July 17, 2016


With a juicy, promising title and a screen populated with adorable, fuzzy furballs of varied shapes and sizes, the animated smash hit: "The Secret Life of Pets" is a fun Summer escapade for all ages.

Instantly relatable to pet owners (and kids who wish they were pet owners), the different personalities of species and dog breeds are, well, typecast. The goofy guinea pig, the self-involved cat, the excitable Pomeranian, the slaphappy bulldog, the stalwartly devoted Jack Russell terrier, the conniving alley cat, to name a few. The same simple dog logic of "Up" is employed here.


All is well in the uneventful lives of the New York City humans' lovable housemates (the biggest crises are the daily exoduses of owners going to work). The furry and feathered friends communicate with each other via fire escapes, air ducts, etc., and go about the mundane mischief that pets are wont to engage in in the absence of their humans: getting into the fridge, knocking things over, etc. (These pets are also a little more sophisticated, as they know how to turn on kitchen appliances, music systems and TVs.) If you saw the trailer, you must have howled (pun intended) at the elegantly trimmed, stately white poodle ("Leonard") who turns on heavy metal and begins headbanging as soon as his master his out the door.


Max, the loyal terrier (voiced by Louis C. K.), is owned by Katie, whom he adores and quite literally lives and breathes for. Gidget, the white Pomeranian (who's addicted to telenovelas when her master isn't around), is madly in love with Max, who barely knows she's alive. When Katie brings home Duke, an overgrown, selfish and dopey sheepdog (looking like a monster from "Where the Wild Things Are") who moves in not only on Katie, but on Max's food and sleeping quarters, Max hatches a plan to get rid of him. While the neighborhood canines are outside being dogwalked en masse (the dogs' gossip-chatter is a hoot), Max and Duke break away and become separated from the group. And, of course, never far behind a vulnerable lost woofer in these tales are the dastardly dogged...(drumroll)...dogcatchers!


Max and Duke become entangled with the dangerous sewer gang of  "The Flushed Pets." Yes. Just like it sounds: those pets rejected by their owners (even though some species in the squad are definitely unflushable). Led by what has to be the world's most sinister bunny, Snowball: an impossibly cute, white, bucktoothed, dewy-eyed lagomorph (voiced by Kevin Hart) who is decidedly unhinged. The goal of the FP's is the destruction of humanity, viz., pet owners. Guilty by association are any pets LOVED by their owners, who meekly submit to domestication ("leash lovers"), so Max and Duke must prove their street cred.

The intensity and violence of the vengeful pets might be a bit extreme for wee humans in the audience, however, the danger had to be real for our protagonists. Needless to say, the pets from the block are determined to rescue Max and Duke, led by the smitten Gidget. (Now we not only have women saving women in films: Maleficent, Frozen, Spy--we have the princess saving the prince.) And of course, all of this is done in a day's work. The unsuspecting humans have no idea what their darling charges are up to.


The element of surprise is constant and the occasions for laughter are frequent. Not explosive, eruptive laughter, just a steady stream of unexpected giggle ripples. The gags are mostly visual, and because of the rapid chase-pace of the film, the eye is catching the hilarity before the brain rationally puts together what's actually going on.

At one point, there are three roving bands of pets on the streets--keeping the intrigue lively. Towards the end, a magnificent character is introduced: Pops, an old hound dog with wheels for his paralyzed hind legs. A few sequences could have had snappier dialogue, such as Gidget and the falcon. And Max and Duke in the sausage factory was very out of place, breaking the tension at one of the most climactic parts of the story. It felt like a strange "filler" (pun intended). (Also, vegetarians.) The voice acting is massively on point.


There's some really great throwback swinging flute and Big Band in the soundtrack, reminiscent of some classy animation work of the 50's and 60's--also serving to remind us that all of this is taking place in the uber-cosmopolitan Big Apple, accompanied by the fact that the animals have New York accents.  The sights of NYC are not tiredly and routinely exploited: Times Square! Rockefeller Center! etc. Instead, we have a wonderful scene of all God's critters in a New York taxi, treks through construction sites and an organically integrated Brooklyn Bridge. That's how to use location in a film.


All in all, this is a strong little film that could even bear (pun intended) repeated viewings. I could also have seen "The Secret Life of Pets" work as a cartoon musical.

"The Secret Life of Pets" will get you wondering what your innocent little beasties are up to when you're not around. You may even want to hire a Pet Detective...oh wait...that's another movie....


--Leonard alone sold me on the whole movie.

--Here's a YouTube someone made, looping Leonard headbanging to System of a Down. You're welcome.

