Friday, February 5, 2016

The Force Awakens Revisited SPOILER EDITION Plus a Quick Take on The Donald

I was going to write a post on the Donald Trump phenomenon, but have decided it isn't worth it. I found that as time slipped away on me in the late days of 2015 and beginning of 2016 others were beating me to the rhetorical punch. There isn't any use screaming in an echo chamber, even if you came to your conclusions independently of the others in the room. Let's just say those who dismiss him and his followers lightly, or try to discredit Trump by comparing him to Hitler are making a big mistake. He is taping into a mood, much like Bernie Sanders is from the left; a mood of mistrust in the establishment that perceives that the government hasn't been listening the people. It's early, and the shifting political sands of this campaign season have already begun to ungulate. My gut feeling is, even if Trump and Sanders aren't the surprise nominees, the last two standing won't be who we expect, and, though admittedly unlikely, may not even be in the race yet. This is the uncertainty that arises when the people feel alienated from the political process and decide to do something about it. Such movements are dismissed at our own risk.  

It's been a busy three weeks, but I did manage to squeeze in a second viewing of Star Wars: Episode VII-The Force Awakens, and here are a few follow up reflections. 

The movie has been out since before Christmas, so I won't let myself be encumbered by keeping secrets. If you haven't seen it yet I can only imagine that you've just returned from an Antarctic expedition, and so haven't been in the neighborhood of a cinema, or else you simply don't plan on ever seeing it. So, for the former, stop reading, and by all means, see it, and for the latter, I'm not sure why you'd want to continue reading, but I hope you do.

So, Han Solo gets murdered by his son. This is beyond a doubt the biggest "secret" we were made to keep, and the one that least surprised me. As soon as Solo headed down that walkway I knew he was done for. It was just a matter of would it be some tragic slip and fall accident, or an out and out assassination (my proverbial money was on patricide). I was a little surprised that the character was killed off so early in the sequels, but it makes sense, though more from a real world stand point as opposed to a story one. All the same, one can make an argument that it does help the story in the long run.

Harrison Ford, the actor who originated the role which shot him to super stardom, comes off as tired and a bit jaded. Not in the movie; he's fine there, but rather in interviews. While the Han Solo of the series goes from being a skeptic to a believer in the mythical Force, the Ford of our universe really couldn't care less. He mocks, in his understated style, the debates over "who shot first" in the Cantina Scene from Episode III, and pretty much admits that its about the pay day for him at this point. I'm sure he has affection for the character and the series, and he does express humble gratitude that Star Wars continues to mean so much to people after all these years, but he knows the world doesn't need an eighty year old Han Solo, which is what he'd be pushing if he saw the new trilogy through to the end. He knows wisely that it's time to take a bow and pass the torch to the new generation of heroes.

But there are two other compelling reasons for Solo's early, tragic exit from a Galaxy Far, Far Away. First is that Ford wanted to kill Han off after 1980's Empire Strikes Back. There was a concern that he wasn't going to reprise the role a third time. Also, he felt that Han Solo sacrificing himself for the rebellion would really give the character a dramatic arc that was, well, dramatic. As Ford saw it the selfish, greedy mercenary should go out as a selfless martyr saving his friends and the rebellion. Great idea, but thankfully George Lucas prevailed on that point and we got Han back for one more ride on the Millennium Falcon, while at the same time going out the way he wanted, more or less. 

The other reason why Han exiting now makes sense is that Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) can take his proper place in the story. Star Wars is supposed to be about Luke really, but Ford's charisma and the character's machismo overshadowed the young Jedi in the original trilogy. As good an actor as he is, Hamill simply doesn't have the movie star screen presence of Harrison Ford, who may not have been a star when Star Wars came out, but did have more experience than his two co-stars. While it's true that Disney, who now owns the rights to the franchise, didn't use George Lucas' story plans for the new film, it was his idea originally to have a trilogy sequel with Luke as a Jedi mentor. They may not be using the specifics of Lucas' outline, but now Hamill gets to play Luke as elder wise man without having to compete with the larger than life Han Solo. 

Other random thoughts:

FIRST: Young, tough and inexperienced.  My original review criticized the acting, but on a second viewing I think the performances are better than I thought at first blush. I still think Lupita Nyong'o gives the best performance, but otherwise the problem isn't the actors, it's the script. Dialogue and characterization were never the strong points of the series, so I can give it a pass. What the script gets right, and our three young leads (Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Adam Driver) convey convincingly, is the idea that they are inexperienced, yet paradoxically world weary youths trying to appear more mature than they really are. 

This is especially true of Driver's Kylo Ren. He want's to emulate Darth Vader, his maternal grandfather; the very embodiment of controlled, calculated, evil, but he just doesn't have the composure. I'm not sure Vader ever really lost his cool, even when he was angry (one might argue that throwing Emperor Palpatine down the Death Star's reactor shaft at the end of Jedi qualifies as being out of sorts, but who knows?) He might yell or bark orders once in a while, but generally if you got on his bad side, or messed up an order - watch your throat: you knew a Sith Force Choke was coming, and he might not say a word, let alone raise his voice, as he coolly squeezed the life out of you. Here, Kylo Ren tears up the place Charlie Kane style twice upon the reception of bad news. One time his tantrum makes Storm Troopers stealthy slink the other way so as to avoid his wrath. These tantrums show, not how evil the Sith wannabe is, but how truly insecure and spiritually incontinent he is. He presumes to offer training in the ways of the Force to Rey (Daisy Ridley), when in truth he really hasn't mastered it himself. 

