Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Film Friday: Avatar (2009)

Avatar, a.k.a. Dances With Smurfs, is a crappy movie. There is no other way to say it. If someone tells you they liked this film, punch them in the face. Not only is this the most politically correct film ever, but it’s poorly acted, poorly written and deathly dull. I feel like I’ve lost a portion of my life watching it.

** I would insert a spoiler warning here, but you can’t spoil this film. **
The "Plot"
Oh where do I begin. An evil corporation has invaded some planet (the unoriginally named “Pandora”) so they can mine something called “unobtainium” -- a word stolen from the infinitely better yet still crappy movie The Core. This unobtainium does something. We don’t know what exactly because James Cameron wasn’t smart enough to come up with anything, but just take it on faith that it’s important.

The main character, Jake Sully (we’ll call him “Lifeless” in honor of the acting non-talent of Sam Worthington), is a former Marine who lost the use of his legs. . . probably from sitting through this film. He takes a job on planet PandaOdor where he will be an avatar operator. What's an avatar you ask? Basically, Ripley from Alien came up with the idea that if you want to exploit a native people, you gotta look like the native people, then you can trick them into trading their land for your beads. So she invented these body-suit things that look like the locals. We aren’t really sure how the suits work or how they’re made because Cameron didn’t care about this aspect of the film. But don’t worry about it, you won’t care either because your mind will be numb by this point in the film. . . ten minutes in.

Lifeless’s job is to operate his avatar in such a way that he endears himself to the locals, a tall blue race called the Na’vi, who look an awful lot like Smurfs who’ve spent time on a Medieval torture rack. After a boring, boring, boring 20 minutes of watching animators try to make Lifeless emote as he runs through the forest of this standard videogame world, Lifeless comes up with a plan. He decides to get himself attacked by wild animals in the hopes that some borderline-retarded princess of the Na’vi happens by and saves him. Of course this works because you can’t swing a dead panda on PandaOdor without hitting a Na’vi princess and because chicks can’t resist a dude who is helpless, rude and stupid.

After a few more minutes of scenery and some pidgin English, these two fall in love and the Smurfs make Lifeless a trusted member of their tribe. Retarded-Princess then mates with Lifeless’s avatar. . . somehow. . . before we are “treated” to another thirty minute scene where Lifeless runs through trees and learns to fly on the backs of creatures on Smurfback Mountain as the other Smurfs learn to accept him and see him as the chosen one.

Suddenly, it’s back to the plot. For reasons Cameron never bothers to explain, the evil US Military decides that since they can now succeed with their plan of gaining the Na’vi’s trust, now would be the perfect time to ditch that plan and instead start killing them for fun. What?! Those aren’t the US military, you say? Well, you could have fooled me. Then the “plot” stops, a fight ensues, a lot of people die, as do many Smurfs, and forty minutes later the evil military loses and Lifeless becomes the leader of the Na’vi. Roll credits.
The Characters
Now that you know the plot, let’s talk about the characters. The characters are awful.

First, you have Lifeless. He’s a pointless character with little to add to the movie despite being the main character. His role is clearly a copy of Kevin Costner’s role from Dances With Wolves, but Worthington comes across more like a mental patient whose thorazine wears off every once in a while. Indeed, he seems incapable of displaying any emotions, despite suffering wild mood swings -- “I hate this place,” “no, I love this place, it’s paradise,” etc. etc. His character also is prone to saying really stupid things, but that’s ok because the other characters aren’t listening. In fact, one of the first things you’ll notice about this film is that none of the characters speak to each other, they deliver speeches to the audience. If it weren’t for the fact they do touch each other once in a while, you’d almost swear they filmed their parts separately and never met. Even simple lines, like "good morning fellow capitalist oppressor," seem to be spoken past the other characters.

