Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Defending Temple of Doom

by ScottDS

Few films stir up more conversation on this blog than Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Steven Spielberg’s 1984 sequel (prequel, actually) to Raiders of the Lost Ark. I love the first three Indiana Jones films equally and while Raiders is rightfully accepted as a masterpiece, Temple of Doom does nothing but divide. It’s either an action-packed piece of pulpy fun... or an annoying mess of a movie – Spielberg and George Lucas doing nothing more than indulging themselves at the expense of the audience (and, at times, their stomachs).

I don’t think Temple of Doom is better than Raiders but it isn’t nearly as bad as its detractors suggest. It accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, mainly serve as a delightful throwback to the two-reel serial adventures of old. It’s still more fun and more action-packed than most summer blockbuster movies made today. Having grown up watching these films on television, it never once occurred to me that this film was inferior. The central Macguffin may not be as relevant or meaningful as that of the first film (Sankara stones vs. the Ark of the Covenant) but does it really matter? After all, it’s only a plot device. Did anyone watching North by Northwest care about the secret microfilm? If Indiana Jones – played once again by Harrison Ford who’s game for anything – is interested, then we’re interested, and since the exposition is handled relatively well (i.e. not boring or confusing), then we know all we need to know and we’re not confused an hour into the film.

This brings me to sidekicks. Short Round never bothered me. In the pantheon of kid sidekicks, he is far from annoying and, unlike so many unnecessary supporting characters, he doesn’t just pop up out of nowhere (like Jar Jar Binks). Using history as a template, it’s established that Indy befriended Short Round after the kid’s parents were killed when the Japanese bombed Shanghai. The relationship between the two is rather endearing and “Shorty” gets a few good lines of dialogue as well.

And then there’s Miss Willie Scott. I know what you’re thinking… she does nothing but scream her way through the film. But that’s exactly what a sheltered showbiz dame like that would do in those situations. (It’s a miracle Kate Capshaw married Steven Spielberg after the arthropod hell he put her through!) I suppose when people watch this film, they can’t help but compare her to the strong, feisty Marion Ravenwood from the first film. Willie is your classic damsel in distress and her rocky relationship with Indy results in a fun seduction scene that is equal parts romance and screwball comedy. Besides, it works both ways: people who like her don’t have a problem and people who hate her get to see her put in uncomfortable situations!

As for villains, while Indy and Belloq had an interesting working relationship, Mola Ram, high priest of the Thuggee cult, is just a badass! He was played by an imposing Indian actor, the late Amrish Puri, and just oozes villainy without being campy. Subtle? Not at all. But he’s no 60s-era Batman villain either, speechifying with cheesy catchphrases. His sheer physical presence makes up for the lack of a previous “relationship” with Indy and the basic idea of the Thuggee cult is horrifying enough without any mustache twirling. He’s certainly more memorable than Walter Donovan, the Nazi villain from The Last Crusade, and Agent Spalco from Crystal Skull. Roy Chiao appears to be having a blast as the Chinese gangster Lao Che in the opening of the film and Roshan Seth plays the bespectacled Chattar Lal, sneering Prime Minister of Pankot Palace and Thuggee acolyte.

As for the film itself, it’s beautiful to look at and to listen to. The cinematography by Douglas Slocombe B.S.C. is lush, vibrant, and he and Spielberg knew how to take advantage of the widescreen 2.35:1 frame. Interestingly, Mr. Slocombe never used a light meter – he would simply judge the amount of light based on the shadow his thumb cast over the rest of his hand. Unlike many summer blockbuster films made today, the action is easy to follow, geography and spatial relationships are properly established, and the film is bathed in more than two colors. (Seriously, did you ever notice most action films today are a mix of blue and orange?)

Ben Burtt’s sound effects give the film a creepy ambience (as if the insects didn’t do that already) and the music score is one of John Williams’ masterpieces. He reuses his famous Raiders march from the first film and develops a love theme, a theme for Short Round, a march for the slave children, and he even reprises the Raiders “sword trick” music for a gag in which Indy reaches for his gun to dispatch two sword-wielding bad guys... and finds his holster empty. Even Cole Porter gets in on the fun with an opening musical number featuring Willie performing “Anything Goes” in Mandarin. I have no idea what audiences were thinking at the time but I applaud the filmmakers for doing something different. Imagine if The Bourne Supremacy began with Jason Bourne attending a performance of Cats!

