Thursday, November 10, 2016

A Story of a Protestant Soul

Masey McLain's amazing performance in I'm Not Ashamed
“A Story of a Protestant Soul”
A Review of I’m Not Ashamed by Nick Olszyk

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

            It must be admitted that I entered this movie with a certain sense of trepidation. Although the independent Christian film movement has made huge strides in the past decade, it still occasionally falters. This is not usually such a problem, but I’m Not Ashamed is a story directly involved in the Columbine massacres. If director Brian Baugh and his team manage to botch the story, it could be written off not simply as bad but disrespectful and exploitative. I’ve never been happier to be so wrong. Here is a magnificent hagiography of Rachel Scott, the first Columbine victim, who achieved fame not only due to her tragic death but the personal journals she left behind. Yet Rachel was not just another “Jesus Freak,” as many of her classmates dismissed. Her theological musings, never meant for publication, are alternatively painful, complicated, profound, difficult, joyful, and heartbreaking; comparisons with Anne Frank and St. Therese of Lisieux are not unwarranted. Her story is an act of true beauty with a film worthy of the tale.
            The first smart move on Baugh’s part was to make the Columbine shooting only a footnote – albeit an important one. Instead, Rachel takes center stage from beginning to end. Like so many of her generation, her parents are divorced. In the opening scenes, her mother – now raising five children without a forseeable income – gathers them together to pray for their needs. “I pray that we will have food to last the month,” she says. At first, Rachel’s faith is rather flakey, more concerned with boys than Heaven. Yet when she starts to take her faith seriously, she experiences more darkness than consolation. As the film progress, her desires don’t change but instead conform to a mature faith that sees the necessity of applying the gospel to all aspects of her life – not just the hour spent in church – which involves redemptive suffering. Rachel is performed to absolute perfection by Masey McLain, partially because she looks and acts like a teenager instead of a mid-twentysomethings passing of as one. It is the first performance all year that can accurately be described as “Oscar-worthy,” though it is likely most Academy members will miss it.
            Shakespeare famously quipped that “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” Rachel is the last category, a woman whose fate unfortunately is forever intertwined with that historical event – or perhaps not unfortunately. Through all her teenage years, she kept a spiritual journal, detailing her laughs and tears, loves and hates, joy and sorrow. After her death, her parents discovered and published the memoirs. Thus, her writings have become a sort of Protestant Story of a Soul, written only for God but revealed for the benefit of humanity. In one of her last entries she hopes that “these hands will touch millions of hearts.” God granted her courageous wish more than she could have possible imagined.
            The best aspect of I’m Not Ashamed, which was often lacking in independent Christian productions of years past, is a sense of spiritual realism. Unfortunately, frank discussion of anything impure is seen as taboo in many places. Megapastor Joel Osteen has frequently asserted that he “never talks about sin, evil, or Hell.” Rachel, however, is firmly grounded and “smells of the sheep.” She lies, pulls pranks, drinks, goes to parties, and smokes constantly – even after her conversion. Yet, she takes Christ’s commandments seriously, befriending a homeless man living in a place definitely not suitable for WASPs. Later, a small act of kindness from him will save her from suicide. There is a relaxed attitude that allows for original sin and doesn’t demand that people be perfect. This is not an excuse for sin, only a recognition of human nature and the need for grace. There is no need to be dishonest about one’s failings. Christ clearly prefers the Publican to the Pharisee.
            The one thing Ashamed had to get right was the events of April 20th, 1999. The audience is introduced to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold early on, but the reveal of their intentions is thankfully limited to only a handful of short scenes. They knew Rachel and were present when she made a class presentation on her faith, but their paths rarely crossed prior to the events – though she does manage to help a friend of theirs who might otherwise have joined them. The social and psychological reasons behind their terrorism is implied, but the blame is squarely on them. Ultimately, it was their decision and not an act of mental illness or helplessness. In many ways, Rachel is like them – ostracized and mocked for her philosophy and choices – but unlike them chooses to respond with love and forgiveness. Her death is true to the events – quick, sudden, and without time to process the magnitude of what is occurring. After shooting her multiple times, Eric points his pistol at her temple and asks her if she still believes in God. Her witness echoes St. Stephen – assertive but without judgment or pride: “You know that I do.”
            I’m Not Ashamed is one of just three mainstream Christian productions in theaters currently – the others being Priceless and Voiceless. While few are as good as this, all of them have improved in quality over the past decade and almost all will turn a good profit. While the politics of the country seems set on self-destruction and Hollywood on milking the dry well of reboots and sequels, Christian cinema is having a Renaissance – with distribution company Pure Flix (God’s Not Dead, Hillsong: Let Hope Rise) one of its chief protagonists. Finally, there is Christian filmmaking worthy of the calipher of stories it tells. Hopefully, it is a trend that will only grow.