The main bad guy is Colonel Cliché, who has a severe disability which prevents him from saying any line you haven’t heard in another film. He loves to kill. Sigourney Weaver plays a woman who occasionally uses scientific terms and then dies. She likes to be rude to people. And there are a whole bunch of other actors too, who presumably do something plot-wise, though it’s not really clear what. Finally, there are the Smurfs, whose main job is to speak like cliché American Indians, while pretending they aren’t American Indians. Not much more to say about them.
The “Writing”
The writing is awful. In fact, there wasn’t really a single line in the film that didn’t make me cringe. Every sentence was cliché-ridden and predictable. The word choice was around a fifth grade level. There was nothing subtle in the writing either. If they want you to know a particular character can’t be trusted, they will literally have multiple characters come on screen and say, “You cannot trust Character X.” And the only memorable line in the film was “The End,” words for which I was truly thankful.

The Political Correctness
Now that we’re done talking about the good parts of the film, let’s talk about the most serious problem with this sucker: this film is pure leftist propaganda. Every single line delivered in this film is crawling with politically correct bullsh~t. Seriously, these people can’t say good morning without making some leftist crack. These characters don’t speak, they make speeches. And here’s what they say: corporations are evil. The military is evil. Scientists who do the bidding of evil corporations or the military are evil. The American Indians are noble creatures who lived in an ideal world where no one died and their gods literally existed and everyone was a vegetarian and loved each other until whitey came along and killed them all and herded them into casinos. Save the environment from capitalist whitey and the military. The war on terror is evil. The American military are terrorists, shock and awe is evil. Shave the whales! Down with whitey!

The anti-white message in this film was particularly obnoxious. All the bad guys were white. In fact, the only minorities on staff (the Indian dude and the Hispanic chick) quickly changed sides and betrayed whitey to aid the Smurfs, as did all the women and the handicapped guy (what, no gays?). Whitey Colonel Cliché even asks Lifeless how it feels to betray his race, which may have meant “human” in this instance, but sure sounded like "white."

But before James Cameron goes patting himself on the back for being a full-blown worshiper of oppression theology, let me point out one irony. Why is it, James, that the only person who can save the backwards Na’vi is the white dude? And why would these peaceful people make him their leader, as they apparently do at the end of the film, when his only qualifications are being a solider and being a white dude? Are you saying that a moronic white dude is the best and brightest on their planet? That seems kind of racist. Seriously James, it’s amazing how easily your screed against white oppression seamlessly morphs into the noble savage fantasy that was so popular among empire builders in the late 1800s. I guess you see yourself as the man who would be king?

The anti-military message was obnoxious as well. All the soldiers are drawn entirely from the paranoid Hollywood clichés of soldiers. They are bloodthirsty and irrational and long for nothing more than subjugating the scientists and businessmen who run the show, just so they can kill the Na’vi because. . . well, just because. Sounds to me like James Cameron must have had a bad experience with a solider at one time. . . in a mensroom.

Unfortunately, these messages permeate everything you see and hear in this crap-fest. Indeed, there wasn't a line of dialog that didn't push these ideas. And that was a big enough turn off to anger me, whenever I awoke from my periodic movie-induced comas.
To sum up this film, all I can really say is that it swings wildly between boring and offensive, with a pretty lame videogame thrown in between. I am glad this turkey will be forgotten in a couple years, but saddened that James Cameron made any money. Maybe he’ll get robbed. . . now that is a happy thought!

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Friday, December 10, 2010

Film Friday: Wall Street (1987)

Wall Street is a great film. It’s well-paced, well-shot, well-acted and quite dramatic. But it has a rather ironic history. It’s ironic because Oliver Stone wanted the film to stand as an attack on Wall Street and the Reagan philosophy, but it seriously backfired and he ended up sending an entire generation of kids to finance school specifically to become the very villain the film rails against.

** spoiler alert **

At one point, Oliver Stone was a talented director/storyteller. Wall Street was made at the height of his abilities and is perhaps his finest film. But it was this ability to craft a highly compelling and engrossing film that tripped Stone up. Stone, no friend of capitalism or Ronald Reagan, intended Wall Street to be an anti-Reagan, anti-Wall Street, anti-capitalism screed. He hoped to discredit everything Reagan had achieved and get people leaving the theaters believing that the Reagan recovery (then underway for several years) was smoke and mirrors, with the rich getting richer by illegal means and the poor being tossed into the streets. But people didn’t see the film that way. To the contrary, they were inspired to become the very thing he hated: Gordon Gekko.