--The Minions' short film before "Pets" is a super fun adventure as well.

July 8, 2016


I'm going to call the latest documentary on John Paul II an "almost perfect documentary." Why is it almost perfect? Because it's Rolls Royce superclassy in every way, the production values are off the chain, the august interviewees always on point, and the analysis goes deep. The range of the historical material is vast, and yet the film manages to be meditative, fast-paced, sentimental and bracing all at one and the same time. The cinematography and beautifully restored footage are rich and intense, and the soundtrack is a non-stop, full-bodied symphony of meaning in itself.


As the title indicates, there is nothing "small" about this documentary in its feel or scope. And the subject matter is done great justice. For JP2-aholics and documentary-aholics like myself, as well as for those who lived this history, "Liberating" adds yet more pieces to the puzzle and threads to the tapestry of the socio-religious genius of John Paul II. Did the Kremlin have a social plan? So did the Polish pope, who purposefully united himself to all Slavs of the persecuted Eastern European Church, and all citizens behind the Iron Curtain.

The film begins with a short retrospective of Communism, then on to Poland and World War II, in order to situate Karol Wojtyla's (John Paul II's) life into this reality. This is done through the technique of state-of-the-art  graphics, maps, dates, still photos, etc., that are visually effective and illuminating.

There is just so much film footage of the periods in question that we are swept back and inserted into the times and relive it all. (This footage includes film of Wojtyla's saintly, wise and courageous mentor, the great Cardinal Stefan WyszyƄski.)


Featured front and center in the workers' struggle is the Polish labor union SOLIDARITY.  The Communists' minimalistic vision of the human person was: a cog in the machine of the State which is supreme. Man exists to serve the State and for no other reason. Freedom, creativity, initiative and entrepreneurship were non-existent. Labor unions were not allowed. Workers had no rights and working conditions were often harsh, unbearable and unjust. The movie affirms: without John Paul II, no SOLIDARITY. Without SOLIDARITY, no liberation of Poland, without the liberation of Poland, no chain effect toppling of "the evil empire."

Rounding out the documentary are brief accounts of other nations (basically all of the former U.S.S.R.) following suit after Poland and shaking free of Moscow.


The triumph of the human spirit shines mightily in "Liberating." A human spirit informed by and inseparable from Jesus Christ. Would Communism have "fallen" without John Paul II? Most likely eventually, but perhaps in a very different, even violent way that might have ushered in something equally as malignant. "Liberating" is intent on unmasking the fact that the resistance to Communism was primarily spiritual. The military might of the Russian Soviets could not be fought on a battlefield with physical force. John Paul II, the statesman of faith and prayer and towering moral authority, is seen as almost single-handedly inspiring the defeat of the iron grip of tyranny in his homeland.


Why is it "almost" perfect? Two reasons. Although the content is thorough, informative and edge-of-your-seat engaging, a few introductory sentences here and there seemed to be called for. The documentary is never exactly oblique, but it does take a bit for granted. That, for example, you understand the basic tenets of Communism. That you know who Stalin was, etc. In other words, the documentary assumes that you have a basic knowledge of 20th century world history, which, very sadly is not the case with the average person under 40. And film has become a crucially important means by which younger generations learn history! The film is only missing some rudimentary details that would have set the stage better for what it wants to tell you--but otherwise, audiences will still get the gist. The film contains many valuable history lessons. Each of them just needed a slightly clearer introduction.

But make no mistake: this is a GLORIOUS film.


My second criticism is that, although this documentary is meant to cover a healthy slice of recent history, its relevance to today could have been majorly ramped-up at the end. There were a few mild, weak references to the fact that if you let go of your "moral and cultural roots," "freedom" will become unhinged. I would have been much more explicit. For starters, I would have defined what true "freedom" is. I would have discussed the fact that there are always ideologies and visionaries and aggressors and social engineers and absolutist/totalitarian worldviews in every age, vying for ascendancy at least and world domination at most. (Nature and history both abhor a vaccum.) I would have named the ideologies that immediately replaced Communism, while often mimicking and borrowing from it: hedonism, materialism, utilitarianism, unbridled capitalism, consumerism, individualism, atheism, agnosticism, relativism, nihilism, postmodernism, skepticism, determinism, fatalism, propaganda, scientism, culture of death, social conformism, etc.


