Tuesday, October 14, 2014

See You at the Movies

Classicl Siskel and Ebert
“See You at the Movies”
A Review of Life Itself by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, R
USCCB Rating, NR
Reel Rating, 4 Reels

            Roger Ebert was the greatest film critic of all time, a man whose career “spanned half the history of motion pictures.” Yet while enduring a debilitating illness, he also became a wonderful reviewer of life itself, culminating in an autobiography from which this work derives its title. The film delivers a sound summary of Ebert’s journey from the blue collar son of an electrician to an alcoholic journalist to a master of the English word but excels at demonstrating his passion for film and the effect he had on the industry. It’s a very compelling documentary that is oddly absent of his thoughts on religion, especially his Catholic upbringing, yet nonetheless is essential viewing for any lover of movies.
            From the first scene, director Steve James makes his presence and purpose known to the audience. Roger Ebert even asks him to point the camera to a mirror so that we    know who is telling the story. This is fitting as James is one of countless filmmakers that owes Ebert much of their success; his documentary Hoop Dreams was named by Ebert as the best film of the 1990s. James begins in December of 2013 with Ebert stationed at a local hospital, suffering greatly from a fractured hip, but that is not the most dramatic medical element. In 2006, Ebert suffered a ruptured artery after a difficult operation to remove a tumor in his jaw, leaving him unable to speak, eat, or drink. This does not daunt his spirits as he continues to review movies and blog about all elements of life. His humor and courage harkens back to the final days of St. John Paul the Great who continued his ministry publicly despite a disease the progressively robbed him of all motor function. It is difficult to watch Ebert wince in wordless pain as fluid is drained from his trachea, but the scene encourages respect and dignity for the disabled, aged, and dying.
            Interspliced with his hospital visits and rehab sessions, James allows Ebert to narrate his life story. The only child of populist Michigan parents, Ebert began publishing his own newspaper while in his teens and was a natural writer, rising through the journalist ranks to become the Chicago Sun-Times’ film critic, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 at only thirty-three years old. After a brief and bizarre stint as a screenwriter for a series of sexploitation films – which his TV producer tries in vain to explain – he landed international fame as the rounder and earthier half of Siskel & Ebert with his frienemy from the Chicago Inquirer Gene Siskel. He continued to widen his cinematic insight with writing, teaching classes, attending festivals, and hobknobbing with the rich and famous at red carpet events. As the documentary progresses, Ebert grows weaker and weaker until a heartbreaking end that is sadly incongruent with the rest of his life.
            It’s very rare to see a man who finds his passion early, is extremely skilled in that area, and comes at the right time and circumstance to allow that passion to thrive unbounded. Emerson’s famous adage comes to mind: “pick a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” Yet Ebert not only loved film, he loved the people and led others in pursuing their passions. James interviews several filmmakers who got their start by simply asking Ebert to view their movies. Even the great Martin Scorsese, usually known for his gab and pleasant wit, briefly begins to break down as he recalls how Ebert brought him out of a deep depression in the early 80s, convincing him to continue make movies (including Raging Bull). Ebert’s TV show also brought his intellectual observations to the common moviegoer, igniting scores of amateur internet blogs like Ain’t It Cool News and Awards Daily. Ebert fully embraced this movement, posting all of his reviews online for free. Great artists aren’t afraid of competition because they know it will only advance the medium; love is meant to be shared.
            Despite his success, Ebert had a dark side and was only too willing to admit it. Nights during his twenties and thirties were frequently spent in bars with seedy women. Rare was the morning that did not start with a hangover; a friend remembers him even picking up a prostitute and leaving her with someone else to get her home. In 1979, he quit drinking, joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and started cultivating important friendships. In 1992, he married Chaz and became step-father to a large family. His final years saw an outpouring of affection and a deep need to help humanity. Ebert blogged not only about movies but also important issues of the day such as religion, politics, philosophy, and his decreasing health. A film critic has to be interested in all aspects of life as the art form deals with every subject under the sun and open to different expressions of humanity. It is this exposure to a wide range of ideas that Ebert saw as film’s greatest strength. He called it “an empathy generator,” where for two hours people experience what it’s like in someone else’s shoes.
            The greatest flaw with Life Itself is that it completely ignores Ebert’s intense interest in spiritual matters, especially regarding his Catholic upbringing. He would frequently mention his days in Catholic grade school and being an alter boy, even defending priests when the sexual abuse scandal broke in 2002. For someone who had an oddly intense attraction to sexually explicit films, Ebert had a very strong moral compass. He often gave poor reviews to films he felt violated these norms, calling Blue Velvet “disturbing” and Wolf Creek a “sadistic celebration.” He also blogged frequently about religious matters, telling his audience:

“I consider myself Catholic, lock, stock and barrel, with this technical loophole: I cannot believe in God. I refuse to call myself an atheist however, because that indicates too great a certainty about the unknowable.”