As for parallels with Grandpa, there was light within Vader, but it took three movies to get him back. There is clearly good within Kylo Ren fighting with the dark, in spite of offing his father, which makes me wonder if his turning back won't come sooner.

SECOND: One and done for Abrams is a big thumbs up. The choice of J.J. Abrams to direct the first outing of the new trilogy was wise. But it's probably also wise that another director, Rian Johnson, is directing the next film, which has already begun principle photography as I write.  I say this not because Abrams didn't do a good job, quite the opposite. It's just that he seems to be effective at rebooting a franchise rather than carrying it forward: he knows how to link the past with the present (think having Leonard Nimoy play "old" Spoke in Star Trek 2009, and the inclusion of the original Star Wars cast here). In general he is the master of the hommage, as evidenced by his effective tribute to Steven Spielberg in Super 8, as well as call backs to Episodes III through V here. But when it was time for a Star Trek follow up he seemed to get stuck recycling elements from previous movies in Out of Darkness. I enjoyed that film, but there was a disappointing "re-imagining" of the plot to Wrath of Kahn, arguably the earlier franchise's best movie, as opposed to taking the Starship Enterprise to a place no one has ever gone before. 

The Force Awakens has plenty of so called fan service: props, references and plot devises that remind the hard core devotees of the earlier movies, which is expected and good. But Abrams hasn't necessarily proven that he knows how to move beyond such pandering, as necessary as it is, and present an truly original story once the old series is up and running. I know nothing of Mr. Johnson, but a new director taking the reigns, with Abrams serving as a producer, might offer a better chance that we're not just going to get a rehash of Empire the next time out. 

THIRD: Re-arranged characteristics, too many characters,. This is more an observation than an criticism. What I noticed at a certain point was that our three new protagonists are not simply reincarnations of Luke Leia and Han, but that each seems to have elements of all of them. Rey is from the desert planet, like Luke, but she's a bit more hip, like Han, and assertive like Leia. Fin (Boyega) is a deserting Storm Trooper, who you might expect to be a bit hardened by the experience, but seems to have the golly gee innocents of Luke. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), the resistance fighter pilot, has the swagger of Han Solo, but the faith of Luke or Princess Leia. Again, no one sees a Star Wars movie expecting character development, but the original trilogy wasn't devoid of it, and my guess is that as the new movies proceed we'll see each character develop their own individual traits a bit more finely.  

What I will knock a bit is that we are introduced to a lot of characters, mixed in with the old, and the screen just isn't big enough for all of them. We barley get any of Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron: the clear successor of Harrison Ford's Han Solo. Like Harrison 39 years ago, Isaac is the most experienced and, arguably, charismatic actor of the new cast, and could ride this part to stardom. But I was left wanting more. We are given a new secondary villain, Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) who ominously stalks Fin at the beginning, but otherwise does nothing. There's also a general somebody played by Domhnall Gleeson who's kind of a rival to Kylo Ren, and Andy Serkis doing his stop capture performance shtick, as the new emperor's hologram (excuse me, it's Supreme Leader, not emperor). 

It's not that any of it is bad necessarily, it just seems crammed in. I understand that there are at least two more movies coming, and a number of stand alone films featuring individual characters, so I'm sure the producers are just trying to get us acquainted before thrusting "new product" upon the public. But simpler is better, and gets me to care more about what's going on. But I know, it's about merchandising and sequels, not art and entertainment. 

I don't want to end on a cynical note. I did enjoy The Force Awakens, and look forward to the sequel slated for late next year. I didn't have the thrilling experience of the first time around, but in a way I felt it more deeply, especially the fateful encounter between Han Solo and Kylo Ren. In spite of there being too many characters, I did care about what happened to Rey, specifically, and and an eager to find out exactly what her relationship is with Luke Skywalker. 

What hasn't changed is my recommendation. See it, enjoy it, feel it.    

Monday, January 25, 2016

Reflections on a Lad Insane: David Bowie (1947-2016)

I was away on vacation earlier in the month, and then when I got back last week there was a mountain of mail and assorted other work I needed to catch up on, so I haven’t had much time to comment on things in the news. I’m still working on my Trump piece, but for now I want to respond to a  friend of mine who asked me what I thought about the “inane” public response to the recent death of David Bowie.

I really don’t think that the public response has been out of place. Bowie was a major figure in popular culture for the past 45 years, and even though he wasn’t the hit maker he once was, he had settled in as a respected elder statesman of sorts for his crafty blending of pop sensibilities with avant-garde flair. So that his passing landed him on the cover of traditional “old media” periodicals like Time and continues to trend on social media two weeks after his death doesn’t surprise or particularly distress me.

That he was unreservedly praised by elements within the Vatican communications office, does. I do agree with likes of Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the curial cardinal who tweeted his condolences on the day of Bowie’s death, that a dialogue between the Church and the wider culture is a healthy thing. In this case, praying for David Bowie’s soul is charity, acknowledging his talent is justice, but ignoring the difficulties, from a Christian standpoint, associated with his act is spiritual blindness.  Dialogue seeks understanding and avoids condemning  particular trends or styles out of hand. It points out convergences, but it doesn’t bow down in unquestioning adulation either. Maybe the day of his death wasn’t the moment to get into thorny issues (charity again), in which case offer your condolences and move on.

