Friday, March 25, 2011

Film Friday: The Spanish Prisoner (1997)

Can a movie be too intelligent? Not really. But it can try too hard to seem intelligent. That’s the case with The Spanish Prisoner. Written and directed by David Mamet, The Spanish Prisoner has many of the hallmarks of great films: intelligent plot, fascinating twists and turns, smart dialog, and an interesting atmosphere or mood. It also has staying power, as it’s on television all the time and I find myself drawn to it. I like this film a lot, but I can’t call it a great film because Mamet tries too hard to prove he's clever.

** spoiler alert **

Without spoiling too much, The Spanish Prisoner involves a confidence game. It centers around Joe Ross (Campbell Scott), an engineer who has invented a secret process that is about to make his company rich. As the story opens, we learn that Ross’s boss Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara) is talking to wealthy investors about backing the company’s new invention. At the same time, Joe starts to realize that he has no protection should the company claim the invention and stiff him. His attempts to get such protection place him in an adversarial position vis-à-vis his company. While this is going on, Joe runs into a mysterious man named Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin). Dell is a wealthy man who befriends Joe and starts to advise him regarding the issues with his company. Beyond this set up, all I will say is that Joe soon finds himself way out of his league as various people around him may or may not be trying to manipulate him, and he has no idea who he can trust.

I really do enjoy this film, but it also disappoints me every time I watch it. What bothers me is not the story or the characters, but a dozen small moments in the film. And what each of these moments has in common is they try too hard to prove how smart the film is:
The Macguffin
Right out of the gates we’re presented with the Macguffin. This is a term coined by Alfred Hitchcock to mean the object/thing that drives the plot and motivates the characters' actions, i.e. what the characters want -- like a necklace in a robbery story or papers in a spy story. But there's an interesting aspect to the Macguffin, which is that it's also irrelevant what it actually is. In other words, the necklace could just as easily be a diamond, a work of art or a pile of money. This realization has led some of the more clever filmmakers to play around with the Macguffin. A perfect example of this comes from Pulp Fiction, where the characters are chasing a briefcase that shines gold when it opens. Despite this titillating clue, we never do find out what's inside the briefcase because Tarantino is intentionally teasing us, knowing that it doesn’t actually matter to the story.

Mamet tries the same thing here by never telling us what this formula is or how much it's worth. Unlike Pulp Fiction however, where this was a clever tease, here it feels more like showing off. For example, Mamet does things like blatantly turning the camera away from a blackboard as the dollar amount is written upon it. And he repeatedly finds ways to highlight that he’s not telling us what the formula is, such as when FBI Agent McClure (Felicity Huffman) makes a huge point of telling Ross not to tell her what the formula is. Once or twice would have been fine, but this quickly becomes like the annoying acquaintance who explains over and over how something they did was clever.
The Dialog
Next comes the dialog. Mamet is famous for his dialog, which is typically an intelligent noir style. Generally, his characters speak in sharp, abrupt, and yet complex sentences that leave important details unsaid and which say something larger about the characters no matter what topic they are discussing. Thus, in Ronin, every word uttered by Robert DeNiro tells us he is a man with vast experience and incredible skills. Mamet’s characters in Glengarry Glen Ross detail their failed lives as they beat around the bush about revenge they'll never take and disguise their real concerns in fake talk of insults to their dignity.

The Spanish Prisoner is different. The dialog used by these characters lacks the depth and vision of Mamet’s other characters. Other than the things they tell us specifically, we know nothing about these people. But that’s not the real problem. The real problem arises when Mamet tries to insert depth by having his characters utter cryptic sounding but entirely ridiculous quotes. “I put a thief in my mouth to steal my brain.” What does this mean? It means he's hung over. When Susan the secretary says “my troika was pursued by wolves,” what do you think she's referring to? Nothing, she's just delivering snacks. The script is littered with these lines. It’s like Mamet sat around coming up with cryptic lines and then dumped them into the dialog at random.

Indeed, with characters passing these kinds of quotes back and forth, none of the relationships seem real. In real life, the most common response to these kinds of lines would have been “huh” rather than the firing back of a counter line. This makes the whole story feel “acted.” And forget emotion because it’s hard to show anger or passion when you speak in sentences like: “beware of all ventures requiring new clothes.” Even characters like the FBI agents speak in riddles when more common word usage would be appropriate. In the end, this feels like Mamet is trying to show us how clever he can be at writing lines, but in the process he fails to write effective dialog.
Arrogant Casting
Finally, we come to the cast. Different issues drive casting. Money plays a big role, as does the desirability of the parts and the tastes of the director. In this instance, however, the casting feels arrogant. I say this because Mamet includes several actors who are playing against type, and it feels like Mamet did this just to prove that he could make it work. For example, Ed O’Neill (Married With Children) is called upon to play an FBI team leader, but he lacks the gravitas to escape his Al Bundy role. Rebecca Pidgeon is cast as Susan Ricci, the secretary/love interest/temptress, a role for which she is entirely unsuited. Felicity Huffman is similarly miscast as an FBI agent. A Japanese actress is cast to play a character with an unbelievable, ultra-heavy Texas accent for no apparent reason.

