ReasonForOurHope

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Film Review: Blue Beetle

 





Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable

Violence Acceptable


Vulgarity Acceptable

Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

This movie has the distinct disadvantage of being at the superhero origin story so similar to all the ones that have come before.


Blue Beetle is the story of Jaime Reyes (Xolo Mariduena), a son of poor immigrants who has just graduated high school.  However, his family has fallen on hard financial times and so he gets a job at a rich resort where he bumps into Jenny Kord (Bruna Marquezine), the daughter of the founder of Kord Industries.  Jaime makes an appointment with her to get a job.  When he arrives at the Kord building, Jenny has just uncovered a sinister plot from her Aunt Victoria (Susan Sarandon) that involves an alien artifact known as the scarab.  She smuggles the object out through the unwitting Jaime.  But when Jaime's family get him to interact with the scarab, it attaches itself to him and surrounds him with alien armor, making him the Blue Beetle.  All the while he is being stalked by Victoria and her henchman Carapax (Raul Max Trujillo)

Mariduena is great in the role.  He has all the charisma of Tom Holland and he has honed his physical acting skills from his time on Cobra Kai.  His Jaime is flawed, but likeable.  He has an innocent charm without being na├»ve.  The second-best part of this movie, strangely, is Jaime's Nana (Adriana Barraza).  Through the first half they play her as an almost senile benevolence in the family, calmly praying her rosary as the chaos around ensues.  But then as the movie takes a more violent turn, she actually stands up as the backbone of the family in ways that are both inspiring and hysterical.  I looked forward to every time she was on the screen.  Jaime's father Alberto (Damian Alcazar) is the real heart of the movie, giving it a moral center that is simple and good.  Alcazar gives Alberto a humble dignity that carries the emotional throughline of the film.  His mother Rocia (Elpidia Carrillo from the movie Predator) also gives this superhero film an emotional anchor.

Director Angel Manuel Soto does a fine job of making the movie look good.  The scenes where Jaime first uses the suit and where he gets into his first fights are executed with spectacle and fun.  The production design is bright and colorful in a way that is incredibly fun.  There are times when the movie really picks up and becomes really alive.

But as mentioned above, so many other movies have covered the ground of this story.  Jaime's first flight reminds you of Iron Man.  His conversations with his armor's AI reminds you Spider-Man: Homecoming.  Jaime has a near-death experience that feels oddly like Deadpool 2 and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.  These comparisons are not necessarily fair to the movie, but they are also unavoidable given the pop culture landscape of the last decade.

Besides this, there are a few other things that keep this movie from soaring.  A number of characters either don't work or fall flat.  Marquenize handles her emotional scenes just fine, but she her chemistry with Mariduena is a bit off.  Sarandon's Victoria has absolutely no depth; she does an okay job of chewing the scenery like Obidiah Stane, but nothing more.  Jaime's sister Milagro (Belissa Escobedo) is supposed to be like a wise-cracking sidekick.  But she is so incredibly annoying in her rants about all things political (more on this later).  Jaime's uncle Rudy (George Lopez) is supposed to the loveable comic relief.  And Lopez does a decent job as the paranoid, underappreciated genius.  But the movie thinks he is funnier than he is.  It feels like the film keeps waiting for you to laugh at all his jokes.  

Speaking of the humor, it is hit or miss.  Sometimes it works out really well, as when the entire family freaks out of the body horror of the scarab bonding to Jaime.  But sometimes they are way off the mark.  At one point the family is in an attack vehicle and use an weapon called "Bug Fart," where the machine spreads poison gas while making farting sounds.

Another stumbling block is the political messaging of the movie.  Regardless of whether I agree with the politics, these messages are shoehorned into the narrative with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.  The movie wants to make commentaries on racism, capitalism, gentrification, illegal immigration, and sexism.  But rather than let these play out with subtlety and nuance, they literally just give a lecture.  The problem is that this takes you completely out of the movie.  It asks you to stop being an audience member to be entertained and instead ask you to be an advocate for a cause.

If the writing was better, they could have integrated these ideas.  But the efforts are so ham-fisted.  There is a scene towards the end where someone working for the bad guys makes an selfless act of sacrifice... that is also completely pointless.  The writers kill him for no other reason than to give him a moment to stand up to the rich, racist villain.

As a Catholic I loved not only the focus on this intact, extended family, but also the abundance of Catholic imagery.  This is especially true with Nana who displays her Catholic faith without hesitation or shame.

The movie does have an incredibly strange and inconsistent ethic regarding killing.  Early in the movie Jaime has a chance to kill Carapax after he is attacked.  Even this has serious consequences, there seems to be a theme about the value of life, even of your enemies.  But when the family attacks the enemy fortress, they kill the guards indiscriminately.  When the movie wants to return to the idea about finding the good in enemies it rings hollow because of all the wanton destruction beforehand.  The movie really should have committed one way or the other.

Blue Beetle never reaches the heights that it could have.  It hampered by a mediocre script and its historical circumstances.  

But when the movie finds its footing, it is actually a good deal of fun.








Sunday, August 27, 2023

Sunday Best: Top Ten Kevin Costner Movies

 Last week, my wife and I took time on Sunday to do a double feature of Kevin Costner movies that she had never seen.  It was at the moment I reflected on how many good movies the actor has been in.  

There are many people who criticize Costner's acting as slightly wooden.  Even if it is, it makes his several-decades-long career all the more remarkable.  I don't see it so much as wooden as Costner using his natural vocal and physical qualities and adapting them to his own.  His not a chameleon like Gary Oldman or Johnny Depp.  But he takes a classic Hollywood style like John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart, who adapt the role as their own.

And while I haven't seen all of his movies, I thought it would be fun to reflect on the best movies of his career.