The Oscar-winning visual effects by ILM are top-notch. Miniatures, stop-motion, matte paintings on glass – they simply don’t make movies like this anymore. I’m not a member of the “CGI sucks!!” brigade – computers are just a tool – but the limitations of real-world objects and the photochemical process meant filmmakers more often than not had to improvise. For instance, a modified 35mm Nikon still camera was used to film the mine car miniatures. Speaking of mine cars, the last twenty minutes of this film are non-stop action: the fight in the temple, the aforementioned mine car chase, the waterfall, the rope bridge, the death of Mola Ram, and the arrival of the British riflemen... it simply never ends and it takes real talent to sustain that kind of excitement over an extended period of time without overwhelming the audience. Unlike most of the Star Wars films, we’re not constantly cutting from one battle to another and unlike the other Indy films, it’s less stop-and-start and more “This goes to 11!” Now that I think of it, the opening 20 minutes are a rollicking ride, too: an old-fashioned music number, a melee in the club (in which Indy accidentally punches a cigarette girl!), a car chase on the streets of Shanghai, a plane crash, and an inflatable boat ride down the slopes of the Himalayas and a raging river, all scored with wall-to-wall John Williams music.

In conclusion, this film has plenty to offer. It may not be fair to compare it to its predecessor or action movies of today but it does pass one very important test: if it comes on TV, I don’t change the channel!

“Kali Ma!”

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Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Great (film) Debates vol. 16

Bond. . . James Bond. There have been many James Bonds, but some would say there was only ever one. But we don't accept half answers here, so tell us:

Rank the James Bond actors from best to worst.

Panelist: ScottDS

Connery, Brosnan, Craig, Moore, Dalton, Lazenby. I want to be clear that I like them all. Connery is the man - no doubt about that. My first theatrical Bond experience was GoldenEye in 1995 when I was 12 so I guess it’s only natural that I would rank Brosnan higher than other people might. In my opinion, his problem was that each film got worse and worse - I still think GoldenEye is his best but I admit nostalgia might be playing a part here. I enjoy the hell out of Craig (who cares if he’s blonde?!) but he’s batting .500 right now. I like Moore but The Man with the Golden Gun is my least favorite Bond film and I think he stayed on for one film too many. The one actor whose Bond films I enjoy in toto (probably because he only did two) is Dalton. Yes, I like Licence to Kill even though it’s more Joel Silver than James Bond. For a first-time actor, Lazenby wasn’t too bad. Unfortunately, he didn’t want to do any more Bond films so we’ll never know how good he could’ve been.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Connery, Nivan, Dalton, Craig, Lazenby, Brosnan, Moore.

Panelist: T-Rav

1. Sean Connery -- because he’s Sean Connery.
2. Daniel Craig -- No, really. I know some people were mad because he was the first blue-eyed Bond or something, but I thought he pulled it off well.
3. Pierce Brosnan -- Didn’t care for him that much, but he was effective.
4. Roger Moore -- because I could never take him seriously as Bond.

I don’t know about the other two guys who took the role (Timothy Dalton and someone), but they only had it for like one movie so I can’t imagine they were good.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

Connery comes first, hands down. He had it all. He was suave, handsome, charming and yet brutal. Surprisingly, my second choice is Craig. Craig has shown a real ability to shift between charming and brutal and projects an "I don't care what anyone thinks, I will get the job done my way" attitude which really fits Bond perfectly. I have to admit, I've even come around on his second film on re-watching. Then we hit a cliff. Brosnan was handsome and suave, but never tough enough. Lazenby was plastic, but was saved by his excellent Bond-Girl Diana Rigg. Then comes Roger Moore. He's the first Bond I saw and I thought he was great... but over time, he's come to seem prissy, snippy, uncomfortable and more suited to comic relief than the lead. Why is he wearing old-lady glasses? Finally, we come to angry, classless Timmy Dalton. His scripts were garbage. I honestly have a hard time seeing them as Bond films.

Who's your favorite?

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Friday, November 18, 2011

TV Review: Hell On Wheels (2011-????)

I hate predicting how a series will turn out after only two episodes. But only two episodes into AMC’s new show Hell on Wheels, I’m having serious problems with the show and I think it’s only going to get worse because the problems lie within the writer’s liberal worldview and dishonest motives.

