Wednesday, September 30, 2015

There is Fighting in the War Room

Karen Abercrombi does battle in her "war room"
“There is Fighting in the War Room”
A Review of War Room by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG
USCCB Rating, NA
Reel Rating, Four Reels

            Orson Welles once remarked that there were two things that could never convincingly be shown on the silver screen: sex and prayer. War Room proved him wrong on the latter. Not only does it convincingly demonstrate prayer but also forgiveness, temptation, conversion, and, most importantly, the cosmic struggle between God and the Devil that occurs in every home and every heart. This is the fifth outing by independent Christian filmmakers Alex and Steven Kendrick, and while it’s not a masterpiece, it is easily their best work and provides hope for even better things to come.
`           War Room hits the ground running, stating its theme immediately through exposition, that life is a heavenly battle greater than any physical one and must be fought with courage. Thus director Alex Kendrick sets his movie up not so as a traditional narrative but as a strategic road map for spiritual warfare with a nice story to keep the lessons moving. This is a risky decision but the characters and writing are so well developed that it never appears constructed. 
            This venture involves an upper-middle class family that is slowly unraveling. The mother Elizabeth Jordan (Priscilla Shirer) is a real estate agent with a knack for fancy clothes and smelly feet. Her husband Tony Jordan (T.C. Stallings) is a superstar salesman at a pharmaceutical company who loves going to the gym and flirting with secretaries. Neither seems to notice or care about their ten year old daughter Danielle (Alena Pitts), and they bicker constantly. By providence, Elizabeth takes on older widow Miss Clara (Karen Abercrombi) as a client, who quickly senses her predicament and suggests creating a “war room.” Based on the Jesus’ teaching on praying secret, the idea is to create a private space like a closet to pray. One can keep spiritual literature, post bible verses on the wall, and list special intentions. “Do your fighting in prayer,” Miss Clara instructs. “Your husband is not the enemy. Satan is the enemy.” Elizabeth takes her words to heart, and results soon follow…with unexpected challenges as well.
            An observant viewer will be pleasantly surprised at how Catholic this movie smells. The concept of a war room is a wonderful idea but Eastern Christians have kept prayer corners in their homes for millennia. Miss Clara also puts a huge emphasis on praying for others as a source of strength. This is not simply wishful thinking but affects the relationships of all those involved, like the communion of saints. There is even a scene where Elizabeth, alone in her living room, demands that by the power of Jesus Satan leave her family alone, then opens the door for him to go. Father Merrin would be proud. So would Pope Francis. These ideas come from a 21st century evangelical Protestantism that has somewhat left behind the tired, old anti-Catholic bigotry of America’s past and is more willing to see the wisdom and biblical basis of many Catholic practices.
            The best and most touching scenes occur after Elizabeth has committed to praying for her husband rather than pestering him. He goes through a dramatic conversion, and they both ask each other for forgiveness. However, he knows that salvation demands not only contrition but penance. Tony admits to his employer that he has been emblemizing drugs for his own profit, risking not only his job but jail time. Here’s the moment War Room rises above the usual primetime morning televangelism who preach that health care benefits as a reward for worship.  Conversion costs something. When a Christian takes up the mantle of warrior, he accepts that he will be injured in battle. The Jordan family loses much by the end of the film but what they gain as a family unit is so infinitely better, they do not seem to mind one bit. 
            Despite these gains, War Room still suffers from the standard faults of its kin. Some of the lazy is dialogue, several moments are really cheesy, and the climatic double-dutch jump rope competition was completely rigged. Yet these are these nitpicky rambling of a reviewer who is admittedly a little jaded. This film takes seriously the reality of spiritual warfare and has some pretty decent suggestions on how to fight it. As a young father currently toilet training his first son while his second is due within two months, I found it reassuring and helpful that someone had my back. What else matters?

