Thursday, May 5, 2016

From the Classroom to the Courtroom

Opposing attorneys in God's Not Dead 2
From the Classroom to the Courtroom
A Review of God’s Not Dead 2 by Nick Olszyk

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

            The new sequel of 2014’s smash hit God’s Not Dead raises the stakes even more as it moves the question of religious liberty in an increasingly secular culture from the classroom to the courtroom. Here, the tables are turned, and it is a history teacher who faces termination and financial ruin for simply mentioning Jesus in public school setting. It’s doesn’t have the knockout punch of its predecessor but still a decent left hook.
            The aptly named Grace (Melissa Joan Hart) is a perfect example of St. Francis’ “actions not words” approach to Christian witness. She sacrifices good pay and personal ambition to teach AP United States history at Dr. Martin Luther King High School and seems genuinely interested in her students’ success. At home, she sacrifices a normal family life to take care of her ailing father, played by pat Boone, who has not appeared in a mainstream film since 1967. One afternoon while discussing civil rights and school’s name sake leader, one of her students, Brooke Thawley (Hayley Orrantia), asks if MLK’s inspiration came from the teachings of Jesus. Grace affirms her suggestion and quotes the famous passage from Luke about “turning the other cheek” as a compliment to MLK’s use of nonviolent protest. When Brooke’s parents discover this exchange, they complain to the school board who insist Grace apologize. When she refuses, Brooke’s parents see an opportunity for a cash grab and maybe some liberal street cred for her daughter’s potential college admission. Against Brooke’s wishes, they hire the ACLU to sue Grace for violating their daughter’s first amendment rights. Unable to afford legal consul, the court assigns Tom Endler (Jesse Metcalfe) as her defense attorney. He isn’t interested in her religious faith but also “doesn’t like to lose.”
To even the most hardened professor, Grace’s “classroom antics” would seem like a reasonable response to a reasonable question. Unfortunately for her, she does not live in reasonable time, and even Catholic schools can experience pushback for presenting a Judeo-Christian worldview. It’s odd that this kind of academic exploration does not seem to apply in the cases of other religions like Hinduism or Islam. Knowledge is knowledge, and religion is the dominant force in the lives of most humanity. It’s insane to attempt any kind examination of history, especially American history, without factoring in Christianity. To prove Grace only acted in the interests of expanding her students’ thinking, Tom brings in several real experts, most former atheists or agnostics, who can attest to the historical reality of Jesus Christ and the validity of the gospels. This fact will be obvious to most, even non-Christians, but it good to hear the reasons anyway.
If all Brooke had asked was the question in class, the prosecution would have a difficult time, but there is a deeper, more interesting layer to Grace’s case. Prior to this event, Brooke’s brother had died suddenly, and she was desperately searching for a meaning to life that her parents had refused to provide. Outside the classroom, she approached Grace about this problem in her life, and Grace spoke honestly about how her Christian faith helped her understand suffering. In the courtroom, Brooke had to admit that had it not been for Grace’s evangelism, she would not have asked the question or become a Christian.
This beautiful and haunting episode highlights a deeper problem in academia today. One does not need a teacher to provide knowledge on a specific topic; even Wikipedia can provide that. Rather, teachers provide an essential human contact that gives life to both the material and student. On parent’s night, I always make this fact very clear:
“It is my goal to get your daughter to Heaven. I’ll be very happy if she get great grades, is accepted to Yale, and becomes a world famous doctor. However, my main purpose is to make sure she sees God forever and helps those around her do the same.”
Teachers should be role models inside and outside the classroom, mentors of both word and deed. Yet, this kind of just authority is totally intolerable to the secular mind. I remember during the Tiger Woods scandal how Brit Hume gently invited him to consider the gospel and the horrific backlash that came against him for that act of charity. Christians must always insists on the right to publicly express their faith. The screenwriters explained this brilliantly in an earlier CWR piece:

“The secular-humanist progressives insist that people are free to worship as they choose, but they need to leave their personal beliefs at the door when they enter the public sphere. And unfortunately, too many Christians have bought into that. But it’s a trap: it means the other side gets to bring its belief system into the public square, but we don’t. We’ve got to stop making that concession, or we’re going to end up losing the right to exercise our religious faith as well.”

