Thursday, November 13, 2014

The True Meaning of All Hallow’s Eve

Three Compatriots in The Book of Life 
“The True Meaning of All Hallow’s Eve”
A Review of The Book of Life by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG

USCCB Rating, A-II
Reel Rating, Four Reels
            At the beginning of Extrodinary Synod two weeks ago, 20th Century Fox released Gone Girl, a disturbing tale of murder, intrigue, and cable news punditry – all centered around the idea that marriage is inherently destructive. At the Synod’s close, this same studio has honored the beautification of Pope Paul VI with the polar opposite – a moving love story that demonstrates the importance of family and the communion of saints – whether living or dead. The Book of Life is marvel to behold – a total experience that saturates the viewer with sharp writing, amazing voice performances, beautiful songs, and some of the most stunning cinematography of the year. Although its strange spiritual elements may make it not entirely child friendly, it is the perfect date movie. Just don’t forget the horchata.
            The tale begins in classic fashion – two dashing young friends in love with the same woman. Manolo (Diego Luna) is a sensitive bullfighter who wants to be a musician while Joaquín (Channing Tatum in perhaps his best role) is a swashbuckling soldier who roams the countryside driving out bandits. Maria (Zoe Saldaña) loves them both but is not particularly interested in settling down. The two gods of the afterlife Le Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Pearlman) wake a wager to see which one with marry her and enact various schemes to support their candidate. Suddenly, things go sour when one of the gods cheats on the deal, causing one character to make an Orphean descent into the Underworld to make things right.
            The most spectacular element of The Book of Life is the creation of a Universe that is both fantastical but consistent. This is a film that celebrates the totality of Mexican culture from the music (Mariachi) to the colors (vibrant) to little details like Xibalba’s eyes, which are tiny skulls. There are multiple love stories and plot lines that weave seamlessly in and out of the narrative, supported by the atmosphere of the film. When a man plucks petals while thinking of his loved one, they fall as little hearts. When the antagonist appears, he is literally larger than life. As a visual experience, it’s the most compelling film since Life of Pi that is well worth the extra 3D price.
            The love discussed in The Book of Life is true love, a love that is always seen in the context of marriage. It’s so refreshing to see a children’s film where romance is based on sacrifice and hardship rather than simply affection. In order to win Maria’s hand both Manolo and Joaquín will need to set aside childish notions and become better people, doing what is right even above their personal feelings for Maria. This love also includes one’s family members and not just the living. It all starts in a cemetery on All Souls Day, celebrated in Mexico as “the Day of the Dead,” where Manolo’s father explains the importance of remembering one’s ancestors. Indeed, the most touching moments involve not Maria but the reunion of several people with their dearly departed. This is the true meaning of Halloween, praying for dead and rejoicing in the hope of the resurrection.
The only troubling aspect is some pretty strong syncretism, accurately reflecting challenges present in Hispanic Catholicism. While two pagan deities play central roles, there is also a theistic God-like character called the Candle Maker (voiced by Ice Cube of all people) who keeps everyone’s story in the Book of Life and serves as a mediator between worlds. While there is no serious discussion of Christianity, there is plenty of Catholic imagery including a priest and several nuns, although Our Lady of Guadeloupe is sadly relegated to a single background shot. All this is mixed together with some of the director’s own ideas to create a fun if bizarre cosmology. This kind of pagan imagery can be problematic if handled poorly, yet it is clearly a fantastical story about values rather than promoting ideas about the nature of God and Heaven. That being said, parents need to assess the spiritual maturity of their own children before allowing them to see it. This is especially important for Latin American families as Le Muerte is obviously influenced by the cult of the invented pagan deity Santa Muerte used by the drug cartel, whose “veneration” the Church in Mexico has been fighting against for decades.

The Book of Life is a sweet, funny, and pleasant movie that provides a good alternative to the usual Halloween gore while celebrating one of world’s greatest Catholic cultures. It teaches the eternal truth that death does not end existence but is merely a stepping stone to a much greater adventure. While not perfect in its theology, if taken with a discerning mind, this tale should lead one closer to the real Book of Life and the place where the communion of saints and God Himself awaits. And “all you can eat churros.”