Most of this is missing, except for one very funny albeit mean comment about Siskel’s Protestantism. For an excellent survey of Ebert’s faith, I recommend Steven Graydanus’ moving obituary.
            If a film is measured by the empathy it shows, Life Itself is wonderful. James effectively captures one man’s life, honestly portraying the good, the bad, and the transcendent. Ebert’s greatest testament is living proof that if one should follow their passion to the fullest degree, amazing things will happen. Many who knew Ebert took this to heart and now carry on his legacy. I am one of them. While a struggling film student in 2006, I e-mailed Ebert asking about his Catholic faith and if he could recommend any good Catholic movies. To my great surprise, he responded about a month later. “Dear Nick,” he wrote. “I’m not a very good Catholic anymore, but I do recommend Dairy of a Country Priest. Sincerely, Roger.”

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on September 18th, 2014. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Way Too Close

Jeff Bridges teaching Brenton Thwaites in The Giver
“Way Too Close”
A Review of The Giver by Nick Olszyk

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

            The Giver is a dark and disturbing tale that hits too close to home to be enjoyable but perhaps may be necessary to shock some out of their apathy. Some films focus too much on “ideas” rather than the story narrative; this is an idea movie on steroids that spends far too little on plot and character development while throwing out a huge number of themes without getting into too much depth. It’s a mile wide but an inch deep. While movies should touch on difficult topics, they should still be entertaining. The Giver is as entertaining as its grim color palate and a bit vague in its central message but still compelling.
            The story is adapted from the Louis Lowry classic that every middle schooler had to read in the mid 90s. It does a good job translating for the screen, keeping faithful to the original while updating subplots for a 21st century audience. The Giver serves up yet another YA dystopian fantasy where adolescents fight an oppressive, Orwellian society. It has the eugenics of Brave New World, the euthanasia and claustrophobia of Logan’s Run, the teenage angst of Divergent, and the emotional stagnation and medical brainwashing of Equilibrium. This future is called the Community, a closed world on a misty plateau that seems to only hold a few thousand people. It is a rigid society with strictly enforced rules including no emotions, sex, or lying. Babies are created in a lab and placed in stagnant families that really exist to keep children in line while the elderly and sick are taken to a place called “Elsewhere.” Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) and his friends Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) nervously awaited the Ceremony where they will be assigned a job for life. Jonas is given the unique role of Receiver of Memories, the only member of the society who has access to the distant past and advises the Council of Elders on important decisions. Jonas is trained by the Giver (Jeff Bridges) who telepathically shows Jonas positive memories, including music, love, happiness, childbirth, and *gasp* colors. However, Jonas is also shown fear, hate, war, and murder. The Giver explains that the Community had to set aside all love to remove all hate, all good to stop all evil. Jonas thinks this was a bad bargain.
            Rules are a funny thing. No one in the right mind would argue the abolition of morality or law. Yet there also exists deep within man a rebellious spirit, not just original sin, but breaking unjust boundaries. The Community enforces their rules by giving every citizen a potent injection that stifles their emotions and individual drive, but it is doomed to fail because human nature cannot be fought; only misdirected. Catholic teaching understands that social norms and artificial laws are useful but shouldn’t be deified. St. Paul explains that “everything is lawful but not everything is beneficial.” For Christians, life is not about rules but about a relationship. Good deeds flow from a love of neighbor, which is ultimately a love of Christ. If rules are followed simply as a Kantian imperative, there will crumble.
            For a film produced by the Weinsteins, starring Jeff Bridges and Meryl Steep, it’s remarkably pro-life, not just in terms of abortion but euthanasia, genetic testing, and a whole host of bioethical and political issues. Babies are constantly mentioned and seen throughout the film. Until newborns are proven healthy, they are not allowed into homes or even to be named. Jonas’ father (Alexander Skarsgård) breaks this rule by taking in Gabriel (played by four different infants), hoping he will catch up with the others. Later, Jonas witnesses his father committing an act of infanticide. Even as I write this, it’s hard to hold back tears of agony. Nothing in this scene is hidden; director Phillip Noyce keeps the camera on the poor nameless baby as she is injected, slowly dies, and thrown down a garbage chute. I’ve seen hundreds of R-rated films, but even The Boondock Saints and The Wolf of Wall Street had nothing as disturbing as this. “They told me they made a society free from murder,” Jonas remarks. “But they didn’t. They just called it something else.” That quote alone almost compelled me to give the film five reels. When Gabriel is scheduled to be taken to Elsewhere, Jonas rescues him and flees the Community. If he can’t save the whole world, at least he can save just one person.
            Another surprisingly counter-cultural feature is the importance of a nuclear family. Deprived of real parents, the State becomes the ultimate authority for everyone. Jonas’ mother (Katie Holmes) even spies on him and reports his unorthodox actions to the Chief Elder (Marilyn Streep). Jonas feels a special connection to Fiona, but until he receives the memories has no word for it: love. He convinces her to stop taking her injections and shares a private kiss. This stirs something unseen in her, and she agrees to help him escape. Together, they are able to give Gabriel a chance at life and become, in an odd way, his parents. The Giver argues that children deserve not only a mother and a father, but their real mother and father. Social and political roles are a mirror of the family, not the other way around.
            Why are there so many dystopian fantasies recently, and why have they all done reasonably well? Among many people, there is a prevailing sense of dread. Doomsday Preppers would not exist unless it struck a real nerve in the American public. Even odder, this is felt by both the political left and the right. From the Iraqi War to the HHS Mandate, from the Common Core to Citizens United, everyone feels they are on a precipice, moments away from destruction. The common factor is the violation of individual autonomy, and the solution is obvious. Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Unlike the baby-boomers who created this mess, millennials still hold to this dream, and these films affirm their expectations. Everyone has the right to seek the Truth and live free from coercion whether it’s sponsoring a same-sex wedding or NSA phone taps. The Giver is a dreary, thoroughly unpleasant experience, but I secretly hope it does well at the box office if only as a wakeup call to stop a future that’s not too far away.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on August 19th, 2014.