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on September 8th, 2015.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Shaun the Shepherd

Shaun and friends
Shaun the Shepherd
A Review of Shaun the Sheep: The Movie by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG
USCCB Rating, A-II
Reel Rating,  Four Reels           

            My college chaplain Fr. Rafael Luevano was fond of telling his students that when Jesus refers to mankind as sheep, “it is not a compliment.” Sheep are pretty dumb: they get caught in brambles, are too slow to evade predators, and usually go wherever the sheep in front of them is going. The one exception may be Shaun, a lovable little guy with a knack for mischief. However, when he hatches a plan for a holiday with his pals, their master goes missing, leading to a series of misadventures. Unlike more edgy animation typical of Dreamworks, this little gem is quite gentle and charming, perfect for preschoolers with a little bit of harmless adult humor for their parents.
            Shaun (Justin Fletcher) was first introduced in the Academy Award winning series Wallace and Gromit and later starred in his own television series, but this is his first time getting the big screen treatment. He lives on a quaint little plot of land with some other animals under the watchful eye of the Farmer (John Sparkes), who runs a strict regimen with the help of his dog Bitzer (also John Sparkes). Shaun wants a little excitement for a change, so he hatches a plan to put the Farmer to sleep temporarily in a trailer so they can watch TV, eat pizza, and have a few cocktails. Their day off goes terribly awry when the Farmer’s trailer rolls away and gets lost in the Big City next door. Shaun and his gang of misfit ungulates must navigate this strange new world while evading the ever watchful eyes of Trumper, head of the local animal containment unit.
            Shaun’s biggest shtick is silence; there is no dialogue whatsoever. Like the great comedians before “talkies,” the film depends entirely on physical humor. This leads to some enormously funny sequences. The Farmer is an Arthur Dent-type: ordinary looks, ordinary demeanor, and perfectly content with an ordinary life. After waking up in the Big City with memory loss, he wanders into a salon and begins to cut everyone’s hair based on muscle memory. This sheepish hair style becomes a craze, turning him into an instant celebrity and the object of every meme. My favorite bit is when Shaun and Bitzer are sent to the pound after getting captured by Trumper. Inside, there’s a dog with the words “bark” and “bite” written on his knuckles, a cat in a cone that imitates Hannibal Lecter, and a harmonica playing goldfish behind bars though it’s already in a bowl. To top it off, there’s even a sheep that uses coconuts to create clopping noises.
            In the New Testament, Jesus is called “the good shepherd” on several occasions. The Farmer’s sheep think their life is dull and repressive, but once he’s gone everything on the farm goes downhill fast. In an interesting role reversal, it is sheep that then go looking for their master. In the real world, it is Christ who comes to us, but we too need to participate by accepting his help, for “all who seek find.” In the process of searching, Shaun realizes that he needs the Farmer beyond just the evolutionary instinct for food and shelter; there is a close affection between them. Understanding this impulse, Shaun also helps a street dog who needs a home.
            Perhaps the greatest compliment one can give a film is that it captures a little bit of Heaven, and Shaun’s family has it. The song “Feels Like Summer” is repeated frequently throughout the film, beautifully echoing this sentiment:

Once you were here, the worries disappeared,
it all became clear, nothing left to fear,
you have got my back, keepin' me on track,
like you always do

Time of our lives, such a sweet surprise,
together we survive, ever starry-eyed beyond any price,
pure as paradise, comin' into view

When the Farmer first meets Shaun in the Big City, he doesn’t recognize him; however, as soon as the song is heard, his memory comes back. The song is also used to calm down a lamb when it is homesick. Paradise isn’t a place but here with one’s friends on Earth and with one’s friends in Heaven.
            As much as I enjoyed this picture, I really can’t recommend seeing it in the theaters. It’s too intimate and would be much better as part of a home collection, where little ones could curl up on the couch with their parents – and maybe some Shaun the Sheep merchandise. It’s fun, it’s silly, and only wool is shed, never tears except for joy in finding a home such as this.

