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.

Post-Script

            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. 

Heroes and Saints

Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle
“Heroes and Saints”
A Review of American Sniper by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, R
USCCB Rating, A-III
Reel Rating, Four Reels            

American Sniper is thoughtful if terribly complex, much like the war and man that inspired it. As a piece of craftsmanship, it’s impossible to deny the film’s quality with superb direction by Eastwood and a beautiful performance by Bradley Cooper as Navy Seal Chris Kyle, the “most lethal sniper in American history.” War is among humanity’s worst fruits, losing lives and casting off numerous other sins in its wake the echo for generations. Yet, it is at times necessary to defend the innocent. Jesus said “turn the other cheek,” but also “sell your cloak and buy a sword.” Sometimes the line is obvious, sometimes it isn’t, and this is definitely the latter.
Kyle’s motivation to go to war is simple: he sees the bombing of American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya and wants to do something about it, signing up for the Navy SEALS, the military’s most elite task force, and is soon on his way to Iraq days after his wedding. Despite his training, nothing prepares him for the real horrors of war. There’s a wide range of options in the military. My grandfather fixed battleship engines in the Pacific. My wife’s grandmother chauffeured generals. Yet a sniper does absolutely nothing but kill other human beings; their “accomplishments” can only be measured in blood. Kyle allows the role to consume him, especially after he begins a game of cat and mouse with another sniper, a mysterious Olympic shooter known only as Mustafa, and watches his friends die one after another in battle. As the dust finally begins to settle, Kyle returns home only to begin a much bigger trial and he finds his unique skill set totally unfit for civilian life.
Was the United States unjustified in its invasion? Probably. Were the insurgents justified in attempting (and now succeeding) to create a violent theocratic state? Most certainly not. Neither Eastwood nor Kyle have anything to say about reasons for the Iraq War, and it would be wrong to use American Sniper for its defense; this is a movie about how war effects those who fight it, not political theories. Justified or not, the American soldiers use appropriate discretion yet also fall prey to stereotypes, often referring to their enemies as “savages.” Kyle takes his job extremely seriously, even if those around him do not. He shows restraint when using his deadly talent but does not hesitant to kill when he must. Several times, he explains his actions. “I'm willing to meet my creator, and answer for every shot that I took,” he tells one man. He is a patriot, defending his family, friends, and country. The insurgents have no such discretion, drilling a hole in the head of a child when his father helps the Americans and forcing women to run at tanks with grenades, scenes that occur every day in the dystopia that has now named an elementary school after Osama Bin Laden.
As the trials of battle claim various victims, Iraqi and American alike, Kyle seems untouchable. However, he begins to lose something even more precious than his life. The war slowly engulfs him, and Kyle volunteers for multiple tours of duty even as his marriage hangs by a thread. When he rarely returns, he is cold and distant, uninterested in his wife and children, consuming vast quantities of alcohol with a resting pulse that seasoned coffee drinkers would envy. All of these are clear signs of PTSD, the secret demon of veterans. Kyle received 160 confirmed kills out of a probable 255, which sounds impressive until one sees that Kyle had to decide in tiny seconds whether to take a rational soul, loved and created by God, from this Earth. Two. Hundred. Times. It wrecks the mind and pierces the heart. Finally at his wife’s insistence, he visits a VA hospital and explains why he wants to go back for a fifth tour. “What haunts me is the men I couldn’t save,” he mumbles. The doctor gives a wise smile: “There are plenty of people here who need saving.” Soon Kyle finds peace by visiting other veterans and teaching them to hunt. As the film closes, he finally understands what he was really fighting for, and how he almost lost it when he grew to love war rather than man.
It’s very easy to sit high on a pedestal and judge those who take up arms. What Sarah Palin and Michael Moore miss is that war is not fought by philosophers, politicians, or activists but by farmers, teachers, cooks, garbage collectors, choir directors, high school dropouts, bank tellers, fathers, husbands, mothers, and wives. For them, it is a simple matter of fighting for their country, staying alive, and hopefully coming home to a safe and humble life. These are not saints, the ones who chose the supernatural path of Christ and accept martyrdom. Kyle did many things that were immoral, but he is a hero. Kyle, and so many others, chose to take up arms both physical, the gun, and metaphysical, the ethical strain. Americans must remember their sacrifice for the freedom we enjoy but the Chaldean refugees in Syria do not. May God bless them all.



