Friday, September 25, 2009

Film Friday: The Game (1997)

The Game is an intelligent noir-style psychological thriller directed by David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club) and staring a super talented cast led by Michael Douglas, Deborah Unger and Sean Penn. It is a fascinating character study hidden beneath the veneer of a twisty-puzzle movie. I recommend this movie highly, though for reason that I’ll explain, you might not “like” it.

** heavy spoiler alert **
Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) is a high powered, ultra-rich, cynical, cold-hearted bastard investment banker. As the story begins, Van Orton’s brother Conrad (Sean Penn) arrives to give Van Orton a birthday gift -- a ticket to participate in a game. This is a personally-tailored, “experiential” game. Van Orton decides to give the game a try, but after an extensive application process, his application is rejected. Yet, no sooner does he receive this news than the game mysteriously begins and a series of strange events start. At first these are merely annoying and inconvenient, but soon Van Orton discovers this may be more than a game -- it may be a criminal scheme. Beyond that, I cannot give you any details except to say the twists and turns are stunning and the ending is fairly spectacular.
Why Does This Film Work?
The Game is an intelligent and ambitious movie which works on two levels: (1) as a big puzzle involving a series of twists that occur to Van Orton and (2) as a fascinating character study of Nicholas Van Orton.
The Game As A Puzzle
On the surface, The Game works well as a puzzle movie. The movie challenges the viewer to solve what is really happening to Van Orton as he moves from event to event. Is it just a game? Is it something more? What do they want with him? Who else is involved?

The movie is well shot and well written. The director creates a fascinating world in which the viewer is easily immersed. It is full of fascinating locations -- from wealthy mansions to rarely used streets of San Francisco. The characters are richly drawn, and the movie is packed with talented actors who are not stars, but should be quite familiar to you on sight, e.g. James Rebhorn (Independence Day, My Cousin Vinny), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Thirteenth Floor, West Wing), Tommy Flannigan (Smoking Aces, Gladiator), and dozens more.

The story is efficient and fast paced, and includes many interesting twists and turns. Twists have become all the rage in Hollywood. In fact, you’ll hear most movies advertised now as having a twist. The problem with twist movies, however, is that most twists are simply gimmicks, i.e. they aren’t organic to the story. In other words, there is little to no evidence in the story to support the twist until it happens, and there is no particular reason in the story that the twist must happen. The classic example of this comes from movies where we suddenly learn, right after the bad guy is defeated, that the hero’s boss or best friend is the real bad guy. There is nothing in the story to make this apparent during the movie and often you get the feeling that the director flipped a coin when he hit the point where he had to reveal who the real bad guy really was. . . heads, it’s the friend; tails, it’s the boss. This is just a gimmick designed to give an otherwise dull movie some depth.

But not all twists are cynically gimmicks. Indeed, some movies use twists to expertly add a second layer to the film -- like The Sixth Sense or The Matrix. The twists in these movies entirely change the motivations of the characters. Other excellent uses for twists include movies where the twist(s) is used to present the viewer with pieces to solve the puzzle presented by the movie. The Game is such a movie. Indeed, the twists here flow naturally from the actions of the characters as they move about their purposes. And this is one of those rare twist movies where you probably won’t see the twists coming, even though the evidence for them can be found as you go along.

However, there are two things the viewer needs to realize before the actions of the characters will make sense: (1) Nicholas Van Orton is not an average man, and (2) this is not a normal game:
• Van Orton is brilliant. He is highly capable and his mind makes connections easily. So when, for example, he recalls a particular character eating Chinese food, what follows is not a plot convenience, but is instead the type of investigation a particularly observant person would undertake. He is also incapable of passing up a challenge. He will not admit defeat. Thus, whereas a typical person might try to quit the game once it starts because it starts unpleasantly, Van Orton would rather fight than quit, which he would see as surrendering.

To help the viewer understand this, the director cleverly puts Van Orton through an application process for the game. In that five minute segment, the audience sees Van Orton insulted, tested, and challenged, and they get to see how his responses reveal his character. They see that he is precise, uptight and always in control, and that he will never admit defeat. They also see how the game people use their new-found knowledge of him against him to hook him firmly into the game by telling him that his application was rejected -- thus turning something he was only curious about into an obsession -- and to manipulate him.

• The viewer also must realize that this game is like no game any of us has ever played. Sure they employ dozens of helpers and spent a ton of money making the game work, but they are also charging Van Orton seven figures to play the game. And while some complain that Van Orton’s conduct is often too perfect for what the game controller need, the viewer should keep in mind there is always someone nearby to guide Van Orton should he go astray -- as multiple characters will admit during the film. What some would call coincidental was in fact the product of well-planned manipulation.
If you understand this, then The Game presents an interesting and entertaining ride.

Yet, many complain that they did not like the feel of the movie or that they disliked Van Orton.

The film is indeed starkly shot. Everything is dark, and everywhere are the trappings of extreme wealth, from the high class restaurants, to living rooms that look like steak houses, to the expensive cars, but nothing in the movie appears particularly comfortable. But this was a conscious choice by the director to use the scenery to echo the coldness of Van Orton’s personality. Indeed, the happier characters around him do not occupy such stark settings, and even Van Orton’s settings change throughout the movie. If one is simply looking for a chase movie then this will be disconcerting, but this isn’t just a chase movie.