While some of these movies have him playing a supporting role, I left out movies like Man of Steel, where he has very little screen time and so would not be considered a "Kevin Costner" movie.

Here are the Top 10:


10.  Hidden Figures

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This movie has Costner in an important supporting role.  Over the years, he has eased into the part of the elder statesman on the movie set.  Here he plays Al Harrison, who is in charge of John Glenn's historic flight.  He does a great job of showing his awaking to the racial injustices around him while always expecting absolute excellence from the people under his command.  The movie is a testament to the moral strength of our country and its constant growth towards justice.


9.  Silverado

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This movie was one where Costner had not truly achieved leading man status.  Instead he plays a quirky, edgy, and sometimes silly gunfighter.  It is unlike anything I've seen Costner do.  But he plays the part well.  The entire film is a well-acted and directed western that is incredibly satisfying to watch, even all of these years later.


8.  Bull Durham

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Normally, the vulgarity and sexual content would rank this much lower.  But one thing this movie gets right is that beneath all of that, you have real characters and actors doing real performances.  Costner plays "Crash" Davis, a baseball player who is aging out of the game who as to train and up-and-coming pitcher to achieve the life that he never will.  Costner plays Crash with both a cynical edge and a beating heart.  


7.  Thirteen Days

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People often make fun of Costner's accents.  The Boston one he uses in this movie is probably his most ridiculed.  But the movie is fantastic.  As with JFK, I do not want to get into its historical accuracy.  But Costner plays his Kenny O'Connell is a man who has to be incredibly cool under the pressure off the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The entire movie is a pressure cooker waiting to explode, but you know if it does, then tragedy will ensue.  The film makes historical events feel like an edge-of-your-seat thriller.


6.  No Way Out

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Like Bull Durham, I'm not a fan of the sexual content.  But this is one of my favorite movie thrillers.  Costner plays a Navy Commander who is caught up in an affair-turned-deadly involving Gene Hackman's Secretary of Defense.  You can feel the noose tightening around Costner's character as powerful people try to trap him and he only has his wits to keep him one step ahead.  What is fantastic too is that when you see the movie again, you can see the different layers to his performance that you did not catch before.


5. Dances With Wolves

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I just rewatched this movie and it is much better than I remember.  Perhaps I saw it too young to truly appreciate the scope and grandeur of it.  This might his most celebrated film and it earned him an Oscar for Best Director.  Not only is the movie gorgeous to look at, but it is also incredibly complicated.  This could have easily devolved into a simple narrative of the evil Americans oppressing others.  And to be sure, Costner was not shy about showing the horrors of those atrocities.  But he allows for complexity on all sides.  The movie respects you enough to let you see the humanity in both sides and make your own judgments of their actions.  


4. JFK

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I remember seeing this multiple times in the theater.  I think it was because there was just too much to take in.  Oliver Stone's insane conspiracy vision come to life is almost hypnotic in the way it uses such incredibly dramatic lighting and disorienting edits.  You feel like you are caught in a storm of lies and corruption with Costner's William Garrison acting as the one honest man trying to make it to solid ground.  Again, I am not judging the movie on its historical claims (there are so many inaccuracies that I wouldn't know where to begin), but the movie itself is a fantastic piece of filmmaking and I think it is Oliver Stone's best movie, thus making it one of Costner's best.


3. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

This movie is pure adventure and fun.  Yes, there are some dark and disturbing moments.  But the entire film fills you with a classic sense of excitement that only the best movies can.  Ignoring his intermittent accent, Costner's Robin Hood actually goes on an incredibly interesting hero arc, where the suffering he experienced in the Crusades forges him into a better hero.  Kevin Reynolds direction is always dynamic and visually enjoyable.  He can take a simple moment like lowering a character out of a tree and turn into a shot of beautiful romantic feeling.  That, along with a great ensemble cast and terrific score, make this a film that I could go back to over and over again.


2. Field of Dreams

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This movie is magic.  And I mean that not just in terms of the content where the ghosts of baseball players come to enjoy the game in a field in Iowa.  The script is magic.  It casts a spell on you.  Costner's Ray Kinsella is placed on a mystical quest whose ultimate questions are never answered.  What is causing this miraculous power?  Why are the rules the way they are?  What exactly happens when you go into the corn field?  These questions are never answered.  The magic is that they don't have to be.  The movie asks you to receive it less with your mind and more with your heart.  Normally, I don't like these kinds of films that are sentiment over substance.  But that is not the case with Field of Dreams.  The story knows what it is doing and writes characters with amazing intelligence.  Instead, it trusts in the power of the movie's heart to give you a cathartic experience.  I don't know anyone who doesn't get horribly emotional at line near the end of the movie: "Wanna have a catch?"  Because the heart is satisfied, no questions linger.


1.  The Untouchables

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Kevin Costner's Elliot Ness is one of my favorite performances of his.  He is a man who wants to fight crime with clean heart but dirty hands.  The movie is phenomenal and I think it should get way more respect as the classic that it is.  It is Brian DePalma's best movie with a crackling script from David Mamet, along with an amazing score by Ennio Morricone.  You add other fantastic performances by Sean Connery (for which he one an Oscar), Robert DeNiro, and others, you get a movie that fires on all cylinders.  The movie fills you with the thrill of fighting the good fight only to be torn down by the horrible corruption of the world.  And it repeats this cycle over and over again so that (even though the conclusion is well-known) it leaves you guessing.  It gives you just enough hope without ever blinking away from the evils of the world.  


Honorable mentions:

The War

Waterworld

Message in a Bottle

For Love of the Game

The Highwaymen


Thoughts?

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Film Flash: Blue Beetle

 



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


Enjoyable by-the-numbers superhero movie with a good lead actor, but fails to stand out.

