Archive for April, 2013

Django Unchained

April 30, 2013

When Django Unchained came out, I heard many negative things about it, so I decided to wait until it came out on DVD. I now regret waiting so long to see it, for I found it thoroughly entertaining. What one has to understand about this movie is that it is not about slavery, it is about Spaghetti Westerns. Tarantino makes movies about movies. This may be incestuous, but nonetheless Tarantino is very good at it.

Django (Jamie Foxx) is rescued from slavers by a bounty hunter named King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz needs Django to help him identify some wanted men. Schultz eventually takes Django on as his partner. Django persuades Schultz to help him rescue his wife, Hildy (Kerry Washington) from a slave owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DaCaprio), whose plantation is called Candieland.

The first half of the film is mostly a typical Western, but when Django and Schultz approach Candie, the film begins to take on a surreal quality. It is as though Django Unchained wants us to see slavery as something unnatural. The film goes too far however, when we learn that Candie’s shuffling slave housekeeper, Stephen (Samuel L Jackson) is the real brains behind Candieland. A common plot device in genre films is to have the character the audience least suspects turn out to be the real villain, but this struck me as a bit much.

The reviews I read gave me the impression that every other line in this film contains the n-word. I was surprised to find that this is not the case. Yes, the n-word is used, but considering the time and place in which the story takes place, no more so than one would expect. What actually did bother me was the use of the n-word in Pulp Fiction, which struck me as gratuitous.

Some dim-witted liberals have criticized this film because of its violence, making the unproven argument that violent movies and TV programs cause people to be violent. Tarantino has rightly rejected these arguments. Japanese pop culture is filled with images of violence, yet Japan has one of the lowest rates of violent crime in the world. How do these liberals explain this? Violence is the result of material conditions in society.

Django Unchained clearly is not a realistic depiction of slavery, but has Hollywood ever tried to portray it realistically? (Gone with the Wind obviously doesn’t qualify.) There have been a number of films that tried to portray the Nazi concentration camps in a realistic manner. (Pontecorvo’s Kapò is one title that comes immediately to mind.) Yet slavery is apparently considered too painful a topic, perhaps because we are still in many ways living with the consequences of that awful institution.

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Some Thoughts on the Boston Marathon Bombings

April 24, 2013

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Although the police are to be commended for having solved this case so quickly, there are still some things about this episode that a leave one feeling uncomfortable. Such as the unnecessary decision to completely shut down the city of Boston. (Common sense dictated that Dzokhar Tsaraev would likely be found in or near Watertown, and, indeed, he was found hiding in a boat in someone’s backyard in that very city.) Or police officers in military gear searching people’s homes without warrants. Or the government’s refusal to read Tsarnaev his Miranda rights.

The Constitution is really the only thing that holds this fractious country together, yet we increasingly treat it as something disposable, like Kleenex. Mayor Bloomberg of New York recently announced:

    The people who are worried about privacy have a legitimate worry. But we live in a complex word where you’re going to have to have a level of security greater than you did back in the olden days, if you will. And our laws and our interpretation of the Constitution, I think, have to change.

This is coy. Bloomberg has made it clear that he has nothing but contempt for the Constitution, as when he ordered the police to attack Occupy Wall Street protestors, or in his “stop and frisk” policy that targets minority youths. He no doubt drooled as he added:

    We have to understand that in the world going forward, we’re going to have more cameras and that kind of stuff. That’s good in some sense, but it’s different from what we are used to.

We already have lots of cameras in our society. Photos and videos taken by private citizens helped the police to pick out the suspects. Hizzoner is specifically referring to surveillance cameras by the police, likely to be positioned to keep the world safe for Wall Street hedge fund managers.

And then there is the question of the motives of the Tsarnaev brothers. There is a substantial amount of evidence that Tamelan was attracted to radical Islam, but Dzhoubar attended a party at UMass-Dartmouth shortly after the bombings, which is not the sort of behavior that one would expect from a Muslim fundamentalist. I suspect that there is a complicated story here, one which we learn about as more evidence comes to light.

Dzhoubar has been charged with using a “weapon of mass destruction”. It used to be that this term only referred to nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. It now applies to pressure cooker bombs. No doubt it will soon apply to firecrackers. (But not, of course, to assault rifles!)

Conspiracy Trolls Busy at Work

April 17, 2013

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Mike Adams

Hardly had the smoke cleared from the bombs at the Boston Marathon, than our nation’s conspiracy trolls were hard at work, assuring us that this was another “false flag operation”. You see, any time a shooting or bombing happens, it’s a false flag operation by the government. It’s simply impossible for anything to happen in this country without the government being behind it.