A Worthless Sin, A Priceless Person

James and Maria in Priceless

“A Worthless Sin, A Priceless Person”A Review of Priceless by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13
Reel Rating, Two Reels            

            Slavery is often considered an institution of a past long forgotten, yet it is still a reality for untold millions worldwide. It hasn’t gone away, just gotten cleverer. In fact, human trafficking is the second largest illegal business in the United States, only after arms trading. It is even larger than the drug trade. Priceless wisely steers away from the broader issue to focus on a single story, yet it is one that will be recognizable for many people. Slaves aren’t halfway across the world; they might be right next door.
            In the opening montage, the audience is introduced to James (Joel Smallbone), a depressed widow who recently lost custody of his daughter and takes various odd jobs in a vain attempt to stabilize his life. He agrees to drive a moving truck from the Mexican border into Southern California. “Don’t look at the package,” he is warned, yet a strange noise prompts him to discover that his cargo is two young illegals, Antonia and her teenager sister Maria. Despite this knowledge, he stills carries them to the destination, although he has the decency to supply them with food, clothes, and conversation. They tell him they were promised jobs to send money back home. Yet something doesn’t seem right and soon he finds that this “work” is far more than they bargained for. Racked with guilt for his part in their pain, James plunges into an Orphean journey to find them with the assistance of Dale (David Koechner), a hotel owner who seems to have a much too intimate knowledge of the business.
            Priceless occupies an odd niche in cinema in that it was not made by professional filmmakers but singers, specifically the Christian rock group King & Country. Joel Smallbone, the lead singer, has the starring role while his brother Ben writes and directs and his father David produces. As a first effort, it’s not glaringly terrible but this motley crew clearly has a long way to go. The beginning is incredibly rushed while the middle hour moves at a snail’s pace. Both in cinematography and in tone, the film is dark and grim, with only small rays of light filtering through the haze. The acting is not awful, just rough around the edges. The one exception is Apatow regular David Koecher in his first dramatic role. It’s a complicated and wonderful performance, but amongst all the other mediocrity, his professionalism is painfully obvious.
            In an effort to meet Antonia again, James poses as a client for her services. Her pimp insists that she is too new and not yet ready for customers, but any evil man can be won over with enough cash. “How much is she worth to you?” he asks. The answer is in the title, and the audience can guess the theme from the first moment. Her pimp doesn’t value her because in his eyes, she is property. James doesn’t value her because he doesn’t value anything. What both miss is that a person’s value comes from God, not the validation of others and certainly not from our perceived worth to other human beings. This principle is one of the few things Priceless gets absolutely right. Everyone is priceless and has a chance at redemption, even the pimp – a nice touch you don’t see often.
Human trafficking is a sensitive subject matter, especially when it involves sex and minors. Priceless’ treatment is quite restrained, even using euphemisms in its language (I don’t think the word “rape” appeared once). If not for the material, this film could be rated PG, with one notable exception. At times, it feels too guarded; yet, it is a welcomed respite from the usual way films depict such events. Had this produced by HBO, it would have contained several extended scenes of nudity and graphic forced sex. Most in the industry defend this type of exhibitionism as “realism,” but even if the goal is to show the evil of a situation, modesty both for the victims and actors is necessary.
It’s difficult to find an audience for such a film, which is a shame. Priceless unearths an important topic that needs more exposure. However, the message was so obvious through every moment that the picture is oddly alienating. It will probably go the same way as most independent Christian productions: ending up in the libraries of private schools as a safe way to learn about the subject in morality class. Living in Southern California myself, I often wondered why there were so many run down hotels and how could they all stay in business. Now I know. What can I do about it? That question remains, but even just awareness is worth something.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Greatest Compliment

