Wednesday, June 3, 2015

1st Annual National Film Registry Recommendation List

In mid-December every year, the Library of Congress releases a list of 25 films that will be added to the National Film Registry; each work receives a substantial amount of money to be used for preservation and restoration. This list is the cinematic heritage of the United States and my second favorite film event of the year behind the Oscars.

The National Film Preservation Board invites the general public to submit entries. I thought it would be fun to publish my submitted recommendations for 2014. Here they are:

1. …Baby One More Time (1998) – This music video represents the start of the late 90s pop phenomenon that would go on to influence artists like Christina Aguilera, N*SYNC, Mandy Moore, and Jessica Simpson. It featured rising star Britney Spears in her most memorable performance. With its high school venue and suggestive lyrics, it also started a national conversation about appropriate displays of sexuality, especially in the teenage years.

2. 9/11 Home Footage – September 11th has to define American history in the early 21st century. On that terrible day, countless news organizations and private citizens captured the moment. Although it would be difficult to track down every piece of home media, there should be some effort to collect and preserve these images from large media groups like CNN and to cell phone cameras of what it was like on the ground.

3. Armageddon (1998) – Although its artistic quality is certainly debatable, Armageddon represents the last legs of the late 90s special effects action film. With director Michael Bay’s signature features of explosions, fast editing, and cheesy dialogue in full form, it perfectly encapsulates a style and era that would fortunately give way to more intelligent fantasy films in the next decade.

4. Dancing Baby (1996) – This short digital clip was one of the first major viral videos and internet memes shared widely across the web, launching millions more.

5. Field of Dreams (1989) – A classic American sports film that is treasured by fathers and sons across the country. An absolutely beautiful story that is both real and magical.

6. Hell House (2001) – This documentary follows an evangelical Church as it prepares its annual “Hell House,” a visual Christian tract and alternative to the haunted house tradition. Spectators are taken on a maze tour of the sins of modern society including abortion, homosexuality, secularism, and atheism before given a chance to give their lives to Christ. Following the Direct Cinema style, the camera simply watches these passionate churchgoers, mostly teens and young adults, as they engage and debate with believers and non-believers alike, a perfect example of the modern culture wars.

7. The Incredibles (2004) – A magnificent film that highlighted the importance of the family with an extremely well written script. While still using innovative techniques, it harkened back to more traditional animated styles and stories while challenging the entitlement culture and family dynamics of the current age.

8. Independence Day (1996) – There isn’t a millennial male alive that doesn’t point to this film as the pinnacle of 90s action movies. It sees American optimism at its finest to save the world with some of the best pacing of any film in history.

9. The King of Kings (1927) – De Mille certainly wasn’t the first filmmaker to tackle the greatest story ever told, but he made it a Hollywood staple. This was one of the biggest films of the silent era with an amazing performance by H. B. Warner in the title role and writing that preserves the glory of the King James translation while being intelligible to a contemporary audience. It also one of the first epics to use color.

10. The Land Before Time (1988) – This is a classic of late 20th century animation that got every kid interested in dinosaurs. It also introduced loss and recovery in a way not seen since Bambi and Old Yeller.

11. The Line and the Dot (1965) – Chuck Jones creates an experimental animated romance out of geometric shapes, demonstrating the universal nature of gender archetypes.

12. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) – This film, the first in an epic trilogy, saw the arrival of the “smart fantasy” that took universal themes serious while still retaining amazing special effects.

13. Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966) – Thanks to a late night TV showing featuring wise-cracking robots, this has rightly earned the reputation as possibly the worse film ever made but endless watched and discussed with glee by a generation of future film critics. It also shows an early example of independent filmmaking, shot on a shoestring budget by an insurance salesman.

14. Me at the Zoo (2005) – This nineteen second short film created by friend Yakov Lapitsky was the first film uploaded to YouTube by co-founder Jawed Karim, launching the 3rd most visited website in the world and fundamentally changing the medium of film forever.

15. Mean Girls (2004) – In a subtle way, Mean Girls dealt with the rise of bullying in high schools as well as the experience of being a teenage girl. It is a cornerstone of high school movies for Millennials in the same way John Hughes was for Generation X.

16. Mothlight (1963) – This short experimental film by Stan Brakhage was created without a movie camera by gluing twigs and moth wings onto the film negative, creating the feeling of a moth flying through the woods.

17. NASA Apollo 11 Footage (1969) – On July 20th, 1969, Apollo 11 became the first mission to send people to another celestial body outside the Earth. The astronauts recorded hours of footage, including the famous descent of Neil Armstrong. Most Americans saw these images through hazy television screens, but it would be wonderful to restore and preserve the original negatives.

