Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Confusing Panda, Syncretistic Dragon

“Confusing Panda, Syncretistic Dragon”
A Review of Kung Fu Panda 3 by Nick Olszyk

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

            Right from the beginning, this installment of the Kung Fu Panda franchise commits a cardinal sin by violating its own Universe, creating a world full of contradictory and confusing ideas that backtrack on its surprisingly sophisticated processors. It invents nothing new, bringing in a villain without a good motivation and relying on puns from the previous films. Everything good about this third venture came from the first two, and everything bad is its own fault.
            The villain is Kai (J.K. Simmons), a knife wielding ox, who descends from the spirit realm to collect the “chi” from all great kung fu masters in an attempt to rule the mortal world. The best way to describe chi is the life force that surrounds and penetrates everything, like the Force but without any of the cool stuff like levitation or mind reading. Meanwhile, Po, “the kung fu panda,” (Jack Black) has been assigned by Master Shifu as the new teacher of the Furious Five, a task for which he is woefully unprepared. As promised from the cliffhanger from the previous film, Po’s biological father Li Shan (Bryan Cranston) finds his long lost son, much to the dismay of the adopted father. Fortunately for the plot, pandas are masters of chi, and Li brings Po back to the secret panda village to master this new art and defeat Kai.
            One of the things that made the original film so fresh and rewarding was how it employed the Chinese philosophies of Taoism and Confucianism in its storytelling without pretending these lessons are universal. This means that Christians must take its message with a grain of salt, but it’s a good way to introduce older children to another culture. Here, syncretism not only rears its ugly head but cuts through any positive meaning that might come through a fruitful understanding of the differences between Eastern and Western thought. For example, the filmmakers add an additional “spirit world” reminiscent of the Greek concept of Shoel and try to somehow connect it with chi. The spiritual laws of the film keep changing and have no underlying consistency. Worst of all, there is a new layer of New Age thinking where characters are encouraged to just “be themselves.” If this is true, why can’t Kai take over the world if that’s what he really wants?
            Besides the beautiful animation, everything is unbearably flat. The writers constantly recycle old jokes that lose luster well after the 27th time; there are only so many times sitting on someone is funny. Most of the previous characters, especially the Furious Five, are relegated to the background to make room for a host of uninspired new ones, like the girl panda who tries to seduce Po with…ribbons? The final showdown is contrived and, if you think harder than one ought, involves Po committing suicide then being raised from the dead. Days later, it still doesn’t make sense.

            If this review seems overly harsh, it’s probably because the first two were so good. Kung Fu Panda 3 is entertaining enough, but as Shifu says, “if you only do what you can do, you'll never be better than what you are.” This time, Po only gave the audience what they expected and nothing more. At least it’s the last one – I hope.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on February 3rd, 2016. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Top Ten Movies of 2015

Top Ten of 2015

When this year began, I was skeptical. In addition to way too many sequels, the first film I reviewed was Fifty Shades of Grey. Ugh. To my utter joy, this slow start turned into a light speed finish – the best year for film since 2009 – and I didn’t even see half the films I wanted. Here are my top ten:

1. The Drop Box – Five Reels. A documentary on the ministry of Pastor Jong-rak Lee who has saved the lives of hundreds of abandoned babies in South Korea. If the most important measure of any movie is its ability to covert souls for the Kingdom, this is one of the greatest films of all time.

2. It Follows – Five Reels. A disturbing yet expertly crafted horror film about the tragic consequences of the sexual revolution.

3. Inside Out – Five Reels. Pixar returns to full form with a look inside the mind of a preteen struggling with a recent move to San Francisco. Bring tissues.

4. Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom – Five Reels. Religion, including the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, plays a central role in a former Soviet bloc country’s struggle to break free from Putin’s grasp and create a future of its own.

5. Hotel Transylvania 2 – Five Reels. In the most unexpected turn of the year, an Adam Sandler written monster comedy breaks into the top ten. Wow.

6. The Walk – Robert Zemeckis’ riveting adaptation of Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk across the towers. Timely and beautiful.

7. Shaun the Sheep: The Movie – A simply adorable tale even toddlers can enjoy.

8. Beasts of No Nation – The importance of family becomes devastatingly apparent in this horrific tale of a child soldier in central Africa.

9. The Martian – One film reviewer called this tale of a marooned astronaut on Mars “the year’s best recruitment tool for engineering.”