Monday, August 21, 2023

New Evangelizers Post: The Battle of the Sexes

                                                    


 


I have a new article up at NewEvangelizers.com.  


I recently saw the hit movie Barbie. While many people have a variety of opinions, it made me think about the battle of the sexes.

The movie presents an antagonistic relationship between men and women. While the movie does this for exaggerated comedic effect, it expresses a philosophy that is present in the world today.

There is a way of thinking that looks at men primarily as the oppressors of women. A male-dominated society leads to the subjugation of women and prevents them from positions of power. On this view, society is a patriarchal hierarchy that must be dismantled in order for there to be justice. Men and masculinity are seen as suspect or even toxic.

However, I have also noticed a new and growing misogyny which is embodied by those like Andrew Tate. For those who don’t know, Tate is an online influencer who projects a strong masculine presence. However, he clearly speaks about how he treats women as objects to be seduced and used for a man’s pleasure. Sadly, this way of thinking has also taken hold among some. Thus, more and more men and women view the opposite sex as the adversary.

But this is not how God intended it to be.

First of all, we are both made in God’s image and likeness. “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27). We are both equal in dignity. This does not mean we are exactly the same. There is a reason God created us as two sexes.

When God created Adam, the man was incomplete. God creates the animals, but none are suitable partners for him. God is far above man. The animals are too far below. But when God makes the woman Adam says, ““This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh…” (Genesis 2:23). Adam finally found someone who was at his equal level. Men and women should treat each other as such.

And any rivalry between the two should be the result of the desire to improve each other through our complimentary natures. A world with only men would be a nightmare. A world only with women would also be lacking. We each have within our nature that which completes the other. We are naturally drawn to each other. God has written this in our souls, but also into our bodies.

A priest once pointed out that your respiratory, circulatory, digestive, and all other systems of the body are complete in themselves (that is they have everything they need to perform their function) except for one: the reproductive system. In order to create new humans, we must seek out another; and not just another, but one who is opposite.

When God makes Even He says he wants to create a helper for Adam. The word for “helper” used here in Hebrew is “ezar.” This does not denote a master/servant relationship. The word “ezar” describes the kind of help that is urgent to a person, like the help in saving a life. Eve saves Adam from loneliness. That is what men and women must do for each other. We must reach out beyond ourselves to the other.


You can read the whole article here.




Friday, August 18, 2023

Who I'd Be

 A number of years ago, a friend of mine gave me the following thought experiment:

"What job, fictional or not, would you have if you could?"

For example, the friend who asked told me that if you could, he would be a Ghostbuster.  He would ride around the Ecto-1 and go from location to location trapping ghosts with his proton pack and his wits.  

This opens up a whole world of possibilities that sound amazing.  I immediately let my mind go to the fantastic and the first thought that came to my mind was: super hero.

Imagine having the powers beyond ordinary men: the power to fly, super-speed, invulnerability, telepath, telekinesis, or any other flight of fancy found in comic books, cartoons and movies.  This is something I spent a good deal of time imagining and acting out as a child.

However, the more I thought about it, the less desirable this seemed.  The power would be great.  But as Spider-Man taught us: with great power comes great responsibility.  Once I had the power, I would feel the constant moral obligation to do more.  And if I take the hero part seriously, I would have dive head-long into danger time and again.  I would have to keep a secret identity to protect the people I loved.  And in the end, the only way my story could end would be in death.  A real hero has to give everything.  We honor heroes because they give everything.  While I hope that I could rise to the occasion in a crisis, I do not have the temperament to throw myself into danger the way a cop, fireman, or soldier does.  I am not a fighter, at least not in that way.  And for a super hero, the fight never ends.

I next thought about being a Jedi.  Outside of superheroes, this was my main childhood fantasy.  But once again, we have the same level of responsibility as a superhero.  Not only that, but the Jedi lifestyle of celibacy would not work for me a a married man.  I knew I did not have a vocation to the priesthood when I realized I was going to marry my girlfriend.  I guess my designs on being a Jedi go with that.

I thought about positions of great power like President or King.  But the responsibilities of those positions would not sit well.  "Heavy is the head that wears the crown."  The constant presasures of rule and governance would overwhelm me.  I believe that power is given as a means of service to the people.  When someone is in charge of the well-being of the state, the consequences of wrong decisions are enormous.  I also have no real desire to be in charge.  The thirst for political power is not something that I have ever found appealing.

Thinking about things that I do find appealing, I thought about being a successful actor or director.  I love the performing arts.  When playing a part, there is a feeling exhilaration that is difficult to describe.  There is a syncronicity between intention and performance that sings inside the soul.  Directing also gives a similar feeling.  You are able to create an entire piece of art by arranging the sounds and images that call forth an emotional response.  In addition to this, I love stand-up comedy.  If I was funnier, it would be the biggest thrill to be up on stage and move an entire auditorium to howls of laughter.

But while I find such great artistic fulfillment in my own dabbling into these arts, I don't think I would have life fulfillment.  As a man, so much of how I define myself is by what I do.  Making art is a noble thing.  But if this was the vocation of my life, I think I would find something a little hollow at the center.  I would question if I am truly making a difference with my life.  While I pray that I would bring joy and insight, I think I would need more.  The same would be true if I was a critic of the arts.  It would be a lot of fun to be paid to be something like a movie reviewer.  But also here, I would need more.  I can see this play in the lives of so many famous performers who thrust themselves into larger "important" issues in order to use their name to do something they believe is more worthwhile than their job.

I then thought about being a successful writer.  I've spent over a decade on this blog, so I obviously am in love with my own words.  I think I have something worth saying.  To keep doing this for so long without getting any financial compensation means that there is something here.  If I could make a living by the power of my words, it would be very nice.  I've written, plays, musicals, screenplays, stories, and poems.  My shallow ego imagines my pen name, WL Grayson, up there with the likes of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien.

