Category Archive 'Film Reviews'
10 Oct 2015

Concise Film Review

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SteveJobsMovie

08 Apr 2012

Hideous Death By Mass Culture

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The century anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic is right around the corner. James Cameron’s record box office winner “Titanic” (1997) will be returning to the theaters in 3D, and we can expect the networks to be running round-the-clock broadcasts of the regular version.

Lindy West of Gawker sat down and watched the interminable Leonardo DiCaprio tearjerker and offers to spare us having to bother. Her review is devastating and extremely funny.

I don’t remember a lot of specifics about watching Titanic in theaters in 1997, but I was 15 years old, which means my two biggest concerns were 1) locating romance, and 2) not dying in a nautical catastrophe. So I think we can safely assume that I fucking loved that movie. I watched Titanic again on TV with my sister a few years later, making sure to switch it off right before that whole stressful iceberg thingy—a strategy that turns the movie into a pleasant romp about two teenagers who take a perfectly safe boat ride and then bang in a jalopy. The end. Charming! Watching Titanic for a third time this weekend—in advance of Wednesday’s big 3D reopening—I cannot imagine what I was thinking that second time around. I could not wait to get to the second half and watch all these motherfuckers drown.

Here’s the thing about Titanic, and the reason 15-year-old girls love it so much: James Cameron is a 15-year-old girl. All of the characters are either 15-year-old girls in disguise (“Parents just don’t understand!” “Waaah, make the boat go faster!” “I know we literally met 20 minutes ago, but I love you with a suicidal fervor!”), or the kind of goofy caricatures that 15-year-old girls would write if we let 15-year-old girls write our blockbuster screenplays. It’s She’s All That on a Boat, only with Kate Winslet as Freddie Prinze Jr., Leonardo DiCaprio as that girl who isn’t famous anymore, and also everyone freezes to death in the north Atlantic at the end.

Read the whole thing.

Hat tip to Robert Yanal.

17 Nov 2011

“Love, Honor and Behave” (1938)

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Karen and I recently had the opportunity to view on Turner Classic Movies a curious, low budget old movie, “Love, Honor and Behave” (1938), lacking entirely a memorable big name cast, but specifically focused on the subject of Yalie-ness, on the distinctive old-fashioned Yale ethos.

The plot.

The marriage of old-time Yale man Dan Painter (Thomas Mitchell) to the stately and quite attractive Sally Painter (Barbara O’Neil, best known for playing the role of Scarlett O’Hara’s mother in “Gone With the Wind”, one year later, at age 28!) breaks up over a brief indiscretion. Sally remarries Doctor MacConaghey, taking away Dan’s son, Ted Painter (Wayne Morris).

Sally insists on raising Ted, contrary to his father’s wishes, as the paradigmatic good loser. Losing gracefully and graciously is her idea of being a gentleman. She refuses to send Ted to Andover (Dan’s old preparatory school), enrolling him in a different (possibly fictional) preparatory school in New Haven which I’d never heard of, because she believes Andover would make him too manly, too ruthlessly aggressive, and competitive. She won’t even allow Ted to play football like his father, bringing him up instead to be a tennis player.

Ted, at least, is permitted by mom to go to Yale. During his son’s senior year, Dan Painter is horrified as he watches Ted, playing for Yale, deliberately throw a tennis match against a Harvard rival because he believes the referee had previously made an erroneous call in his favor. Dan believes you ought to play by the rules, but you have to play to win. Intentionally losing is decidedly not proper manly behavior, not the Yale way.

The unhappy consequences of Ted’s upbringing by his mother continue even after graduation. Ted does rebel against mom, refusing to go to Medical School (in order to follow in his stepfather’s footsteps), but instead getting into the soap business in New Rochelle with a classmate. Ted also marries his childhood sweetheart Barbara Blake (Priscilla Lane) contrary to mom’s intentions and designs. But mother’s character formation lessons in uncompetitive self-effacement and non-aggression take their inevitable toll. The soap business goes under, and Ted cannot make Barbara happy.

When Ted’s business fails, Dan refuses to give Ted a job in his own business on grounds of principle (Dan is not only a Yalie, he talks exactly like an Ayn Rand character), and Ted is reduced to settling for menial work as a construction laborer for $3 a day.

