Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Scott's Links February 2012

For those who don't know, Scott roams the internet far and wide. Because of this, he supplies interesting links to Big Hollywood every day. I've asked Scott to give us a list of the best links he finds each month and a quick synopsis of what's behind each one. Check these out. . . share your thoughts!

How Stanley Kubrick shot his own Newsweek cover

No director will ever have greater control over his films, his marketing, or his image than Stanley Kubrick. This article tells the story of how, in the winter of 1971, Kubrick managed to get his Newsweek cover photo shot by his own people on his own terms in his own house. Lucky guy.

The physics behind your favorite sci-fi theme songs

I'm always interested in people's favorite songs (or films, novels, etc.) and what, if anything, they have in common. It turns out that many of our geek-friendly film scores - including many of my favorites - have something in common: "the perfect fifth." (Sorry, Andrew, they don't mention The Black Hole!)

Looking back at The Phantom Menace rumor mill

Remember 1999? Bill Clinton was president, we were all fearing Y2K, and Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace was released. Needless to say, rumors of a Star Wars prequel had been circulating for years and this article revisits some of the more outlandish predictions. Charlton Heston as a Jedi?

61 things we learned from the Armageddon commentary

Take it away, Ben Affleck: "I asked [director] Michael [Bay] why it was easier to train oil drillers to become astronauts than it was to train astronauts to become oil drillers, and he told me to shut the f--- up, so that was the end of that talk."

10 undervalued Woody Allen movies

I've seen almost every Woody Allen movie, though this list is not complete without his wonderfully charming 1996 musical Everyone Says I Love You. The ending sequence, which features a group of all-singing all-dancing Groucho Marxes and Woody Allen and Goldie Hawn dancing along (and above) the River Seine is magical.

5 reasons Firefly was lucky to get cancelled

Interesting article which I totally agree with. Had the show lasted, the studio execs no doubt would've ordered Joss Whedon to make it more "accessible" for mainstream audiences, thus alienating the fans who would've made it a hit to begin with. It's quite the paradox.

From 2009: The hidden conservative streak of 30 Rock

Yes, I'm a huge fan of this show and I realize it's a big target, considering who stars in it and the network it airs on. But the show can be surprisingly even-handed when it wants to be. One of my personal favorite episodes makes a complete mockery of NBC's "Green Week" and another episode guest stars Carrie Fisher as a 70s-era comedy writer who: a.) is still fighting "the man" after all these years, and b.) is a poor trainwreck.

5 NC-17 films that wore their rating proudly

It's a shame the NC-17 rating is frowned upon, especially since there are plenty of R-rated movies that get away with graphically torturing people, but if you have too much nudity, it's the end of the freaking world!

Movie special effects you won't believe aren't CGI

As I'm fond of saying, CGI is just a tool and it should be used wisely. Many directors don't know any better but the culprits are usually the studio execs who are convinced that's what people want. This article looks at some awesome FX sequences that were done sans CGI.

Hedy Lamarr: "most beautiful woman" by day, inventor by night

I still think this is the coolest story: I've never seen a Hedy Lamarr movie but in the 40s, she helped develop a technology for the war effort that became the precursor for today's wi-fi and cell networks. "That's Hedley!" [smile]

Last night's listening:

The late Leonard Rosenman's score for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is definitely the odd one out in the Trek musical canon and many fans (including me) have always had mixed reactions to it. My opinion improved last December when Intrada released the complete score, remastered with extensive liner notes and alternate cues, including two long sought-after pieces: an alternate version of the main title in which Rosenman reprises the theme to the original series, and the complete version of "I Hate You" which blasts from the punk's boombox during the bus scene, making this the first Trek soundtrack album with an Explicit Lyric warning! (You don't hear it in the film but the F-word is used at the end of the song.)

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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Questionable Trek vol. 4

Probably the most interesting character on Star Trek TNG, and certainly a fan favorite, was Lt. Cmdr. Data. He's got it all: creepy pale skin, girlfriend troubles, a no-good brother in a biker gang (The Ex Borgs), and the complete memories of over 4,000 colonists. He even met Mark Twain. But it could'a been better. . .

Question from Andrew: "Scott, give me five criticisms of Data."

Scott: Some of these might sound nitpicky, not to mention much of this is the fault of the writers and not actor Brent Spiner.

1. For starters, he's an android who is capable of performing sixty trillion operations per second... yet he can't use contractions? What was the purpose of this particular quirk? (I think it came in handy in one episode... and that was it. Besides, the show was rather inconsistent with this anyway.)

2. There were times when the crew would become affected by some Virus of the Week and, for some reason, Data would be affected, too, even though he's an android and you'd think he'd be immune to such things.

3. Data was always trying to understand the human capacity for humor... except these scenes were often more cheesy and/or cloying than anything else. And they weren't very funny.

4. In retrospect, there was a major flaw inherent to the character: Data endeavors to become more human and in the first TNG film, he's given an emotion chip. So what do they do? In the next film, he is able to switch it off (which defeats the purpose). In the next film, we find out he can actually remove it when it suits him. In the final TNG film, he doesn't exhibit any emotions at all - the creators had hit a wall with the character and the character (and audience) suffered for it.

5. I'm not entirely sure I buy his, uh, one-night stand with security chief Tasha Yar. We never really learned how that worked but it was the 80s - there were certain things you just couldn't do on TV back then! [smile]

Andrew’s Response:

Excellent criticisms, Scott. I would suggest the big problem with Data is inconsistency. His abilities seem to come and go as needed for the storyline. Also, he supposedly lacks emotion and yet they didn’t really stick to that. Instead, he only seemed to lack “obvious” emotions, i.e. emotions which were the focus of the episode. When the writers didn’t call attention to the emotions, he largely acted like just a regular human only stiffer.

On your point three, for me, the problem was that these scenes lacked a genuine willingness to explore humanity good and bad. Instead, they explored the cliff’s notes version of humanity and used these storylines more as a way to turn him into a narrator than a researcher. The few times they did set him free to research, I thought were some of his strongest moments.

Scott's Reply:

Fair criticism, though the problems you point out are simply part and parcel of writing a weekly TV series. I've honestly never thought about the emotion/"stiffer" element and I can't disagree. On your second point, I also agree about their willingness to explore both the good and bad sides of humanity, though I doubt Data would actively seek out "bad influences" - I can imagine a Very Special Episode where Picard finds out Data's joined a gang, which is something I would expect in Short Circuit!

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Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 27

Wait a minute, wasn't that guy wearing a red shirt a moment ago? And where did the bullet hole go? Oh, there it is. Wait! It's gone again! Ahhhh!

What one error (continuity, out-of-character moment, etc.) just kills you every time you see it?

Panelist: T-Rav

Maybe I have dinosaurs on the brain, since I answered with its sequel to another question, but the ending of Jurassic Park always bothered me. The survivors are in the visitor center and cornered by the Velociraptors; they look doomed, until the T. Rex appears from nowhere to fight the raptors and thus they can escape. Now, the movie established early on that you can hear the rex coming from a long way off, so how could they not have noticed it until then? This has always baffled me, and I get the impression Spielberg or whoever it was wrote themselves into a corner and couldn't find a way out. Either way, it's a weak finale to an otherwise good movie.

Panelist: ScottDS

I wouldn't say this one "kills" me but the preceding 42 minutes are so perfect that, to see a continuity error in the last 20 seconds is just a heartbreaker! In the popular Star Trek: TNG episode "Yesterday's Enterprise", a ship from the past comes forward through time, thus altering the timeline. The Federation is now at war with the Klingons and the older ship has to go back in order to restore the timeline to normal, even though it will mean certain death for everyone on board. In addition to the geopolitical situation, there are all sorts of aesthetic differences that Trek fans love to talk about: darker lighting, more widgets and panels on the bridge, stylized Sam Browne belts for the crew, as well as higher collars and black cuffs. Well, guess what. At the end of the episode - literally the last live-action shot before the final ship flyby - we see Geordi LaForge and Guinan in Ten-Forward (the ship's bar) and LaForge's uniform still has black cuffs, even though this is supposed to be the normal timeline. Anal-retentive? Yes. [smile] Maybe they'll fix it for the HD remaster that they're working on.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

There is no better known continuity error than Felix Leiter's pants in Thunderball going from shorts to long pants and back to shorts while he's flying the helicopter. But the one that always bothered me comes from a movie which is itself a walking continuity error: The Big Sleep... reappearance of gun, unexplained murder, Bogart gets a free trench coat, etc. The most glaring though occurs when Lauren Bacall unties Bogart, who has been captured. In the middle of this scene, her shoes suddenly vanish and she's barefoot. Then the angle changes and they come back. I can understand how continuity errors can happen because things get shot on different days or out of order, but how do you forget you were wearing shoes?