18. The Passion of the Christ (2004) – This cultural landmark covers the last day of Jesus of Nazareth, filmed in Latin and Aramaic. While immediately controversial for its violence and accusations of anti-Semitism, it continues to be seen by many for its religious convictions. As of 2015, it is still the highest grossing R-rated film and non-English film made.

19. The Patterson–Gimlin Film (1967) – This film, which runs only a few seconds, claims to show a real Bigfoot walking through a Northern California forest. Whether true or a hoax, it set off a firestorm of paranormal interest in the United States that continues to the present.

20. Powwow Highway (1989) – An early independent comedy made by a group of Native Americans about their experiences living on a reservation. Many of the actors went on to other Native American projects like Smoke Signals. Funny and bittersweet, it’s a wonderful movie by a community finding its way in this new America while holding to the traditions of the past.

21. The Princess Bride (1988) – A kind and gentle fairy tale that plays wonderfully with the genre.

22. Shrek (2001) – Currently, there are no feature length animate films from any company but Disney. This film spawned a major franchise, challenging Disney’s reign under the leadership of a scorned ex-Disney executive. It also won the first Oscar for animated feature.

23. Spaceballs (1987) – A great spoof that inspired many other fan films by Mel Brooks. It continues to be enormously popular with young males.

24. The Truman Show (1998) – This movie put the sharply criticized the modern obsession with reality programming while being a great philosophical tale as well.

This my list. Feel free to let me know yours! 

You can submit your own suggestions to Congress here. In order to qualify, the film must be primarily produced by Americans for the American market and be at least ten years old. You may submit up to 50 recommendations a year.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Good Old Fashioned Teamwork

The Avengers with some new friends
“Good Old Fashioned Teamwork”
A Review of Avengers: Age of Ultron by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13           
Reel Rating, Three Reels

            Avengers: Age of Ultron is the first summer blockbuster of the year, and it opened the season like Hulk bursting through a building: big, loud, and a little disoriented. Our fearless heroes begin almost exactly where they left off in 2012, tying up a loose end from the last film. This mission isn’t enough for one of the Avengers, and he tries to find a permeant solution to Earth’s problems. Although the story is pretty confusing, there’s plenty of laughs and spectacular visual effects; it succeeds in all the right places.
            After retrieving Loki’s staff from the first Avengers, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) becomes convinced that the world needs something stronger than the Avengers, something that will have its eyes and ears in all places to prevent future alien attacks. Along with seemingly mild manner scientist Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), he creates the AI being Ultron (James Spader) that can hack into any digital system. As a computer program, he could theoretically could exist anywhere but usually takes the form of a giant robot – mostly so the film can have neat battle sequences. Stark designs Ultron to save the world, but he vastly misinterprets his programing. He thinks humans are weak and need to evolve. To this end, he begins to plan an extinction event, which involves “exterminating the Avengers” because they will no doubt try to save humanity. He knows they are too powerful to simply defeat in battle, so he must come up with a more devious way to weaken their resolve.
            This is plot of the film, at least I think so. There are dozens of subplots that are in some way connected to the main one. Sometimes, these works really well, especially when the budding romance between Banner and fellow Avenger Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is brought to halt when it is revealed both of them are sterile as a result of their backgrounds. Then there’s the two evil sidekicks of Ultron, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen who has aged much better than her older siblings). A SHIELD officer puts it best, “he’s fast and she’s weird.” Scarlet’s powers gives her the ability to conjure visions in Thor and Captain America. Somehow these visions are kind-of true, driving Thor to go to a sacred pool and Captain America to do…nothing.
            These blender-mixed ideas don’t matter much because Age of Ultron is just so dang fun. Sci-fi juggernaut Joss Whedon has a natural talent for visual storytelling, especially witty dialogue and amusing situations. The best moment occurs during a party when each Avenger tries to pick up Thor’s hammer a-la King Arthur but “none are worthy” as Thor observes happily. Captain America ponders, “What about an elevator. That lifts the hammer. Is it worthy?” Good entertainment is its own reward, an important aspect of living the 3rd commandment, leaving time for leisure.
            Like most comic books, Age of Ultron brushes some deeper points but mostly teaches simple lessons like teamwork. Afraid they will face an enemy too strong, Stark wonders, “how will we cope?” “Together,” Captain America asserts. “And if we fail?” “Then we’ll do that together too.” While it’s clear that Stark is the instigator of this problem and never really apologizes, the team learns to put aside their differences and prejudices to defeat Ultron. Along the way, they discover that without any one of their members, it truly wouldn’t be complete. This is best demonstrated through Hawkeye the archer, often perceived as the weakest of the Avengers. When the rest of the crew needs a place to hide, they go to Hawkeye’s farm in the country where they meet his wife and children. Free from internet technology, they are momentarily safe. Seeing a functioning family, each realizes the Hawkeye has achieved their ever waking dream – a normal life. Hawkeye’s wife thoughtfully comforts her husband, “see, they need you the most.” He  shows the Avengers the reason they fight.
            The final conclusion reached by these ten companions is rooted in both Greek drama and Christian salvation history: all human utopias fail. Stark tried to make the perfect shield against evil but, because it was made from man and not God, it turned. True triumph is found in the cross not in technological progress. However, this does not mean that human endeavor is futile. Mother Teresa put it well: “it is not important that I am successful, only faithful.” There will always be another villain to fight as long as the fallen world exists, but fight we must. Christ is the victor, but man is called to participate in His army. In many ways, Ultron is a reflection of his creator, but the reason he fails while the Avengers succeeds is the unity of their friendship and justness of their cause.
            Avengers: Age of Ultron is a wonderful sequel that is easy to enjoy despite its flaws and brilliantly sets the stage for phase three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Despite the team’s many achievements, there is something ominous on the horizon, especially considering the third title Infinity War. Whatever comes next, as long as the Avengers stand united there’s nothing they can’t do.