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on October 29th, 2014.

Fincher's Nightmare

Ben Affleck in Gone Girl
“Fincher’s Nightmare”
A Review of Gone Girl by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, R

USCCB Rating, O
Reel Rating, One Reel

            As I exited the theater after seeing David Fincher’s latest venture Gone Girl, a cheerful usher asked a dazed patron if she liked it. “I need a drink,” she flatly responded, perfectly summarizing the experience. The film is a dark and disturbing narrative about a bored Missourian housewife who goes missing and the insane fallout as her husband tries to find her. This scenario, however, only describes the first hour of a nearly 150 minute runtime as the plot descends into an array of twists and turns, upsetting previous assumptions and leaving the viewer unsure of even the most basic facts of the Universe. Like Fincher’s previous work, it is an amazing piece of craftsmanship with stellar directing, acting, writing, cinematography, music, and blood splatter effects. It is also incredibly grotesque, painful, and devoid of any catharsis needed to soften the blow.
            One morning in July, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) goes to a local bar he owns with his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon) simply entitled “The Bar” (great name) to contemplate his life and upcoming fifth anniversary. He returns home to find his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) missing; the only clues are a broken glass table and a few small blood stains in the kitchen. He calls the police who quickly organize a hotline and press conference. Yet Amy is no ordinary woman. She’s white, blond, attractive, well educated, and her childhood was used – possibly exploited – for a famous fictionalized book series Amazing Amy, written by her parents. Her disappearance quickly spirals into a media frenzy with news pundit Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle) convinced Nick is the culprit and twenty-something groupies commenting on “how hot he is.” Slowly and suspensefully, new facts and characters are uncovered. Pretty soon, it becomes clear both Nick and Amy are hiding a myriad of secrets, but is one of them really murder?
            On the surface, Gone Girl is a strong critique of amateur media investigations and the severe consequences of presumption. Gossip is one of today’s most prevalent sins brought on by the simple need to fill air time. There is simply not enough news to support a 24 hour cable news network (much less several). Thus, they must invent news through commentary and speculation. Pundits often make wild and unfounded presuppositions that can radically alter public perception of issues that are really no one’s business in the first place. Worst of all, it frustrates the judicial process and can compromise police investigations. At first, Nick feels powerless to do anything. Yet under the guidance of superstar attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry), he begins to manipulate and use the media for his own agenda. They are only too happy to oblige because any press is good press.
            Internally, Gone Girl examines the modern marriage through the relationship between Nick and Amy. They originally fell in love at a party where he performs an elaborate setup to seduce her. Amy’s whole life has been a charade, pretending to be the real “Amazing Amy,” and she finds Nick’s strong but shadowy personality incredibly attractive and reciprocal. Yet once married, they are totally incapable of living a normal existence. She only wants to climb the social ladder as the perfect couple, while he is actually interested in settling down and starting a family. Their only real connection is elaborate sexual fantasies like trying to make love (lust?) quietly in a bookstore. She is a greedy monster pretending to be a nice, submissive wife while he is just an ordinary, fun Joe pretending to be a jerk. The tipping point comes when Nick’s mother gets sick, moving them from bustling New York to boring, backwater Missouri. Nick certainly is capable of murdering his wife, the only obstacle to a happy suburban life. Yet, Amy is equally despicable, maybe more so, in getting what she wants In a rare moment of clarity, Nick questions their lifestyle. “Why do we do this? All we do is cause each other pain!” he yells. “This is marriage,” replies without a hint of sarcasm. Both of them entered the relationship because they liked other and it fulfilled an outside need. Such marriages will always fail because, in the words of Fr. Barron, “they will always descend into egotism.” Love means wanting the good for someone else, not you.
            There is a troubling misanthropic thread that runs throughout all of Fincher’s films from Se7en to Fight Club to The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. His fictional world is full of awful people doing awful things to other awful people. No one is spared. Even when the villains are caught or exposed, they are rarely remorseful. Real life isn’t like this. Most people live perfectly normal, happy lives without stealing, murdering, or committing adultery. Yes, people sin, but not in the way Fincher images they do. Truth can be eclipsed, but not for long, and many of the wayward will seek repentance.