            The biggest obstacle facing God’s Not Dead 2 is its final act. After establishing several compelling characters and relationships, Tom descends into a tirade of theatrics that don’t make sense in either the film’s narrative or real life. The film is also not as brash or innovative as the original. Partly, these are the normal problems that plague sequels, having to both honor the previous endeavor yet creating a new vision. They certainly get the first part right but miss the mark on the second.
            Despite the film’s hopeful ending, there is a sense a looming dread that surrounds everything. It understands that the clouds on the horizon are darkening and that more challenging times are ahead. Perhaps it would have been better to not have finished on so positive a note but allowed Grace to fail in the eyes of the world, to prepare Americans to deal with failure as well as victory. For even if Grace had lost and been thrown into poverty and obscurity, she still would have won. She saved a soul, and that single accomplishment is worth more than any honor the world can give.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on April 13th, 2016.


Insider Interview: God's Not Dead 2

Jesse Metcalfe and Melissa Joan Hart in God's Not Dead 2
The following is a reprint of my interview with Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon, the God's Not Dead 2. The article appeared in Catholic World Report on March 29th, 2016.
screenwriters of

Nick Olszyk: God's Not Dead was an enormous success, bring in $64 million at the box office against a budget of only $2 million, earning a 32 fold return. By comparison, the highest grossing film of the year, Transformers 4, had only an 8 fold return. Why was this film so successful?

Chuck Konzelman/Cary Solomon: Well, we’re not knocking the success of theTransformers franchise. We’re sure Paramount is very happy with their eight-fold return…especially on a big tent-pole release. Part of what allowed for God’s Not Dead’s success was that it was filmed on almost a micro-budget, in film financing terms. So when it resonated with its target audience, that translated into an unusually high multiplier in terms of the return on investment. Dollar-for-dollar, the industry site The Numbers ranks it as the seventh-most profitable film of all time.

Nick Olszyk: In the first film, a college student is challenged by an atheist professor. In God’s Not Dead 2, the tables are flipped, and a teacher is brought to court for mentioning Jesus in a public school classroom. It’s an interesting inversion, and I’m curious if you see this as a changing trend in academia?

Konzelman/Solomon: Ironically, teachers live in such fear of mentioning faith issues in a classroom that this sort of thing almost never originates with the teacher…unless, of course, they’re denigrating Christianity. But the situation in the film stems from a female student in an AP history class recognizing a parallel between the nonviolence teachings of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and those of Jesus. So she asks her teacher a direct question about it. Recognition of that parallel shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, since Dr. King was an ordained Baptist minister. But that tends to get glossed over in the public school environment these days.

Nick Olszyk: A significant portion of defense’s case resides on proving the existence of Jesus as a historical fact, even bringing in former skeptics like Lee Strobel and J. Warner Wallace. Why was this important?

Konzelman/Solomon: For two reasons: the first being that this particular issue hasn’t been litigated yet. So we wanted to “lean into the future” a little bit, even if it’s only 15 or 20 minutes into the future. The second is that we’re looking to make believers aware of the fact that the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights aren’t drafted to suggest “you can talk about any person who ever existed with the exception of Jesus.” So we’re separating the Jesus of history—whose existence is universally accepted by all credible scholars and historians, including atheists—from the “Christ” of theology. The former is a history issue; the latter is a faith issue. Exclusion of the faith aspect shouldn’t preclude discussion of the historical side. After all, we’re talking about the most influential person in the history of the human race.

Nick Olszyk: The prosecuting attorney frequently insists that this is not about “attacking beliefs” but rather “preaching in the public square.” How has our society relegated religious faith to only a personal spiritual experience? It seems unreasonable to assume religion, the dominant force in the lives of the vast majority of humanity cannot have a public expression.

