Saturday, April 5, 2014

Truth Rings Out Softly

The Monuments Men (courtesy Sony Pictures)
“Truth Rings Out Softly”
A Review of The Monuments Men by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13
USCCB Rating, /A-III
Reel Rating, Four Reels

            “Who cares about art?” Lt. Frank Stokes (George Clooney) wonders reflexively as he tries to convince Franklin Roosevelt to let him take a team of soldiers into WWII Europe to save precious masterpieces such as the van Eyck brothers’ Ghent Altarpiece and Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child from the fleeing Nazis. Hitler cared little for human beings but quite a lot for art; he indented to steal the entirety of Europe’s artistic heritage and house it in a monstrously large Führer Museum. As Hitler’s thousand year Reich comes to an end, he authors the Nero Degree, ordering his officers to destroy everything. Roosevelt agrees to let Stokes form a small group of specialists including an architect, museum curator, and four other nerdy 40 somethings that have no business on the battlefield in an attempt to stem the tide.
            The Monuments Men is probably one of the safest films ever made on WWII. If not for period accurate constant cigarette smoking, it may have gotten a PG rating. It is so beautifully quite. There are no extended battle scenes, little swearing, and all the hunks never bare their chests. It is a life affirming picture about the importance of culture told in a witty and subtle manner. Like a restorationtist who labors carefully over every fiber of a 13th century tapestry, writer/director George Clooney treats his film carefully. The dialogue is clever but not pretentious, the pacing suspenseful but not tense, and every character, even the evil ones, matter.
            The film follows the traditional ship of fools narrative with a funny group of characters thrown into an unusual situation, all played by seasoned actors like John Goodman, Matt Damon, and Jean Dujardin. When they arrive at Normandy well after the fighting, the commanding officer is infuriated with their orders: “You want to tell my my men what they can and can’t blow up?!” That pretty much sums it up. Fortunately, they find French secretary Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) who knows where the Nazis hid the art. The journey to find these priceless artifacts contains a variety of funny and often touching vignettes. Sgt. Walter Garfield (Goodman) and Lt. Jean Claude Clermont (Durjarden) are attacked by sniper rifle while walking through the ruins of a town. Realizing that neither of them have ever fired a gun in real combat, they bicker over who will get the sniper and who will be the distraction. When they find the sniper, it’s a nine year-old. They throw him in a POW camp like the attitude of a parent putting a rebellious child on timeout. The clashing personalities, witty writing, and light music create a nostalgic throwback to classic WWII comedies like Kelley’s Heroes. It’s a good family film designed for the Greatest Generation.
            A surprisingly refreshing element of Men is the devotion that each soldier has to their families. They are always talking about their kids, their wives, and life back across the Atlantic. There’s an especially beautiful scene when Sgt. Richard Campbell (Bill Murray) receives record as a Christmas present but can’t play it due to lack of equipment. While taking a shower that night, he hears the voice of his wife and kids singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” His colleague managed to find a way to broadcast it across the camp so everyone could have a little home away from home. In another scene, Claire invited Lt. James Granger (Damon) over to her apartment to celebrate the end of the war and give him important information. When he hesitates, she simply replies, “It’s Paris.” When he arrives that night, she is elegantly dressed and he doesn’t have a tie. She gives him a tie and invitation to stay the night. He reaches out his hand, prominently displaying the wedding ring, then touches her on the sholder, thanks her for the tie, and politely leaves. It’s a mezmorizing display of chastity but also tenderness. He is grateful for her help in recovering the art but faithful to his wife.
            Early in the film, Stokes tells his men that must be very careful and not take risks. “Your life is more important than art,” he tells them. This, of course, is true. Art sings God.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on February 13th, 2014.