But now that we are a fortnight out of Bowie’s passing we can make a better, more honest assessment of his work in the light of faith.

I am an unabashed fan of rock music, as anyone who follows this blog knows, but I always had an uneasy relationship with Bowie. I have a great deal of respect for his work, but there was something off putting that kept me at arm’s length. I respected him to the extent that, like Dylan, he pretty much did what he wanted when he wanted, popular tastes be damned. The big exception was his “Lets’ Dance” period of the mid-‘80’s, which, by his own admission, was all about chart placement and getting out of debt.

Bowie took great chances with his gender bending, man from Andromeda, personae-shifting act. But I think that’s what made him inaccessible to me. I could never figure out if he was legit, or if this was an elaborate exhibition of the Emperor’s New Cloths. I may have liked a song of his or not so much, but it was always interesting. He came off like he was trying to “say something,” but I wasn't always sure what it was, or if he knew what it was either. I have nothing against flat out surrealism, but not if the artist is laughing at his or her audience through it. Since I never knew if a joke was being played at my expense, I admired Bowie’s work, but from afar.

Claiming to be alternately gay and bisexual at a time when both could have alienated him from the mainstream record buying public is another example of his couldn’t care less attitude, though it could have been calculated shock. In interviews even as early as the ‘70’s he appeared visibly tired of having to answer questions about his sexuality, and almost seemed to regret ever bringing the topic up (a gimmick he had grown tired of?). Eventually he labeled himself a “closeted heterosexual,” admitting that it was an itch for something different, not any deep seeded sexual orientation, that led him to add men to his sexual repertoire. And even if there is no proof that he had boys, there’s plenty of testimony as to underage girls, something shocking then, but somehow still easily glossed over back the hedonistic ‘70’s.  

Normally I would agree with those who say that an artist’s personal life should be separated from an assessment of his or her art. Many entertainers over the years, even ones we might think of as squeaky clean or were from a more “innocent time,” often lived rather promiscuous private lives. But usually these peccadilloes don't enter into a discussion of their music. This is because their art was, in a way, bigger than they were. Sinatra, who had quite a reputation for womanizing, was singing other people’s songs, applying his own emotional experience to a performance, true, yet he was tapping something apart from the purely subjective. We may be fascinated by his affairs and loves lost, but we don’t judge his art by these things. The Beatles, along with Dylan, were the first widely popular artists to make the songwriter and the performer one. Now the performer wasn’t channeling or filtering an experience, but was revealing their own quite directly.

After the Beatles and Dylan, pop and rock became confessional; an outlet for the performer to explore the changes, trials and tribulations of life. We can see a common progression in Rock and Roll song writing from silly love songs and odes to adolescent angst, to life on the road songs, to numbers that question, and or glorify fame, to railing about the music industry, to asking about the meaning of life, sometimes peppered liberally with goofy Eastern mysticism and questionable spiritualties, with plenty of ditties about random sex thrown into the mix. Let’s not forget the “breakup song,” which men certainly write, but many women like Alanis Morissette and Taylor Swift seem to have perfected. Many a mansion has been bought from the profit made off a pop star's heartbreaks. Whatever the topic, it’s all about them, what they’re thinking, feeling or emoting at a particular moment, and the more rich and successful the artist the more out of touch and self-indulgent they can get.

I’m not saying this is all bad, or that I don’t enjoy songs that fit into any one of the above categories. But when the composer and performer become one there is a smaller pool of experiences to draw on for inspiration. A working song writer may still live a rather ordinary middle class existence not so very different from the average person, just they write songs for a living instead of preparing someone’s tax returns or hauling garbage. Because of their relatively ordinary lives their songs are still going to be connected somehow to the experiences of the average listener. They got to the bank, do the food shopping, worry about car payments and fly coach. Being an artist does make someone different, but it doesn’t make them completely alien to common everyday experiences. Celebrity privilege often does.

Performer-songwriters only sing about what they know because they, generally speaking, only sing their own material.  The higher up they go on the celebrity food chain the more out of touch they can become with the common experiences of the masses. Many celebrities, musicians or otherwise, live in a world of limos and personal assistants, first class flights, if not private jets, and preferential treatment at clubs and hotels. Since their songs are reflections of their lives, their work can become self referential to the point of narcissism. We listen, I guess, because the beat is punchy and the hook infectious, and the words allow us to live the glamorous life vicariously, but it all has nothing to do with us, really. Or worse yet, they may promote a questionable morality, aimed at telling us that we are OK just the way we are, while assuring them selves of the same thing.

Which brings me back to David Bowie. It seems like he was wrapped up in that self-indulgent ball before he even sold a unit. He wasn’t simply questioning the world around him and his place in it, he was questioning his very identity. But this questioning did have an edge to it. By his own admission he was haunted by the possibility of a God, with the fleshly and spiritual sides fighting with each other in his songs. Even if the flesh was the clear winner, in some ways it wasn’t a total victory. The song Ashes to Ashes gives the perfect example of someone who’s been through the ringer, experienced all that the sensual life has to offer, and has survived. He doesn't exactly express regret, but his conscience still stings him, in spite of himself.  