Having had his problems trying to make a living during the Depression, Ted has been too busy working to entertain Barbara satisfactorily. Since he’s not available to take her out, and too passive to lay down the law, Barbara begins stepping out on Ted with a former rival. Finally, the worm turns, the deep-blue hereditary Yale blood (even without Andover’s influence) boils over, and Ted initiates a knock-down, drag-out fight with Barbara, ending in his giving her a good spanking. He also rises to the occasion and knocks down his rival with a good punch in the nose, and then throws him physically out of the house.

Dan Painter (conveniently on-hand to see the whole thing) is absolutely delighted. He now knows that his son has learned his lesson: that a man has to fight for things in this world, for success in business, even for his woman, just as he needs to be determined to achieve victory in athletic contests. Ted is now a properly competitive Yale man, just like his father.

LHB is certainly not a great film, not even a good film, but it is extremely interesting as a period piece and a case of watermark evidence of national-level recognition of a specific culture and personality associated with Yale way back then.

I was at Yale 30 years later, much had changed in America and at Yale, but I would say that even 30 years later, the “no excuses, just succeed” ethos had definitely survived in a number of undergraduate organizations right up into my day.

By now, Dan Painter’s hearty and unabashed, manly competitiveness must be thickly encrusted with layers of political correctness grown all over it like barnacles but I wonder if the same thing in essence, today unglorified, unacknowledged and unavowed, does not yet still survive at dear old Yale.

16 Sep 2011

Liberal Sublimation Via Remake

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Watch out, liberals! Republicans are coming to get you.

The original Sam Peckinpaugh (1971) “Straw Dogs” was actually a pretty stupid film trafficking in the worst king of pop psychology clichés about sex, masculinity, and violence, but according to the New York Times’ reviewer A.O. Scott, the remake opening today, will be at least an interesting curiosity.

The new director has evidently removed some of poor old, pickled-in-alcohol and obsessed-with-violence, Sam Peckinpaugh’s personal dark obsessions, and has turned the remake into a cheerful tale of civilized Blue State elites turning the tables on violent, gun-and-God obsessed rednecks. Coastal elites may be losing in the political polls, but they can cheer in the movie house when the wimpy liberal takes out the Palin voter with a nail gun.

“Straw Dogs” — Rod Lurie’s odd and interesting remake of Sam Peckinpah’s venerable and violent button pusher — begins with a clash of cultural stereotypes. David Sumner (James Marsden) is a Hollywood screenwriter with an Ivy League education (or at least a Harvard T-shirt and fond memories of the Harvard-Yale game), newly arrived in his wife’s hometown, Blackwater, Miss. He is an effete coastal liberal, the kind of person who orders light beer at the local bar and grill, disdains its celebrated fried pickles and tries to pay with a credit card. He listens to classical music, uses big words like “acutely” and stays in shape by jumping rope. He can’t fix a roof or change a tire.

The local guys, for their parts, swear and fight and love guns, God and football. They listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd, and a few of them look as if they could moonlight as roadies for that shaggy, tragic Southern band. They leer at David’s wife, Amy (Kate Bosworth), and are generally ill-mannered when they are not being ostentatiously and menacingly polite. They work with their hands and aren’t much for book learning. On an especially hot day, one of them says, “This must be that global warmin’ you educated fellers are always goin’ on about.”

The hyperbole is more amusing than offensive. Mr. Lurie, a former film critic whose earlier movies include politically tinged thrillers like “The Contender” and “Nothing but the Truth,” is holding a fun-house mirror up to an America that seems, at the moment, to thrive on polarization and mutual contempt. The reality is more complicated, but something of the corrosive, absurd logic of the culture wars is captured in the interactions between David and the gang of good ol’ boys who become his mortal enemies.

They are led by Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard), a big, blond, handsome ex-jock who dated Amy in high school. He artfully exposes David’s snobbery and also plays on the newcomer’s liberal habits of deference and self-reproach. David may indeed think that he’s better than the residents of Blackwater, as Charlie insinuates, but he also accepts the idea, so central to their sense of identity, that the locals are more authentic than he is, closer to God and the earth and the real America.

So he tries to compromise and adapt to their ways, which only amplifies their contempt. He is someone to be mocked, abused and taken advantage of, but never respected. Finally, after too many indignities and too much bullying, he has no choice but to fight back.

There is an obvious political allegory here, and it’s possible that “Straw Dogs” will find a cult following among frustrated Democrats going into the next electoral cycle. …

The setting and some details have changed — the previous David was a mathematician, writing a scholarly book instead of a screenplay on the Battle of Stalingrad — but the story and the characters are fundamentally the same. …

Mr. Lurie’s movie does not quite succeed on its own, though it is pulpy and brutal and at times grotesquely comical. The story does not cohere, and the performances are uneven. But as a piece of film criticism — as a conversation with, and interpretation of, an earlier film — it is intriguing.