Konzelman/Solomon: The secular-humanist progressives insist that people are free to worship as they choose, but they need to leave their personal beliefs at the door when they enter the public sphere. And unfortunately, too many Christians have bought into that. But it’s a trap: it means the other side gets to bring its belief system into the public square, but we don’t. We’ve got to stop making that concession, or we’re going to end up losing the right to exercise our religious faith as well.

Nick Olszyk: Both of you are Catholics, but I notice neither film makes any mention of Catholic ideas like the saints or the sacraments. Neither is any Protestant denomination explicitly spoken. In the first film, you faced a little heat for labeling the great physicist Georges LemaĆ®tre a “theist” instead of a “priest.” Were these films deliberately made to appeal to a wide range of Christians across denominational lines?

Konzelman/Solomon: You’re asking a delicate question. In the script for the first film, we actually referred to LemaĆ®tre as a Catholic priest, since that’s what he was. But that reference got buffed out during shooting. In order to make the film accessible to the widest possible Christian audience, the producers elected to keep the flavor very nondenominational. So the tone and vocabulary of the film are very much contemporary and Evangelical. We’ve had some Catholics challenge us about this, to which we politely respond that not a single dollar of the film’s budget—or even the advertising fund—came from Catholic sources. So we consider ourselves blessed to have been invited along for the journey. And if Catholics want to see some films with a distinctly more Catholic flavor, then they’re going to have to help fund them. That might sound blunt…or even rude. But that’s reality.

Nick Olszyk: One of the strengths of both films is the willingness to face hard questions against Christianity. As St. Paul states, “always be ready to give a reason for your belief.” What challenges have you faced in your own faith journey, and how have these experiences influenced your writing?

Konzelman/Solomon: When we left the mainstream film industry—feeling like we’d been called by the Lord to do so—we entered a pretty rough period. Without going into details, let’s just call it a “desert experience” that lasted about seven years. The advantage of that is, now we consider any successes—even small ones—as a blessing, and hopefully we’re better prepared to withstand whatever trials are still ahead.

Nick Olszyk: I loved the line “I would rather be judged by the world and loved by God than be loved by the world and judged by God.” I might be butchering this, but it’s still beautiful. How does a “heavenly viewpoint” change our perception of Earthly struggles?

Konzelman/Solomon: St. Augustine wrote about the City of God…and the City of Man. And those two cities are forever in opposition to one another. It’s easy to see Hollywood as sort of the ultimate “City of Man.” Or perhaps, “Vanity Fair” [from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress], the pleasant town full of diversions on the road to destruction, where faith is an anathema. A “heavenly viewpoint” means we try to evaluate each project in terms of what it can accomplish for the glory of God. And while solid returns at the box office are nice—allowing faith-driven filmmakers to go back and produce more product—even a film which underperforms by industry standards can do a lot of good. Every film with a truly redemptive message is going to touch someone deeply. It’s going to strike a nerve at just the right moment, and move him or her to repentance. And helping to save even one lost soul is a pretty big deal, according to heaven’s way of accounting. Part of the beauty of film is that it can do that for someone in a movie theater, over a bucket of popcorn. And it can just as easily do it again for someone else, years later, because they happen to view the same picture on television or an old DVD. Film’s ability to move human emotions isn’t diminished either by time or consumption by others.

Nick Olszyk: There has been a great deal of discussion recently about the lack of diversity – especially race and gender – in Hollywood generally and the Academy Awards specifically. Yet there is little mention of diversity of ideas. Does Hollywood have a “diversity problem” when it comes to representing Christianity or Judeo-Christian morality?