Panelist: BevfromNYC

It’s not in any particular movie, but I see it a lot in films and television. You know, the eating/drinking scenes where the liquid in a glass keeps changing from empty to full to empty to full. Or the sandwich is half eaten then will be untouched in the next shot. I think it happens more in television than in film, but it makes me nuts.

Comments? Thoughts?

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Friday, February 24, 2012

Film Friday: Black Swan (2010)

Academy Awards are not a measure of greatness. To the contrary, they’re often better at marking films you should avoid. Black Swan received five nominations and won for Best Actress. Bad sign. Add in that this was billed as a snotty, behind-the-scenes, “insider” look at the world of ballet, plus my displeasure with Darren Aronofsky over The Wrestler, The Fountain and Below, and this looked like a loser. Imagine my surprise when I watched this and found it to be one of the best films in years. Seriously.

On its surface, Black Swan is the story of ballet dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) who has won the role of the black/white swan in the play “Swan Lake.” She is plagued with doubts, a sexually harassing director (Vincent Cassel), a jealous stage-mom, and a young competitor Lily (Mila Kunis) with effortless natural talent. The story begins right before she wins the role and ends after her first performance. Sounds thrilling, doesn’t it?

Actually, this is a classic example of the marketing not quite telling you what the story is really about. In truth, this isn’t about ballet at all. It’s a psychological thriller. And you should give this film a chance without thinking it’s a film about sniping at a ballet. You won’t be disappointed. Before I continue down this path, however, let me put up the spoiler warning because pretty much anything I talk about after this point will be a genuine spoiler:

** Spoiler Alert – I recommend seeing this film before continuing. **

One of the first things to strike you when you watch this film is how nasty everyone seems. Cassel is a sexual harasser who thinks he has the right to openly demand that his leading ladies sleep with him. He’s smarmy, rotten, and indifferent to the harm he’s doing to these women. His last conquest, who he has apparently forced into retirement, lives in a perpetual jealous rage. Sayers’ mother is like a living version of Norman Bates’ mother. She watches Sayers like a hawk, even creeping into her room at night, and keeps her trapped in the apartment. She also pounds Sayers with constant barbs about how she gave up her career as a dancer to raise Sayers. Lily is even worse. She’s a flirt and everyone loves her, and she seems to try very hard to befriend Sayers, but this just hides her betrayal.

All of this gets woven together so wonderfully that my first thought watching the film was that Sayers was truly alone, surrounded by hateful people all with their own agendas, who are trying to destroy her to satisfy their own perverse desires. And as their actions become more extreme, this film seemed headed toward a spectacular explosion.

But you soon start to realize something is wrong with Sayers. In fact, the plot moves so expertly that you don’t see the signs until you are deeply within her psychosis. For example, we see excessive shyness and social awkwardness, but it doesn’t seem outrageous. We see a rash, which she scratches, and her mother obsessing over her scratching it. We see her sneak into the star’s dressing room and steal her lipstick because she’s dreaming about being a star. It seems harmless. None of this raises our suspicions, especially because her conduct seems to be a response to the nasty, aggressive people around her.

Soon we start to see the truth. She is intensely frigid to the point of being obsessive. And her view of the others as sexual predators may not be true at all. For example, Sayers sees Cassel as a sexual predator, yet he never actually forces himself on her. She sees Lily the same way, but maybe Lily’s just flirty and is genuinely trying to be nice? That rash? It’s no rash. She cuts herself and doesn’t remember doing it. The stolen lipstick? It’s part of an eerie stalker-like collection. And then you have the visions. When they begin, you think she’s simply mistaking one person for someone else she knows. But as they progress, it becomes clear they are paranoid visions of herself, and soon we don’t know what’s real and what isn’t.

Usually when actors try to play crazy, they shift around nervously to make themselves appear different or do something maniacal while saying things that make no sense. The idea is to standout and seem abnormal. Here, Portman and Director Aronofsky do the reverse. Rather than make Portman act crazy, she acts sane and troubled by the crazy actions of the others around her, each of whom seems slightly over-the-top and exaggerated. Thus, while Portman seems sane, it’s only because we don’t understand at first that we are seeing the world from her perspective.

The visions are the perfect example of this. Rather than treating the visions as real and overacting to them, as is typically done, Portman very cleverly, through her acting not her words, tells the audience that she knows these are visions and knows they aren’t real. This adds an incredible amount of depth to her portrayal of insanity. For one thing, this feels more real because this is how most people probably fear insanity would creep upon them, i.e. that they would slowly lose touch with reality rather than it all happening at once. For another, it allows the audience to feel her insanity because they are just as confused about reality as she is. Indeed, rather than being an observer watching her rant and rave, we are a participant trying to figure out what is going on. Finally, it makes the audience feel her despair because she clearly needs help, but there’s nothing the audience can do to help her. Any film that can pull an audience into a character and make them feel the emotions of the character is brilliant and Aronofsky and Portman achieve that here through their brilliant choice to understand her insanity.

I think there are some excellent lessons here. If you want to portray insanity, focus on how the insane person sees the world. Remember that for many insane people, it’s everybody else who’s crazy. And crazy need not be stark raving mad. Portman and Aronofsky should be commended for this film. It’s one of the best I’ve seen in years.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Politics of Trek: “Balance of Terror”

Let’s talk about Episode 14: “Balance of Terror,” which introduces the Romulans! Patterned on submarine films, this episode involves a tactical game of chess between Kirk and a Romulan commander with a galactic war hanging in the balance. It’s also an allegory for dealing with aggression and it’s firmly conservative.
The Plot
As the episode begins, Kirk is about to perform a wedding, when the Enterprise goes to red alert. An unknown alien craft is attacking a manned Federation outpost along the Romulan neutral zone. The Federation and the Romulans fought a war a century earlier, before the advent of warp power. The treaty ending that war and establishing the neutral zone was negotiated over subspace radio, and neither side ever saw the other. The Enterprise arrives at the scene of the attack to find the outpost destroyed and a sensor blip leaving the scene. Kirk and Spock immediately suspect the blip is a Romulan “Bird of Prey” (warship) and that the Romulans have developed a cloaking device. Kirk decides to destroy the Romulan ship before it can slip back across the neutral zone.
Why It’s Conservative
Liberalism and conservatism have fundamentally different views about the nature of aggression. Liberals believe aggression is the result of fear, by the aggressor, that others intend to do them harm. Thus, the aggressor turns to aggression as a means of preemptive self-defense. Hence, the liberal solution to aggression is to assure the aggressor that the victim intends the aggressor no harm. This was why liberals advocated disarmament in the face of Soviet aggression, to show the Soviets we meant them no harm, and why it advocates appeasement in the face of Islamic terrorism.

Conservatives reject this. Conservatives believe aggression is the result of envy combined with the aggressor believing they have the power to seize what they desire because the target cannot successfully resist. Thus, showing an aggressor weakness, either by disarming or by demonstrating a lack of will to fight back, will encourage the aggressor to become more aggressive because it makes aggressor more confident of success.