Sauce and Spice

Romantic and culinary love in Hundred Foot Journey
“Sauce and Spice”
A Review of The Hundred Foot Journey by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG
Reel Rating, 2 Michelin Stars = 4 Reels

            The Hundred Foot Journey is a simple film about good food, good people, and how to live a pleasant life with the cards that are dealt. It harkens back to the romantic comedies of the 30s and 40s, where humor came from misunderstandings and irony rather than a slew of cuss words and insults. Even enemies treated each other decently. While the film does explore moral issues, it treads lightly, not wanting to offend its customers’ pallet yet not afraid to allow its characters to make mistakes and deal with the consequences. Perhaps this cute little dessert is not for everyone, but it’s hard to deny its impeccable taste.
            Thousands of miles from the nearest Michelin star establishment, a family headed by a man only referred to as “Papa’ (Om Puri) runs a quaint little restaurant in rural Bombay. His son Hasan (Manish Dayal) cooks the food, mentored by his elegant and loving Mama. Suddenly, the family is attacked during a riot that burns down the building, killing Mama in the process. The family flees to France and tries to open a flamboyant eatery called Maison Mumbai with loud music and even louder spices. “People here do not eat Indian food,” one son complains. “They have never tried it,” Papa insists. One person who certainly will never try Papa’s food is Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), a widow who lives for classical French cuisine. She runs Le Saule Pleureur, a restaurant frequented by the Prime Minister. Only a hundred feet away and directly facing Mumbai, Pleureur does have a Michelin star and Mallory has been trying for thirty years to achieve another. What Pleureur does not have is Hasan, who cooks with love, passion, and intense curiosity. He strikes up a romance with Mallory’s souse chef Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), who introduces him to French techniques. While Romeo & Juliet carry on, Papa and Mallory try to outdo one another in crazy and often hilarious attempts to shut down the other’s business.
            Papa and Mallory represent a classic clash of culture, not full blown xenophobia (yet) but a subtle war of smirks, glances, and snide remarks. “What’s that noise over there,” one customer asks. “The death of good taste,” Mallory sneers. “Be careful,” the town’s mayor tells her. “You don’t want to be caught in sympathy with [racists].” “I would never be caught in sympathy with anyone,” she responds. Yet the bad feelings from both sides build to a boiling point when Mallory’s chef and his friends deface and attempt to burn down Mumbai. After firing him, Mallory and Papa realize their actions have helped this happen and start a hesitant friendship. Mallory even offers Hasan a position in her kitchen, which leads to a competition and estrangement between him and Marguerite. Hundred Foot isn’t preachy or overly sentimental, yet it effectively argues the importance of being open to new ideas, possibilities, and people. If a person never lets his guard down, how can anybody reach him? The French are known for their sauces, the Indians for their spices. Together, it’s a perfect marriage.
            Like Chef and Julie & Julia, it’s importance not to see this film on an empty stomach. It is filled with the most magnificent foods, all beautifully sown into the story by cinematographer Linus Sandgren. While Marguerite has the proper training, Hasan has the passion, which comes from his mother. Hasan is wise, meaning he properly understands not just the content of food but its purpose. Food is one of the great joys of life and a distinctly human feature. Cooking takes a purely physical need and turns it into an aesthetic experience that has spiritual qualities. This is the essence of the arts – to celebrate God’s creation by helping humans see His presence in the world.
            Ultimately, Hundred Foot is about family and that inescapable comfort people call “home.” Mallory and Papa are hurt by the past and missing their lost love ones; Papa still speaks to Mama who he believes helps guide his path. Hasan too experiences this pain. After becoming a famous chef, he goes to Paris to train in an extremely pretentious, high tech kitchen that would make even Gordon Ramsey blush. “Foods release enzymes that activate specific areas of the brain,” his boss tells Hasan. Um…what? Hasan rises in popularity and celebrity but feels depressed and uninspired. One night, he encounters another Indian working late alone, munching on his wife’s home cooking. Hasan tries only a few bites and bursts into tears. No food is as good as food cooked by your family. “Food is memories,” he contemplates. Indeed, eating is more than food – it is fellowship. This is why Jesus describes Heaven as a wedding banquet and why I still hold out hope that there will be bacon wrapped shrimp in the afterlife.