            Gone Girl is probably the worst possible movie to celebrate the opening of the Synod on the Family this weekend. The only silver lining to such an experience is the revelation of society’s true feelings regarding marriage: an impossible union that will only lead to the destruction of everyone involved. Any viewer will need a cold movie shower after, probably along the lines of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. I recommend the episode where Rarity and Applejack learn to get along despite their differences. 

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on October 23rd, 2014.

Friday, October 31, 2014

American Millennial

Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood
“American Millennial”
A Review of Boyhood by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, R
USCCB Rating, L
Reel Rating, Three Reels

            Boyhood is a bold experiment in the medium of film, shot in 39 days but over 12 years allowing the young boy protagonist Mason (Ellar Coltrane) to age naturally along with his mother, father, sister, and everyone else. The effect is truly wonderful, creating an unprecedented sense of realism. Director Richard Linklater wanders in and out of Mason’s life at an unhurried pace for nearly three hours allowing the audience to see the hallmark moments of an entire childhood. Mason becomes an adult but is really a man?
            This story is not only about Mason but 21st century America in its infancy, hitting important cultural landmarks like Forrest Gump without the chocolates. There’s Saturday morning cartoons, Halo, war in Iraq, and Mason’s father instructing him to steal McCain-Palin signs from unsuspecting conservative lawns. The boy passively observes these events as a stand-in for the audience, rarely engaging the world in any meaningful way or even speaking full sentences until the latter part of the film. He is spitting image of the Millennial generation, a child of divorced parents living with his single mother and one opposite-sex sibling. His mom complains about money problems but always seems to have a nice houses full of needless knick-knacks. Right from the first scene, Mason is introduced to things beyond his maturity level. His eight year older sister (Lorelei Linklater) wakes him up by dancing suggestively to “Oops I did it Again.” He contemplates a dead bird, moves around constantly, is bullied in school, discovers pornography, and sits through an extremely awkward conversation about contraception with his sister. His only relaxing moments come from bi-weekly visits with his real father Mason Sr. (Linklater regular Ethan Hawke). They go on camping trips, frequent music venues, and talk about life. “What kind of man do you want to be?” his father asks. Mason isn’t sure, and, while he gets plenty of advice, life doesn’t seem to be giving him any answers.
            The primary reason Mason is so rudderless is the poor example of his parents. They are both basically good people who love their children yet are divorced because…well, they just don’t “fit.” Growing up primarily with his mother, he has to endure two alcoholic stepfathers, one of which is violently abusive. His mother is attracted to men who seem worldly and smart but gives little thought to their parenting skills, even cooperating with their poor actions. If Mason has no positive models, at least he has plenty of negative ones. Yet his own relationships unfortunately mirror these issues. Mason falls in love way too quickly and just as quickly breaks up when things get troublesome rather than working out problems.
            Early on, Mason shows an intense interest in fantasy, primarily through the Harry Potter series. Late one night, he asks his father if magic exists. “Well, I don’t know about magic, but what about the blue whale? What if I told you there was a giant sea creature that had a heart the size of a car? You would think that was magical,” he father grins. Mason isn’t convinced. “So there are no elves and stuff.” “No,” his father replies. “There are no elves.” This is about as close Boyhood comes to a genuine conversation about religion; the disappointment Mason feels resounds through his generation. As theologian Peter Kreeft observes, “we have traded the wine of the gospel for the water of psychobabble.” It’s difficult for Catholics to imagine a childhood devoid of religion, but this is reality for many kids. After several years, Mason Sr. marries a wonderful woman from the deep South. On his sixteenth birthday, Mason’s new stepgrandparents give him a red-letter Bible, a Sunday suit, and the family shotgun. Mason’s father and the director treat them respectfully but with typical leftist amusement. Despite this, they are the only normal and happy couple in the whole film, having found the meaning of life that eludes everyone else. The great tragedy of Boyhood will not be noticed by most – Mason has a religious vocation. In high school, he finds his passion in photography. He is deeply emphatic and sensitive, observing life with awe and admiration, and loves spiritual matters, wanting to find the deepest answers of life. Yet no one has given him a language or path to pursue this need. Hopefully, Mason will one day open that dusty Bible and find his true calling.
          Many times throughout the film, important questions are raised but few are ever really explored. Mason is a smart kid but not driven to really do anything. He finally concludes that life simply happens; a person just deals with it as best he can. But what do the events in a childhood mean? How do they shape him? Is he now the man he is meant to be? He isn’t sure and neither is the film. Despite the general murkiness, Boyhood is an incredibly compelling story told in an amazing manner. This is, after all, just one snippet in Mason’s life. His journey continues and maybe one day it will all make sense.  