But even here, there is something missing.  I think if I was able to do this, I would need something more.  I would need more of the human interaction besides the ones that authors make to their readers.  I would need to know that I was making a significant difference in the lives of people in a way that would change them for the better.

That's when I realized that who I'd be is what I am: a teacher.  And not just any teacher.  I'd want to be a high school theology teacher.  My own conversion came to me just after high school, so I know how important that time is to someone's spiritual life.  While I find incredible satisfaction with my artistic endeavors, but I find my job as a theology teacher fulfilling.  

I discussed this with a fellow teacher once.  We noted how teaching is unlike most professions.  There is something very special where you make your mark in the soul of a young person that shapes them in no other way.  If we do our jobs well, we can help that person become who God destined them to be.  And this is a work that will last forever.  CS Lewis said, "You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. "  No matter the great work done in this world, it will eventually go away.  But the person is eternal.  If we have a hand in shaping the person, we are creating permanent works of art.

Thinking too about being famous as a writer, performer, etc., I don't think this would be good for me.  I can barely deal with the temptations of daily life.  When we are elevated to celebrity, I can only imagine those vices would assail you constantly.  Someone once horribly said to Fr. Larry Richards, "You know, the devil always gets you celebrity priests."  I would venture to say that this was said out of jealousy and menace.  However, Fr. Larry had the humility to recognize some truth in that attack.  Especially if you are held up as a model of virtue, the devil knows how he can hurt the faith of others by dragging you down.  As a theology teacher, I have to do my best to live in a Christ-like way, but even in my small life, I fail often.  But when in the public spotlight, I think my faults would be even more pronounced.

Ironically, in my job as a teacher, I have been able to make movies, write and direct stage productions.  And every class is another performance for a small audience.  Each class is a show where I am able to use any storytelling skills God has given me to give Him glory.

Having reflected on this question, I can say, truly that I am blessed.  Undeservedly so, God has called me to my dream job.  That isn't to say that I am without complaints, but I would guarantee that most of them of small and petty.  It is a privilege to do what I do, and I can only pray to do it well.

And yet...

There is one more thing that has been on my heart for many years.  

For a long time now, I have prayed about a vocation to the Diaconate.  I felt this calling even before I really understood what a Deacon is.  Through a great deal of prayer, study, and guidance, I have come to learn that the Deacon is meant to be Christ the Servant in the world.  He is supposed to witness not only at the altar of God, but especially in the everyday world.  It is a life of quite service and it is a life that I deeply desire.

By God's grace I have been accepted into the Aspirancy Program for the Diaconate.  This means that starting tomorrow, I will be entering academic and spiritual formation moving towards ordination in five years.  If it is God's will and if the Church discerns me, then I will receive the sacrament of Holy Orders.  I will be a teacher and one who is anointed of the Lord.

I do not know if this path will end with ordination.  I do know that I by walking this path of discernment I am closer to God now than I have been in years, regardless of how this journey ends.

I humbly ask for your prayers, dear reader.  These next five years I am sure that I will learn a great deal about myself and the Lord, and I'm sure I will be tested along the way.  

As I said, I do not know if this is ultimately God's will.  But I am going to explore this vocation for as long as He guides me.  Because in the end, all I want to be is who He wants me to be.

And that's who I'd be.

Saturday, August 12, 2023

Film Review: Barbie

 


Sexuality/Nudity Mature

Violence No Objection


Vulgarity Mature

Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature

The makers of this movie think that they are smart.  To prove that, they wrote a movie that thinks you are stupid.

Barbie is a film based on the iconic toy doll.  In the movie, Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) lives in Barbieland, an idealized version of the Barbie play world.  It is a society run by all different kinds of Barbies who live in their dream houses, have every kind of profession from President to construction worker, enjoy leisure of every kind, and parties every night.  Living with the Barbies are the Kens, who are treated as hapless accessories to the Barbie lifestyle.  Among these is Stereotypical Ken (Ryan Gosling), whose self worth is tied to Barbie's attention, which is constantly denied him.  One day Barbie (I will just call her this from now on instead of "Steretypical Barbie") has thoughts of death enter her head and her feet go flat.  Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) tells her that the person playing with her in the real world needs to be cheered up.  So Barbie goes to the real world with Ken stowing away.  When they get there, the real world is not what they expect.

This movie should be a nice and fun adventure like Elf or Enchanted, where a naive hero comes from a magical place to bring light and joy to our mundane world while have a fish-out-of-water comedic time.  That is part of what Barbie tries to be.  The problem is that the writers Greta Gerwig (who is also the director) and Noah Baumbach are so insistant that they show you how smart they are that they refuse to simply give you an entertaining movei.  No, no... they are going to use Barbie to teach you.

I've said this many times on this blog that the reason why most Christian movies are terrible is because a sermon is not a movie.  Those movies ignore the most important aspects of storytelling in order to preach a message.  And that is one of the main problems with Barbie.

The writers are completely lost when it comes to telling a coherent story.  I've seen a few of Baumbach's other movies and I am convinced I am correct on this subject.  He projects depth the way a teenager does who first reads some Nietzsche quotes and starts wearing all black.  

One of the biggest tells in the writing is how they never give you a coherent world-view.  Whenever something doesn't makes sense, a character literally will say "Don't think about it too much."  This is way too much of a cheat and speaks to incredibly lazy writing worse than "Somehow, Palpatine returned."  Once you free your writing from reason and accountability, you can basically tell the laws of storytelling to go to hell, which is what this movie does.

