Tim Hruszkewycz

Tim Hruszkewycz

Tim Hruszkewycz is a high school English and film teacher at Villa Madonna Academy in Villa Hills, KY. He also co-hosts the Literally Anything podcast at literallyanything.net and blogs about film

Articles by Tim Hruszkewycz

A Third-Person Limited War: Sam Mendes’ '1917'

Jan 6, 2020 / 00:00 am

I would like to get through this life without ever having to injure or kill another human being. I suppose I’d have to consider myself a pacifist. My understanding of violence is far too simple, perhaps, for society to function if everyone held my beliefs. But that core disposition is perhaps what has always distanced me from war films. The war films I do tend to like involve escape plans, like “The Great Escape” or “Stalag 17.” While these are narratives about the life of a soldier, most of the killing happens before or after the film. Or in a bloodbath of a third act. Because of my aversion to the lion’s share of war films, my absolute love of director Sam Mendes’ “1917” was a welcome surprise. Without a doubt, “1917” is bleak and firmly has earned an R-rating from the MPAA. But Sam Mendes has developed an experiment into a full length movie: The film, with the exception of one intentional cut, is one giant tracking shot. The camera follows Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield as they traverse the violent backdrop of the front lines of the First World War. The camera is a companion through the piece, often grafted to the protagonists while juxtaposing the insanity of a world flattened by savagery. Using Mendes’ opening tracking shot in “Spectre” as a point of contrast, the camera in “1917” has a personality. In “Spectre,” the camera follows James Bond through a Day of the Dead festival, following him through a building and then following him out a window onto rooftops. In “Spectre,” the camera is cool, mirroring its stone-faced super spy. But the camera in “1917”, while impressive with its trickery and movement, isn’t there to be cool. The camera, instead, humanizes Blake and Schofield. Soldiers in war films are often portrayed as duty-driven patriots, first into action as the flag billows behind them while they charge nobly into battle or else they are minimized to a dominant character trait. That personality may be broken or crass or angry. But the intimate camera offers the soldier something that many films don’t: a spectrum. There are war films that humanize the protagonist. I’m partial to 2017’s “Dunkirk” from director Christopher Nolan. But since the camera in “1917” never really leaves the main characters, we get to know these characters more intimately than most war films. There are moments where the film celebrates the courage of heroes, doing the right thing despite overwhelming odds. But there are moments of real vulnerability. A soldier is both a champion of freedom and a human being who values his life. Coupled with the clever use of camera is Mendes’ love of mise-en-scene. There are moments where the set is absolutely breathtaking. Much of “1917” would be considered cinematically spectacular, even out of context of the film as a whole. The use of light is haunting. While Mendes and his team use a bleak color palate, one that is often associated with the Great War, the way that color scheme plays with different lighting is fascinating. The mundane bleakness of No Man’s Land contrasted with the fields of France only feet away from devastation is a gorgeous contrast. Similarly, how pitch black night is illuminated by flares that move, making shadows dance and stalk the protagonist, creates a sense of both awe and tension in the film. Gunshots from blackness terrify, evoking almost a horror-film quality to the entire experience. Between the continuing tracking shot and the inclusion of a living setting, “1917” becomes something bigger and more terrifying than the sum of its parts. The camera tethered to the characters allows the filmmakers to make every moment a surprise. As audience members, we only get to see what the characters see. Rather than playing up a sense of dramatic irony, the director only allows the audience to know what the characters know. Every element acts as a surprise. The result is that the other shoe is ready to drop. There is no calm. There is only fear. “1917” presents characters that I admire as a Catholic. Both Blake and Schofield start off the film as virtuous people. They have their hangups and their character flaws, but both are admirable men. The task to cross No Man’s Land is an act of suicide. They bicker and squabble over the necessity of this task, but they also are men of duty. They know the consequences beyond their own lives that necessitate this mission. From moment one, they value human life and will do anything to stop a slaughter from happening. But as the story progresses, these characters go from being good characters to great characters. Instead of back-pedaling morally due to the horrors of war, these characters absorb the carnage around them and work to be instruments against evil. While Blake and Schofield kill enemies, they never revel in it. There is never a moment of excess or retribution for acts committed against them. The characters work even to preserve the lives of the people who just tried to kill them. “1917” is a masterpiece. Balancing visual mastery with strong characters in a touching-yet-tense storyline is rarely seen on such a technically gratifying level. While it reflects the brutality of war, it also talks about what makes the individual so valuable and glorifies the endurance of the human person.  

Vocation, responsibility, and 'Spider-Man: Far From Home'

Jul 2, 2019 / 00:00 am

There are lots of things I want to do that I’m just not allowed to do anymore. I am several seasons behind on my superhero shows. I have been reading the fifth “Dark Tower” book for about three years. I still haven’t beaten “Super Mario Sunshine” from 2002. My fun-list is getting a bit out of control. But as a Catholic father, I’m continually reminded that I have responsibilities, primarily to my wife and children. “Spider-Man: Far From Home” acts not only as a fun epilogue to Marvel’s Infinity Saga, but also is a poignant reminder about the importance of taking a vocation seriously. Besides being an intense film fan, I have also been seriously reading comics for as long as I can remember. The collection in the basement has overtaken a whole room. Considering that this column is named “True Believers,” you can imagine that I’ve “Made Mine Marvel.” As much as I adore “Daredevil” and his attachment to angsty Catholicism, “Spider-Man” has always been the book that I’ve grafted onto. My daughter has gained a similar appreciation for the character. With the release of eight separate “Spider-Man” films, not including his appearance in other movies, cartoons, and video games, people have now latched onto the mantra Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben bequeathed his nephew -- “With great power, there must also come -- great responsibility!” These are actually the words of the late Stan Lee posing as the narrator to vocalize this on the last page of Amazing Fantasy # 15. But, still we get that these words act as the theme of the story. Sam Raimi’s original film trilogy returned often to these words, no more so than in “Spider-Man 2”, where Peter chose to abandon his superhero persona in an attempt to lead a normal life.      “Far From Home”, continuing the tradition of its predecessor “Homecoming”, distances itself from saying the actual words. Kevin Feige and the people at Marvel enjoy when characters dance around their catchphrases. But “Far From Home” understands the words that Stan Lee built his character around. Like “Spider-Man 2” and its loose adaptation of the comics’ storyline, “Spider-Man: No More!”, Peter in “Far From Home” feels like he deserves something better. He helped save the world. Without trying to spoil “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame” too much, Peter, for all intents and purposes, died. He came back and helped save the world. This makes sense in the world of comic books. Thinking himself a “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,” Peter felt like he achieved his quest. He stopped the bad guys and helped out the people he cared for. But I’d like to admit, for a guy who has read every Spider-Man comic, I rarely put together the connection between Lee’s foundation for his character and a tie to vocations. Spider-Man in “Far From Home” is always Spider-Man. He doesn’t do anything as dramatic as throw his costume in the trash while renouncing his vocation. It’s just that he wants to take control of his vocation. He wants Spider-Man to be whatever he, Peter Parker, chooses him to be. From a secular perspective, this means taking a vacation from Spider-Man and hoping that there won’t be problems. But from a Catholic perspective, this means listening to one’s vocation and to God’s plan. While I rarely have notes from God or Tony Stark telling me what to do, there are so many times in my faith that I just want my faith to be one thing. I often feel like I have a handle on what my faith life and my vocation as a father. I often think that I know best what being a Catholic dad entails. When I choose to fight against what God wants me to do, that’s when I get frustrated. While I would love to have a vocation that involves web-swinging around the city, or in “Far From Home’s” case, the world, I also know that there are things that I should be doing for my family. I should continue to strive for holiness and bringing my children deeper into the faith. I should continue to put on the outfit, even when I really don’t want to. I can’t claim to have a vacation from my vocation. As a film, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” is a great movie. I wish that the film avoided some minor language. Some of the scenes in the film can be quite scary. The film is appropriately rated PG-13, for these reasons. But considering that the Avengers just dealt with time travel and potential alternate universes, it is refreshing to see a character like Peter Parker, a regular guy, having to deal with things that are outside of his control or choices. The “Spider-Man” movies in the MCU are genuinely fun. I laughed a lot at this one. I lost myself in the action and in the characters. But most refreshing is that I emotionally attached to the film as a whole. Jon Watts and his team made a film that not only understands the core concepts of Spider-Man, but they did so without using its theme like a sledgehammer. “Spider-Man: Far From Home” never outright gets religious, as the first film by Sam Raimi did. I love that Aunt May was a prayerful woman in Sam Raimi’s trilogy. But “Far From Home” still has a powerful message about stepping out of our comfort zone and listening to God’s plan. Just because the movie never says, “God’s plan”, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Peter’s vocation may entail stepping up to bigger and badder threats when the world needs him.  My vocation doesn’t mean fighting elemental monsters.  But it does mean that I have to grow through the problems that I don’t want to deal with, and refuse to let God go to voicemail.  

The path of ‘Emanuel’

Jun 17, 2019 / 00:00 am

I tend to avoid Christian films because they often weren’t very good. But I have to note one exception. Christian filmmakers, with decent regularity, know how to make a solid documentary. This isn’t always the case, but director Brian Ivie’s upcoming “Emanuel” is an engaging documentary looking at the families of the victims of the Emanuel AME shooting in 2015. One can imagine how very political this topic is. The co-host to my podcast, “Literally Anything”, regularly states that everything is political by its very nature, especially in today’s society. Avoiding a political stance is in itself political. While I may not wear this attitude on all things I discuss, I can understand that perspective. Looking back on the events of the 21st Century, I can’t help but view it through the lens, or the barrel, of mass shootings. Shootings have become so regular and commonplace that there is a very real possibility, because I am writing this a few weeks before publication, that there might be a mass shooting between the time I wrote this and the time it reaches the reader’s eye. Tensions start to swell in the aftermath of a shooting. While everyone advocates for the victims, those in the crossfire tend to end up as pawns for political collateral. I don’t think that people mean to do it. It happens on both sides of the gun control debate. At a time that most Americans are heartbroken from loss of life, spectators leave the debate with a dislike and distaste for their neighbors. And the cycle goes on. Ivie’s film might be the best way to talk about a mass shooting. Removed from the immediacy of the events, “Emanuel” provides context for the events discussed. Rather than acting as a playing card, the film is the discussion we need. It places the focus on the victims and their families. I remember Columbine pretty well. While Columbine became the template for how the media addresses violence on a large scale, the immediate aftermath seemed focused on the lives lost in the shooting. We were afraid and angry. We didn’t know how to handle this situation that seemed unfathomable. I know that Columbine wasn’t the first mass shooting, but it was probably the one that woke us up as a nation. We talked about the people. They were individuals, not statistics. “Emanuel” returns to that. While shooter Dylan Roof is addressed and analyzed in the film, the movie devotes the majority of the film to the victims’ families. Using longform interviews, the testimonies shed light on who these people were in life rather than in death. It is a risky move as a filmmaker, from Ivie’s perspective. Because the camera places so much attention to these interviews, often the film feels like a sermon about individual people. When I started watching the film, I questioned this choice. “Emanuel” loses its documentary quality, avoiding quick cuts and traditional sense of pacing. However, keeping in mind that the purpose of the film is to honor the victims rather than push an agenda, this slow interview process makes these interviews feel personal and private. There were times when the descriptions of family members were being given only to me and I understood what these people meant to their families. From a Christian and Catholic perspective, the movie could rest entirely on being the corporal work of mercy of burying the dead. This film is almost like a funeral in a way. It is a celebration of lives lived in service of the Lord. The victims died immediately after a bible study that the shooter attended. They died martyrs. But the story doesn’t end there. Rather than simply burying the dead, the film also focuses on the spiritual work of mercy when it addresses themes of forgiveness. A major element of the film is the fact that many of the family members forgave Dylan Roof almost immediately after he was brought into custody. The film uses this moment to tackle the difficulties of forgiveness when the stakes are so high. But like my co-host said, all things are political. Brian Ivie and his team had to know what they were making because they maneuver the political landscape. I tend to disrespect documentaries that take the easy way out. Often, I watch docs that simply invite those who are already aligned with the purpose of the documentary. “Emanuel” takes a lot of political perspectives and gives them voices. While only dancing around a gun control element, the movie has members of the Black Lives Matter movement, those who actively opposed the families who forgave Roof, and historians who give cultural context to the racial motivations behind Dylan Roof’s shooting. I saw an early screener of “Emanuel.” The version I saw was described as incomplete. There are moments that could be tightened. Some of the images came across as pretty generic. But “Emanuel”, regardless of what form the final product would be, hits some very important notes. If we are to continue to stand as witnesses to violence, films like “Emanuel” remind us that people are not bargaining chips. People are people. The parishioners at Emanuel AME were good people. Something terrible happened to them and that should never be forgotten. “Emanuel” gives us the space to remind us what is really happening each time we see that Breaking News graphic scrawl across our screens. One can only pray that we won’t need films like “Emanuel” to remind us of the importance of human life.    