 This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on October 2nd, 2014.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

See You at the Movies

Classicl Siskel and Ebert
“See You at the Movies”
A Review of Life Itself by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, R
USCCB Rating, NR
Reel Rating, 4 Reels

            Roger Ebert was the greatest film critic of all time, a man whose career “spanned half the history of motion pictures.” Yet while enduring a debilitating illness, he also became a wonderful reviewer of life itself, culminating in an autobiography from which this work derives its title. The film delivers a sound summary of Ebert’s journey from the blue collar son of an electrician to an alcoholic journalist to a master of the English word but excels at demonstrating his passion for film and the effect he had on the industry. It’s a very compelling documentary that is oddly absent of his thoughts on religion, especially his Catholic upbringing, yet nonetheless is essential viewing for any lover of movies.
            From the first scene, director Steve James makes his presence and purpose known to the audience. Roger Ebert even asks him to point the camera to a mirror so that we    know who is telling the story. This is fitting as James is one of countless filmmakers that owes Ebert much of their success; his documentary Hoop Dreams was named by Ebert as the best film of the 1990s. James begins in December of 2013 with Ebert stationed at a local hospital, suffering greatly from a fractured hip, but that is not the most dramatic medical element. In 2006, Ebert suffered a ruptured artery after a difficult operation to remove a tumor in his jaw, leaving him unable to speak, eat, or drink. This does not daunt his spirits as he continues to review movies and blog about all elements of life. His humor and courage harkens back to the final days of St. John Paul the Great who continued his ministry publicly despite a disease the progressively robbed him of all motor function. It is difficult to watch Ebert wince in wordless pain as fluid is drained from his trachea, but the scene encourages respect and dignity for the disabled, aged, and dying.
            Interspliced with his hospital visits and rehab sessions, James allows Ebert to narrate his life story. The only child of populist Michigan parents, Ebert began publishing his own newspaper while in his teens and was a natural writer, rising through the journalist ranks to become the Chicago Sun-Times’ film critic, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 at only thirty-three years old. After a brief and bizarre stint as a screenwriter for a series of sexploitation films – which his TV producer tries in vain to explain – he landed international fame as the rounder and earthier half of Siskel & Ebert with his frienemy from the Chicago Inquirer Gene Siskel. He continued to widen his cinematic insight with writing, teaching classes, attending festivals, and hobknobbing with the rich and famous at red carpet events. As the documentary progresses, Ebert grows weaker and weaker until a heartbreaking end that is sadly incongruent with the rest of his life.
            It’s very rare to see a man who finds his passion early, is extremely skilled in that area, and comes at the right time and circumstance to allow that passion to thrive unbounded. Emerson’s famous adage comes to mind: “pick a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” Yet Ebert not only loved film, he loved the people and led others in pursuing their passions. James interviews several filmmakers who got their start by simply asking Ebert to view their movies. Even the great Martin Scorsese, usually known for his gab and pleasant wit, briefly begins to break down as he recalls how Ebert brought him out of a deep depression in the early 80s, convincing him to continue make movies (including Raging Bull). Ebert’s TV show also brought his intellectual observations to the common moviegoer, igniting scores of amateur internet blogs like Ain’t It Cool News and Awards Daily. Ebert fully embraced this movement, posting all of his reviews online for free. Great artists aren’t afraid of competition because they know it will only advance the medium; love is meant to be shared.
            Despite his success, Ebert had a dark side and was only too willing to admit it. Nights during his twenties and thirties were frequently spent in bars with seedy women. Rare was the morning that did not start with a hangover; a friend remembers him even picking up a prostitute and leaving her with someone else to get her home. In 1979, he quit drinking, joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and started cultivating important friendships. In 1992, he married Chaz and became step-father to a large family. His final years saw an outpouring of affection and a deep need to help humanity. Ebert blogged not only about movies but also important issues of the day such as religion, politics, philosophy, and his decreasing health. A film critic has to be interested in all aspects of life as the art form deals with every subject under the sun and open to different expressions of humanity. It is this exposure to a wide range of ideas that Ebert saw as film’s greatest strength. He called it “an empathy generator,” where for two hours people experience what it’s like in someone else’s shoes.
            The greatest flaw with Life Itself is that it completely ignores Ebert’s intense interest in spiritual matters, especially regarding his Catholic upbringing. He would frequently mention his days in Catholic grade school and being an alter boy, even defending priests when the sexual abuse scandal broke in 2002. For someone who had an oddly intense attraction to sexually explicit films, Ebert had a very strong moral compass. He often gave poor reviews to films he felt violated these norms, calling Blue Velvet “disturbing” and Wolf Creek a “sadistic celebration.” He also blogged frequently about religious matters, telling his audience:

“I consider myself Catholic, lock, stock and barrel, with this technical loophole: I cannot believe in God. I refuse to call myself an atheist however, because that indicates too great a certainty about the unknowable.”

Most of this is missing, except for one very funny albeit mean comment about Siskel’s Protestantism. For an excellent survey of Ebert’s faith, I recommend Steven Graydanus’ moving obituary.
            If a film is measured by the empathy it shows, Life Itself is wonderful. James effectively captures one man’s life, honestly portraying the good, the bad, and the transcendent. Ebert’s greatest testament is living proof that if one should follow their passion to the fullest degree, amazing things will happen. Many who knew Ebert took this to heart and now carry on his legacy. I am one of them. While a struggling film student in 2006, I e-mailed Ebert asking about his Catholic faith and if he could recommend any good Catholic movies. To my great surprise, he responded about a month later. “Dear Nick,” he wrote. “I’m not a very good Catholic anymore, but I do recommend Dairy of a Country Priest. Sincerely, Roger.”

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on September 18th, 2014. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Way Too Close

Jeff Bridges teaching Brenton Thwaites in The Giver
“Way Too Close”
A Review of The Giver by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13
USCCB Rating, NR
Reel Rating, Three Reels       

            The Giver is a dark and disturbing tale that hits too close to home to be enjoyable but perhaps may be necessary to shock some out of their apathy. Some films focus too much on “ideas” rather than the story narrative; this is an idea movie on steroids that spends far too little on plot and character development while throwing out a huge number of themes without getting into too much depth. It’s a mile wide but an inch deep. While movies should touch on difficult topics, they should still be entertaining. The Giver is as entertaining as its grim color palate and a bit vague in its central message but still compelling.
            The story is adapted from the Louis Lowry classic that every middle schooler had to read in the mid 90s. It does a good job translating for the screen, keeping faithful to the original while updating subplots for a 21st century audience. The Giver serves up yet another YA dystopian fantasy where adolescents fight an oppressive, Orwellian society. It has the eugenics of Brave New World, the euthanasia and claustrophobia of Logan’s Run, the teenage angst of Divergent, and the emotional stagnation and medical brainwashing of Equilibrium. This future is called the Community, a closed world on a misty plateau that seems to only hold a few thousand people. It is a rigid society with strictly enforced rules including no emotions, sex, or lying. Babies are created in a lab and placed in stagnant families that really exist to keep children in line while the elderly and sick are taken to a place called “Elsewhere.” Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) and his friends Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) nervously awaited the Ceremony where they will be assigned a job for life. Jonas is given the unique role of Receiver of Memories, the only member of the society who has access to the distant past and advises the Council of Elders on important decisions. Jonas is trained by the Giver (Jeff Bridges) who telepathically shows Jonas positive memories, including music, love, happiness, childbirth, and *gasp* colors. However, Jonas is also shown fear, hate, war, and murder. The Giver explains that the Community had to set aside all love to remove all hate, all good to stop all evil. Jonas thinks this was a bad bargain.