            The Hundred Foot Journey is like a very nice glass of local wine. No, it’s not a 50 year old French vintage that costs thousands of dollars, but it’s from home. It’s not the best picture of the year, but it doesn’t try to be. It wants only to give you a hug bear hug, comfortable and warm. Like Pleureur, that deserves at least two stars.

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

Monday, August 11, 2014

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Man and Ape in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
“Monkey See, Monkey Do”
A Review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13
Reel Rating, Four Reels      

            In the Genesis account of a new sentient race, 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes served as the Creation story, where non-human members of the family Hominadae (chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, and bonobos) gained consciousness. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is their fall from grace, when a conflict breaks their calm society and causes some to commit great acts of evil. Sin is the price of moral freedom, and it is a heavy one. The film is effective in this portrayal if a bit uneven and long; yet, the special effects, acting, and attention to detail – especially primate sign language – is spectacular. In the end, it is one’s choices, not DNA, which determine what makes a “man.”
            Dawn begins a decade after Rise when the Simian flu has wiped out most of humanity; the first sentient ape Caesar (Andy Serkis) now governs a community just outside San Francisco and has not seen a human for a long time. The apes live a peaceful existence hunting deer, building elaborate tree houses, and developing a rudimentary education system. Suddenly, they come into contact with a group of survivors searching for a hydroelectric dam in the hills. For years, they’ve been rewiring the electrical lines in the city in hopes of bringing the power grid back up. Caesar is hesitant but thinks helping them will bring a truce, preventing a bloody war. His advisor Koba (Toby Kebbell) believes all humans are evil and assistance will only make it easier for them to destroy the apes. The humans are just as restless. The colony’s leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) wants an immediate strike while scientist Malcolm (Jason Clarke) believes it’s immoral to kill them.
            The central issue is empathy, the ability to feel and understand another person. While Caesar did lead the ape uprising, he was raised by a kind primatologist and now rears two sons of his own. Koba was a lab monkey, the subject of countless experiments. “We will help the human work,” Caesar says. Koba grunts and points to the various scars on his body: “Human work.” On the other side, Malcolm and his wife work with Caesar, playing with his newborn son and healing his sick wife. Dreyfus can only think of the family he has lost. “We were attacked!” He screams. “They are animals!” He cannot, or will not, see that they too have family and were abused, tortured, and oppressed by humans.
            In the beginning, the apes lived in quasi-innocence. They do get angry, bored, and frustrated but work seamlessly together and never raise a hand to hurt one another. This changes as many apes begin to question Caesar’s leadership and factions spring up in the society. Suddenly, Koba commits a Cain-like offense, and all Hell breaks loose. Caesar realizes he now lives in a very different yet oddly familiar world that will require him to think outside his own species. “Caesar loves humans more than apes!” Koba accuses. “Koba does not care for apes,” Caesar asserts. “Koba cares for Koba.” This is an important revelation, that a human can act inhuman – an ape can act “inape.” Freedom allows a person to act against their nature, sometimes in terrifying ways.
            In this review, I have treated the apes as they are portrayed in the film – persons. They have a soul. In reality, apes, dolphins, and elephants, while very intelligent, do not posses a spirit. It is not moral to treat them as humans; they do not have rights. However, as part of God’s creation, it is immoral to treat them in a disrespectful and wasteful manner – especially abuse, which is a grave sin. Dawn is a work of science fiction and cannot be used to argue for or against certain aspects of animal welfare. This does not exclude the possibility of non-human persons. Indeed, the angels precede man. There is nothing in the deposit of faith that would limit God’s ability to create other material creatures that are rational beings; as technology penetrates into deeper and deeper space it is not so much a question of if, but when this will be discovered. To avoid again committing the genocides that occurred at the discovery of the New World, it would behoove Catholic theologians to prepare for this eventuality.

