Saturday, July 23, 2016

Film Friday: Concussion (2015)

For some time now, a cadre of hard-left journalists looking for a modern Civil Rights cause to claim as their own have been waging a war against the NFL. Joining this cause is the film Concussion. It tanked in theaters, earning only $48 million on its production budget of $57 million, and it did so for a reason: the film sucks, in addition to being pure propaganda.

Rather than outlining the plot, let me start by telling you why this film sucked. Putting aside the issue of it being pure propaganda, this is just not a good film. The film is morose at best – the direct thinks it’s ironically tense. There are no good moments. There are no moments of inspiration and no moments of genuine outrage. There are no exciting moments either; everything was dull. There are no peaks or valleys. The colors are dull. The acting of Will Smith was dull (his wife was full of bullship to claim he didn’t get an award because of racism). The story is dull. Every scene involves people standing or sitting in a room talking until they reach the conclusion you knew was coming all along. The film even deals with a couple suicides and yet presents those in about as dull a manner possible.
What I really want to talk about though is how biased this film was. This film turns you off quickly unless you are a true believer.

The film follows Dr. Bennet Omala (Will Smith), a forensic pathologist with the Allegheny County coroner’s office in Pittsburgh. Omala is a Nigerian American and he was the first to discover chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). This is a medical condition which results in destructive proteins attacking the brain’s tissue after repeated traumatic blows to the head, i.e. concussions.

The film opens showing Omala testifying in court to save a wrongly convicted man from the death sentence. He begins by modestly listing his credentials. This goes on several minutes and is meant to get the audience to believe that (1) Omala is ultra-qualified in and beyond his field and (2) he is humble and should be liked. He then tells us why the convicted man could not have been the killer. His analysis is simple to grasp and demonstrates that Omala thinks about things others ignored and has a gift for seeing obvious things that people with a political interest, e.g. prosecutors, either intentionally or recklessly overlook. We also learn that his primary motivating trait in life is to save people.

In other words, he’s a saint.
Not convinced yet? Ok. In the next scene, a priest asks Omala to take in and look after a young woman who has just come from Africa and needs a home. He agrees, of course. And when he brings her to his home, he even takes her luggage from her so she need not carry it. He is a saint after all.

Still not sure? Ok. His boss at the hospital warns him that he needs to be more willing to go with the crowd and to stop being so gosh darn pure.

By this point, the film has cast Omala as the ultimate unimpeachable source. We’ve seen his noble, humble bearing. Everyone else in the film will slouch. We’ve heard his credentials which are absolutely nothing special, but which are presented as amazing. Of course, we will hear no one else’s credentials, as the film wants you to see him as the only expert. We’ve learned he acts only with the most selfless of motives. With every other character, we are constantly reminded of their economic interest. Even a man in the streets we are told doesn’t want his city’s investment in a football stadium wasted.

Next the film sets up the conflict, and it does so in the most strawman of manners. When Omala discovers CTE, his medical bosses immediately threaten to suspend him and deny him any chance to move forward to confirm his diagnosis. Why? They're scared. Everyone is on the NFL’s payroll and doctors are too terrified to go against the NFL – characters even whisper when discussing things the NFL won’t like. Indeed, we are assured that the NFL is so powerful that it “owns a day of the week.” Its stadiums are the heart of cities like Pittsburgh. To destroy football would bring the wrath of millions of fans. Of course, the fact that CTE wouldn’t destroy football at all is never mentioned. Nor is the fact that the players union is intensely contentious against the NFL and would happily use this against the NFL. In the story, they are beholden to the NFL.

Moreover, the world is dangerously pro-NFL. Everywhere Omala goes, he causally makes some mention of the Steelers only to have average citizens verbally attack him.
Fortunately, Omala is allowed to continue his research by his brave boss who warns him that they better win or the NFL will destroy them. Suddenly, Omala is being followed by cars. He’s being mocked in the press, getting hateful phone calls, and being told to leave America because he’s clearly not one of us. And then the FBI shows up to arrest his brave boss on trumped up charges that Omala lets us know wouldn’t even fly in corrupt Nigeria – never mind that his boss was really arrested on fraud charged three months before Omala goes public with the CTE issue.