For example, the "real world" bears almost no resemblance to a real world.  As soon as Ken and Barbie make it to Venice Beach, people start staring at them as they rollerblade in their neon spandex.  How in the world are they a spectacle at a modern day California Beach?  In a world where public parades have naked people dancing in front of children, I fail to see how our characters stand out.  Minutes after they arrive, a man slaps Barbie on her rear end and then she punches him, causing Barbie and Ken to be arrested.  Again, in full public view a man commits blatant sexual assault and she gets arrested for defending herself.  

You can see this unreality again at the Mattel Corporation.  They portray the board as being all men.  This, of course, ignores the real world Mattel Board of Directors.  But again, the Barbie real world is one that is just as much a fiction as Barbieland.  But the part where I completely checked out was when Barbie tries to escape from the building.  As she runs through the cubicles, an actual chase does not occur.  Instead, a choreographed run between the cubicles takes place like something out of a 1980's music video.  This is not like Enchanted where Giselle makes her cartoon magic overflow into the real world.  In the Barbie real world, everything is fake and hollow.  This is where the writers really talk down to you and think you are stupid.  You are supposed to look at their illusory "real world" and think "wow, that must be how it really is."  But you would have to think that your audience members are true morons in order to believe that.

Why am I harping on this point?  Because Barbie wants to say something about how the real world affects Barbie and vice versa.  But there is no real world in this movie.  There are only the prejudices and insecurities of the writers projected as being the "real world."  Ken's story arc revolves around him discovering the "patriarchy" in the real world and he brings that back with him to Barbieland.   Barbie herself is confronted by a girl she thinks is her owner, Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), who is a snarky little, cynical communist who tells Barbie that she is a fascist.  Sasha has a TikTok-level apprenhension of all of the words she uses and she never quite comes to this realization throughout the movie.  Her mother Gloria (America Ferrera) is a put-upon business woman who is struggling with all the problems of modern life.  

When they all go back to Barbieland, Ken has turned it into a patriarchy with all the Barbies as mindless drones.  We are supposed to be horrified by this, but the movie lacks the basic self-awareness to see that Barbieland is exactly the same as before only with Kens in charge.  To break through the "brainwashing" of the Barbies, Gloria has to give speeches to them about how impossible it is to be a woman.  But again, this makes no sense.  None of the complaints Gloria has like "You are supposed to love being a mother but you aren't supposed to talk about your kids all the damn time."  Nothing about that statement exists in the Barbie experience.  None of them are mothers.  That statement would have the same effect on a group of 10-year-old boy scouts as it would on the Barbies.  But again, nothing has to make any sense.  It is simply a metaphor for how women need someone to wake them up from the bondage of the patriarchy.

The movie also doesn't quite understand that Ken is way more likable than almost all of the Barbies.  Yes, he is stupid, but his entire existence is based on upon Barbie's affection.  That isn't because of some ego.  He is made insecure.  The movie wants to say that men have a natural inclination to dominate.  But what it really shows is that if you don't give men space to explore true masculinity then some will run to an Andrew Tate-like false masculinity.  

I could have forgiven almost all of the above if the movie had one quality: being funny.  In the end, I don't have to agree with your point of view as a filmmaker in order for me to enjoy your work.  But if you are going to make a comedy about the battle of the sexes, then you have to entertain me or you fail.  There are maybe 3 or 4 good jokes in the entire run time.  The reason why most of the jokes fall flat is because good jokes require intelligence, which this script intentionally removes.

What is a real shame about all of this is that Gerwig is actually an incredibly talented director.  Little Women was an example of her skill and excellence.  It is so frustrating to see little pockets of that brilliance in this movie.  There is a scene where Barbie is in the real world and she really sees it for the first time.  It is also the first time the movie makes the "real world" seem real and superior to Barbieland with all of its artificial glory.  But what was so touching is that she looks to her right and sees an old woman.  She would never have seen an old Barbie before.  In this overwhelming experience, she looks at the old woman and says, "You're beautiful."  There is so much pure beauty and goodness in the movie that it reminds you have insufferable there rest of the movie is.

There are only two things that keep this movie from being a total disaster: the leads and the set design.

Robbie is actually quite incredible in the role.  She has to transition from a one-dimensional piece of plastic to a fully realized, complex person in a believable way.  And to my amazement she does it without at all feeling false.  Even when she is horrible to Ken, she has enough charisma and charm to hold onto the audiences good will.  She could come off as vapid, but she never stops being endearing.  Gosling is also fantastic.  His Ken should be loathed, but you always feel sorry for him.  And his comedic skills are just as good as his dramatic ones.  Everyone else in the movie is either decent to terrible.

The production design also is great.  Barbieland looks like what a little girl would dream of.  Everything looks just like its toy counterpart while also feeling livable.  The color and creativity of that world make for a nice visual spectacle.

I do find it pernicious that a movie marketed to all ages contains innuendo about sexual activity, transgenderism, and direct talk about sexual organs.  Again, it seems like such an adolescent way of getting attention.

But even beyond that, the movie sets up men against women.  All the men are either antagonistic or superfluous.  Romance is completely dismissed out of hand in this movie.  No, no, we cannot have romance, because that would imply that somehow men and women need each other rather than being to autonomous groups acting as opposing furies.  This ignores the truth about human beings in that we were made for each other.  Men need women.  Women need men.  We were created to be partners in surviving and thriving through life.  

Barbie  preaches that life is a battle of the sexes.  But, again, the filmmakers are too ignorant to see the truth:

In the battle of the sexes, everyone loses.

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Thursday, August 10, 2023

Film Review: Oppenheimer

 



Sexuality/Nudity Objectionable

Violence Mature


Vulgarity Mature

Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature

There is a problem that many successful directors encounter the further on they go in their careers: the removal of limits.