Steve Martin plays Jimmy Dell. Now, in truth, Martin is brilliant. Prior to this film, I viewed him as a rather poor actor who could only play the “put-upon guy.” Yet here he plays a suave and brilliant businessman, and he does it incredibly well. But his success doesn’t change the fact that like the others, he was cast in a role for which he appears unsuited. It was as if Mamet decided to cast inappropriate actors just to show he had the skill to pull this off. And the problem with this is that several of these people are jarring in the roles they play and that makes them difficult to believe, and I'm constantly left feeling that Mamet is basically telling me how great he is.


Let me stress that you should not read this review as a condemnation. I really like this film and I highly recommend it. But I feel the film artificially limits my ability to love it because of these entirely avoidable flaws. Had Mamet stopped telling me how intelligent he is, then this could have been a great movie. As it is, it’s a good movie which wasted its potential to become a great movie. In fact, it’s probably screaming out for a remake.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Good and Bad PSAs...

The idea behind PSAs is to get people to change their behavior. Classic examples of successful PSAs include the crying Indian who got us to stop littering and the “this is your brain on drugs” spot that significantly reduced drug use among the young. But most PSAs fail miserably. Why? In a word, liberalism.

What successful PSAs all have in common is they are promoting ideas we already believe. For example, we know drugs are harmful to our brains, our bodies and our lives. Five minutes with any stoner or methhead will confirm that. So when the PSA told us drugs will mess you up, it confirmed something we already knew and helped to offset the cultural peer pressure that said “drugs are cool.” The Indian ad did the same thing. We knew littering was wrong because it’s disrespectful to other people’s property. That ad reminded us that our littering was not a victimless crime, and it reminded us that just because other people did it didn’t make it right.

Liberal PSAs, however, don’t do this, because their goal is not to reawaken an idea you already believe, but is instead to jam a new idea into your head. But that doesn’t work.

Take for example, the latest PSAs about bullying. They are infuriating. For starters, these ads make use of the liberal racist rainbow, meaning they make sure to include all the right races in the right proportions and with each race playing the “right” role. Right here, these PSAs lose a lot of whites, who will object to being told that all bullies are white. And if you think this is being overly-sensitive, then let me suggest that we make all the bullies into black lesbians and let’s see who objects. Next, they try to sell the idea that being a bully “feels bad.” Oh, so now I’m stupid? Seriously, show me a bully who isn’t getting a kick out of feeling powerful. . . that’s what it’s all about. Finally, despite the fact that the only solution to bullying is to fight back, they tell us to fight bullying by running like a whiny baby to someone in authority. That person will then happily run to the scene and fix everything. Except we’ve all dealt with this in school and we know what really happens. IF you find a teacher and IF they come with you, they will see nothing by the time they get there. Good thinking idiots!

So what you have here is an ad that will offend whites (and will reinforce the victimization theology being beaten into minority kids), which misdiagnoses the problem of bullying, and which gives you a “solution” that every kid on the planet knows won’t work. You’d have to be a fool to think these ads will resonate with kids. The only people this will resonate with are adult liberals.

It’s the same with all the other liberal PSAs of the past. I remember a PSA in the 1970s in which Batgirl demanded equal pay to what Batman got (think ERA). Only Batman never got paid, so I knew right there not to respect anyone who made that ad or to listen to anything they said. Moreover, Batgirl was a useless extra. At best, she was in Robin’s league, not Batman’s. So not only was the whole concept stupid, but it was wildly off the mark in terms of equity. Thus, I knew right there at the tender age of 8 or 9 that this whole ERA thing was bullsh~t and to be very careful of the liars who were pushing it. Ditto on the PSA telling me the kid in the wheelchair would be great at basketball, or telling me to save the polar bear by narc-ing on my parents’ excessive use of electricity. The presentation of nonsensical propaganda will never be effective except to the people who are already true believers.

That bring us to the Foundation for a Better Life (FBL), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. The FBL has been running private PSAs that I think are actually pretty effective. They are responsible for the ad with the kid who chases the bus to return a woman’s purse, the girl who welcomes the new kid, the basketball player who admits to fouling even though the referee didn’t see it, and the guy who helps the old woman get something from the top shelf in the grocery store.