            Rules are a funny thing. No one in the right mind would argue the abolition of morality or law. Yet there also exists deep within man a rebellious spirit, not just original sin, but breaking unjust boundaries. The Community enforces their rules by giving every citizen a potent injection that stifles their emotions and individual drive, but it is doomed to fail because human nature cannot be fought; only misdirected. Catholic teaching understands that social norms and artificial laws are useful but shouldn’t be deified. St. Paul explains that “everything is lawful but not everything is beneficial.” For Christians, life is not about rules but about a relationship. Good deeds flow from a love of neighbor, which is ultimately a love of Christ. If rules are followed simply as a Kantian imperative, there will crumble.
            For a film produced by the Weinsteins, starring Jeff Bridges and Meryl Steep, it’s remarkably pro-life, not just in terms of abortion but euthanasia, genetic testing, and a whole host of bioethical and political issues. Babies are constantly mentioned and seen throughout the film. Until newborns are proven healthy, they are not allowed into homes or even to be named. Jonas’ father (Alexander Skarsgård) breaks this rule by taking in Gabriel (played by four different infants), hoping he will catch up with the others. Later, Jonas witnesses his father committing an act of infanticide. Even as I write this, it’s hard to hold back tears of agony. Nothing in this scene is hidden; director Phillip Noyce keeps the camera on the poor nameless baby as she is injected, slowly dies, and thrown down a garbage chute. I’ve seen hundreds of R-rated films, but even The Boondock Saints and The Wolf of Wall Street had nothing as disturbing as this. “They told me they made a society free from murder,” Jonas remarks. “But they didn’t. They just called it something else.” That quote alone almost compelled me to give the film five reels. When Gabriel is scheduled to be taken to Elsewhere, Jonas rescues him and flees the Community. If he can’t save the whole world, at least he can save just one person.
            Another surprisingly counter-cultural feature is the importance of a nuclear family. Deprived of real parents, the State becomes the ultimate authority for everyone. Jonas’ mother (Katie Holmes) even spies on him and reports his unorthodox actions to the Chief Elder (Marilyn Streep). Jonas feels a special connection to Fiona, but until he receives the memories has no word for it: love. He convinces her to stop taking her injections and shares a private kiss. This stirs something unseen in her, and she agrees to help him escape. Together, they are able to give Gabriel a chance at life and become, in an odd way, his parents. The Giver argues that children deserve not only a mother and a father, but their real mother and father. Social and political roles are a mirror of the family, not the other way around.
            Why are there so many dystopian fantasies recently, and why have they all done reasonably well? Among many people, there is a prevailing sense of dread. Doomsday Preppers would not exist unless it struck a real nerve in the American public. Even odder, this is felt by both the political left and the right. From the Iraqi War to the HHS Mandate, from the Common Core to Citizens United, everyone feels they are on a precipice, moments away from destruction. The common factor is the violation of individual autonomy, and the solution is obvious. Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Unlike the baby-boomers who created this mess, millennials still hold to this dream, and these films affirm their expectations. Everyone has the right to seek the Truth and live free from coercion whether it’s sponsoring a same-sex wedding or NSA phone taps. The Giver is a dreary, thoroughly unpleasant experience, but I secretly hope it does well at the box office if only as a wakeup call to stop a future that’s not too far away.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on August 19th, 2014.