Monday, February 23, 2015

The 87th Annual Academy Awards: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Neil Patrick Harris's Oscar predictions
Another Oscar ceremony has come and gone, and it doesn't feel like much. Already the dust is Jurassic World, Star Wars 7, and Hot Tub Time Machine 2. Yet, there were a few bright stars last nights, so let's take a look:
settling and my mind is turning to the host of awesome movies that are coming out this year like

The Good: 

1. Big Hero 6 winning Best Animated Feature - It was the biggest upset of the night. How to Train Your Dragon 2 was good but Hero was far better. In a category that should have easily gone to The LEGO Movie, this was a small but nice consolation prize.

2. The Opening Number by Neil Patrick Harris - It was amazing, one of the best in recent years. It was fun, nostalgic, sophisticated, and featured a ton of great movies.

3. The Scenery and General Design - Really cool, flashy, and hip yet not pretentious.

4. Lego Oscars - Lonely Island handed out Lego Oscars to random people. Oprah looked so excited to have one; I would be too.

5. J.K. Simmons winning for Whiplash - He's great in everything. I was very happy for him.

6. Best Dressed - Jennifer Aniston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anna Feris, Dakota Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Rosmund Pike, Giuliana Rancic, and Reese Witherspoon

The Bad:

1. Neil Patrick Harris - Besides the opening number, Harris fell pretty flat. Only about 25% of his jokes were funny, and his central gag about Oscar predictions was only OK. I had huge hopes for him because he did a great job hosting the Tonys and the Emmys.

2. Birdman winning Best Director over Boyhood - Boyhood wasn't perfect but it pushed the medium of cinema, and it was all Linklater's vision. This will be the only film from the ceremony that people will still talk about fifty years from now. Maybe LEGO Movie too.

3. Lady Gaga and The Sound of the Music - Not one of my favorite things.

4. Platforms - This one is  tricky. Art is a way to express the human experience so it makes sense to highlight important issues, but it felt really over done last night, like they were over compensating for something. It really takes the breath out of the room, especially when they mention issues surrounding homosexuality. It's nice to just enjoy great entertainment.

5. The LEGO Movie loosing to song to Selma - "Everything is Awesome" was the only original song from a film I bought this year. Super catchy and fun. Every other nominee was nice but forgettable.

6. Worst Dressed - Marion Cotillard, Lady Gaga, Lupita Nyong'o, Margot Robbie, and (gasp) Emma Stone

The Ugly:

1. Boyhood loosing editing to Whiplash - This was foul. Sandra Adair had to edit footage from twelve years and make it look like a cohesive narrative. She executed it flawlessly.

It was a wimpy end to a mediocre year; there's trouble brewing when the nominees for Best Visual Effects are better than those for Best Picture. Oh well, 2015 is right around the corner.



Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Just Unbroken Enough

“Just Unbroken Enough”
Jack O'Connell in Unbroken
A Review of Unbroken by Nick Olszyk