Not always pretty, but pretty moral: 'UglyDolls'

May 3, 2019 / 00:00 am

Some things are just good and wholesome. But as a parent, I often hear how kids’ movies tend to lean hard into some inappropriate content. It makes sense. For films to be financially successful, studios need to inject films with material that should go over the heads of children, but can entertain adults at the same time. The first time I really noticed this was when I saw “Toy Story” at the theater. As much as I adore Pixar and the work that they have done at Disney, I can’t help but notice that their films often sneak in innuendo and downplay the message that they are seemingly trying to convey. “UglyDolls” may be a return to form for summer kids’ films. The first children’s movie from STX Films, “UglyDolls” is a moral powerhouse. Wearing its messages on its sleeve, “UglyDolls” addresses issues that children can relate to, but also provide primers for some deeper ethical questions. Using misshapen dolls as allegories for society’s obsession with perfection, the titular dolls’ quest to be loved by children is remarkably heartwarming. Director Kelly Asbury took a story about a line of goofy-looking dolls and turned it into an allegory for the dignity of the individual. On its surface, the film is about not caring about what others think. I really don’t want to come across as dismissive about this theme. Self-image is an issue that many children and adults deal with. A movie about self-image and self-respect is important. But there is a far more interesting story that grabbed my attention. As a Catholic writer, the opening scene established it for me. The story quickly establishes that the UglyDolls are stopped from ever having the opportunity to fulfill their basic life’s purpose: to make children happy. Perhaps it is because I am Catholic that I can’t help but see the connection between these adorable dolls and unwanted children. “UglyDolls”, from all perspectives, is discussing our disposable and throw-away culture. On the surface, the film really stresses that everyone has a fault and that we should embrace those faults because they make us special. But the nature of the UglyDolls actually plays up an extremely pro-life message. The UglyDolls stand out against the dolls from the Land of Perfection. Instantly recognized as being somehow lesser, they only desire to find a family to love them. Instead, the companies that created them and the dolls of Perfection want to throw them away. Rather than allow them to live in UglyVille, a makeshift town made by its residents, the leader of Perfection wants to secretly dispose of them. The UglyDolls remind the perfect dolls about uncomfortable truths, bringing out the darker side of the nice dolls’ natures. As a film, there are some things lacking. Starring primarily pop stars, the film has a bit of an execution issue. There are jokes in the script. I would have enjoyed these jokes on paper. But the voice actors aren’t necessarily trained actors. There are far too many lines that are delivered as duds. Structurally, like an UglyDoll, there are some pacing and design issues. Scenes sometimes are stretched for time. The minor characters are one-dimensional. For a while, this really bugged me. I kept on hearing the sad trumpet in my head every time a joke landed flat. But Absury and her team really landed the thing that makes “UglyDolls” into a good movie: it has heart. It takes a lot for me to ignore the brand power behind a movie named after a set of toys. The only series that really made me appreciate the impact of a piece of merchandise was “The Lego Movie”, and that’s only because the movie is extremely well made. But by the end of “UglyDolls,” I really choked up. Because the film never ignored its central concept, the value and dignity of the individual, the movie made its characters more than simply toys. It didn’t matter that I didn’t really laugh throughout. Some of the kids around me did. Kids are the core audience and that’s what mattered. But I did feel something honest and real. For a movie trying to sell a merchandised doll, that’s an accomplishment. “UglyDolls,” like its subject matter, is a flawed film. Its edges are frayed. Its proportions are way off at times. But it also bares its soul and allows itself to be vulnerable. While the “Avengers: Endgame” train will continue to steamroll its way through the weekend, “UglyDolls” is a fantastic opportunity to breathe out and deal with real issues in a fun and musical way.  

Nothing to Write About: A Spoiler-Free Review of 'Avengers: Endgame'

Apr 26, 2019 / 00:00 am

My wife told me that I had to write a review for “Avengers: Endgame.” With a big Hollywood tentpole movie like the final film in Marvel’s Infinity Saga, many critics aren’t given opportunities to view the movie in advance. I had to purchase a ticket like everybody else. Keeping all of this in mind, I told my wife that it would be very difficult to write a review for a film and to get it in within a reasonable amount of time. What I didn’t realize is that this task would be near impossible, given the fact that I can’t talk about any spoilers. There has been a major push to avoid spoilers with this film. About two weeks ago, there was a report of a leak, revealing a crucial part of the film. Friends of mine abandoned the Internet. It was a mass exodus. I can’t say that I blamed them. I refused to read anything about “Avengers: Endgame” except for the early review summaries. It was an odd time to be a nerd. I understand why the Russos, the directors of the film, put out a message to Marvel fans worldwide to avoid spoilers. The film is one giant spoiler. Anything I really say about the film is really teetering on making the movie-going experience somehow lesser. Could the movie be enjoyed with some knowledge of what was going to happen? Definitely. I try not to hype movies up too much, but “Avengers: Endgame” is a triumph in every sense of the term. Cinematically, it feels on a scale that I haven’t seen a superhero movie really attempt. But going into the movie without spoilers? That’s the real goal. For most of the viewing audience, this should be pretty easy. As much as this is a triumph for the Russo brothers and Marvel Studios, I don’t think that I’ve ever been so impressed by a marketing push before. Everything that is in the trailers is either vague enough or somewhat misleading. “Avengers: Endgame” is a masterclass at misdirection. Whenever people expect the movie to turn left, it turns right. Every time the movie changes the stakes, it goes all that much further with the next gambit. It’s funny, yet bleak. It’s dramatic, yet light. The characters are well-written and the scenes are well-shot. But this shouldn’t come as a surprise to fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I know that many people don’t necessarily care for the Marvel movies, but they have a wide and impressive fanbase. “Avengers: Endgame” feels like the perfect cap on one very long and impressive storyline. It feels like the best series finale that I have ever seen. The Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t even over; it is simply shifting to another storyline. As an aside, I want to mention that there are some themes in those film that will be especially interesting to Catholics. But I can’t really talk about them. Sorry. Spoilers. So what can this review really offer? All I can do is to offer some tips for getting through three hours of cinematic closure. 1. AVOID SPOILERS: The first round of people have seen this movie. My sister-in-law was babysitting and the first thing I wanted to do was tell her the works. Remember, people mean well, but there is something remarkably satisfying about telling someone a spoiler under the guise of not telling spoilers. If you find yourself saying, “This isn’t a spoiler, but…”, it probably is a spoiler. 2. GO TO THE BATHROOM BEFOREHAND: I come from an era where “The Lord of the Rings” movies were meant to be watched multiple times in the theaters. I find it odd that so many people are concerned about making it through a three-hour movie. But it was nice not having to shift in my seat and wait for the movie to end so I could run to the potty. 3. WATCH / RE-WATCH THE MARVEL MOVIES: Like other water-cooler worthy media involving characters named “The Starks”, “Avengers: Endgame” shouldn’t be the first entry into the franchise. The movie pulls from many of the films, often making references to some deep cuts. You’ll feel better if you are fresh with the material. 4. BRING TISSUES: As the title suggests, this is a film about resolution. Some of the tears are happy tears. Some of the tears are sad tears. Tissues will take care of any kind of tears. 5. INVITE A MARVEL SHERPA: If twenty-something films is a lot to take in, you probably have a friend who knows the series pretty well to answer questions. NOTE: Use judgment when choosing your Sherpa. Trivia once in a while is nice. An in-depth explanation of the Korvac Saga might be too much. 6. SIT IN A REASONABLE SEAT: While the movie isn’t all action, the action sequences are epic. I can’t imagine being stuck in the front row for this one. There is a lot happening on screen, so sitting back is a good idea. 7. COMIC BOOKS ARE GREAT, BUT THEY AREN’T NECESSARY: There are a few comic book exclusive references in the movie. Your indoor friends might snigger a bit. Goodness knows that I did. These moments aren’t even worth explaining, but rather are tiny dopamine rushes for the few who get the reference. 8. HAVE FUN: As dark as the movie gets, remember that this is one of those communal moments with friends. Some things are different from the comics. That’s fine. “Avengers: Endgame” is an entertaining film that should be enjoyed for what it is, a culmination of over twenty movie storylines. 9. BE VULNERABLE: I think this is advice for any movie-going experience. If there was one thing that I could spoil, it’s this. Kevin Feige and the team at Marvel know what they are doing. I sincerely believe that even the least impressive Marvel movie is still pretty impressive. I haven’t had my expectations surpassed so well to date and I absolutely adore this film. Also, there’s one scene.  There’s this guy that the camera focuses on.  You’ll feel like you should know who that person is. It’s the kid from “Iron Man 3.” He’s all grown up, so he looks different.  

Matured Reality: 'The Redemption Project with Van Jones'

Apr 25, 2019 / 00:00 am

As someone who occasionally finds entertainment in trash TV, I understand its appeal. It lets us feel better about ourselves. We can look in on the lives of people who don’t really have it together, crack open our beverage of choice, and view our situations through a juxtaposed mirror. “At least I’m not on ‘Jerry Springer.'” But I kind of worry where we are going as a society, in terms of what we find entertaining. “The Redemption Project with Van Jones”, an eight part documentary series premiering Sunday, April 28 at 9:00 pm on CNN is an encouraging lesson in maturity. Taking some of the more interesting elements of prestige true crime docs, Van Jones and his team have created something that not only is interesting, but probably is doing something good for both viewers and the documentary’s subjects. Van Jones, a civil rights leader focused on prison reformation among other things, explains in his first episode the focus of the show. “The Redemption Project” is one of the first documented shows about restorative justice, a rehabilitation program that attempts to bring peace to both the victim and the perpetrator of a crime. The family of a victim has been wronged. In the cases of “The Redemption Project”, these are family members of homicide victims. Often, they have questions. “Why was my family member taken?” “What don’t I know about how this whole thing went down?” Sometimes, these are people who are just hurting who need to talk to someone who needs to hear the message. The other end of dialogue is with the criminal. In “The Redemption Project,” the convicts have been in prison for some time. They are harboring guilt. They have thought about their crimes. They see the wrong that they have done, and they need to apologize. Rather than making a reality or documentary show about two diametrically opposed forces ready to duke it out, “The Redemption Project” focuses on resolving pain in a responsible and wholesome way. My wife cried watching the second episode. She was busy with her to-do list and only caught glimpses of what I was watching in the background. But I noticed her turning more and more to the television. She would pause and focus on what was going on in my show. She stopped her to-do list and sat down. Within fifteen minutes, she was sobbing. The biggest takeaway I had from the show is that there never really is a moment where any member of the crew was shooting for an outburst. Each episode starts with Van Jones as host introducing the different parties. He talks to each player in these stories with empathy and conviction. For the victim, he speaks as a peer. He doesn’t aim for tears, although often those tears come. He allows the families to tell their own stories. But he also does something that, as Catholics, we are called to do as well. He talks to criminals like they are his equals. Without letting them off the hook for their crimes, he hears their whole stories. In some of the cases, the story is far more in-depth than others. In a few of the episodes, we hear about childhoods. In others, we hear a far more complex web of events that lead to the day of the crime. But Van Jones and his team focus on the restoration process. Those events that led up to the crime, that’s what makes them human. But the focus of restorative justice is taking responsibility for actions. It is refreshing to see that a show like “The Redemption Project” can exist on television in this era. Instead of seeing people who are riled up and ready to fight, we see the antithesis. These are stories of people who want to forgive and about people who are seeking forgiveness. By all intents and purposes, everyone involved should be at each other’s throats. But often, these people form relationships. God is merciful, and I would like to think that a show like “The Redemption Project” is doing the Lord’s work. In terms of quality, the show is extremely watchable. As an eight-part series, the show has certain qualities that make the viewer want to delve into the next episode almost immediately. Part of that comes from the fact that each episode feels like a stand-alone documentary. The events leading up to the confrontation are well-researched and presented in an interesting fashion. We get to know these people and their perspectives. Van Jones, as a host, is present. But he never really takes the spotlight. Rather, he lets people tell their stories and deal with their pain. I don’t know if other shows like “The Redemption Project with Van Jones” are out there. I would love to think that more people would be interested in the positive side of humanity rather than returning to the dredges of manipulative television. But I love that CNN is presenting this show. We often think that television evolves while somehow staying the same. But “The Redemption Project with Van Jones” isn’t simply evolving and presenting something new. Instead, it is a sign that TV may finally be growing up and treating reality as an actual reflection of the human condition: pain, forgiveness, and all.

Catholicism in Hollywood: 'The Curse of La Llorona'