In the final analysis I respect Bowie as a daring pop artist, and give him the benefit of the doubt in so far as his artistic honesty is concerned. Nonetheless he bears the burden of having influenced countless, less worthy followers, from Boy George to Madonna to Stefani Germanotta who have the self-indulgence down pat, but none of the tinges of self-doubt or God hauntedness that made Bowie interesting.

So in Bowie, we have self-indulgence and soul searching being doled out in pretty much equal measure. His life of sexual and chemical excess (which I haven’t touched upon)is fare game because it was the locus of his artistic expression. They cannot be separated, because he was the very embodiment of the McLuhan dictum that the medium is the message. Bowie was the canvas, he was the paint and the brush. He was the painter and the portrait. Self-portraits are common, but they were Bowie’s exclusive genre. In Marshall McLuhan’s media theory the television set, radio, stereo system, movie screen or concert stage each alters our perceptions of a given piece of entertainment or none fiction presentation in unique ways. Each emotionally and psychologically “massages” the consumer of the particular medium differently. While watching a video or listening to one of his songs without the accompanying visual image may change how we experience his work, Bowie himself was the message in a way that was quite unique in popular entertainment.

And what was the message? One might say he made the world safe for metro-sexuality, gender neutrality and transgenderism. On a deeper level his work suggested that the body has no meaning beyond what we give it. We are not biologically or anatomically determined, nor need we be culturally conditioned. But neither are we divinely ordered and imprinted. We are whatever the impulses of a particular moment lead us to. All these trends were bigger than he was, and it's probably true that he was reflecting the times more than actually shaping them. He is certainly not responsible for the dictatorship of relativism we live in, he’s just its poster boy.

So, in charity, I pray for the soul David Robert Jones. In justice I acknowledge his unique and considerable talents, which included acting. But in truth I express more than a touch of ambivalence where his legacy is concerned.

Eternal rest grant unto him, oh Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul, and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. AMEN

Bishop Barron on René Girard

I must tell the truth. I'd never heard of Rene Girard before seeing this video, though I am somewhat familiar with the basic concept he was famous for. The first half of Bishop Barron's presentation is a bit technical, but, if you have patience, it pays off with a very accessible application and conclusion.

In popular culture the likes of the late comedian George Carlin and the very alive directer George Lucas have worked from the premise that religion and the sacred texts they are based on, particularly in the case of Christianity, were concocted by the civil and social authorities to maintain control over the unwashed masses. Lucas is a disciple of Joseph Campbell, and popularized his mentor's theories after they were used to shape the story and "mythology" of Star Wars.

To reiterate what Bishop Barron is saying, what Carlin and Lucas get wrong in their analysis of Christianity is that the Bible is constantly inverting the traditional notions of power - not reinforcing them as they contend. It is often the younger son who is chosen before his elders (Jacob, Joseph and David are examples that jump to my mind immediately). When Israel clamors for a king the prophet Samuel warns of all the wickedness a king will cause, before finally giving in to their request, at God's behest. Most of the kings are portrayed as weak and closed to the will of God. Even David and Solomon are deeply flawed men, and the Scripture is not afraid to show it. In the New Testament the Apostles are a bunch of bickering, ambitious and thick headed men, slow to understand.  In the Acts of the Apostles, where they do come off looking pretty good, the early disciples come and go off the stage without much fan fare. We do not  hear how their lives end. All that is important is that they were obedient to the will of Christ and the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

Far from propping up the institutional authority, the Bible tells us that the institution is at the service of God, who is the only one who deserves our adoration. The institutional authority is necessary, but isn't the essential nature of religion or worship. Jesus is constantly butting heads with the Temple authorities, but in a more nuanced way than is usually presented. He tells his listeners to respect the legitimate religious authorities of Jerusalem, because they "sit on the Chair of Moses." Don't follow their example, though, because they really don't practice what they preach.

I could go on, but you get the point. Those looking at the Bible narratives as nothing more than examples archetypal myths being propagated through the ages is getting it completely wrong. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is a God of surprises who upends and subverts the old myths to replace them with the Truth, who is Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Turn Off Your Mind, Relax and Hyperspace Down Stream: "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens" // Film Review

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens is one of the most difficult movies to comment on for two reasons: the first being that anything anyone is going to write in criticism will fall coldly on the numb, dead ears of the true believers in the Force, and two; The Force Awakens is made up of almost wall to wall spoilers that makes it hard to give even a superficial description of the action without giving all sorts of revelations, ranging from essential to the just kinda neat, away.

What I can say is that if you've seen the the first Star Wars movie, 1977's retroactively titled Episode IV - A New Hope, you have pretty much 90% of the plot taken care of. Director and co-writer J.J. Abrams, master of the hommage, doesn't so much remake that seminal film, as reference the bejeebies out of it. Abrams, as evidenced by his treatment of the Star Trek franchise, is also effective at taking the original cast, props and tropes of a beloved series and blends them with the next generation of same in a way that seems organic rather than forced. He presses the limits of that conceit a bit here, but I think all in all the way the three key members of the first generation, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill, are reintroduced into the story makes all of them essential to the proceeding rather than simply nostalgic add-on's to appease the fan base. 