This episode comes down firmly on the side of conservatism. Consider the debate over what to do about the Romulan:
MCCOY: You're discussing tactics. Do you realize what this really comes down to? Millions and millions of lives hanging on what this vessel does.
SPOCK: Or on what this vessel fails to do, Doctor. . . .
STILES: We have to attack immediately.
KIRK: Explain.
STILES: They're still on our side of the Neutral Zone. There would be no doubt they broke the treaty. . . . These are Romulans! You run away from them and you guarantee war. They'll be back. Not just one ship but with everything they've got. You know that, Mister Science Officer. You're the expert on these people. . . .
SPOCK: I agree. Attack.
KIRK: Are you suggesting we fight to prevent a fight?
MCCOY: Based on what? Memories of a war over a century ago? On theories about a people we've never even met face to face?
STILES: We know what they look like.
SPOCK: Yes, indeed we do, Mister Stiles. And if Romulans are an offshoot of my Vulcan blood, and I think this likely, then attack becomes even more imperative.
MCCOY: War is never imperative, Mister Spock.
SPOCK: It is for them, Doctor. Vulcan, like Earth, had its aggressive colonizing period. Savage, even by Earth standards. And if Romulans retain this martial philosophy, then weakness is something we dare not show.
MCCOY: Do you want a galactic war on your conscience?
KIRK: . . . Prepare to attack.
Spock and Stiles represent conservatism. Spock argues that aggression is part of human nature and that showing weakness will feed that aggression rather than cause it to abate: “weakness is something we dare not show.” Indeed, he notes that for some people, aggression is simply a way of life, e.g. countries premised on a “martial philosophy.” This is directly opposed to the liberal belief that aggression is the result of fear and can be tamed by showing weakness. Stiles backs this up by noting that the Romulans have historically responded to demonstrations of cowardice with increased aggression, which mirrors our own history. Thus, they argue that the only way to stop aggression is to stand up to the aggressor, or as Kirk puts it, they are “suggesting we fight to prevent a fight.”

McCoy, the show’s liberal, is aghast that they are considering attacking the enemy vessel. He believes that using force against an aggressor will lead to a larger conflict, a “galactic war,” and he dismisses Spock’s view as prejudice, i.e. based on “memories of a war over a century ago” and “theories about a people we’ve never met.” He would rather let the Romulans destroy the Earth outposts and presumably sue for peace. This is appeasement. And the fact that he’s an appeaser is clear from his statement that “war is never imperative.” Indeed, if you never reach the point where war is “imperative,” then logically you are suggesting that you are always ready to make compromises to avoid war. That’s a statement of perpetual appeasement and ultimate surrender.

Kirk, true to his conservative form, rejects the liberal position and decides to stand up to the aggressor. His decision is validated by the Romulan commander:
COMMANDER: Danger and I are old companions.
CENTURION: We've seen a hundred campaigns together, and still I do not understand you.
COMMANDER: I think you do. No need to tell you what happens when we reach home with proof of the Earthmen's weakness. And we will have proof. The Earth commander will follow. He must. When he attacks, we will destroy him. Our gift to the homeland, another war.
CENTURION: If we are the strong, isn't this the signal for war?
COMMANDER: Must it always be so? How many comrades have we lost in this way?
CENTURION: Our portion, Commander, is obedience.
COMMANDER: Obedience. Duty. Death and more death. Soon even enough for the Praetor's taste. Centurion, I find myself wishing for destruction before we can return. Worry not. Like you, I am too well-trained in my duty to permit it.
There are several interesting aspects here. First, note how the Centurion believes the time to be aggressive is when you are strong. The Commander confirms this view of aggression when he says the Praetor will attack when he learns of the Federation’s weakness. This runs counter to the liberal belief that aggression is borne of desperation and instead shows aggression as being opportunistic. Note also the subtle anti-concentration of power argument, as the Commander observes that the Romulan people are trapped in a series of never-ending wars because their absolute ruler is bloodthirsty. And he even notes that he disagrees with this policy so much that he almost wishes he would die rather than succeed at his mission, but his own desires do not matter.

Note also the subtle anti-concentration of power argument, as the Commander observes that the Romulan people are trapped in a series of never-ending wars because their absolute ruler is bloodthirsty. He even disagrees with this policy so much that he almost wishes to die rather than succeed at his mission, but his own desires do not matter.

This dovetails with another conservative message in this episode: the importance of the individual. Unlike collectivism, which sees people like the Romulan as tools of the state, classical liberalism favors the individual. So does this episode. We see this both in the fact that the Romulan Commander obeys the collective against his better judgment and is destroyed, and in a fascinating speech where McCoy points out the value of the individual human life and how unique we are:
MCCOY: But I've got [an answer]. Something I seldom say to a customer, Jim. In this galaxy, there's a mathematical probability of three million Earth-type planets. And in all of the universe, three million million galaxies like this. And in all of that, and perhaps more, only one of each of us. Don't destroy the one named Kirk.
But even more, we see it in a subplot about guilt by association. No human had ever seen a Romulan before Spock manages to hack into the Romulans’ viewscreen. At that point, we learn they look a lot like Vulcans. Because of this, Stiles begins to view Spock as a traitor. Some interpret this as a message about racism, but it’s really not. If it was about racism, Stiles would have hated Spock from the beginning. Instead, it’s a message about guilt by association. And Kirk will have none of it on his ship: “Leave any bigotry in your quarters. There's no room for it on the Bridge.”

This is a conservative message, though liberals won’t like hearing that. Conservatism, like classical liberalism, rejects the concept of group guilt and judges individuals on their own merits.

Modern liberalism, on the other hand, divides people into groups by race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc., and then assigns rights and obligations, and assumptions about guilt/innocence to people through their groups. Indeed, this is the theory behind affirmative action, that people should bear the collective guilt for the historical actions of “their group” whether they partook in those actions personally or not. Similarly, liberals tar Christians for centuries old abuses, tar Catholics for the crimes of a few Catholic priests, seek to take the rights of all gun owners for the misuse of the product by a few, destroy the internet to stop a handful of pirates, etc. In each case, guilt by association underpins the policy, as liberals seek to inflict group punishment rather than just punishing the specific individuals who did the wrongdoing.

Kirk rejects that kind of thinking and makes it clear that Spock is an individual and will not be made to answer for the crimes of his distant cousins the Romulans.

Once again, conservatism prevails.

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Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 26

A couple weeks back we asked about movie detectives, but those guys are one-case wonders. Let's talk about the guys who do it week after week.

Who is your favorite detective on television?


Panelist: Tennessee Jed

O.k. it worked for film so why not here. Private sector is Craig Stevens as Peter Gunn. How can you not like a suave, urbane dick who likes jazz? ;) Public Sector is Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect.

Panelist: ScottDS

Sledge Hammer (though I think he was officially an "inspector") from the satirical 80s TV show of the same name (played by David Rasche). Creator Alan Spencer (who had thought of the idea as a teenager) based the character on Clint Eastwood's Harry Callahan. Like Harry, Sledge works for the San Francisco Police Department and his best friend in the world is his .44 Magnum. He is completely over the top, downright sadistic at times, has no problem with gratuitous violence, and won't hesitate to bend or even ignore the rules. His partner is the lovely Dori Doreau (Anne-Marie Martin) who manages to see some redeemable qualities underneath Hammer's tough-as-nails exterior. Their boss is Captain Trunk (Harrison Page) who is often exasperated and prone to migraine headaches, thanks to Hammer's antics. The show aired from 1986 to 1988 and when I finally discovered it in 2004, my first thought was, "Why haven't I heard of this show before?!?!" The jazzy theme was composed by a young Danny Elfman and the show managed to parody everything from Witness to RoboCop. "Trust me. I know what I'm doing."

Panelist: AndrewPrice

So many good choices from Magnum P.I. to Sherlock Holmes. . . but I have to pick Peter Falk as Columbo. His mix of supreme cleverness and his willingness to bait his traps with humility is just fantastic. Add in that he’d probably be fun to grab a beer with and he’s the guy I would call in a pinch.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

James Franciscus in Longstreet. He was blond, blind, and had a great sense of smell! He was cuuute.

Panelist: T-Rav

I used to watch a lot of detective shows growing up; there are a lot I could name, but Dick Van Dyke as Dr. Mark Sloan in Diagnosis Murder is probably my favorite. He did a great job combining his comedic touch with the business of detective work. (Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote would be a very close second.)

Comments? Thoughts?

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Friday, February 17, 2012

Film Friday: Paul (2011)

I’m a fan of Simon Pegg’s work. Shawn of the Dead was incredibly witty, clever and funny. It was a brilliant homage to zombie films. Hot Fuzz wasn’t quite up to Shawn’s standards, but was still well done and had great moments. Paul is flat. It also suffers from a giant liberal sucker punch.