Be Not Afraid

Jesus (Diogo Morgado) heals a man in Son of God
“Be Not Afraid”
A Review of Son of God by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13
Reel Rating, Three Reels

            The greatest story ever told is also the most recognizable. The good news has been rebooted so many times over so many media over so many centuries that a film about Jesus can’t simply tell the story but must tell it in a new way. Because the audience does not need every plot detail, the director is free to emphasize certain aspects of the narrative to highlight specific lessons or characters. Son of God focuses on Jesus’ imperative to “be not afraid but believe,” an important lesson in society where Christians increasingly feel alienated and even persecuted. This latest “Jesus movie” actually began as the ten part miniseries The Bible on History, edited to a manageable two hours with a few new scenes for continuity. Unfortunately, Son of God still feels like a TV movie with film ambitions. The mustard seeds of those ambitions are present but never bloom into a tree.
            One aspect that the film handles well is the Eucharist. At the last supper, Jesus (Diogo Morgado) states firmly that the elements are indeed His Body and Blood. This is not surprising but refreshing in a film that is not catered to any specific denomination. Judas (Joe Wredden) receives the Eucharist like the other disciples but on his way to betray Jesus spits it on the ground. It’s a shocking desecration that mirrors what he is about to do. When Mary and Peter report the risen Christ to the disciples, Peter consecrates the bread and wine and Jesus suddenly emerges behind them. This extra-biblical addition lends itself to possibly strange theology but makes clear the Real Presence of Christ.
            Another unique feature is Greg Hicks’s riveting performance of Pontius Pilate. Most biblical films portray Pilate as a hesitant philosopher who recognizes Jesus’ innocence but wants to keep the peace. Here, Pilate is a ruthless dictator who couldn’t care less about “what true is.” After the crucifixion, he is receiving an oil message when his wife, troubled by his actions, approaches him. He assures her, “this one is no different. He will be forgotten in a week.” This might not be in complete agreement with the biblical evidence but reminds the audience that Pilate had a central role in Christ’ death.
            Unfortunately, the largest detractor of Son of God is the limitations of its origins. As a TV miniseries, it was widely popular and appealing. On the big screen, it suffers from a lack of spectacle and scale. The beginning narration with the elderly apostle John (Sebastian Knapp) covers the entire history of salvation (and the rest of the miniseries) from Adam right up to the adult Jesus in a matter of minutes. Jesus calls Peter (Darwin Shaw, another great performance) and the rest of disciples in quick succession. If the film had kept this pace, it may have been more compelling but grinds to a screeching halt in the second act, spending nearly an hour on the intrigue of the Jewish authorities investigating Jesus. It also reveals its TV origin in a lack of characters. When Jesus enters Jerusalem, only a handful of travelers are with him. CGI Jerusalem itself looks no bigger than the Washington Mall. As Jesus enters the passion narrative, it is impossible not to remember another film that premiered almost exactly a decade ago that was so incredibly better. When the cross is put in place, it even replicates that previous film almost shot for shot.
            At the beginning, Pilate and his entourage are traveling to Jerusalem when their way is blocked by a broken cart. Pilate promptly tells his men to simply overturn the cart, ignoring a young Jewish boy on top who is crushed to death. These violent Romans produce violent Jews who continually encourage Jesus to help them conquer the foreign oppressors. In addition to the violence on both sides, Jesus and his followers are faced with a slow, dark conspiracy from their own religious authorities. In response to all these enemies, Jesus simply tells them to “be not afraid,” and repeats it again and again throughout the film. This situation, when all Christ’s enemies are closing in, is eerily similar to today. The Church is faced with militant Islam, aggressive atheism, civil discrimination, and even corruption and sexual scandal from within our own walls. Christ too tells us: “be not afraid.” When secularism barks, simply believe. Jesus rose from the dead; how could it possibly not work out?

            Son of God ultimately succumbs to the usual problems that prey films of this nature. If “even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” about Jesus, it is hardly surprising that a single film would be lacking. The best approach to this subject is a long episodic format like Zeffirelli’s miniseries Jesus of Nazareth. Film can be effective if it examines one facet of Christ like Wyler’s Ben-Hur. However, Son of God does succeed where it counts: excellent acting, strong writing, and a firm evangelical invitation to a deeper relationship with Jesus. It is a good film that does everything right, but in such a competitive field with such a high standard of excellence, it falls just short of the mark.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on March 1st, 2014.   