Hell on Wheels is the story of Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), an ex-confederate soldier seeking revenge for the killing of his wife. He takes a job working for Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney), who is building the transcontinental railroad through Nebraska in 1865. Bohannon takes this job because the man he wants to kill works for the railroad as a foreman. Bohannon gets the job and then goes to kill the foreman. But the foreman throws him for a loop when he mentions another murderer Bohannon knows nothing about. But just as the foreman is about to reveal the man’s identity, the foreman is killed by Elam Ferguson (racist rapper turned actor Common). Hilarity ensues.

My problems with Hell on Wheels actually started from the first word. For weeks before the show premiered, AMC ran ads implying this would be more than just a Western. Specifically, they used a line of dialog which implied something supernatural was taking place. But in the opening twenty seconds, we discover that "line" was in reality two separate lines spliced together to create a misleading impression. Rather than referencing some supernatural force they unleashed, the character was only whining about how evil he and the rest of the Union Army were in the Civil War. Boo fricken hoo.

And it doesn’t stop there. Soon we get blasted by characters whining about how evilly the South treated Union prisoners of war. . . how evilly the Union treated the South’s soldiers. . . how evilly the Southerners treated the slaves. . . how evilly whitey treated the Indians. . . how evilly the Irish were treated. . . how evilly whitey treated the Chinese. . . how evilly corporate America treated its workers. . . etc. etc. etc. Every racial, ethnic, religious, political or economic grievance you can conjure up about the era gets crammed into the first two episodes. That’s whiny liberalism at its worst.

Even worse, the characters accept the modern liberal worldview. Hence, they all lament how evil they are and almost every scene involves characters whining about some group-based grievance. And even worse, standard liberal hypocrisies apply. Thus, they are all hopelessly conflicted and dearly apologetic about all the evils done by their own people and they reject evils like racism and violence. . . unless you're black or an Indian, then it’s hunky dory. This is ridiculous. This show seems to be written from the worst end of the racial identity politics regime. If we swapped the characters’ races, you’d swear this was written by the Klan.

And it doesn't stop there. Our hero Bohannon is a cliché, being a cold-blooded killer in the tradition of Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns. But he's also noble because he freed his own slaves before the war because he knew slavery was wrong. Really? This is ex post facto liberal false courage masturbatory disease. This is all those liberals who tell you proudly how THEY would have stood up to Hitler if THEY’d lived in Germany, or THEY would have led the Civil Rights Movement, or THEY would have ended slavery, or THEY would have been the first to [fill in the blank]. . . when the reality is they are abject cowards with a complete blindspot for the intersection of personal responsibility and morality. The Bohannon character is an attempt by liberal writers to feel morally superior by criticizing a long gone era using modern sensibilities knowing that they risk nothing by being so "brave."

The villain, Thomas Durant, is the ultimate liberal boogeyman, by the way. Not only is he entirely corrupt, as we’re told all businessmen apparently were at that time, but he’s murderous, gratuitously racist, he beats his underlings and needlessly humiliates people he bribes. He openly bribes and threatens Senators, tells the press his evil plans because he knows they would never go against him, and he laughs maniacally at all of his own evil doings. He actually sees himself as evil and revels in it. Indeed, Colm Meaney plays Durant so rottenly that Ebenezer Scrooge would cry foul.

But even beyond the politics, this story is full of inexplicable actions and plot conveniences. Why does Bohannon bother joining the railroad when he could have just rode up and shot his nemesis? Why stick around after the murder except to get caught -- he wasn’t told until later that Elam knows who the other killer might be. Why would Durant not hang Bohannon (he framed him for the foreman’s murder) just because Bohannon says he knows how to handle blacks? And what are the chances Elam would kill the foreman just as he was about to spill the beans, and then actually know the foreman’s secret when the foreman clearly never confided in blacks and when Elam wouldn’t even have any way to connect the dots? Or are we to believe the foreman liked to brag about the same murder that supposedly haunted him?

Almost every moment in this show feels manufactured. It is manufactured in the sense that the characters’ actions make no sense, they espouse beliefs that are anachronistic and inconsistent, and each scene feels set up just to let them espouse those beliefs. The actions binding the character together are nonsense and the characters themselves are laughably cardboard and seem drawn to act as liberal archetypes.