 This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on August 10th, 2015.

Amy and the Dirty Girl

Amy Schumer as Amy in Trainwreck
Amy and the Dirty Girl
A Review of Trainwreck by Nick Olszyk

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

            After moving their sick father to an assisted living center, sisters Amy (Amy Schumer) and Kim (Brie Larson) are rummaging through old materials as they prepare to sell their childhood home. They come across a picture of their mother, now long deceased. “Aww, look at her,” Kim muses. “She was totally fuckable,” Amy states bluntly. “I mean, look at those tits.” This little phrase illustrates Amy’s underlining psychosis, suffered by many Americans. Unable to respond to genuine human love, she responds with sexual innuendo. She spends her days writing for a pulp men’s magazine and nights running through a string of alcohol, weed, and one night stands. She is essentially a player, but because she is female, it comes off as sad and a little cute rather than creepy. Despite its rough start, Trainwreck finds itself affirming the necessity of healthy relationships that involve trust, conflict resolution, and even sacrificial love. Yet watching Amy make this transition so graphically is exhausting. Only the most thick skinned individuals will still cheer her on the by the end, but we should. A step forward is still a step forward, however wobbly.
            Much of Amy’s problems were the result of poor parenting. In a gut-wrenching flashback, Amy and Kim’s father explains that he is divorcing their mom because “monogamy is not realistic,” comparing it to play with only one doll your whole life instead of many, forgetting that people are not objects to be played with then discarded. Amy takes his advice to heart moving from guy to guy with an acceleration Hugh Hefner would envy. Meanwhile, Kim ignores her father’s foolishness, settling down and soon is pregnant with her second child. “Wow,” Amy exclaims. “One more and you’ll have to move to Utah.” Suddenly, she meets Dr. Aaron Conner (Bill Hader), a surgeon for pro-athletes and immediately seduces him. She keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop so she can bolt but to her horror discovers he’s actually a nice guy. Worse still, she finds herself falling in love with him too. When they have a fight, she’s convinced it’s over, but even then he wants to “work things out.” What’s with this guy?
            Trainwreck is the latest in a series of Judd Apatow produced projects like Bridesmaids and Girls that prove girls can be just as raunchy as guys. Sometimes, this can be a refreshing reminder that women have just as many physical realities as men, but it also suggests that women are empowered not just by imitating male behavior but sinful male behavior. There are dozens of scenes and stories that are filled with the raunchiest material possible from weird things people say in the bedroom to finding contraception in strange places to…well, it’s pretty much just sex stuff.
            This behavior does not lead to the liberation and peace Amy seeks. For all Kim’s boringness, she has people she can depend on and a legacy that will continue for generations. This impetus for Amy’s redemption is her father’s death. She thinks he was a great guy because although he made many horrible decisions was fun to be around. Yet, minutes after the memorial, everyone seems to be done with him, and Amy doesn’t want that. She learns from Aaron that in any relationship there has to be sacrifices and problems don’t need to be endings.
            The real reasons to see any Apatow movie is the witty dialogue, sly acting, and fun celebrity cameos. Trainwreck has all this in droves, and Amy Schumer is just as talented a comedy writer as Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, or Tina Fey. What is endlessly frustrating is that a Catholic has to go see such a vulgar film in order to get great storytelling. One must go back almost to the 1950s to find great comedies that don’t offend the senses. After 35 years, why hasn’t EWTN made any original programming? Netflix has. Amazon Prime has. For goodness sakes, Chipotle has a webseries.