In full disclosure, I am not a Star Wars fanboy. I should be, considering I came of age during the years that the first trilogy was unfolding, but I wasn't seduced by either side the Force. I did see the first film a couple of times at the time of its release, and played with the action figures (a miniature x-wing fighter was one of my favorite toys), but my enthusiasm didn't survive the onset of puberty. 

That said, The Force Awakens totally worked on me at the gut emotional level. From the the opening crawl I found my self having to literally hold back tears of prepubescent joy. I may not be a true believer, but Star Wars (Episode IV, anyway) did occupy a key place in my childhood. So, with every referential nod to the past and reintroduction of an old character I found the inner child that longs for something innocent, straight forward and thrilling overtaking and dominating the mature, adult me, and I kind of liked it. If I felt like jumping up and cheering at the title card, I can only imagine what hard core fans were feeling.  

As I wrote, criticism is pointless against the power of the Force, but birds gotta fly and fish gotta swim, and I gotta criticize, at least a little. And here are a few difficulties I had. 

So, let me start by saying that the acting, especially by the younger set, reminded me of kids playing at Star Wars in the backyard; when they're in tight situations the actors emotively rattle off, in earnestly breathless stammers, some techno-jargon gibberish that sounds made up on the spot. Daisy Ridley, John Boyenga, Oscar Isaac (our heroes) and Adam Driver (our villain) may all be good actors, but this isn't the project to make that judgment on. The best performance is given by Lupita Nyong'o, in the ultimate example of an actress disappearing inside a character.  

Important persons and pieces of hardware just seem to show up or are stumbled upon most improbably at just the right time. In the same vein powers are discovered and instantaneously perfected in ways that, again, comes off as a little too cutesy and convenient. I mean, Luke had the Force, but even he had to practice with that spinning ball and train under Yoda before he could use a light saber like a Jedi, and here our would be Jedi comes off like an interstellar Jason Bourne who wakes up one morning with previously unknown marshal skills fully formed.  

And the villain just doesn't come close to matching the dreadful menace of Darth Vader, whose specter looms large throughout as the great missing piece that would complete the galactic circle. Initially we didn't know who or what Vader was, and he isn't humanized until very late in the trilogy. Here both the villain's identity and humanity are revealed rather early, robbing of us of a special tension born of mystery. 

All these observation, valid as I may think they are, are admittedly beside the point.  This is a movie best enjoyed with adult intelligence, if not turned off, at least dulled a bit. Don't ask too many questions, just enjoy the ride. Normally, that a movie isn't terribly deep would be a criticism, but here it isn't. The Force Awakens taps into the innocent imagination of childhood, where wonder is more important than logic, and the right things magically happen at the right time.

Maybe in a few weeks I'll come back with a "spoiler" review, after more people have seen it, and I've seen it a second time. Then I can get into more specifics of what I liked and why without feeling like I ruined it for people. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

But a Whimper: "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2" // Movie Review

In truth, I only caught the final installment of the Hunger Games franchise because I'd seen the other ones, had written about them, and figured I might as well see the thing through to the bitter end. My negativity steams from my belief that last year's Mockingjay-Part 1 was useless filler designed as a money grab, much like the third Hobbit movie, also from last year, was.

The first Hunger Games disturbed me, which is not necessarily a bad thing, and also asked provocative questions about the nature of power, government control and media manipulation. It was one of the few big budget, teen fiction adventure adaptations that seemed to be operating on the level of ideas, not just action. I'm afraid the series exhausted itself intellectually in that first movie and, though trying valiantly to regain some semblance of emotional and intellectual depth here, fails in the finale to pay off on the promise the series started with.

We start off where we left off last time, with our heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) recovering after being throttled by her Hunger Games partner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). In the last movie he had been captured by the government and conditioned by way of false memories to see Katniss as the enemy, a brainwashing that takes the length of the film for him to get over. Katniss, tired of being a propaganda tool, escapes to the front lines to join the battle as the rebels advance on the Capital. This should be a great set up for some fantastic action, but with the exception of one genuinely thrilling and fright filled sequences that goes to the outer limits of what can be done in a PG-13 movie, Mockingjay-Part 2 limps along in fits and starts, leaving the ideas half formed and the would be emotional payoffs impotent.

What disappointed me the most was, indeed, that the emotional payoffs fell flat. There is a death that should have hit like a hammer blow, but didn't. I think this was because the character in question, more prominent in previous installments, is seen so little in this film that I forgot why I should care. There is also a plot twist which is heavily telegraphed, so that, again, when it pays off it's not a surprise.

Well, now it ends. So much promise, so little payoff. Now, on to Star Wars.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Salvation is From the Jews

I was preparing a lengthy post on the Donald Trump phenomenon when a news item caught my attention, one that I'm not sure why the Catholic press hasn't seemed to pick up on yet. Last Thursday (December 10) the Vatican and a group of Orthodox rabbis releases separate but complementarity statements affirming, in essence, that Christians and Jews are partners in the mission of universal salvation. We are not adversaries, the statement from the rabbis affirms, but partners with significant theological differences  I haven't browsed the Catholic blogosphere as of this morning, but Friday and Saturday I didn't see any mention of it in the sites I normally read. As far as I'm concerned, these statements, especially the one coming out of the Orthodox Jewish community, represent ecumenical dynamite. Some might quarrel over the Church's continued stance that no evangelical initiative should target the Jews (Roy Shoeman, a Catholic convert from Judaism, has been particularly critical of this stance in the past), but in the light of history, especially in the last century, it's understandable the Church wants to take a moderate path toward reconciliation.