Even beyond that, there are problems. Is the show fast paced? Sure. But the acting is weak and the accents are horrid. The costumes are good, except Common looks too clean and modern to be a railroad worker from 1865. . . he looks more like a model. Does the plot twist and turn? Sure. But it’s not surprising.

But in the end, the real problem is that I keep feeling in scene after scene that I’m being fed propaganda. I keep being told revisionist history. I keep seeing extreme liberal boogeymen and I can’t help but see a sad liberal writer proudly telling himself, "that would have been me!" Yeah, sure. This show is dishonest and that’s the problem.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Guest Review: The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

A Film Review by Tennessee Jed

Few would deny the Coen brothers are among the most acclaimed film makers of their generation. Yet much of their work has not resonated quite as loudly at the box office as with the critics. Some claim the brothers dwell too often on negative or depressing themes. That could certainly be argued for one of their more obscure films, The Man Who Wasn’t There. Perhaps so, but it is probably my favorite Coen Brothers film for a variety of reasons which I’ll discuss below.

Format - The idea for this film germinated from a poster used in the film The Hudsucker Proxy which depicts various styles of haircuts from the 1940ʼs. As the brothers developed their idea, they settled on a film noir, black comedy set in the late 40ʼs. The Coens freely credit as their inspiration the gritty style of writer James M. Cain (Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice.) As such, they chose to use black and white, and the conventional, straightforward filming techniques of the time. Along with thorough attention to realistic props, there is no question the movie accurately reflects the look of the period. Interestingly, cinematographer Roger Deakins points out he actually shot the movie on modern color stock, then modified it to black and white, claiming that gave the film a more smooth and lush texture (non-grainy) than could otherwise have been possible.

Themes - As with other works by the Coen brothers, this film implicitly explores the philosophies of both Soren Kierkegaard (Existentialism) and Albert Camus (Absurdism.) The latter is actually an outgrowth of the former and is grounded in the notion that it is impossible for man to make sense or order out of his life in a world that is fundamentally chaotic in nature. In fact, at the time of its release, several critics pointed out the numerous thematic similarities between this film and some of the works of Camus.
*** slight spoiler alert ***
Plot - This is a superb classic film noir story about a very ordinary man named Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) a barber in Santa Rosa, California in the late 40ʼs. The character serves as the film’s narrator, and is instinctively recognizable as the quiet unassuming man everyone has known at one time or another who blends into the background to the point he is virtually invisible (as intimated by the title.) Crane is second chair in a barber shop owned by his brother-in-law, Frank (Michael Badulucco of L.A. Law.) Ed is settled into what could best be described as a stale marriage to Frank’s sister Doris (Frances McDormand.)

Doris works as an accountant at Nirdlingerʼs, a local family owned department store and drinks too much. Her boss, “Big Dave” Brewster (James Gandolfini) owes his own career to his marriage to Ann, the daughter of the store’s owner. Ed feels certain Doris is having an affair with “Big Dave” (“all the signs were there”) but true to his character, he appears outwardly to not particularly care all that much.

One day, Ed is cutting the hair of a stranger in town named Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito.) Tolliver is looking for a silent financial partner in a new, potentially commercially viable process known as dry cleaning. Intrigued, but without the means to invest the required $10,000, Ed hits upon a scheme to anonymously blackmail “Big Dave” regarding his affair with Doris. Big Dave even confides in Ed that he is being blackmailed for $10,000 for an affair he is having with a married woman (not mentioning it is Doris, of course), asking him what he should do. Ed naturally advises Big Dave to pay, then secretly collects the money from the drop, and signs the paperwork for his partnership with Tolliver who is in the process of heading out of town.

However, as so often happens in well-crafted film noir, the web of deceit woven by Ed Crane becomes tangled and quickly spins out of control as a complex set of events conspire to create unanticipated consequences not revealed in this review.

Acting - Headlined by a masterful performance from Thornton (in which he puts on a clinic for the term “underacting,”) the strength of acting is uniformly top rate throughout the cast. In addition to Thornton’s role and an equally strong performance by Gandolfini, some of the “usual suspects” found in Coen brothersʼ films make their presence known as well. Frances McDormand (Joel Coenʼs wife) is her usual brilliant self playing Doris to perfection. I have had the pleasure of meeting Jon Polito numerous times before his career started (while he was at Villanova University sharing an apartment in Bryn Mawr with a high school buddy of mine.) Polito, who regularly collaborates with the Coen brothers, is one of the best character actors in the business. When people look him up and see his picture, everybody goes “Oh Yeah . . . him . . . sure!”