In the aftermath of Obergefell v. Hodges, I’ve seen a range of emotions from rage to disgust to fear, but after seeing Trainwreck I’ve found a new one that has proven helpful: pity. Like Obergefell, Amy is just another product of society “searching for love in all the wrong places” and doing things because she thinks it will make her happy rather than choosing to be happy independent of her situation. The reaction of many Catholics has been to circle the wagons but Christ calls us to heal those who hurt us, engage the culture and face their objections. This does not mean being as dirty as Amy, but it does mean that sometimes one must see the dirt. There’s hope for Amy. There’s hope for all of us.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on July 29th, 2015

Faith, Patriotism, and an Extra Side of Cheese

The "father" in Faith of our Fathers
“Faith, Patriotism, and an Extra Side of Cheese”
A Review of Faith of Our Fathers by Nick Olszyk

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

            It’s really a shame to make this comparison, but Faith of Our Fathers is similar to Inside Out in sharing two parallel stories that intertwine to inform a central theme. Here, the first story involves two war buddies in 1969 Vietnam and the second a road trip of discovery between their adult children. Unlike the incredible Inside Out, however, Faith suffers from innumerous problems, especially atrocious dialogue and mostly poor acting. There is something there but only the most committed Pure Flix fans will find much of value.
            John Paul (named for the Beatles, not the Pope) is an average evangelical Christian living a settled and predictable life in California. While rummaging through some old boxes, he comes across a letter from his father Steven to his previously unknown best friend Eddie. Steven died in Vietnam when John was only a baby so any information is vital, sending him on a cross country journey to find this elusive friend. Instead, he discovers Eddie’s son Wayne, a dirty, annoying unbeliever who possess several letters from Steven to John but makes him pay $500 a pop to read them, which is not only incredibly jerkish but probably illegal since they are addressed to John in the first place. Together, this odd couple drive to the Vietnam War Memorial in DC to learn more about their fathers, encountering bumps both physical and spiritual along the way.
The story of their fathers is told in flashbacks. They mirror their children in that Steven is a skittish rookie constantly flipping through his pocket Bible while Eddie is a hard and seasoned warrior who can’t be bothered with faith. However, they come to an understanding, especially through the shared experience of leaving new wives and young children to fight for Uncle Sam halfway across the world.
John and Wayne’s story is pretty dull except for brief flashes of humor that comes from their clash of personalities. Eventually, they meet an officer who knew both fathers and can shed some light. When the inevitable speech about faith comes, it is both preachy and boring, mostly due to its terrible delivery by Stephen Balwin, who never shows any inflection in emotion the whole film. Stephen and Eddie’s story is much better, developing the characters well and bringing their narratives to a devastating conclusion. Their final scene, which involves a memorable reference to the Good Thief, is the only moment that reaches the brilliance of the studio’s greatest triumph God’s Not Dead. While Balwin preaches in words, Stephen and Eddie demonstrate the gospel through action, and it is infinitely more compelling.
Faith of Our Fathers suffers from the ever present thorn in the side of independent Christian films: poor artistic quality, which is a nice way of saying…it’s pretty bad. The main culprit is the insufferable dialogue. A perfect example is Si Robertson’s cameo. Instead of letting Si do what Si does best, namely adlib to the camera, they force him to read a script of lines that mimic his style but are clearly constructed. Another frequent mistake is poor scenery. Protestant John prominently shows an Orthodox icon in his house. As the Vietnam soldiers march through the jungle, every scene looks oddly similar to the next and the fog is so thick it looks like an Ed Wood horror film rather than a South Asian swamp. Then there’s Stephen Baldwin, given top billing despite a supporting role, who stops the action short every time he’s on screen.

There’s a nice little story hidden deep within this mediocre movie but it’s covered with more cheese than those stuffed crust monstrosities from Pizza Hut. More than once, I wished I had a remote control so I could see a better film. It also contains a glimmer of traditional patriotism and respect for those who lost their lives for our freedoms, but it’s sidelined for the evangelical message. Faith of Our Fathers isn’t great, but since the 4th of July alternatives are Terminator 5, Magic Mike 2, or a documentary on Amy Winehouse you could do worse.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on July 3rd, 2015.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Mind's Eye

Joy and Sadness in Inside Out

“The Mind’s Eye”
A Review of Inside Out by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG
USCCB Rating, A-II
Reel Rating, Five Reels           