And reconciliation is what we should be praying and working for. As a Catholic I do believe that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God. We who believe this shouldn't be afraid to profess it. At the same time I think our Jewish brothers and sisters already know that this is what we believe, so there's no need to pound the point home. I agree with Shoeman that if we truly believe that Jesus has the words of everlasting life, and is the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises, we should want to share the Good News and encourage God's Chosen People from the beginning to accept it. But I, for one, can't ignore that there has been an ugly history of persecutions, pogroms and forced conversions, not to mention the blood libel, that have poisoned the well between us. Lets detoxify the waters now so that we may drink together from the stream of understanding and mutual respect God offers us. Maybe this is God's first step on a path toward the eventual reconciliation of our two communities.

If you've noticed, I haven't used the word conversion when talking about my hope for the future of Jewish - Christian relations. I think more in terms of reconciliation. The Christian community was a part of the Jewish community in the First Century until our differences proved to great to maintain unity. My prayer is that we are united again. When this happens, and I do believe it will someday, both Jews and Christians will regain spiritual gifts that were lost when the Family of God split apart. For our part, we will regain a deeper appreciation for the Divine Name, which we tend the throw around rather loosely. I'm sure I could think of other things if I reflect upon it further, but this deep reverence for the Name that our Jewish brothers and sister observe jumps out at me right away.

But this is going to happen in God's time, not ours, and in the way He sees fit. For now let us walk together as partners, sharing and growing closer and stronger in our devotion to the One True God.

As for the post on Trump, Victor Davis Hanson's piece in National Review Online gets at the heart of what I'm thinking, though mine is a less partisan analysis (someone publishing your point of view first-the writer's worst nightmare). I think I still have enough original to say that I'll finish the piece and get it uploaded soon.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Is the Kingdom Here? A Reflection on the Solemnity of Christ the King 2015

At today's Mass we hear about one of the most dramatic encounters in human history: the meeting of Jesus of Nazareth and Pontius Pilate. Pilate is the one doing the interrogating, but at the same time is the one set back on his heels. By John's account, he really doesn't want anything to do with this itinerant preacher. This is an internal religious matter, but the Jewish authorities make it a secular one by reminding the Roman procurator that the Galilean claims to be the King of the Jews, a challenge to both Caesar Tiberius's authority and that of his hand picked puppet Herod. When Pilate questions Jesus as to whether he is indeed a king, Christ makes reference to His Kingdom, which leads to the obvious conclusion that the man standing before his believes Himself to be royal.

But Jesus insists that his Kingdom isn't of this world, and in fact wasn't present in that place. The question was posed to me how that can be since the Kingdom is identifiable with Christ's presence. Since Jesus is present, so must be the Kingdom.

In an objective sense, maybe we could say the Kingdom was present, but in a subjective sense, no. Because the Kingdom is also within a person. It isn't a geographic territory, but a state of being and acting. The Kingdom is present in a person when the spirit of Jesus dwells within. It is a Kingdom of peace and justice. It is a Kingdom of compassion and understanding. It is a Kingdom of self sacrifice and service. It is not a Kingdom built of the foundation of power, wealth and pleasure. The Kingdom was not there because the spirit of these afore mentioned virtues did not dwell in the heart of Pilate, nor in the hearts of his soldiers, the Jewish authorities, and one could even question if these virtues dwelt in the hearts of the disciples at that moment.

The Romans built an empire on brute force, and the Jewish authorities were grasping for whatever security they could, both economic and political, under the conditions of occupation they found themselves under. The disciples, being men of their age, only knew of kingdoms built on accumulation of power, wealth and the enjoyment of earthly pleasures. While they probably understood that Jesus was to be a benevolent monarch, he was going to be a king nonetheless. When things went terribly wrong after the Last Supper they ran away in confusion, doubt and terror. The Kingdom wasn't there, because compassion, understanding, justice and love were absent in the hearts of those surrounding our Lord.

So if we ask if the Kingdom of God is here, on the objective level the answer is yes. The presence of Jesus in the world continues through the presence of the Holy Spirit enlivening the Church, the proclamation of the Word and the True Presence of our Lord in the Eucharist. Yes, the Spirit is within us, making us into the image of Christ through baptism and confirmation.

But is the Kingdom here subjectively? Do we live our lives by the law of love and understanding? Does the spirit of compassion and justice direct our lives? Do we see a life of self sacrificing service in imitation of Jesus as the true road to eternal happiness? It's easy to see the likes of ISIS and determine that the Kingdom is far from them. But we will never defeat ISIS or prevent the rise of some other, even more brutal movement, if we do not make that basic examination of our own hearts.

Is the Kingdom here where I live; in my home, at my work and my school? Am I an agent of the Kingdom, spreading the spirit of love, compassion and justice where I go? Is the Kingdom dwelling in my heart, leading me, guiding me along the right paths, or have I surrendered my soul to the secular kingdom of power, wealth and pleasure?