“Straw Dogs” has often been understood as an exposé of David’s hypocrisy, a revelation of the beast that lurks in the heart of even the most civilized and passive modern man. But David’s homicidal frenzy is not really a descent into the primal, macho swamp of vengeance and self-defense where his antagonists have always been content to dwell. He is not defending Amy or punishing her rapists — in neither version does she tell him about the attack — but rather taking up arms in defense of two abstract ideas: the sanctity of private property and the importance of due process.

No wonder the blue-state audience at the screening I attended cheered and hooted as David made ingenious use of a nail gun, a bear trap and two pots of boiling oil to keep his tormentors at bay. I’m kidding, to some extent. The response to righteous movie mayhem is always more visceral than philosophical. But “Straw Dogs” does give you something to think about.

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11 May 2011

Ace Reviews Atlas

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Hank and Dagny

Ace got around to seeing Atlas Shrugged rather late. He has not read the book very recently. And he is obviously not a card-carrying, Colorado-vacationing Randroid (he isn’t even able to remember the name of Midas Mulligan, for instance).

He awards the film only faint praise.

I was pretty nicely surprised. It’s good. Not great. But still — good. It’s actually more subtle than I was expecting; maybe too subtle in one key area (more on this later, as it truly is key). Rand’s book had the subtlety of a cast-iron lightning bolt, so any screen treatment might be expected to be much less didactic than her novel; but they seemed to have gone even further in toning down the heavy didacticism. Oh, it pops up here and there, but it’s not really objectionable.

In fact, to tell the truth, I could have endured a little more of the statement of principle stuff. Because with so much of that stripped away– why are the heroes acting as they do?

Two and a half stars good (which is my way of saying “Good enough to see, but not outstanding;” outstanding is three stars and superlative is four).

But it must have affected him more than he realized, because he goes on and on and on, trying to re-write the movie, re-directing the occasional scene, commenting in detail on the cast, and proposing adding hackneyed Hollywood character background to replace Dagny’s philosophical motivation. Ayn would be not amused.

The rest of us may be. Ace is certainly dead wrong about most of this, but it is clear that he wants more. The film was too short for him, and he wants more visible character development. I think the problem is that the financial situation, and the length of the book, required the film to be made in parts, and the resolution of the main characters’ conflicts, the conversion of Hank Reardon and Dagny, their persuasion to quit fighting a desperate battle to keep their businesses and the economy of the country afloat and to go on strike, occurs much later.

Where I did think Ace was right was in his objection to the film’s failure to make John Galt a mystery. The audience knows right away who John Galt is: he’s that guy in the slouch hat and trench coat we see lurking around everywhere, badly needing a shave. He’s the guy who siddles up to to banker Midas Mulligan (not “Bill McKenna”) early in the film. Ace is right in arguing that a greater effort to preserve the mystery story aspect of the whole thing would have been a better idea.

I don’t agree with him about reducing the ideology or about the desirability of “translating” the book into another medium. Film makers always justify the unconscionable liberties they take with works of literature with the “necessities of the medium” argument, and that’s an argument I’ve never bought. Films may not be able to include every scene or character or plot development in a book. Films do need to emphasize the visual. But the exigencies of translation do not really make Peter Jackson qualified to re-write J.R.R. Tolkien in fundamental ways, for instance.

Also, there are adaptations and adaptations. The 57th version of Jane Eyre may be moved to a contemporary setting in China for all we care. But the first film version of a deeply-loved cult classic, like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter , or Atlas Shrugged needs to be decidedly faithful to the original. Those of us who have strong feelings about the book will be mightily offended by gross alterations, omissions, and distortions.

17 Apr 2011

Atlas Shrugged, Part 1

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Hank and Dagny ride in the engine on the first train run on the newly constructed John Galt Line.

Filming a classic novel with an intense following inevitably presents a formidable challenge. The mind’s eye of every reader has formed its own images of the key characters. Its readers will have read and re-read it again and again, and will remember the plot in intimate detail and will feel ill-used if any key scene, important event, or powerful line of dialogue should be omitted.

For an old-time right-wing Rand aficionado like myself, attending the film version of Atlas Shrugged in 2011 combined the sensation of attending church services on Christmas Eve with dropping by the kind of in-group convention one might attend in one’s capacity as a Science Fiction reader or war gamer, to take part in an event simultaneously providing the powerful and intense gratification of witnessing the cultural apotheosis of a book one deeply loves while also keeping one on the edge of one’s seat in suspense over the quality and accuracy of the re-creation.