Monday, March 3, 2014

86th Academy Awards: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

Another Oscar night has come and gone, and post-awards depression is gradually sinking in. It was a wonderful year for film, and the ceremony was a great way to wrap it up. Let's recap:

The Good:

1. Gravity winning seven Oscars including Best Director - This film was a stunning achievement on every level that truly transformed the film medium.

2. Frozen winning for Best Animated Film and Best Song - The loveable Olaf was an easy call, but it still warmed every heart. Too bad that cold weather seemed to affect Idina Menzel's voice.

3. The Lopez team's acceptance speech for "Let It Go" - They had the best speech of the night. It was touching, included all the necessary people, sent a message to their kids, and even rhymed.

4. Ellen DeGeneres - She did an amazing job hosting. Most of her bits were really funny, and even her awkward silences were in character. The twitter thing was a little too much, but the pizza was spot on.

5. Matthew McConaughey's acceptance speech - Yes, it was too long, but he started by acknowledging the primacy of God (if with some strange theology) and the existence of Heaven.

6. Pharrell Williams getting movie stars to dance - That was a big : )

7. Best Dressed: Kate Hudson, Kristen Bell, Amy Adams, and Matthew McConaughey.

The Bad:

1. Gravity loosing Best Picture to 12 Years a Slave - 12 Years was an excellent film, but Gravity is the film people will be talking about for the rest of cinematic history. It broke all the rules in all the right places. It a massive success story.

2. Dallas Buyers Club winning Best Makeup - It was the only real choice in a terribly botched category.

3. Roger Deakins getting passed over again - Prisoners was his best work. Gravity was, however, an excellent contender.

4. Worst Dressed: Julia Roberts, Cate Blanchett, Portia de Rossi, Pharrell Williams (Mike Nelson of MST3K tweeted, "somewhere Smoky is looking for his hat"), and Ellen DeGeneres' first outfit.

The Ugly:

1. Predictability - As likeable as DeGeneres was, there was something missing this year. It was just, kind of boring. This likely stems the ridiculous predictability of the Oscars. There were only two upsets, Best Documentary Feature and Best Animated Short. Everything else went according to plan, almost like they were working from a script. No dark horses broke through. No one was caught off guard. Jennifer Lawrence didn't fall. Boring.

2. Those creepy McDonald's commercials - Apparently, obesity will make you smarter and improve your family life.

3. American Hustle and Philomena walking away empty - I was rooting for Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence the whole time, but nothing came of it. Philomena was a beautiful and difficult film that captured the attention of the Academy enough to nominate it but should've gone further.

4. 12 Years a Slave smugness - As mentioned before, 12 Years a Slave was a magnificent film, my #5 for the year. It was spoiled, however, by many critics who insisted again and again that it must win because "it was time." DeGeneres even quipped (half-jokingly) that if you didn't vote for 12 Years, you were a racist. A film should always rise and fall on its own merits.
    To his credit, Steve McQueen never bought in to this; he's too great an artist. Slavery is a very important topic, and I not unhappy 12 Years won, but we should remember the words of MLK: "I have a dream that one day my four little children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Shelter for All

Brendan Frasier and Vanessa Hudgens in Gimme Shelter
“Shelter for All”

A Review of Gimme Shelter by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13


Reel Rating, Four Reels

            In the 1938 classic Boys Town, Fr. Flanagan famously said, “there is no such thing as a bad boy.” He didn’t mean males never sin; rather, the worst social situations and bad habits of the homeless rebel teenager do not remove his God-given dignity or opportunity for redemption. The same is true for Apple, a poor, expectant teenager who escapes her abusive mother in search of a home. Gimme Shelter is the best pro-life movie yet made, mostly because it is an actual movie rather than a two hour sermon. It is beautifully written with amazing performances by A-list actors. Most importantly, it has the real capacity to change lives.