The Kingdom is here. It is for us to say yes to Jesus our King, and live in the light of His loving, merciful reign everyday, wherever we are.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Our Lady of Providence From the Apostleship of Prayer

This is an especially big feast in Puerto Rico. We'll be having a special Mass at the parish tonight honoring Our Lady of Providence.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

French Flag Facebook

My head spun at the speed with which memes started popping up on Facebook Friday evening after the news of terrorist attacks in Paris began to spread. It seemed like the situation wasn't even resolved and there were all sorts of Eiffel Tower re-imagined as a peace sign and other such shows of support began appearing on my news feed. Then there was the option to superimpose the French tricolor over your profile picture in show of support. All this before the facts were in and the crisis resolved.

We can look at this as an example of  the Global Village in action: wide swaths of humanity joined together in instant virtual solidarity and common concern for our brothers and sisters on the other side of the world. I want to be careful with what I'm about to say here, because I assume every one's sincerity. While this may be true, there is something about it that makes me uncomfortable; like something grave is being trivialized, albeit unintentionally. 

For decades we've grown use to ribbons of various colors denoting one cause or another and now, in the cyber age, we have memes, stickers, stylized profile pictures and many other forms of virtual communication that I've seen but don't know the names for, that we can use to express our emotions and concerns. But then soon enough they are usually gone and we've moved on to the next cause of the month, week or, heavens help us, day. This all goes hand in hand with the 24 hour news cycle that keeps us from really absorbing the events happening in the world around us. We see, we are horrified, we "do something" then we're on our way. 

I'm not knocking this new found custom. I get that we want to feel as if we're involved and express our concern. But again I turn back to the very real danger of superficiality, and of not really talking the time to understand what's going on and how everything is connected on a deeper level.

I didn't change my profile picture to the French flag motif, though I was tempted, because tomorrow I'll just have to change it again to Beirut or Germany or The Philippines. The attack Friday wasn't an isolated incident, but was a part of, as Pope Francis has observed, a "piecemeal World War III" that is only escalating. To confront this reality we are going to need more than clever memes or poignant quotes posted to our wall. It's going to take courage, unity and resolve: as well as understanding the distant roots of this conflict, and that we really are in a struggle for civilization. When Facebook comes up with a handy dandy profile picture filter to express all that, then I'll participate. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Two Very Different Spy Movies: "SPECTRE", "Bridge of Spies" // Movie Reviews


Daniel Craig's tenure as James Bond has been frustratingly uneven. While I stand by my opinion that he is the best Bond since Sean Connery, and possibly even better, the individual movies haven't been as consistent as his legendary predecessor's were. Of the four Craig era films two are among the best in the franchise's fifty plus year history (2012's Skyfall might be the best of all time), one (Quantum of Solace) was a complete disaster, and now the latest, SPECTRE, while not a disaster, is middling at best. 

Craig has complained that he wants out of the role he's grown tired of playing (too bad for us), but I can't say that he comes off here like an actor phoning it in for the paycheck. No, the problem isn't the leading man, or any of his supporting players, who are all given plenty to do and do it well (unlike in many Bond films, 007 here isn't a one man army). The problem is a script that tries to be too clever by half, setting up a backstory between Bond and his villain du jour (Christoph Waltz) that made me think of Austin Powers; and when a Bond movie starts to remind you of it's spoof, something is wrong. I also found myself confused a bit about whether there was a back story concerning Bond and his latest love interest (Léa Seydoux), which made me wonder what creepy direction things might go into, which thankfully they didn't. There is also an attempt to tie all the previous three films together which, while not implausible or even undesirable, comes off as an after thought rather than a strong driving impulse of the native. 

The ever glamorous Monica Bellucci, is well, the ever glamorous Monica Bellucci, in what amounts to an extended cameo. Ralph Fiennes, Naomi Harris and Ben Whishaw show that their respective characters of M, Moneypenny and Q can do more than supply exposition and light hearted sexual tension, and we get the most indestructible adversary since Jaws in the Roger Moore days (Dave Bautista). The ingredients are all there, along with the spectacular action and stunts you expect from a Bond movie. But the plot, motivations and relationships are murky and the running time too long, with gaps in the action that become a drag.

So, SPECTRE is not terrible by any degree, with many things to recommend it, but over all nonessential for any one other than a Bond true believer. My recommendation is to either see it in IMAX (which I did not) to get the full impact of the action set pieces or else wait for the video.

Bridge of Spies

Forty years ago Steven Spielberg was the young hot shot director who was changing how Hollywood made, distributed and marketed movies. He, along with George Lucas are credited, for better or worse, with inventing the big budget summer block buster. He's had his share of Christmas season Oscar bait films over the years as well. But now the Young Turk is an elder statesman, with newbie directors such as J.J. Abrams creating homages to his style like people once affectionately aped Hitchcock or John Ford. 

But even when he was young, Spielberg, like his colleague Lucas, always had one foot in the past while while making the films of tomorrow. They may have used the latest in special effects but their stories often harkened back to the days of movie serials like Buck Rogers, and projected a certain innocents of youth. Spielberg has been criticized, in fact, by the likes of director and Monty Python veteran Terry Gilliam for his overly optimistic take on life, specifically for giving his Holocaust epic Schindler's List a victorious ending when the Sheol is really about humanity's failure. 