Dangerous Robots are Too Mainstream

Alicia Vikander as a non-mainstream robot
“Dangerous Robots are Too Mainstream”
A Review of Ex Machina by Nick Olszyk

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

            Hollywood has produced many films that deal the possibility of sentient robots, and Ex Machina is…one of them. It starts with the fastening premise of focusing on the relationship between only three characters: the creator, the creation, and the control. Which is human? Which is machine? Does it matter? The film raises many of these compelling questions only to go completely awry in the frustrating third act. Although some characters are more likeable than others, none aspire to be authentically an image of God.
            Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a grunt computer programmer at BlueBook, the world’s largest internet search engine/media/everything else tech company, whose life is suddenly changed when he wins a private week-long getaway at the mountain forest cottage of CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac, the gunslinger Catorce in For Greater Glory). His boss has been secretly developing a female android called Ava that may have crossed singularity and achieved consciousness. Caleb will be the control in the famous Turning test – whether someone can tell the difference between a real person and the robot. Ava is sweet and charming yet just a little creepy. Think Audrey Hepburn meets HAL-9000. During Caleb’s questioning, the power shuts off temporarily and Ava reveals that something about Nathan is terribly wrong. “He is a liar,” she pleads. This leads Caleb to an awful discovery, and he begins to consider finding a way to release Ava – if he can trust her.
            Early in the film, Nathan admits his arrogance bluntly. “I am God,” he states. He isn’t, and the outcome of Ex Machina is a horrific reminder he isn’t. This desire to imitate God by creating life well predates Isaac Asimov. In the legends of Greece, the titan Prometheus is punished for all eternity for bringing fire to humans, a technology exclusively the right of gods. Closer to the Christian concept of pride is the myth of the Golem, a creature created by a rabbi from clay and secret Kabbala verses. Yet such a creature was an abomination because it was made with the breath of mortals and would wreak havoc until destroyed. Ava seems human with just intentions but is only a mass of wires and electricity. Not matter how efficient such machines become, they will always be imperfect because they are reflection of us, including original sin. True AI will never happen, but real monsters just might.
            One aspect that makes Ex Machina uniquely a film of this age is how the internet affects everyday life. Ava is able read emotions and expressions because Nathan stole facial recognition information off millions of cell phones. “The companies even knew it was happening,” he casually remarks. Caleb also becomes furious when it is revealed he didn’t win a contest but was specifically chosen based on his background – no family, shy, impressionable, and single. Nathan admits he even based Ava’s appearance on Caleb’s “pornography search profile.” “We are all a result of programming,” Nathan asserts. Yet search engines too are reflections of people’s decisions; they do not make truth. In reality, no one is “programmed” to do anything. Yes, genetics can cause certain predispositions, but everyone has free will.
            All of these ideas barrel back and forth towards a sick and twisted ending that is easily predictable. The ultimate conclusion of Ex Machina is hard to say. One key to unlocking the mystery is an important element of its mise-en-scène: the hipster lifestyle. Nathan is the quintessential example. He is a genius coder but lives in the middle of the woods. He can quote philosophers yet gets drunk constantly. He sports a huge beard and sideburns with glasses and a shaved head. Like hipsters, Ex Machina looks really cool but doesn’t have much to say and comes off a little pretentious. In the end, it is data mining and search engines man should fear, not the robot apocalypse.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on April 30th, 2015.