You see, when a director is correctly lauded for their visionary artistry and box office bonafides, there tends be a reluctance to put constraints on the director.  The problem with this is that often true creativity occurs when you are forced to think through the limitations you have with new and creative ideas.  There is a reason that Steven Spielberg's two greatest movies are Schindler's List and Jaws.  While both are wildly different, they both achieve an outstanding level of directing excellence because you had a creative genius who had to work around his limitations.

This takes us to Christopher Nolan and Oppenheimer.

The movie centers around the "father of the atomic bomb" J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy).  We start with his early days as an eccentric genius through his affair with the married woman he later marries Kitty (Emily Blunt).  It takes us through his recruitment by Col. Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) to lead the Manhattan Project.  But (because Nolan loves to play with the narrative timeline), we are also encounter a parallel story years after the bomb's creation.  Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) is going through confirmation hearings to become part of President Eisenhower's cabinet.  However, his association with Oppenheimer comes up.  Particularly this is an issue because Oppenheimer's security clearance was revoked due to questionable ties with Communists.  As the movie unfolds, so does the history between Strauss and Oppenheimer.

There are two excellent movies in Oppenheimer.  The problem is that Nolan pushes them into one movie.

The movie is packed with famous actors like Gary Oldman, Kenneth Branagh, Jason Clarke, Tony Goldwyn, James D'Arcy, Alden Ehrenreich, Scott Grimes, Josh Hartnett, Florence Pugh, David Dastmalchian, Dane DeHaan, Jack Quaid, Rami Malek, Olivia Thrilby, Casey Affleck, and James Remar.  But I would be hard-pressed to tell you much about their characters.  While the movie is three hours long, almost everyone on this list is reduced to glorified cameos.  

Their performances aren't bad at all.  In fact, most of them are outstanding.  I would say that Murphy is currently the front-runner to a Best Actor Oscar.  His performance is wonderfully restrained.  He paradoxically is both easy to hate but difficult to dislike.  You can understand why people develop such an animus towards him but Murphy always lets you see his humanity.  This is especially true in the post-bomb scenes.  His Oppenheimer is a maelstrom of emotion being held together by a veneer of steel.  Blunt is also equally good, though she is given so little to do.  When the full power of her character is unleashed later in the movie it seems to come out of nowhere but is nevertheless cathartic.  Downey Jr., sheds his Tony Stark persona completely.  He still has an unshakeable charisma, but he lets his age work to his advantage by giving him a sense of gravitas.  

But my favorite performance is Damon's.  There is something about it that feels like a throwback to the classic leading men of yesteryear.  I could see his Groves being played believably by a John Wayne or Spencer Tracy.  There is something that is simple, masculine, rough, and decent about Groves.  In the hands of a lesser actor, this would be a bland, one-note performance.  But Damon is the everyman in a room full of science nerds and politicians.  You may not always like him or agree with him, but you feel like you can trust him.  Hats off to Damon for infusing this character with the most humanity of anyone in the movie.

Nolan deserves an Oscar nomination for his visual storytelling.  Most people will leave the theater remembering the Trinity atomic bomb test scene.  And too be sure, it is something was one of my favorite IMAX experiences.  When the boom of the explosion hit, everyone (including myself) jumped in their seats.

But to me, the best scene is the one that takes place at a rally after the successful Trinity test.  Oppenhemier has to lead the group in a congratulations for a job well done.  But the full weight of what he has done presses down upon them.  Instead of taking the easy way out and giving us an internal narration to tell us how he feels, Nolan uses his skill with sight and sound to help us see how he feels.  We see things from Oppenheimer's point of view as must disconnect his internal turmoil from his external enthusiasm.

But as I mentioned at the beginning, Nolan cannot edit himself.

While I found the second half of the movie more interesting than the first, you could feel the movie drag.  There is just too much going on.  If someone could have forced Nolan to put a scalpel to this movie, you would have had a much more streamlined, stronger story.  

Another issue that the movie has is that this is the most sexually explicit thing Nolan has done.  I find this incredibly disappointing.  I cannot recall a single one of his other movies that featured graphic nudity, but he inexplicably has incorporated it here.  He clearly wants to show the passion that Oppenheimer shares with Pugh's Communist Jean Tatlock.  But the introduction of this element makes the movie less, not more watchable.  There is one section where he uses sex and implied nudity well: when Oppenheimer is testifying about this affair, he appears naked and then appears to have Tatlock on top of him while she stares at his wife.  Visually, this expresses how exposed Oppenheimer feels and how humiliated Kitty is.  But with a little more creativity, Nolan could have gotten this across without compromise his integrity.

The movie also suffers from Nolan's trademark emotional rigidity.  Ever since Interstellar, it feels like Nolan is afraid to let his characters express their feelings in an unfiltered way.  While emotional restraint can be effective, it can also make you feel distant from the audience.

For some reason, the movie seems to underplay the threat of Communism in the post-WWII world.  I read someone who wrote something along the lines of "Oppenheimer worked with Communists, slept with Communists, had family members who were Communists, and gave money to Communists, but that is no reason to think he was a Communist."  Everything about his associations screams "security threat," but the movie does not want us to think that this is a serious issue at all.

The movie is very fair about the implications of the bomb.  It shows us both sides of the argument even as the main characters are building it.  Regardless of its necessity, the exploration of what it does to Oppenheimer's soul is fascinating.  Oppenheimer is not wicked, but he is never a virtuous man.  He is lecherous and arrogant.  And both those vices come back to bite him in a big way.  But his thin soul cracks under the weight of his greatest accomplishment and he is never the same.

Oppenheimer is a movie that is worth seeing on the big screen (though one should avoid the illicit sex scenes).  But it is also embodies one of the biggest themes of the movie regarding the creation of their new weapon:

Bigger is not always better.

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Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Wednesday Comics: Fantastic Four (2022)

Marvel Fantastic Four #1 (2022) Jack Kirby 1:50 Variant Edition Comic

 


I like when a comic surprises me.