Yesterday, we defied torrential rainstorms and drove over 40 miles into (what is referred to out here as) “occupied Virginia,” the New Jersey-like suburbs of the District, to a multiplex theater in Fairfax to see the film version of Atlas Shrugged on its second day.

The first issue, in the case of this kind of film, is inevitably casting. The two key roles in the first portion of Atlas Shrugged are Dagny Taggart and Henry Reardon, and in both cases I think the casting choices were superb.

Ayn Rand would have loved, one imagines, the choice of the blonde, angular, and intense Taylor Schilling for Dagny. Schilling is along the lines of a younger, American version of Kristin Scott-Thomas: beautiful in a decidedly challenging, aristocratic, and intelligent manner. I thought she portrayed Dagny Taggart’s Über-female combination of polished glamour and hoydenish tomboy indifference impeccably.

I have always had personal difficulties with picturing, or empathizing very successfully with, the great businessman Hank Reardon. Grant Bowler’s performance added the perfect note of ironic contempt in his interactions with the numerous villains surrounding him, which made the character work and come alive for me.

Michael Marsden’s James Taggart seemed perhaps a bit too young, and the choice of Iranian Navid Negahban for the nefarious Dr. Robert Stadler seemed peculiar, but in general the character actors playing the Rand villains did a bang up job. Michael Lerner’s Wesley Mouch and Armin Shimerman’s Dr. Potter were particularly fine.

The writer and production team all deserve a gold lighter and a life-time supply of dollar-sign cigarettes for plot accuracy and ideological fidelity. I was mentally comparing how faithful they were to the original here with Peter Jackson & company in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, who felt no diffidence in “improving” on Tolkien with a less upright and chivalrous Faramir, a crude and slobbering Denethor, an extra near-death experience for Aragorn, and so on.

Working on an extremely limited independent production budget (rumored to have been as little as $7 million, the kind of money it takes to make a television documentary), Paul Johansson did a remarkable job. Hostile mainstream media critics were quick to notice, and snark over, the absence of James Cameron-level production values and a big name cast; but, let’s face it, there is an awfully big difference in what you can do with $200 million in 1997 and what you do with $7 million in 2010. I’d say that Johansson and company turned in results that were downright miraculous considering the limitations of their budget.

Ayn Rand directly challenged the established consensus of values of modern society, and struck at the heart of the ruling political ideologies of her time and ours. Naturally, the media establishment has always treated her work with hostility. 2011 has not been very different from 1957 in that respect.

Roger Ebert has not read the book, and obviously wouldn’t like if if he did.

I am faced with this movie, the most anticlimactic non-event since Geraldo Rivera broke into Al Capone’s vault. I suspect only someone very familiar with Rand’s 1957 novel could understand the film at all, and I doubt they will be happy with it. For the rest of us, it involves a series of business meetings in luxurious retro leather-and-brass board rooms and offices, and restaurants and bedrooms that look borrowed from a hotel no doubt known as the Robber Baron Arms.

During these meetings, everybody drinks. More wine is poured and sipped in this film than at a convention of oenophiliacs. There are conversations in English after which I sometimes found myself asking, “What did they just say?” The dialogue seems to have been ripped throbbing with passion from the pages of Investors’ Business Daily. Much of the excitement centers on the tensile strength of steel.

Maureen Dowd trashed the film for not having A-list stars, without even bothering to pretend to have seen it.

Tea Party groups are helping to market part one of a low-budget film version of “Atlas Shrugged,” with no stars and none of the campy panache of the Gary Cooper-Patricia Neal movie of “The Fountainhead.” “Atlas Shrugged” aptly opened on Tax Day, getting a rave from Sean Hannity, who said it wouldn’t have been released “had Hollywood liberals gotten their way,” and a dismissive shrug from most critics, even conservatives.

Personally, I would take Taylor Schilling over Angelina Jolie for Dagny any day. Brad Pitt ought to see if he can’t talk to the producers about trying out for the role of Ragnar Danneskjöld in Part 3.

Meanwhile, on Rotten Tomatoes, polling is currently running 85% to 10% in favor, an extremely positive rating.

Anthony Kaufman, in the Wall Street Journal, spoke to Executive Producer Harmon Kaslow, who thinks that the opinion of MSM critics will not prevent the film from making its own way.