            In a decade filled with endless sequels, remakes, and reboots – Pixar being guilty of this as well – Inside Out is an absolute treasure, a wholly original film containing a myriad of sparkling landscapes and compelling characters that have never been seen before yet feel intimately familiar. It’s so beautiful in story and substance that it firmly places Pixar back on its pedestal and cinema itself as the preeminent art form of the 21st century.
            Director Pete Doctor (Monsters Inc, Up) takes considerable time to set up the inner working of the eleven year old Riley’s mind. Her conscious ego is formed by five primary emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black), and Fear (Bill Hader). They use memories, captured in little glass balls, to create Riley’s personality and inform her decisions, storing them in a vast labyrinth of shelves that look like a brain. Although all of them help Riley, Joy acts as her base mood and primarily works the control station. All is well until Riley’s family relocates to San Francisco, two thousand miles away from her childhood home in Minnesota and millions of miles away from her friends and cultural heritage. Joy finds herself completely unprepared, following Riley’s core memories into the abyss of long term storage. She has to find her way back with the help of gloomy Sadness and Riley’s forgotten imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind). Disgust, Anger, and Fear do their best to help Riley adapt to a new school, but their solutions could push Riley into a mental breakdown and a mistake that possibly could alter her life forever.
            Riley operates mostly through Joy due to an excellent childhood with two supportive and happy parents. Although she has a bubbling personality, Joy is a little bit of a control freak, only occasionally allowing other emotions to have a say. When Sadness asks to help with a problem, Joy draws a circle around her. “Just stay in this line,” she says gleefully. However, the move causes many of Riley’s previously joyful memories to turn sad; they remind her of home. At first, Joy tries to prevent these newly colored orbs from informing Riley’s mind but this leads to a destruction of her personality and a shutdown of her will. Gradually, Joy realizes that Sadness is better equipped and lets her take the helm. By admitting her suffering to her parents, Riley further connects with them, helping her process these new experiences and feelings. It’s important to allow negative emotions to be felt and understood rather than sweeping them into the subconscious and forgetting them entirely.
            Eleven going on twelve, Riley is maturing in her thought process. Unlike the simpler mind of a child, many of Riley’s new memories contain a variety of emotions shaping a more stable personality. Feelings are indicators of how the soul understands situations; they are formed by the conscience to give an instinctual “reflex” to new information. They are not, however, always correct. Riley must master her emotions to make prudent choices. When she ignores her feelings, she loses her ability to reason and empathize. When she gives over completely to them, she is a servant to her own understanding rather than objective truth. It is the will that must command the emotions, using the gift of phycology properly to grow in holiness.
            I mentioned earlier in this review that Inside Out is beautiful. If you do not like this word, it might be best to not keep reading because it will be used several times more. Anyway, this movie is sooo beautiful. Each emotion is based on an archetypal design with vibrant colors: Joy a star, Sadness a teardrop, Fear a nerve, Disgust a head of broccoli, and Anger a brick. As Joy makes her way back to Riley’s ego, she visits a number of areas including Dream Productions, Imaginationland, the Subconscious Prison, and the Abstract Thought room. Most dramatic is the Forgotten Abyss where unneeded memories fade away. This a rare film that works better the closer one gets to the screen.
The imagination is one of God’s greatest gifts that comes directly from His divine nature. People use it to dissect information in a providential way to better understand God and His Universe. Inside Out is one of the most imaginative films in recent memory. Pete Doctor uses the medium of animation to make a difficult subject like the inner workings of psychology immediately accessible in a fun way. Man participates in the ever continuing process of creation through deeper and deeper contemplation, one of the few Earthly activities that continues in Heaven.
            Inside Out is fun, delightful and touching, perfect for an afternoon outing with the little ones. My two-year old son was quiet through all ninety minutes, although the giant bag of popcorn may have had something to do with it. Yet the story within a story is remarkably sophisticated and clearly based on years of sound research. This is the best Pixar venture since Up and the wisest approach to emotions since the sad passing of a cardigan-wearing American hero nearly a decade ago. It echoes his timeless words: “it’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive, it’s such a happy feeling you’re growing inside.” What a beautiful film.