            As expected for a large budget action flick, Dawn ends with a final climatic battle, but, regardless of the winner, this will not end the war. Life for apes and humans will only become more and more difficult. At the same time, there are a precious few – man and beast alike – who find solace in what they share: the capacity for good. A sentient being does not choose consciousness but it can choose holiness or depravity. Koba believes that militancy is the answer, but such a society will always need an enemy. When it runs out of external forces, it will consume itself. Caesar and Malcolm understand that empathy is not simply righteous; it is the only way to survive.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on July 14th, 2014. 

When Louise Had a Granddaughter

The new Thelma and Louise
“When Louise Had a Granddaughter”
A Review of Tammy by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, R
Reel Rating, Two Reels

            Although her most creative work is the sweet and gentle better half of Mike & Molly, Melissa McCarthy is best known as a foul-mouthed piece of work in films like Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Identity Thief. In Tammy, this character is at her lowest point after being fired unjustly from her low wage fast food job and discovering her husband Greg (Nat Faxon) cheating in the same afternoon. In order to clear her head, she goes on a whirlwind road trip with her equally rambunctious grandmother Pearl (Susan Sarandon). Tammy contains some really funny moments, especially between Tammy and Pearl, but these are just a few small morsels drowning in a lethal concoction of booze, adultery, and a host of other bad behaviors. It’s an amusing film but not particularly memorable.
            After having a day to rival Alexander’s, Tammy tries to borrow her mother’s (Allison Janney) car to go “somewhere.” When she refuses, her grandma, already packed, supplies the car and $6,700 provided she gets to tag along. I’m surprised Geena Davis didn’t tag along. Along the way, they engage in drunk driving, fighting minors, and bonding over broken stories of the past until Tammy needs money to bail Pearl out of jail. Tammy then attempts to rob from her former employer in the movie’s funniest scene. “Do you want to die?” Tammy growls at an elderly burger flipper through a paper bag mask. “I’m a veteran,” he responds. Tammy is taken aback: “Really? Well, thank you for your service.” Tammy doesn’t get any tough love or sage advice until she meets Pearl’s cousin Lenore (Kathy Bates). “You have to work hard,” she growls. “You can’t just bitch and moan and expect life to give you things.” It’s the kick in the pants she needs but no one has given her. She does have the courage to admit her mistakes and move on.
            The most troubling aspect of Tammy is the casual treatment of sexuality, although “fun” drunk driving without consequences is probably worse. There are literally no role models for relationships. Tammy rightly criticizes her husbands for committing adultery saying “I’m pretty sure they burn,” yet immediately hooks up with Bobby. How does she meet this Bobby? His father, also still married, is having an affair with Pearl after she kicked Tammy out of their hotel room for a one night stand. Probably the most stable couple is Lenore (Kathy Bates) and her partner Susanne (Sandra Oh) who hosts a lesbian 4th of July celebration that includes the ceremoniously burning of a jet ski and Pearl flashing everyone while plastered.
            McCarthy and Sarandon have fairly good chemistry but it’s hampered by how constantly they berate each other. In one of the closing scenes, Pearl gets drunk (again) after promising Tammy not to and gives an obscenity laced monologue where she calls Tammy a “cheeseburger” and blames her for Greg’s infidelity. It goes too far, and even though Pearl apologizes when sober, it still stings. Their reconciliation isn’t well earned even though they have improved slightly by the end.  