** spoiler alert **

Paul is the story of two nerds from Britain, Graeme (Simon Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost), who run into a real alien, Paul (Seth Rogen), while touring the American southwest. Paul has been on earth for decades and has run away from the government. Pegg and Frost decide to give him a lift. Soon they pick up Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig), a Christian fundamentalist. The rest of the movie is a slow motion chase as they take Paul to a rendezvous point to be picked up by his own people.
Why Paul Doesn’t Work: The Sucker Punch
Let’s start with the sucker punch. Most of what people call sucker punches aren’t. For example, interpreting two groups of penguins helping each other as a message promoting collectivism and the United Nations is downright paranoid. And others are too weak to matter, like making an oil company a generic villain. But genuine sucker punches do bother me, and this film has one. Here’s why.

Paul was marketed as a comedic homage to science fiction, and no mention was made that this film would attack Christian fundamentalists, but it does, and it’s mean-spirited about it. Right after Pegg and Frost pick up Paul, they run across Kristen Wiig. Wiig plays an ignorant, closed-minded Christian fundamentalist who fights with the nerds over the issue of Creationism. Shortly thereafter, Paul implants his knowledge of the universe into her mind. Suddenly, she realizes there is no God and that she’s been wasting her life trying to be moral. For the rest of the film, she drinks alcohol, smokes dope, swears every other word, and become hypersexual. She also expresses disdain for other fundamentalists, whom she now views as stupid.

These are direct attacks on the beliefs of fundamentalists and on their intelligence. There is nothing good-natured about these attacks. Indeed, substitute “American Indian” for fundamentalist and then ask yourself if it would be considered good-natured for an American Indian character to suddenly realize that their beliefs are stupid, to adopt the exact opposite behaviors associated with Indian culture, and then to denigrate other American Indians for being stupid. Odds are, that wouldn’t go over too well, would it?

Further, Wiig’s father is presented as the typical Hollywood trope for fundamentalist Christians. He is a hateful man, who dominates and terrifies his daughter. When confronted with anything of which he disapproves, he literally reaches for his shotgun and his Bible. He is, of course, murderous.

None of this was good-natured. To the contrary, it is denigrating and insulting. None of this was necessary for the plot either. But more importantly, none of this was anything audiences would have expected from the topic of this film or the marketing of this film. That’s what makes this a genuine sucker punch. And so you know it was intentional, both Pegg and Frost are atheists who told the BBC they wanted the film to explore atheism.
Why Paul Doesn’t Work: The Humor
Sucker punch aside, this film is just flat. In many ways, Paul seems like the kind of film Judd Apatow would make if he were smarter. Indeed, despite the really broad topic Pegg and Frost have chosen with Paul, it is in essence an Apatow film with almost all the jokes being about swearing, being gay, or having sex. Further, the jokes are generic and are carried on FAR too long.

Swearing: About 90% of the jokes in Paul involve swearing. And I don’t mean that swearing is used to convey the joke. Instead, the fact that someone is swearing IS the joke. For example, it’s supposed to be funny that Paul swears. And the first couple times it is. But it soon becomes part of his character and just isn’t funny anymore. Yet, they keep treating each swear like a punchline.

Kristen Wiig swears too. In fact, she swears constantly. Here the joke is that being freed from her religious stupidity, she is now free to swear, which she does with reckless abandon. But, and this is supposed to be the funny part, she’s not good at it, so her swearing is awkward. This may have worked in theory, but it was very poorly executed. Wiig doesn’t come up with clever or creative lines, nor does she do anything interesting like speak hidden truths or say the inverse of what the rest of us would say. She just randomly tosses out words, e.g. “ok, penis milk.” It’s just not funny. Moreover, they never stop this joke. She swears in every sentence for the last 70 minutes of the film and it becomes tedious.

Compare this with Debra in Dexter. She has a lot of problems including inappropriate swearing. But the way Dexter handles it is hilarious because of the timing, the word choice and the reactions of those around her. Her outbursts are sporadic and so far over the top of what is appropriate that you literally can’t stop yourself from laughing. Wiig’s swearing, by comparison, is constant and without purpose. She might as well be adding a random word in every sentence.

Sex Jokes: Besides the constant swearing, Paul is largely a collection of sex jokes. Indeed, this isn’t the kind of film where you learn about an alien culture or get a new view of human nature. Instead, you get a series of jokes about anal probes and alien genitalia. You also get awkward jokes about sex with nerds, and you get a steady stream of gay jokes. Some of it’s funny, but it hardly lives up to the promise of an homage to science fiction.

Weak Referential Jokes: Finally, where this film does rise above Apatow’s work is in its homage to science fiction. Indeed, Paul is strewn with references to science fiction like a cowboy bar band playing the Star Wars cantina music, the use of lines like “boring conversation anyway” after a telephone gets shot, Blythe Danner punching Sigourney Weaver and saying “let him go, you bitch!”, and Paul sitting in the Raiders of the Lost Arc warehouse. In this regard, this film is very much like Shawn of the Dead where the references are well set up and used appropriately and creatively. The film also trusts its audience enough that it doesn’t try to point these references out.

That said, however, this film is way too shallow in this regard. Indeed, whereas Shawn of the Dead was tightly written, this film wanders and abandons the homage for large stretches as they revert to the sex and fart jokes. For example, the opening is great, as they begin at Comic-Con and they briefly lampoon many of the excesses and oddities of nerd culture. But this lasts only two minutes. Then they switch to gay jokes. Then there’s another brief montage of alien-conspiracy culture as they drive an RV through the southwest, which ends in gay jokes. At this point, you’re about five minutes into the film and beyond this point, the science fiction jokes become scarce until the ending. There certainly are references to specific science fiction movie moments throughout, but they aren’t the focal point anymore. Instead, the film becomes a chase film with occasional references to science fiction mixed in between the swearing jokes, the sex jokes, and the atheistic proselytizing.

That’s why this movie didn’t work for me. Whereas Shawn of the Dead was an incredibly smart movie which distills zombie films to their essence, Paul is a stupid Apatow-like comedy disguised as something smarter and with an obnoxious sucker punch running throughout.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Does Tom Cruise Die In War of the Worlds?

Does Tom Cruise die at the end of Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. You’ve probably never heard that before and there’s no direct evidence that he’s dead, but I think he does.

Think about the odds that Cruise can walk from Staten Island to Boston in the middle of this alien invasion AND finds that these aliens have somehow missed the neighborhood where his ex-wife lives in the heart of Boston. Keep in mind, the aliens literally wiped out every other building along the way. Doesn’t that seems oddly coincidental?

Further, his ex-wife and her parents all look happy and normal, just like they’d stepped out of a J.Crew Catalog. There are no signs here of people who fled from aliens, people who have been living without water, food or electricity for days/ weeks, people who have been living in fear of death.
Also, Cruise’s son is with them. This kid was last seen charging into a hopeless battle, a big mass of fire. Yet, somehow, he survived and decides to give up his incredible desire to fight back so he can rush to his mother’s house in Boston? How does he arrive before Cruise? And why is he dressed the same as when Cruise last saw him? He lives here, his clothes are here, why not change out of what he wore to walk from NYC?

None of this rings true.

Also, why does Tom’s son suddenly respect Cruise when he has hasn’t throughout the film and when Cruise has done nothing to earn his respect that he could possibly know about? The ex-wife suddenly being so friendly with Cruise also seems odd. Yes, Cruise brought back her daughter, but he let her son run off into a battle.

None of this is impossible to believe, it just feels “too perfect.”

Tom’s destruction of the tripod which captured him seems odd as well. How can they be that easy to destroy? And why didn’t anyone else try this before? Even the soldier with the grenades didn’t think to try this, why not?

And what about that walk to Boston? This film meticulously followed Cruise’s every moment of the journey right up to the point where he blew up the tripod. Suddenly, we skip days or weeks ahead right to where Tom heroically tells the military to shoot the stumbling tripod and then skips again to his ex-wife’s house where we get an overly-happy ending where everybody looks just like Tom remembers them and all sins are forgiven? None of this fits the early part of the film. It feels more like a dream.

And that brings me to the final clue. This whole final scene is bathed in a strange, fuzzy light, which is normally reserved for “other worldly” sequences or dreams.

I suspect what’s going on here is that Tom died in the tripod and what we are seeing as an ending to the film is either a last second heroic fantasy Cruise has before he is killed or this is Cruise in the afterlife. Either way, I think he’s dead.