10. War Room – Orson Welles once quipped that sex and prayer could never be convincingly shown onscreen. This film proves him wrong on the latter…and maybe Fifty Shades proves him right on the former.

Honorable Mention:

The Divergent Series: Insurgent, Going Clear, The Good Dinosaur, Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on January 4th, 2016. 

Emerging Children

The always amazing Fey and Poehler
“Emerging Children”
A Review of Sisters by Nick Olszyk

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

            Sisters is a party movie for adults, not in the sense of erotica, but people with mortgages, unemployment issues, and toddler-induced sleep deprivation. SNL gal pals Tina Fey and Amy Poehler star as the title siblings and despite the fact they didn’t write the screenplay, nearly every scene is an exercise in their distinctive brand of girl power humor. I think they’re hilarious but can completely understand how an objective, third party viewer would find them vulgar, offensive, and downright stupid. The Catholic News Service certainly did. It could perhaps have an entertaining second life on DVD with your best girlfriend and greasy pizza, but as a big screen venue with Star Wars as opening day competition, it could use some hangover medication.
            Kate and Maura Ellis are cinematic incarnations of Fey and Poehler’s personalities. Kate, the brunette, is a recently fired stylist with a teenage daughter who still tries to party like the 1980s well into her 40s. Maura, the blond, has everything in life figured out and tries to make everyone happy yet seems empty and a bit sad. When they discover that their parents are selling their childhood home, they come together to throw one last elaborate party, inviting dozens of old high school buddies who also have not fully figured life out. Secrets are revealed, rooms are trashed, old rivalries blow up, and by the end these sisters realize a small dinner out on the town might have been a better idea.
            The main purpose of Sisters is to see Fey and Poehler at their wacky best. In a weird way, this is quite the event film as these generational landmarks had yet to share the screen together. If this is one’s cup of J├Ąger spiked tea, it’s a riot: full of fantastic one liners and hilarious antics. Yet this is also the film’s greatest weakness as it plays out more like a series of theme-related skits – including numerous SNL cameos – but without a cohesive center.
            The central audience of Sisters is Gen X’ers who are now not just grown up but seasoned adults whose oldest kids are now entering the legal age on a whole host of vices. This was not the first group of teenagers to get in trouble, but it was the generation that began “the fight for the right to party.” Faced with mid-life, these sisters are desperately reaching back to an earlier, less responsible time. This is somewhat relatable as I am part of the beginning level of Millennials who are no longer emerging. When Obama was gearing up for his second term, I couldn’t find a date, but now I have two children.
            How does one transition to adulthood without “growing up?” It’s impossible. Everyone must at some point accept responsibility and enter civilization. This includes a great deal of personal sacrifice; putting aside oneself for the good of the whole, aka, cleaning vomit out of Barney pajamas. This does not mean, however, that you can’t have a good time, just that one must consider the needs for other people, especially family. Of course, this was really true the whole time.
            Sisters is very coarse in its use of party antics which include numerous mortal sins, yet its cartoonish nature takes the edge off a variety of topics that would be quite horrific in real life. It has a heart too, but all the film’s problems are too easily fixed. It would be an interesting experiment to see a party comedy that also tried to deal seriously with the consequences of immorality. Still, it was a ton of fun, but maybe next time leave genital painting to the Farrelly brothers.


A Trilogy Awakens

Awesome new characters in Star Wars
“A Trilogy Awakens”
A Review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13
USCCB Rating, A-II
Reel Rating, Four Reels            