If we take the story as Stone intended, we get the following. Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) is an eager young man who wants to do better than his father (Martin Sheen), a beloved union man. Fox joins the white collar corporate grind, doing cold calling for a brokerage firm. But greed entices Fox into the world of corporate raider Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), an evil man who symbolizes the Reagan years. Gekko wrecks companies so he can squeeze out their savings for himself. Under Gekko’s spell, Bud changes. He becomes cynical. He goes from a normal American to buying modern art he once despised, to taking drugs, to falling for a woman who is, in essence, a high class prostitute or gold digger. Most importantly though, Bud becomes a slave to Gekko, doing his bidding, emulating him, and being used and abused by him. Ultimately, Bud becomes a criminal. Gee, capitalism sucks.

But Stone made a huge mistake by glorifying the experience. He gave it cool settings, beautiful people, access to a secret world, and even a great soundtrack. Consequently, what most people got out of the film was this: Gordon Gekko owns expensive cars, private planes and homes on private beaches. He has the coolest office in the world. He belongs to private clubs, where he gets to push around rich people who thought they were better than him. He makes his own schedule, orders off the menu in restaurants, gets the best tables, meets the coolest people, has sex with the most attractive women, and gets to play monopoly with real companies. And his life can be yours, if you're just willing to break a few harmless rules.

What’s more, Stone compounds his error by adding the character of Sir Lawrence Wildman (Terence Stamp), the white knight corporate raider. Wildman is the good capitalist, a man who genuinely wants to turn companies around and save jobs rather than wrecking them. BUT, we are also told that Wildman was Gekko before Gekko, and that his good guy status is only of recent vintage. Bud Fox reinforces this when he talks repeatedly about making a fortune so he can then do good with it. Thus, through Wildman’s actions and Fox’s words, we are told that it’s ok to be Gekko to get rich so long as we eventually do something noble with the money. . . at some point.

Thus, rather than the anti-capitalist “finance makes you evil” message Stone intended, the message that comes across in Wall Street is that it’s ok to do bad things to become ultra rich, because (1) it’s a great way to live and (2) you can redeem yourself later by doing good things once you can afford it. This was the message picked up by millions of college kids who suddenly wanted to become Gordon Gekko. They dressed like him, quoted him, and talked about becoming him. Indeed, just like LA Law sent kids to law school and ER sent kids to medical school, Wall Street sent them to business school to learn corporate finance. Screenwriter Stanley Weiser has confirmed this, stating that he has been approached many times by people who told him, “This movie changed my life. Once I saw it, I knew that I wanted to get into such and such business. I wanted to be like Gordon Gekko.” Charlie Sheen and Michael Douglas also report that people tell them they became stockbrokers because of Fox and/or Gekko.

How’s that for irony?

But there are more ironies to consider. For example, this was a criticism of Reaganism, but corporate raiding exploded under Clinton. Stone complains that Gekko wrecks companies for no reason except his own profit, but it was the corporate raiders of the 1980s/1990s who are now credited with making American industry profitable again by breaking up large conglomerates that were run by inefficient management -- indeed, the failure to do this in Japan is one of the causes blamed for their decades long economic nightmare. Stone also complains that the economy is a “zero sum game,” a fancy economic term meaning that every winner has an equal loser and that no new wealth is ever created. But the economy grew from four trillion dollars at the time of the film to thirteen trillion today, even though Stone’s criticism would have predicted little to no growth. Similarly, Stone’s predicted pension fund collapse never happened.