Despite the dreadful weather, the new-fangled stadium theater was nearly full, and the audience applauded vigorously at the film’s close.

We expected that the critics would have a fear of embracing this film,” says Kaslow. “We knew that there was a substantial likelihood that they would not view the film as to whether we got the message right, but would look at it comparing it to what Hollywood would have done. I don’t think our audience is persuaded at all by those reviews.”

“It’s somewhat analogous to the family-based film market,” he continues. “Most family based films are not subject to review, because they know that that audience is all about the message. And if the message is right, they’ll give you a hall pass if the production values weren’t as high. And if we get criticized for the dialogue, most of it has been taken right out of the book. So, in a sense, they’re criticizing the literary nature of the work.”

Reason has a celebratory opening day article and link collection.

07 Mar 2010

Sunday, March 7, 2010

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Cyber vigilantism punishes kitten killing, adultery, and a variety of other things in China these days.

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Essex cockerel and hens victorious when fox invades their coop.

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The LA Times finds that Italians have better political scandals.

Reporting from Rome — The governor made off to a monastery after having affairs with transsexuals, but not before the cops videotaped a tryst, all flesh and white powder, and offered to sell copies to a magazine owned by the prime minister, who, at the time, was rumored to be entangled with an underage Neapolitan model.

Then one of the transsexuals, a Brazilian named Brenda, turned up naked and dead, her laptop computer submerged under a running tap. Oh, yeah, and the drug dealer who supplied cocaine to the governor and Brenda would meet his own demise. It’s an odd coincidence.

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Glenn Reynolds explains why the federal government has come to resemble Schlitz beer.

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Leo Grin, at Big Hollywood has a four part essay on Werner Herzog, Timothy Treadwell, and “Grizzly Man” (2005). Pt1, Pt2, Pt3, Pt4.

Big Hollywood is promising more in-depth reviews of significant conservative films.

Multiple hat tips to Karen L. Myers.

08 Oct 2009

Antichrist (2009)

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Sometimes a review panning a film can be fun to read. C. Robert Cargill turns in an exceptionally amusing review of Lars von Trier’s new movie Antichrist, which actually contains both savage mockery and high praise.

Widely panned at Cannes by some, praised by others, and completely spoiled in the press, especially on the Drudge Report in which its final scenes were spoiled in headlines splashed across the front page (can’t find Drudge’s posting, but here’s a nice spoiler. – JDZ) It is not a nice film. It is dark, brooding, melancholy, and more than a little mean-spirited. Loaded from top to bottom with nudity, sexuality, and even a slow-motion shot that will itself ensure that this gets the dreaded NC-17 rating (as well it should for the level of adult content in this), it is at times a bit distracting. There’s so much nudity in this thing that I almost feel as if it should be renamed Lars Von Trier’s I Hate Pants! There are even a few scenes in which the characters lack pants for no good reason. But then again, there’s a lot of things in this that some would argue are here for no good reason. It is violent, bloody, and disturbingly sexual for a goodly portion of the film. Not in small doses. The majority of the film aims to offend you in one manner or another.

Read the whole thing.

Happily for me, I already know that I loathe and despise Lars Trier (who is no kind of “von” whatsoever, the “von” he uses is just a joking cinematic reference to von Stroheim and von Sternberg, who both, for very different reasons, appropriated the preposition characteristic of names of Teutonic armigers) and all his works. Trier is a representative of the worst sort of European communist sensibility. Take an airsickness bag if you plan to see this one.

11 Dec 2008

“Klaatu Barada Nikto” To You, Too

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Clara Moskowitz describes how Hollywood updates message Sci Fi cinema. In the end, audiences will find that Keanu Reeves is no Michael Rennie.

If aliens ever visit Earth, they’ll be coming to reprimand us for bad behavior.

That’s the premise of the 1951 classic sci-fi film “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” as well as the brand-new Fox remake of the same name, in theaters Friday. In the intervening 50 years, humanity hasn’t gotten any better, the filmmakers seem to conclude — we’ve just switched to new transgressions.

In the mid 20th century our most pressing concern about ourselves was the threat of humans annihilating each other with nuclear weapons. The original film follows Klaatu, a human-looking alien who comes to Earth with his bodyguard robot Gort, to warn people to cease and desist with the nukes before we contaminate the rest of the Galaxy with them.

The new version of the film focuses on a more contemporary preoccupation: the threat of climate change and environmental degradation. The new Klaatu, played by Keanu Reeves, couldn’t care less if we blew ourselves to bits, but would we mind not taking out the rest of the species on Earth, as well as our rare habitable planet, with us? ..