They threaten Omala and basically demand that he testify falsely against his boss or he will be charged as well. He refuses and instead agrees to resign and go away. They then threaten to deport him.
At this point, we also learn from an insider that the NFL knows about the CTE issue! Sacre bleu! In fact, they studied it, but their methods get mocked, even though their methods seem more thorough that Omala’s. The evil NFL wants people to die! And once again, the other doctors Omala tries to get to help him tell us how much the NFL provides to communities, so no one will go against it. They’re all complicit!

Here’s the thing. CTE could be real. It makes sense to me and I personally suspect it’s true. But this movie was so obnoxious that it had me wanting to see Omala fail. The film canonizes Omala at every turn. He has no flaws. It feels the need to make him unimpeachable as a professional, beyond biased, noble of heart, and nice to the point of meekness... a longtime indicator of propaganda is when the hero is meek.

At the same time, it not only demonizes those who oppose Omala, but it creates this bizarre world where average people act like they are going to hunt him in the streets if he reveals the dirty secret everyone knows but pretends isn’t real.
Now, again, I don’t doubt that the NFL was resistant to this idea. But the film goes further than that and essentially suggests that the NFL knows about CTE and is covering up by blackmailing every doctor, hospital, expert and politician in the country. This is bullship. It’s the kind of paranoid garbage leftists buy into when they are shocked to discover that people don’t accept their issues.

The film also presents a purely biased point of view. Obvious counter points get excluded. The credentials of competing experts are ignored and their supposed bias gets announced. In a rather dirty moment, they present David Duerson as an NFL hack who mocks the players with CTE until one kills himself, until Duerson kills himself when he too gets it. His family denies that Duerson ever did this.
They also never present contrary evidence. This film draws a connection between CTE and suicide, and dwells on several suicides... which it telescopes as if they all happen at once even though they are years apart. However, the CDC itself examined the health of NFL players. It found that NFL players are 42% less likely to die from cancer, 86% less likely to die from tuberculosis, and 59% less likely to die from suicide. And despite the film showing at least three and maybe more suicides as if they happened within weeks of each other, the CDC found that between 1959 and 1988, only nine former players killed themselves.

I’m not saying that advocacy films need to be unbiased, but there is a point where things go from being advocacy to being glaringly one-sided to being total smears. This film was a smear, and that hurt it tremendously. Having seen it, I am left wondering why this was even a film rather than a documentary. I am left wondering why the film was so shady too about a theory that seems to make sense and appears to be supported by lots of evidence. Are they hiding something?

That’s the problem. This is a propaganda piece for true believers and no one else. No wonder it failed. Thoughts?
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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Toon-a-Rama Tuesday: Wolf Children (2012)

“This is a story about my mother, and it’s true. Every word of it.”

One of the great things about the speculative fiction genre of sci-fi and fantasy is that it allows you to tell stories about everyday life in very exciting ways. At its heart, director Mamoru Hosoda’s 2012 animated movie Wolf Children is the story of a single-mom struggling to raise her 2 children after their father, who is referred to only as the Wolfman, dies. It’s just that here, the two children happen to be werewolves.

What makes Wolf Children especially unique is that it really is a slice-of-life story, about the day-to-day lives of the main characters. That means no over-arching villains. The closest you have to an external threat is the fear of the children’s true nature being found out, but it’s not like there are any government agents looking for them. Instead, the movie is simply about the trials of parenthood and growing up, as seen through the eyes of a rather unique family.

What’s even more amazing is that Wolf Children pulls it off.

The movie is told by the daughter who begins the story with the future mother, Hana, in college where, one day, she sees a mysterious young man in a plain t-shirt and pants. Eventually, they grow close and fall in love, prompting him to reveal his secret to her; he is a werewolf and is the last of his kind. He quickly dispels the stuff about full moons, silver, and the rest as “dusty myths and bad movies.” He simply transforms into a wolf, at will, at any moment, daylight or nighttime.