Similarly, complaints that Van Orton is unlikable miss the fact that this movie is intended, in part, as a character study. If Van Orton was not cold-hearted and cynical, there wouldn’t be much for him to overcome. Let’s look at the character study aspect.
The Game As A Character Study
As noted above, The Game tells the story of Nicholas Van Orton, a high powered, cynical, cold-hearted bastard investment banker. Van Orton lives alone in a mansion, divorced his wife, estranged himself from his drug addict, never-do-well brother Conrad, and is making life miserable for anyone who crosses his path. He is not sadistic, he just lacks even a trace of compassion and tolerance. His world is orderly and he is unchallenged.

However, his character is really quite nuanced. Beneath the surface, Van Orton is haunted by the suicide of his father, who killed himself on Van Orton’s birthday as a child. The movie begins on Van Orton’s birthday. He has turned the same age as his father, when his father killed himself. And everyone seems to want to compare him to his father and to mention the suicide. But rather that trouble Van Orton, this only seems to annoy him. Clearly, he wants to believe that he is over the suicide, but is he really? It is possible that his need to stay in control at all times is an outgrowth of this?

Also, if he is such a rotten man, then why are we given clues that others love him and care deeply about him. And if that’s true, then what happened to change him?

As the movie goes on, Van Orton finds his life starting to spin out of control. Annoying things happen to him at first, then dangerous things. Soon the game is interfering with his work and making him question reality. He starts coming apart at the seams. And then things really start to go wrong.

That is the moment that the real Van Orton must shine through. Is he a petty tyrant who makes everyone around him fear him to get what he wants, or is he really a skilled, intelligent, capable man who can overcome challenges that face him? Can he preserver or will he give up? These are all questions that he must answer. As he does, we see his character slowly revealed and begin to change. Slowly, but surely, we see if he can become a better man as he is pushed to the edge.

And Michael Douglas is the perfect actor to pull this off. Not only do we easily believe the cold-hearted bastard that he portrays at the beginning of the film (sort of a humorless Gordon Gekko), but Douglas has the acting ability to make us feel the character’s growth, and to really feel for him as he finally swallows his pride and does things that are surprising.
All told, The Game is not the most pleasant movie, but it is an intelligent, entertaining and surprising movie. It has a great story and great characters. It is interestingly shot and full of depth, and it creates a fascinating world in which one can easily get immersed. I highly recommend it.

[+]

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Scooby Doo Exposes The Politically Correct

I’m a huge fan of Scooby Doo. No doubt, you are as well. I mean seriously, how can you not love a talking dog? But Scooby Doo has been changing of late, and not for the better. Scooby Doo has become politically correct. Interestingly, these changes tell us a lot about the true nature of political correctness.

Political Correctness Is About Victimization And Thought Crime

We all know what political correctness means. The term “politically correct” was coined to describe the left’s attempts to force people to accept identify-politics by making it a thought crime to express any view that upsets the victimization cult. This cult, consisting of various self-anointed identity groups (e.g. black groups, women’s groups, disability advocates, homosexual activists, etc.), would challenge anyone who expressed a politically incorrect thought and would demand that they be sent to sensitivity training to “correct” their thinking. If they persisted, cult members would shout the person down and seek to have them fired from their jobs. The idea, as with all thought crimes, was that if people could be kept from expressing ideas, they would stop having those ideas. Stupid.

Well, as the minions of political correctness made their whiny ways into the real world, most found themselves slapped down hard by reality. But some found comfort among the fruits and nuts of academia, or in the weak-willed halls of corporate “human resource” departments, or in Hollywood, where the need to be worshiped mixes with leftwing politics like a nauseous potion. And having found a place where they could revel in their victimhood, they set about inserting that victimhood into films. . . and cartoons.

But a “strange” thing happened when these victims began spewing their idiocy onto celluloid -- they showed themselves to be hypocrites. Rather than being mere victims trying to end the oppression of others, they proved to be expert victimizers and hatemongers. Imagine that! Who could have guessed that a group of people that wants to control the thoughts of others and will happily destroy anyone who does not submit, could somehow turn out to be nasty, vindictive sh..ts?

And nothing exposes their hypocrisy better than what they’ve done to Scooby Doo.

Classic Scooby Doo

Before we can show how Scooby Doo has changed, let us first establish a baseline by describing what classic Scooby Doo was.

Scooby Doo is the story of four friends and their dog, who solve apparently supernatural mysteries. These friends include Fred, the well dressed preppy, athlete type. Daphne the hottie. Velma the nerd. Shaggy the sort of hippie. And Scooby, their talking dog.

Now the first thing to realize is that this is not a normal pairing of high school kids. They represent a cross section of school cliques that would typically despise each other. But instead, this group really were fast friends. They cared about each other, they were intensely loyal, they worked together extremely well, and they treated each other with respect. In that regard, Scooby Doo presented a hopeful vision of the future, of a time when even high schoolers would stop forming cliques and would all just get along.

Moreover, none of these characters fit the well known stereotypes. Fred, despite being handsome and athletic, was also very intelligent and friendly. He was brave and loyal, and he treated his friends with respect. Velma, the nerd, was actually the co-leader of the group. She was smart, clever and brave, as well. Daphne, the hottie, was stylish and personally attractive, and she also was smart, brave and capable. She was at times clumsy, earning her the nickname “Dangerprone Daphne” but she could hardly be called helpless. Shaggy was a gymnast and a track star, but he’s also a bit of an early hippie. He is much more easily frightened than the others, but he too proves himself brave time and time again. And of course, there was Scooby.