Finally, it should be pointed out that much of what Stone sees as criminal in the conduct of Bud Fox and Gordon Gekko is not actually criminal. It is definitely criminal for Fox to break into offices using the cleaning service, and it is probably criminal for him to trade on what his father knows, depending on how his father learned this information. But Fox following Wildman around to figure out what company Wildman wants to buy is not illegal, despite Stone’s obsession with that point. Indeed, this is not insider information, this is nothing more than seeing Warren Buffett checking out the local grocery store and buying their stock because you think he wants to buy the company. Nor is it illegal to call the newspaper and tell them you plan to buy a particular stock, assuming you are truthful. Stone makes this sound criminal as well, but this happens every day when people go on CNBC to announce what they are interested in.

Thus, while Wall Street is a great film and it’s quite fun to watch, it fails pretty miserably at delivering its intended message. . . unless that message was “greed is good.”

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Friday, December 3, 2010

Is Hollywood Finally Listening?

Is Hollywood finally listening to conservatives? Hollywood has always had a liberal bent, though it was not always particularly noticeable. Part of this was that in the 1940s-1950s, liberalism was closer to classical liberalism (i.e. modern conservatism) than it was to hateful, lunatic modern liberalism. In the 1990s, however, Hollywood began to change and it became openly leftist and extremely hostile to all things non-liberal. But I wonder if that’s changing?

When the Clintons came to office with the support of Hollywood, Hollywood came fully out of the closet and jumped into the tank for the Democrats. As the Democrats drifted further and further to the nasty left, Hollywood followed. Gone were the generic public service announcements of the 1980s and the strategically placed “No Smoking” or “End Apartheid” signs in films, and in their place were open tirades against everything American. By the 2000s, this become so commonplace that there was scarcely a film that didn’t include some anti-Republican, anti-conservative, or anti-American message. And even when the films didn’t include these messages, many of the actors spent their days giving vile speeches supporting dictators and damning America.

The content was changing too. Villains became much more nasty and were drawn from narrower ranks, i.e. they all became melodramatic liberal bogeymen. Moreover, certain types of people could no longer be anything but villains. The American military and intelligence community because disloyal murderers. Priests became pedophiles. Businessmen because perverts, thieves, and killers. Religious people were portrayed as stupid lunatics with cultish overtones. There were no exceptions.

But then something began to happen. Americans, particularly conservative Americans, began voting with their wallets. Indeed, since at least the Iraq war, more and more conservative consumers began turning their backs on Hollywood. Profits continued to rise, but that was because of skyrocketing ticket prices and 3D surcharges; in real numbers ticket sales keep falling. Hollywood has noticed, though most tried to blame the recession. But this trend started long before the recession, and the public's boycott is too selective to be part of a general economic trend.

For example, while war films continue to play well (Valkyrie (2009), Flags of Our Fathers (2006)), not a single Iraqi War film escaped the bust label. Matt Damon was a bankable superstar until he started whining about Bush and Katrina and America. George Clooney’s box office appeal crashed the moment he began spewing. Ditto Sean Penn, Danny Glover, Megan Fox and others, and the presence of these people can now drag any film down. Everything politicized directors like Michael Moore and Oliver Stone did suddenly flopped, as did the political films. People even stayed away in droves from Disney’s attempt to satisfy race-baiting critics by providing a black princess in The Frog Princess, from the anti-religious rant The Invention of Lying, and anti-Wall Street films like Wall Street II.

So is Hollywood getting the message or is all of this falling on deaf ears? Well, consider this. In the past year, we’ve suddenly had two films that never would have been made in the early 2000s. The first is The Book of Eli and the second is Legion. Legion is your standard “angles are nasty creatures sent to kill humans” story that seems to have become popular ever since The Prophecy. But what makes it rather different is that it contains an anti-abortion message. Indeed, to save humanity, the heroes must protect a woman who wanted to have an abortion, but changed her mind. That’s a message you simply could not have put into a film before the somewhat ambiguous Juno in 2007. . . Hollywood’s feminist lobby never would have allowed it.