I think these are effective because they involved values that we all recognize as good values. These are things each of us believes to be right already, even though we may not act on our beliefs. Moreover, the way these ads are presented is key. For example, unlike the liberal utopia PSAs where you are told to act because “you have an obligation,” these ads take a different approach. In each instance, the do-gooder gets a moment of flack or suspicion before people realize that they have done the right thing. After that, they get the one thing liberals can never promise you: respect.

In other words, these ads are telling you that if you do the right thing, you will earn the respect of those around you. That’s a truly powerful motivator. And that’s why I think these ads will resonate.

Agree? Disagree?

** To my knowledge FBL is not associated with any religious or political organization. If I am wrong, please let me know.

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Friday, March 18, 2011

Film Friday: The Matrix (1999)

By any measure, The Matrix is easily one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. It’s a thrilling action movie, which brought in half a billion dollars. It has a great story with jaw dropping twists and turns. It's presented with an incredible sense of style and innovative special effects. And, most importantly, it takes several science fiction themes to the next level, creating one of the philosophically deepest films on record.

** heavy spoiler alert **

Directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski (Bound), The Matrix is a mind-trip that takes place in a world where machines have enslaved the human race and the human race doesn’t know it. The film can be enjoyed either as a simple rousing action flick or as an intelligent science fiction film with almost limitless depth.
The Matrix As An Action Flick
The Matrix is the story of Thomas Anderson, aka Neo (Keanu Reeves), a computer hacker who feels that something is wrong with the world, something he can’t put his finger on. Through a series of seemingly impossible events, Neo is contacted by a shadowy man named Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who offers him a choice: go back to his life or see the real world. Neo chooses reality, and discovers that he’s been living his entire life in a computer simulation. He learns that in the real world, humans fought a war against an artificial intelligence they created, and lost. Now the remaining free humans hide in a city called Zion near the earth’s core, from which they continue to fight against the machines. The rest of humanity, the vast majority, live unaware in the virtual world created by the machines, as their bodies act as batteries for the machines. According to Morpheus, Neo is prophesized as “the One” who will end the war and free humanity.

The Matrix excels as an action flick. It’s stylishly shot with a strong techno soundtrack and totally hip costuming. The fight scenes are incredibly well choreographed, taking wire fighting to new highs, and it introduces “bullet time” effects, where the scene appears to freeze as the camera rotates around live action. The acting is solid, the dialog is almost-noir but packed with meaning, and there is significant character growth throughout the movie, but never at the expense of the pacing. And the story is clever and exciting. All of this combines in The Matrix to create some truly unique and iconic images, moments and characters. Thus, like most great films (like Star Wars and Close Encounters), The Matrix has inspired much (see, e.g. Inception), but it’s essentially been impossible to copy.

Based on this alone, The Matrix is well worth seeing. But this isn’t all it offers.
The Matrix As Ultra-Intelligent Science Fiction
Beyond the action, The Matrix becomes an extremely intelligent science fiction film. Most science fiction films address only one theme, and usually, the whole film revolves around revealing that theme, like a twist. The Matrix forswears that formula and instead mixes multiple themes, which it then approaches from new perspectives.

The main theme of the The Matrix is an old philosophical/religious question: free will versus predetermination. Free will is shown through Neo, who makes many choices. He must choose to see reality instead of the false reality he lives. He must choose to accept the role of savior. He must choose to stand and fight. And he must choose to believe reality will bend to his will. Even after he has made these choices, he still only has the power to free people if they choose to believe him, i.e. they have free will too. Indeed, the film ends with him telling the machines that he’s going to give humanity a choice.

But is free will an illusion? On the side of predetermination, the movie presents the Oracle and Morpheus (references to Ancient Greece), who see Neo as a prophesized “the One” who will end the war and free man from the machines. Neo objects to the idea of predetermined fates, but every move he makes seems foretold. Thus, it would seem The Matrix believes in predetermination. But wait, the Oracle herself casts doubt on this when she points out that he could be causing his own destiny simply by knowing it: “Would you really have knocked over that vase if I hadn’t mentioned it first?” Moreover, she manipulates Neo by lying to him to get him to act in predetermined ways. . . but then, he does act in predetermined ways.