Pope Paul VI Makes a Horror Movie

Maika Monroe in It Follows

“Pope Paul VI Makes a Horror Movie”
A Review of It Follows by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, R
USCCB Rating, O – see postscript for commentary
Reel Rating, Five Reels

            The last decade has not been especially kind to horror movies. From Saw to Hostel to Insidious to The Human Centipede, there is currently an overdependence on unnecessary gore, usually at the expense of women, and scaring audiences through sudden cuts rather than constructing a compelling narrative. The Babadook and Cabin in the Woods finally broke through the filth and now It Follows brings the genre to its zenith – a totally original project that builds on the past and moves into the future. From start to finish, It is a nerve wrenching masterpiece that will follow you long after you leave the theater.
            Most Catholics – especially parents like myself – have a natural suspicion of the horror genre, which is understandable as excessive violence, graphic sexuality, coarse language, and the occult are commonplace. Yet that is not the goal of horror, only an unfortunate yet honest byproduct of its subject matter, albeit commonly abused. At its roots, horror is about dealing with sin in a cathartic manner. The American theologian Peter Kreeft pointed out that although FDR believes “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” that Jesus says, “I will show you whom you should fear. Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into Hell.” We should have a healthy fear of God’s justice and Satan’s lies. In this sense, the book of Job could possibly be construed as a horror novel. Not only are there murderous Sabeans, houses that collapse leaving almost no one alive, and hideous boils but Job must deal with the spiritual anguish of trusting in God amidst terrible, seemingly unjust suffering. Humans “enjoy” being scared and consuming such literature because it is a safe way to “prepare for real danger,” as apologist Jimmy Akin explains so well in a vlog on Halloween.
                It Follows is a poster example of how to use this genre effectively. Jay (Maika Monroe in her first big role) is a normal girl dating an older man named Hugh (Jake Weary). One night they have sex in his car. As she plays with a flower and reminisces about her lost innocence, he drugs her and takes her a building where he explains that he is being stalked by “something” that he has now “passed on” to her via fornication. Despite the strange nature of his story, Jay soon begins noticing random people following her, slowly closing in, and quickly begins looking for an easy lay. However, even if she manages to seduce an unsuspecting victim, the nightmare isn’t over.
            It must be said before going into the many layers of this fine film that most of all It Follows is a ton of midnight fun. Rather than shock the audience with blood and gore, newbie writer-director David Robert Mitchell (great horror director name) builds intense suspense with great pacing and slowly revealing elements of the mythology. He also uses the camera brilliantly with pans and zooms from below and all around to create an eerie, unearthly sense of space. The art direction evokes earlier horror films from the eighties; although set in the present day, Jay and her friends use corded phones, box televisions, and typewriters. Even the haunting score is produced by a synthesizer. All that’s missing is Jazzercise and leg warmers. Oh, wait. There’s that too.
            The use of tainted sex as a symbol is profoundly potent. Early in the film, one of Jay’s friends asks if she and Hugh have had sex yet. Jay smiles and shakes her head as if someone asked if she like chocolate ice cream. Yet this causal attitude proves deadly; characters use others to save themselves, fully knowing it will prove lethal. One hears the prophetic voice of Pope Bl. Paul VI in Humanae Vitae:

“A man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.”

Sin begets sin from Adam and Eve through the generations, and it is now possible to see the full flowering of lust’s demonic fruits. In 1930, the Anglican Communion became the first major Christian group to allow contraception in marriage under limited circumstances. Within the next few decades, divorce and teen pregnancy rates would skyrocket while abortion became legalized. Today, same sex-marriage is legal in over half the US (almost always through tyrannical court decisions) and nearly 25% of women on college campuses will experience sexual assault. There is one brief moment where love is shared but not through sex.
            A striking aspect of It Follows is the complete lack of adult presence. It’s hard to grasp whether these teens are in high school or college as they freely drive around the city, coming and going at odd hours. Their parents are relegated to the sidelines often talking to each other while ignoring their children, many times difficult to hear and blurry like the nameless grown-ups in Charlie Brown. “Won’t your mom be upset” one teen asks another as they go up to his mother’s cabin. “She won’t even know I’m gone,” he sighs. This thing is able to roam free because the previous generation has neglected its responsibilities. So too the children of this world suffer from the sins of the past.
            The supernatural entity Jay encounters is never named, only referred to as “it” or “something” yet it has all the symptoms of a demonic spirit. It can have an effect on the physical world but is not itself bound by physical laws – being shot point blank several times only manages to slow it a little. While highly exaggerated, such creatures are real. Oddly enough, horror films seem to be the last place in American cinema where faith is taken seriously. Rather than try to deal with this evil, Jay only keeps passing it on, but Jesus asserts “these spirits can only be cast out through prayer and fasting,” meaning spiritual good. Pope Francis has been very explicit about the pressing need for deliverance ministry, and, should you find yourself in such an unfortunate situation, don’t be a hero. Call a priest.
            It Follows is terrific fun but also sends an important message loud and clear. The Sexual Revolution was supposed to set humanity free, but it further enslaved this culture to its passions, killing us softly. Something in our society is very, very wrong, and selfishness is no longer an option.