Classic Scooby Doo also had a positive, simple message. Don’t be afraid. All the ghosts and monsters they encountered always proved to be a guy in a costume. Thus, the message was obvious, don’t fall for crazy, paranoid or supernatural explanations and never let your fears control you. There was also a strong undercurrent of trusting your friends and that, by working together as a group, one can overcome all obstacles.

But all that’s changed. . . now that they’ve made it “better.”

How Political Correctness Warped Scooby Doo

Somewhere along the way, angry feminists got their hands on Scooby Doo. And they warped this show beyond recognition. But what they did gives us an interesting mirror into their thinking.

First, they hated Fred. The idea that a handsome, athletic male would lead this group was enough to cause their little, hate-filled hearts to burst. Clearly, this was old-school male oppression, and it was keeping little girls everywhere down. So they changed Fred. Did they make him more egalitarian? No. They made him into a barely competent fool. None of Fred’s ideas make sense any more, and everyone ridicules them. He is seen as muscle, when needed, comic relief when not -- he can't even drive well. And every time he comes up with a plan, the others need to demand to know why he thinks he’s the leader.

They also like to make Fred out as sexist (when they aren’t suggesting that he’s gay). See, in the original series, whenever he wanted the group to separate to find clues, he always chose to take Daphne and leave the ugly girl (Velma) to go with Shaggy and Scooby, right? Hence, sexism!!! Boo hoo hoo. Actually, no.

In the original series, they rarely broke the group up this way. Usually, Shaggy would take Scooby in one group and the other three would go in the other group. Moreover, what the feminists miss, is that Velma is the second leader of the group. Thus, forming groups around Fred and Velma would be natural. Third, there was a suggestion that Fred and Daphne were dating, which again would be a reason for them to stay together. But because the feminists can’t see past their victimology, they assume this pairing (which rarely happened) had to be sexism. So now every new cartoon or live action movie has to include a scene where Fred proposes to break the group up and he selects Daphne, only to be harshly slapped down by Daphne and Velma for being sexist.

But Fred wasn’t the only victim of politically correct hate. Daphne’s character has suffered as well. Because she’s attractive, the same people who made Fred incompetent decided that she needed to be made vapid and vain. After all, we can’t have little girls believing that good looking people might be anything other than shallow, because then they would feel oppressed by the good looking. Consequently, hardly a new Scooby Doo movie goes by without Daphne obsessing about her make up, her hair or her clothes.

But there was the inescapable problem that Daphne, being female, also needed to be a role model. So they set about forcing her to act out the feminist obsession with being good at all things men can do, and being independent from men in the process. Despite her obsession with beauty she is now made to reject any hint that she’s interested in men -- she’s not a lesbian, she’s just become anti-sexual (“frigid” in the ancient parlance). She is also required to have an independent career, and to engage in whatever masculine hobbies fit the plot. And she must always be seen to be better than everyone around her, except when she’s being vapid. The message to little girls, you better become better than boys if you want to succeed.

Velma too has suffered, and in the strangest way of all. Of all the characters, you would have expected Velma to have undergone the best transformation at the hands of the politically correct. Are we not told that we should not judge people according to their looks? Apparently, that’s a myth. First, the politically correct stripped Velma of her leadership role. She’s now a full-on modern nerd, which apparently includes confused thinking and social insecurity. . . but not leadership. In the latest incarnation, they’ve even gone so far as to cast an Asian girl to play her -- reinforcing the stereotype of Asians as tech savvy nerds. What’s more, they’ve made Velma into the only sexually active character. In movie after movie, she now lusts after some male (always a geek, of course, because looks do matter and you don’t want to encourage ugly girls to go for attractive males). But even more insulting, she remains flummoxed by the experience of lusting after boys until Daphne steps in and teaches her the art of seduction, which always includes make up, new hair, tight clothes and a scene where she stumbles around learning to walk in high heels.

And what makes this really sick is the fact that the people who have done this, honestly believe that little girls are influenced by the girls they see on cartoons. Think about that. What that means is that these are conscious choices. And yet, rather than offering two different yet intelligent and capable female characters (as they were in classic Scooby Doo), they’re now offering a frigid, vapid, neurotic loner with a chip on her shoulder, and a nerd girl who needs to learn to mimic the vapid chick to get the attention of boys.

Moreover, as a consequence of these changes, these “friends” are no longer really friends. They fight and argue and act out petty jealousies. Daphne is obsessed with showing she can be independent. Velma is obsessed with proving she’s smart and satisfying her nerd lust. Fred sulks for his lost masculinity. Only the relationship between Shaggy and Scooby remains unscathed.

Of all the characters, Shaggy actually escapes with the least harm. Shaggy’s lost his core, particularly his hidden bravery, but he’s little changed otherwise -- having gone from proto-hippie to quasi-stoner. Apparently, stoners love their dogs.

And It’s Not Just The Characters That Have Changed

In addition to the dramatic and disturbing changes in the characters, there have been two other dramatic changes wrought by political correctness. First, each new cartoon is crawling with politically correct information. Rather than just solving mysteries, we now learn about global warming. We learn how Wicca is a religion, not just something for goth kids to jerk themselves with, and that all witches were wrongly accused. We learn that greedy American developers are destroying wonderful third world paradises like Mexico. And so on.

Secondly, the monsters are now real. That’s right. The monsters and ghosts are now genuine. This is truly despicable because it replaces the comforting and rational message of “don’t be afraid” with the disturbing message of “fear the dark, for there be monsters in it.”