“The Greatest Compliment”
Taya Smith of Hillsong United
A Review of Hillsong: Let Hope Rise by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG
USCCB Rating, NR
Reel Rating, Five Reels           

            When Augustine wrote that “singing is praying twice” it’s doubtful he had ripped jean twentysomething rock musicians in mind, yet the latest documentary from Christian powerhouse Pure Flix shows that the genre is not only a force for good in the world but can bring people to authentic faith. Hillsong: Let Hope Rise is an act of pure joy, the story of how a small church band from Sydney became one of the most successful Christian movements of the 21st century. If you listen to any Christian radio station or attend any youth event, their hits will be instantly recognizable. As the Catholic world wrestles with a proper understanding of the Liturgy, it’s easy to become dismissive of these Protestant upstarts who don’t have the benefit of centuries of musical knowledge. Yet if one looks to the fruit of Hillsong’s labor, the Spirit is truly present. There’s a lot they can teach us, and much we can teach them.
            As the film begins, Hillsong United prepares for a worship concert at the LA forum. At first, things look fairly normal. The band rehearses. Microphones are checked. Lights are adjusted. Yet as the line outside begins to grow, director Michael John Warren takes the audience on a backstage look at the history of Hillsong Church and the lives of each band member. It started as a one room building with a miniscule stage by Pastor Brian Housten and his wife Bobbie in 1983. Now much older and with shorter hair, his passion for the gospel has not waned. “I always thought God created music for the sole purpose of worshipping him,” he muses. To this end, his son Joel starts a worship band with his friends. They begin as wild teenagers, more interested in dumb pranks and 90s grunge than praising God. As they travel the world and experience the consequences of original sin, however, they begin to mature and turn their faith into masterpieces of Christian art. They not only sing in foreign countries but, not completely unlike the early apostles, start churches of their own that work with the local people to address needs like food, water, medical care, and housing.
            This is what separates Hillsong from so many other Christian groups: an intentional focus on the suffering of humanity and how the saving grace of Jesus can bring anyone hope. Albert Schweitzer said he wanted “his life to be his argument,” and they live that adage. “Most people assume we live rock stars,” one prominent musician sighs. His wife and two daughters still live with her parents and dream of the day they can afford a down payment on a house. On the road many months at a time, he treasures the time he has with his family. Another musician wakes up from nightmares every night after his six-week old baby has open heart surgery. They are honest about their shortcomings, even admitting that many of their songs are not up to par, and have no interest in the prosperity of the world.
Yet by being close to the margins, they frequently produce wonders. Several times, the plot slows down to show full performances from the concert that mirror thematically the course of the narrative. I had never heard their most popular song “Oceans” until the screening. It is as good as anything by Bach, Handel, or the great anonymous monastics of the Middle Ages. Perhaps even better. Hours before the concert, Joel is still editing the lyrics of one song, trying to get it as perfect as possible. The first time the audience hears it will be the first time he does too.
            There is precious little formal theology in any of Hillsong’s work, and the context is fully Protestant. Yet at the same time, there is nothing that would offend any Christian who professes the Creed. Their themes of trust, grace, salvation, and glory are great points of ecumenical unity. Before greenlighting any song, they double check with their pastor to make sure it is Biblical based. Consider this comparison between “Mighty to Save” and the Paschal Troparion of St. John Chrysostom:

Saviour he can move the mountains
My God is mighty to save
He is mighty to save
Forever author of salvation
He rose and conquered the grave
Jesus conquered the grave

Christ is risen from the dead!
By death he trampled Death
and to those in the tombs
he granted life.