..It falls to astrobiologist Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) and her stepson Jacob (Jayden Smith, son of Will Smith) to convince Klaatu that humans aren’t beyond redemption, that we really can change our gas-guzzling, trash-dumping ways.

“In re-imagining this picture, we had an opportunity to capture a real kind of angst that people are living with today, a very present concern that the way we are living may have disastrous consequences for the planet,” (deep-thinker Keanu) Reeves said. “I feel like this movie is responding to those anxieties. It’s holding a mirror up to our relationship with nature and asking us to look at our impact on the planet, for the survival of our species and others.”

In a sign of its own commitment to change, Fox designated “The Day the Earth Stood Still”as its first “green” production. Though some trees were doubtless harmed in the making of this film, the studio endeavored to produce the picture with the smallest possible environmental impact. That meant less paper printing of photo stills for the art department, the use of recyclable materials and biodegradable products to create sets and props, and lumber from sustainably-managed forests.

The studio even enforced an “idle-free mandate,” whereby any member of the crew sitting in a production vehicle for more than three minutes had to cut the engine rather than idle while waiting.

In another grand gesture, Fox plans to transmit the entire film into space on Friday via dish antenna through the Orlando, Fla.-based Deep Space Communications Network firm. In what the studio is calling “the world’s first galactic motion picture release,” the movie will be broadcast in the direction of the closest star system, Alpha Centauri, where eager aliens waiting with popcorn could view it by 2012, when the signal arrives.

Some might suggest that physically transmitting the complete set of distribution prints into deep space would be even better.

0:21 video

30 Jul 2008

Yes, Batman is George W. Bush, Says Melbourne Herald-Sun

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Andrew Bolt, in the Melbourne Herald-Sun, agrees with Andrew Klavan: Batman is George W. Bush.

Ironically, Hollywood has found a way to smash box office records which it is not going to like: well-executed action movies with conservative themes. Pity that John Wayne is gone.

Finally Hollywood makes a film that says President George W Bush was right.

But director Christopher Nolan had to disguise it a little, so journalists wouldn’t freak and the film’s more fashionable stars wouldn’t walk.

So he hides Bush in a cape. He even sticks a mask on him, with pointy ears for some reason.

Sure, when the terrified citizens of Gotham City scream for Bush to come save them, Nolan has them shine a great W in the night sky, but he blurs it so it looks more like a bird.

Or a bat, perhaps.

And he has them call their hero not Mr Bush, of course, or even “Mr President”, but . . . Batman.

And what do you know.

Bush may be one of the most despised presidents in American history, but this movie of his struggle is now smashing all box-office records.

Critics weep, audiences swoon – and suddenly the world sees Bush’s agonising dilemma and sympathises with what it had been taught so long to despise.

Well, “taught” isn’t actually the exact word.

As this superb Batman retelling, The Dark Knight, makes clear, its subject is a weakness that runs instinctively through us – to hate a hero who, in saving us, exposes our fears, prods our weaknesses, calls from us more than we want to give, or can.

And how we resent a hero who must shake our world in order to save it, or brings alive that maxim of George Orwell that so implicates us in our preening piety: “Good people sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”

27 Jul 2008

Batman’s Secret Identity Revealed in WSJ

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Novelist Andrew Klavan dispels the rumors long swirling about eccentric billionaire Bruce Wayne, and explains that Batman is really none other than George W. Bush.

There seems to me no question that the Batman film “The Dark Knight,” currently breaking every box office record in history ($311+ million in 10 days), is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war. Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand. Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past.

And like W, Batman understands that there is no moral equivalence between a free society — in which people sometimes make the wrong choices — and a criminal sect bent on destruction. The former must be cherished even in its moments of folly; the latter must be hounded to the gates of Hell.

“The Dark Knight,” then, is a conservative movie about the war on terror. And like another such film, last year’s “300,” “The Dark Knight” is making a fortune depicting the values and necessities that the Bush administration cannot seem to articulate for beans.

Conversely, time after time, left-wing films about the war on terror — films like “In The Valley of Elah,” “Rendition” and “Redacted” — which preach moral equivalence and advocate surrender, that disrespect the military and their mission, that seem unable to distinguish the difference between America and Islamo-fascism, have bombed more spectacularly than Operation Shock and Awe.