Comic companies are notorious for cancelling a series and restarting it at issue #1 in order to boost sales and bring in new customers.  I regret to inform you that I am one of those suckers who tends to fall for this trick.  

But every once and a while the company takes the opportunity to bring on a new creative team with a fresh take on a decades-long franchise.

And that is what has happened with Fantastic Four.

I am late to the ballgame as this new series has been around for almost a year.  But as I was catching up on my comic reading, I found this first issue and read it.  The next day I travelled to two different comic book stores and picked up the remaining 9 issues.

The Fantastic Four has always been the first family of comics.  One of the things that makes them so good is that you get the strong sense of the family dynamic.  But what you also get are wild adventures.  The first issue started with only the Thing and his wife Alicia.  They enter a small town where every day everything resets to a certain day in 1945.  The first half of the book is a mystery.  The second half is a funny and ultimately heart-warming study about human relationships and time.  To be honest, it felt like a story from Doctor Who.

This gets at the heart of what the Fantastic Four could be.  They are super heroes, but they can encounter any kind of story in space, time, magic land, or mutant power.  Every adventure can be totally different.  One issue involves a town of Doombots and the next the Human Torch is taking on a corrupt business owner with super powers.

Writer Ryan North has very clear voices for each of the members of the family.  You could never confuse Johnny's obliviousness with Ben's blue-collar edge.  He does make Reed speak a bit too much in technobabble, but that is okay.  The reason why is that above all, North is making reading this book fun.

I cannot tell you how happy it makes me to simply read a fun comic book.  So many try to be dark and dramatic or attempt to make some kind of social commentary.  Instead, this book just wants to take you on some crazy adventures for a few minutes each month.  Regular artist Iban Coello and Ivan Fiorelli have some great art that is in the classic comic style, with just a hint of cartoonishness to add some extra humor.

While there is an overarching story arc, most of the adventures are one-to-two issue mini-arcs.  There is one that was incredibly interesting where the FF had to stop an inter-dimensional algae from destroying the universe.  The solution was elegant but also filled with conflict, which gives the story a lot of momentum.  And no Fantastic Four series is complete without an appearance by Doctor Doom.  The over-sized issue with him was a real treat.  North captured not only Doom's power, his voice, and his ego, but was able to incisively bring to light Doom's greatest flaw in a surprising way.

All of this is couched in the wonderful dynamic of the leads.  There is something so tender and perfect about Ben's relationship with the blind Alicia.  There is something so funny about how Johnny's infinitely lower intellect can still deflate Reed's understandable ego.

I don't read a lot of Marvel anymore, but I am making this book one of my top priorities every month.  If you haven't had a chance, try and track down the first issue.  

You won't regret it.

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Film Flash: Barbie

In the sky, a large styled pink "B" with Margot Robbie as Barbie sitting holding out her right arm and Ken lying down in an angle with his head resting on his right clenched hand. A tagline reads: "She's everything. He's just Ken."

 


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

Barbie = People who think they're smart made a movie for people they think are stupid.

Monday, August 7, 2023

New Evangelizers Post: The Acid of Resentment

                                                   


 


I have a new article up at NewEvangelizers.com.  


Resentment is a feeling that should be avoided at all costs.

This feeling can worm its way into our hearts in several different ways. We could begin to feel resentment towards someone because of they treat us with seaming disrespect. Or we could begin to resent someone because of they are taller, stronger, more popular, smarter, or more successful than we are. We could even resent someone because of their virtues. If I am someone who struggles with anger, I could resent someone who has a natural calm that I lack.

We can see in the Bible how resentment can eat away at a person. In Genesis, Cain and Abel offer up sacrifices to God. But because Abel gives the best of his possessions to God, He prefers this offering over Cain’s. As a result, God says to Cain “sin lies in wait at the door: its urge is for you, yet you can rule over it.” (Genesis 4:7).

Notice the imagery that God uses: sin waits outside of the person and must be invited into the soul. Cain ignores this advice and lets his resentment overtake him. Instead of having a heart filled with brotherly love, he becomes filled with murderous rage.

This is because resentment acts like an acid that erodes the goodness and truth in a person’s heart. In the story of Joseph the Dreamer, his brothers became filled with jealousy over how he was Jacob’s favorite. Instead of seeing him as their brother, resentment ate away at that image in their hearts.

One of the things that is so pernicious about resentment is how it can creep up on you. It can begin with little annoyances. Perhaps your spouse forgets to put away the milk. But as it continues, we can begin to read into these small acts: “They must expect me to do all of their cleaning for them like I’m their personal maid!”

Notice what has happened here: we take an act that annoys us and we infer a bad motive. Now to be sure, that inference is not always wrong. We are all fallen human beings and our vices touch all parts of our lives. But the inference may not always be correct. Maybe your spouse leaves the milk out because they think that you want to use it next.

If resentment festers, it can affect the way we look at the people in our lives. Our affections for them can be eaten away by these resentments until we are filled with bitterness.

How do we avoid this?

There are two main ways to do this:

The first is to embrace humility. St. Paul writes, “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:31-32). Here, the Apostle reminds us that we are in need of forgiveness, which Christ gives us. If I remember that I am a blameless saint, that I have faults that others could resent, then I am forced to confront my own vice. In that light, I should be patient with others.

St. Paul also writes in “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for those of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4).

Perhaps I am upset that my spouse never asks me about my day. This can be very hurtful. But do I take a moment and think “Do I ask my spouse about their day?” Or “Maybe my spouse has difficulty showing affection in words, but they show it by working hard for the family or by doing the chores no one wants to do.”

Thinking this way can help diffuse a great deal of resentment.


You can read the whole article here.