Look what political correctness has wrought upon Scooby Doo! Gone is the show about a group of kids, who have shattered stereotypes and ignored peer pressure to become friends, and who work diligently as a team, using the best virtues of mankind to solve mysteries and expose to children that there is truly nothing to fear. In its place, we have a group of highly stereotypical, self-centered unpleasant people who barely get along and who prove time and time again that monsters are real.

This is the fruit of political correctness. The self-appointed victims of oppression have not shown us a world free of victimization as they promised, they just victimized those they don’t like. And in their anger, they have shown a startling jealousy. Could it be that political correctness is not about correcting injustice so much as it is about getting even with those who make us feel inadequate?

[+]

Friday, September 18, 2009

Film Friday: The Wrestler (2008)

When I first saw Darren Aronofsky’s π, I thought Aronofsky deserved watching. π was fresh and interesting, though ultimately unfulfilling. So when he did The Fountain, I was excited. Then I saw it. Then I saw it again, just to make sure it was as horrible as I’d remembered. It was. So, naturally, I went into The Wrestler with low expectations. They weren’t low enough. This film has nothing original to offer and even less to care about. The plot is clichéd and trite and the main character is pathetic and unlikeable. It is a pointless character study about a character we don’t care about. Even the directing is poor.

** spoiler alert **
The Plot Is Ultra-Clichéd
The Wrestler follows a few weeks in the life of a Randy the Ram (Mickey Rourke). His life is pathetic and he knows it, but he can’t see himself doing anything else. Once famous, Randy now is washed up (sound familiar a hundred times over?) and is reduced to playing the local wrestling circuit to crowds that can be counted in the single digits. After a near death experience, Randy is told he can’t wrestle any more. Sensing his own mortality (though he really will only die if he wrestles), Randy goes to a strip club and confesses to aging stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) that he no longer wants to be alone. She advises him that, like all dying movie characters, he should make up with his estranged daughter.

Of course, that doesn’t go well at first. So he buys the daughter a gift, which naturally clears up 20 years of hate instantaneously. He then continues a halfhearted pursuit of the stripper. Cassidy resists his vile charms until she realizes her looks are fading. Suddenly, she decides to settle for trailer trash, drug addict Randy because he would make a good father to her son. She knows this because her son likes Randy’s action figure. But too late, she learns that Randy has -- and you will never see this coming -- decided to wrestle in one final match. Oh my!

So she hops in her car and speeds down state to save her dearly-be-settled. No sooner does she arrive, than Randy tells her he must wrestle. So she leaves, because that’s what you do when the person you want to settle down with wants to make a mistake. Randy/Rourke then breaks character and gives the audience a speech that carefully lays out Randy’s motivation -- because you probably didn’t pick this up when the plot was beating you over the head with it. He starts to wrestle, appears to have a heart attack, and then Aronofsky goes all film school creative on us, in ways that you haven’t seen in at least a couple weeks.
The Real Problem Lies In Randy’s Indifferent Character
Aside from the plot, the real problem with this film lies in Randy’s character. Randy is a man who makes bad decisions, has a pathetic life, and meets others who also make bad decisions. What's the message? Don’t make bad decisions. That’s it. What inspires you about Randy? Nothing. He doesn’t overcome any of the hurdles placed in his path, hurdles he places there himself. Nor does he display any sort of determination. Indeed, he seems to quit everything he starts at the first sign of resistance. Nor does he display virtuous traits, like loyalty, a sense of duty, honor, kind heartedness in the face of adversity. To the contrary, his every action shows he doesn’t care about anyone but himself.

So maybe he’s not meant to be inspirational. Maybe he’s tragic? Hardly. According to Aristotle, a tragedy results in a catharsis, an emotional cleansing or healing experienced by the audience as a result of the sympathy they feel for the suffering endured by the character(s). But there is no catharsis here. We can’t feel for Randy's suffering because it’s all self-inflicted by the bad decisions he makes. And, more importantly, those bad decisions aren’t the result of some tragic flaw. He knows full well he's making bad decisions, he's just decided the temporary benefits of the bad decision outweigh the future suffering. How can we feel sympathy for him? The simple fact is nothing about Randy is inspirational or tragic, and there is no lesson to be learned.
The Other Characters Aren't Any Better
The other characters give us nothing to latch onto either. Indeed, despite the attempt to give them depth, the female characters are little more than set pieces that give Randy something to do as he waits for his final match.

The daughter subplot is ridiculous and phony. The daughter hates him because he abandoned her. So he shows up to tell her he had a heart attack. This only makes her hate him more. Ok, so far so good. But rather than explore how this affects Randy, Aronofsky just has him bring her a gift (a coat), and suddenly twenty years of hate is washed away. Really? But since a relationship with the daughter could complicate the ending, Randy bizarrely alienates her again when he blows off his first dinner with her so he can do cocaine with a groupie (something out of character for a man who has been shown to be very reliable about appointments). So twenty years of hate is washed away by the giving of a simple coat, but is brought back by missing one dinner?

The stripper’s subplot is nonsensical as well. It’s clear Cassidy doesn’t see Randy as more than a regular customer. She likes him, but appears repulsed by him on a personal level. So he throws a little rage at her -- sufficient to get him tossed out of the strip club. Suddenly, she decides, “this might be the man I want to settle down with to help raise my nine year old son.” Who knew rage was such a turn on? Further, having decided that Randy is the man of her dreams, she drives to southern New Jersey in the dead of night to stop him from wrestling. But when he refuses to stop, after her half-hearted attempt to stop him, she simply walks away. Why? Because she’s only in this film to let Randy explain what’s on his mind to the audience, there is no real possibility of a romance.

