Saturday, December 20, 2014

Across the Stars

“Across the Stars”
A Review of Interstellar by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13
Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway in Interstellar
USCCB Rating, A-III
Reel Rating, Three Reels

            The first images of Christopher Nolan’s space opera Interstellar happens not in the future but the past, so we think. Several elderly people are interviewed talking about failing crops, swirling storms of dirt, and rampant disease. It appears they are remembering the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, but soon it is revealed they are looking back at the not so distant future. Several generations forward, climate change has made the Earth virtually uninhabitable with rampant blight and fierce weather. Nolan’s goal is clear; humanity is repeating its mistakes, but this time, it will be permanent. The only hope is finding another Earth. “We were never meant to save the world,” one scientist remarks. “We were meant to leave it.” Interstellar then takes the audience on a worldwind tour of the Universe as a small group of astronauts combs the galaxies for a new home. Beyond the spectacular visuals, there is a really important message hidden inside this space extravaganza, but it’s severely hurt by an unwavering commitment to scientism. Nolan has faith in the stars, but his faith in humanity is less certain
            Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former astronaut, now small town farmer, who fosters in his children a love of experimentation and ingenuity to solve problems. He is met with resistance by their public school teachers who have rewritten textbooks to demonstrate the Moon landing was a hoax and discourage scientific advancement. “The world needs farmers, not engineers,” one tells him. One afternoon, Cooper’s daughter Murph (Jessica Chastain) discovers her bookcase sending strange messages. Cooper uses these messages to locate a secret NASA facility and meets his former teacher, Prof. Brand (Nolan regular Michael Caine) who reveals a startling plan. Forty-six years prior, NASA discovered a wormhole to another solar system that contains several Earth-like planets. He believes there are beings that use gravity as a form of communication inviting people to settle these worlds. Despite being out of the field for years, Brand invites Cooper to lead this mission; due to relativity, he will not return for many decades, possibly never. While his son and father-in-law are understanding, his daughter does not want him to leave, but he goes anyway, promising to return. Cooper and his team will spend the next two and half hours skipping around planets looking for a suitable environment. This mission will test each other as they try to save humanity or at least what’s left of it.
            Interstellar advocates a largely scientist view, the idea that scientific knowledge, not God or religious faith, provides the answers to life and humanity’s greatest hope. Religion is never mentioned even once, even as a criticism. Nolan’s world devoid of it, like Star Trek. This is best illustrated in the two plans Brand creates for the mission. Plan A involves Cooper finding a habitable planet, returning, and leading other ships through the wormhole. If he is unable to return, Plan B goes into effect. Brand has stored racks of frozen embryos onboard that will can be brought to term and raised as a new civilization. This is inherently evil and grotesquely disturbing, imprisoning thousands of souls that will be killed if not “used,” yet the film takes not even a second to consider the vast ethical implications, undermining anything constructive Interstellar may have to say about human nature or morality.
            Yet for all these problems, Nolan recognizes there are some things science can’t do. Millions of light years away, Cooper discovers that Plan B was always the intention; Brand created Plan A as a means to convince Cooper to cooperate. There is also a villain awaiting Cooper across the stars that demonstrates how technology is always at the mercy of human cruelty. Both of these people embrace a scientist attitude but are ultimately viewed negatively. Rather, it is the love that Cooper has for Murph that drives him on and transcends the Universe when intelligence cannot. He will not leave humanity behind and fights to keep his promise.
            As a piece of science fiction, Interstellar is impressive. While a significantly weaker film than last year’s Gravity, its creative effects pack a wallop. There are many incredible scenes like going through a wormhole, making an emergency dock, and getting caught in the gravitational pull of a black hole. The loud sound effects raddling the theater are as close to a real space takeoff as most people will get. There are many nods to previous sci-fi films, especially the crew’s helpful robots TARS and CASE, which look like the monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey. In a field of over dramatic actors reaching just a little too far for late November Oscar gold, they are probably the best characters in the film, sarcastic and gruff, wishing to get the mission over with so they can have a cold beer. There is also an “alien” element that guides Cooper’s path and becomes progressively weirder and weirder. These beings are a fun idea but quickly disintegrate under scrutiny.
      Interstellar is a spectacular film but suffers greatly from valuing some aspects of human life while devaluing others and puts the material world on way too high of a pedestal. Science truly is beautiful, an important endeavor that is worth our wonder, energy, and tax dollars, but is a means to an end, not an end itself. All human effort requires the moral compass that religion provides. After all, God wrote the laws of the Universe, both thermodynamics and the Ten Commandments. They are overlapping magesteria, meant to exist in perfect harmony. In the back of his mind, Christopher Nolan understands this to a degree, but he’s too caught up in the philosophical fad of this age to admit it.