They soon have a daughter, our narrator, named Yuki, and one year later she becomes pregnant again. Unfortunately, before the boy is born the father dies (in a truly heart-wrenching scene), leaving her to care for Yuki and her soon-to-be-born son, Ame. And, if raising human children on your own is a headache then just imagine raising children who can shift from human to wolf to human to wolf at a moment’s notice.

Hana struggles to raise her two children. In many ways, it’s a fairly normal story of a single mom, only again, her children are “wolf children.” For example, she has to deal with the question of whether to take her children to the Vet or to the hospital and, when the obvious difficulties of raising wolf children in a city become too much, she moves to the Japanese countryside. And that is the first 30 minutes of a roughly 115-minute movie.

From here on out the movie’s focus becomes less Hana’s struggles as a single mom, though it’s still a huge focus, and more about how Ame and Yuki handle growing up. That means you have things like first day of school, making friends or struggling to make friends, and so on. As I said, it’s about their day-to-day lives.

Now, it would be very easy for this movie to become slow or episodic. Instead, the movie is as engrossing as can be. That, I think, is because the movie’s conflict derives largely from two questions: First, obviously, is “Will Hana succeed as a single mom?” Will she manage to raise her kids well and will she end happy, or at least contented, with how the kids turned out?

The second question drives the kids’ storyline and it is one posed to a toddler-aged Yuki early on in the movie: “Would you rather be wolves or people?” Ame and Yuki are growing up with essentially two separate aspects of themselves that must be reconciled, their wolf side and their human side. So, the movie asks, will they live at the end as wolves or people? Or will one choose to live as a wolf and the other as a human?

This means the movie is also a coming-of-age story for the two children and therefore every scene involving the children, at least the ones in the country, raise questions, the answers to which move the two children closer to their respective answers to that big question. How will they do in school? Can they make friends? With whom will they choose to make friends? Will they find a friend or friends who can accept them for who they are? And will they be happy with where they are? This, of course brings us back to Hana because the answers to those questions, especially that last one, will tell Hana whether or not she has succeeded as a single-parent.

These questions are rather moot if you don’t really care enough about the characters. Fortunately, the characters are handled quite well.

The children, Yuki and Ame, in their mannerisms, behavior, and dialogue come across like real children. Further, as younglings they both act exactly as you would expect a toddler/puppy. They cry (or howl) in the middle of the night, run around as if they’d been given IV shots of sugar, and chew on, well, everything in sight. Then, as they grow older and start to come into their own as wolves or people, it does not feel forced. Because their personalities are both well-established by the half-way point (Yuki, being an out-going extrovert, and Ame, a shy introvert) their choices about who and what they want to be flow naturally from the story. It’s hard to think of a moment where I thought, “this is how the director/writer thinks children behave.” Nothing felt artificial.

Then there is Hana, who is probably one of the best movie moms I have ever seen. She gets points for her determination alone. There are movie moms who can dual-wield pistols or who can do karate movies like a martial arts master while others can lift 20 tons as if it weighed a feather, but I doubt many of those could hold a candle to the maternal awesomeness that is Hana. This woman never quits. Without a boast, brag, or complaint she perseveres through all her obstacles to raise her kids the best she can. The movie never feels the need to tell us she is awesome because we know it and we admire her because of it.

And the movie doesn’t shy away from the fact that with the death of Wolfman, she might as well be hopping around on one leg. Even though he dies less than a quarter of the way into the movie his presence, as well as the lack of it, is felt constantly throughout the movie. And from the glimpses we had of him early in the picture, it is clear he would’ve been a fine dad. So, in a way, this movie is not just a coming-of-age drama and a motherhood film, it’s also a love story, too, and a good one.

By the end of the movie we feel whatever Hana is feeling. When she is crying, we are crying. When she is happy, we are happy. We want things to turn out well for her. We want her to have a happy ending. And what more can you ask?