Apr 17, 2019 / 00:00 am

"...I can’t, in good conscience, recommend the film as something that would bring people closer to their faith..." --- I don’t think that my mom knows that when I was nine, my cousins and I found a VHS copy of “The Exorcist” and watched it at two in the morning.  When I was in college, I saw “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.” I watched “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” because by that age, I was a horror movie addict. I loved scary movies.   But I noticed immediately a difference between the 1973 “Exorcist” and the 2005 “Exorcism of Emily Rose.” Again, I ask that my readers don’t hold this against me because it has been a while since I’ve sat through “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”, but “Emily Rose” existed in a world where God was more than the source of magical abilities. There actually seemed to be a loving God in the movie’s universe. It was still a world where Satan had real influence over people, but God wasn’t some just distant power. If I am way off on that interpretation, I apologize. But “The Exorcist” treated God like a magical power. He infused objects with almost magical abilities and faith seemed to be a distant afterthought to the whole experience. After watching 2019’s “The Curse of La Llorona”, I am coming to believe that Hollywood views Catholicism like an ancient magic to be exploited. The filmmakers of “La Llorna” want the movie to be scary. They are extremely successful. The jump scares in this movie are both effective and in abundance. I will even go as far as to say that, for the most part, the filmmakers did their research. There are elements of the film that somewhat ring true to what Catholics believe, unlike some of the completely negligent moments of 2017’s “Annabelle: Creation.”   But for all of the details that are accurate about Catholicism, movies like “The Curse of La Llorona” absolutely miss the point. Releasing a film like this during Holy Week might be a glaring indication of the troubling philosophy behind “The Curse of La Llorona.” We tend to get the theme of “spirituality over organized religion” in many films, but “La Llorona” isn’t pointing at religion in general. Hearing a Catholic priest saying something along the lines of “Not having religion doesn’t mean not having faith” is a real bummer to hear right before Easter. Again, this movie is going to be released on Good Friday. From Hollywood’s perspective, this movie is coming out Easter weekend. “La Llorona” repeatedly stresses that it is okay to stray from the Church. As do films like “The Exorcist,” it uses holy objects as both spiritual and physical weapons against evil. When a member of the faith uses a crucifix as a physical weapon of war, it is hard to imagine that same character having a deep and personal relationship with Jesus Christ. But I can’t completely condemn the creators of “The Curse of La Llorona” either. I suppose that “The Curse of La Llorona” commits the crime of having its cake and eating it too. While I can never advocate that the film is wholesome, there are some interesting elements to the film that make it worth watching, aside from the absolutely terrifying scares. Director Michael Chaves explores the interesting element of religion and its ties to a cultural heritage. I had the opportunity to interview actor Raymond Cruz, who plays Rafael in the film for the Literally Anything podcast. In the interview, Cruz often talked about his attachment to the myth of La Llorona, stressing that grandparents would take pride in Latin American culture to frighten children with the story of the supernatural woman who might take them in the night. They had better behave, or else La Llorona would get them. While I think that “The Curse of La Llorona” has opportunities to delve deeper into heavier motifs, the concept that folklore has an impact on a cultural heritage is fascinating. Some people can view Catholicism as a mantle that is put on. They choose their faith and learn in a controlled, sanitized and safe environment. However, that is not everyone’s experience with matters of faith. The intimate relationship between faith and culture is explored well through “The Curse of La Llorona.” This is not just a boogeyman character for some, but rather a creature of legend, grounded in people’s childhood. But this also brings up an interesting concept as a moviegoer, and for me, as a film critic. My role as a Catholic film critic is to let readers know not only if a movie is good or not, but also if this is good for the soul. My wife, when I was asked to review this movie, grew uncomfortable. After all, this movie was made by the same people who made “The Conjuring” franchise, which included a borderline-blasphemous film named “The Nun.” There is a very real chance that people would be going to see this movie on my word alone, and that’s a heavy responsibility.. I love being scared and this movie pushed some really great scares that I haven’t seen in horror films of late. But I watch a lot of movies. For once, I’m actually pretty glad that I’m desensitized to the more messed up stuff. When I saw things that bordered on heresy, I rolled my eyes and massaged my temples. When the movie continued on, I could watch it with a cold distance knowing that Hollywood “just didn’t get it.” But this approach won’t be shared by everyone. “The Curse of La Llorona” walks on some dangerous theological ground, especially in context of Holy Week. Like Cruz said, the supernatural creature La Llorona was something from his childhood. He believed in this character and was afraid of it for a notable portion of his life. Going into a movie where these characters become real might actually damaging for the soul. I know that horror preys on the idea that the creators want people to take the scares home with them. In a week that we should be focusing on Christ’s passion, is a world where God seems distant the best message? For those few who are serious horror nuts out there, the movie is really scary. Normally, I do not appreciate "jump scare" movies. But “The Curse of La Llorona” is a great jump scare movie. When I wasn’t annoyed by the dodgy theology, I actually had a good time and laughed. But I can’t, in good conscience, recommend the film as something that would bring people closer to their faith. The final goal of a lot of horror movies is to leave people scared. “The Curse of La Llorona” does that in spades. But when bringing in matters of faith, perhaps it should do more.  

Starting the Conversation: 'The Best of Enemies'

Apr 4, 2019 / 00:00 am

My friend has a strange secret hobby. He really likes watching videos of people punching Nazis, which, apparently, can be found on YouTube. His logic is that everyone should like punching Nazis. I get the concept. There’s the rush that comes with someone getting a faceful of punching that can’t be matched. Captain America makes it look really cool. In the face of evil, we should - on paper - do anything we can to eradicate such evil. It is the tolerance of evil that makes it spread. But we can’t punch our way out of the divisions that our country faces. And maybe we shouldn’t. A question must be raised: is fighting evil through non-violent and humanitarian means a form of tolerance, or is it the only hope we have in seeing real, lasting change? “The Best of Enemies” is probably going to get completely buried this weekend. It is opening against  big movies: “Shazam!” and “Pet Sematary.” I am not going to hide it. I really want to see those movies. But “The Best of Enemies” is a movie that we, as a country, need right now. When I watched the trailer, I was pretty skeptical. Since “Green Book” won Best Picture at the Academy Awards this year, I have been wary of the easy-answers-guide-to-historical-racism kind of movies. Too often, I feel like we are given movies where topics like racism seem to have been solved and they seem intended to remind us that we are in an era of enlightenment. That’s a dangerous narrative. The trailer for “The Best of Enemies” looked like it was going to be another “Green Book.” I foresaw the story of a racist man who learns to love by getting to know an interesting person of color. Through friendship, they would solve the problem of racism. I am so grateful that “The Best of Enemies” is not that movie. Set in North Carolina in 1971, the story chronicles the true tale of Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis. It is not a spoiler to say that the two end up friends. The film opens with the audio of the two discussing each other.  Over the course of the film, the two are responsible for being the opposing voices of school integration in a town overshadowed by the Ku Klux Klan. Ann Atwater, a woman of color, has been the voice for change in this town, while C.P. Ellis is the local president of the Ku Klux Klan. These two could not be farther apart. Going into this film, I thought it was going to be a situation where small kindnesses and passing jokes would change the hearts of these two individuals. Perhaps the movie would parallel the conflicting philosophies of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia; a tale of two unlikely friends. It isn’t that. Yes, the movie tells us that they will end up friends, but it isn’t because they’re friendly. These two people fought tooth and nail for what they believed in. But they also started to see the humanity of one another. It isn’t about tolerating evil. It is seeing where that evil comes from. From a Catholic perspective, I can’t help but admire the two views of Christianity presented in the film. Unfortunately, we never really have the authentic Catholic voice in a narrative that intentionally places people of faith in it. But this is a film free of atheists. There is an African American pastor who recommends closing every meeting with gospel music. C.P. Ellis closes every Klan meeting with a prayer asking God to protect the white race. Ann Atwater holds her bible tightly. C.P. Ellis counters by citing his heavenly right to defend himself. There’s never a moment where the opposite sides sit down and pray with each other. I’m not sure if that would help or hinder the movie. But as a Catholic, I couldn’t help but see the irony in the whole situation. There is so much common ground that they refuse to see in the film. I wonder if I hold the same traits, ignoring everything I have in common with others and choosing not to build on that. I adore the main actors of this film. The film snob in me will call back to Taraji P. Henson’s appearance in “Hustle & Flow”, but I really became a fan with the first season of “Person of Interest.” While I never finished that show, I remember that she might have been the actor who was most invested in her character. The same holds true in “The Best of Enemies.” Henson’s performance is perfect. Atwater is both a powerhouse and a human at the same time. The times I got really moved, it was because of something that Henson’s Atwater did. If I laughed, it was because of her. If I grew introspective, it was because of a choice that she made. Her understanding of this character is remarkably impressive and her character is the core of this film. Sam Rockwell is one of my favorite actors, so it is odd to say that there were times that I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed with his character. Rockwell shines when he has more outrageous characters. Given that Rockwell’s C.P. Ellis was the head of the Klan, there might have been a temptation to make the character large and evil. But Rockwell had to play a real person. Part of the message of the story is that Ellis was attracted to the Klan because he has never really found a place to fit in outside of the Klan. He is a simple man who has been carried away by hate. Sam Rockwell plays the role well, but it may not be the role that will be memorable for most. Even if “The Best of Enemies” dominates the box office this weekend, I’m afraid that one flaw in the film might distance audiences. Because C.P. Ellis is a Klansman, he is the bad guy. If the movie is talking about the separation of fundamental values, “The Best of Enemies” makes the mistake of creating a clear good guy and a clear bad guy. Most people don’t want to be associated with the Klan. The message is strong in the film: listen to each other and try to understand each other. But I also know that the presence of the Ku Klux Klan makes it difficult when the other side is fighting for a clear good, like school integration. Robin Bissell’s look back at 1971 Durham is a stroke of mastery not because it tackles racism. Lots of movies tackle racism. But Bissell looked at racism through a complicated lens and offered not only the characters a means to move on from that poison, but a way for its audience to move on from that poison as well. Perhaps the solution provided in “The Best of Enemies” isn’t a perfect formula. It probably wouldn’t work with many problems encountered today. But the movie actually offers something invaluable. The movie offers a step in the right direction.

Warm Up Act: Walt Disney’s 'Dumbo'

Mar 28, 2019 / 00:00 am

I just watched a corporation make a move in a grand cinematic strategy.   “Dumbo” is not a movie meant to stand on its own two feet. It is an effort to test the waters of what audiences will accept from Disney’s string of live action remakes. I don’t think I’m the only one who has looked at Disney’s live action remakes of its animated classics with a bit of suspicion. So far, they have mostly been functional. I didn’t care for “Beauty and the Beast,” because of its over-reliance on computer generated characters. “Cinderella” was a phenomenally pretty movie that really didn’t hold much heart for me. But I kind-of-sort-of liked “The Jungle Book.” I don’t gush over it because I have a precious cinematic street cred to hold onto. But even though I actually kind of liked one of these movies, I understand the live-action Disney remakes will never hold the place that the original movies had. A lot of remakes have that problem. There are, actually, only a handful of remakes that can outshine their predecessors, and I wouldn’t recommend many of them to families. Disney’s use of the live-action remake seems most like a surgical strike on an audience’s pocketbook. Disney is aware that the nostalgia for their characters is palpable. They hold the rights to these images and characters and want them to find new life. Audiences will pay to see these characters vibrant and alive again, because they just need to return to the feelings evoked by the original films once again. . Still, I can’t really be angry at Disney for making the films. But what happens when the well runs dry? This year sees the premiere of both “Aladdin” and “The Lion King.” Those are some heavy hitters. Those are the movies that defined the childhood of my generation. But can we have those kinds of summer remake releases forever? No, of course not. Eventually, we will have watched every single element of our nostalgia. What will we have left? “The Rescuers.” “Oliver and Company.” “The Aristocats,” “Meet the Robinsons,” “Bolt.” We will have “Dumbo.” Now, imagine that I own these properties and I have to keep the nostalgia train rolling. Could I garner steam from that list? Absolutely not. Instead, the smartest choice Disney can make is to release a movie like “Dumbo” in the midst of a string of hits. This makes Disney seem pretty soulless. Of course, I’m not going to defend the artistic reputation of one of the biggest corporations to grace this planet. But I can say that Disney is not dumb. I think Disney knows exactly what kind of cultural impact “Dumbo” has. “Dumbo” is a recognizable character, but few people are beholden to his mythos. Few people are in love with “Dumbo.” That’s probably a good thing. I watched the animated “Dumbo” last week in preparation for the screening I just attended. I completely forgot about the overtly racist characters in the film. I forgot how “Dumbo,” the animated motion picture, barely has a story. I forgot that “Dumbo” was only 64 minutes long. Because there is no cult following for the original “Dumbo,” Tim Burton and his team were free do something pretty smart with the material: they were allowed to do whatever they wanted. Dumbo the character had to have big ears and he had to fly. There had to be a circus and there had to be a message about the importance of family. But everything else about the original film could kind of go out the window. “Dumbo,” the new film, hits the few nostalgic moments hard and early, while offering practically a new movie. Settling the events of the first film in the first half-hour to forty minutes, the new plot is almost completely tonally different than the original film. I’m not surprised to see that “Dumbo” is now an adventure film. We’re too close to the summer for it not to be something that is supposed to wow audiences with the adventures of a flying elephant. “Dumbo” is the best version of a movie that has a lot of cards stacked against it. Tim Burton tries to make us really care for Dumbo, this neglected child who is consistently extorted throughout the film. But the template for “Dumbo” is remarkably bleak. If I was to strip away the circus façade, a now dated setting for a film, the basis for the movie is about treating poorly children who look different. It is a nuclear version of The Ugly Duckling narrative. But adaptations of “The Ugly Duckling,” are not dreadfully long. “Dumbo,” on the other hand clocks in at an hour and fifty-two minutes. That’s a lot of elephant abuse. My wife often points out that film adaptations of children’s books rarely pan out the way we want them to. She cites the live action adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are.” The movie is very pretty, but the book only lasts five minutes when read aloud. How does one find that much extra material when the source is so scant? “Dumbo” has the same problem. The lessons of “Dumbo” are learned early on and the rest of the movie coasts by escalating the problems to monumental levels. I won’t be the only one making this comparison, but did Burton make the villain of his “Dumbo” an evil Walt Disney? Tim Burton made a live action version of “Frankenweenie” for Disney back in 1984. My dad loved this version of the movie and it was a mainstay in our house for years. But because the film was so dark, Disney fired Burton. I wonder if there is a revenge element to the villain of “Dumbo.” Perhaps a mirror universe version of Uncle Walt, Michael Keaton is an amusement park owner whose Dreamland is eerily similar to elements of Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom. Even Burton’s choice for his villain’s font and design were somewhat gutsy for someone being welcomed back to the House of Mouse. My seven-year-old daughter, a comic book fan, somehow thought “Dumbo” was her fourth favorite movie. She adored it. Watching “Dumbo” fly and beat the bad guy was marvelous for her. Sure, she flopped all over my lap and became a ragdoll at times, but she seemed to really enjoy it. But my son, who is now becoming infamous through these reviews for being extremely sensitive, called it the “worstest movie he ever sawed.” He was terrified throughout. I don’t know if it is the strictest definition of “terror” however. For kids who are empathic, this movie is straight torture. People are cruel to animals throughout the piece. The baby elephant is constantly in danger and the movie, with its live action take, has taken away the voice of Timothy Mouse to comfort us and assure us that Dumbo will be okay. Instead, we have a family who act as bystanders. These people don’t know that Dumbo is going to be okay, so they are a poor substitute for a talking mouse.   (I just now realized that Tim Burton, who was fired from Disney in 1984, just took the talking mouse out of his Disney film.  How’s that for irony?) Tim Burton made the best live action “Dumbo” film that could be made. It’s entertaining. It is often marvelous. But “Dumbo” has a few very big problems, the biggest being the fact that it ends up as a generic summer lead-in adventure movie.   But at the end of the day, the live action “Dumbo” is still only an adaptation of the animated “Dumbo,” a film that the Disney corporation surely considers one of its lesser properties. Just as I enjoyed “The Jungle Book,” I can say that I kind of liked “Dumbo.” But it won’t end up on my shelf as a beloved Disney classic. The folks in the war room at Disney have to attempt some new maneuvers before attempting more live-action remakes from the furthest back shelves of the vault.  