And frankly, we can’t even feel that he’s lost anything in either of these relationships. Not only do neither the daughter nor the stripper offer him any sort of realistic, worthwhile relationship, but he doesn’t even seem to care that he’s lost either. He’d rather blow off what should be the most important dinner of his life to do blow with a groupie. And he’d rather blow off the woman he's been wooing than give up one final night of wrestling -- in front of a crowd of maybe 100 people? If he doesn’t care, why should we?
Even The Director Offers Us Nothing
We can’t even look to the “film craft” for anything redeeming. The Fountain was a pretentious turd, but at least it was interestingly shot. This isn't? Aronofsky does nothing original or interesting, and he can’t even remain consistent. For example, he begins the movie with a documentary feel, by having the camera following Randy down various hallways as he makes his way to the ring -- something you’ve seen before in every other movie that ventured back stage, e.g. Spinal Tap. But Aronofsky then drops this style until he seems to remember it half way through the film when the camera follows Randy at his day job -- at a meat counter. He then forgets it again, even when Randy returns to the ring for his final match. Aronofsky also uses a series of cheap tricks that stick out like a sore thumb. For example, when things are going well for Randy, the scene suddenly becomes more brightly lit. When things turn sour, the scene darkens. This is most apparent in a scene where he attempts to reconcile with his daughter, where the sunlight itself fades as she lays into him. It’s all been done before and it feels cheap and manipulative.
So Why Did The Critics Love This Film?
The critics almost universally loved The Wrestler, at least that’s what they claimed; it made most of their Top 10 lists for 2008. But if you read their reviews, you will find they didn’t really like the movie so much as they liked the parallel of Mickey Rourke completing a comeback. The words of Roger Ebert are typical:
This is the performance of [Rourke’s] lifetime. It will win him a nomination, may win him the Oscar. Like many great performances, it has an element of truth. Rourke himself was once young and glorious and made the big bucks. He did professional boxing just for the hell of it. He alienated a lot of people. He fell from grace and stardom, but kept working, because he was an actor and that was what he did. Now here is his comeback role, playing Randy the Ram's comeback.

I cared as deeply about Randy the Ram as any movie character I've seen this year. I cared about Mickey Rourke, too. The way this role and this film unfold, that almost amounts to the same thing. Rourke may not win the Oscar for best actor. But it would make me feel good to see him up there. It really would.
The Wrestler is one of those movies that rode the wave of the events surrounding the movie. This was the dramatic role that would crown Rourke’s comeback, and the critics were happy to be a part of that. If Nicholas Cage had played Randy the Ram, as was originally intended, this movie would have been panned by these same critics. And as the spell of Rourke’s comeback fades again, I suspect this movie will be long forgotten.

Don't bother with this one.

[+]

Saturday, September 12, 2009

TV Review: The Universe (2007 - ??)

Are you curious about our universe? Do you want to know what’s out there? Ever thought about time travel or the possibility of multiple universes or what it would take to live in space? Then have I got the show for you. It’s called The Universe, and it’s on Tuesday nights on the History Channel.

The Universe is in its fourth, nerd-glorious season, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Although a show about science, The Universe is easily accessible for all audience. The show is well written to be both entertaining and informative. The scientists they interview are well spoken, entertaining, and easy to understand -- without sounding condescending. Many of them have distinguished careers as speaker or television hosts. The graphics used are impressive, informative and eye catching. And the show is careful to constantly use visual examples to make it easy for us non-scientists to understand the phenomena about which they are speaking.

The Universe has run for four seasons, with each one having a slightly different theme:
• The first season focused primarily on the planets within our solar system. Did you know that Jupiter has 63 moons, 23 of which were not discovered until 2003? Its largest is Ganymede, which is bigger than either Mercury or Pluto. Did you know that the largest volcano in our solar system is Olympus Mons, on Mars? It’s three times taller than Mount Everest and is as big as the state of New Mexico. Did you know that without the moon we wouldn’t be alive today?

• The second season branched out beyond the solar system and uncovered the secrets of our galaxy. How do they find other planets? What is a black hole or a super black hole? Do white holes create matter? Where is the Milky Way? Sex in space? Not as simple as it sounds (see the pornographic image to the right). And long term space travel is impossible because of bone mass loss. You’ve heard about the Big Bang right? Did you know that 95% of the matter that should be in the universe is missing?

• The third season shifted gears and talked more about theoretical physics. Is time travel possible? And can you come back to this world or would you come back to a parallel world? Do we live in one universe or are we part of a multiverse? Is gravity really a force pulling on objects, or do heavy objects simply bend space around them -- causing us to fall toward them, like a bowling ball on a bed will roll toward you?
The real key to the show, as I noted above, are the presenters. These people are absolutely top notch. Michio Kaku (left) is a theoretical physicist who specializes in string theory. He’s also a noted lecturer, radio and television personality, and he has an amazing ability to make the incredibly complex seem really simple.

Another presenter of note is Neil deGrasse Tyson (below), another television personality and the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.

The other presenters are a mix of JPL scientists and other noted professors, every of them top notch, and every one of them is capable of making the vast and complex universe something you and I can understand, and doing so without losing the wonder and amazement we should have for just what’s out there. Their joy at what they are presenting also comes through clearly, and gives the show a high re-watchability.

Moreover, unlike shows like Naked Science, which touches upon some of these same topics but crams them into stand-alone episodes, The Universe is able to take its time and break up the topics it covers over entire seasons rather than cramming them into single episodes. This allows for more information to be provided, for that information to be explained better, and keeps you from suffering from information overload.