There are also several smaller roles with effective performances by a young Scarlett Johansson as Birdy Abundas, a teenaged neighbor and potentially talented piano student, as well as Tony Shaloub (Monk) as hot shot attorney Freddy Riedenschneider. I would be remiss, though, without mentioning a funny and fine performance by Richard Jenkins as Birdyʼs father Walter Abundas.

Direction - Joel Coen shared best director award at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival with David Lynch for Mulholland Drive. Both equally deserved the award. When you look at each scene carefully, it is hard to argue with most of the choices made by the director, although the occasional allusions to extra terrestrials and flying saucers were mostly lost on me. Still, the look, feel, and pacing of the film are all superb and credit must be given where it is due.

Summary - Much of the award nominations went to the cinematography, and I agree the techniques used to simulate a 40ʼs era film noir were superb. But really, this film works well on a lot of different levels. It is well plotted and scripted with plenty of black humor throughout, all expertly handled by the actors. The music soundtrack consisting mainly of Beethoven piano sonatas is, perhaps, unexpectedly effective given the genre. There is almost nothing I would change, but admit that Edʼs seeming indifference at the end to his ultimate fate might seem a tad unrealistic even from an absurdist point of view. Neverthless, it is a film I would highly recommend and remains my personal Coen Brothers favorite.

What are your thoughts about this film, and do you have a favorite Coen film?

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Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Great (film) Debates vol. 15

These days we have a lot of celebrities, and we know way too much about their pointless lives. But history is full of great people with great deeds. Some of them deserve a little screen time.

If you could see a miniseries made about someone’s life, who would it be?

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Queen Elizabeth the Second. I think she is the ultimate classy person and queen. Definitely leave in the scene where she is given an ipod of Obama’s speeches.

Panelist: T-Rav

Pope John Paul II. I think there’s already been one or two made-for-TV movies about him, but he had such a full life, it really deserves a more extended look. Plus, he had a more important role in defeating Communism than a lot of people realize, and that aspect of his achievements--and his spiritual way of looking at the world in general--needs more attention.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

This one is tougher than it seems because there are so many. I'd love to see a series on Napoleon. . . the inventor of the modern state and the man who started what should really be considered the first world war. Shakespeare fascinates me too -- he wrote that thing. . . or didn't. But right now, I'd go with J. Edgar Hoover (sans the smear job). He is one of the most important men when it comes to shaping the modern federal government and I'd be fascinated to see that story.

Panelist: ScottDS

Teddy freaking Roosevelt! If HBO doesn’t want it, then give it to Showtime or ReelzChannel. Bring in Edmund Morris (author of an excellent three-part biography) as a consultant and John Milius (TR fan and director of TNT’s Rough Riders movie) as a producer and possibly director as well. Some subtle CGI can bring turn of the century New York City and D.C. to life.

Comments? Thoughts? Who would you choose and why?

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Friday, November 11, 2011

Politics of Trek: “Patterns of Force”

If you haven’t seen the original Star Trek series, you should. Not only is it deeply woven into our culture, but it hits a high-water mark in terms of science fiction addressing social issues without beating you over the head with the message. Moreover, whether they realized it or not, it’s a fundamentally conservative/libertarian show. So today I want to start a new series pointing out some of the most conservative Star Trek episodes from the original series. . . as compared to the ultra-liberal Star Trek: The Next Generation. Let’s start with Episode 50: Patterns of Force.
The Plot
This is “the Nazi episode.” The crew of the Enterprise is called to Ekos to investigate the disappearance of Federation historian John Gill. Gill, one of Kirk’s professors at Starfleet Academy, went to Ekos to observe their culture. As the Enterprise nears Ekos, they are shocked when a nuclear missile is fired at them. Beaming down in secret, they discover that the Ekosians have replicated Nazi Germany, right down to the uniforms, and the Ekosians are planning to exterminate their peaceful planetary neighbors, the Zeons. What's worse, John Gill has made himself the Führer!