The technical aspects are near flawless. The animation is wonderful. Now, Tristan Gallant, the Youtuber behind the anime review series Glass Reflection, who loved the movie, has pointed out that the animation style is rather rougher than most, saying that “the farther a character is from the camera the less distinction they have to the point where some of the characters don’t even have faces.”

Whether this was due to budget constraints or not I don’t know but if it was, they spent their money well. Because of the characters’ body language as well as their placement in the frame, and everything in the frame itself, not to mention the voice acting and the superb score (more on that in a bit) the movie nearly always managed to convey whatever emotions and information it needed to. In short, when the emotional demands of the story permitted it, rougher animation was used and when the story demanded more, such as the ending or the amazing scene of Yuki and Ame running through the snow, it was as finely detailed as anything out of Studio Ghibli.

The score composed by Takagi Masakatsu is probably one of the best movie soundtracks I’ve heard in a long, long while. There are two requirements for a soundtrack to be great and it hits both of them. The first is that it perfectly complement and enhance whatever is being shown on screen. Tracks like “Nene” have a bouncy, upbeat theme for the scenes of their childhood antics while the more tender, lullaby-like tunes such as “Lullaby in the Peaceful Light” fit Hana's storyline and development perfectly. Also, there are lush, orchestral themes to fit the bigger, more sweeping moments of the movie.

The other requirement is that the score makes for great listening separate from the movie. And here, Wolf Children knocks it out of the park. Much of the soundtrack makes for great listening on a long drive or when I’m just trying to relax. In fact, I’m listening to it while I’m writing this review. I recommend “Maternity Sky,” “Kito Kito - Dance of Your Nature,” “All the Warm Lives,” and “Home After Rain.” “Mother’s Song,” which plays during the end credits, is good too, despite being in Japanese.

Walt Disney once said that “For every smile there should be a tear.” Wolf Children, with a story that is both fantastic and immediately relatable, has plenty of both. By the end you will be crying but you’ll be smiling too. And you’ll walk away with a warm, tender feeling that will last you long after the credits have finished rolling.

Wolf Children is available on DVD and Blu-Ray at LINK.

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Thursday, July 7, 2016

Film Friday: The BFG (2016)

When Steven Spielberg announced he was turning Roald Dahl’s book The BFG into a movie, I suspect a lot of people had the same reaction I did: “huh… I never heard of it.” But kids movies are big business and Spielberg is a talented director and a lot of the people who do know this book currently have kids, so I assumed it would be huge. But it wasn’t. And I know why it wasn't.

The Plot

The BFG is a kids story from the 1980’s. It involves a giant who roams Britain at night blowing dreams into the rooms of little kids. Why he does this isn’t very clear except that he captures dreams and then seems to like dispensing them to some kids because that gives him charm.

One night, this giant is spotted by a little girl who lives in an orphanage. Her name is Sophie, and she’s an insomniac. In a panic, the giant grabs the girl and takes her with him back to giant country. He does this because he’s afraid that humans would hunt the giants if they knew that the giants existed. As an aside, the other giants are all cruel, “cannibals” (they eat humans). The BFG eats rotten vegetables.
After the kidnapping, we learn that the giant is a moron. He makes up words and gets confused – some of the words will be familiar from Willy Wonka. He also no think good, but that’s ok because he’s a comfortable cliché. He’s the simple working man/janitor who dispenses wisdom... earthy wisdom... magic negro wisdom. He also can’t get enough of telling us just how stupid his is.

Anyways, the moron and little girl go through the motions of fearing each other and then become fast friends. We also learn he calls himself The Big Friendly Giant, and likes the way some kid he previously kidnapped shortened that to the BFG. So the girl calls him that and all is well.

But there is a problem. See, even though this giant is nice and cuddly, it turns out that there are other giants who are much bigger and much nastier and they kidnap and eat children. What’s more, the other giants have come to suspect that the moron has a human stashed somewhere.
The BFG realizes that he can’t protect the girl and he decides to return her to the human world. But that won’t work so the girl comes up with a plan to solve their problem. They visit the queen of England and get her to authorize a military strike against the evil giants. She does and the day is saved.