This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on November 21st, 2014.

Heal the Sick

“Heal the Sick”
A Review of Big Hero 6 by Nick Olszyk

The team of Big Hero 6
MPAA Rating, PG
USCCB Rating, A-II
Reel Rating, Four Reels

As the name implies, Big Hero 6 is a larger than life movie filled with an impressive array of superheroes. It’s an animated take on The Avengers with an extra helping heart, allowing its protagonist to take on some pretty serious issues for a kid film but handled mostly with grace and understanding. Mark another A in the Disney canon that only continues to grow and expand in excellence.
Hero takes place in a slick, manga inspired world called San Fransokyo, a slightly more kid friendly version of Blade Runner’s Los Angeles. Barely fourteen years old, Hiro (Ryan Potter) hustles money in illegal battle bot rings. He is obviously a genius but spacey and unmotivated, the kind of student that endlessly frustrates every teacher – so intelligent that school bores them into bad behavior. Fortunately, his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) manages to steer him in the right direction by bringing him on a visit to his laboratory at his local tech university and introducing him to equally nerdy friends. Hiro is enraptured and manages to secure a spot after an amazing performance of his own nanobots, but Tadashi dies that very night in a mysterious fire. Depressed with only Tadashi’s latest robotic project – the inflatable “personal healthcare assistant” Baymax (Scott Adsit) – to comfort him, he soon finds meaning when a villain steals the nanobots, threatening to destroy everything in his path. Enlisting Tadashi’s friends, Hiro sets out on a mission to stop him and avenge his brother.
The most important element in any story is characterization. Most audience members will enjoy a story even if it has a weak plot and themes if they care about what happens to the fictional people by the end. Directors Don Hall and Chris Williams understand this and accomplished the impressive feat of creating six likeable heroes, all with their own personal virtues and hiccups. There’s Go-Go (Jamie Chung), an emo Rainbow Dash-eque tomboy that glides around at lightning speeds and frequently tells the disheartened Hiro to “woman up.” Second is Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr), who despite his impressive figure, suffers from a bad case of scardycat and has laserclaws for hands (take that Wolverine). Third is the nerdy science wiz Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) whose fabulous purse can produce chemical balls of any element. Fourth is Fred the hippie son of a billionaire industrialist who turns into Fredzilla, a fire breathing Lagoon monster that is the perfect image of his adolescent mind.
All of these geeks are fun if a bit predictable, but Baymax is a category all on his own – the best Disney sidekick since the gargoyles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and perhaps one of the most compelling movie characters of the decade. Baymax serves as Hiro’s guardian angel and an active reminder of his older brother’s kind spirit. In his first scene, Baymax explains that his only goal is “to heal the sick.” Through the rest of the film, he provides an incredible amount of comic relief, mostly from his inflatable and clumsy balloon-like exterior but also serves as Hiro’s conscience when he is tempted to act wrongly.
Hiro’s sickness is not physical; he explains to Baymax that it’s a hurt that “you can’t touch.” His grieving process magnificently follows the traditional Kubler-Moss model. First, he wants to sever contact with outside world. When he thinks the villain caused Tadashi’s death, he seeks vengeance only to find that the villain is also acting out of anger for someone he lost. In fact, Hiro reacts in the act way the villain does, betraying an important friend and endangering his team. This prompts Baymax, in his innocent yet angelically perfect knowledge, to respond, “I don’t think this action will heal you.” Hate only begets hate. The best way to accept loss is to respond with love and forgiveness, imitating Baymax and the One who commanded man to “turn the other cheek.”
There’s a very interesting way that Big Hero 6 approaches the delicate subject of Tadashi’s death. When Baymax asks where Tadashi is, Hiro simply replies, “he’s gone,” echoing the famous Sesame Street episode when Mr. Hooper died. It’s difficult to explain death to kids because all they feel is the sadness of not experiencing a loved one. This simple explanation helps children accept the immediate reality, but it doesn’t take away the pain. Indeed, Hiro feels this pain intensely but no one gives him a way to understand it because the film is completely absent of any references to an afterlife other than a few glimpses of Far Eastern funeral traditions. Hiro eventually finds fulfillment in his friends and family. That is a very important element, but it is even more important to assert the immortality of the soul and the hope for Heaven.
Big Hero 6 continues the era that can only be called the New Disney Renaissance that began when Pixar’s John Lassesster took over the animation department in 2008. Every film made since is either wonderful or even more wonderful. If Hero feels not up to par, that’s only because last year’s Frozen was one of the greatest films ever made. This isn’t Frozen, but it doesn’t have to be. It can stand just fine on its own squishy feet.


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

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.