Post Script: The Catholic News Service (a branch of the USCCB) has rated this film morally objectionable, their most severe category. It is important to understand that these reviews are written by a single person, reflecting his or her personal opinion, and almost never a cleric. To my knowledge, they are not scrutinized by any committee or board. While usually an excellent guideline, this system does not carry the weight of an ecclesial or moral directive.
            Kurt Jensen, the author of the CNS review, spent less than 250 words coming to the conclusion that It Follows was “sloppy in execution, ambiguous in story line, and [ultimately a] dumb horror movie.” The only thing more horrific than It Follows was Mr. Jensen’s assessment of its merits.

This review first appeared in Catholic World Report on April 14th, 2015.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Teenage War is Hell Too

Shailene Woodley in Insurgent
“Teenage War is Hell Too”
A Review of Insurgent by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13

Reel Rating, Three Reels

            In any trilogy of art, the sequel is usually darker than the original, and Insurgent is no exception. Taking off shortly after Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) stopped the evil Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet) from completely taking over post-apocalyptic Chicago, the new rebellion finds that starting a war is easy but winning a war while keeping morals intact is much harder. The result is a film that is more uneven and unpleasant than the excellent Divergent but nonetheless manages to package an important message in a way teenagers can stomach.
            In the months following the failed coup, Tris and Four have been hiding in an Amity community near after Matthews falsely blamed them for the uprising. It becomes clear that Tris is suffering from PSTD, experiencing terrifying dreams at night and violent emotions during the day. As the film progresses, her mental state continues to deteriorate, frequently falling into fits of sobbing like Jeremiah weeping for Jerusalem. Her problems only increase when Matthews finds a mysterious box from the ancient founders of their society, which ironically can only be opened by Tris. Matthews believes the message will confirm her prejudice against Divergents and begins killing everyone in sight to get to her. Meanwhile, Four’s estranged mother Evelyn (Naomi Watts) has forged an underground alliance between the Factionless and the fugitive Dauntless, creating an army that could finally challenge Matthews’ dominance. Hope seems on the horizon when a tiny sliver of the hidden truth beyond the Wall is revealed until the very last seconds.
            The central thread running through this second installment is absolute Hell of war, not simply the loss of life but deep moral depravity. This society prized secular order over personal familial bonds, and now the consequences become shockingly evident. Tris is first betrayed by a close friend, then her only relative. Evelyn lets her son believe she was dead for years until he became political adventitious. The worst is Matthews who uses to mind control to force people to commit suicide. Even the “good characters” begin violating their own ideals. Four executes an enemy out of anger rather than necessity. Tris calmly announces that Matthews must die in order for peace. While the rebellion may indeed be successful, what is to stop the next generation from perpetuating the violence? The great problem with rebellions is that they usually make people less free in the end. History has proven this again and again from the French Revolution to ISIS. America showed that freedom is possible, but it is the exception, not the norm, and must be fought anew with every generation.
            One of the few moments of relaxation occurs when Tris and Four seek refuge at Candor headquarters; Candor is the justice faction that prizes honesty as the prime virtue. Daniel Kim plays Jack Kang, the leader of Candor, in a small but brilliant performance. He gives them an opportunity to testify under a truth serum, repeating a familiar phrase: “may the Truth set you free.” Amid heartache and tears, Tris and Four pour out their deepest secrets. Once the truth about Matthews is objectively revealed, Kang agrees to help them, giving the rebellion a fighting chance. This wonderful little scene is like a breath of fresh air because while the truth can be hidden or obscured, it doesn’t change. Once it comes out unfiltered, the right decision can be made.
            Insurgent is ultimately a brief lull in a much larger epic that will have its conclusion in the two part finale – a deplorable tradition and pure money grab started by the Harry Potter franchise. It answers many questions but proposes even more, leaving the audience not far from where it began. Ultimately, the biggest question is not what is beyond the walls of the city, but what does real freedom mean? Divergent showed clearly that real freedom comes from within, being a moral person. That’s less clear in Insurgent but still vaguely present under the apocalyptic ash heap that was once civilization.