Post-Script: Like most of Pixar’s delights, Inside Out is preceded by a short cartoon called “Lava,” a love story between volcanoes done in a Hawaiian cultural style. Sad and soulful, it’s so… well, you get the idea.

This review first appeared in Catholic World Report on June 29th, 2015.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Best Movies of 2014

The Best Movie of 2014
The Bell Curve – The Best Movies of 2014

Last year, Hollywood saw its best year of the decade including old school Disney magic (Frozen), specular visuals (Gravity), and important lessons from history (12 Years a Slave). This year saw less timeless movies but more films of excellent quality than just managed to miss the mark – more of a bell curve than a skateboard ramp. Here’s the best of 2014:

1. God’s Not Dead – A myriad of faith stories surround a David and Goliath struggle between an atheist professor and the Christian student with the courage to resist him. Think Crash meets Mere Christianity. A Five Reel Film. See my CWR review, "Crash Meets Mere Christianity" (April 4th, 2014).

2. Unbroken – Actress turned director Angelia Jolie brings the fantastic true story of war prisoner Louie Zamperini and the faith that help him endure racial prejudice, sportly competition, elemental survival, and physical torture.

3. Gimmie Shelter – A pro-life testimony that proves art has the capacity to change lives. See my CWR review, "Shelter for All" (Februrary 3rd, 2014).

4. The Lego Movie – Everything about this movie is awesome.

5. Divergent – Spiritual boot camp for millennials facing the onslaught of 21st century “values.”

6. Muppets Most Wanted – Funny songs, thrilling intrigue, and hilarious celebrity cameos – all involving the always wonderful Muppets. Has there ever been a bad Muppet movie? Well, Muppets from Space and The Lady Gaga Christmas Special, but besides them?

7. Big Hero 6 – A fun kid click with a lot of heart and the best sidekick in ages. . See my CWR review, "'Big Hero 6' and Healing the Hurt 'You Can't Touch'" (November 12th, 2014).

8. Annie – A modern adaptation that is *gasp* better than the original.

9. Cesar Chavez – There was a reason you couldn’t get good wine in the late 1960s. A very good reason involving a great man who used his Catholic faith to bring dignity to poor immigrants who still suffer to this day.

10. Guardians of the Galaxy – Big guns. Big laughs. Big Effects. This is probably the best Marvel film to date.

Honorable Mention: The Book of Life, Boyhood, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Fault in Our Stars, Godzilla, How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Hundred Foot Journey, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, Life Itself, Maleficent, Noah, X-Men: Days of Future Past

Saturday, July 4, 2015

The 2015 Halftime Show

We are now halfway through the 2015 film cycle. Here are ten best things this year so far:

1. The Drop Box, easily the best film of the year. See it. See it now.

2. The fantastic original world of Inside Out returns Pixar to the top of the heap.

3. It Follows, one of the best horror films in recent memory.

4. Big Hero 6 winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Of course The LEGO Movie deserved but that's old news.

5. Chris Pratt in Jurassic World. He's my first choice to pick up the fedora in the Indiana Jones reboot.

6. The twist at the end of Insurgent was pretty cool.

7. Raffey Cassidy's performance in Tomorrowland was amazing, especially for a twelve year old. Acted circles around George Clooney.

8. Disney announced that Emma Watson will play Belle in a live action version of Beauty and the Beast. My first choice too. Second would be Anna Kendrick. 

9. My son developing a good palate for film. His four favorite movies currently are 101 Dalmatians, Muppets Most Wanted, Frozen, and Tangled

10. Disneyland's 60th anniversary.