Konzelman/Solomon: Certainly. There’s no solid representation of Judeo-Christian morality anywhere in the industry. That’s because the executive ranks of the studios are nearly devoid of practicing believers. Nearly a third of America finds itself in church on any given Sunday, but we’re willing to wager there’s not a single studio head who attends religious services—of whatever denomination—on a regular basis. What’s worse is that studio culture doesn’t just ignore Christian thought, it’s downright hostile toward it. So the very few believers we know of who are working inside the system have to keep their personal beliefs very quiet. And that’s not going to change any time soon. The good news is that believers are quietly moving forward, outside of the traditional studio system, to get things done. To flip Karl Marx on his head—in a way that would’ve horrified Marx himself—we’re seizing the means of production. And that’s a very exciting idea for those of us with a faith-driven worldview.

Young Mr. Jesus

Jesus is the kid with the long hair
“Young Mr. Jesus”
A Review of The Young Messiah by Nick Olszyk

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

Origin tales are a constant fascination of storytelling, looking behind the veil to see how the great characters of history were formed prior to their legend. The Young Messiah examines the most perplexing mystery of Jesus’ biography, the so called “hidden life” from infancy to the Wedding at Cana, a period spanning thirty years with almost no biblical evidence and limited tradition. Based on a novel by vampire turned Christian Anne Rice, director Cyrus Nowrasteh focuses on the struggle of eight-year old Jesus to understand his cosmic importance. Despite presenting some intriguing speculations, the result is a slow paced, rather dull movie that will leave real children thoroughly bored. I imagine that as a true human incarnation this kid would be more interesting in climbing trees than complex inner monologues.
The plot hits the ground running as Jesus (Adam Greaves-Neal) tries to defend his cousin Salome against a local bully. Satan (the only blond, blue eyed European) causes the accidental death of the bully only to have Jesus miraculously raise him from the dead. Like the foster parents of Superman, Mary and Joseph encourage discretion. Jesus understands that he “is different” from others. “Why can I do these things?” he pleads Mary. “You will understand some day,” she says. This decision to keep him in the dark naturally leads to only more curiosity.
Most of the screen time is focused on Jesus and his immediate family as they return from Egypt to Nazareth after the death of Herod I, but the plot promised by its marketing team involves a jaded centurion named Servus (Sean Bean). A spiritual brother to the centurion in Risen, he has seen many battles and was present at the massacre at Bethlehem seven years prior. When Herod’s son Antipas learns of a child performing miracles in Judea, he sends the Roman soldier to finish the job. Yet as Servus nears his goal, he has more and more reservations regarding the task.
The Young Messiah plays with many questions that theologians have pondered for centuries but also runs into a bit of trouble. For example, the Holy Family does not live alone but with a Slightly Less Holy Family composed of Mary’s older brother Cleopas, his wife, and their two children Salome and James. Although cousins, James takes the role as older brother to Jesus, being both protective but also harboring a resentment over his attention. This solves the question of Jesus’ “brothers” without violating any dogmas, but it would have been much easier to make Cleopas Joseph’s brother as most traditions see Mary as an only child.
The only outstanding element in The Young Messiah is the love between Joseph (Vincent Walsh) and Mary (Sara Lazzaro). Their special relationship is both thoroughly chaste but intimate. “I’m scared,” Mary admits as Servus chases them around Jerusalem. “God chose you among all humanity to give birth to His Son,” Joseph smiles. “It’s you they should be scared of.” They understand that they have been chosen by God and need each other to raise Jesus properly. They also exhibit humility, wondering “how to explain God to his own son.” It’s hard to fault them for trying to protect Jesus but also frustrating that they are more honest with him.
            When the danger has passed, Mary finally reveals to Jesus the story of his birth and divine mission.  This raises an important question: as both man and God, how much did Jesus really know at one, five, seven, or even as just a few cells? I have little to add that has already been explained by Stephen Graydus in his wonderful piece on the subject. The only Biblical evidence is Christ’s confidence in the temple at age twelve. Certainly by then he was aware of his mission. Suggesting that Jesus had no concept of His nature prior to this seems to violate God’s omniscience. The Bible gives a small hint to this in the line “he grew in strength and wisdom.” Wisdom does not mean intelligence but understanding through experience. God knew about humanity, but He now had the opportunity to tangibly live an Earthly existence.