While this battle rages, the film explores another common science fiction theme: man versus machine, but it does so in much greater depth than this issue normally gets. Science fiction often deals with machines turning on their creators, everything from intelligent computers, like Skynet and HAL, to killer robots in I, Robot. But beyond the shock of the machines rising up, there isn’t usually much more to these stories. The Matrix, by comparison, takes this as a mere starting point and then adds layers of depth from there. Thus, for example, in The Matrix, mankind doesn’t even know its been conquered, which is a rare take on this theme. Also, the machines are not as unified as they seem, as rogue programs like the Oracle help Neo and as the machines begin to lose control over Agent Smith, as he develops a blinding hate for humanity. Moreover, we’re told the machines aren’t all bad because they recognize they are dependent on humans, and they actually tried to make the matrix into a paradise. . . only, the humans wouldn’t accept the programming -- raising questions both of the nature of the human psych and whether a gilded cage is still a cage? These are all aspects that are rarely, if ever, seen in stories dealing with this theme.

What’s more, the man versus machine theme gets brought into the film’s other big theme: perception versus reality. This again is a common theme in science fiction and usually is enough to occupy an entire movie. Indeed, when this theme is used, typically the entire plot will center around the discovery near the end of the film that reality isn’t want it used to be. The Matrix goes deeper. It lets Neo in on the secret early in the film. Then it sets about asking questions that have almost never, if ever, been asked: (1) would you want to know about the real world if you were happy with your perceived world, (2) could you live happily knowing the world you perceive is fake, (3) at what point does perception become reality (if everyone thinks this is how chicken tastes, does that make it so), and (4) if our perceived reality is merely implanted in our minds, can we manipulate it?

The Matrix weaves these themes and questions together into one story, in which Neo must decide to break with the reality he knows so he can fulfill a prophecy and thereby set mankind free from a prison they don’t even know exists.

Adding even more depth and flavor to the exploration of these themes, The Matrix calls upon a treatise in philosophy and religion to inform its characters. For example, a large portion of The Matrix is a Christian allegory, complete with dozens of Biblical references, with Neo playing the role of Christ, as the savior of humanity if only mankind truly believes in him. At the same time, the film tosses in elements of a half dozen other religions like the Buddhist child bending the nonexistent spoon, plus philosophical concepts like Rene Descartes’ evil genius (a faulty argument for why God must exist), and more recognizable references to things like “Alice in Wonderland.” Indeed, this movie is exquisitely made with no single object, name, word or image appearing in the film by chance.

Finally, let me say a word on the ending. Roger Ebert (and others) criticized the movie because he viewed it as a “letdown” that a movie about “redefining the nature of reality” would end in a shootout. But he’s missing the point. The shootout is not the ending. The ending comes when Neo finally realizes that he need not obey the physical laws of reality. Thus, he need not dodge bullets, he can will them to stop. It is his triumph over perception that gives him his victory, not fancy shooting on his part. And thereby, Neo proves man’s superiority to the machines, as our minds can do something the machines cannot -- they cannot imagine outside the bounds of reality -- and he fulfills his destiny through the exercise of free will.

This is why The Matrix is a great film. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Why Hollywood Doesn't Care About American Consumers

In a recent film discussion, a question was asked how it could be true both that Hollywood is highly consumer oriented (as they are) yet also pays no attention to the opinions of Middle America (which they don’t). The answer is simple: Hollywood doesn’t view Middle America as its consumer market. I’ve been saying this for a while, and now The Economist offers proof.

Most Americans assume Hollywood should strive to please Middle America, because they believe the American public is where Hollywood earns its money. But that’s not true. Starting around 2001, Hollywood began making more money overseas than it made in the US. Last year, foreign box office receipts more than doubled US receipts -- $10 billion in US ticket sales versus $22 billion in ticket sales overseas. Moreover, while the US market hasn’t grown since 2005, the foreign market doubled between 2003 and 2010, and shows no signs of slowing. Indeed, consider that, Hollywood made $1.5 billion in China last year even though China currently allows only 20 US films to be shown each year.

As a result of this, according to The Economist, “the studios are careful to seed films with actors, locations and, occasionally, languages that are well-known in target countries.” In other words, Hollywood is learning what works in target countries and is changing its films accordingly. For example, the Chinese want “films that reflect China’s central place in the world.” Thus, films like Kung Fu Panda play well because they show China’s influence over the West. Japanese audiences love Japanese locations and characters. And most of the world prefers European villains.

More insidiously, these markets don’t like films that contain pro-American messages or American cultural elements. Thus, these are now being removed from films. For example, “G.I. Joe” was changed from a team of American special forces to an international team with an international cast. Captain America is being renamed “The First Avenger” overseas and his American-flag costume has been largely de-Americanized. Also, says the director, the character will downplay American patriotism because “this is not about America so much as it is about the spirit of doing the right thing.”

