit and trim. If I repent of my addiction to alcohol, drugs, gambling, or pornography, it does not mean that I am no longer an addict. There is a brokenness that comes into the world by our sin.
But we can overcome that brokenness by living like that new creation. I may be overweight, but I can begin to live a healthier lifestyle. I may be an addict, but I can begin to live my life free of those addictions. I may need to do more work, but I have to believe that I really can start over.
We may have damaged our relationships. But if we value these people in our lives, we must have the courage to reach out and start over. Many times relationships fracture because of mutual acts of injury. Rather than waiting for the other person to apologize, do you have the humility to reach out and admit your wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness without seeking an apology in return? Can you swallow your pride enough to do that? Can you forgive others the way Christ has forgiven you?
And all of this requires a gift of time.
(This is my Christmas essay from 7 years ago. A very dear friend of mine contacted me and asked if I would repost it on this Feast of the Epiphany.)
Happy New Year!
A few years ago I co-wrote a musical. I thought I would share the lyrics from the song that the characters sang on New Year's. It seemed appropriate:
FROM THE FIRST TO THE LAST,/
TO THE FUTURE FROM THE PAST./
LEAVE BEHIND WHAT HAS BEEN,/
AND LET US BEGIN AGAIN.
START OVER AS A NEW YEAR BEGINS./
START OVER AS THE HAND OF TIME SPINS./
START OVER, WAIT AND YOU’LL SEE./
START OVER, AND SEE WHO YOU’LL BE.
COME ONE AND COME ALL!/
LET US ALL HAVE A BALL!/
AS THE NEW YEAR NOW DAWNS,/
LET BYGONES BE GONE.
FROM ALL MY MISTAKES...
FROM ALL MY TOUGH BREAKS...
FROM EACH FAILED ROMANCE...
FROM EACH UNASKED DANCE...
FROM BEING YOUNG OR BEING OLD/
FROM BEING SHY OR BEING BOLD/
FROM BEING FAST OR BEING SLOW/
IT’S TIME TO NOW GO AND
START OVER AS A NEW YEAR BEGINS./
START OVER AS THE HAND OF TIME SPINS./
START OVER, WAIT AND YOU’LL SEE/
START OVER, AND SEE WHO YOU’LL BE.