I’m actually a little torn about this film. On the hand, this film is beautifully shot. The effects are fantastic and believable. The acting is good. The story moves along at a good pace. There is little I can fault throughout the film. It’s even quite earnest and without cynicism... something I really do appreciate. So overall, I see where this film should have been a huge success and part of me wants to tell you to go see it.

But story matters and this story just never got interesting.

At no point does this story ever reach any sort of climax, and that makes the film dull. Take the meeting with the giant. Sophie gets taken by the giant. She gets dragged to his cave. In the cave, she hides from him, but he always knows where she is... so there’s no drama. The giant says he will keep her forever. She resists at first, but she’s an orphan with nowhere to go... no drama. Then she decides she wants to stay, though the BFG has done nothing to earn it... no drama. Now the BFG wants to return her, except we already know the bad guys know about her, so he can’t leave her... no drama.
Then Sophie comes up with a plan to go to the queen and convince her to attack the other giants. Before she goes, we meet the queen and see that she’s the nicest, most caring woman on the planet and it would be impossible for her not to help anyone in need. So there is no drama when Sophie makes her sales pitch. Then the queen calls out the military. She gives a command that is so simple that the film's writing is telegraphing that the plan can’t fail. Sure enough, right before the soldiers attack, all but the worst giant get knocked out of the fight with bad dreams. That makes the fight a walkover. And almost the moment the soldiers attack, it's over. No drama.

The key to any good story is to keep the audience unsure of what will happen next. Be it the outcome of a fight or battle, the need for reconciliation between two characters, the roll of a dice or the execution of a plan, the more uncertain the audience is of the success of the character they want to win, the greater the tension and the more the audience will be interested. Yet, at every single turn, The BFG telegraphs how a particular conflict will be resolved basically at the point it is mentioned.
Ernest Hemingway was brilliant in many ways. His two most important skills were his ability to make the complex seem incredibly simple (something imitators don’t understand) and the way he could take a simple point of conflict in a story and torture you by stretching it out. For Whom The Bell Tolls, for example, starts with a man who is about to explode a bridge. It seems like the bridge is going to explode in the next sentence. But it doesn’t. Instead, Hemingway spirals away to tell his story, always using the about-to-be-exploded bridge as a way to tell his story and ratcheting up the tension the whole time. Spielberg in BFG completely misses that. There is nothing that isn't resolved the moment it first gets mentioned and Spielberg spends the film defusing such tension before he even tells you there is tension.

This is why the film comes across as so utterly dull. Imagine being shown a football game, but first being handed a list containing the details of every score. How exciting would that game be? It’s the same thing here.

It’s sad. This was a film with tremendous potential. All the pieces were there, and Spielberg knows how to tell a story. This time, however, he failed... and the blame really does lie with him.
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Monday, July 4, 2016

Why 60's Films Annoy Me

There is such a fraud to movies from the 1960’s. You know the ones I mean... anything starring Dustin Hoffman, films like Midnight Cowboy, The Graduate, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Easy Rider, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, anything connected to Polanski, Capote, Warhol, etc. What fraud, you ask? This...

You know how these films work. The story begins with some normal middle class young man, like Benjamin Braddock. He’s going about his life, being bullied by his father and manipulated by his mother. They don’t care about him, they care about appearances.

This normal young man, however, isn’t sure he wants to fit into this conformist world his parents have built. He believes in art and literature and beauty, unlike the troglodyte society around him. He believes in twue wove, er, true love, not passionless marriages of convenience, like his parents have. He wants freedom to run his own life. And he feels morally superior to his repressed, racist, conformists square parents.

As he meanders through the film, he learns that his parents are messed up. Yep, that’s dad in panties snorting coke off the belly of a male gigolo as mom deep throats the biker gang. How disgusting they are! All these hypocrite conformists are secret perverts!