Just ask Mike Adams (his friends call him the “Health Ranger”.) He is the editor of NaturalNews.com, which, I’ve been told, gets over 4 million unique hits each month. According to Wikipedia:

    Adams is an AIDS denialist, a 9/11 truther, a birther and endorses conspiracy theories surrounding the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

So, name just about any stupid idea you’ve ever heard, and chances are that Mike Adams believes it’s true. (Yeah, you guessed it, he believes in chemtrails.) For Adams, life is just one long, bad episode of The X-Files.

Not long after the bombings, Adams wrote on his website:

    The official story of the bombing is that terrorists detonated two bombs at the marathon finish line and that the Boston bomb squad magically located a third bomb one mile away, identified the bomb, rigged it with explosives and initiated a “controlled explosion” all in less than an hour! (Absurd.)

No, that is not the official story, and it has never been the official story. Shortly after the bombings, there were news reports about a third explosion occurring at the JFK Library, but it later turned out that this was just a fire in the equipment room. The police did search the library for a bomb, but they never claimed to have found one. So, Adams invents an “official story”, and he then proceeds to punch holes in it. Brilliant.

Adams later tells us:

    …the mainstream media is pushing a new narrative that blames “right-wing extremists” for the bombing, even without a shred of evidence to back that up.

Really? I haven’t noticed. To be fair, Adams probably doesn’t actually pay attention to the mainstream media, since he knows that everything they say is a lie. He also notes:

    It is impossible for a bomb squad to have located, analyzed, rigged and detonated the third bomb in under an hour, especially when it was located one mile away, at the Kennedy Presidential Library.

Which is no doubt why the mainstream media don’t claim that they did any such thing.

Adams then comes to this shocking conclusion:

    Although it’s still a bit early to know for certain, this looks more and more like a planned event that was deployed by the Boston bomb squad, called a “drill,” then used as a pretext for the President to call for TSA agents to be on the streets at all future sporting events.

    And that, in turn, is the run-up to the TSA occupation of America, which has always been the goal of Obama. Remember that back on the campaign trail, he announced he wanted to build a “civilian national security force.”

That’s right! Obama can’t settle for the FBI, the CIA, the ATF, the National Guard, Homeland Security, the Federal Marshals, the Secret Service, and local police departments. No! He must have TSA agents groping us on the streets! Bwahahahahahahahahaha!

I gave in to my morbid curiosity and looked at some of the other posts on Adams’s website. I found one entitled Should you leave the USA before the collapse? Words of wisdom from someone who tried. (I wont’ comment on Adams’s use of capitals.) By “collapse”, Adams means that the US is becoming a police state. (I would argue that the US is already technically a police state, but I will leave that for some other time.) Adams begins by talking about how he has visited other countries and found them wanting in various ways. He then advises people to move to Texas instead:

    Because Texas has its own power grid unlike the rest of the nation. Texas can grow its own food. [Texas has also been known to have severe droughts.] Texas is the energy capital of the nation and can produce natural gas, diesel, oil and even jet fuel. Texas has masses of armed patriots who own more guns than they do pairs of shoes, and that makes Texas practically impenetrable to any invading force. [Does this guy know anything about history?]

    For example, suppose North Korea launches an ICBM into the high atmosphere over North America and unleashes an EMP weapon that destroys nearly all electronics.

    This could theoretically be followed by a naval invasion of forces from Red China [sic] and North Korea, both of which suffer from too many young males that can hardly be fed and might as well be thrown at some enemy nation as cannon fodder.

This could theoretically be followed by Martians landing in New Jersey and killing every human being, so they can then leave their dying planet and colonize Earth.

Life’s a bitch, huh?

The New York Times Beats the Drums of War (Again)

April 14, 2013

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It was irresponsible of the New York Times to publish the op-ed piece by Jeremi Suri titled Bomb North Korea, Before It’s Too Late. Suri argues that the U.S. should take out North Korea’s missiles. He argues that this will not result in a war because:

    The North Korean government would certainly view the American strike as a provocation, but it is unlikely that Mr. Kim would retaliate by attacking South Korea, as many fear. First, the Chinese government would do everything it could to prevent such a reaction. Even if they oppose an American strike, China’s leaders understand that a full-scale war would be far worse. Second, Mr. Kim would see in the American strike a renewed commitment to the defense of South Korea. Any attack on Seoul would be an act of suicide for him, and he knows that.

First of all, it’s not clear how much influence China actually has over North Korea. Second, it’s just as possible that “Mr. Kim” would see the attack as a prelude to a ground invasion. And if it is true that “Mr. Kim” knows that a war with the U.S. is “suicide”, why should we worry about him having missiles?