Higher, Faster, Stronger: 'Captain Marvel'

Mar 8, 2019 / 00:00 am

I was sleepy last night after returning from “Captain Marvel.” The movie was great, but this was a day that involved a vomiting baby and a full work day. My body said, “Go to sleep.” My mind said, “Read every trade of ‘Captain Marvel’ that you own tonight.” Regretfully, neither of those things happened immediately. My body may ask me to go to sleep and my mind may tell me to read comics, but all of that takes a backseat to my wife asking me to watch another episode of the show we're binge watching this week.  I read the first trade this morning. Because it is the end of the quarter and my grades have been submitted for my students, I decided to knock out Volume One. It was with hopes that my daughter could read these books before I let her go see the movie with my wife. It should be noted that she cannot read those books. There was far too much casual swearing. But watching Marvel’s newest entry in its ever-growing cinematic universe, I couldn’t wait to hear what my daughter would think of this movie. That was what was on my mind as I sat there with my male friends from our church group. It was cool to build fellowship with men, but “Captain Marvel” was about wasn’t about the typical male hero archetype. Carol Danvers, played by Brie Larson, was something new entirely.  When comics competitor DC Comics released “Wonder Woman” in 2017, the world was taken aback.   I thought Wonder Woman was very good, but it kind of showed an attitude of trying to emulate the films of its male predecessors. Wonder Woman certainly could hold its own, even better than most in many cases. But “Captain Marvel” seems like a new kind of superhero movie. Diverting from a traditional superhero narrative, “Captain Marvel” stresses the complexities of being a woman in an era where women are encouraged to fail.   “Wonder Woman” was raised in an environment where there were no men, so she never had to deal with doubt and questions. Carol Danvers, however, was not raised in such an environment. She lived in our world and she lived in space. Both weren’t great representations of what people could be given free reign. I really like Carol. I know that there was some backlash to Brie Larson’s comments about her press team. I read about how reviewers tried to sabotage the films Rotten Tomatoes ratings before the movie was even released. But somehow, that seems appropriate for the theme of the movie. People want “Captain Marvel” to fail just like the people around Carol want her to fail. The movie isn’t a man-hating preachfest. It has a message and a theme of feminism, yes.  But this is a message of actual feminism.   Carol Danvers lives in a world that wants her to fail, but she keeps picking herself back up. She doesn’t simply have ambitions and is automatically amazing at achieving her goals. She falls and hurts herself time and again throughout the film.  But she gets back up and tries harder. I want my daughter to do the same thing. I honestly am tired of a protagonist automatically being amazing at a skill because he or she wants to be amazing at said skill. Films aimed at kids seem to have the message that they can be anything that they want to be because they really want to be that thing. But “Captain Marvel” takes that a step further and fixes that idea.   Captain Marvel, a superhero, is going to be terrible at a lot of things that she is going to attempt. But she’s going to keep trying, no matter how hard people sabotage her. She’s not going to be amazing at everything every time. There are humiliating moments that make me cringe. But these are the moments that define her.  Her memories aren’t a world filled with support and mentors.  Instead, she has the opposite. And that’s what gives her strength. I love that so much.   For the past few years, I have been moved by the plight of the refugee. I know that I might be losing some of my readers by talking about this, but I really like what a refugee looks like in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. One thing that popular culture has lacked is nuance. A message tends to be very clear and honest in the hopes of being persuasive and that makes sense, to a certain extent. “Captain Marvel”, a movie that has a lot of messages in between its cells, tackles issues that the 2010s have faced from the perspective of the mid-90s.   I suppose I know that I’m getting old when nostalgia in film jumps a decade from the era I remember to an era that my first generation of students considered their childhoods. But the movie never really smacks the viewer over the head with that message. It presents the issues of immigration through a complex lens. Refugees aren’t sinners or saints. They aren’t always easy to look at, but that reminds us that there are incommunicable traits that are within us all. “Captain Marvel” is a good movie. Starting the film with a tribute to Stan Lee is a wise move. If you are wondering, Stan Lee did film his cameo for this film before his passing. I should warn my readers: the beginning of the film is slightly inaccessible. I’m a big science fiction fan and I found it difficult to wrap my head around the many alien worlds and conflicts of “Captain Marvel.” But directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck seem to know what they were doing with the very disorienting beginning of the film because it all eventually makes sense by the time that the film shifts to Earth.   I don’t know why the setting of ‘90s Earth is so entertaining, but it really is. The film has a handful of nostalgia jokes early on and I can’t really fault them for that. Instead, it is the reappearance of Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg returning to their respective roles as Nick Fury and Phil Coulson that acts as a comforting grounding in the world. Their relationship coupled with the energy brought by Brie Larson is a warm blanket and the rest of the movie is smooth sailing.   I know that the actual reviews for the film are positive, but these reviews are coupled with the idea that the movie should have done more. I respectfully disagree. “Captain Marvel” is exactly what I wanted it to be. It was a high stakes movie that never felt universe ending. The characters are all pretty fabulous. There are plenty of nods to other MCU stapes while standing on its own two feet for the entire film.   I want my daughter to see this one. There is some mild language, but she’s also handled the “Spider-Man” movies pretty well. Carol Danvers is absolutely perfect. The movie doesn’t feel the need to define her by the men she is interested in. Instead, it shapes a new kind of hero that doesn’t always have it easy. Her powers don’t always make sense to her and she has a hard time determining the right course of action.  I don’t always know what the right thing is either and I absolutely love that.  

The Multilayered Multiverse –"Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse"

Dec 18, 2018 / 00:00 am

Do you know how great it is to be a nerdy dad in the 21st Century? Very few things are rewarding about being a big dork, but I live in an era where I don’t have to explain the concept of a multiverse to my kids. TV shows like “The Flash” treat the multiverse like it is located two streets over and I now can take my kids to a cinematically released “Spider-Man” movie that has more than five separate versions of the webslinger. Life is pretty good.   I got my daughter Olivia started on the comics a while ago. She is six and just devours any literature that she can get her hands on. My wife is itching for the day that Olivia can spend a Christmas vacation reading the collected works of the Bronte sisters. But right now, my daughter is obsessed with comic books. She reads chapter books and I have to pretend to be excited about that because I’m an English teacher when I’m not writing. But I really get excited when my daughter keeps me informed about what is going on in “Spider-Gwen”, now titled “Spider-Gwen: Ghost Spider”. For all the parents out there, please screen these books before you let your kids read them willy-nilly. I read everything she sees before she sees them and ensure that nothing untoward is happening. But with “Into the Spider-Verse”, my daughter experienced the unbridled joy of seeing many of her favorite characters on the big screen, despite the fact that many people don’t know who these characters are.   I’ve always been a big fan of Miles Morales, the protagonist of “Into the Spider-Verse,” who is masterfully and skillfully voiced by Shameik Moore. In 2011, my favorite comic book writer, Brian Michael Bendis, created Miles to replace a recently deceased Peter Parker in the Ultimate line of comics. This ex-Peter Parker wasn’t the Spider-Man that most people had grown up with. Rather, this was a Spider-Man aimed at newer, teenage readers grounded in the new millennium. “Into the Spider-Verse” is loosely an adaptation of this story.   Miles, a student at an advanced school, like Peter, is bitten by a radioactive spider, this spider gifting separate abilities than Peter’s spider provided. Under Parker’s wing, Miles learns to accept and adapt to his new abilities. In the process, his mentor is killed while trying to dismantle a beam that opens doors to other realities. This beam attracts five versions of Spider-Man from other universes. Meeting a wide array of heroes who have similar abilities, Miles must learn to use his powers independently or risk the fate of the multiverse.   My wife, throughout the movie, kept giving me a (for once) genuine and unironic thumbs-up. If I was to tell you that the best “Spider-Man” movie would be an animated feature that didn’t even focus on Peter Parker years ago, you might have had reason to be doubtful. Traditionally, Sony Pictures has not had the best luck with maintaining their franchised properties. I’ve rallied against Sony with how they have handled what should be profitable content. But the filmmakers of “Into the Spider-Verse” knew that they were making a fine film, despite the medium.   “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is a reminder to both audiences and creators that animation is not a genre, but simply a medium. In this era of monthly superhero movies, we have finally reached the moment that I’ve waited for in the subgenre. Superhero movies are no longer afraid to be stylized and and to break formulaic plot patterns.   There was this attitude for the longest time to respect the source material to the point of almost being slavish. Even the more outside-the-box movies like “Watchmen” or “300”, both directed by Zack Snyder, were attempts to use comic book panels as storyboards. “Into the Spider-Verse” doesn’t shy away from its comic book roots. Rather, it succeeds where many people consider Ang Lee’s “Hulk” to have failed.   This is a movie that looks and feels like a comic book artistically without being cornball or gimmicky. Rather, this is all about aesthetic choices. The movie looks darned pretty and it sounds beautiful. As a lucky dad and overall inconsiderate movie-goer, we had to bring my seven-month-old to see the movie.   Before I am lambasted, we saw a matinee, which is potentially the most acceptable time to see a movie with a baby. But that soundtrack entertained her to no end. Daddy got away with a lot of jumpy-jump time to a soundtrack that was melting my face off. It’s a quality movie that embraces what animation can do versus shying away from it.   My son did scream at one point. Henry gets very scared, very easily. The movie scared him once so intensely at one point that he screamed. On the whole, the movie isn’t scary, but there are many loud noises and startling jumps. From a Catholic perspective, I do have to mention that the Peter Parker from the alternative universe unfortunately divorced Mary Jane Watson. It is a central character trait of his, trying to win back his wife. But the word “divorce” is only thrown around once or twice and even then, it is very quickly. The bad guys can get pretty scary. Because the film is so stylized, many of the villains appear larger than life, especially in the case of the Green Goblin and the Kingpin. The Kingpin, the central villain of the film, is a killer. I wasn’t thrilled that my four-year-old watched the bad guy kill someone, but he took it like a champ.   On the positive side, however, Miles is an extremely relatable character. Often getting in trouble for his obsession with graffiti, he has to deal with a father who has a hard time communicating with him. Miles is extremely smart, but ashamed of his intellect. He is this kid who balances popularity with academic success. He’s the kind of kid I want Olivia to admire. He has realistic problems and the way that he deals with them seems realistic. Sure, he has spider-powers. But he does the best with his abilities despite the fact that he doesn’t want to.   “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is possibly the best superhero movie of 2018, and that is in a year that had both “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Black Panther”. Besides looking great and having fantastic characters, it is a funny film. Spider-Man was always a funny superhero and now we have more than five separate Spider-People / Animals.   Every character is well-developed with his or her own personalities and senses of humor. Jake Johnson is pretty much his character from “New Girl” as a superhero. I say that with the utmost respect because that character is perfect. Hailee Steinfeld makes her Spider-Gwen a genuine rock star. Nicholas Cage, of Nicholas Cage fame, somehow ideally channels the noir detective of 1920s so perfectly that I didn’t know I needed it in my life way before this point. I oddly laughed more at Kimiko Glenn’s Peni Parker more than I thought I would, considering that I rarely found the character interesting from the comic books. But casting John Mulaney as Peter Porker: The Spectacular Spider-Ham? Inspired. Absolutely inspired.   This movie isn’t necessarily for kids. It can be for kids, but I really recommend that kids be prepared with some of the source material ahead of time. My kids knew what was going to happen with the characters and that went a long way. But part of the experience was sitting down with a big stack of comic books and letting my kids discover the long history of Spider-Man throughout the ages. Sitting in that theater with my entire family in awe of the spectacle on that screen was more than I thought my little nerd heart could imagine and I loved every minute of it.