Why is it then that left-wingers feel free to make their films direct and realistic, whereas Hollywood conservatives have to put on a mask in order to speak what they know to be the truth? Why is it, indeed, that the conservative values that power our defense — values like morality, faith, self-sacrifice and the nobility of fighting for the right — only appear in fantasy or comic-inspired films like “300,” “Lord of the Rings,” “Narnia,” “Spiderman 3” and now “The Dark Knight”?

The moment filmmakers take on the problem of Islamic terrorism in realistic films, suddenly those values vanish. The good guys become indistinguishable from the bad guys, and we end up denigrating the very heroes who defend us. Why should this be?

The answers to these questions seem to me to be embedded in the story of “The Dark Knight” itself: Doing what’s right is hard, and speaking the truth is dangerous. Many have been abhorred for it, some killed, one crucified.

Leftists frequently complain that right-wing morality is simplistic. Morality is relative, they say; nuanced, complex. They’re wrong, of course, even on their own terms.

Left and right, all Americans know that freedom is better than slavery, that love is better than hate, kindness better than cruelty, tolerance better than bigotry. We don’t always know how we know these things, and yet mysteriously we know them nonetheless.

The true complexity arises when we must defend these values in a world that does not universally embrace them — when we reach the place where we must be intolerant in order to defend tolerance, or unkind in order to defend kindness, or hateful in order to defend what we love.

When heroes arise who take those difficult duties on themselves, it is tempting for the rest of us to turn our backs on them, to vilify them in order to protect our own appearance of righteousness. We prosecute and execrate the violent soldier or the cruel interrogator in order to parade ourselves as paragons of the peaceful values they preserve. As Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon says of the hated and hunted Batman, “He has to run away — because we have to chase him.”

Alfred the Butler (Michael Caine) explains that it’s impossible to deal rationally with some villains like a Burmese war lord he encountered in his British army days, who simply threw away his loot, and returned to his hideout in a vast and impenetrable forest after a sanguinary raid.

Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. Some just want to watch the world burn.

“What did you do?” asks Batman. “We burned down the entire forest.” Alfred replies.

05 Jul 2008

Wanted (2008)

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Anthony Lane, in the New Yorker, does a fine job of explicating the semiotics of Timur Bekmambetov’s (Khazakstan’s contribution to world cinema) first Hollywood production.

Anybody who sits through “Wanted,” Bekmambetov’s new movie, will be tempted to wonder if the life style of the characters might not reflect or rub off on that of the director. How, for example, does he make a cup of coffee? My best guess, based on the evidence of the film, is that he tosses a handful of beans toward the ceiling, shoots them individually into a fine powder, leaves it hanging in the air, runs downstairs, breaks open a fire hydrant with his head, carefully directs the jet of water through the window of his apartment, sets fire to the building, then stands patiently with his mug amid the blazing ruins to collect the precious percolated drops. Don’t even think about a cappuccino. …

Ms. Jolie is, I am pleased to report, in splendid form. Watch her as she runs along the top of a speeding train and, approaching a tunnel, lies back like a sunbather and lets the roof of it swoosh over her, basking in the satisfaction of a near-miss and, by extension, in the world’s unflagging worship of her cool.

29 Nov 2007

Beowulf Meets the 21st-Century Guilt Trip

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Stephen T. Asma provides an agreeably erudite assessment of the new Robert Zemeckis film Beowulf in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Beowulf seems to join the ranks of other recent films that champion pre-Christian masculine virtues. History-based blockbuster hits like Zach Snyder and Frank Miller’s film 300 (about the battle of Thermopylae) or HBO’s series Rome, are unapologetic celebrations of macho competence. The popularity of these pseudohistorical films took many media pundits by surprise, but the audiences who felt the testosterone buzz from the hero stories (myself included) were not surprised in the least. And the experience is not just the visceral Freudian holiday of aggression that one finds in inferior action and slasher pictures. Rather, there is a distinct sympathy for honor culture in these films — brute strength, tribal loyalty, and stoic courage actually get things done.

Academe finds all this loathsome and backward, and, of course, our liberal culture is ostensibly opposed to the social hierarchies, patriarchy, and chauvinism of older honor cultures. But narratives and representations about heroic strength (even flawed and misdirected) remain deeply satisfying for many people. …

the Zemeckis film has found a way to have its cake and eat it too. At one level, our reptilian brain gets to thoroughly enjoy the triumphant ass-kicking of a take-charge hero, but up in our neocortex we pay our penance for this thrill by morally condemning the protagonist — scolding Beowulf and ourselves for the momentary power trip.

Beowulf might survive Grendel. But in going up against the 21st-century guilt trip, he may have met his match.