The studios are quite open about this. Says Rob Moore of Paramount Pictures: “We need to make movies that have the ability to break out internationally. That's the only way to make the economic puzzle of film production work today.” Disney studios execs say the same thing: "I can tell you that no studio head is going to make a big expensive movie that cost $150 million or $200 million unless it has worldwide appeal. You can't pay back that production cost on the domestic model alone."

This means Hollywood is letting its marketing concerns make its artistic decisions. And those marketing concerns say (1) include foreign characters and locations from target areas, (2) remove traces of American culture, (3) dumb dialog and plots down to make them easier to translate, and (4) add plenty of special effects filler. It also influences the types of films that will be made. Don’t expect many films based on American history, events or persons. And don’t expect may new comedies. Says Brad Grey, the head of Paramount Pictures, “You won’t see us doing a lot of comedies, because comedy doesn’t travel well.”

This is why Hollywood can be both consumer oriented and still ignore the American consumer, because it doesn’t see American consumers as important anymore. And that’s why you’re seeing such a change in films lately. I would also say, it’s no coincidence that Hollywood’s current low quality period began right around the time foreign markets first surpassed American markets in value.

Welcome to the future.


And if that doesn't give you something to think about, then let me ask you this. . . is it possible that Star Wars was a rip off of The Wizard of Oz?

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Friday, March 11, 2011

Film Friday: The Blind Side (2009)

The Blind Side is an enjoyable film, which I highly recommend. It’s heartwarming, it packs a truly positive message, and it’s probably the most conservative film I’ve seen in decades. So it won’t surprise you that liberal critics hate it: “it’s racist!” Yeah right, what isn’t? Let’s discuss.

** spoiler alert **

The Blind Side involves a rich, white, conservative, Christian, Republican family who take in an abandoned black teenager. Through their loving efforts, they help this teenager get through a private Christian school, become a football star, and get a scholarship at Old Miss. This is based on the real-life story of Baltimore Raven Michael Oher, though not every part is accurate. The title, The Blind Side, refers to his football position, left tackle, which protects the quarterback’s blind side. The film is well-shot, well-paced, and will easily bring people to tears, but in a good way.
1. Yep, It's Manipulative, But Less Than Normal
One of the criticisms made against the film is that it’s manipulative. Duh! Of course it is, but it’s surprisingly subtle compared to most of what comes out of Hollywood today. For example, Michael must overcome various hurdles, such as a drug addicted mother, a borderline retarded IQ, the resistance of teachers who think he can’t learn, a lack of socialization, a lack of trust, racism, and a drug dealer who wants to hook him on drugs. But each of these hurdles is underplayed rather than overplayed. Moreover, we don’t get any of the cliché moments you normally get, e.g. where Michael runs outside into the rain crying that he’s not good enough or where a clichéd enemy tries to make him fail or where the mother (Sandra Bullock) falls to her knees weeping melodramatically. Ironically, the same critics who attack the film for being manipulative, also complain that Bullock remains too composed throughout the film and should have periodically wept like she’d just found a room full of dead puppies.

These same critics also whined that the story was sanitized: the white family was shown to be nice and happy and their Christianity wasn’t hypocritical. Oh heavens! Those darn teachers actually tried to help Michael rather than sabotage him! That never happens! Michael is made out like a giant teddy bear. Unbelievable!

The most obvious response to this is that the critics really need counseling. These critics, like many big-city liberals, smugly see Americans as alcoholic, racist, hatemongers, who date-rape their girlfriends, beat their oppressed wives and harass gays while hiding a plethora of sexual perversions. This may be the norm in New York City or Los Angeles, but it’s not what you find in the rest of America. What you find in the rest of America is pretty much what you find in this film -- people who aren’t perfect, but who try their best. Moreover, show me a film that doesn’t idealize. Does anyone really expect that everything good shown in a film must be balanced out with something bad? And if that’s the case, then why don’t liberals make this same complaint in films with liberal heroes? And don’t forget, this is a true story, were they supposed to make bad things up just to be “fair”?
2. No, It’s Not Racist
What really upset the critics was that The Blind Side didn’t fit their views on race. Almost every one of them suggested the film was racist:
● “The so-called ‘feel-good’ film functioning as a well-timed balm for the conflicted soul of white America. But rather than a clear-eyed look at the disparity between upper-crust suburbs and a cross-town ghetto, we get gloss of the highest order.”

● “It's so clichéd and so patronising and there's more than a whiff of racism.”

● “Institutional racism as inspirational melodrama, it's regressive entertainment, our very own Triumph of the Will.”
This is why the critics gave it a 53% rating. But the public didn’t buy that and gave it a 90% rating. They also spent $309,208,309 on it. You shouldn’t believe the critics either.