They could have been written by the same person. One concert member joyfully admits that he used heroin for twelve years “until last Monday.” As Christ told his disciples, “he who is not against us is for us.” The skepticism about Christian rock is overblown, a matter of prudence rather than heresy. Christian rock can be great music but is largely inappropriate for liturgical practice. Liturgical music should direct the faithful to what is occurring at that specific moment in the Mass. Christian rock is not liturgical but experiential, better for concert halls than cathedrals. It is, however, genuine devotion and can be used with great success on retreats or as standalone events.
            The first frame of Hillsong contained a disclaimer: This is a theatrical worship experience. Participation is encouraged. I thought that statement was a bit odd, but twenty minutes later I was singing. And laughing. And weeping. And I felt the veil of darkness rip, allowing me to experience a moment of deep consolation after many months of being plagued by spiritual doubt. I left the theater with renewed courage to face my trails, safe in the knowledge that Christ’s saving action could conquer anything. I can’t think of a better compliment to any movie than that.

Everyday Heroes

Sully and his co-pilot
“Everyday Heroes”
A Review of Sully by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13
Reel Rating, Four Reels            

            The story of the Miracle on the Hudson and its protagonist Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger has already entered into mist of American legend like Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan. During an interview shortly after the event, Katie Couric asks him, “are you a hero?” For most Americans, the obvious answer is yes, but for some there is doubt about the assertion, including the man himself. The incident in real time is not terribly dramatic. Less than thirty minutes passed from the plane took off at La Guardia airport to when every passenger and crew was safely out of the water. Despite the misgivings, time has shown that Sully is indeed an American hero, though of a type rarely recognized.
            It goes without saying that director Clint Eastwood is a master storyteller. At eight-six, he is still making a movie every two years and the quality only seems to be getting better. Sully begins after the event when the FAA and US Airways begin their initial analysis. There is some question regarding his decision to ditch into the Hudson River rather than attempting to return to an airport – no doubt with insurance and lawsuits on the mind. Did Sully needlessly endanger 155 lives and ruin a multi-million dollar machine? As the film progresses, the details of that day are slowly revealed. Since the outcome of the flight is already known, this is good way to keep tension throughout the story while examining aspects that might otherwise be uninteresting. For his part, Sully (Tom Hanks) is convinced he made the right choice, even if computer simulations might say otherwise. The airline representatives are certainly antagonists, but they aren’t monsters and are willing, with the “help” of the pilot’s union, to give Sully a fair hearing. It just seems too good to be true, but maybe that’s because it’s never happened before. 
            Watching Sully, two other fantastic films came to mind that were similar visually and thematically: United 93 and Captain Phillips (both directed by Paul Greengrass). These films involved hijacked vessels where ordinary citizens were thrust into extraordinary circumstances. In these cases, the people involved were heroes in the traditional sense, choosing to do act when they did not have to and saving lives in the process. Like St. Joan of Arc or St. George, they faced the dragon of moral evil and conquered.
            Sully is not that kind hero. Facing the natural evil of a bird strike, he stays calm and follows protocol. He draws on thousands of hours of flight experience to make a calculated decision and see it through. He performs an ordinary task with great care, saving as many lives as possible, including those on the ground. In this way, he is a hero in the same vein as St. Thérèse of Lisieux or St. Therese of Calcutta, who advocated the “little way” to holiness. He did what he was trained for, and, this time, it worked out perfectly. Not all of us will be like the passengers of Flight 93, but all us can be like Sully, dutifully giving every aspect of our lives over to God and trusting in His providence. In this way, if the birds never came, the plane landed safely in Charlotte, and no one ever heard of Sully, he would still be a hero.
            In the final moments of the film, he is vindicated and it becomes clear the right choice was made. Yet even then, Sully refuses to accept the mantle of hero. Rather, he praises everyone else. He praises his co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), who guided him through ditching directives. He praises the airline stewards, who calmed the passengers and got everyone out. He praises the responders without whom some would have frozen to death in the 36° water. “It took all of us,” he says. “Working together to make it.” With this line, Eastwood has created the perfect movie to commemorate September 11th when Americans of all stripes came together to help one another. In an election season that has brought to light what is worst in America, it’s helpful to be reminded of what is best. The common man is alive and well, doing ordinary things extraordinarily, usually unnoticed but once in a while getting the praise (and the movie) he deserves.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on September 22nd, 2016.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Philip Pullman vs. Hayao Miyazaki

Kubo and his team
“Philip Pullman vs. Hayao Miyazaki”
A Review of Kubo and the Two Strings by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG
USCCB Rating, A-II
Reel Rating, One Reel          