            The Force Awakens may be the most anticipated film of the Millennial generation as proven by the insane number of internet plot theories that circled during the months prior. You can see my own predictions here (hint: only one turned out to be true). Despite much tension from the distant memory of the prequels, we had nothing to fear. Even on its own, it’s a thrilling popcorn treat but as part of the Star Wars saga, no one could have asked for much more.
I’ll try to keep hush about important secrets, but it would be impossible to explain the plot without spoiling something, so fair warning. Those who wish to remain blissfully ignorant, read no further. Although a new Republic has been established, the Empire remains in the form of the First Order, kept at bay by a group of fighters called the Resistance led by the now aging General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). Both groups are searching the galaxy for Luke Skywalker, who mysteriously vanished after one of his students, the sinister Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), destroyed the new Jedi Academy. The rogue pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) hides the information on Luke whereabouts in a droid, the adorable BB-8, who is rescued by scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) and ex-stormtropper Finn (John Boyega). They resolve to return the droid and help save the galaxy.
If it sounds familiar, this is also the plotline of A New Hope. So many elements were similar that my brother-in-law cynically labeled it a “reboot” of the original. My wife was even worse, calling it a “shameless rehash.” I prefer the term “homage.” After three prequels that hopefully will fade into a distant memory, director J.J. Abrams’ most important task was preserving what Star Wars stood for: funny lines, sympathetic heroes, dastardly villains, adorable robots, and the “golly-gee-this-is-cool” sensibility. Everything any fan could want is there.
This “rehash” also works on a spiritual level as Star Wars has always been a pantheistic universe that operates in a cyclical manner as the light and dark sides of force balance each other out. This is perhaps the series’ greatest weakness as it undercuts the thrust towards holiness. The religious worldview is not too problematic for children, however, because good is always shown to be clearly better than evil and always conquers in the end.
In a recent interview, science educator Bill Nye called Star Wars “Shakespearian,” an observation that struck especially true in this installment. The center is not visual effects but family dynamics. The Force Awakens introduces several new branches of the Skywalker family tree, including a new plucky protagonist and a twisted antagonist that are both endlessly fascinating. The decisions made by each family member effects all the rest, and decades later the consequences of selfish or selfless actions continue to ripple. It’s a potent reminder that every human born comes from a family and, even if their existence is brief, affects the Universe forever. In an age where the endless cycle of violence is becoming more and more apparent, this fact provides needed hope. No matter how lost someone may seem, the love of a father or a mother or a sibling can bring them back. It’s still a good idea though to have a lightsaber around just in case.
It goes without saying that The Force Awakens is a glorious feast for the eyes and the ears, but it has the heart to match. It remains to be seen whether the next two can bring it full circle, certainly a promising start. As Han would say, “Great shot, kid! Don’t get cocky.”

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on December 28th, 2015

Cinematic Anguish

Juliet Stevenson as Bl. Mother Teresa
“Cinematic Anguish”
A Review of The Letters by Nick Olszyk

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

The Letters finds one of the most beautiful and important hagiographies of 21st century trapped in a deeply flawed film unworthy of its subject matter. It treats the story of Bl. Teresa of Calcutta (Juliet Stevenson) with kid gloves as a standard biopic. Despite being marketed as an examination of the now famous entries detailing her Dark Night, The Letters uses them as surrounding exposition rather than part of the real story. The result is a film that contains individual moments of splendor but falls apart as a whole. It is a wasted opportunity and hopefully a reboot will soon be in the works.
The first five minutes are a series of time flashes to catch the audience up on Teresa’s story. In the past, she joins the Loreto order as a missionary to teach young women in India. In the future, Fr. Praggh (Rutger Hauer) is sent to investigate a possible miracle associated with her intercession and interview her former spiritual director Fr. Van Exam (Max von Sydow). Van Exam explains her struggles with desolation to Praggh through a single meeting that frames the entire film and bogs it down heavily with exposition. Most of the runtime focuses on Teresa’s decision to leave the Loreto order to work with the “poorest of the poor” and eventually start the Missionaries of Charity. The narrative ends almost immediately after its successful formation in 1950.
The most obvious problems are rookie mistakes that demonstrate a lack of professional standards. For example, when a cardinal solemnly reads Teresa’s request for inclaustration, the year is 1948 and the letter even explicitly mentions Pope Pius XII, but the wall contains a large portrait of Pope John XXIII dressed in papal garments. Even worse, during a pivotal moment when Teresa’s teaches the alphabet to a group of slum children, the title music from Inception begins to swell and appears at least several more times in the film. It is understandable for a lower budget movie to license previously used scoring, but incorporating such a recognizable tune immediately takes one out of the experience. A majority of the performances, even that of Stevenson, are unusually stiff and dull. One of the few saving graces is the joy of seeing Max von Sydow back in a Roman collar. It’s good to see Fr. Merrin has aged well.
The narrative does not stray far from the conventions of a biographical picture and never approaches the real terror Teresa experienced. There have been several wonderful documentaries and feature films that examine her life story and are suitable for family audiences. If this film really indented to delve deep into the darkness of her soul, it should have been rated R, a Passion of Mother Teresa so to speak, that freely showed the grim realities of the slums as well as the anguish that tortured her spirit. Teresa herself described it as “knives that pierce my soul.” Lacerations do not make you whimper. They make you scream.