Eventually, Kirk and Spock find a way to get to Gill. When they reach him, they discover he’s been drugged into a stupor and is little more than a literal figurehead. Deputy Führer Melakon is the real power.
Why It’s Conservative
On its surface, you might think a story about Nazis is left wing. After all, Hollywood wants you to believe the Nazis were a right wing phenomenon equivalent to Libertarianism/ Conservatism. This is laughable, as the national socialist Nazis were everything the left claims to love. Yet, many people still ignorantly accept the idea the Nazis were rightists rather than leftists because that’s what they’ve been taught by leftist teachers. So it shouldn’t surprise if a show about Nazis was meant as an attack on conservatives.

But “Patterns of Force” isn’t actually an anti-Nazi story. Rather, it’s a warning against the idea of the “benign” totalitarian government. To see this, we need only look at the episode’s payoff scene where Kirk questions Gill after McCoy counteracts the drugs given to Gill. Kirk angrily demands to know why Gill violated the Prime Directive (non-interference in alien worlds). Gill answers that the Ekosians were a divided people and Gill thought he could unify them using the Nazi model. Kirk then asks why Gill picked the Nazis, who were cruel and murderous. Gill (with an assist from Spock) explains that the Nazis, while ruthless, were highly efficient and highly organized. Gill believed he could recreate the good parts of Nazi Germany without the bad parts by being a benign dictator. Here's the transcript:
KIRK: Gill. Gill, why did you abandon your mission? Why did you interfere with this culture?
GILL: Planet fragmented. Divided. Took lesson from Earth history.
KIRK: But why Nazi Germany? You studied history. You knew what the Nazis were.
GILL: Most efficient state Earth ever knew.
SPOCK: Quite true, Captain. That tiny country, beaten, bankrupt, defeated, rose in a few years to stand only one step away from global domination.
KIRK: But it was brutal, perverted, had to be destroyed at a terrible cost. Why that example?
SPOCK: Perhaps Gill felt that such a state, run benignly, could accomplish its efficiency without sadism.
KIRK: Why, Gill? Why?
GILL: Worked. At first it worked. Then Melakon began take over. Used the. Gave me the drug.
This is not a liberal message. To the contrary, it is a fundamentally conservative message.

Liberals desire powerful government. They believe that even totalitarian regimes can be good so long as they are run benignly. Indeed, you’ll often hear liberals suggest that we should suspend things like rule of law and free elections or give the state tremendous power so it can achieve some supposedly noble goal that can’t be achieved the legal way.

Conservatives, on the other hand, know you cannot give power to one person without taking away freedom from another, and they understand that what sounds like benign power to some is tyranny to others. They also understand that when too much power is given, tyranny will always follow. That’s the point of Lord Acton’s most famous quote: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

This difference in belief is the core or fundamental difference between conservative and liberal thinking.

And while it is true that many liberal stories involve people fighting against oppressive governments, it is important to note that they rarely (if ever) criticize the concentration of power. Instead, they merely attack those who would misuse the power, i.e. those who would use the power for purposes of which the liberals don’t approve -- this is why oppressive governments in liberal stories are always police states, military dictatorships or theocracies. And in many cases, the resolution of the story involves the replacement of the evil government with a benign council of experts or bleeding hearts who will then use that power “to help people.”

“Patterns of Force” rejects this as faulty logic. It warns that you cannot have a benign dictator. It warns the problem is the concentration of power itself because the misuse of that power is inevitable. And no matter what the intentions may be for the creation of the state, the very concentration of that much power will attract someone who will misuse the power for evil.

And that makes this a fundamentally conservative message.

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Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Great (film) Debates vol. 14

Classic Hollywood produced some wonderful actresses. They had style, grace, and they could act.

Who is your favorite classic Hollywood actress and what was her best role?

Panelist: ScottDS

Miss Barbara Stanwyck, and I would say her best role is a toss-up between Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity and Jean Harrington in The Lady Eve. In fact, when people ask me who my celebrity crush is, I mention a few modern day actresses and I top it off with "Barbara Stanwyck circa 1941 when she did The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire." A friend of mine thinks she resembles a girl I had a crush on in film school but the jury is still out on that one. "There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour."

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Joanne Woodward (of course) in Long Hot Summer. Hepburn is the obvious choice, but you did say favorite!! I liked Long Hot Summer over 3 Faces of Eve even though the latter won her an Oscar. The rationale for that is probably as a native Georgian, she was a natural in LHS.