Skyfallout –“Mission: Impossible -Fallout”

Aug 1, 2018 / 00:00 am

It is amazing how film trends start. In preparation for the new film “Mission: Impossible -Fallout,” I binged all of the previous films. While watching the almost unwatchable “Mission: Impossible II,” I noticed how many films around the same time as “M:I:II” kind of look like “M:I:II.” Director John Woo made his “Mission: Impossible” entry look and feel like “The Matrix,” “Equilibrium,” and “Dark City.”   “Mission: Impossible -Fallout” does something similar. “Fallout” structurally mirrors the Daniel Craig entries in the James Bond franchise closer than the filmmakers probably care to admit. That’s not the biggest crime a film could commit. After all, many of the Daniel Craig entries in the Bond franchise are not-subtle copies of the Jason Bourne films, at least in terms of action. And those Jason Bourne films borrow heavily from “Mission: Impossible” and the Bond films. I have friends who are fans of individual “Mission: Impossible” movies. Most people like the individual entries at the time, but I don’t know many people who invest themselves in the franchise of “Mission: Impossible” as someone would the James Bond series or the Bourne series. “Mission: Impossible -Fallout” aims to change that attitude. I feel a little bad for the people who aren’t caught up on the franchise and try to go see this movie. I don’t feel too bad. I just published a cheat sheet for the entire franchise on Catholic News Agency. I highly recommend perusing it before seeing the new movie. But “Mission: Impossible -Fallout” might have set the most impossible mission to date. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to care about the emotional fragility of superspy Ethan Hunt. For those not familiar with the Daniel Craig Bond films, they are all connected as a sort of origin story for James Bond. Starting with “Casino Royale,” Bond discovers a shadow organization that seems to be the masterminds behind the masterminds in the individual films. This all culminates in the most recent entry, “Spectre”, where he meets the man who has orchestrated all of the world’s crises from his remote hideaways. Bond questions his effectiveness as an agent while coping with the emotional sacrifices he has made along the way. “Mission: Impossible -Fallout” does a very similar thing. Starting with the fourth entry in the franchise, “Ghost Protocol,” Ethan Hunt discovers the existence of a dark version of his organization, the IMF named “The Syndicate.” In the follow-up, “Rogue Nation,” Hunt meets the shadowy figure organizing the Syndicate, Solomon Lane, and captures him by the end of the film. “Fallout” follows Solomon Lane’s revenge upon Ethan Hunt and on the world. It intricately ties back elements from all of the films starting at “Mission: Impossible III.” It should be noted that “Mission: Impossible III” is also the first film in the series to be produced by J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot and Skydance Productions. “Fallout” is aimed at rewarding fans of the franchise. Perhaps Tom Cruise and company want to take Ethan Hunt to the next level in terms of cultural impact because the personal stakes for Ethan Hunt are in the foreground of this film. Cast members Michelle Monaghan, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Alec Baldwin, Sean Harris, and Rebecca Ferguson return as their characters from earlier entries. I always considered Ethan’s team, shy of Luther and Benji, interchangeable, but “Fallout” wants me to bond with the characters from the previous films. What is also odd is the return of writer / director Christopher McQuarrie. One thing that I’ve always liked about the “Mission: Impossible” movies is that the directors had always changed for every entry. For better or worse, this gave each film its own unique tonal feeling. But it seemed like Christopher McQuarrie was doing his best Brad Bird impression when he directed “Rogue Nation” and then he returned for “Fallout”. It seems like the people behind this movie have a plan. As a “Mission: Impossible” movie, franchise plans aside, the movie really does work. The best element of these movies is determining the allegiances of many of the cast members. While avoiding spoilers, I think that McQuarrie understands, because of the revelations in the first “Mission: Impossible” film, that audiences are ready to accept major changes to the series. It seems like nothing is too taboo in terms of fan service and that makes the movie extremely compelling at times. There were moments where McQuarrie implements some pretty intense fake outs, which often feel a bit cheap. These are the spy-fi equivalents of a cat jumping during a suspenseful scene. It gets you, but it also feels empty and vapid. There are more than a few of these turns. But ultimately, McQuarrie’s film hits a lot of the right notes. Similarly, the action has gotten to a completely insane place. It mostly works. I don’t know why the knowledge that Tom Cruise is doing many of his own stunts makes the action sequences work, but it really does. McQuarrie does have one fault that I only noticed in his movies when it comes to the action sequences. Ethan Hunt becomes somewhat unkillable. I know that this is true for most other action movies, but some movies take it to the next level. I’m thinking currently about the “Charlie’s Angels” movies and “The Fast and the Furious” movies. These are movies that place the protagonists in situations that should have killed them. But because these characters are the heroes of the film, they can just shrug off stunts that should have pulped them with only a few scratches. McQuarrie treats vehicular accidents that cause the vehicle to flip many times as things that people just walk away from. It kind of takes away the threat of death, but that doesn’t make the scenes less engaging. Ultimately, I really enjoyed the film. Since I binged the movies in the week leading up to this movie, I got a lot more out of it than most audience members probably did. But it is a good movie. I don’t know if I can agree with the reviews that claim it is the best movie of the summer, but it hits a lot of the beats that make the “Mission: Impossible” movies worth watching. The suspense is great. The character beats mostly work. There is some wrapping up that the series does, which is to be expected when so many characters return. And to make up for the previous two entries, which had no Catholic moments that I could find, there were two big Catholic moments: There was a news report about an attack on the Vatican. And the bad guys were known as the Apostles. On second thought, that might not be a good thing.    

Tim's mission: A CNA “Mission: Impossible” franchise catch-up

Jul 26, 2018 / 00:00 am

I might be the only person who gets really excited to organize big groups for going to the movies. My wife always wants to spare my vulnerable heart because people often decline to join me. But I keep trying. When it comes to seeing sequels, I often hear, “But I haven’t seen the other ones.” I’m the kind of guy who will shotgun all of the movies in a weekend to prepare for a movie release, but I’m also the kind of guy who writes movie reviews for Catholic News Agency. Maybe the whole not-seeing-the-other-movies is just an excuse to not hang out. I hope not. But this column is to help my kindred spirits, those who love organizing groups to see a movie. This column could convince your friends that they can see "Mission: Impossible -Fallout,” premiering in the US July 27, even if they haven’t seen the five impossible missions that came before it. Here is everything you need to know about the “Mission: Impossible” franchise. (It should be noted that I have yet to see “Mission: Impossible -Fallout” and am simply giving the major plot points that may be addressed in the new film based on my viewing of the trailer. Also, since it is a summation of plot points, it should be established that this entire column is extremely spoiler heavy for the first five “Mission: Impossible” films.) “Mission: Impossible” (1996, director Brian De Palma) Easily the most subversive of the franchise, the film introduces us to protagonist Ethan Hunt, played by baby-faced Tom Cruise. Ethan Hunt and his team are part of a fictional branch of military intelligence known as the impossibly named “Impossible Mission Force”, or IMF for short. When his team, led by Jim Phelps (the protagonist of the television series), is all killed with the exception of himself and Jim’s wife, Claire, Ethan is branded a traitor and hunted by the very organization that trained him. In the course of the film, Ethan discovers that Jim, played by Jon Voight, is actually alive and orchestrated the events that instigated this IMF mole hunt. -Major characters added to the franchise: Ethan Hunt, Luther Stickell (formerly disavowed computer hacker who joins IMF by the end of the film when Ethan is reinstated) -Ethan’s big rappel moment: This is the famous one. Ethan rappels from the vent of a CIA temperature-sensitive room to steal the NOC list, a list compiling the real names of agents in the field. -IMF traitors: Jim Phelps and his wife, Claire -Odd Catholic connection: Ethan finds an arms dealer through a Usenet group search discussing the Book of Job. 1996 had a hilarious understanding of how the Internet worked. -Should you watch this anyway? Definitely. It’s arguably the best in the franchise. For the beginning of an action franchise, very few bullets are fired. It is a very tight script and Brian De Palma is a great director. “Mission: Impossible 2” / “M:I II” (2000, director John Woo) I almost quit the “Mission: Impossible” franchise with this one. John Woo is famous for making great gun-fu films out of Hong Kong, but his American films never resonated the same way his other films did. My theory is that the studio wanted the big name of having John Woo attached, but tried reining in his tendency toward excessive violence. Ethan Hunt has grown his hair long, appropriate to the year 2000. He must stop IMF mole Sean Ambrose, who specializes in mimicking Ethan Hunt in the field, from releasing a virus named “Chimera” into the heart of Sydney. Along the way, Ethan falls in love with a thief named Nyah Hall, played by Thandie Newton. There isn’t much plot in this movie, plotted by former “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” showrunners Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga. But if you are in the mood for a lot of slow motion gunplay, this movie has it. It is the most angsty of the series and seems to have the least amount of connection to the other films in the franchise. -Major characters added to the franchise: No one really. Luther returns. Anthony Hopkins almost cameos as Ethan’s superior who gets to say, “It’s not Mission: Difficult, Mr. Hunt. It’s Mission: Impossible.” -Ethan’s big rappel moment: Hunt rappels from a helicopter into an atrium of a building that has exits and entrances on a time lock. It tries to outdo the previous movie, but it is not all that impressive. -IMF traitors: Sean Ambrose -Odd Catholic connection: There is a festival that is meant to celebrate Spanish Holy Week, but it is way off in its portrayal. -Should you watch this movie anyway? No. This movie is pretty bad. It might be the most 2000 movie that ever existed. Everyone is wearing black. The movie’s length is maybe fifteen minutes long if all of the slow motion was removed from it. The stunts are absolutely absurd. There’s far too much gunplay and wire-fu to make it even seem remotely realistic. But for hardcore “Westworld” fans, both Anthony Hopkins and Thandie Newton appear together years before “Westworld” would ever become a television show. “Mission: Impossible III” / “M:I:III” (2006, director J.J. Abrams) Before J.J. Abrams directed both “Star Trek” and “Star Wars”, he was the showrunner of a show called “Alias.” As a wise man once said, “‘Alias’ is a show about a spy!’” This movie oddly works. Abrams keeps his signature lens flair to a minimum in this movie. It probably has the best opening of the series, with villain Owen Davian (played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) holding Ethan Hunt hostage. The movie revolves around Owen Davian trying to get hold of a mysterious weapon, enigmatically known only as “The Rabbit’s Foot.” Davian takes special interest in Ethan Hunt after Hunt initially captures him and dangles him out of a plane. Due to more IMF moles, Davian escapes and plots his revenge on Ethan Hunt. To torture Hunt, Davian kidnaps Hunt’s wife Julia, played by Michelle Monaghan.  As a fun bit of storytelling, Julia is unaware that her new husband is a superspy until the end of the film, where she has to save Ethan’s head from exploding, literally. Fun fact: While “Mission: Impossible 2” was written by the “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” guys, “Mission: Impossible 3” was written by the authors of the new “Star Trek” reboot movies. Also, I’m pretty sure that both the original “Mission: Impossible” and the original “Star Trek” were made by Desilu films. -Major characters added to the franchise: Julia and Benji, played by Simon Pegg. Benji is the best thing to happen to these movies, so this is a major film in the series. -Ethan’s big rappel moment: Ethan not only rappels off a large building in China, but uses his tether to arc his way onto another building, only to slide down windows situated at a 45 degree angle. -IMF traitors: It is a mislead that Lawrence Fishburn’s Theodore Brassel is a mole. Rather, it is charming Billy Crudup’s John Musgrave that is the mole. -Odd Catholic connection: Ethan has to break into the Vatican sporting a full cassock. He also has to blow up a wall that seems to be part of the catacombs. Don’t worry. In this reality, the Vatican also has the fanciest bathrooms in the world. (Editor's note: In real life, the Vatican does not have particularly fancy bathrooms. They've usually been retrofitted into old buildings. They're fine, but nothing to write home about.) -Should you watch this movie anyway? This is a love-it-or-hate-it film. The MacGuffin for this movie is remarkably meta and is never revealed. That can burn some people, but I love it. Also, Keri Russell dies a super gross death. “Mission: Impossible -Ghost Protocol” (2011, director Brad Bird) The guy who directed “The Incredibles” movies, “Ratatouille” and “The Iron Giant” directed this. It’s his first live action credit and it is fun. The movie implies that Julia, Ethan’s wife, was killed by a rogue group of Serbian terrorists. Ethan Hunt starts the movie in a Russian prison for executing the men who killed his wife in an unsanctioned hit. He is freed by his IMF team because a deranged philosopher named Hendricks, played by Michael Nyqvist, aims to steal nuclear launch codes from the Kremlin to begin nuclear war. After the IMF is implicated in the Kremlin’s destruction actually caused by Hendricks, the president executes “Ghost Protocol”, an order that disbands IMF and he disavows every spy in the field. When Ethan is informed of Ghost Protocol, the Secretary of Defense is murdered in front of him and Hunt must take on a protégé named Brandt, played by Jeremy Renner. Over the course of the film, it is revealed that Brandt was actually the field agent who accidentally allowed Julia’s death to transpire. Through a series of death defying stunts in an automated parking lot, Hunt retrieves the nuclear codes just in time to stop a warhead from hitting San Francisco. In the denouement, the team tells Luther about what he missed and Ethan reveals that Julia’s death was faked to keep her out of harm. -Major characters added to the franchise: Brandt -Ethan’s big rappel moment: Using a pair of spy-fi Spider-Man gloves, Ethan Hunt must climb the outside of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. To get back down, he ties a rope to his belt and runs down the side of the building. The rope ends up short and Hunt must launch himself into a broken window. -IMF traitors: Oddly, no one. But they make up for it in the next one. -Odd Catholic connection: I didn’t catch any in this one. It’s probably a sign of the decline of our culture in the sickening emptiness of secularism. Either that or the filmmakers didn’t realize in the first three movies that there was a motif forming. One of those two things… -Should you watch this anyway? It’s Brad Bird. The guy is a great director. It is weirdly forgettable and kind of bleeds into the next one a bit, especially if you binge them. “Mission: Impossible -Rogue Nation” (2015, director Christopher McQuarrie) The end of “Ghost Protocol” teases the existence of an evil version of the IMF known simply as “The Syndicate.” The short version of it is that this is the Hydra to IMF’s S.H.I.E.L.D. Few people seem to believe Ethan that the Syndicate exists, especially CIA director Alan Hunley, played by Alec Baldwin. Hunley actively campaigns for the disbanding of the IMF. Based on this article, I can see why, based on the sheer number of traitors within the organization. After Ethan witnesses the execution of a fellow IMF agent, he is ambushed and drugged by the head of the Syndicate, a mysterious figure known as Lane, played by Sean Harris. He awakes, surrounded by the torture experts within the Syndicate, but is helped with his escape by a deep cover operative named Ilsa Faust, played by Rebecca Ferguson. Faust, whose name is a little too on the nose for my liking, constantly fluctuates her allegiances with Ethan’s team, who are now branded traitors and are on the run from the CIA. Solomon Lane manipulates Ethan’s team into delivering a flash drive that authorizes nearly unlimited funding to the Syndicate. Ethan, to stop Lane, memorizes all of the tracking numbers on the flash drive and destroys it, making him vital to Lane’s plan. Lane begins tracking Ethan to capture him, eventually leading Hunt to trapping Lane. Hunt then delivers Lane to his superiors at the CIA, inspiring Hunley to lead a revamped IMF. -Major characters added to the franchise: Solomon Lane (he is the only villain to survive the end of the movie and he’s in the trailer for “Fallout”), Ilsa Faust, and Alan Hunley. -Ethan’s big rappel movie: Neither is technically a rappelling sequence, but they are tonally the same. Ethan hangs on the outside of a carrier plane in the air and later jumps into an underwater computer storage area without oxygen. -IMF traitors: Everyone who has ever gone missing from any form of military intelligence. -Odd Catholic connection: None. I guess I was right about the secular conspiracy. -Should you watch this anyway? My guess is that this movie is the most intricately tied into “Mission: Impossible -Fallout”. Many characters from “Rogue Nation” appear in the trailer for “Fallout”. Parts 3-5 are more continuity driven than the first two movies, but “Rogue Nation” seems to play most with the mythology. -- It’s a lot to take in, but I hopefully saved you ten-plus hours of watching / rewatching before entering the movie theater this weekend. The long and short is that the “Mission: Impossible” movies are a lot of fun. I don’t know if they were meant to be binged like I did, but it wasn’t the worst way to spend a week.