The seismic shift in understanding the very concepts of "morality" and "culture" and "roots" today (at least in the West) is not acknowledged at the end of the film. The fact that a solidly post-Christian mentality has taken hold today is not acknowledged. The meta-narrative that has replaced any kind of Christian culture is: "God and truth are not knowable. Christianity has been debunked. Religion is dangerous. Individual's desires, thoughts and feelings are true and absolute. Personal license is absolute. There are no extrinsic reference points.  Everything is subjective. Change is the method and goal. All change is progress. Progress is good. There is no meaning in the world. Each one assigns meaning to each one. Meaning is fluid. It can and should keep changing. Change is the only good."


I would have laid out (briefly) the challenges before us today. I would have identified the exact meaning of human dignity and current-day threats to it. I would have explicated what it means to be human. True, the words of John Paul II captured in the film are answers for today, also--albeit in today's context--but the dots could have been connected. In a fragmented, postmodern world, nothing is supposedly connected, nothing is obvious. I would have highlighted today's need for: critical thinking, media literacy, logic, ethics, metaphysics, apologetics, phenomenology, personalism, the common good, rationality, existentialism, Thomism, philosophy, theology, catechesis, objective and subjective truth-seeking in unison, Catholicism, striving for nobility, the Church's social teaching, altruism, asceticism, family life, the true/good/beautiful, culture of life, virtues, sacrificial love, God, etc.


The failed economic system that is Communism--so familiar to those of us who were "children of the Cold War"--is painted in stark relief: the scarcity of basic amenities like phone service, indoor heating/plumbing; cramped and ugly government housing; long and separate working shifts meant to break down the family; constant food and medicine shortages; the omnipresence of secret police/spies/infiltrators/snitching neighbors. But of all the Soviet tactics of oppression, it was the indoctrination of children apart from their parents that was, perhaps, the most insidious.


The film is a consistent and coherent whole. I'm sure it accomplished its goal. I'm just looking it at it with the eye of a missed opportunity to educate even more strongly, and draw younger generations in to benefit from its wisdom, and see the possibility of a continuum with John Paul II's social vision. As Jesus said: "The truth will set you free." And as John Paul II said: "Only Christ reveals the whole truth about man." I would have attempted to explain: Why is it that Christ is the key?

Perhaps all that "Liberating" needs is a follow-up study guide that will ask these contemporary questions. :)

Interviewee George Weigel says: "Culture is the most dynamic force in history." If that's true, we have a lot of work to do. My answer? THEOLOGY OF THE BODY. Start there. It's what everyone cares about, where everyone lives.


--"Europe after the French Revolution went the way of separating morality from the public sphere, from the economy. But JP2 said that's not the only way. It's possible to take a different route where we integrate the Ten Commandments and morality with public life, with the State we want to have, with the economy we want to have, the law we want to have. That's what JP2 encouraged."

--Here's a memorable sermon during a subsequent trip of John Paul II to Poland in 1991 (he made a total of 9 trips to Poland) where he showed some righteous anger at the way his countrymen were abusing their newfound freedom--specifically regarding abortion: http://www.nytimes.com/1991/06/04/world/pope-delivers-angry-sermon-on-abortion-to-poles.html

--"Life is a pilgrimage toward a goal." --Karol Wojtyla's Dad

--And.....it's not over:
Trudeau pledges troops, armoured vehicles as Russia standoff intensifies (Latvia, Baltics, Poland)
#cdnpoli http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2016/07/08/trudeau-pledges-troops-frigate-and-jets-as-nato-faces-off-against-russia_n_10879878.html via @HuffPostCanada

--An incredible account of brutal Cuban Communist oppression: the book "Against All Hope" by Armando Valladares

"No to selfishness
No to injustice
No to pleasure without morality
No to despair
No to hatred and violence
No to ways without God
No to irresponsibility and mediocrity
Yes to God, to Jesus Christ, to the Church
Yes to the effort to elevate people and lead them to God
Yes to justice, to love and to peace
Yes to solidarity with everyone, especially the most needy
Yes to home
Yes to your duty to build a better society." 


--NINE DAYS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD (JP2's historic 9-day trip to Poland in 1979)
--POPE JOHN PAUL II (feature film, JP2 played by Jon Voigt, father of Angelina Jolie)
--MESSENGER OF THE TRUTH (documentary on Blessed Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko)
--POPIELUSZKO: FREEDOM IS WITHIN US (feature film on Blessed Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko--WATCH THE DOCUMENTARY FIRST!)
--KATYN (An examination of the Soviet slaughter of thousands of Polish officers and citizens in the Katyn forest in 1940)
--THE INNOCENTS (Polish nuns during WWII)
--THE ORIGINAL IMAGE OF DIVINE MERCY (deals with the suffering of the Church in Lithuania under Soviet oppression)
--WINTER ON FIRE (Ukraine's continuing and current struggle against oppression)