Then he meets the beautiful, clean, well-educated, smart hippie chick. She's the one who clues him in that he just needs to do something anti-social to find his freedom. The moment he does, of course, the authorities grab him. They will not tolerate a man breaking petty rules! If Nazi-lite society is to succeed, then everyone must follow every rule to the insane letter, regardless of how unjust or stupid the rule is. They put him on trial, where a room full of white, boring, conformist males knowingly refuse to accept the truth and they punish him for being different.

That’s when the movie usually ends.

This is all hypocritical bullsh*t, and that bothers me. Observe.

First, keep in mind that none of these actors/writers are really normal middle class young man. Most came from upper-class NYC families and attended elite schools you never will. Many turned out to be homosexuals or communist fellow travelers. Almost all were drug addicts. So them pretending to be normal middle-class people who've soured on their own world is as fraudulent as if I claimed to be a normal black woman and then I wrote a scathing critique of black mother-daughter relationships.

Next, the 60’s generation claimed to be attacking the white, conservative conformist world of the 1950’s. But the 1950’s was when the Civil Rights Era really began as a white American project. It was a time when vast numbers of people started going to college, left the farms for the cities, left the cities for the suburbs, when Americans began traveling the world, when America became an idealistic world policeman and neutered the British and French colonial empires. A highway system was built to connect every backwater in the country, planes and television connected the world and world culture. It was a time of surreal and abstract art, and the adoption of black music as Rock and Roll by the public. Books were written attacking every institution. Tennessee Williams and a dozen others were already well on their way by the early 1950's to slandering all normal people as crazy perverts in stifling familial or marriage relationships. It was a time of massive upheaval, the shattering of ancient taboos and laws, a massive expansion of personal freedom, and the adoption of a new worldview. The only conformity was massive change everywhere.

Moreover, while this group of 60’s armchair heroes claimed to be inspired by art and literature and beauty, their generation produced very little of it that was worth remembering. The reason was they were happy to shout about their need for "freedom," but they got very lazy when it came time to actually exercising it. And by the time this generation hit the 1980s, they became ultra-conformists.

No doubt, I don’t need to mention the irony that a supposedly Nazi-like society of conformists should sprout a generation of “free thinkers” and support them through their silly childhood tantrums. Not a gulag, a re-education camp, or a column of tanks to put down protesters in sight.

And speaking of loveless marriages, what do these people know of love? The 60’s generation has a divorce rate that is more than double every other generation before and since. So you can look at all that talk about being against the passionless marriages of their parents as just that... talk. Marriage to them was entertainment and their spouses were just rentals.

Speaking of their parents, doesn’t it bother anyone that they attack the “conformist generation” for being secretly kinky –- gays, drug users, perverts -- when this is who they were themselves? Pot calling the kettle black much? What's more, weren't they calling for these things to be accepted? How can you mock someone for doing what you claim should be acceptable?

Finally, we come to the last bit of hypocrisy... the trial. This scene typically involves boring, white, conformist males refusing to see the truth which was so heavy-handedly jammed into audience faces and wanting to bring down the gavel of justice like a sledgehammer. But is that truly reflective of the prior generation? Hardly. The 1950's was the beginning of the era of the over-the-top, insane expansion of criminal rights and the shattering of government regulation of morality and petty crimes. Free speech was broadened to include whatever the hell you wanted, including graffiti, flag burning and anything else. Obscenity was made legal - Playboy was formed in 1953. The regulation of sex was essentially banned in any form.

This was the era where petty criminals were returned to society with a hearty handshake and an apology for being inconvenienced. It got so bad that films like Dirty Harry were written in response and a nationwide campaign began to unseat these judges and undo the damage they had done. It was a time when a single dissenting atheist could destroy decades old Christmas displays, when adultery was legalized, when psychology replaced morality. It was never what gets portrayed in these films.

That's why these films bother me. To put it simply, a bunch of rich-kid drug addicts were pretending to be straight-laced Americans shocked to find "their" values to be so oppressive, while making films attacking a totalitarian America that never existed and smugly demanding changes that were already long-since underway. As their reasons, they cited ideas they never believed themselves and which they would disavow once it no longer suited them.

Hypocrisy is truly ugly.

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