Suri concedes that North Korea might attack South Korea:

    A war on the Korean Peninsula is unlikely after an American strike, but it is not inconceivable. The North Koreans might continue to escalate, and Mr. Kim might feel obligated to start a war to save face. Under these unfortunate circumstances, the United States and its allies would still be better off fighting a war with North Korea today, when the conflict could still be confined largely to the Korean Peninsula.

It think it worth noting that an estimated two million Koreans were killed in the last Korean war. It’s reasonable to suppose that at least that many would die in another Korean war. This is the price that Juri would be willing to pay to maintain “stability” in the Far East.

Since the U.S. clearly has not exhausted its diplomatic options in Korea, one can only wonder why the Times thought it worth running an article like this.

Crash

April 10, 2013

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I recently learned through the Internet that some people are still seething over the fact that the 2006 Best Picture Oscar went to Crash instead of Brokeback Mountain. (Crash also won for Best Original Screenplay that year.) I missed Crash when it came out, but since I wasn’t all that impressed by Brokeback Mountain, I was curious to know why people though it was better than Crash, so I recently watched the latter film.

Crash is set in current day Los Angeles, and it tells the intertwined stories of a group of characters. These include: a black police detective, a Latina police detective, a racist white cop and his partner, a white district attorney and his wife, a black TV director and his wife, a Mexican locksmith and his daughter, an Iranian shopkeeper and his daughther, an Asian man involved in human trafficking, a black health care worker, and two black carjackers, one of whom spouts black nationalist rhetoric. The racial or ethnic identities of these characters are important, because this film is about the problem of racism.

This film is essentially a series of improbable coincidences that take place over a period of forty-eight hours. To take the most egregious example, the racist white cop and his partner pull over the black TV director and his wife as the latter are driving home. During the stop, the white racist cop sexually molests the wife. The next day, the racist white cop arrives at the scene of an accident. A woman is trapped in an overturned car. The racist white cop goes to rescue her, and – you guessed it – the woman turns out to be the same woman he molested the night before. What makes this scene offensive is that it seems to imply that being a racist and sexist pig doesn’t necessarily make you a bed person.

Coincidences do happen, but when a film presents us with one coincidence after another, it strains credulity. Furthermore, it’s lazy writing. Writers usually only resort to coincidences when they need to find some way to move the story along.

Another problem with this film is ham-handedness. Almost every conversation in it involves race in some way. When, for example, the Latina detective and the black detective have an argument after having had sex, she accuses him of having stereotyped ideas about Hispanics. In the world of Crash, people can’t even have a lovers’ quarrel without prejudice becoming the issue. Yes, racism is a problem in our society, but that doesn’t mean that people talk about it twenty-four hours a day.

There is also a problem of basic honesty. The black detective and the Latina detective are assigned to investigate an incident in which a white cop shot a black cop. The white cop claims that he acted in self-defense. Although it is unclear as to what exactly happened, the white district attorney pressures the black detective into filing a charge of murder against the white cop, because there is an election coming up and the district attorney wants to secure the black vote. Does anyone actually believe that this would happen in real life? District attorneys tend to be protective of the police, and (at least in L.A.) they don’t give a damn about the black vote. This part of the film is clearly inspired by an actual incident in which a white LAPD officer shot and killed a black LAPD officer. The white officer was acquitted of all wrong-doing.

Crash has a 75% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, meaning that most critics liked it. It appears that people overpraised Crash because it deals with the issue of racism, just as people overpraised Brokeback Mountain because it deals with the issue of homophobia. There’s an old saying among artists that “good intentions are not enough”. Someone need to explain this to critics.

Breaker Morant

April 8, 2013

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Breaker Morant is a 1980 Australian film that is a loosely fictionalized account of an actual incident that occurred during the Boer War. Lt. Harry “Breaker” Morant (Edward Woodward), Lt. Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown), and Lt. George Ramsdale Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), who are officers in an elite British army unit called the Bushveldt Carbineers, have been accused of killing captured Boer guerillas, as well as a German missionary. Maj. J.F. Thomas (Jack Thompson), who has no previous legal experience, has been appointed to act as their attorney at the court martial. The film alternates between trail scenes and flashbacks of the events being discussed. Despite his lack of experience, Thomas makes a valiant attempt to defend the men, but it becomes clear that the court is determined to find the men guilty.