            All this is compelling on paper, but it’s difficult to put thinking on celluloid, and this regard The Young Messiah largely fails. There is precious little action and long sequences of characters talking and talking, sometimes repeating previously mentioned ideas. Besides the Servus, Joseph, and Mary, the acting is rather stiff. Finally, the title character sports probably the worst hair style in the history of Biblical cinema. Put frankly, he looks like a girl, and, even if historically accurate, it’s incredibly distracting. The Young Messiah is a worthy effort but better suited for a book than a movie.


The cast of Zootopia
A Review of Zootopia by Nick Olszyk

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

            Zootopia has everything a great animated film could wish for: witty writing, amazing landscapes, multi-faced characters, and a positive message perfectly suited for youngsters. Yet despite these advantages, there is a pervasive aroma of dishonesty and hollowness for 21 st century America has long given into the message of tolerance, and Zootopia offers little to challenge or nuance this worldview. These are not its own faults but the world it seeks to influence. Perhaps in a different time and place, it would not be so easy to smile, shake one’s head, and walk away.
Jennifer Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a small town rabbit with big dreams of being a cop in the thriving metropolis of Zootopia. Years ago, the ancient world was divided by predator and prey, but now everyone – from lemmings to foxes, lambs to tigers – lives in peace. Yet, racism...err...speciesism still dominates their culture, and Hopps is keenly sensitive to the fact that she is the first “prey” on the force. Under the thump of the town’s “inclusion program,” the police chief reluctantly gives Hopps forty- eight hours to solve a missing person case, but her unlikely partner in the pursuit of justice is a street smart fox named Nick Wilde. Through the course of the investigation, Hopps’ expectations and prejudices are challenged again and again, proving the sins one hates most are usually found within.
The first lesson taught by Zootopia’s school of progressivism has been so overused it seems hardly necessary to waste screen time on its banality: you can “be anything you want to be” – a sentiment constantly echoed by the film’s insufferable theme song. Hopps parents are unsupportive of her goals, encouraging her to “settle hard.” She is also teased by her classmates, including a rather violent encounter with the local bully – a redneck fox. Yet this is a Disney movie, so Hopps’ dreams are only a montage away. Fortunately, Hopps overcomes her natural restrictions through hard work and intelligence rather than affirmative action or luck.
Yet life is more complicated than Hopps would like to think. While Zootopia believes it has moved past animals’ primitive instincts, many attitudes of the past remain. While representing only 10% of the population, predators dominate almost all positions of leadership and authority. This leads to plenty of humor, some great, some gut wrenching. Early on, Nick makes the mistake of calling Hopps “cute.” “C*** is something bunnies can call each other, but it’s not okay when other animals say it,” she insists. Yikes. Yet Hopps is not immune and carries around “fox repellant,” a fact that does not go unnoticed by Nick.
Zootopia is very easy to like. It says all the “right” things about prejudice and empathy with great wit and beautiful animation. Yet where it largely succeeds in addressing the issue of race, it falsely assumes that this kind of thinking can be universally applied to all areas. It stokes the fire that is already a raging inferno. Hollywood and secular society has long accepted its inclusive message to the exclusion of any meaningful conversation on natural law, religious violence, or free speech. “It’s just biology – they can’t help it,” one of the villains remarks about predators. Thus, racial intolerance is easily transferred to LGBT intolerance. At one moment, Hopps even affirms a child Fennec fox who aspires to be an elephant. “You can be anything you want be,” she tells him. Yeah, right. Zootopia occasionally plays with its own pretentious nature but ultimately “settles hard” for the chant of the age.
I recently experienced a painful reminder of how this appeal to inclusion can overreach and become insanity. Every year thousands eagerly attend the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, the largest annual gathering of Catholic educators in the country, which hosts a who’s who of Catholic publications, including Ignatius Press. I went to a workshop entitled Transgenderism in the Church: One Bread, One Body, which would later bill itself as the “largest discussion on this issue in the history of the Church.”
Rather than being a healthy affirmation of the dignity of the human person suggested by the title, it became a platform for two people who had undergone sexual reassignment to describe their experience as “God’s saving grace,” constantly pointing out how the Church’s teaching was backwards and wrong, even manipulating scripture to front their cause. Worse still, I watched in muted horror as hundreds of teachers, catechists, and even clergy give them several standing ovations. Many, I suspect, applauded not out of full agreement but fear of being labeled a bigot or even just politeness. Rather than bringing the gospel of Christ to the world, many have allowed the world to bring its gospel into Christ’s church.