            In The Usual Suspects, Roger Kint stated that “the greatest trick the Devil ever played was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” That may have been true in the 20th century, when fascism and communism terrorized the world, but now the Devil has shifted his strategy. In the 21st century, his trick is getting people to believe that Jesus Christ promotes his agenda. Kubo and the Two Strings, which had tremendous promise, is such a trap. Keep kids far, far away.
            Snatching a trope from Disney, as a baby Kubo (Art Parkinson) is rescued by his goddess Mother (Charlize Theron), but not before his grandfather, the Moon King, kills his human father and rips out his left eye. They spend the next twelve years in a cave hiding, with Kubo earning money on the streets of rural Japan by telling stories with his shamisen. “Never go out after sunset,” Mother tells him, “or my sisters will find you and take your other eye.” Kubo is not only a great storyteller, but divine blood gives him special powers. As he plays the shamisen, origami figures come to life and dramatize his stories. While he has the admiration of the townspeople, his life is still a mystery. Injured in the rescue, his mother suffers from an unknown mental disorder, and it’s hard to discern whether her tales are true. As he learns more about his past, the tables are upset again and again, culminating in a hero’s quest to find his father’s armor and confront his grandfather. The spirituality starts out simple as well but becomes more complex before revealing its sinister nature in the third act.
      At this point, an important distinction needs to be made here between traditional paganism and neo-paganism. Ancient pagan societies, deprived of God’s direct revelation given only to the Israelites, had to make do with the natural law that God gives every human person. Born with the impulse to worship, they created religious systems out of the most important aspects of their immediate universe: water, the sun, food, plants, fire, war, sexuality, family, the Moon, and so on. While severely flawed, their search for truth was genuine, and early Christian missionaries were able to use their philosophies to bring them to Christ. Paul’s ministry to the Greeks in Acts 17 is a perfect example. Kubo and the Two Strings is steeped in Shinto tradition, like the films of Hayao Miyazaki. This does not cause any problems as long as it remains honest. Yet soon, Kubo loses its way. 
Neo-pagan systems are those from societies that are culturally Christian yet choose to return to pagan ways of thinking; the New Age movement is the most prominent example. This cannot be helpful because it knows the Truth and actively denies it. The practice of magic (spells, curses, hexes) in either case is never morally acceptable. Yet traditional paganism can be useful in literature to help illustrate unseen truths as long as children are mature enough to understand the distinction. In the beginning, Kubo seems to be advocating a pagan worldview with underlining Christian themes. Yet soon it is revealed that the evil Moon King is a stand-in for the theistic Deity. “I want your eye,” he says, “so that you cannot see the imperfection of this world.” In this regard, Kubo is similar to the Philip Pullman’s atheistic His Dark Materials series, where God is actually an upstart angel who is accidentally killed by the protagonist. These darker, anti-theistic themes are mixed with Christian tropes to make it more digestible to a Western audience. The New Age movement does the same thing.
Like Pullman’s hero, Kubo conquers his grandfather with the help of his deceased parents. However, the Moon King does not die but is reduced to an old man who cannot remember his past. “Who am I?” he asks Kubo. Kubo smiles. “You are kindest, most compassionate man in the village,” he says. Kubo creates a noble lie to turn the King into a humble peasant, writing him “a new story.” This idea of taming evil is unfortunately common in children’s literature. While every person deserves mercy, sin itself can never be made docile. It must be destroyed. People also need to be saved by Truth, not falsehoods.
Even in regards to its background, Kubo twists ideology to fit a modern interpretation. Ancestor worship is common in the Shino religion, but those who are gone still exist as spiritual beings who can help the living. In Kubo’s world, ancestors – who are shown onscreen as ghosts – are memories. Memories are nice, but cannot intercede on your behalf. “They never die as long as we remember them,” Kubo states. I would remind him of Wood Allen’s adage: “I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen. I want to live in my apartment.”
Kubo has received huge critical acclaim, largely for the quality of its animation. This is a fair opinion; the animation is breath taking, full of color and life. The writing, voice acting, and music too are spectacular. However, these qualities only make this film an even sadder tragedy. With ParaNorman and Boxtrolls, Laika has had a bad track record recently of promoting New Age progressive spiritual values, and Kubo reaches a new low point. If Pixar is the pinnacle of Hollywood animation, Laika is the bottom of the barrel. What a waste.