One observation: Asma does notes that:

The film cleverly ties Beowulf’s final monster fight to the earlier episodes with Grendel and his mother (something the original fails to do). By transforming Grendel’s mother into a femme fatale seductress, they’ve found a way simultaneously to further demonstrate Beowulf’s flaws, give the female lead more dimensionality (albeit uncharitably), and connect the denouement to the earlier story.

But Asma fails to observe that Christian and medieval myth elements have been, in the film, skillfully interwoven to fill out the original poem’s plot. Grendel’s mother has been made into an aquatic faery, a treacherous and seductive Melusine, bent upon tricking the mortal hero into a degrading intercourse productive of his own flawed offspring and Nemesis. The human hero is thus forced, in the end, to fight against (and inevitably to be destroyed by) his own sin.

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Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

28 Sep 2007

Liberals Fantasize of Violence

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Kyle Smith in the Wall Street Journal discusses the recent Jodie Foster remake of Death Wish (1974).

What has come over liberals? Suddenly they’ve turned bloodthirsty. And they’re not just lobbing “Daily Show” coffee mugs or brandishing the rusty business end of their DEAN 2004 campaign pins. Liberals are locked, loaded and licensed to kill–at the movies.

The new Jodie Foster film, “The Brave One,” is the latest in a string of left-wing Bush-era movies about violence. These films–which range from popcorn flicks (the “X-Men” series, “The Hills Have Eyes 2”) to more ambitious works and Oscar nominees (“A History of Violence,” “V for Vendetta,” “Munich,” “Blood Diamond”)–so deeply entangle killing with liberal idealism, though, that at times their scripts are as muddled as EEOC directives or U.N. rules of engagement. For all of the critical acclaim that attended most of these films, few are as effective as “Dirty Harry” or “Death Wish.”

In “The Brave One,” for instance, possibly the first vigilante movie to feature a Sarah McLachlan soundtrack, a New York radio personality (Jodie Foster) specializes in monologues about the sounds of the city. She speaks with a maximum of NPR narcoleptic condescension, chewing each syllable of her airy drivel (“Are we going to have to construct an imaginary city to house our memories?”) as if reading to a toddler out of “My First Book of Cultural Anthropology.” Strangely, however, she is not the bad guy.

After her fiancé (apparently a Briton of Indian descent) gets killed when both of them are jumped by vicious white youths, Ms. Foster’s character spends weeks in a coma. One of her first remarks when she wakes up is directed at some white cops: “You’re the good guys. How come it doesn’t feel like that?” Shattered, she helps regain her poise with the aid of a black cop (Terrence Howard) and a saintly black woman friend. Meanwhile, in addition to the murderous gang of white kids, another villain emerges: a white businessman who owns parking garages.

This is more a checklist than a plausible plot, particularly when Ms. Foster’s character goes on a “Death Wish”-style rampage that requires the New York of 2007 to be portrayed as a place where you’re liable to witness a shooting every time you walk into a deli for a pack of gum. Nevertheless, she takes action, sometimes in self-defense but also by launching a pre-emptive, non-U.N.-sanctioned war against big-city thuggery. Behind her she leaves a trail of surprised-looking corpses, the audience cheering each one.

How can this be, since liberals renounce violence, even when directed against antlered pests or convicted serial killers, and greeted Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s crackdown on crime with, at best, sullen silence? The movie lets its heroine off the hook by implying that victim status has left her without control of herself, a notion she articulates with more NPR-speak (“inside you there is a stranger, one that has your arms, your legs, your eyes–a sleepless, restless stranger”).

This paper’s movie critic, Joe Morgenstern, derided that element as “modern-day Jekyll and Hydeism,” but it dovetails with two favorite liberal habits: to follow the psychological chain of causation behind a crime so far back that responsibility disappears in a blurry landscape of greater evil, and to maintain a fig-leaf of deniability for lawless actions.

Read the whole thing.

The film’s star, Jodie Foster, editorializes with the same profundity characteristic of many members of her profession:

Entertainment Weekly: What do you think is the larger social commentary of The Brave One, which in some ways plays as a straight-up Dirty Harry revenge movie?

Here’s my commentary: I don’t believe that any gun should be in the hand of a thinking, feeling, breathing human being. Americans are by nature filled with rage-slash-fear. And guns are a huge part of our culture. I know I’m crazy because I’m only supposed to say that in Europe. But violence corrupts absolutely. By the end of this, her transformation is complete. ”F— all of you, now I’m just going to kill people with my bare hands.”

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