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

            Unbroken is the amazing story of WWII hero Louie Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) – a tale of courage, patriotism, and strength under great adversity, reminding today’s American why he and his comrades are known as the Greatest Generation. It is also a missed opportunity; although director Angelia Jolie admires Louie’s tenacity and doesn’t ignore his religious faith, she can’t quite admit that it was God, not his own self-determination, which supported Louie in his trials. Hopefully, this film will drive people to look more deeply at the real man and the One who inspired Him.
            Oscar Wilde mused that “every saint has a past, every sinner has a future.” This is certainly true of young Zamperini. Horribly bullied for his Italian heritage and bored by church, Louis fights, lusts after woman, steals from neighbors, and drinks straight whiskey – all before his teens. Finally, his older brother, recognizing Louie’s athletic ability, encourages him to fight on the track field rather than parking lots. Soon Louie is an All-American and travels to Germany for the 1936 Olympics. Yet this is just child’s play for what God has in store. During the War, Louie finds himself lost at sea, surviving on rainwater, albatross, and memories of his mother’s cooking. During a private moment, he looks at the night sky full of stars and whispers, “God, if you get me through this, I promise I will dedicate my whole life to you.” God answers the request in the strangest way possible. After forty-seven days, the emaciated Louie is rescued – by the Japanese navy. He is immediately placed in a POW camp where he is tortured daily by the young, frustrated warden known as the Bird (rock singer Miyavi), who would admit later in life that he “derived sexual pleasure” from beating prisoners.
            These prison scenes are eerily similar to Christ’s own passion narrative. The Bird hisses and taunts Louie like Satan in the Desert. When he discovers that his favorite prisoner was once ran in Berlin, he makes the razor thin Louie race another prison guard, then pounds him with a rod when he loses. “Who is the Olympic athlete,” he muses. Yet Louie remains unfazed and refuses to strike back. When offered the chance to move to a nicer facility if he accepts anti-American propaganda, Louie politely declines. Finally, the Bird has had enough. He forces Louie to raise a heavy wooden plank over his head for several hours. “If he drops it,” he tells another guard, “shoot him.” As the shadows progress and extend over the ground, it’s impossible to not think of Jesus on the Cross. Just when it seems he is about to falter, Louie musters his strength and cries out, extending the plank high above his head. All the prisoners’ eyes are fixed with hope on him, and the Bird realizes in fury that his plan has failed.
            During his unfortunate stay, Louie spends his precious free time contemplating the few small pictures of family. Once he found his family annoying or even repressive; now they are his source of comfort. When the War comes to an end, he discovers the small cell where the Bird quartered. Tucked in a corner is a picture of the Bird as a young child, smiling with his father, also in military uniform. This is just a taste of Louie’s post-War experience which Unbroken frustratingly declines to show beyond a few minutes. Louis suffers from PTSD, becoming an alcoholic, then giving his life over to Christ. He would eventually return to Japan and personally forgive his captors, although the Bird does not show up. Louie recognizes that he is a sinner too and cannot judge this other man who gave him so much pain.
            Unbroken was promoted as a “testament to endurance” with the hastag #IAmUnbroken to encourage viewers to tweet their own “inspirational story of resilience.” Here is a man who believed in himself and pulled through. “If you can take it, you can make it,” Louie’s brother tells him. Despite the marketing, Louie seems to feel, if not completely understated, that there is a greater force at work than simply his own might. He recalls it this way in memoirs:

“I made thousands of promises on the raft and in prison camp. [God] kept His promises, but I didn't keep mine. So I went back to the prayer room and made a confession of faith in Christ. While I was still on my knees, I knew my whole life had changed. I knew that I was through getting drunk—that I'd forgiven all my guards, including the Bird.”

Jolie, like secular society, is not anti-religious. Rather, religion is simply “experiential,” not “ontological.” It’s a nice cultural attribute, not part of one’s essence. But for Louie, God isn’t a social construct; He is the source of His strength. He knows that “through Christ [we] can endure all things.” Jolie is an honest enough artist that much of Louie’s faith comes out but holds back the reigns to meet a secular palate. Unbroken, even if watered down, is still a beautiful film and worth seeing. It’s one of the best of last year, but it could have been one of the best of all time.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on January 27th, 2014.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Academy Award Predictions, Part II

This year's best picture nominees

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 - Boyhood
Best Director - Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Best Actor - Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
Best Actress - Rosemund Pike, Gone Girl
Best Supporting Actor - Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Best Supporting Actress – Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Best Adapted Screenplay - American Sniper
Best Original Screenplay – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Animated Feature – Big Hero 6
Best Documentary Feature – Last Days in Vietnam 
Best Foreign Language Feature - Ida
Best Cinematography – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Costume Design – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Art Direction – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Makeup – Guardians of the Galaxy
Best Visual Effects – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Best Film Editing – Boyhood
Best Score – Interstellar
Best Song – “Everything is Awesome" from The LEGO Movie
Best Sound Editing – American Sniper
Best Sound Mixing – Interstallar
Best Animated Short Film – “Feast”
Best Live Action Short Film – “The Phone Call”
Best Documentary Short Subject – “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1”

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

Best Picture - Boyhood
Best Director - Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman
Best Actor - Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
Best Actress - Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Best Supporting Actor - J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
Best Supporting Actress – Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Best Adapted Screenplay - The Imitation Game
Best Original Screenplay – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Animated Feature – How to Train Your Dragon 2
Best Documentary Feature – CitizenFour
Best Foreign Language Feature – Ida
Best Cinematography – Birdman
Best Costume Design – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Art Direction – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Makeup – Guardians of the Galaxy
Best Visual Effects – Interstellar
Best Film Editing – Boyhood
Best Score – The Theory of Everything
Best Song – “Glory” from Selma
Best Sound Editing – Interstellar
Best Sound Mixing – Birdman
Best Animated Short Film – “Feast”
Best Live Action Short Film – “The Phone Call”
Best Documentary Short Subject – “Our Curse”