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

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Shattered Innocence

Pete's non-dragon family
“Shattered Innocence”
A Review of Pete’s Dragon by Nick Olszyk

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

            It was not a difficult task to make 2016’s Pete’s Dragon better than the original as the 1977 version is easily one of Disney’s worst movies – if you remember that film fondly from your childhood, I invite to listen to just the first song. Yet even if it had been a success, this year’s adventure would probably still have been better. It’s rare to see a movie strike the perfect tone from the first few minutes, then successfully carry it through to the end, even if the story is completely predictable. The sad part is that, like its two protagonists, this Dragon doesn’t fit well into any niche and will likely disappear as soon as it is seen.
            In the first act of predictability, poor young Pete (Oakes Fegley) finds himself another victim of a Disney opening. Orphaned and abandoned in the woods, he is befriended by a friendly Dragon he calls Elliot (John Kassir). Six years later, he is found again by Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a kind-hearted forest ranger, who wants to help Pete. The rest is easily guessed: Pete wants to go back to the woods but can’t, Elliot is worried about Pete and goes looking for him, a hunter who sees Pete wants to catch him, a finale occurs that involves a little bit of danger but not too much, and everything works out for everyone, even the hunter. One can imagine the plot of Pete’s Dragon being similar to a ridiculously easy game of connect-the-dots. Yet the acting, writing, cinematography, score, and visual effects are so good, it’s hard to notice.
            Most Disney films involve a sense of lost innocence as children deal with adult problems, but it has never been shattered in such a dramatic way. In the first scene, Pete – barely five years old – reads a picture book about a lost dog as his parents drive through a windy forest road on vacation. They are happy and safe. Suddenly, the father swerves to avoid a deer. In the backseat, everything goes into slow motion. Pete looks puzzled, then curious, as he notices the items next to him floating in the air. He knows nothing of death or suffering and is unaccustomed to laws of physics. He smiles at the new world of upside down objects. Then the crash. Pete walks away from the wreckage and looks back, somehow knowing his parents cannot follow him. He realizes his world is over, and there is nothing he can do. Yet he saved by a supernatural creature. Again, due to his age, he finds nothing extraordinary about this, only grateful to have a friend. Only later does the audience learn that Elliot too is lost, and their common experience bonds them as friends in pain.
            When Pete is thrown almost violently back into the world of his species, he has no idea how to behave. He is alone again until Grace and her daughter manage to reach out to him. Unfortunately, the phenomena of feral children is quite real, with many documented cases. These poor children, who lived on their own for years with or without animal help, are so psychologically damaged that it is nearly impossible for them to successfully integrate into society. Beyond these rare cases, how many children have been abandoned, purposefully or accidentally, only to die far from the eyes of society. Indeed, every person is lost from original grace, far from Eden. Pete’s Dragon allows its characters to feel this loneliness deeply and demonstrates how it is only comforted through positive relationships: friendships, romances, and spirituality. This follows from the first scene to the last.
            Grace is skeptical of Pete when he talks about Elliot, but her father is not. Played wonderfully by Robert Redford, he freely tells elaborate stories to schoolchildren about his battles with the “Millhaven Dragon.” “Just ‘cause you don’t see something, doesn’t mean it’s not there,” he tells her. “And just because you say something happened, doesn’t make it true,” she smirks. It’s easy to not believe when the story sounds fantastical, but as the facts line up, Grace confronts her father. It turns out that his stories were highly embellished, but not false. “I just stood and looked at him,” he says. The same is true of many things that seem impossible. When someone trustworthy experiences something supernatural, the first instinct should not be to disqualify it based on its improbability but on the character of the witness. Pete’s Dragon could have been told as a mystery where the dragon isn’t revealed until the end or even not at all. Including the dragon front and center from the beginning demonstrates that the Universe is full of the miraculous, and it’s our job to discover and believe it, not the other way around.
            Despite being wonderful overall, there was one specific element that grounded the film and took the audience out of the experience. Grace lives with a man named Jack. They have a large, multi-story house with a fireplace. They have a twelve-year old daughter together and read stories with her on the couch before they put her to bed. They love each other dearly. By any standard, they look and act like a married couple. Yet in a quick throwaway line, it is learned early on that Grace is Jack’s fiancé, not wife. This fact changes nothing in the story, and when it is implied they are married shortly before the conclusion, nothing about the relationships changes. There is absolutely no reason they should not be married. None except to prop them up as a “modern family” that is traditional in everything but name. This awful trend which had plagued Disney as of late is bad enough even when an important part of the narrative, but here is totally unnecessary.
            Pete’s Dragon is a lost film in search of an audience. It is too sentimental and small for adults, yet too serious and scary for children. Like its spiritual cousin The BFG, it will not make any money and be forgotten almost instantly. Yet like Pete and Elliot, it will find a second chance among those who browse the dark corners of Netflix and are willing to give effort in finding quality entertainment.