The Book of Eli is even more interesting. This is a film about a man, Eli (Denzel Washington), who is walking through a post-apocalyptic world with a book. They don’t tell you what the book is right away, but it’s so obvious that you can’t help but figure it out -- The Bible. Throughout this film, we are told that the horrific world in which humanity finds itself is the result of a war in which people tried to destroy every Bible because they blamed it as a cause of conflict, e.g. just like many on the atheist-left do today. At the same time, the few survivors with knowledge of times before the war talk with reverence about the power of the Bible to improve people’s lives and make the world a better place. Moreover, the film doesn’t hesitate to make it clear that God is real or that he is protecting Eli as he travels. AND, as he goes, Eli learns that the importance of the Bible is not the words per se, but living your life according to its teachings. Think about this for a moment. What was the last film produced by a major studio that was deeply complimentary to Christianity rather than deeply insulting?

I'm seeing hints in other movies too. The villains are getting more generic again and less-obviously insulting to America's institutions, and I'm seeing fewer straight up political moments in non-political films.

These could be outliers, but even if they are, they are outliers that simply could not have been made in the early 2000s. Perhaps this is evidence that Hollywood has turned a corner and that cracks are appearing in the Tinsel Curtain? Maybe this is even the beginning of an acknowledgement by Hollywood that it realizes that it needs to win back conservatives? I guess we’ll know when we see our first film in which American soldiers are made out as heroes rather than psychopaths?

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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Television Networks

I often marvel at how poorly the television networks are run. In fact, if it weren’t for the airlines, I would say that no industry in America is more poorly run than the networks. Consider the following:

At a time when people are abandoning the network news because they offer nothing that can’t be found on the internet, the networks are laying off news staff and relying more on wire reports. . . the same wire reports that supply every internet news site. Wouldn’t it make more sense to increase resources so the networks can offer stories that can’t be found on the wire?

The networks are obsessed with competing head to head. If Fox gets a science fiction hit on Friday night (e.g. the X-Files), other networks (cough cough NBC) will try to come up with similar science fiction shows and run them opposite the Fox hit. If there’s an NFL game on one channel, rest assured someone else will run “guy films” to try to steal that audience. Wouldn’t it make more sense to grab the audience that isn’t flocking to the other guy's main attraction each night?

The networks spend a fortune coming up with “new” programming each year, but their failure rate is incredible. More than 80% of new shows will fail each year, with about a third not lasting a month. What’s worse, to achieve this “success rate,” they take the safest, i.e. “most cowardly,” approach possible. They do nothing that hasn’t been done and isn’t already airing. All sitcoms are either knock-offs of Friends or the awful generic family sitcom. All dramas involve cops or lawyers or over-sexed teens. They recycle stars more than environmentalists recycle their garbage. Yet, only 20% even make it to year two? And every year network audiences shrink even as the population grows? Wouldn’t it make more sense to try something new, like taking risks on content? HBO, AMC, and FX are all taking risks, and are being well rewarded for their efforts.

Also, wouldn’t it make sense to change the whole model? For example, you could start a show with a 15 minute pilot tacked onto the end of an existing show to see if people like it. You could spend a week running new pilots and getting audience to vote on them. Or you could start them on cable auxiliary networks and “promote” them to the network if they succeed. What other industry would accept a 20% success rate on new products without changing their business model?

The networks also spend a fortune bidding on sporting events like the Olympics and the NFL, on which they admit they will lose vast amounts of money. They do this to earn the “prestige” of having these events. But does anyone really watch NBC sitcoms or dramas because NBC had the Olympics or because they have the NFL? Do you think any less of ABC because they don’t? And if you’re going to spend money on these properties, why not do more tie-ins like having NFL players appear on sitcoms or doing a show about the NFL?

Finally, why would these networks let their shows and their news become so politicized? Does it make any sense to turn off half (or more) of your audience? Could you imagine WalMart blasting right-wing propaganda over its loudspeaker when you enter the store, or having its cashiers lecture you on the problems caused by unions? They don’t do that because they aren’t a political organization and it doesn’t make sense to offend their customers. So why do networks do/allow this?

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