Thoughts?

Also, can you think of any scenes from other films which aren’t what they appear?


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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Questionable Trek vol. 3

We began the Questionable Trek series by ranking the top five Star Trek films, today we flip that around:

Rank the bottom five Star Trek films from not-so-worst to worst.

Scott:
1. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
2. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
3. Star Trek: Generations
4. Star Trek: Insurrection
5. Star Trek: Nemesis
To be honest, there’s nothing really wrong with Star Trek III, it’s just the middle part of an unintended trilogy - the ending is a foregone conclusion, the low budget is obvious, and there are a couple of narrative shortcuts that stick out. Star Trek V is interesting - William Shatner had a much grander vision for the film but was hampered by a slashed budget, a writers strike, and an effects company ill-equipped for the job. The final product is a mess at times but, like Star Trek: TMP, it’s an old-fashioned adventure about Big Ideas (with an excellent music score). I loved Generations when I first saw it at age 11 but watching it now, I see just how badly written it is. “Plot holes big enough to fly a starship through,” as the saying goes, all revolving around a completely ill-defined plot device (the Nexus). Nemesis actually could’ve been a good movie but wasn’t, which makes it worse than Insurrection which never stood a chance with it’s Avatar-esque plot, ineffectual villain, and lame jokes. Nemesis tries too hard to be Star Trek II but fails. Too many decent character scenes were left on the cutting-room floor, the supporting cast was wasted, and the theme of nature vs. nurture wasn’t explored as well as it could’ve been. Nemesis turned out to be the lowest-grossing Trek film and ensured there would be no more TNG films.

Andrew:
1. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
2. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
3. Star Trek: Generations
4. Star Trek: The Search For Spock
5. Star Trek: Insurrection
This is an interesting question for a variety of reasons. I really despised the reboot because it was so abusive to the original material and so bland that it doesn’t even belong on this list. Instead, that horrid stink burger Insurrection holds up the bottom because that film did nothing right. There are things I truly hate in Generations, though all in all, it was a better movie than Search for Spock which felt like it was a two line transition between two films that someone decided to turn into a full blown movie. And why is Voyage Home down this low? Because it just doesn’t felt very Star Trek to me, and while I enjoy much of it, it feels dated, cheap and uninspiredly liberal in hindsight.

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Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 25

Comedy comes in many styles, from stand up to slapstick to word play to simple jokes. And different comedians are good at different things.

Who is the best comedic actor for physical comedy? (and what is their best role)

Panelist: T-Rav

Chris Farley in Tommy Boy, no doubt about it. Today, they might be called cheap fat-guy jokes, but his antics still crack me up every time I see it, and I love the energy with which he threw himself into his act.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Tough to pick just one, but I'd say Peter Sellers is certainly right up there, particularly with Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther series so I'll go with him. More recently, John Belushi was great with Animal House as his signature film, although, strangely 1941 was also one where he was great as I recall.

Panelist: ScottDS

I'm going to go off the beaten path and here and say John Ritter, who I always felt was underrated. I still miss him, too. He was one of those actors who made it look easy, which no doubt takes years of practice. As for his best (comedic) role, I never watched Three's Company but as a kid, I was a big fan of Peter Hyams' 1992 film Stay Tuned, in which Ritter and Pam Dawber (they play husband and wife) are sucked into a bizarre Satanic cable TV system and must fight for their lives in various TV shows: warped parodies of real shows and films with titles like Driving Over Miss Daisy, Northern Overexposure, etc. It's not a great movie by any means but it's a lot of fun. "Holy Shatner!"

Panelist: AndrewPrice

Physical comedy is not my thing because too often it's just falling down and playing stupid, slipping on banana peels and looking awkward about it, that sort of thing. But one guy who rises far above this is Jim Carrey, particularly in Ace Ventura. With him, the joke is never that he took the fall, it's the way he gets back up and that's what separates him from the crowd.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

I’m going to say Jim Carrey. Though his schtick is getting old, he is just hysterical in Fun With Dick & Jane. When they announce on tv that he is going to be indicted for stealing money from Globadyne and he starts running around yelling “INDICTED?!”, it’s hysterical.

Comments? Thoughts?

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Friday, February 10, 2012

Film Friday: Unstoppable (2010)

Directed by Ridley Scott’s brother Tony, Unstoppable stars Denzel Washington and Chris Pine as two guys who need to stop a runaway train. This film is based on a real life incident where a train got away from an engineer who hopped out of his cab to manually flip a switch. In some ways, this film is completely brilliant and I absolutely recommend it. Indeed, it’s an enjoyable, exciting film which will keep you on the edge of your seat. Unfortunately, it also pushes its brilliance too far and becomes a parody of itself.

** spoiler alert **

The Challenge: Before we discuss what Tony Scott did so brilliantly (and so unbrilliantly), let me point out that making this film exciting was a much harder challenge than people may realize. At first blush, a runaway train seems exciting. Trains are ultra-powerful and can do immense damage when they derail. Add in an explosive cargo and you’ve got the makings of a real disaster. BUT don’t forget, trains are highly predictable. Even a runaway train will move at a constant rate of speed down a set path, meaning you know exactly where it will be, you can clear out the area of impact, and you can even knock it off the rails at a point of your choosing. Thus, in practice, a runaway train isn’t as exciting as it seems in the abstract.

So how do you make a runaway train more exciting? Scott found three ways to inject a lot of tension into the film. Unfortunately, he also pushed each solution too far.

Solution 1: Frenetic Direction. Scott has an eye for color and scenery, and manages to get the most out of each shot by filling each scene with lots of action, e.g. people and cars running all over the place, and using quick edits and some shaky-cam moments to create a sense of frenetic motion which makes everything feel urgent.

Unfortunately, the shaky-cam annoys the heck out of people, me included. The problem with the shaky-cam is that it makes some people motion sick and will cause them to turn their eyes away from the screen and takes them out of the movie. And even if it doesn’t make you sick, it still wears you out because the shaky-cam is the visual equivalent of being blasted by high decibel music. This eventually makes you numb to the movie.

Further, there is a longer term problem with the shaky-cam: desensitization. As people get used to the shaky-cam, it will require ever increasing visual-stimulation to get the same level of excitement. Films that rely on this visual trickery to generate interest will soon seem boring and outdated. In effect, films shot like this are giving themselves a limited shelf-life, and I suspect this is one of those films.

Solution No. 2: Aggressive Acting. Scott also added large amounts of tension into each scene by apparently telling his actors to fight with each other constantly. These characters don’t talk to each other, they shout at each other. They challenge each other and violate each other’s orders. He even has characters throw phones at each other. This gives the film a sense of tension and makes it feel like high stakes are being played out in each moment, even though they are all just waiting for the derailment.

But there’s a problem with this. Telling the actors to be as angry with each other as possible creates believability issues, which some of these actors aren’t able to overcome. Denzel Washington can. He’s angry about the way the company treats him and he’s angry at Chris Pine being an indifferent idiot. But Washington is a great actor, probably one of the best of our time. He’s got amazing screen presence and has never turned in a bad performance, and he absolutely has what it takes to carry off this character as angry, but not so angry that we doubt that he would do what he is doing in this film.

Chris Pine, however, lacks the skill to play the role. He’s not capable of convincing us that deep down this angry jerk would care enough to go on a suicide mission. Rosario Dawson also isn’t believable as the dispatcher because she’s so angry at her boss that she would have been fired long before, especially as her boss (Kevin Dunn, who plays a generic corporate villain) is equally angry in return and would never allow a dispatcher to be that disrespectful to him. Their relationship feels Hollywood-fake. And ultimately, all of this anger becomes too much and this constant fighting for the sake of fighting starts to feel like a parody of itself. And that brings me to the real issue in this film.

Solution No. 3: Insane Writing. Dear God. As someone who loves good writing, this film appalls me. . . and I’m sort of laughing when I say that, but not really. The modern school of screenwriting says that each scene should involve conflict and should increase the stakes in some way. You should avoid scenes that don’t push the plot to a higher level of tension. Unstoppable takes that advice far too literally and becomes absurd.