To liberals, the racism begins with the idea that a rich, white woman can educate a poor black kid. The very concept offends them. What’s worse, some liberals now object to allowing whites to adopt black kids, something they nonsensically claim is “genocide.” Moreover, Michael is shown becoming a happier, better person as he learns whitey’s ways, another racist idea in liberal eyes. They also think it’s racist that Bullock’s friends and family accept her decision to take in this black kid; several called this is a “whitewash,” i.e. failing to show the real racism liberals assume must be present is evidence of the director’s racist intent to hide the truth. They also see racism in the lack of racism in the teachers, because they know the reason black kids do poorly is that racist teachers pretend black kids can’t learn (see Waiting for Superman). . . coincidentally, the liberal belief in lowering standards for blacks actually is premised on such a belief. It also offends them that the black characters are all bad, e.g. Michael’s drug addicted mother, a black man who abandons Michael, a drug dealer, a lazy bureaucrat, and an evil NCAA woman who wrongfully accuses the family of taking Michael in for the sole purpose of helping their favorite college. In other words, they are offended because the whites are too good and the blacks are all bad, and that’s racist in their eyes.

Of course, this is all crap. The problem lies with the critics, not the film. The critics want to believe that whites are racists and there are no bad blacks, except when they are forced to be bad by white oppression. Thus, they see the inclusion of bad blacks and the failure to highlight the secret white racism as evidence of racists trying to cover up their racism. But that’s twisted, and it tells us much more about what lurks in the hearts of these critics, than what might be hidden in the frames of the film.
3. One of the Most Conservative Films In Years
Finally, let me explain why this is one of the most deeply conservative films in decades. For starters, the family who take Michael in are conservative, Republican Christians. . . when was the last time Hollywood let that happen? And unlike most Hollywood portrayals, they are not obsessed with money or imposing their religious beliefs. In fact, they are a genuinely nice family. Moreover, they take Michael in because they feel a moral obligation to do so. Compare this with how Hollywood normally portrays Christians as hypocritical about their beliefs in charity and responsibility, or against the liberal view that charity derives from forcing others to pay for good deeds through government dollars.

Further, the film constantly makes the point that family is vital. We see this in the support both parents provide Michael from helping him with school to socializing him to giving him emotional support. And at the same time, we are shown how children are destroyed and left to fend for themselves in the world of drug addiction, single-motherhood with multiple baby-daddies, and ghetto culture which disdains education and personal responsibility.

The school also provides a plethora of conservative themes. The admission committee is swayed by the idea that good Christians would help Michael because it’s the right thing to do, not because they would profit by it. The teachers never lower their expectations for him -- in fact, that’s criticized as the reason he has such problems, because the public schools just passed him along. And they also are very flexible about finding nontraditional (read: not union approved) ways to teach him. There’s even a great NRA moment. And throughout the film, we are shown that hard work and responsibility are rewarded and reliance on others is not. Indeed, everything you see offers a conservative theme. (See my article on what makes a film conservative.)
The Blind Side is a heartwarming film every conservative should love. It’s the kind of film conservatives complain that Hollywood doesn’t make anymore. The story is touching and has a great message. The people are decent. And its values are thoroughly conservative. This doesn’t sit well with liberal critics who want to see a slam on white southern racists, but who cares about them? They need to sort out their own inner demons before they’re worth listening to. In the meantime, see the film. You’ll like it.

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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Star Trek TNG Take Down!

As originally formulated, the Prime Directive was a response to colonialism. It was based on morality and it made sense. But by the 1990s, liberalism had changed, and it was starting to confuse itself as its fascist instincts reappeared in many of its offshoots, like environmentalism. Thus, when Roddenberry got the chance to revisit the Prime Directive, he butchered it. I give you the episode “Pen Pals” from the second season.

The idea behind the original Prime Directive was that it’s not moral for more advanced cultures to impose themselves on less advanced cultures. Thus, we should let places like Africa and Asia and West Virginia develop on their own. . . au natural, as it were.

This point was brought home in the episode “Patterns of Force,” where a well-meaning Federation professor introduces “good Nazism,” in the hopes that a benign dictator can harness the power of fascism to do good things and unite the planet. He ends up almost causing a Holocaust involving aliens from another planet. . . Zeon pigs. And in “A Piece of the Action,” we’re shown how the introduction of the wrong ideas (in this case a book on Chicago gangsters) can seriously damage a culture. We even got a corollary to the Prime Directive in “A Private Little War,” which was a metaphor for Vietnam. In that episode, Kirk must arm an idyllic society because the evil Klingons have started arming neighboring villagers. Here, the Prime Directive is interpreted as allowing interference for the purpose of counteracting another’s interference.