The Letters is a noble effort to pay homage but refuses to push the boundaries of cinematic excellence. In the age of Amazon Studios, Netflix, HBO, and the Weinstein brothers, mediocrity just won’t cut it. She was already honored as a living saint, and that was before the world knew of her torments. She gave everything to the poor and did it almost completely deprived of any spiritual consolations. Her story is one of the most compelling in church history, and The Letters can’t measure up. Perhaps no film can.

Our Father Who Art in Hell

Our Father Who Art in Hell
Iris Alba as the Commandant
A Review of Beasts of No Nation by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, NR
USCCB Rating, NR
Reel Rating, Four Reels            

Disclaimer: Beasts of No Nation is an excellent but deeply disturbing film. It contains graphic depictions of war violence, mutilation, rape, drug use, and molestation – all involving preteen boys. However, its content is not sensational but accurate to the mature subject matter (think Schindler’s List, The Passion of the Christ). It is in limited theatrical release but also on Netflix streaming. As of October 31st, it has not been rated by the MPAA or the USCCB.

            Everyone needs a family. If a man cannot get the love he needs from his own, he will go else ware to find it. Beasts of No Nation is a fictional tale that dramatizes that tragically real narrative of thousands of child soldiers in Africa torn from their homes who find solace at the hands of monsters who use them for their own evil purpose. In a society that seems literally Hell bent on demolishing the family at an ever increasing clip, it’s a stark prophecy of what may come.
              Abraham Attah, in an astounding debut performance, plays Agu, an intelligent and mischievous boy who lives in a rural village in West Africa with his parents, older brother, younger sister, and elderly grandfather. This idealic family life takes a sudden turn when the civil war that has been raging the country comes crashing in. His mother and sister are sent away to the capital while the men are left to protect their property. These innocent civilians are mistaken for rebels by the government forces and promptly executed without a trial. After witnessing the death of his father, grandfather, and brother, Agu flees into the jungle where he runs straight into a rebel battalion of child soldiers headed by a mysterious and charismatic man known only as the Commandant (Idris Alba). He invited Agu to join their cause and get revenge on those who killed his family.
            The Commandant must forever be counted as one of the great cinematic villains of the early 21st century, part military mastermind, part cult leader, part child predator, and all evil. He targets young boys specifically due to their psychological vulnerability. “All of you that have never been listened to before and have seen your family killed, you now have something that stands for you,” he tells them. “Who is your father?” he yells. “Commandant, sir” they chant. He initiates them with pagan rituals yet talks about the will of God. He gives them attention and appeals to their adolescent fantasies of women and respect. Yet when the rebel force begins to win international support, the Supreme Leader asks the Commandant to abandon his battalion for a ceremonial post to improve their “public image.” The Commandant refuses and takes his cult deeper into the jungle. He is not interested in politics, only war.
            In the process of watching this film, it’s easy to forget that Agu and his companions are just children who months earlier only cared about jungle gyms, swimming pools, and pulling pranks. Now they are smoking heroin and executing prisoners with machetes. Throughout Agu’s Orphean journey, he speaks quietly to God about his circumstances. These prayers provide a terrifying window into the manipulation of his conscience. At first, he is just trying to survive, but when he commits his first murder, Agu bluntly states:

“God, I killed a man. It is the worst sin, but I know it was the right thing to do.”

Slowly, Commandant teaches Agu to think like a killer and draws him closer into his inner circle. Suddenly, their relationship takes a dark turn and Agu begins to see through the lies, partially by developing a genuine friendship with a fellow victim.
            How could an innocent child commit such atrocities? Revenge is the first motive but quickly fades. It is the community that turns Agu into a murderer, channeling his youthful energy and creativity into sinful directions. These children look to Commandant not only as their leader but their father who will protect them and show them how to be a man. If anyone, especially a child, is rejected or robbed of their family, they will find a way to fill the void. This is why college-aged adults are the most common target for cults, children of prisoners join gangs, and some boys of neglectful or absentee fathers can develop same-sex attractions. This is not an excuse for evil but a movement toward mercy and understanding. Sin always comes from somewhere.
            In the end, Agu is questioned by a missionary why he is hesitant to talk about his past experiences. His response is devastating:

“I saw terrible things, and I did terrible things. So if I'm talking to you, it will make me sad, and it will make you too sad. In this life, I just want to be happy. If I'm telling this to you, you will think that I am some sort of beast or devil. I am all of these things, but I also having mother... father... brother and sister once. They loved me.”