I will be live tweeting the Oscars starting at 3pm this Sunday (2/22). See you there!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here

Annie and Stacks in Annie
“I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here”
A Review of Annie by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG

USCCB Rating, A-II
Reel Rating, Four Reels

            Annie is one of the better musicals in recent memory; easily the best since 2012’s Les Misérables. While supported by wonderful performances and clever writing, its strength comes from the significant changes made to the source material, a rare instance when the reboot is better than the original. Annie keeps the central plot line and cherished protagonist but completely re-writes the script to make the tale more attuned to 21st century sensibilities. This sounds very profound, but never fear, kids. This Annie will still give you the warm Christmas fuzzies. It also tries to engage the deeper issues of poverty and social class but never overreaches, preferring to just have fun and remind the audience that tomorrow “is only a day away.” Maybe that’s just what America needs anyway.
            The first image really throws the audience for a loop. A cute Irish elementary girl gives a standard golly-g report on William Henry Harrison to her class including a small 30s song and dance. Then Annie (Quvenzhané Wallis) presents an entirely musical New York style report on Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal that sounds more like Jay-Z (one of the producers, I kid not) than Rogers and Hammerstein. It’s a winking reminder that this won’t be your Grandma’s Annie. Annie and her friends live in a foster home (not orphanage, as frequently pointed out) with the alcoholic former singer Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz). Meanwhile, self-made billionaire and cell phone magnate Will Stacks (Jammie Foxx) is trailing far behind in the polls for Mayor of New York City. He is obsessed with work and finds meeting “the people” annoying and unhygienic, keeping dozens of bottles of hand sanitizer in his chauffeured, luxury car. Annie is serendipitously saved from getting in a traffic incident by Stacks; luckily, it was caught on video and becomes a viral hit. Stacks and his personal assistant Grace (Rose Byrne) decide to temporarily foster Annie to improve his numbers. Annie likes Stacks and decides to make him a better person, but her heart is ultimately set on finding her real parents.
            Annie is a nearly perfect adaptation of the 1977 musical that is faithful to the original material without being constrained by it. Such films can easily fall into two extremes of either being slavishly obsessed with being “true to the book” (Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns) or so free in interpretation to be barely recognizable (Peter Jackson’s Hobbit marathon). The biggest change is the character of Daddy Warbucks, now replaced by Foxx’s Stacks, and it is a major improvement. Previously, Warbucks was an aloof businessman who sought out an orphan to just make him look better. Here, Stacks meets Annie entirely by accident, and there are real stakes involved in their relationship. Stacks also has a huge arc, shifting from a controlling loner to caring not just about Annie but all the people around him, eventually mustering the humility to make his first truly selfless decision. Diaz and Blunt are also remarkable as the female supporting characters.  Like Cruella deVil, Diaz is a magnificent villain one loves to hate. Blunt is stogy enough to be with Stacks but soft enough to change his heart. The original songs are choreographed in a fresh and exciting way, although several new songs have also been added that fall flat when placed next to their classic counterparts.
            There’s always been a little discomfort with the various adaptations of Annie besides the high pitched singing. The main story seems to confirm a popular Socialist criticism of a capitalist fantasy that the poor have to be plucked out of obscurity by the rich. Also, since the servants and orphans in Annie seem so happy and the rich are so compassionate, there is no real need to change the social system that creates such a wide divide. There’s a little grain of truth in this, but it would be nearly impossible to make a musical that addresses such a difficult issue while still retaining a lighthearted nature. What Annie does argue effectively is that wealth does not create happiness, family and friends do. Poverty does cause unjust suffering, but being poor does not mean one must be unfulfilled. Lastly, all people are called to compassion regardless of their economic station.
            An easy way to see to signs of the times in Annie is the pervasive nature of social media. Everyone with a phone becomes a whistleblower with a worldwide audience. A single photo or video can change a person’s life in an instant, fortunately used here to help Annie rather than bully her.  This makes for some very big laughs at an obviously ridiculous situation. It’s a healthy dose of needed criticism against the digital age, but also implicitly supports corporate invasion of privacy.
            The most important element of Annie is that it is a lot of fun. Wallis is captivating in every scene with the same independent spunk of her cinematic ancestors but with new twists (including a great take on the Annie hair). Leading up to the premiere, many film critics and news pundits made a big deal of the first black Annie with a black Warbucks. After the realization that Annie and Stacks are black in the first few minutes, Wallis and Foxx are so good, you completely forget their race and the silly conversation surrounding it. Now that I think about it, that is a pretty big deal.