            There is a really funny, cute little movie inside Tammy but it’s delivered in a grease stained McDonalds’s bag. In The Heat, McCarthy and Bullock shared much better chemistry because their characters were more developed, funnier, and they genuinely cared for each other as the film progressed. In Tammy, there are only sad people behaving badly; the audience is supposed to like some and hate others, but really we just end up being mostly indifferent to everyone.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on July 10th, 2014.

Family Before Faction

Tris and Four in Divergent
Family Before Faction
A Review of Divergent by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13
Reel Rating, Four Reels       

            The YA fantasy genre has been so overplayed in the last decade that it requires its own set of sub genres including wizardry, mythological, paranormal, and the ever loved/hated vampirism or lycanthropy (look it up, kids). Divergent would fit nicely in the future political dystopia category, yet it stealthily rises above the rest. It is better than the films City of Bones (duh), better than Percy Jackson (okay), better than The Hunger Games (gasp)…even better than Harry Potter (oh no he DIDN’T). Potter has a better trained Shakespearian cast and Hunger Games has more visual wonder, but Divergent manages to surpass them all where it is most important: training teenagers to be spiritual warriors in the postmodern world.
            Set in post-WWIII Chicago, society is composed of five factions based on personality traits: Abnegation (selflessness), Amity (peace), Candor (honesty), Dauntless (bravery), and Erudite (intelligence). Each faction has specific roles and uniforms – making shopping easier but stifling any true individuality. Abnegation was chosen to rule this uneasy peace because they were the least power hungry. When teenagers come of age, they take a mental test to determine their personality but are allowed to choose any faction – a permanent commitment. Tris (Shailene Woodley) comes from a prominent Abnegation family but her test reveals an aptitude in Abnegation, Erudite, and Dauntless. The technician says it’s an extremely rare condition called Divergent, dangerous to society because it violates the system. Tris ultimately decides to join Dauntless and try to blend in, but her handsome recruit leader Four (Theo James) discovers her secret just in time to expose a potential coup by Erudite with Dauntless as unknowing accomplices.
            The themes of mind control, oppression, and conformity will be familiar to any high school student reading Brave New World or 1984, but Divergent is unique in its focus on the family. One of prized adages of this nameless society is “faction over family.” If a son or daughter chooses to leave their family’s faction, they are forbidden from any future contact and the parents can be proud they’ve sacrificed another child for the society. Family, love, and sex are hindrances to social order. However, it is Tris’ family that ultimately helps her in the Erudite war, not her Dauntless comrades. Illegally, they become her closest allies, including her Erudite older brother. Due to her upbringing, Tris sadly finds intimate relationships with anyone difficult. Even when she allows herself to love Theo, she is deathly afraid of sexual contact and insists they “take it slow,” a line that’s as rare in a YA films as being Divergent. Yet, his fear of intimacy or even casual friendships is becoming more common in films like The Hunger Games and Frozen. It’s a symptom of Millennials growing up in the homes of the first generation to accept the sexual revolution and its devastating results.
            The central reason the society has been divided in this tyrranical manner is to “fight human nature.” Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), head of Erudite and the primary antagonist, believes people need to be tightly controlled because their instincts are evil, a temptation common to both religious leaders like John Calvin and political leaders like Karl Marx. Christians believe the opposite; we were created good. Even when tainted by original sin, St. Paul can still tell the pagan Greeks that the law “is written on your hearts.” As the not so-YA writer St. Thomas Aquinas would say, “grace perfects nature.” Humans were given free will by God, the person harmed most by man’s sin. Governments should do no less.
            It is understandable that parents may be weary to let the children see such a frightening and violent film, but it is necessary boot camp for this age. The story feels oddly like a training film, imagining a world only slightly farther away form our own with instructions on how to defeat it. This world does not need more doctors, lawyers, or even farmers and small business owners. This world needs families – GREAT families. This world does not need more bureaucracy and surveillance; it needs governments that will respect the freedom and personal initiative of its citizens. Divergent will thrill teenage audiences with its fast paced action, witty dialogue, and attractive 20-something actors posing as adolescents; it will also inspire them to live exceptional lives with a healthy rebellious spirit pointed in the right direction. The secret lies in St. Paul’s insights that virtues (factions if you will) come from the Holy Spirit. With Him, anyone can be Divergent.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Growing Up is Hard to Do