Small Expectations: “Ant-Man and the Wasp”

Jul 13, 2018 / 00:00 am

Jodorowsky’s “Dune.” In 2013, a documentary chronicled Alejandro Jodorowsky’s absolutely insane attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s “Dune.” I have no excuse to why I haven’t seen this movie. I’ve had plenty of time. But film snobs know what Jodorowsky’s “Dune” signifies. It is about a work that was never made that would have changed cinema as we know it. It is the ultimate “What if…” for film fans. Some people might substitute the original cut of Orson Welles’s “The Magnificent Ambersons”, but we all get the point.  never really cared for “Dune.” I’ve tried. I read the first book. But my Jodorowsky’s “Dune” was Edgar Wright’s “Ant-Man.” Many people have seen the 2015  “Ant-Man.” It’s an okay film. I watch it every so often, usually around the time one of the Marvel Studios tent-pole films come out. I always want to like it. Paul Rudd is charming. There are some fun jokes in the movie. Ant-Man is a fun character. The 3D version is actually pretty nifty, with all of the shrinking sequences. But I never really love the movie. It is, at best, fine. That seems to be the critical consensus. The reason I invest so much into this movie is because it had the potential to be great. Some people know the history of the first “Ant-Man” movie. Around the same time that Jon Favreau was working on the first “Iron Man” film, Edgar Wright began teasing that he was going to be directing “Ant-Man.” He was working on his Cornetto trilogy’s conclusion, “The World’s End” and kept releasing little tidbits about his progress with “Ant-Man.” Months grew into years and Marvel Studios became the box office behemoth that it is today. Edgar Wright is my favorite director. He directed amazing quasi-indie action comedies including “Shaun of the Dead”, “Hot Fuzz”, the aforementioned “The World’s End”, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and last year’s “Baby Driver.” What these movies have in common is that they are meticulously planned films. They need to be watched over-and-over to understand how insane their structure really is. Edgar Wright, my favorite director, was going to write and direct “Ant-Man”… …and then it didn’t happen. Marvel had too much to lose by having a tonally different action movie from the rest of its slate and the movie was turned over to Peyton Reed. If you watch the closing credits on that movie, it is noticeable that too many people had their hands on this movie. I’m sorry if this is a long way to get to a point, but my headspace is central to my review of this movie. The first “Ant-Man”, for what few positive things it presents, represents one of the greatest lost opportunities for superhero films. It’s a bummer. But with the release of “Ant-Man and the Wasp”, Peyton Reed finally had a film that was not a contract movie, but a movie that was solely his own. I have not gotten my coveted Edgar Wright film, but I did get a chance to see an “Ant-Man” movie with only one person really controlling it- unlike that first film, which screams “corporate oversight” if I’ve ever seen it. The bottom line: “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is a better movie than its predecessor. I know many people who like the first film. I have a feeling that those people who loved the first film will absolutely love the second film. It’s a lot of the same tonal stuff and it carries the same sense of humor as the first film. “Ant-Man and the Wasp” learns from some of the mistakes that the first film stumbled over. Gone is the very milquetoast villain who mirrors the hero’s powers. Instead, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” has a villain who is sympathetic, albeit kind of crazy. The second film also builds up the mythology of “Ant-Man”, which could actually lead to some pretty fun stuff for future Marvel movies, “Avengers 4” included. Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly gave lackluster performances in the first “Ant-Man”. They honestly seemed like they were above doing that film. While not perfect, especially in the more comic sequences, they seem to have more appreciation for the work in the sequel. But the film is not without its share of problems. Like the first film, I left the theater with a sense of being entertained, but not enriched. Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige has stated that the “Ant-Man” films tend to be palate-cleansers after the deeply moving entries in the franchise, particularly movies like “Avengers: Infinity War.” From a business perspective, that makes a lot of sense. Considering that there was a fairly strong sense of Marvel fatigue around “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, Feige is serving the greater landscapes by having its shrinking heroes present –pardon the pun -smaller films. The problem with this strategy lies is that these films are often sacrificial. Stakes are fairly low in “Ant-Man and the Wasp.” Paul Rudd was brilliant in “Captain America: Civil War.” In fact, I like him more in “Civil War” than I like any of the jokes in either “Ant-Man” movie. In this film, Paul Rudd seems to understand his character and he does his best with a movie that doesn’t try very hard to impress.  But when he is given a meatier part, like his role in “Civil War”, he meets the needs of that role. He is an impressive actor, and the character itself is capable of great things. Therefore, a movie that is only pretty good left me feeling slightly disappointed by its faults. The film is once again stolen by not by its primary or secondary cast. The third-tier characters really had me laughing audibly, much to my wife’s chagrin. Michael Peña, T.I., and David Dastmalchian as a trio of ex-cons trying to make right somehow always get me laughing. They have little to do with this story. I almost feel bad for their appearance in this film because, narratively, they have little to do. But that’s where “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is somewhat vital to the franchise, outside of the much-needed reprieve from the pathos of the other films. “Ant-Man and the Wasp” offers a ground-level view of what the Marvel Cinematic Universe might look like from the view of the common man. (Please note: I have avoided all but one “size” pun in this entire review.) The ex-cons are working class guys trying to make it in the world. Paul Rudd’s major goal for the movie is, yes, to defeat the bad guy and save Hope’s mother from the Quantum Realm. But he is mainly concerned about repairing his relationships with his estranged wife and ensuring that his daughter continues being proud of him. Another engaging character is the FBI agent Jimmy Woo, a nod a more obscure character in the Marvel Comics. In the film, he’s a guy who paradoxically finds Scott Lang charming, despite his job ensuring that Lang doesn’t leave his house during his time on house-arrest. The non-heroes are perhaps what make the movie fascinating. Reed gets me invested enough in Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer’s journey though a microscopic fever dream, but I am more interested in Paul Rudd’s joke time with his daughter, Cassie. “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is definitely worth a watch, but I know I’m never really going to see what could have been done with these characters. Rather, the movie serves as a filler of two hours where I chuckled a few times while taking guesses at some fairly telegraphed plot twists. The movie is fun simply for fun-sake. It has some solid, if not basic, messages about the importance of fatherhood. It gets trippy every so often. It has some excellent size-changing combat and jokes. It’s a good time. For those people looking to continue the emotional rollercoaster that was “Avengers: Infinity War”, there is only a little bit of emotional stress presented “Ant-Man and the Wasp.” The worst thing you can say about seeing “Ant-Man and the Wasp” in theaters is that you can tell your co-workers that you went to go to see that new Michael Douglas / Michelle Pfeiffer movie. I told my wife that during the movie. It made her giggle  

Fall from Grace: 'Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom'

Jul 9, 2018 / 00:00 am

I have a major confession: I’m obsessed with the original “Jurassic Park.” The way people quote “Star Wars” is the way I quote “Jurassic Park”. I watch that movie annually. I’m really going to burn some bridges here, but I think it might be the best blockbuster film ever made. It is not my favorite movie, but it is up there. Every time they announce another sequel, part of me starts hoping against hope that it will be among the great films of the franchise. I’m also going to say that “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is not a great sequel to “Jurassic Park.” It’s actually a pretty bad movie. There is this new era of teasing movie trailers now. Days before the actual trailer for “Fallen Kingdom” came out, director J.A. Bayona and Universal released one-to-two second clips showing off the movie. And the clips didn’t look great. Then the full trailer came out and I was still disappointed. But then they did something that made me lose my mind. The trailer featured Jeff Goldblum returning as his character, Dr. Ian Malcolm. This is a moment where I should gain a degree of self-awareness. I have to step out of myself and make my peace with the fact that I am easily manipulated. I’m sure I’m not the only one who got excited to see Jeff Goldblum in the trailer. He’s become a national treasure, especially in the wake of “Thor: Ragnarok”. Seeing Goldblum as Malcolm forced me to ignore the fact that the rest of the trailer looked, frankly, kind of dumb. And I should always trust my instincts. “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is an epically dumb film. The problem with “Jurassic Park” sequels is that there must always be truly unbelievably dumb reasons to get the characters from the previous films back on that island. There must be someone who is phenomenally dumb to ignore warning after warning about a place where everything could kill them in a hot second.  In “The Lost World: Jurassic Park”, my least favorite entry in the franchise due to its toyetic nature, Ian Malcolm’s girlfriend decides to photograph dinosaurs, clearly ignoring the oodles of warnings from her boyfriend. Sam Neill’s Alan Grant is tricked onto the island in Part III. Also, a kid is stuck on the island due to –true to my initial thesis –doing something beyond stupid. The first “Jurassic World” entry at least skipped over all the birthing-pain dumb stuff and jumped into the successful theme park part of the timeline. We never really get to see the initial dumb conversations that get people onto this island. “Fallen Kingdom” keeps the legacy of stupidity to get Claire and Owen back on the island. The dinosaurs, which we all kind of agreed would go extinct on this island, are now at risk of going extinct due to the eruption of a volcano. This brings us to the fundamental problematic idea that looms over the rest of this film. The key moral argument is whether America, with all of its resources, should save these animals from a destructive volcano or allow them to become extinct again. My big question involves how these animals existed in the first place. Isn’t the point of “Jurassic Park” / “Jurassic World” that all the animals are clones? Claire’s altruistic rescue mission is only to save one example of eleven species before the island explodes. She’s not saving all of the animals in the park. Why don’t they just clone some more? Is Henry Wu the only person who knows how to do that? That seems implausible. One of the things that made the first “Jurassic Park” amazing is that it is first a corporate thriller that just happens to have dinosaurs. The action in the movie is great, but the worldbuilding that went into that movie is just spectacular. It is this world of corporate espionage that leads to a “Towering Inferno” style disaster. It is very fun, but oddly feels grounded. The Spielberg original teases the idea of a corporation that is more concerned with the application of dinosaurs beyond entertainment, but it leaves that premise well enough alone. Only in the sequels does the evil inGen corporation drive the plot. I don’t think people really care about people trying to militarize dinosaurs. That narrative has been told time and again and it doesn’t really work. I enjoyed the first “Jurassic World”, but some of the weaker moments involve Vincent D’Onofrio’s military contractor. Unfortunately, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is mostly about characters like that. That part seems weak and forced. I will say that I didn’t hate the movie, however. If I consider “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” to be the low point in the series, “Fallen Kingdom” is at least watchable. The bummer part of the movie is that “Jurassic Park” is such a smart movie. “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is a very silly popcorn movie. Watching “Fallen Kingdom” as a silly popcorn movie is just a huge disappointment. The action is great. It is beautifully shot. I’ll even go farther than that. It has this very cool aesthetic that we really haven’t seen in the franchise, which is great in terms of something new. It’s just that the movie actually copied something from my childhood that I didn’t expect, and it wasn’t “Jurassic Park.” I was a big fan of survivor horror games in my teens. I loved “Resident Evil”. Capcom, the people who made “Resident Evil”, also made a “Resident Evil” clone called “Dino Crisis.” “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is a mix between “Dino Crisis” and the first “Resident Evil” game. The protagonists are on the run from dinosaurs in a complicated mansion that has a secret in the basement. That’s a fun adventure movie that really needs its audience to shut its collective brain off. I wish I could wax poetic about the morality of the movie. Bayona seems to want to start a discussion about the morality of cloning, but he really says nothing of value. There isn’t enough there to really analyze the intrinsic meaning of life, beyond the superficial attitudes presented within. Bayona wants to say something heavy, but everyone I talked to about it simply acknowledged that it ultimately didn’t matter in the picture. There are some digs on Donald Trump. Some of them are subtle; some aren’t. But even these commentaries are ultimately vapid. “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” doesn’t have an entertainment problem. It just has a problem a depth problem. This Kingdom has fallen flat. On one of my Catholic movie groups, someone described “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” as one of the worst sequels ever made. That’s not true. It’s not even true within the franchise. It actually might be the third best in the series. But these movies have the potential to be deep and engaging. “Fallen Kingdom” is a big step backwards. I’m reminded of a line from “Fallen Kingdom,” where Claire asks in voiceover, “Do you remember the first time you saw a dinosaur?” I do. I remember seeing “Jurassic Park” in the theater and I was mesmerized. But Speilberg’s classic didn’t let me simply treat the film as spectacle. He took Michael Crichton’s novel and molded it into the best version of that tale. It was polished and perfect. But the franchise hasn’t learned from its own message. We have all seen dinosaurs at this point. When the spectacle is gone, we are left staring at the film’s foundations. “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” presents John Hammond’s Flea Circus. And “Fallen Kingdom’s” fleas aren’t that impressive.  