The Universe is well worth watching if you have even the slightest interest in what makes the universe tick. You will learn something interesting every time you watch the show. It is entertaining, it is visually compelling, and it’s informative. In fact, The Universe is the kind of show that delivers upon the promise of television. Whenever people talk about using television to educate people, this is the kind of show they are talking about.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.

[+]

Friday, September 11, 2009

Film Friday: Rat Race (2001)

“A horse race with animals that can think and lie and cheat and play dirty?”

With the summer ending, let’s do one last film that’s just fun. Directed by Jerry Zucker, Rat Race is the updated version of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). If you’ve never heard of Rat Race, that is because it was a victim of poor timing. Released two weeks prior to 9/11, Rat Race faced stiff competition from a slew of comedies. If you haven’t seen it, you should. Not only is it absolutely funny, but it stands out from the crowd of angry/gross out comedies that are so prevalent today. Here’s why the movie works:

** spoiler alert **
Classic, Flexible Plot
The first element of Rat Race’s success is its classic, flexible plot. Eccentric billionaire Donald Sinclair (John Cleese) picks six people at random from his casino and offers them the chance to race to Silver City, New Mexico, where the winner will get $2 million in cash. He does this so that he and his clients can bet on who will win. Most of the six have partners that join them in the race, and every one of them is a freak. Hilarity ensues.

This is an ideal storyline for comedy for several reasons. First, it’s highly believable, even though it’s outlandish. We all want to believe that races like this happen all the time and that there are dozens of billionaires out there waiting to offer such challenges and hand out money to the winners.

Secondly, the story structure is so flexible that it can be bent to fit whatever comedic ideas work best without making the audience feel that the scene was an after-thought. For example, if the Ghostbusters suddenly came across a rocket car, we would feel that the scene was tacked onto the movie. . . that it was not organic to the plot. But in a movie like Rat Race the flexible plot structure allows the characters to find a rocket car (or a “Barbie” Museum or a busload of Lucy’s) without ever feeling like the scenes have nothing to do with the plot. This gives the movie tremendous comedic possibility.
Excellent “Natural” Casting
The second element in Rat Race’s success is the casting. Check out these names: John Cleese, Rowan Atkinson, Whoopie Goldberg, Jon Lovitz, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Seth Green, Kathy Bates, Wayne Knight, Amy Smart, and a dozen more. Each of these actors has proven through their body of work that they are capable of handling comedic timing without coming across as staged or stilted. And in each instance, the actors are well cast for the roles they play. Indeed, they are so well cast, that the actors merge into the roles and you can easily see every one of them being in real life the way they are portrayed in the film. That pulls you right into the movie because you never once feel like they are acting. Compare that with Ben Stiller, who I like, but who always feels like he’s playing a role.
Classical Comedic Principles v. Modern Gross Out/Angry Comedic Principles
But what really makes Rat Race stand out is its reliance on classical comedic principles, rather than trying to apply modern gross out or angry comedy principles. Rat Race is not a gross out/angry comedy. Here’s why that’s a superior choice.
Gross Out/Angry Comedy Characters Must Be Unlikable
Think about how gross out comedies and angry comedies work. They work on the principle of schadenfreude -- that is, they work because the audience derives joy from seeing the character suffer. Still, funny is funny right? Well, not really. There is a price to pay for basing humor on schadenfreude. Before an audience will find it funny that a particular character suffers, the audience must feel that the punishment is warranted. That means that the director must fill the movie with nasty people doing nasty things to each other just so they can become the butt of various jokes. Otherwise, the movie feels mean spirited, if innocent characters suffer. It is exceedingly difficult to lose oneself in a film when one doesn’t like the characters.

And since the point of gross out/angry comedies is to generate shock at the punishments inflicted, either because of how painful they appear or how gross they are, the filmmakers really cannot make the punishments fit the crime. They must instead make the “crime” fit the punishment. If they don’t do this, they will run afoul of the human desire for proportionality; as a race, we are uncomfortable with excessive punishments. Thus, the filmmaker must either find some “crime” that mirrors the punishment, which is difficult to do when you’re looking for the grossest shocks you can find, or they must set out to make their characters so nasty that the audience doesn’t feel the least bit queasy or uncomfortable with the punishment.

Rat Race, on the other hand, follows more classical comedic concepts. That means likable characters subject to classical morality. Good deeds get rewarded, bad deeds are always punished, and the punishment always fits the crime both in terms of proportionality but also in terms of mirroring the crime -- an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Thus, greed is punished by an equal loss. Gluttony is punished with deprivation. Arrogance is punished with humiliation. Secrecy is punished with exposure. And it is precisely because the punishment does fit the crime that we not only feel satisfied by the punishment (which is not always the case in the angry/gross out films) but we never feel “guilty” about seeing the character punished. Further, except when the character misbehaves, there is no need in a classical comedy to make them out to be unlikable.
Making Characters Unlikable Limits The Types Of Humor That Can Be Used
Not only do unlikable characters make it harder for the audience to get into a story, but the use of unlikable characters dramatically limits the types of humor the director can employ.