Spielberg is a bit of a throw back in other ways as well. You could accuse him of being a typical Hollywood liberal, but typical for 1946 or 1962. His heroes recall the likes of Fredric March's Al Stephenson in The Best Years of Our Lives, or Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. These were men of the Left who believed in fair play, fighting for the underdog and that if the system doesn't work it's not because the system itself is wrong, but because the people running it have forgotten the ideals on which the nation was built. One could argue that this is not the spirit of contemporary liberal or progressive thought. People of the Left today, broadly speaking, see the system as the problem and believe that it needs to be fundamentally transformed. It was flawed from its inception and is irredeemable, so that appealing to original intent or the founding spirit is self defeating. 

Spielberg's latest Oscar season offering is just such a throwback to the earlier form of American progressivism. Bridge of Spies tells the, more or less, true story of  James Donovan (Tom Hanks), a New York insurance lawyer recruited for the unenviable task of defending a captured Soviet spy at the height of the Cold War. He's honest, competent, had experience at the Nuremberg Trials after World War II: just the guy to give the "appearance" that the accused is being given a fair trial. Only Donovan doesn't know that this is a show trial. He thinks that he's really there to win the case. His vigorous defense annoys the judge and brings him under the suspicion of the government. While he doesn't get his client off, he does manage to talk the judge out of giving him the electric chair. Who knows, Donovan reasons, maybe the Russians will capture one of our spies some day and we'll be able to make a swap. And don't you know? that's exactly what happens. 

As I wrote, Donovan's zealous defense of the accused spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) runs him afoul of the CIA who sets a tail on him. He's confronted on the street on a rainy night, invited to a local bar for a drink by an agent (Scott Shepherd) who then attempts to extract information from the lawyer. When Donovan reminds agent Hoffman of lawyer client privilege, he is told to not be such a "boy scout" and remember that there's no rule book to be followed; all's fair in this Cold War game. To wit Donovan asks a seemingly random question about Hoffman's ethnic roots, correctly guessing that he's of German extraction. He continues:

My name's Donovan, Irish, both sides, mother and father. I'm Irish, you're German, but what makes us both Americans? Just one thing, one, one, one: the rule book. We call it the Constitution and we agree to the rules and that's what makes us Americans and it's all that makes us Americans so don't tell me there's no rule book, and don't nod at me like that you son of a bitch.

For Hanks' Donovan the problem isn't that America is inherently unfair or on the wrong side of history, but that people are too quick to forget about the values that make us Americans to begin with. People in times of a national security crisis, like during the Cold War or, as is meant to be implied, in today's post 9/11 world are too quick to trample over the rights enshrined in the Constitution to ensure a measure of perceived security (a similar point is alluded to throughout the new Bond movie as well, which is about the only thing these two spy movies have in common. That and a spectacular scene involving the crash of a spy plane). 

This is arguably a true point, but also terribly old fashioned. As is a scene showing Donovan taking his appeal to overturn Abel's conviction all the way to the Supreme Court. The presentation of the noble lawyer in his formal dress, in the hallowed halls giving a stirring statement on how American reliance on the rule of law is the moral high ground that separates us from our Soviet adversaries is straight out of Frank Capra. I'm not saying that this is a bad thing. Unlike Mr. Gilliam I don't mind a little corn once in a while, especially if I believe it to be true in spite of its corniness.  But it does make me wonder if the message still resonates in the culture, and if the only reason a film like this still gets made in Hollywood is because a director of the clout of Spielberg made it and that there are still enough nostalgic Baby Boomers around to buy tickets. 

We are living in a culture right now where students at major universities are ready to jettison free speech in exchange for something much less earth shaking than national security--their own emotional security. We also have one of the leading presidential candidates of a major party who indeed buys into the idea that the nation is flawed from it's roots, and so calls her founding principles into question. The Constitution is a political and legal document, not a sacred one, true. It can and maybe should be altered. The foundational principle that we are a nation of laws and not men should under gird any amendments or revisions of the law though. Even the Pope, in his address to Congress, referenced how important it is for us to remember the guiding principles that have shaped our nation from the beginning. They always need to be purified, refined, and reexamined, but without them we forget who we are. We are more likely then to be swept away in all sorts of directions we may later regret. 

While the film does dabble in more than a little moral equivalency at times, and calls into question whether we were over reacting to the Soviet threat, its still clear that the U.S.A. wears the White Hat and the Eastern Block, if not a Black Hat, at least a Grey one. Even with these qualifications, Bridge of Spies does present a rather traditional vision of American idealism: that we base our system on the rule of law and not of men or of an individual man or woman. But this is one ideal I'm not sure the emerging generation shares.

The second part of the film deals with the prisoner exchange envisioned by Donovan. Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), pilot of the U2 spy plane is shot down over Russia and captured. Meanwhile an American student (Will Rogers) gets detained in East Berlin just as the wall goes up, and is accused of being a spy. Donovan wants to free both, the CIA is only interested in Powers. So the second half deals less with high minded ideals and more in good old fashioned-make the audience wonder how he's gonna pull this off-suspense. And the suspense is dulled a bit by the fact that we know how it ends, or at least anyone who bothers to check Wikipedia will know how it turns out. 

In the end, a solid, well produced and acted film, as one would expect from a master filmmaker. It's also probably one of the last of its kind, at least for the foreseeable future.