On a subconscious level, Zooptoia feeds into this frenzy, but it is doubtful even today’s children will understand any of these larger issues. In the 1950s, this effort would have been revolutionary and necessary. Today, its hard line support of our generation’s relentless hashtivism sucks much of the joy out of an otherwise wonderful movie. What a pity.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on March 11th, 2016.

Dateline: Resurrection

Joseph Fiennes in Risen
“Dateline: Resurrection”
A Review of Risen by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13
Reel Rating, Four Reels            

Risen begins as a proto-detective story about a 1st century Sherlock Holmes investigating the claims of Resurrection hours after its supposed happening. It’s a fascinating premise, so it’s a bit a jolt when the puzzle is solved less than an hour into its screen time. Yet it is even more surprising that the story becomes more interesting, not less. As a piece of craftsmanship, there’s much to fault but as a theological treatise leaves much to glean. Like the evidence itself, it lingers, even after acceptance.
The detective is Roman tribune Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), Pilate’s “enforcer” who squashes any Judean dissent with violent retribution. A weathered veteran of many wars, he freely admits in a moment of rare vulnerability that all he wants is “peace…a day without death.” When Pilate asks him to supervise the crucifixion of three criminals, he carries out the task with all the zeal of notarizing an envelope. Yet only days later, there is a rumor that one of these men has risen from the dead. “We must have a body,” Pilate sneers. Clavius goes to great lengths to find it: interviewing disciples, visiting the site, and even digging up graves. The answer seems easy at first, but a keen eye and cool intellect leads him to into places that question the “official story” and reveal something extraordinary.
This is the first film since Pasolini’s Gospel According St. Matthew that feels like an accurate depiction of 1st century Palestine. The thing that stands out immediately is the sparely populated landscape. An early battle scene between Romans and Jewish zealots contains not thousands of CGI legions locked in heated combat but only a few dozen soldiers that easily over power their poorly disciplined advisories. This occurred at a time when there were only 250 million on the entire planet. The crucifixion too takes place on interchangeable planks that are used over and over, the bodies dumped in a heap only yards away. Food is scare. Everyone has a toothache. Even the best clothes are faded and ripped. The world is bloody, sweaty, and caked in dust. For most people, this was just another day.
As Clavius interviews the disciples, their reactions seem out of place. Mary Magdalen’s is uneven, first acting fearful then immersed in bliss. Bartholomew comes across even worse. This was a strange time when the disciples knew of the Resurrection but had not yet received the Spirit. They know something is up yet are still tied to their mixed emotions. Oddly, it is Peter the denier who is the most solid. He is invigorated, excited for what is to come.
Halfway through the narrative, Risen takes a dramatic turn when Clavius unexpectedly discovers the truth. He writes back to Pilate, explaining his confusion:

“I have seen two things which cannot reconcile: A man dead without question, and that same man alive again. I pursue Him, the Nazarene, to ferret the truth.”

It’s at this crucial juncture that Risen becomes more than just an Easter TV special. Director Kevin Reynolds understands that evidence does not automatically equal faith and gives Clavius (and the audience) times to ponder what this revelation means. He temporarily takes leave of his post to join the disciples, waiting for more answers.