The idea of the Prime Directive proved so powerful that it literally changed the thinking in science fiction, much as Asimov’s robot laws had. Before Star Trek, science fiction was about bringing order to the universe. . . our kind of order. After Star Trek, the idea of imposing our will fell out of favor.

But then came Star Trek TNG. This group was incredibly sanctimonious and they wanted to show they were more morally evolved than the cowboys of Jim Kirk’s era. So they did a heavy smugness-induced refit of the Prime Directive.

Here’s the set up. Data begins communicating with forehead-molding-accident victim Sarjenka who lives on a wondrous planet that is being destroyed by geological incorrectness. So far so good right? WRONG! Data has violated the Prime Directive by exposing himself to the little girl. . . no, not in that way. . . and old man Picard will not stand for it! This could well go on Data’s permanent record!

See, as Picard lectures us, “the Prime Directive is not just a set of rules, it is a philosophy. . .” And no doubt, that philosophy is based on a deep moral principle, right? Tell me more Captain P! “. . . history has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned, the results are invariably disastrous.”

Oh boy.

That’s not a philosophy, that’s a rule of convenience. That’s like saying, “we don’t condone bank robbery because the last five guys who tried it really made a mess of it.” Seriously, when the Federation laid down its laws, was the most convincing reason for noninterference some Scooby Doo-like “we shouldn’t have meddled!” rather than some statement about respecting the dignity of sentient beings?

And it gets worse. Sarjenka’s planet is about to rip itself apart, blowing her culture out the universe’s back door. Yet, Picard sees saving them as a violation of the Prime Directive. Are you kidding me? That means, the Prime Directive has gone from “don’t impose your will on other cultures” to “don’t even save them from extinction because you might affect their development.” Does anyone see a problem with that? Her culture’s natural development ends in about 3 hours! What could Data possibly do that would have a more disastrous effect on her culture than letting it get blown up?

This is smug, squishy liberal thinking at its worst. Kirk’s rule was grounded in morality. This rule is not. This rule is grounded in “it sounds really great to say we should never interfere with another culture.” And I’m sure it made the whole cast feel mighty self-righteous just thinking about how principled they were being. But ask yourself what they would say if you cited their Prime Directive as justification for not send emergency food aid to Africa or Haiti. They would be horrified at your evil philosophy.

In the end, like all liberal “principles,” this sounded great when they said it, but it was unworkable and they never really believed it. What they really believed was: “you shouldn’t interfere with other cultures unless it’s a situation where we like how you interfere,” but that's not a principle and doesn't give you that smug feeling when you say it aloud. So they gluten-free fudged it, so they could have their big, clear moral statement, but not have to live by it. . . just like how they say "equality" but have defined this as “racial/sexual apartheid and race/gender-based privilege.”

And this is why they had such a hard time applying this Directive consistently throughout the series, because they’ve turned it into nonsense. That’s why sometimes the rule applies only to pre-warp species, but at others it’s a general rule of neutrality -- like when Picard wants to pretend he’s acting on principle when he refuses to get involved in the Klingon civil war. And sometimes, they completely forget about it, like when the culture they want to change is sexist, racist, ageist, warlike or supports regressive tax policies.

So keep this in mind the next time you see Picard getting all holier-than-thou about this highest of principles.

Smugness factor four. . . engage.

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Friday, March 4, 2011

Film Friday: Alice In Wonderland (2010)

I’m a fan of Tim Burton, but sadly he died right before making Corpse Bride. And rather than letting his memory rest in peace, the studio replaced him with a fake who’s been making films like Alice in Wonderland under Burton’s name. Alice is sloppy, unoriginal, and it kills the very spirit of what Burton was trying to capture. It’s studio-horrid.

** spoiler alert **

The Technicals

What can I say about this movie? Well, for starters, this movie is not for kids, even though Disney suggests it is. But feel free to disagree if you think your kids are ready to see eyes gouged out with needles, a moat floating with decapitated heads, and Alice drinking blood at the end. . . don’t worry, it’s purple, not red!

Visually, what Burton has done is pretty at times, but it’s all stolen. The Red Queen’s castle is Hogwarts with a different paint job. The White Queen’s castle is Rivendell from The Lord of the Rings. The way the animals were animated comes straight from the Narnia films. Some of the character actions (particularly the Dormouse) are straight from Labyrinth or Willow. And so on.