Agu and his friends are still people. The Commandant too is still a person. No human is a demon without the chance for redemption. The best way to ensure that is through the loving intimacy that can never be found in a government agency or political ideology but only in a family. 

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on November 2nd, 2015.

Make Your Mark

“Make Your Mark”
A Review of The Good Dinosaur by Nick Olszyk

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

            Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) hatches as a tiny, premature Apatosaurus from an enormous egg, a potent symbol of his ineptitude in the face of a dangerous world. He is afraid of everything, even the chickens he has to feed on his family’s farm. Humans too are like this, overwhelmed by the cataclysmic forces of nature that don’t care about us one bit. One can never get rid of the evil in the world; it must be faced.
            Arlo’s family lives in the middle of a vast wildness several million years after the K-T event never happened harvesting corn for the coming winter. His Pop impresses on young Arlo and his siblings the importance of “making their mark” on the world by accomplishing something great. To help Arlo overcome his fears and become a man, Pop gives him the task of catching the animal that has been eating their stored grain. This “critter” turns out to be a primitive Homo Sapien who Arlo sets free after seeing him almost strangled in a trap, failing at the task. Things get even worse after the evitable Disney tragedy leading to Arlo being swept downriver from his home. He begins to trace his way back after befriending the critter he previously blamed for all his trouble. This Odessian journey will resolve whether Arlo will make his mark or live in fear forever.
            The Good Dinosaur’s narrative structure is based on the Western genre harkening back to Disney coming of age classics like Old Yeller. There’s homsteaders, cattle rustlers, people who “got grit,” campfire tales, a Sam Elliot voice performance, and even the crazy hermit who lives in the woods. The relationship between Arlo and Spot mirrors the traditional archetype of the settler out of place in the West and Native American who teaches him to learn from nature and be noble. One of the best qualities of the Western is the reality of danger in a pre-industrial world. Dinosaurs and humans show up only occasionally in this vast and untamed continent beautifully animated by two expert cinematographers. The possibility of death is always present with venomous snakes, flash floods, and those who prey of others. Arlo befriends a family of T-Rex’s who joyfully tell background stories of their many scares. It is the father T-Rex who gives Arlo his best lesson. “Aren’t you scared,” Arlo asks. “Of course I’m scared,” he grunts. “You’d be crazy not to be. Life isn’t about being not scared but conquering your fears.” This is the true state of the world that is easily hid behind technology and modern thinking but ever present beneath the surface. It is not a reason to hide but live courageously.
            Survival in a Western depends on family. Arlo is desperate to get back because he knows his family will not live the winter without him. Arlo learns how to love from them, a love also seen in the T-Rex family. There are two sets of villains who operate on an opposite model based on power and greed. Arlo is angry at Spot at first because his release led to a breakup of Arlo’s family. This changes when Arlo and Spot realize that both their families have suffered. They share their pain with a beautiful Jurassic version of Panikhida, the Byzantine prayer for the dead. By the end, both will see their families restored.
            A great deal of talk is given about fear, family, and the wild, but not morality. Oddly, the title word “good” is never spoken. What does it mean to be “good” in the face of so much evil? Pop tells Arlo he must “take care” of the critter, meaning kill it. As the film progress, to “take care” of Spot takes on a different meaning. Arlo’s mercy was not a bad deed. Quite the opposite, he finally faces his fear when Spot is put in mortal danger. Good means not allowing adversity or suffering to prevent one from doing the right thing.
            The Good Dinosaur is not as sophisticated or complex as its Pixar predecessors; it will not make a ton of money or win any awards. Yet in many ways, it represents the perfect Disney film: using the imagination to create a heartwarming story of overcoming loss to grow as a person, the central theme of all Walt’s life. In the 1960s, one reviewer criticized Disney’s films as “corny” compared to the edgier fare Hollywood began making at the dawn of the counterculture. “What’s wrong with corn? I like corn!” he barked back. Dinosaur is corny, and that is a good thing.