 This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on August 16th, 2016.

Much Ado About Nothing

Ain't afraid of no ghost
“Much Ado About Nothing”
A Review of Ghostbusters by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13
Reel Rating, Three Reels            

            It has been a bit perplexing to watch and endure the gargantuan amount of hype surrounding the second go-around for Ghostbusters, most of it negative, some it truly vitriol. It was all for naught. Ghostbusters is mostly funny, not too edgy, and always entertaining. This is a pretty good description of the original, and perhaps that’s all some fans had wanted. 
Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) plays a brilliant particle physicist hoping for tenure at a prestigious university. Her hopes are dashed, however, when she discovers that her old lab partner, Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), is selling copies online of a dubious book on the paranormal they co-wrote years ago. Soon jobless, she joins Abby, engineer/quartermaster Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), and street-wise Subway worker Patty (Leslie Jones) on a mission to discover why ghosts are suddenly popping up all over New York City.
For such a silly, slender premise, this movie generated some serious internet chatter. (Perhaps that really shouldn’t be surprising.) As of this writing, its trailer is the tenth most disliked video on YouTube, and the only movie trailer in the Top 30. Some criticism has focused on feminism and gender-bending, reacting to the casting of all females in previously male roles. This response is understandable in the context of a society in which gender theory has gone completely and wildly awry. Yet, in this instance, there is nothing about the characters that demands a specific gender and there are no serious romantic themes or storylines. Despite the cast, there was a significant lack of gender-related humor—an oddity for a Paul Feig film. Another possibility was burnout over an endless amount of sequels, spin-offs, remakes, and reboots. This is a better criticism as Hollywood has been franchise crazy as of late, but even the most original films depend on established storytelling patterns.
The most likely culprit is nostalgia for the original 1984 Ghostbusters movie. Often, a series is rebooted either because of poor reception for the original or because a significant length of time has transpired since the first outing. Yet Ghostbusters was a beloved classic that premiered only thirty years ago. It was nominated for two Oscars, had rave reviews, topped the box office for five consecutive weeks, and even was rated the 28thfunniest movie of all time by the American Film Institute. 
As a Millennial, I have a healthy sense of distance that may put this criticism into better perspective. Both films rely on the same sense of humor, created by SNL alums as an extended skit that found comedy in a dumb idea. Both of these films also succeed under the same parameters, and while they share a basic Universe, the jokes are completely different. If one needs any more validation, the new Ghostbusters contains no less than five cameos from original cast members. Sadly, the late Harold Ramis and Rick Moranis are missing.
As a stand-alone film, Ghostbusters is Paul Feig-lite. It has all his usual trademarks—Kristin Wigg, Melissa McCarthy, scatological humor—but is his first PG-13 offering. It’s funny but restrained. Especially good are McKinnon as a nerdy Gilligan type and Chris Hemsworth as Kevin, the objective beefcake yet incredibly stupid receptionist. Who knew Thor had such good comedy chops!
As a theologian, I suppose I should say something about the nature of ghosts, evil, and the paranormal. But let’s face it: Ghostbusters really doesn’t care. It’s a childish romp through gadgets and slime, and a pretty good one at that. In the end all the worry was much ado about nothing, and if you are a scholar of Shakespeare, you’ll find that joke really funny. 

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on July 28th, 2016.