To give you a sense of what I mean, here’s how this film comes across (assume each ellipse marks a new scene about a minute apart): we just learned there’s a runaway train! ...and it’s speeding up! ....and it’s heading for a populated area! ....and it’s packed with explosives! ....and uranium! ....and nerve gas! ....and it’s going to derail in the middle of town! ....and the phone lines are down so we can’t reach the town! ....and there’s a daycare center where it will derail! ....and every kid in town is at the daycare center today to receive an award from the mayor! ....and the Pope is a surprise guest! ....and the kids all brought puppies! ....one of the puppies holds the key to fighting cancer! ....and your wife just called, she’s pregnant! ....she’s calling from the daycare center! ....and there’s another identical train coming from the other direction! Ahhhh!

See the point? The first couple add to the tension nicely. But at some point, the writer goes too far and this takes on the feel of parody. The problem I had with Unstoppable was that every minute, they added some new complication and after a while this became a distraction. Rather than making the plot more interesting, it began to feel like the writer was showing off. Indeed, I found myself wondering whether the title, Unstoppable, wasn’t meant as a reference to the writer’s view of their ability to keep ratcheting up the drama rather than the train.

The best way to describe what happened here is that Tony Scott was absolutely brilliant at finding ways to make a rather dull story -- two guys chase down a train to apply the brakes -- into something exciting. But he lacked the feel his brother has for taking his foot off the throttle to reset the audience. It’s hard to keep the audience red-lined for 98 minutes no matter how many things you throw at them, and maybe it’s not a good idea to try?

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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Guest Review: In Time (2011)

By tryanmax

I am stunned to think that this movie came from the same mind as Gattica. I had mixed expectations when I sat down to watch. The premise—time has literally become money and if you run out, you die—sounded a little clunky to me. But I figured that maybe Andrew Niccol could pull it off. Besides, dystopian sci-fi is my favorite genre and I figured, if nothing else, I could expect some fast pacing, cool, futuristic visuals, and some clever one-liners.

** spoiler alert **

Never underestimate Hollywood’s ability to let you down.
Synopsis (Note: the names have been omitted because I don’t care.)
Scruffy Poor Guy (Justin Timberlake) lives in a future where humans have been genetically engineered to stop aging at 25. If they want to live longer, they must earn more time. Time is currency; one can earn it or spend it. To keep track of time, everyone has a timer embedded in their forearm. If it reaches zero, you die instantly. A side effect of the engineering is that everyone’s speech is riddled with wordplay about time.

In the ghetto, people live paycheck to paycheck. (ha!) So when a Stranger comes to town with a century on his clock, it attracts the attention of a gang of time thieves called the Minutemen. (ha!) Scruffy rescues him and in return the Stranger gives him his time (ha!), effectively committing suicide—but not before letting Scruffy in on the “vast conspiracy.” For the first time in his life, Scruffy has time on his hands (ha!), but the Timekeepers (a.k.a. cops, ha!) think he murdered the Stranger and the gang is now after him, too. Scruffy decides to skip town with his Hot Mom and go live the high-life. Before he can reach her, however, she runs out of time. (ha!) Now Scruffy is out for revenge and he plans to take it from, who else?, some rich dude he’s never met before.
Flawed Concept
One of the challenges facing any dystopian narrative is that, more so than other genres, it relies heavily on a gimmick. As far as that goes, the one here isn’t all that bad. The trouble is that this can lead to a weak script if the gimmick is made to carry too much. That is precisely the problem with In Time.

Most dystopian tales deal with the individual against a repressive society, but the “time is money” concept more easily pits the haves against the have-nots. This film dabbles with both as well as third concept involving the desirability of immortality, which might have paid off immensely if it weren’t so quickly abandoned. After a bit of waffling, the film finally takes off on a social justice screed that is itself a gimmick.

It is apparent that no real thought was given to how a society such as this one might actually work. For starters, in the film funds can be transferred—or stolen—with a simple handshake, so the fact that this society hasn’t crumpled into total anarchy is something of a miracle. Besides, given the life-or-death consequences of poor money management, one should expect the average person to have the financial acumen of a mutual fund manager. Plus, there is no logic that dictates only the affluent can live past 100 while the poor must die much younger.

It’s also impossible to get a sense of value within the movie. Prices seem assigned based on the needs of the plot rather than comparative worth. A point is made of shocking the audience early with the idea that a cup of coffee takes four minutes off of your life. But a “decent lunch” costs about 30 minutes while a five-mile bus ride costs two hours and a typical loan payment is two days. Things get even more out of whack when the action moves from the poorer “Time Zones” (ha!) to the more affluent ones. Suddenly, things move from being priced in minutes and hours to being valued in months and years. This is supposed to illustrate the grave disparity between rich and poor, but when a century makes one astonishingly rich, even the well-to-do can barely be making ends meet. Maybe I’m obsessing over the details. Or maybe it’s just lazy writing.
Heavy Handed Liberalism
This may not be the worst movie I’ve ever seen, but it is definitely vying for the most blatantly liberal. From the annoying electric whine of all the cars to the token black guy who “gets it” when no one else does, this film practically has an “Obama/Biden” sticker on the back.

The film is so chock full of tirades, I can’t recall a scene without one. Several times, Scruffy broadly labels the rich as thieves. Sheltered Rich Girl (Amanda Seyfried) laments her privileged station a few times. Evil Rich Guy (Vincent Kartheiser) delivers a canned speech about Darwinian capitalism and the next stage of evolution—you know? the one that comes after conquering disease, age and death. Timekeeper (Cillian Murphy) laments that Scruffy is hurting the very people he means to help because that sounds like something a cruel conservative might say.

And remember the “vast conspiracy” I mentioned earlier? Here it is: the rich live in luxury while the poor struggle to survive even though there’s plenty to go around! This is what liberals pat themselves on the back for sorting out? The only thing more juvenile is the plan Scruffy and Rich Girl hatch to bring “the system” down: steal lots of money and if that doesn’t work, steal more money. I hate to say it, but a plot like that makes “unobtanium” seem like pure genius.
Nothing else is good, either!
At the beginning I said I was hoping at least for a quick film with eye-candy and witty dialogue. This isn’t even that. At only 100 minutes, In Time feels interminable, and endless chase scenes aren’t to blame. Rather it belongs to a repetitive stream of leftist pontifications. The art direction seems to have been lifted from Gattaca minus several bucks, so the only eye-candy takes the form of the entirely twenty-something cast. Somebody must’ve told Niccol that a good script has a twist at the end, because there is one thrown in that contributes nothing to the story and isn’t all that surprising anyway. And the dialogue, well, I don’t need to waste your time. (ha!)

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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Politics of Trek: “A Private Little War”

Would it surprise you to know Star Trek did a pro- Vietnam War episode? Prepare to be amazed as we continue our journey through the conservative world that is Star Trek the original series with Episode 48: “A Private Little War.”
The Plot
This week, the Enterprise visits the planet Neural in the Zeta Bootis System, a veritable treasure trove of medicinal plants and specimens. Kirk surveyed this planet thirteen years before when he was a lieutenant on the USS Farragut. What he found was a primitive but peaceful planet where villagers and Hill People lived happily side by side, hunting food with bows and arrows. But when he beams down this time, he discovers a group of villagers setting an ambush for a Hill People hunting party. Moreover, the villagers are carrying flintlock muskets, something they shouldn’t be able to manufacture at this phase of their development.

Kirk disrupts the ambush and reunites with a friend he made during his prior survey -- Tyree, who has risen to become leader of the Hill People. Kirk learns that the Klingons are arming the villagers with the flintlocks. Some of the Hill People want Kirk to give them superior weapons, but Kirk will only offer flintlocks to maintain the balance of power. Tyree resists even this offer because he’s a pacifist and thinks the villagers will return to their peaceful ways. But when the villagers kill Tyree’s wife, he finally accepts Kirk’s offer.
Why It’s Conservative
“A Private Little War” involves primitive people who find themselves in a nasty arms race as each is backed by a galactic superpower, i.e. the Klingons and the Federation. This is a metaphor for Vietnam, which was raging at the time. In fact, the original script referenced Vietnam and described the villagers as wearing “Ho Chi Mihn type” clothes. Even the revised script refers to “twentieth century brush wars on the Asian continent.”