Sauce and Spice

Romantic and culinary love in Hundred Foot Journey
“Sauce and Spice”
A Review of The Hundred Foot Journey by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG
Reel Rating, 2 Michelin Stars = 4 Reels

            The Hundred Foot Journey is a simple film about good food, good people, and how to live a pleasant life with the cards that are dealt. It harkens back to the romantic comedies of the 30s and 40s, where humor came from misunderstandings and irony rather than a slew of cuss words and insults. Even enemies treated each other decently. While the film does explore moral issues, it treads lightly, not wanting to offend its customers’ pallet yet not afraid to allow its characters to make mistakes and deal with the consequences. Perhaps this cute little dessert is not for everyone, but it’s hard to deny its impeccable taste.
            Thousands of miles from the nearest Michelin star establishment, a family headed by a man only referred to as “Papa’ (Om Puri) runs a quaint little restaurant in rural Bombay. His son Hasan (Manish Dayal) cooks the food, mentored by his elegant and loving Mama. Suddenly, the family is attacked during a riot that burns down the building, killing Mama in the process. The family flees to France and tries to open a flamboyant eatery called Maison Mumbai with loud music and even louder spices. “People here do not eat Indian food,” one son complains. “They have never tried it,” Papa insists. One person who certainly will never try Papa’s food is Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), a widow who lives for classical French cuisine. She runs Le Saule Pleureur, a restaurant frequented by the Prime Minister. Only a hundred feet away and directly facing Mumbai, Pleureur does have a Michelin star and Mallory has been trying for thirty years to achieve another. What Pleureur does not have is Hasan, who cooks with love, passion, and intense curiosity. He strikes up a romance with Mallory’s souse chef Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), who introduces him to French techniques. While Romeo & Juliet carry on, Papa and Mallory try to outdo one another in crazy and often hilarious attempts to shut down the other’s business.
            Papa and Mallory represent a classic clash of culture, not full blown xenophobia (yet) but a subtle war of smirks, glances, and snide remarks. “What’s that noise over there,” one customer asks. “The death of good taste,” Mallory sneers. “Be careful,” the town’s mayor tells her. “You don’t want to be caught in sympathy with [racists].” “I would never be caught in sympathy with anyone,” she responds. Yet the bad feelings from both sides build to a boiling point when Mallory’s chef and his friends deface and attempt to burn down Mumbai. After firing him, Mallory and Papa realize their actions have helped this happen and start a hesitant friendship. Mallory even offers Hasan a position in her kitchen, which leads to a competition and estrangement between him and Marguerite. Hundred Foot isn’t preachy or overly sentimental, yet it effectively argues the importance of being open to new ideas, possibilities, and people. If a person never lets his guard down, how can anybody reach him? The French are known for their sauces, the Indians for their spices. Together, it’s a perfect marriage.
            Like Chef and Julie & Julia, it’s importance not to see this film on an empty stomach. It is filled with the most magnificent foods, all beautifully sown into the story by cinematographer Linus Sandgren. While Marguerite has the proper training, Hasan has the passion, which comes from his mother. Hasan is wise, meaning he properly understands not just the content of food but its purpose. Food is one of the great joys of life and a distinctly human feature. Cooking takes a purely physical need and turns it into an aesthetic experience that has spiritual qualities. This is the essence of the arts – to celebrate God’s creation by helping humans see His presence in the world.
            Ultimately, Hundred Foot is about family and that inescapable comfort people call “home.” Mallory and Papa are hurt by the past and missing their lost love ones; Papa still speaks to Mama who he believes helps guide his path. Hasan too experiences this pain. After becoming a famous chef, he goes to Paris to train in an extremely pretentious, high tech kitchen that would make even Gordon Ramsey blush. “Foods release enzymes that activate specific areas of the brain,” his boss tells Hasan. Um…what? Hasan rises in popularity and celebrity but feels depressed and uninspired. One night, he encounters another Indian working late alone, munching on his wife’s home cooking. Hasan tries only a few bites and bursts into tears. No food is as good as food cooked by your family. “Food is memories,” he contemplates. Indeed, eating is more than food – it is fellowship. This is why Jesus describes Heaven as a wedding banquet and why I still hold out hope that there will be bacon wrapped shrimp in the afterlife.