A Man’s Ministry: Fred Rogers’ Journey in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

Jul 6, 2018 / 00:00 am

My wife has recently re-evaluated me as a liberal hippie. I suppose this happens in relationships. New political issues arise, and married couples disagree from time-to-time. I feel like I have to preface my review of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” with this caveat. If my wife thinks I’m too progressive, I’m sure that some of my readers out there will agree. But to review the documentary about Fred Rogers, I probably need to frontload this information. Like many documentarians, director Morgan Neville made his movie not only to inform, but to challenge. The issue is that this time, he offers challenges to our faith. When I saw the trailer on Facebook for the first time, I knew that it was going to tug at some heartstrings. The trailer doesn’t spoil anything. You should probably watch it. I recommend just a small handful of tissues before clicking “Play.” Unsurprisingly, the film documents the life of Fred Rogers and his life in children’s television. The movie establishes quite clearly that Rogers did not care about the spotlight. He didn’t consider himself a celebrity, nor did he create “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” for financial gain. Rather, this man saw a deficit in children’s television and wanted to meet the emotional needs of children who ordinarily absorbed television as future consumers.  A sad child himself, Fred Rogers saw television as an opportunity to let kids know that they were loved, regardless of their situations. But what  many people may not know is that Mister Rogers was actually Reverend Rogers. Fred Rogers was an ordained minister. I know that this is the Catholic News Agency. I think we would all take it as a big win if he was actually Fr. Rogers, who presided over the parish of Our Lady de Plaza Sésamo. But, in fact, he was a Presbyterian minister. He went to seminary, which earned him the title of “Reverend.”   But putting all of that aside, Fred Rogers was a man of faith. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” isn’t a story of him putting that faith aside or losing that faith in the service of PBS. Rather, it is the story of how Fred Rogers used his faith to evangelize everyday without making it about being holier-than-thou. This isn’t me putting some kind of spin on the movie to tie it into a Catholic News Agency article. The movie discusses his faith and ministry in depth. Fred Rogers used television to evangelize a message of love to children on a regular basis.   Mr. Rogers made over a thousand episodes of television and each one focused on the emotional complexities that children dealt with every day. When a parent didn’t know how to tell a child that he or she was valuable or that they were loved, Reverend Rogers did so instead. I told you: this is a movie that requires a decent amount of tissues. But I did preface this article with the warning that “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” deals with some issues that might challenge us. So, here’s that: One of the show’s goals was to help kids deal emotionally deal with current events. His first episode dealt with the Vietnam War. I get squeamish when children’s programming introduces political issues into its commentary. It’s icky because I feel like it can get manipulative. But Rogers realized something profound early in his ministry. He didn’t tell kids what to do or how to act. But he did say that it was okay to have feelings about real things. He knew that kids were going to be hearing scary things on the television or from the grown-ups around them and his focus was to have kids advocate for themselves that they were scared. He let them know that scary things don’t have to be bottled up and that –even if no one in their lives were willing to care about what they thought –Mister Rogers always would. And this is where I fell in love with Mister Rogers. Fred Rogers always seemed way too cheery. The movie addresses this. No one in the world really acts like Fred Rogers. No one talks that way. For as controlled and ideal as Fred Rogers was, he still dealt with real world issues. One of the actors on his show was a homosexual. As a minister, Rogers regularly interacted and worked with a gay man. His faith and his work seemed to be at odds. But Rogers did something that I wish that more people of faith would do. Fred Rogers privately evangelized his co-worker through love. He worked side-by-side with this man, and for two years, he let him know that he loved him. Fred Rogers let his friend know what he believed, but he still wholeheartedly loved this man. I think that phrase “love” is often misused. I know that “love” is often confused for “tolerated.” If and when you watch this movie, I want you to see the love that this man felt by Fred Rogers. Fred Rogers saw his co-worker as a child of God, and he let him know that every time he saw him. I can’t deny that “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” might be polarizing. As uplifting as this movie is, and as positively as it portrays Fred Rogers’ faith, it does take some shots at extreme conservatives. This was his life. He dealt with people from all walks and he told them that they were special. The film takes a shot at Fox News. I’m not the biggest Fox News fan in the world, but I can see how some people might not love that part of the movie. It is brief, but it is there. There will be few movies –even more so with documentaries –that are completely apolitical. But the message in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” stresses one thing that should resonate with us, and something that we, as Catholics, should be promoting: that every person has value because they were created by God. That’s such a great message. Considering that I let my kids watch the garbage that Rogers rallied against, I need the reminder that everything we do should be reminding our children that they are special because they were created in the image and likeness of God. I knew that I was going to be emotionally moved by this movie. It’s a great film that is presented lovingly by family and friends of Fred Rogers. As a kid, I remember watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” before I outgrew it, and its threadbare production values. My parents always let me know that I was loved, so Mister Rogers served his purpose, confirming my validity outside of simple parental affirmation. But this movie let me see the real value that Fred Rogers offered to the world. Not all kids had my parents’ ability to let their kids know that they were loved. Fred Rogers filled that void as best as he could. Mister Rogers was a man of faith and he preached in a way that never made anyone feel small or defensive. Everyone he met, he saw his or her value.  This man, while not Catholic, is a model for love. And he did all that in a brightly colored sweater and sneakers.  

Watching a Father's Day movie with the kids: “The Incredibles 2”

Jun 16, 2018 / 00:00 am

Sorry it has been a while since my last review. Believe it or not, it is really hard to go see a movie in the theater when you have a newborn. For some reason, I thought that this announcement would garnish me some applause, but this is a text-based medium so I have to settle for the raucous congratulations echoing in my head. Many thanks. But apparently I’m not alone in the stresses of recent fatherhood. Bob Parr- Mr. Incredible- gets me. It has been fourteen years since the original “Incredibles” graced the screen. I was reminded how long it had been by Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Brad Bird, and Samuel L. Jackson at the beginning of the sequel, “The Incredibles 2,” which opened in theaters June 15. When the first movie came out in 2004, I was in college, a junior at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. That era was the new dawn of the superhero film. My dorm room was adorned with a 2001 promotional promotional poster for the first “Spider-Man” movie, which was released in 2002. In that poster, the Twin Towers reflected off Spider-Man’s eyes, which seemed somehow patriotic to me at the time. Those posters, by-the-bye, were quickly pulled from theater after 9/11, but somehow became secret collectors’ items. I was the guy who actually owned one of the pre-9/11 “Spider-Man” posters. I was the real deal. In those years, we didn’t have anything like Marvel fatigue yet. I was the guy who was watching the 2003 Ben Affleck-led “Daredevil” on repeat, hoping a director’s cut would leak its way to my original XBox-modified DVD player. I was the holdover fan of Ang Lee’s “Hulk” movie. 2003’s “X2” was the gold standard of superhero films at that time, and I knew it wouldn’t get any better than that. What I’m trying to say is that it was a different time. The idea of a mainstream superhero satire was something that blew everybody’s minds, and it came out of Disney Animation. The original “Incredibles” movie was political. It questioned the need for heroes. Considering that those early superhero offerings were mostly origin stories- with the exception of “X2”- “The Incredibles” took what was fundamentally the Fantastic Four and outperformed the very topic it was satirizing. It was amazing. “The Incredibles” had a bombastic score by Michael Giacchino and a color scheme that just screamed retro pastiche. It was fun. But more important, it was smart. It was a love letter to comic books and fantasy, but it didn’t mind poking a few holes in the fanboy fabric. And I didn’t know anyone who didn’t like it. I remember that, like most really cool college guys, I’d let my Windows Media Player cycle through my music when I was in the dorm. Not much got attention with the exception of “The Incredibles” soundtrack. Nerds across campus would pop their heads in and say, “Is this ‘The Incredibles?’” I would slyly nod my head, go back to reading whatever dorky comic book I was reading instead of studying and this would repeat on a cycle. That story may say more about certain demographics at Franciscan University than anything else, but that is besides the point. “The Incredibles” was a phenomenon. But my life is different now. To get to go see this movie, it took a little movement of heaven and earth. It also didn’t hurt that this movie was released on Father’s Day weekend. I love having a new baby at home. My new daughter is hilarious and weird already, but a newborn is taking its toll. Since my wife’s third trimester, I feel like my life has been put on overdrive. Occasionally, I just need to take a breather, but that breather rarely arrives. My wife is a saint. She holds the baby so much. Penelope, our newest, and our third, is obsessed with being held. The blessing is that she is completely consolable through most of her issues. The downside is that you have to hold her the entire time. I always have to remind myself that I get the chance to be a better dad with each kid. Like the Parrs, the protagonists of “The Incredibles” series, I have a lovely wife, an older daughter, a blonde son, and a baby. Things would be difficult with just a Penelope/Jack-Jack. But there are times when I feel like I’m Bob Parr, patriarch of the Incredibles clan, and like I’m not addressing my family’s other needs. Young “Dash” wanted a hot dog, but I cut it the wrong way. I should have noted that it needed to be cut differently this time from every other time. “Violet” is a good kid, but she loves to push buttons. Oh, and she never listens until I get mad. “Helen” is going back to work in two weeks and leaving me alone with all three fledgling superheroes. Believe me, I get Bob Parr. And that’s what has changed with “The Incredibles.” While “The Incredibles” has always been about family dynamics, fans of the original film now have young families of their own. Fourteen years later, we stop relating to Dash and Violet. We relate to Bob and Helen. “The Incredibles 2”, it turns out, is about a dad who knows that he could be a Herculean father, if only he could only catch a break for two seconds. Parents understand that feeling. During the movie, I looked over at my wife in the darkened theater- she was holding our little “Jack-Jack, meaning that, once again, she had to provide something I couldn’t. A teacher, like me, has summers off. A doctor, like her, does not. I don’t have that “Spider-Man” poster anymore. I now worry about the day that my daughter will bring home the math textbook that I won’t understand. I worry about potential medical issues with my newborn and wonder how I’ll be able to get through the tough times with my kids. I sometimes wish that any kind of health thing my kids experience lead to a diagnosis of “laser eyes”, but poe-tay-toe / poh-tah-toe. I have to believe that “Incredibles 2” director Brad Bird gets that feeling. He wrote and directed this story fourteen years after the original, to say that family life is tough, but absolutely worth it. My kids throw on the original “Incredibles” movie pretty often. It’s not on as much as “The Peanuts Movie” or “The Lego Movie”, but I do know pretty much every line and music cue by this point. I’m glad that my kids watch this Disney action movie. They love it and it is significantly less annoying than some of the things that could be playing in the house. My cards on the table? I tend to avoid saying the words “Paw” and “Patrol” together within a five minute span in case it reminds my son that he could be watching a show that shall not be named. The first “Incredibles” movie is great and it is heartwarming. “Incredibles 2” shows that Brad Bird and his team have not forgotten what it really means to tell a story about putting family first, showing all elements of the struggle. This movie is really great at conveying those realities of family life. Considering that it is often hard to talk about the stresses of new parenthood without sounding like a constant whiner, this felt like unloading with a friend. But fundamentally, is it a good movie? I always hate to gush about a movie immediately after I’ve seen it. It comes off as cheap and kind of tacky. Still, I’d go as far as to say that “The Incredibles 2” is a great film. My kids were constantly entertained. My son, who is terrified of everything, was riveted the entire time. The main villain is a little creepy. My son sat in my lap for the “bad guy” parts. But the movie doesn’t forget that while it is satirizing superhero films, it has to be a superhero film in its own right. Brad Bird creates some awesome action set-pieces, and balances bombastic moments with touching scenes and great comedy. I know I’m not the only one who find the Pixar guys hilarious when they are firing on all cylinders. “Incredibles 2” is extremely funny. Not surprising, it is in baby Jack-Jack’s scenes that light chuckles from the audience become belly laughs. It’s a sign of his brilliance that Bird manages to paint real and human moments amidst the fantastic situations in which the Incredibles find themselves. I appreciate the comedic nods to superheroes past, but the most memorable laughs come little things, like Violet’s awkwardness around her crush. I laugh because as bizarre as the world of “The Incredibles” is, it is also the most grounded of the Pixar films. Honestly, “The Incredibles 2” might outshine the first film. A warning, though: my wife did comment that a lot of the sequel reminded her of the themes and motifs from the first film. I can’t deny that. If “The Incredibles 2” has a weakness, it is that it treads a lot of the ground that the first film covered. Regardless, I believe that “Incredibles 2” falls on the right side of nostalgia and tends to take the first film’s themes to a deeper level. While I would have appreciated a completely new message in the second film, Bird did a solid job embracing the issues of the first movie without becoming repetitive or derivative.   Remember, “Incredibles” fans, Bob Parr gets it. He’s a dad, first and foremost. He loves his kids and his wife and there is never a moment when that love is in question. But he’s also a person who sometimes just needs a break. It’s not that he can bench-press a car that makes him a superhero. It’s that he keeps trying to help his family, even when they’re too busy to notice. Bob Parr, thanks for a Father’s Day story that was a great reminder of what it means to be a dad.      