To call this story “pro-Vietnam War” is perhaps a bit of a stretch, because the story definitely laments the loss of innocence of the Hill People and the villagers, which can be seen as an anti-war statement. However, that interpretation doesn’t mesh with the deeper philosophical points made. To the contrary, the moral of this story is that you cannot back down in the face of aggression. And if the other side is arming their allies, then you need to arm yours. That is a very conservative point.

We see this moral in the argument between Kirk and McCoy over what to do about the Klingon Empire’s interference. McCoy, who is the show’s emotional factor and who often took on the role of advocating the liberal bleeding-heart position, was aghast that Kirk would even think about arming the Hill People. Presumably, he would have Kirk abandon the Hill People to the mercy of the villagers so they could live in peace as slaves under the villagers and by proxy the Klingon Empire. In this, McCoy is echoing the peace movement which rioted at the 1968 Democratic convention a few months after this episode was first shown (ironically, it was repeated 3 days before the convention began).

Kirk rejects this, noting that the only solution to aggression is to stand up to the aggressor. And if they fight through a proxy by arming that proxy, then you must provide your allies with identical weapons to maintain the balance of power. Here’s the script:
MCCOY: Do I have to say it? It's not bad enough there's one serpent in Eden teaching one side about gun powder. You want to make sure they all know about it!
KIRK: Exactly. Each side receives the same knowledge and the same type of firearm.
MCCOY: Have you gone out of your mind? Yes, maybe you have. Tyree's wife, she said there was something in that root. She said now you can refuse her nothing.
KIRK: Superstition.
MCCOY: Is it a coincidence this is exactly what she wants?
KIRK: Is it? She wants superior weapons. That's the one thing neither side can have. Bones. Bones, the normal development of this planet was the status quo between the hill people and the villagers. The Klingons changed that with the flintlocks. If this planet is to develop the way it should, we must equalize both sides again.
MCCOY: Jim, that means you're condemning this whole planet to a war that may never end. It could go on for year after year, massacre after massacre.
KIRK: All right, Doctor! All right. Say I'm wrong. Say I'm drugged. Say the woman drugged me. What is your sober, sensible solution to all this?
MCCOY: I don't have a solution. But furnishing them firearms is certainly not the answer.
KIRK: Bones, do you remember the twentieth century brush wars on the Asian continent? Two giant powers involved, much like the Klingons and ourselves. Neither side felt they could pull out.
MCCOY: Yes, I remember. It went on bloody year after bloody year.
KIRK: What would you have suggested, that one side arm its friends with an overpowering weapon? Mankind would never have lived to travel space if they had. No. The only solution is what happened back then. Balance of power.
MCCOY: And if the Klingons give their side even more?
KIRK: Then we arm our side with exactly that much more. A balance of power. The trickiest, most difficult, dirtiest game of them all, but the only one that preserves both sides.
This is solid conservatism. Liberalism believes aggression is the result of fear, by the aggressor, that others intend to do them harm. Thus, the aggressor turns to aggression as a means of self-defense. This was why liberalism advocated disarmament in the face of Soviet aggression, to show the Russians we meant them no harm. Conservatism knows better. Conservatives understand that aggression is the result of desire: a desire to take something which does not rightly belong to the aggressor, combined with the power to take it. Conservatives also understand that we cannot eliminate desire as a human trait. Thus, the only way to prevent aggression is by making it impossible for the would-be aggressor to achieve their goals through aggression, i.e. to stand up to them.

This episode encapsulates that. First, note that the villagers’ aggression is not the result of fear. The villagers have nothing to fear from the Hill People, as shown by their prior peaceful coexistence. And the only reason they are aggressors now is they now have the power to take what they want. This is confirmed when Tyree’s wife tries to cut a deal with the villagers. If they were aggressive because they were fearful, they would have listened to her when she came to them. But they don’t listen. Instead, they try to rape her the moment they see her, before killing her, because their power over the Hill People has corrupted them.

Secondly, Kirk correctly calculates the conservative position and arms his allies. He knows aggression can’t be stopped with words or hoping the villagers suddenly become pacifists. He knows it can only be stopped if the villagers realize they can’t achieve their goals through force. He also knows that giving the Hill People superior weapons would only shift the aggression. Hence, the only solution to the Klingons’ interference is to maintain the balance of power. (This was the initial Vietnam strategy.)

Finally, as a kicker, Tyree rejects pacifism and his belief the villagers will return to their peaceful ways when his wife is killed because he realizes the villagers will always be aggressive unless they have reason to fear the consequences -- that’s human nature and how it responds to an imbalance of power. Conservatives understand this, liberals don’t. Liberalism believes human nature can be changed and they would have hoped to find a way to change the villager’s “violent natures,” e.g. address the “root causes” of the violence. Conservatives understand that human nature can merely be contained.

That’s why this episode is conservative. Because it applies a conservative understanding of the nature of aggression.

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Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 24

With the Super Bowl in sunny, beautify Indianapolis today, which oft appears on film, it brings to mind this question:

What if your favorite town to see on film? And was there any town that a film made you want to visit?

Panelist: ScottDS

I'm answering this in reverse. After watching films like Vertigo, Star Trek IV, and Basic Instinct, I'd like to visit San Francisco one day. Not only is there a thriving film industry there (most notably Francis Ford Coppola and Lucasfilm), it also appears to be quite scenic. I obviously don't know enough about the city in terms of local attractions (museums, theaters, etc.) but I regret not making it up there when I actually lived on the west coast. As far as a favorite town to see, I'm not entirely sure. I'm inclined to say New York City but we've seen it so many times - what is there left to shoot? I suppose I like seeing the suburbs in film, if only to compare it to the neighborhood I grew up (and currently reside) in. Think Spielberg in the 80s.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

Miami is a cool city to see on film, so is San Francisco, but I'm going with a surprise pick: Paris. And not just touristy Paris, but the old-part of Paris where films like Ronin took place.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

In true Commentarama-style, I will name the city I want least to see on film - New York City. It is pretty disturbing seeing the city in which you live blown up, flooded, pillaged, and flattened.

Panelist: T-Rav

After watching Home Alone, I always thought Chicago would be a nice place to visit, at least around Christmas. It may be a liberal craphole, and I'm sure it was nicer twenty years ago than it is now, but John Hughes made it seem like such a lovely bit of Americana. At the other end of the country, I like seeing New Orleans in the movies just because of how exotic and inviting they make the Creole culture out to be.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Philly. Not only does it bring back memories, but it is an incredibly interesting town in so many ways, particularly when you throw in the suburbs. Just think about M.Night Shyamalan's films from the standpoint of location shooting. Apart from Philly, anyplace that is not New York City, Washington, D.C., L.A. or San Francisco.

Comments? Thoughts?

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Friday, February 3, 2012

Film Friday: Unknown (2011)

I like Taken a good deal and Unknown feels similar to Taken in many ways. It has some interesting facets too, some good, some bad. On the good side, Unknown handles the “stolen identity” concept better than any other film that comes to mind, and Liam Neeson is excellent as always. On the downside, the film ultimately feels flat and its politics are to blame.

** spoiler alert **
The Plot
As the film open, Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) arrives in Berlin to participate in a biotechnology conference. But he mistakenly leaves his briefcase at the airport, and on his way back to the airport to pick it up, his taxi accidentally plunges into a river. He’s saved by his taxi driver (Diane Kruger). When he wakes up in the hospital, he learns another man has taken his place. This man has identification cards in his name, family photos showing him with Neeson’s wife, and everyone accepts him as Dr. Martin Harris. Even Neeson’s own wife Liz (January Jones, who is awful here) seems to treat this man as the real Martin Harris. Is Neeson insane or is something else going on here? And why are people trying to kill him?
The Stolen Identity Issue
Generally, stolen identity thrillers face an uphill battle. While it’s certainly believable one person would impersonate another, it’s just not believable that they could fool the people close to the person being impersonated. Indeed, how could your family and friends not know the difference? What about co-workers? Even if you’ve only dealt with people over the phone, it still seems unlikely that an imposter could fake the voice, the speech patterns, and the level of knowledge needed to pull that off. Also, once you flash your ID to the cops, the imposter’s web starts to unravel.