Bruce Beresford, the director of Break Morant, once said about it:

    The film never pretended for a moment that they weren’t guilty. It said they are guilty. But what was interesting about it was that it analysed why men in this situation would behave as they had never behaved before in their lives. It’s the pressures that are put to bear on people in war time… Look at all the things that happen in these countries committed by people who appear to be quite normal. That was what I was interested in examining. I always get amazed when people say to me that this is a film about poor Australians who were framed by the Brits.

This film does show that Morant and the others were corrupted by the war. However, Breaker Morant does go out of its way to give the impression that these men were used as scapegoats, and that the British singled them out because they were Australians. (The British officers repeatedly refer to them as “colonials”.) So, it’s perhaps not surprising that some people would interpret it as exonerating these men, even though that’s not what Beresford intended.

Breaker Morant is a good film that has some powerful moments. The scene in which Thomas gives his summing up speech is especially effective. However, as a depiction of the dehumanizing effect of war, it is not as strong as Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket.

I should point out that Breaker Morant takes some liberties with the historical record. It changes some of the details of what happened, and it includes events that never occurred. In one scene, for example, the fort in which Morant and the others are being tried is attacked by the Boers. This never happened. In fact, the trial took place in Pretoria, far from the war zone. One can only assume that Beresford included this because he wanted to direct a battle scene. After he directed Breaker Morant, Beresford went to Hollywood. I suspect he wanted to show Hollywood producers that he could direct a “big picture”.

Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

April 5, 2013

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The word “beloved” is almost never used to describe a critic, but, judging from the comments I’ve been reading about him, the late Roger Ebert seems to be the exception. I think this is because he managed to give the impression that he was basically a decent person, even when he was being waspish. He was willing to admit that he was not infallible (which is unusual for a critic), and he was courteous towards people who disagreed with him.

Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris had far more influence among cineastes, but Ebert reached a much broader audience, because of his shrewd use of first television and then the Internet. When Ebert and Gene Siskel started their Sneak Previews TV show back in the 1970’s, there was much skepticism that people would want to watch a show that was basically two guys talking about movies. (Critics derided them as “the Fat Guy and the Bald Guy”.) Yet the show turned out to be hugely popular, and it was much imitated. Part of the attraction of the show was the sometimes tense relationship between Ebert and Siskel. (I have a suspicion that they may have deliberately played this up a bit. In that respect, it can be argued that Sneak Previews was the first “reality” TV show.) Their “thumbs up/thumbs down” gimmick irritated many of their fellow critics, but Ebert was in his own way an entertainer who knew how to get an audience’s interest.

Over the years, Ebert praised a lot of movies that I didn’t really think were that good, though in that respect he was no worse than most other critics. One thing I will say for Ebert is that he believed that it’s legitimate to criticize a film for moral reasons, which is something I completely agree with.

Paths of Glory

April 3, 2013

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Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film, Paths of Glory is one of the greatest war films ever made. Indeed, I would rank it as second only to Renoir’s Grand Illusion.

Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) is serving in the French Army during World War I. His commanding officer, the ambitious General Mireau (George Macready) orders him to lead his regiment in a suicidal attack on a heavily fortified hill. When Dax shows reluctance to do this, Mireau questions his patriotism. An incensed Dax tells Mireau that he will lead the attack. The next day, Dax leads his men into battle, but an intense artillery barrage forces them back into the trenches. Refusing to admit that the attack was a bad idea, Mireau claims that it failed because the soldiers were cowards. He orders that one soldier be picked from each battalion to be tried for cowardice. Dax, who was a lawyer in civilian life, announces that he will defend the men in court. The trial turns out to be rigged, however, and despite Dax’s best efforts, the men are condemned to death.

This film is filled with powerful images. There is, for example, a long tracking shot of Dax walking through the trenches just before the attack. The soldiers are lined up along the walls, and shells are exploding outside the trenches. We can see from the expression on his face that Dax has convinced himself that he can somehow make this insane plan work through sheer willpower. The scene is a striking depiction of the self-willed bravado that make war possible.

Paths of Glory is about bureaucratic corruption and incompetence. It makes the point that the military system actually rewards cynicism and ambition rather than courage and honor. (One can see this in the Army’s treatment of Bradley Manning.) In a scene between Dax and General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), the latter assumes that Dax has opposed Mireau because he wants the latter’s position. When Dax tells him that he was actually trying to defend his men, Broulard reacts with a mixture of surprise and comtempt.

Paths of Glory is based on a novel by Humphrey Cobb that was inspired by an actual incident in the First World War. This film wasn’t shown in France for many, apparently because members of the French military objected to its portrayal of French army officers. (I guess these guys were a little touchy after their less than stellar performance during World War II.)

A great film.