Panelist: T-Rav

Judy Garland. Obviously, The Wizard of Oz would be the high point of her career; it's hard now for me to imagine Dorothy being played by anyone else but her. She had several good movies after that, of course, like Meet Me in St. Louis (on my mind right now for obvious reasons), and through the '40s and '50s she probably had a better set of pipes than anyone else in Hollywood, in my opinion. I wonder what more she might have done, if not for her sad descent and premature death.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

I was tempted to say Rosalind Russell because she was a fantastic actress and I've liked her in everything I've seen her in. But for favorite, I just can't get away from Lauren Bacall. Her performance in To Have And Have Not is one of my all-time favorites and she was solid in every film after that -- even as late as the 1970s, when she starred in Murder On The Orient Express. There isn't a character she couldn't play.

Comments? Thoughts? Who would you choose and why?

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Friday, November 4, 2011

TV Review: Boardwalk Empire (2010-????)

HBO has another hit on its hands: Boardwalk Empire. It’s a really good drama with a lot to love. It does have flaws, but they’re easy to overlook -- except they do hold the series back from being truly addictive. Interestingly, most people compare this to Sopranos, but it’s actually very different in some key ways, and I think that’s where the flaws lie.
The Story
Created by Terrence Winter, who wrote 25 episodes of The Sopranos. Boardwalk Empire is an hour-long series on HBO centered around historical crime kingpin Enoch “Nucky” Johnson (renamed “Thompson” for the series). Nucky (Steve Buscemi) is the boss of Atlantic City when Prohibition becomes the law of the land. He controls the local government. He controls the police. And now he control the liquor industry in the city.

As of the middle of season two, the story has been primarily about the struggle between Nucky and a group led by “the Commodore” (Dabney Coleman), who are fighting to wrestle control of Atlantic City from Nucky. Meanwhile, Nucky is fending off outside gangsters including a young Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Arnold Rothstein and more, while dodging Federal Prohibition Agents led by religious extremist Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon). Interestingly, neither Lucky nor the Commodore’s group had resorted to violence until recently, so this isn’t a traditional mob story.

Where Empire Fails
I’m enjoying Empire a lot, but I do have some criticisms. For one thing, there are too many characters. There are 16 characters listed in the cast and another 13 listed as recurring characters, with more coming all the time. In and of itself, a large number of characters isn’t a problem, but Empire tries to touch upon each of these characters at least once per episode. That means too much is tossed at you in any one episode and it’s typically treated too shallowly because there just isn’t enough time to go into depth with that much competing for screen time. Also, some of these subplots add little to the story. Often, minor characters get lengthy contemplative scenes, such as disfigured WWI sniper Harrow spending five minutes getting his picture painted and later spending another ten minutes contemplating suicide. But these add nothing to the plot and the characters are too minor for us to care about their inner thoughts.

At the same time, this many-short-scenes approach leaves us with too little insight in Nucky himself. This is where the Sopranos comparison comes in. It’s clear that Empire is structured like Sopranos. But there are key differences and it’s those key differences that keep Empire from being as addictive as Sopranos. For one thing, you liked Tony Soprano. You couldn’t help but like him. He was a bumbler who wasn’t well-equipped to handle the problems he encountered. He desperately wanted to be the good guy but he didn’t know how. His decisions, while made from his heart, always came across as dictatorial and stupid and blew up in his face time and again. But you liked him because you knew how hard he struggled to be good, even when he ordered the murder of close friends.

Nucky is not Tony. Like Tony, Nucky has serious flaws which blind him to what is going on around him and his decision-making process is flawed. But unlike Tony, Nucky is cocky, arrogant and competent. Tony’s failures came from not knowing how to act, Nucky’s failures come from being a jerk. That makes him hard to like.

Also, whereas the Sopranos was really the story of how Tony dealt with his family, Empire all but ignores this part of Nucky. Yes, we see his home life in each episode, but he never leaves the office, so to speak. Indeed, the only times we see him at home is when he rushes home to explain what he’s doing before he rushes off to another meeting. Moreover, even though Nucky is in most scenes, we are never privy to his thoughts. So we never really get a chance to know Nucky the person.