For example, in Rat Race many of the jokes work because of the innocence of the characters. Take Whoopie Goldberg: her character is presented as likable and hopelessly naive. She is in Vegas to meet her grown daughter for the first time (having given her up for adoption). She envisions the daughter being a sweet young woman, and that is how the daughter presents herself. . . until she answers her cell phone. Then she turns into the dragon lady from hell. She is a Type A business woman with a penchant for ripping the heads off her employees. When she finishes the conversation, she crushes the cell phone. Whoopie innocently and sympathetically says, “Oh honey, you broke your phone.” Without missing a beat, the daughter smiles and cheerfully says, “It’s ok, I carry extras.” This is a funny moment. But it only works because we like these characters. They are good people with bizarrely outrageous flaws. And since they are generally good, and the flaws are outrageously presented, they are really funny to us.

Compare that with an angry comedy like Tropic Thunder, where these same outrageous flaws are presented as the standard personality of the characters. If Ben Stiller were to deliver the daughter’s line about having a spare cell phone, we would not find it funny because it wouldn’t appear to be an outlandish moment, we would instead view it as mere confirmation that he’s an unlikable ass. Thus, the humor is lost.
Gross Out/Angry Comedies Cannot Do Introspective Humor
Moreover, because we do like the characters in Rat Race, we can sympathize with them. Thus, Rat Race has available to it, another whole type of humor that it can exploit that angry comedies cannot: introspective humor. In other words, unlike angry comedies, Rat Race can derive humor from the experiences the audience has in common with the characters in the movies.

Whoopie discovers that her now-grown daughter is not the sweet little girl she expected. Lovitz lies to his family about being in a race because he wants to get rich so that he doesn’t have to work at Home Depo. Cuba Gooding Jr. is hiding from the world after making a fool of himself on television. Breckin Meyer discovers that there is an unexpected side to the girl he likes, Amy Smart, and that makes him adventurous. These are all experiences we have had in one form or another. And by exaggerating these experiences on screen, the writers let us re-live them vicariously in a more harmless way, and we get to laugh at the way we acted at the time. Thus, the humor becomes very personal.

The angry/gross out comedies, on the other hand, cannot do this because the audience never sympathizes with the characters, because the characters must be seen to be assholes so that the audience does not object to the periodic punishments. This prevents us from ever seeing our own experiences being played out by the characters because we don’t associate ourselves with the jerks we see on the screen. (As an aside, many gross out/angry comedies attach a redemption theme at the end of the movie in an attempt to inject this type of humor, so that you leave the theater believing that you did like the characters after all.)

Moreover, since we can sympathize with the Rat Race characters, we can put ourselves into their plight. This manifests itself in us rooting for each team to overcome whatever obstacles they encounter to get to Silver City. And that presents yet another fertile ground for comedy. Each of these obstacles turns out to be things that we have all encountered, things that have frustrated us before -- like fully booked flights or long lines at rental counters. And since we don’t need to hate these characters, we can feel their frustrations. That’s where Rat Race gets very clever in its writing.

Rat Race zigs when it should zag, just to frustrate us. Then it zigs again, to push us further. And just as we reach the breaking point, it drops a perfectly timed joke on us to defuse everything.

For example: who hasn’t been in a hurry only to be stuck at a counter with a slow clerk? We all have, and we all know the frustration. So when Whoopie and her daughter end up stuck in the rental car line, we can instantly sympathize. And since this is a race, our frustration is compounded. But we’re not ready for the joke yet. When they finally get to the counter, and we assume they are over their hurdle, the film doubles down on our frustration: the clerk turns out to be the world’s dumbest trainee. . . and who can’t relate to that moment? So you are further frustrated, but you also laugh at the situation -- not because you are laughing at the two women, with whom you sympathize, but because you are laughing at all the times this happened to you and how frustrated you felt (only to realize that in hindsight, getting upset was pretty silly). But that’s not the joke. The joke comes a moment later, just as your frustration reaches its peak, when the clerk states that they have a car available. Suddenly, without missing a beat, Whoopie asks, “what color is it?” And this totally ridiculous question, asked at the right moment, makes you burst out laughing and makes all of your frustration disappears, making your joy all the greater.

Gross out/angry films can’t duplicate this because you can’t sympathize with the characters. Indeed, they know this. So they don’t even try to gain your sympathy. Instead, they use these moments to allow the angry characters to erupt to demonstrate how frustrated they are. Thus the joke, rather than being based on our own experiences, is based on the ability of the actor to amuse us with their ranting.

Thus, classic comedy is capable of using more types of humor and particularly more internalized/personal humor, than modern gross out/angry comedies.
Rat Race not only is a classic comedy, it is a well done classical comedy. The jokes are well set up and unexpected, and they pay off handsomely. The actors give you characters you simply will not forget. There are lines you will remember (“siphoning gas is not a smoting offense”), scenes you will remember (Pepto-Bismol), and you will go away from this movie smiling. It may not be deep or philosophical, but it’s absolutely worth your time.

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Friday, September 4, 2009

Film Friday: Trading Places (1983)

What do you get if you take My Fair Lady, aka Pygmalion, and you run it twice within the same movie, and then you Americanize it? You get Trading Places. Don’t believe me? Read on. . .