Vikings in How to Train Your Dragon 2
“Growing Up is Hard to Do”
A Review of How to Train Your Dragon 2 by Nick Olszyk

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

            How animation has grown up! Early animated features like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty with their simple plots, catchy tunes, and happy endings were clearly meant for children, but as the medium progressed it began more mature. Whether it’s dealing with anxiety (Frozen), social impotence (The Incredibles), miscarriage (Up), or the inevitable reality of our own mortality (Toy Story 2, yikes), animated features are becoming more and more adult. The How to Train Your Dragon series demonstrates this perfectly. In his first outing, Hiccup was out simply to prove his own worth.  He made his dad proud, saved the day, and everyone got an easy, happy ending. Here, Hiccup realizes the fiercest dragons are within and must find a delicate balance between giving up his childish dreams yet not losing faith in those he loves. It’s a magnificent adventure with brilliant visuals, a fantastic story, and important themes seamlessly weaved throughout. Dreamworks made a Pixar film.
            It’s been five years since Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) brought peace between his homeland and the dragons, and this third-rate dweeb has turned into a handsome, confident explorer who his father Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) hopes will succeed him as village chief. On a routine cartography mission, he is ambushed by a band of dragon trappers led by Erit (Kit Harington) who promptly announce that Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou) intends on stealing all the world’s dragons to create an army. Luckily, Hiccup finds an unlikely ally when he discovers his estranged mother Valka (Cate Blanchett), a Jane Goodall recluse who avoids humans and lives with thousands of dragons in a secret hideaway. At this point, they should team up, defeat Drago, and live happily ever after in dragon paradise. Yet, this is only the setup to vastly complex and tragic tale that ends in a spectacular dragon fest to rival the best live-action fantasy movies.
Fresh off his success in converting his father to his dragon-loving ways, Hiccup’s first approach to solving the Drago dilemma is negotiation and diplomacy – a strange response from a Viking but a familiar one to political science majors. If only Drago could see that dragons are kind, loyal creatures that respond to love rather than dominance, there would be no need to capture and subjugate them. Hiccup is completely missing the point. Drago’s desire is not just control of dragons but of humans through dragons. Stoick tries to dissuade his wayward son. “Drago is a madman,” he retorts. “A chief protects his own.” In a heart wrenching scene, Hiccup realizes this time his father was right, and while anyone can change, some simply choose evil. Hiccup assumes responsibility and leads the attack against Drago. Throughout the centuries, theologians have tried to reconcile “turning the other cheek” with “sell your cloak and buy a sword,” culminating in the Just War Theory. Dragon 2 is a great illustration.
Part of Hiccup’s initial naïve personality is a lack of proper respect for natural laws. Despite their anthropomorphic traits, dragons are still animals. Valka explains to Hiccup that they operate on a hive instinct under the protection and guidance of an Alpha dragon. In a case of extreme dimorphism, the Alphas are the size of skyscrapers – maybe a distant cousin of Godzilla. Drago uses this trait to force otherwise loyal dragons to follow him. Hiccup refuses to believe that his faithful dragon Toothless could turn on him – a decision that has devastating results. While Tootless’ loyalty eventually returns, Hiccup must learn to use this instinct to his advantage rather than fight a dragon’s nature. Many of Catholicism’s controversial teachings – the existence of Hell, acceptance of some aspects of evolution, eating meat – come from a realistic view of the natural laws inherent in the world. You can’t fight human (or dragon) nature. Look at what happened to the Shakers. However, you can use nature in a holy manner.
As the sophistication of writing increases and cost of production decreases, there will be more animated films like this in the future, maybe even with PG-13 or R content. How to Train Your Dragon 2 does not fit with most other animated films but finds its place among the great coming-of-age stories like The Sandlot, Old Yeller, or any 80s movie directed by John Hughes. Hiccup finds his true self, not on his own, but as part of a community that includes a responsibility to others. This self-discovery comes not from rejecting his family but seeing it completed with the return of his mother. Lastly, the film has the courage to show that growing up is hard and often fraught with pain and suffering. Pro-family. Pro-stewardship. Pro-responsibility. Pro-awesome dragon fights. What more could you ask for?

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on June 14th, 2014.