To me, these are significant flaws which keep the story from reaching its potential. Nucky is too hard to like. Thus, it’s hard to care about what happens to him. There are too many subplots and characters to give us the chance to care about anyone else either. Also, the plot itself is pretty obvious and the surprises are not surprising. At the same time, too much remains vague and goes unexplained.
Where Empire Succeeds
With all that being said, I am really enjoying this show very much. The sets and costumes are great. The acting is stellar. The story is solid and unpredictable enough scene-to-scene to keep your interest. The characters are interesting, if not likable, and there’s a real sense the story is building to something much more interesting with each passing episode. The writing is fantastic too. Each line is beautifully written and the show is packed with great lines, yet these lines never feel forced. Also, the characters are all unique and deep. This isn’t simply Goodfellas or The Godfather or The Untouchables transferred to the 1920s.

Finally, the story is historically smart. Most shows like this give you one or two cliché moments to let you know they looked up the era on Wikipedia, e.g. they introduce a famous boxer from the period. This show goes way beyond that. You meet famous entertainers, sports figures and politicians, some of whom get wrapped into the plot. Historical events like Prohibition, World War I, and the influx of the Irish are constantly in the background. Even day to day life is portrayed accurately. Indeed, every scene is deeply ensconced in things that make you believe this is really the 1920s.

All in all, I highly recommend Boardwalk Empire. It might take a couple episodes to get you interested, but when it does, it’s well worth the time.

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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Myth of Foreign Films

I am calling bull on the idea of “foreign” films. For decades, we’ve been told that foreign films offer “something different.” They are deeper and more thoughtful. They aren’t structured for quick commercial sale like everything coming out of Hollywood. They are supposed to offer us a glimpse into an entirely different way of seeing the world, a glimpse you just can’t get from Hollywood. Uh.... no.

I’ve seen a vast number of foreign films. And yet, it’s the truly rare foreign film that offers something unexpected. Yes, they are often slower and typically much more talky and they don’t look quite like our films, but they function in the exact same ways Hollywood films do. Specifically, they establish their heroes using the same tricks. They designate their villains in the same way. Their conflicts aren’t anything you haven’t seen in American films. And their resolutions follow the standard format we all learned in high school English. Good luck finding a story that starts with the climax, or which has no climax.

Sometimes, you find something culturally interesting. For example, the substitution of a noodle cook off for a gun fight in Tampopo, which is really a remake of the Spaghetti Westerns, which were themselves remakes of Kurosawa’s work. Or the high premium placed on honor in the wuxia style fantasy/kung fu films from China. But these aren’t foreign concepts, they just aren’t so much in vogue right now in Hollywood.

Indian musicals are unpleasant unique, I’ll give them that. But only because their singing style is different. Other than that, they aren’t much different from 1950s musicals. Hong Kong films are direct rip offs of American action films. The Japanese are excellent filmmakers, and occasionally offer something unique, but still rarely venture far from the American formulas. German films are full of angst, but little originality and, frankly, I don’t even see much culture in them. And French films are the most Hollywood out there, unless you count British films as foreign.

Ran is King Lear. High and Lo is Ransom!. Stalingrad is Platoon. Strictly Ballroom is the classic ugly duckling story. Etc.

At one point, I decided to see what the world had to say about romance or love. So I rounded up a bunch of foreign films on the topic. I was hoping to see something distinctly non-Hollywood. I didn’t. There were some glimpses, but each film still fell pretty firmly within the formula. Interestingly, the best foreign romance film I saw wasn’t even a romance, it was Hero (2002), a Jet Li wuxia martial arts film based around a tragic love story.

Where I have had some success has been in the odd-ball films. Diva was an odd French film which presented a strangely likable stalker. Hero, as I said, had a great love story. The heroine in the Korean My Sassy Girl was interesting because she’s so hard to describe. She’s both self-destructive and sadistic, but not in the sexual way Hollywood interprets the term. . . there’s no easy way to describe her, which makes her rather unique. Shall We Dance was great because it had all these aspects of Japanese culture in them -- the remake was typical Hollywood stereotypes. Run Lola Run was neat because of its pounding pace and writing trickery. And Kurosawa’s Ikuru, though quite old, was easily the best film I’ve ever seen about the problems of bureaucracy and how people stand in the way of good deeds.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many good foreign films (and many more stinkers), but I’ve come to the conclusion that few really offer what foreign films supposedly offer -- a glimpse into a strange world with a very different set of rules than our own. Ultimately, I guess that’s a good thing because it means humans have a common culture. That means we should all one day be able to work together. But in the meantime, it kind of sucks the life out of the foreign film experience.

So give me some help here. Tell me some foreign films you’ve seen that really struck you as unusual, deeply explicative of culture, or just really good.

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