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


War in Heaven

Pastor Lee and a child of God in The Drop Box
War in Heaven
A Review of The Drop Box by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, NR
USCCB Rating, NR
Reel Rating, 5 Reels

In the last few years, there have been a myriad of movies that dealt with pro-life topics ranging in quality from just okay (October Baby, Bella) to pretty good (Juno, Gimmie Shelter) but all failing to miss the bullseye. The Drop Box hits it dead center, and all it took was just showing the truth. Rather than approaching the issue through fiction, The Drop Box is a documentary that follows a Korean pastor who builds a sort-of mailbox with an alarm for desperate women to anonymously drop off infants instead of abandoning them in the streets as had become all too commonplace. Director Brian Ivie takes what could have been a very dreary topic and makes it infinitely accessible, severe enough to demand change but lighthearted enough to be enjoyable on a Saturday night date with popcorn and soda. The Drop Box is one of the best films of the decade so far.
            In the 1970s, Jong-rak Lee was a seminary student so skinny he earned the nickname fish bones. He freely admits learning the guitar simply to attract girls and soon earned the reputation of a ladies man despite no actual experience. After school, he married and started a small church in the capital city of Seoul. His life would change forever when his first son Eun was born with several serious deformities. Eun would spend the next fourteen years in the hospital, and Lee eventually sold his house to pay for the medical bills. Several years later, Lee discovered an abandoned baby outside the church gate; she had been exposed to the cold for several hours and almost froze to death. He began to search for a way to help those poor souls, especially ones with disabilities. He came up with the idea for his Drop Box after seeing similar devices in the Czech Republic, based in part on medieval monasteries which cared for infants that were left on their doorstep. The documentary not only looks at Lees solution but examines the serious social injustices that lead to such an inhumane practice. There is a serious stigma surrounding unwed mothers. For example, girls in school who are discovered to be pregnant are often expelled or beaten by their relatives. One woman tells Lee over the phone that she is planning to poison herself and the baby. Fortunately, he talks her out of it.
Every frame of this film radiates human dignity. When Lee discovers a new baby, he immediately prays over her, thanking God for another gift. Many of these babies have serious health problems, and Lee is commonly told that it would be better if they just died. No, he replies calmly. They teach us. His strong pro-life ethic comes not just from personal experience but is a direct product of his Christian faith. I adopt others because God adopted me, he explains at the end. Most of the infants will enter state run orphanages or foster care, but if they cannot be placed, Lee and his wife will often adopt them and now boasts a family size rivaled only by the Duggars. These little miracles fill his house with endless joy. One child with only four functional fingers trains in karate and was recently elected president of his fourth grade class. Another four year old with only one hand uses his stump to hold down a Christmas present while he gleefully unwraps it. Rarely is anyone not smiling.
Pastor Lee is one of those rare people who earn the title of living saint, a symbol of Christ present in this world. He has given up everything this world has to offer for the sake of these children, a life that is foolishness to the Gentiles. He shares not only in Christs sufferings, but His death as well. Lee suffers greatly from diabetes and high blood pressure, exasperated by the fact he rarely gets a full nights sleep with babies being dropped off nearly every night. He is dying for these children. The only other person with this kind of singular devotion to the poor in recent memory was Bl. Teresa of Calcutta; they will be fast friends in Heaven.
Dr. King said that in the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends. The Drop Box illustrates how a Protestant minister, with no connection to apostolic Christianity or even a mainline denomination, is storming the gates of Heaven at full speed. Meanwhile in rich and comfortable America, many Catholics are not only apathetic to the plight of the unborn but actively and unapologetically pro-choice. It is a scandal of the highest order. Lees simple smile should call all Catholics anyone with a pulse really to righteous militancy. Catholics must end this genocide in our own country and rescue as many victims along the way, child and mother alike. In Korea, women do not abort nearly as much as in the United States, preferring abandonment. Its still inhumane but at least theres a chance.

The best line in The Drop Box occurs right at the beginning when one of Lees children describes his home. Its like Heaven, he explains. People are walking around like angels. But suddenly the alarm goes off and everything changes. Everybody is rushing; its like a war a war in Heaven. Ive never heard a better explanation of the beatific vision outside the Bible, when the hosts of Heaven rush to the immediate aid of the faithful on Earth. Lee and his ever expanding family are living the Kingdom of God. This Kingdom includes someone very close to me, my sister Dorothy adopted from the same city where Pastor Lee operates. She too had a spinal condition that made her difficult to place, but my parents loved her immediately. Today, she is a vibrant, funny, confident young woman with much better social skills and fashion taste than myself, now wrapping up a year with AmeriCore serving the most vulnerable of our society.  Her life matters. Everyone's life matters. Please see this film. Please, please see this film.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on March 11, 2015.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Shades of Sins, Theories of Love