 This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on January 8th, 2015.

Another Moses Movie

Bale and Edgerton in Exodus
“Another Moses Movie”
A Review of Exodus: Gods and Kings by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13           

USCCB Rating, A-III
Reel Rating, Two Reels

            There are dozens of film adaptations of the Exodus, so director Ridley Scott had to do something distinct to create new insights into this classic tale. There is one interesting development but most of the film’s 150 minute runtime is a re-hashing of the same ideas that have been covered again and again, albeit with some pretty awesome effects (although the parting of the Red Sea is still better in De Mille’s version, now almost sixty years old). Exodus isn’t a bad movie, just one that’s better enjoyed on DVD with doughnuts for a high school religion paper.
            The first half is almost verbatim a combination of The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt. Like Commandments, Scott paints an epic world of towering statues, brilliant costumes, and elated accents. Like Prince, Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) were raised together “as close as brothers” who gradually grow apart when a closely guarded secret is discovered. Many great actors have played Moses including Charlton Heston, Val Kilmer, and Mel Brooks. Bale’s prophet is a pragmatic general who puts his faith in knowledge and skill rather than the Egyptian religion. He would rather speak to the Hebrew elders than kill them, not because they are equal but it will halt sedition. Edgerton’s Ramses knows the responsibility that will pass to him and wants to lead well but is often blinded by his own arrogance. It’s bad enough being an only child; telling him he is a god will not make things easier. In typical fashion, Moses is exiled, falls in love with Zipporah, and becomes a shepherd. Never a believer, he suddenly meets God in a strange encounter that almost completely ignores the biblical narrative. When Moses returns to Egypt, he first organizes a Hebrew army that engages in guerilla warfare before God takes over and tells him to “sit back and watch.”
            The ten plagues begin with a swarm of crocodiles attacking a fleet of average Joe Egyptians. This feeding frenzy (which very graphic for a PG-13 film) causes the Nile to turn red, which in turn drives the frogs onto the land, which dry and decompose, bringing swarms of gnats. The implication is that although God is the impetus, these calamities are perfectly reasonable from a scientific standpoint. Yet it is in the depiction of these suffering people that Exodus finds its most powerful theme. Watching these poor farmers starve and a woman be suffocated by flies creates an intense empathy for the Egyptians who did not deserve this harsh punishment. The worst plague brings the Angel of Death, who steals the breath of children in the night leaving them lifeless. Ramses is not spared this wrath as he finds his adorable infant son lifeless in his crib, eerily similar to the syndrome every new parent secretly fears. Wailing uncontrollably, he tries to wake his only child, shaking him like a ragdoll. “Is this your God,” he asks Moses, cradling the swaddled corpse, “a child killer?” It’s an incredibly honest question, and Moses too seems taken aback. God does not author evil. Rather, this action was the direct result of the Ramses pride. His son was a Holy Innocent, just like the poor children who died at Herod’s hand or David and Bathsheba’s first son – and the millions of children who die from infanticide, abortion, in vitro fertilization, malnutrition, starvation, and abuse. They die because sin is present in the world, and every Christian has the solemn responsibility to protect them. “The Hebrew children lived,” Moses remarks. They were saved because their parents cared enough to follow God’s law.
            Other than this brief exchange, Exodus rarely rises above the level of mediocrity. It’s depiction of God is strange and uneven. First, Moses does not find God and the Burning Bush, but God appears to Moses with the Bush (in the background) after he nearly dies in a rockslide, allowing the viewer the option of believing his revelations were purely hallucinations. When Joshua catches Moses talking to God, it looks like Moses is just talking to himself. Second, God is portrayed by a young boy (Issac Andrews) who is quite pushy and even scary. The credits claim this is actually an angel, but the film is unclear. At first Moses, is hesitant, even hostile toward the mission. Gradually, he comes to accept God, even if it means not reaching the Promised Land himself.
            Exodus: Gods and Kings is an epic film of great scale but little substance. Scott spends millions of dollars on displaying combat and miracles but misses huge opportunities to flesh out the story. Aaron Paul, the multiple Emmy winner from mega-hit Breaking Bad, is cast as Joshua but has only about five lines. It takes ten minutes for Moses to walk across the desert in exile but the golden calf and Ten Commandments are glossed over in seconds. This film simply doesn’t add much to the story. I rarely ever say this, but the book really is better.

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