            The film opens with Apple Bailey (Vanessa Hudgens) brutally cutting her hair and calling a cab to pick her up. It is unknown who this girl is, why she is changing her looks, or where she is going in such a hurry. Gradually, it becomes clear she is fleeing her monster of a mother June (Rosario Dawson) and seeking her biological father Tom (Brendan Frasier) with only a decade old letter to guide her. Tom, now a successful stock broker, is open to helping her, but his wife Joanna is less keen, especially when it is revealed that Apple is pregnant from a brief affair (not unlike Tom and June). They arrange an abortion for Apple. Waiting at the clinic, Apple takes one last peek at the ultrasound picture and runs away weeping.

            When Apple emerges from the clinic, she will not return to her father and becomes homeless. While fleeing a perspective pimp, she steals a car and promptly crashes. In the hospital, she meets Fr. McCarthy (James Earl Jones in an amazing role). He gently tries to lead her soul to peace and her body to a Catholic shelter for pregnant mothers in need run by a saintly woman named Kathy (Ann Dowd). This shelter provides Apple with her first genuine security in life including protection from June, spiritual guidance, financial assistance, and, most importantly, love. While initially hesitant, she eventually connects with the other woman at the shelter over their common struggles and finds a true home.

            This film is a tremendously effective treatise on abortion because it connects the situation of Apple with that of her child. It handles abortion in a direct, realistic fashion without dramatic music, screaming, or political overtones. Apple understands what it means to be unwanted and realizes she could never treat another human that way. The film title Gimme Shelter could just as easily apply to Apple’s child as herself. Every baby seeks shelter in the wombs of their mothers and the loving work of their fathers. All people are called to be hospitable hosts to these tiny guests.

            Two people who are not hospitable are Tom and June. Tom leaves June shortly after he gets her pregnant. He goes on to lead a life of tremendous luxury in white suburban New Jersey while the mixed raced June gives birth to Apple in poverty-stricken New York City. June is terrible to Apple: beating her, yelling at her, and even suggesting it was good she got pregnant because it will bring them more welfare money, all while obviously addicted to a variety of drugs. June’s crimes are her own, but it’s impossible to ignore the consequences of this racial, social, and educational divide.

            When Apple does finally find shelter, it is with people just like her. There is a pivotal scene where the teens break into Kathy’s office and share their personal files. One by one, they read the summery of their broken lives to each other: abuse, rape, prostitution, mental illness, and homelessness. What started as a funny prank evolves into a gentle therapy session, and Apple slowly opens herself up to the group. Everyone here is broken like her but wants the best life for their babies. She also finds in Kathy her first real mother who experienced the same challenges Apple did growing up.

            Gimme Shelter has only one misstep, but, unfortunately, it comes at a crucial moment. After Apple gives birth to a beautiful baby girl (cheesily but aptly named Hope), Tom invites her and his granddaughter to live with him. He has even built an entire house for her right next to his with a nursery adorned including all the pink trappings a European princess would be jealous to have. He has created the perfect ending. However, Apple cannot accept. Something is not right. It’s rich and fancy but cold and empty. She gives him the long, dreaded soliloquy that plagues “message films.” It’s disjointed, confusing, and unnecessary. In a small way, this makes sense because Apple has spent the entire film looking down at her feet and not saying five words at a time. Yet the wisdom of Samuel Goldwyn still rings true: “pictures were made to entertain; if you want to send a message, call Western Union.” Her choice, however, is very appropriate. Although he repented and will be a part of Apple’s life, he cannot simply buy back her love. She has a community that truly loves her and enough playmates for Hope to last a lifetime. That is home.