“Shades of Sins, Theories of Love”

A Review of Fifty Shades of Grey and Old Fashioned by Nick Olszyk

Fifty Shades of Grey
MPAA Rating, R
USCCB Rating, O
Reel Rating, One Reel  
Fifty Shades of Grey
Old Fashioned
MPAA Rating, PG-13
USCCB Rating, NR
Reel Rating, Three Reels              

Old Fashioned
“Basing itself on Sacred Scripture and Tradition, the Church has always definitively taught that the arts…are a grey area.”
- Anonymous priest of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary

            The controversy, celebrity, infamy, and general “talk” surrounding the film Fifty Shades of Grey is a mania only matched by 2013’s Frozen, but hopefully there won’t be any plush toys in the near future…oh wait, there already is. Between Catholic World Report and National Catholic Register, four articles were written about the subject in the span of a week, not to mention countless blog posts and endless airtime across EWTN and Catholic Radio. Meanwhile, the smaller romance Old Fashioned from PureFlix (God’s Not Dead, The Book of Esther), in a brilliant piece of marketing, positioned itself as the Christian alternative leading to a David and Goliath matchup with roses and rope instead of slings and swords. All this leads to a wonderful opportunity to share the Christian message of love and intimacy to a thirsty world, or possibly spend your Valentine’s date at nice restaurant instead. I recommend the Jazz Kitchen at Downtown Disney.
            Fifty Shades hits the ground running and barely pauses for two hours to catch its breath or contemplate its better judgment. Ana Steele (Dakota Johnson) is a mousy college student who volunteers to interview billionaire entrepreneur Christian Grey (James Dornan) for her yearbook. Grey immediately pursues her with the furious intensity of a wolf stalking its prey. She is pretty but also vulnerable and curious, the perfect candidate to groom for his perverse desires. He uses many psychological tactics familiar to those in the pickup-artist community so devastatingly captured in Neil Strauss’ classic book The Game. He heaps praise on her, then immediately dismisses her. He only gives her enough information to want more but waits to reveal his true intentions until she is wrapped around his finger. Finally, he “purposes.” He wants Ana to sign a legal contract that will establish a BDSM relationship with him as the Dominant and her as the Submissive. This would include fellatio, bondage, whipping, and other forms of sexual punishment all at the whim of the Dominant. “What would I get out of this?” she asks understandably. He flashes a charming smile, “me.” Any sane woman would at this point run for the hills – to his credit, Christian gives her this opportunity – but Ana has been so carefully manipulated that she actually toys with the idea. People find this obviously abusive relationship exciting because it flies in the face of everything they have been told by society. Humans have an instinct towards natural law and obedience to the Father, yet they are told from day one to fulfill every personal desire. If a person cannot bring themselves to express this need in healthy ways, they will be attracted to unhealthy ways.
            If Christian Grey represents indulgence to the extreme, Clay Shaw (Rik Swartzwelder) of Old Fashioned goes completely in the opposite direction, not merely exercising chastity but abstaining from any form of sexual expression so far as to render himself almost neuter. He owns an antique store in a quiet Texas town with only a few friends and family as company. One afternoon, a bright, flirtatious artist asks if she can rent the room over the store. Clay sheepishly agrees to help Amber (Elizabeth Roberts) but is oddly immune to her charms. In a fun role reversal, she actively tries to woo him while he quietly distances himself, which of course only encourages her even more. She is a product of the sexual revolution with a string of bad decisions including a divorce in her past. Clay is very “old fashioned” with an arsenal of theories regarding modern romance, especially that “dating only sets us up for failure.” That might be true, but it does little to appease the obvious feelings these lovebirds have for one another.
            Very few people want to hear about the story of these films, whether the cinematography is any good, or if the supporting characters compliment the main ones. People want to hear about sex. Usually, this would be really annoying but both movies center thematically on the relationship between sex and love, so here it’s actually quite an honest question. In Fifty Shades, sex is not treated casually but there is a modern sense that intercourse not need be tied to marriage. When Grey learns that Ana is a virgin, he is both surprised and appalled. “Well, we must rectify this situation,” he announces, as if she needs a vaccination before going on a camping trip. One can’t start with gags and handcuffs; that would be rude. The sex scenes are quite graphic, lengthy, and – in the astute words of the MPAA– feature “unusual behavior” as the camera frequently glides across their naked bodies in a gratuitous fashion. The most disturbing scene involves Ana being tied naked to a red bed as she is whipped. With chanting in the background and Ana’s body strung out in a cross-like position, the passion imagery is obvious and very blasphemous, implying that sadistic sex is somehow spiritually freeing. Old Fashioned, of course, contains no sexuality or nudity of any kind but also no fun or laughter. Even when Clay agrees to go out with Amber, all he wants to talk about how they would manage their finances if they got married. It’s understandable to avoid certain behaviors, but love should bring joy, not frustration and certainly not physical pain.