            When I was in 2nd grade, I had a wonderful teacher named Sr. Regina who would lead us through my favorite prayer meditation. We would enter a special room in our heart where Jesus waited. Once there, he would listen to us, comfort us, and let us know that everything would be alright. There is a moment where Clavius gets this one-on-one opportunity to bear his soul before this man he helped killed. “What are you afraid of,” the man asks. “Being wrong,” Clavius admits looking into his eyes. Even the best of us are worried, with all the evidence the created world can offer, that it’s just too good to be true. In the end, faith is choice, not a feeling or even a logical conclusion. The title of the film is present tense, reminding the viewer that this event occurs throughout time and space. What is our choice, and once chosen, what will we do?

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on February 26th, 2016.

An Industry the Matters

Eddie Mannax in Hail Caesar!
“An Industry that Matters”
A Review of Hail, Caesar! by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13
USCCB Rating, L
Reel Rating,  Four reels           

Any film of the Brothers Coen can be placed in two categories: zany comedies (Burn After Reading, A Serious Man) or intense dramas (Fargo, No Country for Old Men); in both cases, they feature sane protagonists who must try to live righteously in an increasingly insane world. Hail Ceasar! fits squarely in the former with an average joe who must babysit people far beneath him in the craziest playground of all: Hollywood. What starts slowly as a funny but unremarkable homage to the 50s studio system gradually builds into a surprisingly strong affirmation of traditional American values. At least, I think so. With the Coens, one can never be too sure.
Eddie Mannax’s (Josh Brolin) technical title is “Head of Physical Production” at Capitol Pictures, but colloquially he’s known as a “fixer,” someone who safeguards the image of the studio by helping crew members get along, keeping gossip out of the papers, and even arranging dates for their actors. His current problem involves the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), their biggest star, who had nearly finished his prime role in the Biblical epic Hail, Caesar. Also, Dee Anna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), another starlet and veteran of two failed marriages, is pregnant out of wedlock. Then there’s the cowboy who can’t act, the difficult director, the nagging reporter twins – it’s no surprise Eddie looks at his watch every five minutes. Through it all, Eddie tries to remain a decent human being. It hurts him that he’s home late every night to his loving family, and he frequently goes to confession. There is a tempting job offer on the table from Lockhead, a chance to go into a “serious” business with better pay an hours. “Film is on its way out anyway,” the recruiter scoffs. “Why waste your time covering for drunks?” Why indeed.
            Hail, Caesar! may be a critic proof movie. Even those reviewers who fault its writing, acting, or sentiments will fall in love with Hollywood of old. This was a time when studio bosses controlled everything. In some ways, it was a drawback, and the Coens have a great deal of fun playing with absurdities of the system. To get Dee’s pregnancy out of the news, Eddie arranges for her to legally adopt her own child so the press will see it as an act of generosity. The studio even hires a “professional person” who is legally responsible for any ill action. The art direction is also spectacular with wired phones, giant 10K lights, muted colors, and even a full tap dance number.
            Something of special delight for Catholics is the often overlook influence that “traditional morality” had on Hollywood during this time. Before Hail, Caesar premieres, Eddie meets with a panel including a Catholic priest, a rabbi, an Orthodox priest, and a Protestant pastor to make sure the film contains “nothing offensive.” What ensues is one of best exchanges of theological humor this year. The Coens don’t have disdain for religion, just a natural understanding that it can be difficult to grasp. There’s also a subplot involving a group of Communist screenwriters, who freely admit to planting subtle propaganda into their films yet are complete hypocrites. In the end, it’s up to a good ol’ country boy to risk his neck and save the day.
            For the majority of its screen time, Caesar is a nice, unassuming comedy but in its final moments rises to great art. Eddie unleashes his frustration upon a pretentious actor, leaving the performer speechless. “This studio is worth something,” he growls. “And if you serve the studio, you’re worth something, too. Now, go out there and give the best performance of your life.” It’s the kind slap in the face that every 2016 presidential candidate needs, affirming the basic dignity of not only persons but their contributions to created world. As Eddie’s priest remarks, “God wants us to do what’s right,” even a Universe crazier than the movies.

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.