** spoiler alert **
My Fair Lady & Pygmalion
My Fair Lady (1964), which is based on the play Pygmalion (1913) by George Bernard Shaw, which is itself inspired by Greek Mythology, is the story of a jaded upper class Englishman, who bets a colleague that he can take an extremely low class woman, train her in etiquette, speech and deportment, and then pass her off as upper class. By the end of the story, he has indeed changed her, apparently for the better, but she also has changed him, making him less jaded, less cynical, and less misanthropic. Trading Places repeats the Pygmalion story twice. First, most obviously, with Eddie Murphy’s character being brought up from the lowest class. Then, less obviously, with Dan Aykroyd’s character being brought down from the highest class. And in the end, we are taught a lot about what America values.
The Obvious My Fair Lady/Pygmalion: Eddie Murphy
The story of how Randolph Duke (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer Duke (Don Ameche) take Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) from the streets and turn him into a successful manager of their commodities trading firm is the obvious parallel to My Fair Lady/Pygmalion. As the movie begins, Randolph and Mortimer are engaged in an argument, similar to the one between Henry Higgins and Colonel Hugh Pickering, in which Randolph, like Higgins, states that he can take a lowly human being and raise him to their own level by placing him in the right environment and giving him the right kind of encouragement. Mortimer disagrees.

Having settled upon a wager, Randolph sets out to find their human guinea pig. And where Higgins finds Eliza Doolittle, Randolph finds Billy Ray Valentine. In Valentine, you have a man who has no manners, no social graces, no vocabulary appropriate for polite society, and who has little understanding of the social conventions of the upper classes. By comparison, in Randolph and Mortimer, you have the bluest bloods on Wall Street, the elite of the elite: “a Duke has sat on the exchange since it was founded.” Even their names imply royalty.

Soon Randolph, like Higgins, sets about raising Valentine from his environment, and, indeed, he becomes so successful that Valentine eventually becomes cold-hearted regarding people in the same situation in which he was himself prior to meeting the Dukes, suggesting that they just need to stop taking drugs and work harder. But when Valentine overhears the Dukes’ plan to return him to the gutter this story diverts dramatically from My Fair Lady/Pygmalion -- “I’ve grown accustomed to her face” becomes “do you really believe I would have a n*gger run our family business?” and there is no reconciliation between the Dukes and Valentine, as there is between Higgins and Doolittle. Instead, it's war.
The Not So Obvious My Fair Lady/Pygmalion: Dan Aykroyd
Trading Places also does something else interesting, which My Fair Lady/Pygmalion do not. Whereas My Fair Lady/Pygmalion bring Higgins around to realize that he has been an arrogant ass, and has misunderstood humanity, Trading Places chooses to let that transformation play out in the character of Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd). Indeed, there is a second half to the Valentine bet: Randolph and Mortimer bet that Winthorpe, who currently manages their firm, will lose his breeding and education and become like Valentine if he is stripped of his surroundings. Thus, they fire him, they have him kicked out of his house, and they have him arrested for drug possession (which causes his friends and fiancé to ostracize him). In effect, Winthorpe goes through the same Eliza Doolittle story that Valentine does, only in reverse. Whereas Valentine should become more refined, Winthorpe should become less. And because every Doolittle needs a Higgins to guide them, Winthorpe is given a guide in the person of Jamie Lee Curtis, who plays the hooker with a heart of gold.

As predicted, Winthorpe does indeed become a common criminal, just like Valentine becomes a snob. He becomes alcoholic, deranged, and suicidal. The entire false-human Harvard facade behind which he has lived his life comes crashing down. But just when it looks hopeless for Winthorpe, Valentine arrives with the news that the Dukes are behind his fall. And he has a plan for revenge.

At that point, Pygmalion ends and Americana begins.
American Values
My Fair Lady and Pygmalion both include a good deal of unspoken criticism of Higgins and the British upper classes. They are portrayed as arrogant, callous, lifeless, and obsessed only with appearances. Though, in the end, they are essentially forgiven by Eliza, who accepts upper class society with only minor concessions. Trading Places is very different.

Trading Places highlights the American rejection of class. The Dukes, who set themselves up as a form of American royalty, are despised in the movie. They are shown to be rotten to the core, hateful, deceitful, and we are told that their success is the result of illegal market manipulation. In fact, our disgust for them is so great that when they are brought down and bankrupted at the end of the movie, we are happy, not sympathetic. It is only the comedic talents of the actors that even make the characters bearable.

Yet, at the same time, our glee at their destruction should not be seen as an indictment of wealth. To the contrary, what gives this movie a happy ending is the fact that each of the heroes (including the hooker and the butler) end up rich. And that is consistent with the American attitude to wealth. We love self-made people, but we despise those who have inherited their wealth. We worship people like Sam Walton because he drove the same beat up pick up truck until the day he died, but we despise the ostentatious display of wealth by those we feel have not earned it.

It is also interesting that we are shown that Americans view the under class with disdain and despise the upper class. Ask yourself, for example, would you want to live in either world presented in the movie? Would you want to spend time either with any of the people Winthorpe meets in jail or through Jamie Lee Curtis or with any of Winthorpe's former friends? Probably not because they are all unappealing. Or consider the difference between Jamie Lee Curtis, who is a lowly prostitute but (like all good Americans) has a plan to better herself, and Muffy, Winthorpe’s cold as ice fiancé, who seeks only to exist on inherited wealth. We find Curtis more appealing in every single way, though we would not if she were content to remain in the lowest class.

This same issue is made clear by the conversions of Valentine and Winthorpe. Both are presented as being at the wrong end of the spectrum originally, and then drifting to the other wrong end of the spectrum as they change. But once they break free and settle in the middle, all becomes right with their characters. And that is the Americanized message of the film and of American culture itself: the ideal class is the middle class. It is no coincidence that most Americans prefer to view themselves as middle class, no matter how much or how little they make.

Thus, whereas the very British My Fair Lady and Pygmalion suggested that the upper class was the best, though it could use some adjustment, the very American Trading Places suggests that the only good class is the middle class.

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