            The Hundred Foot Journey is like a very nice glass of local wine. No, it’s not a 50 year old French vintage that costs thousands of dollars, but it’s from home. It’s not the best picture of the year, but it doesn’t try to be. It wants only to give you a hug bear hug, comfortable and warm. Like Pleureur, that deserves at least two stars.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on August 12th, 2014.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Man and Ape in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
“Monkey See, Monkey Do”
A Review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13
Reel Rating, Four Reels      

            In the Genesis account of a new sentient race, 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes served as the Creation story, where non-human members of the family Hominadae (chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, and bonobos) gained consciousness. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is their fall from grace, when a conflict breaks their calm society and causes some to commit great acts of evil. Sin is the price of moral freedom, and it is a heavy one. The film is effective in this portrayal if a bit uneven and long; yet, the special effects, acting, and attention to detail – especially primate sign language – is spectacular. In the end, it is one’s choices, not DNA, which determine what makes a “man.”
            Dawn begins a decade after Rise when the Simian flu has wiped out most of humanity; the first sentient ape Caesar (Andy Serkis) now governs a community just outside San Francisco and has not seen a human for a long time. The apes live a peaceful existence hunting deer, building elaborate tree houses, and developing a rudimentary education system. Suddenly, they come into contact with a group of survivors searching for a hydroelectric dam in the hills. For years, they’ve been rewiring the electrical lines in the city in hopes of bringing the power grid back up. Caesar is hesitant but thinks helping them will bring a truce, preventing a bloody war. His advisor Koba (Toby Kebbell) believes all humans are evil and assistance will only make it easier for them to destroy the apes. The humans are just as restless. The colony’s leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) wants an immediate strike while scientist Malcolm (Jason Clarke) believes it’s immoral to kill them.
            The central issue is empathy, the ability to feel and understand another person. While Caesar did lead the ape uprising, he was raised by a kind primatologist and now rears two sons of his own. Koba was a lab monkey, the subject of countless experiments. “We will help the human work,” Caesar says. Koba grunts and points to the various scars on his body: “Human work.” On the other side, Malcolm and his wife work with Caesar, playing with his newborn son and healing his sick wife. Dreyfus can only think of the family he has lost. “We were attacked!” He screams. “They are animals!” He cannot, or will not, see that they too have family and were abused, tortured, and oppressed by humans.
            In the beginning, the apes lived in quasi-innocence. They do get angry, bored, and frustrated but work seamlessly together and never raise a hand to hurt one another. This changes as many apes begin to question Caesar’s leadership and factions spring up in the society. Suddenly, Koba commits a Cain-like offense, and all Hell breaks loose. Caesar realizes he now lives in a very different yet oddly familiar world that will require him to think outside his own species. “Caesar loves humans more than apes!” Koba accuses. “Koba does not care for apes,” Caesar asserts. “Koba cares for Koba.” This is an important revelation, that a human can act inhuman – an ape can act “inape.” Freedom allows a person to act against their nature, sometimes in terrifying ways.
            In this review, I have treated the apes as they are portrayed in the film – persons. They have a soul. In reality, apes, dolphins, and elephants, while very intelligent, do not posses a spirit. It is not moral to treat them as humans; they do not have rights. However, as part of God’s creation, it is immoral to treat them in a disrespectful and wasteful manner – especially abuse, which is a grave sin. Dawn is a work of science fiction and cannot be used to argue for or against certain aspects of animal welfare. This does not exclude the possibility of non-human persons. Indeed, the angels precede man. There is nothing in the deposit of faith that would limit God’s ability to create other material creatures that are rational beings; as technology penetrates into deeper and deeper space it is not so much a question of if, but when this will be discovered. To avoid again committing the genocides that occurred at the discovery of the New World, it would behoove Catholic theologians to prepare for this eventuality.

            As expected for a large budget action flick, Dawn ends with a final climatic battle, but, regardless of the winner, this will not end the war. Life for apes and humans will only become more and more difficult. At the same time, there are a precious few – man and beast alike – who find solace in what they share: the capacity for good. A sentient being does not choose consciousness but it can choose holiness or depravity. Koba believes that militancy is the answer, but such a society will always need an enemy. When it runs out of external forces, it will consume itself. Caesar and Malcolm understand that empathy is not simply righteous; it is the only way to survive.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on July 14th, 2014.