The way of love in a beautiful forest

Apr 20, 2018 / 00:00 am

About two hours ago, after 33 days of preparation, my wife and I completed a consecration to Divine Mercy.   We read “33 Days to Merciful Love:  A Do-It-Yourself Retreat in Preparation for Consecration to Divine Mercy” by Fr. Michael Gaitley.  As part of this retreat, we read about St. Therese and her Little Way.  The long and short, for those not in the know about Therese, is that she often focused on her “littleness.”  She wrote about how much she lacked the ability to do great things for Christ because her life just seemed so small at times.  Those around her challenged her, and built her into the saint we know and love today.  But she had a simultaneous joy and frustration with her desire to love Christ with her whole soul.  The story of Jean Vanier in “Summer in the Forest” kind of reminds me of the love that Therese had.  It is the story of a man who demonstrates his sainthood through the simple act of loving absolutely. “Summer in the Forest” is a quiet documentary.  It isn’t bombastic. It doesn’t really follow a traditional narrative. Rather, it is a look at L’Arche from the view of its founder, Jean Vanier, a Canadian ex-naval officer.  It isn’t the story of him prepping a massive expansion.  It isn’t the story of his retirement party.  It is just his life involved with L’Arche, an organization focused on providing care to the mentally handicapped.  As such, the movie leans heavily into an understanding that empathy is the greatest trait that a person can have in this line of work and it asks its viewers to develop a healthy dose of that empathy as well.   Without a traditional narrative, the story is simply about existence and the joys a new day can bring. Part of me absolutely loves this. “Summer in the Forest” isn’t the first documentary to take this approach to filmmaking. I think of Cinema Verite documentaries, like the works of the brothers Maysles. Those movies are absolutely fabulous, but don’t have a formal structure when it comes to storytelling. But the Maysles don’t really ask for much in terms of changing hearts. When I look at Big Edie and Little Edie in “Gray Gardens”, it is simply a look into a world that is not my own. “Summer in the Forest” presents a different life than mine, but it asks me to move my perspective and to change my heart in the process. “Summer” lets me know that there are people out there doing amazing work and receiving so much joy from it in the process. I find so fascinating the way technology has changed how we tell our stories. As we watched, my wife kept commenting on how she wants to go visit Trosty-Breuil, because it looks completely stunning all of the time. Director Randall Wright made every shot sing with his use of drone technology and high-def cameras. This seems like it is a small thing, but one of the central themes in the film is that the marginalized of society have been hidden away in dark places until recent history. The residents of Le Val Fleuri are part of a gorgeous landscape.  Those amazing high-def shots give the impression that these people are living in a paradise in France. It speaks the story. That’s the point. (Of course, my wife, being an amazing woman and a better person than I am, also would be moved to help in any way that she could.) There is definitely a budget for this movie, and it is used wisely. It is used on an understated score and plane tickets. It’s used in the editing that made a tight hour-and-forty-seven-minute movie. It is in making a polished film that lets the audience simply exist in nature with these people and gives them the opportunity to get to know them in a haven that they call home. There are a few missteps along the way, but these rarely detract from the film as a whole. There is a shift in location very late in the movie that isn’t explained at all.  It is fascinating, and the shift needed to be part of the film, but there needed to be a little explanation beforehand that wasn’t really provided.   Similarly, Wright chose to give the perspective of a whole community rather than focusing on a select few individuals and their stories. Each person we meet seems to have a wealth of story behind them. David, my favorite resident, only gets a few fun moments, but I really didn’t get to know much about him otherwise. The movie consistently flashes to Patrick, but little is revealed about his personal life. The movie also focuses on an engagement between two of the residents; it is heartwarming, but I also can’t say that I know much of their relationship outside of the fact that it exists.  In the end, these choices are not the worst that the director could have made, all-in-all because it left me wanting to know more about them. But there were times that I was left less than fulfilled. I kept thinking of Therese’s Little Way while watching this. Vanier is a saint who doesn’t see himself as a saint. Rather, he does what he does out of love. No one seems to be pushing him. He doesn’t see what he does as a burden. But the reason that we see him as a holy man is because every choice he makes in his community is one based on the love. His narration throughout the film gives us insight into his great thoughts about humanity, but ultimately what sells this movie is the look on this old man’s face when he sees the people he views as friends throughout the movie. There were so many moments where I also compared him to St. Teresa of Calcutta. While her actions that were publicized were phenomenal, and it is impressive that she maintained a ministry so late in life, the really impressive element comes from knowing that both St. Theresa and Jean Vanier committed to hard ministry for most of their lives. Vanier looks like someone should get him a chair to sit down, but he speaks like a man in his thirties or forties.  He never thinks about himself, or pats himself on the back, but people light up when he hobbles into a room. There is something fundamentally wonderful about this guy. I kind of love him. “Summer in the Forest” isn’t the perfect documentary, but it is inspiring. The filmmakers found a part of the world that is functioning the way it is supposed to, and allowed us to peek into this world. Perhaps the movie gives the viewer an idealized version of the daily lives of the residents, but that’s what the story is about. I’m sure that there are bad days, but life is sometimes just about the good days and what joy we can bring into the world.    

Looking to my neighbor: A classroom reading of ‘March’

Apr 4, 2018 / 00:00 am

I never meant to be so political. At the beginning of the school year, I found myself bored with the same old curriculum in my English class. I wanted to change one of my books. I love the books I teach, but I also know that I tend toward works I refer to as “bummer plays.” I’m talking about teaching “A Doll’s House,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,” “Death of a Salesman,” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” I hear that good teachers tend to change things up. Also, I’ve really been itching to teach a graphic novel.   In September, I decided to order a set of John Lewis’s autobiographical graphic novel, “March.” When would I teach it?  I certainly knew that I couldn’t do it in February. With Black History Month, I knew that it would be an uphill battle trying to get the Cincinnati Library to get 40-some copies of a fairly recent graphic novel dealing with the civil rights movement. Being the cleverest person I know, I thought that I would teach “March” in the month of March. That gave me a chuckle. Little did I know that I would start teaching a graphic novel about protest rights in the same week as the national school walk out. But it was perfect. Lewis’ three-book set focuses on three major battles in the civil rights movement: the lunch-counter sit-ins of 1959 and 1960, the 1961 freedom rides in the southern states, and the 1965 march on Selma. Lewis was thrust into a leadership role, championing the nonviolent protests while being abused at every turn. The books are heartbreaking and the visuals are often devastating. And they mostly did their job.   When I assigned Book One, one of my students, a girl who had never read a graphic novel, read the entire first book that night. She couldn’t put it down and asked to read ahead for Books Two and Three. Delighted, I handed them to her and she beamed.   The conversations in my class took off. I had to move around lesson plans for the entire month, knowing that we would be discussing the power of the individual to make nonviolent change at all levels. Students talked about their fears and connected the works to their lives in ways that I haven’t seen in the past.   We read some good stuff in class. I’ve had great discussions with other books with these kids. This was on another level. They wanted to be heard and this set gave them the license to do so. They saw the tale of a little boy who thought he would grow up to lead his church congregation and saw that he was needed in another capacity. In him, they saw themselves. Except for one boy.   One boy in my class was painfully quiet. It isn’t unusual. In most classes, there are students who tend to lead and those who want to avoid being noticed. This boy used to contribute.  When I wanted to focus more on short stories in the class, he recommended that we read more novel instead. I always got the vibe that he was thinking of a future AP Literature class and he wanted to have a leg up on the content. I partially picked “March” because of him. But he just sat there quietly. I am going to retract that statement. He sat there quietly and looked mad.  He looked really mad. The next day, I found out from more than a handful of other students that he was really upset. “I shouldn’t have to read this propaganda.” To him, this was all about Black Lives Matter and he wanted nothing to do with it. He hated the book and he hated me for bringing this into his world. It’s not unusual that students detest the books I assign. I think that a book that gets assigned tends to have two strikes against it from the outset.   I encourage students who don’t like the book assigned to share why they don’t like it. I actually get joy out of that, in a weird way. I remember, when I was their age, I hated “The Scarlet Letter.” Now I teach it. If they have an opinion on the book, it means there is a degree of investment going on, that critical thinking skills are being utilized.   But this was a different case. This boy thought I was indoctrinating my classroom with an agenda. And in a weird way, I suppose I was. I wanted my students to recognize evil in the world, both yesterday and today. I want to be a teacher who picks books that challenge students spiritually. But I also assumed that, as a country, we had learned that the civil rights movement was one of America’s greatest victories. I never thought that I would see a student grow angry because I had empathy for my fellow man. If you want to get me depressed, make me question humanity. I have seen a push from Catholics and Christians to be political first and faithful second. The other day, I saw a friend of mine from college ask on Facebook if anyone had seen “Coco.” She wanted to watch the movie with her kids and thought it would be best to get the Catholic perspective on the movie. I advised her that I had seen the movie with my six-year-old and my three-year-old. The movie was a little scary and I had to talk to my daughter about its theology of the afterlife. But otherwise, I thought it was fine. One of her other friends, Susan, a stranger to me, contradicted me, talking about the nature of social sins and she seemed to be getting quite upset. Then a friend of mine, David, posted some articles from the USCCB about the nature of art and experiencing things that might bring about discussion. Susan didn’t like what David wrote. According to Susan, David was clearly being tricked by the “liberal bishops.”   When did this happen? When did citing the pope or the bishops become an indicator of false Catholicism? I know that we have to always be developing our consciences, but it seems like politics has become the new religion. I get it.  The two are fundamentally tied. Politics is a means of enforcing and expressing morality, but I’m disturbed that I have a student who hates a book about the civil rights movement, and that Facebook fosters debate about the political allegiances of our Church leaders during conversations about a Disney movie. I thought we were better than this. But I can’t stop looking at that quiet boy in the front row and the cold stares that he gives me.   When I’m talking about the fact that John Lewis went from preaching sermons to his chickens to getting beaten half to death on the bridge in Selma, I am also thinking that this boy, who goes to a Catholic institution, has been failed morally. I admit that John Lewis is a politician. I know that the book looks at the inauguration of President Barack Obama with a sense of “look how far we’ve come,” which is a perspective I don’t fully share. But I also want my students to leave my classroom better people than they came in. This boy enters my room angry and he leaves it with hate. What can I do about it? I began writing this column with the goal of talking about goofy stuff that no longer interests my wife.  I was going to tie into my faith when I could. It is meant to be a light distraction from all of the other misery that we deal with on a day-to-day basis. But I think that we, as Catholics, need to learn to not hide from art.   Art is meant to inspire and challenge us. It is meant to bring our weaknesses to the surface. If art asks me to do something wrong in the name of good, I need to be able to challenge that art right back. I need to separate right from wrong and good from evil. But to hide from art seems like a dangerous precedent to set. If something isn’t going to bring you closer to Christ, don’t read or watch it. But if it is going to be difficult to get through because it is pointing out a fault in your reasoning, it’s time to grow a little.   There is always a fine line. My friend is smart to ask if something is good for her kids to watch. If you can’t find an objective voice to help answer that question, watch it yourself and be ready to say, “It’s not worth it.” But if you find yourself hating someone else because of something you saw, maybe something inside you needs fixing. Talk to your priest. Head to confession. I know that some people who read this might agree with the boy in the front row. They might see the boy as challenging the text. But we are never called to hate. We are called to challenge. I want this boy to speak about his concerns in class tomorrow. He won’t, but I’m going to do my best to change that, without embarrassing him. Between that and prayer, I know that Christ redeems and can change hearts. That’s all I can really ask for him. And believe me, I will be asking.  

Things That I Have to Watch with My Kids: “Paddington 2”

Jan 29, 2018 / 00:00 am

I always want to go to the movies. There was a time in my life when I would just go to the movie theater and buy a ticket for whatever was playing next. I loved this. There is something really special about going to the movies that I’m never going to get tired of. As such, I really wanted to go to the movies last week. There are too many movies that I want to see. But I have two kids and another one on the way. Without a babysitter, that often means that I’m going to watch whatever kids’ movie is in the theater right now.  This time I lucked out. This time, I got to see “Paddington 2.” If you haven’t seen the first “Paddington” movie, I feel sorry for your heart. It clearly isn’t functioning on the level it should. The first “Paddington” movie is one of only two movies that I get secretly jazzed to watch on family movie night. Sure, I hem and haw. I say things like, “We just watched that one.” But I not-so-secretly love Paddington. He is a genuinely charming bear. When I heard that “Paddington 2” was coming out in theaters, I got really excited. When Warner Brothers and Studio Canal released the first trailer, I dropped what I was doing and messaged my wife in all caps. I choose not to replicate the text here, but I guarantee that it was all caps and maybe a few emojis. I never use emojis. I tend not to hate kids’ movies, but many of them lack any sort of rewatchability. Many of the movies that my kids watch tend to be low brow and crass. Think of the “Teen Titans Go to the Movies” trailer: that’s what my kids like. It is frenetic and involves a lot of fart jokes. I tend to laugh at fart jokes, so I don’t mind watching a fart joke movie once in a while. But how much can one guy take? Sometimes, I just need a movie with a little substance. That’s what “Paddington 2” offered.   I’m gushing about a movie that stars a bear in a hat eating marmalade sandwiches, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. There’s something in the movie that inspires me to be a better person. Paddington’s gift, besides being wildly adorable and British / Peruvian, is that he cares about everyone in his neighborhood. Paddington cares about friends and strangers alike. He places the needs of others before himself.   The central plot of “Paddington 2’ involves a bear’s quest to buy a pop-up book. This is not because he wants that pop-up book for himself. He wants to buy it for his aunt. Paddington is never selfish. He is driven to bring love to the world around him. It is only when Paddington is gone that people notice how much joy the little bear has brought to the neighborhood.   This seems like a pretty basic idea, but I want my kids to see it. My son has a hard time sharing, but he understood that giving someone a marmalade sandwich makes him or her happy. Paddington treats everyone alike, regardless of how they treat him.   Mr. Curry, played by Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi, always dislikes having a bear in the neighborhood. I suppose the story needs a Grinch, and Peter Capaldi plays grumpy very well. But Paddington is never aggressive to Mr. Curry. Paddington meets prisoners and asks them what they enjoy doing.  I would say that Paddington visits the imprisoned, like a work of mercy, but I don’t think it counts since he, too, is in prison. But he never sees himself above those people around him. He respects them for the small things they bring to their world.  I love this so much. Yes, “Paddington 2” is remarkably funny. My wife was probably wildly embarrassed by my regular and boisterous guffaws in the theater. But I also laughed at how happy Paddington made me feel. Paddington made the people of Windsor Gardens smile and become the best versions of themselves. I left that movie theater wanting to be the best version of myself too.  Kids’ movies are meant to keep my children entertained for two hours, or at least 89 minutes. But I want my kids to find genuine life lessons, and I know that the Paddington franchise offers them.   I’ll continue to drag my feet publicly when my kids ask to watch these movies for the umpteenth time.  But the truth is, I love Paddington, and I’m glad my kids like him too.