Sunday, August 6, 2023

Sunday Best: Christopher Nolan Movies Ranked (update 2023)

It's been been many years since I've ranked the films of Christopher Nolan.  To my mind he is one of the best directors working in the industry today.  With Oppenheimer being another enormous hit for him, I thought it would be a good idea to look back at his filmography.

The man has not made a bad movie in his entire directorial career.  It helps that he is very selective about his films and he has incredible personal control over all of the stories he's ever filmed.

So below are all 12 of Nolan's movies ranked in order from least to greatest.

12.  Insomnia

Of all Nolan's movies, this one is the one that feels the least Nolan-y.  And as far as I know it is the only one that is a remake of another film.  But it is still very dark and moody with some excellent performances.  Pacino's guilt is so visibly felt throughout the film and Robin William's turn as a mastermind killer showed a bold choice.  And the film still deals with big ideas about truth and conscience.

11.  Following

I caught this one on Netflix and it is a fascinating noir film about a man who becomes obsessed with following random people that he sees in public.  This could have easily devolved into some kind of psycho-sexual nonsense.  But he sets out early on that it about this a man who cannot connect to people who is drawn into a strange world of pulling the curtain back on people's lives.  It also is the first film that shows Nolan's funky use of chronology.

10.  Tenet

The upper half of a man in a suit pointing a gun. The image is mirrored diagonally, with the word TENET in the middle.
There is a line in this movie where someone tells the protagonist something along the lines of "feel it, don't think it."  This is the way you are supposed to watch the film.  However, Nolan's movies tend to lack the strong emotional core that would allow for this.  Tenet is technically a brilliant film.  The use of reverse time is fascinating.  But the story is so convoluted that it sounds smarter than it actually is.  

9.  Dunkirk
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Again, I don't think anyone can criticize Nolan's technical mastery of cinema.  All of his powers behind the camera are on full display in this movie.  The film draws you into the harrowing life of the men who went through that horrible battle.  But there is an emotional distance that keeps this movie from forming a permanent bond in your memory the way something like Saving Private Ryan does.

8.  Oppenheimer
Film poster, depicting J. Robert Oppenheimer in front of the "Gadget" nuclear bomb

I will have a full review for this up soon.  The main problem with Oppenheimer is that Nolan's wants to do too much in one movie so that the movie feels too long and too short at the same time.  Having said that, it highlights some of his best cinematic work.  Many will point to the Trinity test, but I would look at Oppenheimer's post Trinity speech, where Nolan shows you visually what the main character is feeling in a unique way.



7.  The Prestige

This is a movie that will mess with your head.  Even when you figure out one twist (which I did a bit too early), when the film finishes and you understand the implications of what the last 5 minutes reveals about obsession… it sticks with you long after the movie is over.  This is a movie that gets better with every subsequent re-watch.

6.  Batman Begins

Nolan modeled this film after Richard Donner's Superman and it shows.  He tells a story that is epic in its scope and takes us on Bruce Wayne's journey in a way that no other cinematic Batman has.  In many ways this is very different than most Nolan films.  You can almost feel him trying to adapt his style to the comic book genre.  But even within those constraints, he gave us a great Batman movie.

5.  Interstellar

This is easily Nolan's most emotional movie.  It is not that his other movies are cold or are not moving.  But this was the first time I ever saw him reach deep and pull at the heartstrings while once again wrestling with the big ideas of life.  While the ending does stumble a bit, the emotional themes carry through all the way to the end.  On top of this you have some real edge-of-your-seat moments that hold your attention all the way through to the end.

4.  The Dark Knight Rises

Unlike many of its detractors, I think the final chapter of Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy is fantastic.  He does an excellent job of drawing elements from the previous movies and weaving them into a film that feels like a definitive goodbye to his story.  To this day I get chills when Selina Kyle tries to get Bruce to leave with her saying that he doesn't owe anything to people of Gotham and that he already gave them everything, to which he responds: "Not everything.  Not yet."

3.  Inception
A man in a suit with a gun in his right hand is flanked by five other individuals in the middle of a street which, behind them, is folded upwards. Leonardo DiCaprio's name and those of other cast members are shown above the words "Your Mind Is the Scene of the Crime". The title of the film "INCEPTION", film credits, and theatrical and IMAX release dates are shown at the bottom.

I have seen this movie over and over and I find it fascinating every time.  The layers that stack upon layers never suffocate the action through line of the story that holds you up until the very last second.  I love the way the movie keeps you enthralled and fascinated.  It lays out the plan so meticulously and then throws the plan out right away.  Someone pointed out how the movie is partially an allegory for film-making itself.  Usually I find these kind of analyses reductive.  But in this case, it makes the movie all the more enjoyable for me, since it gives me a glance into Nolan's artistic process.

2.  The Dark Knight
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Arguably the greatest super hero film ever made, Nolan understood that he could make a film that transcends traditional genre walls and talk about something deep about human nature.   People often play up the violent and dark nature of the Joker, but it shouldn't overlook Nolan's ultimate message which is that people are naturally decent.  That is a radical message in today's cinema.  You can see the evolution of his style between this and Batman Begins.  If I didn't know better, I would have said two different directors were used for each film because of how different they look.  But Nolan's insistence of grounding The Dark Knight in the real world makes it all the more terrifying and engaging all the way until the final line.

1.  Memento

I have never seen a movie like this.  The level of complexity, artistry, execution, and transcendence continues to blow me away more than a decade later.  When I used to teach film, I would show this movie to my students to walk them through how a great director plans his shots and what they mean.  The movie has Nolan's trademark sense of intelligence, but it also has at its heart the primal desire for retribution, which marries the logical with the emotional.  When people see this movie they rethink what movies can be.  And that is why this is his best film.

Thoughts?