            I rarely mention my own life in reviews, but this true story is too good to pass up. Every year, my friends and I drive six hours up to San Francisco to attend the West Coast Walk for Life, turning my in-law’s house into a youth hostel. My wife insisted on seeing Gimme Shelter the night before when it premiered at 7pm even though we were getting up at 4am the next morning. Since both of us are film geeks and don’t like paying for a babysitter, four month old Nick Jr. came with us. He is already an experienced movie goer (this was his 8th or 9th theater experience) but did make some noise once or twice. Rather than being upset, several people told us how much they loved his gurglely commentary.

Gimme Shelter is not simply against abortion but a total celebration of life from the mothers’ heroic courage to Fr. McCathy’s simple Christian charity to Kathy’s strong and generous spirit. No one could come to the end of this film and conclude that the pro-life movement is against women’s rights or restricts human freedom. Being pro-life means “opening the door to anyone who knocks.”[1] If Gimme Shelter is any indication of what films 2014 has in store (including three Biblical epics), it will be a very good year.
This article appeared in Catholic World Report on February 3rd, 2014.

[1] I heard this phrase in the film The Hiding Place (1975) but it may be an allusion to the Book of Revelation

American Bullsh*t

The Cast of American Hustle
“American Bullsh*t”

A Review of American Hustle by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, R

USCCB Rating, O

Reel Review, Three Reels

Walking through an art gallery, con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) points out a Rembrandt painting to FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) and proudly declares that it is fake. “That’s impossible,” Richie insists. “People believe what they want to believe,” Rosenfeld retorts. “The guy who made this was so good that it's real to everybody. Now who's the master, the painter or the forger?” It’s a stupid question: the painter is the master. However, in the world of 1970s moral confusion where both the law and the lawless lie for a living, it seems reasonable. American Hustle is an immensely entertaining and slick film that tries to show the life of forgery as glamorous and, if a bit unseemly, mostly harmless. However, like Irving’s terrible hairpiece, it cannot conceal the madness these characters have created. It’s a cautionary tale without much caution.

            As a child, when the Rosenfeld family glass business was suffering, young Irving took it upon himself to deliberately break windows all over town. Naturally, profit margins increased. Now in his 40s, he has both a successful string of dry cleaners and a secret enterprise dealing in fake art and bad loans. At a friend’s pool party, he meets the beautiful, mysterious, and exciting stripper/writer Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams); she is entranced by his double life and enthusiastically becomes his mistress/partner. Despite their considerable “skills,” they are eventually caught red handed by Richie who, recognizing their talent, enlists them in bringing down political corruption. The setup involves trapping a popular New Jersey mayor and several congressmen in a fake scheme involving large amounts of hush money from a Sheikh for renovating Atlantic City. Layer upon layer of crimes are uncovered, recovered, and uncovered again as the mob begins to get in on the deal with a terrific cameo by Robert de Niro. Soon, Richie falls in love with Sydney while Irving’s young, uncontrollable wife Roselyn (Jennifer Lawrence) begins to spill the beans. It’s a nightmare with no end in sight as everyone is conning anyone with everything to loose.

            Truth is essential because it allows humans to categorize the world properly. Without knowing the truth, it is impossible to make wise choices. Lies create chaos, distrust, and suffering. To a fairly limited degree, director David O. Russell shows how Irving’s deceptions have come back to haunt him and those he loves, but he also admires the con man for the cunning way he slips out of trouble time and time again. Rosenfeld justifies this behavior by claiming that everyone hustles to survive, but hustling involves not just lying but using people for selfish means. He justifies this to by claiming he only hustles bad people, but haven’t “all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

One of the most painful elements of the film is the lack of penance. Irving’s active affair with Sydney is a good example. He clearly prefers her company to that of his wife yet tries also to keep a somewhat sane relationship with Roselyn for the sake of their son. Both women to make his deals work: Sydney cozying up to DiMaso and Roselyn charms the mayor’s wife and a mobster from Miami. Despite this cheating and quasi-pimping, he somehow manages to come out on good terms with both by the end. People are hurt, but it’s only temporary; even the mob gets a way out. It’s a relief that everyone’s okay but unrealistic and distressing to see that such enormous fabrications have little repercussions.