            For Christian, Ana is nothing but a tool of physical pleasure, not just the carnal desire for sexual release but the deeper pride of controlling a rational being. He is so sure of himself that he hides none of this from Ana and delights in explaining what he plans to do to her. “How many other women have stayed here before,” she asks. He doesn’t hesitate: “fifteen.” Yet despite her vulnerability, Ana is more than Christian bargained. She finds some unexpected confidence and demands that he amend the contract before she signs it for good, and here’s where the story gets interesting. She wants to go on real dates, be kissed, and sleep in his bed; things that are forbidden in his fantasy because they smell too much like the “L” word. “I don’t make love,” he scowls. “I f**k…hard.” Gradually, it becomes clear Grey was not created a monster but made so by a horribly abusive past. He speaks in the language of sexual pain because it is the only one he understands. Despite the criticism regarding the quality of the source material, Christian and Ana are very well written characters, performed wonderfully. At the climax, Christian finally inflicts real, measurable pain on Ana, and she has had enough. She will not be with him if he continues to control her. For all its sexual content, Fifty Shades ends with a surprisingly strong affirmation of basic human dignity. Relationships should not be about control. Love requires supporting people rather than molding them into a mirror of personal desires.
            In a weird way, Clay is just as controlling as Christian. When he arrives at Amber’s apartment to fix her oven, he makes her stand outside in the cold because he refuses “to be in the same room alone with a woman.” He loves talking to his guy friends about his theories regarding the downfall of chivalry but won’t have an honest conversation with a potential spouse. Like Christian, he treats women as an idea rather than a person. Christian throws women in the dirt, Clay puts women on an unreachable pedestal. Both reject the very first words uttered by a human being to his beloved: “This is bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.” Men and women may be different in nature but they are equal in value. This unhealthy attitude also comes from a checkered past that in some ways is worse than Fifty Shades. Fortunately, Clay realizes that he allowed his own pride to block God’s forgiveness and needs to move on with his life, including expressing his love for Amber. She also learns how to respect him; soon they are ready to begin a wonderful life together.
             What constitutes great art? As a frequent connoisseur of media, I am faced again and again with films of excellent quality that argue for immoral ideas. Worse still, many Christians seems perfectly content with movies that support great truth but are woefully boring or amateur. Fifty Shades is remarkably sophisticated in its craft – visually stunning, bold, honest, and even quite witty – yet the agony of its content seriously undercuts anything positive it might have to say about healthy relationships. Its message isn’t earned. Old Fashioned has its moments but is nowhere near as clever. First time director Rik Swartzwelder makes a truckload of mistakes from long musical montages to whole scenes out of focus to casting himself as the lead actor, looking a million years older than his female counterpart. It’s entertaining enough to start a good dialogue about Christian courtship but could have been so much better. In the end, it’s simply a matter of good judgment. My judgment is that Old Fashioned provides fun and thoughtful if a bit unstable entertainment for a romantic evening. Fifty Shades of Grey does not.


            Many have labeled Fifty Shades of Grey as pornographic. The Catechism states that pornography “consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners in order to display them deliberately to third parties.” What does it mean by “simulated sexual acts?” Does that mean just soft-core pornography where penetration is not visible? What about nudity apart from sex or even simulated kissing?
            Something helpful in this dialogue is a list of “forty-five great films” the Vatican released in 1995 on the centennial of cinema’s birth. Several of these films contain sex scenes or nudity, but these scenes serve the story. Sexuality is an important part of the human condition and was originally created by God to help people know His love better. Thus, it is perfectly acceptable to portray sex using the arts. However, due to original sin, any expression of sexuality should respect the dignity of the performers and the audience.

            Fifty Shades of Grey is not a sophomoric college comedy; it is a film about sexual perversion and necessitates an honest conversation about its subject matter. Yet, director Sam Taylor-Johnson is extremely imprudent in its portrayal. This is not casual entertainment, especially if someone is prone to lustful temptations. The only ones who might benefit from it are mature adults who are genuinely interested in the Theology of the Body and its comparison to sexual philosophies of the secular world – basically Jason Evert, Christopher West, and me. Shades is pretty bad but not the boogeyman many make it out to be. I can think of better films that are more graphic and many worse that are less.