The writing is pathetic. There isn't a memorable moment or line in the film. The word choice is weak, the dialog is incomprehensible, and the plot is nonexistent. The story begins with a clichéd anachronism, as we’re presented with a lame leftist view of the British aristocracy as nose-picking, inbred fools. These people look like something from a Pride and Prejudice theme party, yet Alice acts like she’s from 1963, and this doesn't seem to bother anyone. For example, she's introduced right after burning her bra. . . er, refusing to wear her corset. She then roams around smugly and condescendingly insulting everyone. Fortunately for her, these characters are clichés and thus are too stupid to be able to fight back, so they just act shocked and cowed. She also skools the old businessman by telling him that she, a petulant, rebellious, stupid 19 year old girl who is prone to fantasies and unreliability should be given control over his firm's operations in China. Naturally, he agrees.

If I were to put a name to this “style” of storytelling, it would be "feminist revisionist period piece” or, more simply, “delusional feminist porno."

To try to seem clever during this opening, Burton and writer Linda Woolverton make several of the aristocrats mimic classic Alice in Wonderland characters, like the two nearly-twin girls who we are supposed to see as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, or the businessman we are to see as the White Rabbit. Of course, “clever” is a relative term as this trick has been done in virtually every other “child transported to fantasy world” story since The Wizard of Oz, and nothing original is done with it here.

From there, the story takes you nowhere. Alice falls down the hole, where she meets Johnny Depp, playing a schizophrenic cross between Michael Jackson and William Wallace of Braveheart. He looks like a methhead, and his character is ultimately pointless except as plot filler. Alice then learns that her destiny is to kill the Jabberwocky, and through a series of uninteresting plot points, she does. Ho hum. Along the way, she meets the Red Queen, who is bad, and she meets the White Queen, who seems to be doing a mix of pot and acid. There’s not much more to say about the plot.

Burton’s Real Failure

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) has been loved by dozens of generations. What gives the story its staying power is the incredible world created by Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson). And what makes that world so incredible is that Carroll takes reality and turns it on its head by infusing the impossible with the illogical and making that reality. In other words, his world isn’t the real world only containing silly things, like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but it’s an entirely different world with a different set of rules. Thus, rather than being a mere story about strange events, Wonderland is a story about a unique place that tickles the imagination and inspires us to think about the possibilities of this new world.

Disney captured this spirit perfectly in its 1951 cartoon Alice in Wonderland, as Alice explores this world on our behalf and learns about its wonders. Tim Burton, based on his reputation, was expected to run with this concept and make the world even more fantastic or even more strange. He failed.

In the book and the Disney version, the world in which Alice finds herself is a reality. The characters within it accept its rules the same way we accept things like gravity and the way we know the sun to rise in the East. This is what creates the interesting tension, in that Alice finds herself in a world were everyone else knows what’s going on except her. And as she explores she finds that the impossible is not only possible, but common. Burton, however, tosses that structure away. What he presents instead is a world that is exactly like our own, and which plays by the exact same physical and logical rules as our own, only it contains strange looking characters with some odd traits.

That’s a huge difference. In the original and Disney worlds, we are pulled in as we learn the new rules and we love this world because anything is possible. In Burton’s Alice, by comparison, we get nothing of the sort. We already know the rules by which they live, and the only thing left to marvel at are the strangely dressed characters and their few abnormal traits. The difference between these two is like the difference between finding yourself at a tea party in a world with no physical laws versus finding yourself drinking tea at Michael Jackson's house.

Moreover, this gives the actors little to work with, and it shows. In most of Burton’s prior films, the actors could use the new realities of the worlds in which their characters live to find something to inject into the characters to make them interestingly bizarre, yet within the realm of normal for their worlds. Thus, the Joker’s psychopathic showmanship in Batman fit perfectly in his Gotham, though it would fail miserably in our world. Edward Scissorhands’ strange mechanical nature, Ichabod Crane’s terror at discovering a world of magic in Sleepy Hollow, and Pumpkin Jack’s inability to do joy instead of terror in Nightmare Before Christmas all infused these characters with drama, tension and depth. We understood who they were from how they fit in their worlds.

In Alice, there is nothing fantastic about the characters except that they are physically misshapen or strangely dressed. So the actors resorted to trying to seem “fantastic” by doing things like lisping their lines (Carter, Depp) or waving their arms around like idiots (Hathaway) or slinking about (Crispin Glover). But these things just make the characters look uncomfortable and out of place in this world, they don’t give us any sense of who the people are, nor do they make us think they are in some strange world. Instead, it feels like Burton simply shot this at a mental home. Compare that with truly unique characters like Disney’s Mad Hatter or the Caterpillar, who were fixtures of a different reality.

It really is sad. The studio took a guy with tremendous imagination and asked him to dream big, and what he came up with was a formulaic studio film using strangely-dressed characters all pretending to be crazy. Why even bother?

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