So when I hear the words “stolen identity,” I cringe because I know I’ll be subjected to unbelievable setups, inexplicable behaviors, and a host of moments where characters need to act stupidly to make the concept work. This is problematic at best because any scheme that relies on everyone on the planet getting movie-stupid is not a great premise for a film.

But that wasn’t the case here. In fact, I was really impressed. I hate to give too much away and there are several twists, so I will proceed cautiously. The issue starts with the question of whether or not Neeson might actually be insane. Indeed for some period of time, you do genuinely wonder if the other guy isn’t the real Dr. Martin Harris and Neeson isn’t just suffering from head trauma. Soon, all the pieces start being explained bit by bit, and in the process a political intrigue is revealed.

Where this film truly deserves recognition is in the execution of that explanation. For one thing, the entire explanation makes sense. Indeed, every last aspect of it is perfectly logical once you understand what happened. Moreover, it is highly unexpected. This is not a solution you’ll see coming, but at the same time, it’s not so far beyond the bounds of common sense or so impractical that you can’t believe it. Further, it’s woven tightly into the political intrigue, meaning it never feels like a gimmick added to the film just to liven it up.

But most importantly, it’s executed perfectly in that the characters never act stupidly to make this work. The authorities don’t inexplicably ignore Neeson’s claims or become blind to obvious clues or throw up their hands in plot-driven helplessness. And all the pitfalls identified above are overcome. For example, it’s Thanksgiving, thus there’s no way to check with the American consulate to look for passport photos. Neeson can’t produce an ID because his wallet was in his briefcase. His wife’s behavior, the presence of his friend (Frank Langella) in Europe, and other similar issues are all reasonably explained. And Neeson isn’t a fool. That makes this a solid, enjoyable story.
Bland Liberalism Masquerading As Depth
All that said, however, there is a problem with this film. Specifically, the film lacks depth, both in the political intrigue and in the characters Neeson meets.

Drama comes from hard decisions, but there are no hard decisions here because the political intrigue is so one-sided. The film takes place in Berlin and it involves a conference where an Arab prince will giving the world for free an environmentalist-fantasy grain which would feed the world’s poor without the usual beefs environmentalists have with farming. Essentially, the greatest guy on earth is about to offer utopia. Yawn. This film would have been much stronger if there was some doubt as to who the good guys and bad guys really are. Yet, as Neeson discovers what’s going on, his choice becomes patently obvious. There’s some irony in what he’s doing, which I won’t go into, but there’s never a single moment where he needs to ask himself if he’s doing the right thing. That robs the film of a ton of drama which would have made the film so much stronger.

Moreover, outside of Neeson, the characters are flat. The bad guys belong to some generic conspiracy that kills people on behalf of rich companies. Yawn. There is never a sense of why they are actually doing this other than bland profit. As we’ve said many times, it’s hard to care about a villain who doesn’t even care about his own schemes.

And the good guys are even more pointless. By and large, they are nothing more than idealized liberal tropes. For example, there is an illegal alien from Africa who tells Neeson where he can find Diane Kruger, an illegal alien from Russia who becomes Neeson’s sidekick. This character adds nothing else to the plot, yet we’re supposed to care about him because the film tells us that Germans mistreat African immigrants and force them to live in slums (a total falsehood). And when he gets killed we’re supposed to care that his poor family in Africa will never know what happened to him or why the money he sends each month suddenly stops. Boo frick’n hoo. This has nothing to do with the story. And the fact the writer hopes to use this to humanize the story is a prime example that the writer had no idea how to connect the characters to the plot or the plot to the audience. This is what happens when you use an indifferent, generic villain.

Similarly, we are introduced to an ex-Stasi officer. He really does nothing to further the plot except explain the nature of the political conspiracy to the audience -- which actually detracts from the film, as it would have been better to have Neeson learn it himself. But again we’re supposed to care about him and again the reason we’re supposed to care is his liberal beliefs. He is presented as a kindly old former military officer who laments that, “We Germans are good at forgetting things. We forgot we were Nazis and then we forgot we were communists.” Oh gee, what a wonderful guy. Only, it’s crap.

For one thing, the Germans have spent the past 60+ years trying to atone for being Nazis. They’ve made themselves pacifists, built museums to war crimes, outlawed denial of Nazi crimes, made it illegal to sell Nazi paraphernalia, and given money all over the world to try to make good. No one in Germany has forgotten they were Nazis. But they did forget they were communists, and this film is a great example of that. It is a total whitewash to present the Stasi as just another military institution. They were in fact one of the more brutal organizations in history, and that gets whitewashed here, especially when this Stasi character describes how peacefully he questioned “suspects” without ever mentioning the torture, the killing and the spying.

But the bigger issue, again, is that he doesn’t fit into the story. He’s a plot convenience. The information he provides could have been found by Neeson in a newspaper. Yet, the writer mistakenly thinks he can humanize the story by giving us another liberal lament through this character. This is poor writing. It’s like the writer spent all his energy solving the stolen-identity puzzle and he didn’t have any energy left to put into the conspiracy and the supporting characters, so he just grabbed some liberal tropes out of the liberal-idiocy bag and jammed them into the story.

This is a good film, but it’s flawed, and that’s rather sad. Indeed, for a film that takes the horrid concept of a stolen identity and handles it exceedingly well -- a rare accomplishment -- the rest of this film doesn’t do it justice.

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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Conservative Opportunity In Hollywood?

I’m wondering about the future of the film industry. In particular, I am wondering if there isn’t an opening developing for conservatives? I don’t mean that Hollywood is about to open its doors to conservatives. What I mean instead is that Hollywood failed to lock the door and its audience is escaping. Maybe conservatives should think about offering them a new home? Consider this.

The entertainment industry has become an oligopoly (though groupthink basically makes it a monopoly). Six companies control 90% of all viewing hours on television: Disney, News Corp, NBC Universal, Time Warner, CBS and Discovery. These companies decide what you get to watch. They also own either in whole or in part, the major studios, who dominate the theater chains. Thus, a handful of companies are responsible for all the films and television you see. Even independent companies like Netflix or Blockbuster rely on these companies to provide them with content.

Ok, so why is that important? Because these companies have fallen into the same trap that all monopoly/oligopoly companies have fallen into before them.

When a company has “market power,” i.e. the power to exclude competitors and dictate to consumers, they get lazy and greedy. Specifically, they realize that it makes no sense for them to innovate or embrace change because their current business model gets them much higher profits than they could otherwise obtain in a free market. Thus, they put their energy into maintaining their monopoly rather than improving their products. This results in: (1) high prices which consumers see as unfair, (2) lack of innovation in the product, (3) an unwillingness to embrace technology, and (4) poor customer service.

The entertainment industry is beset by this. Films are generic so they can be marketed to the broadest possible market. No risks are taken. To make foreign sales, the film companies now strip out anything from films that would harm the films in any region, rather than customizing them by region. Hollywood also forces theaters into a destructive business model. And they fight any technological change which would give consumers greater choice. This is the exact course the music industry charted to its near death.

All of this results in falling box office attendance, falling numbers for cable subscribers, and an increase in pirating.

But here’s the thing. This isn’t 1950. Technology is giving people a way around the entertainment monopoly. The web has made it ridiculously easy to self-publish a book, a record, or even a film. Indeed, you no longer need a distribution network or a chain of theaters to get your film shown. Similarly, modern technology has made it incredibly cheap to shoot movies as you no longer need million dollar cameras and miles of film or a multimillion dollar studio backing you. All you need is a solid digital camera, an eye for using it and editing software.

My point is this. Hollywood is pricing itself out of the market right now at the exact time that technology has opened up avenues for alternatives. Moreover, Hollywood has chosen this moment to start turning out corporate computer-generated crappola for product and is busy stripping out the great dialog (too complex for foreign audiences), the cool humor (too many people might not get it), and the cool patriotic and pro-human themes audiences love (won’t play in China or Berkley).

This creates an opportunity. If conservatives are smart, they can create a new Hollywood, picking up the opportunities Hollywood won’t touch and selling them to audience over the net, either through the creation of a new film site, eHollywood, or in partnerships with the likes of Blockbuster and Netflix. This is an historic opportunity to get ahead of the curve and conservatives should seize it.

Am I right or wrong? What would it take for you to start watching truly independent films?

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