            Behind all this mess, the truth about Hustle is really an ensemble of desperate characters that aren’t comfortable in their own skins. Everyone in the film wants to be someone more than who they are presently. Irving loves business and making deals but can’t find the kind of high rolling he desires in a small Jersey town. Sydney wants style, glamour, taking on personas, and having the admiration of people even if that means working as a stripper. They both enter the immoral life of hustling to fulfill these dreams and shine in their new roles, but it is a city in a dumpster, not on a hill (clearly a reference to the Bible, not New Jersey). It’s important to pursue dreams but in a positive, moral direction. If people give the loaves and fishes of their life to Jesus, he will multiply them a thousand fold.

            The original title of this film was American Bullsh*t, which is probably more accurate. Not only does everyone lie, they spin elaborate falsehoods and personalities so fantastical it bewilders others into believing them. In reality, this never works. Eventually the rain comes, and the house of sand comes a tumbling down. “The truth will set you free;” this simple phrase could have saved everyone a mountain of heartache. If you need any more proof of the film’s duplicity, what male would not be faithful to Jennifer Lawrence? Seriously.      
This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on January 28th, 2014.



Monday, February 24, 2014

Academy Award Predictions, Part II

This weekend is the most important non-religious holiday of the year: Oscar Sunday! Here’s what I would vote for if I was a member of the Academy:

Best Picture - Gravity
Best Director - Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
Best Actor - Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Best Actress - Judi Dench, Philomena
Best Supporting Actor - Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Best Supporting ActressJennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Best Adapted Screenplay - Philomena
Best Original ScreenplayAmerican Hustle
Best Animated FeatureFrozen
Best Documentary FeatureDirty Wars
Best Foreign Language Feature - The Broken Circle Breakdown
Best CinematographyPrisoners
Best Costume DesignAmerican Hustle
Best Art Direction12 Years a Slave
Best MakeupDallas Buyers Club
Best Visual EffectsThe Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Best Film EditingCaptain Phillips
Best ScorePhilomena
Best Song – “Let It Go” from Frozen
Best Sound EditingCaptain Phillips
Best Sound MixingGravity
Best Animated Short Film – “Get a Horse!”
Best Live Action Short Film – “Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?”
Best Documentary Short Subject – “CaveDigger”

However, things don’t always pan out like planned. Here are my actual predictions of who will win:

Best Picture - 12 Years a Slave
Best Director - Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
Best Actor - Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Best Actress - Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Best Supporting Actor - Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Best Supporting ActressLupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave
Best Adapted Screenplay - 12 Years a Slave
Best Original ScreenplayHer
Best Animated FeatureFrozen
Best Documentary FeatureThe Act of Killing
Best Foreign Language FeatureThe Hunt
Best CinematographyGravity
Best Costume DesignAmerican Hustle
Best Art DirectionThe Great Gatsby
Best MakeupDallas Buyers Club (No Hunger Games or Hobbit but Bad Grandpa? Seriously, what is with this category? This was the same category that chose Iron Lady over Harry Potter 8)
Best Visual EffectsGravity
Best Film EditingCaptain Phillips
Best ScoreGravity
Best Song – “Let It Go” from Frozen
Best Sound EditingCaptain Phillips
Best Sound MixingGravity
Best Animated Short Film – “Get a Horse!”
Best Live Action Short Film“The Voorman Problem”
Best Documentary Short Subject – “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life”

I will be live tweeting the Oscars starting at 3pm this Sunday (3/2). See you there!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Live Tweet the Oscars!

Dear Fans of CCCrusade or People Who Just Stumbled Across Me on the Internet,

I have just started a twitter account and will be live tweeting Oscars commentary at 3pm PST March 2nd, 2014 (the ceremony doesn't start until 4, but I can't resist the urge to do some red carpet fashion policing).

I will also tweet when new articles are posted on my blog or Catholic World Report.

Nick Olszyk
President for Life, CCCrusade