Atlas Giggled

So we went to see this film Atlas Shrugged, Part 1. You may have heard of it. It’s based on a book or something.

Can you tell this is going to be impossible for me to write without snark?

Let me get this out of the way: The Boy liked this movie. He said, “At first it was too much qq and not enough pew-pew,” which I gather means something like “it started slowly, evoking concern in the viewer that it would never get off the ground, but when it finally got moving, it was interesting.”

I always like to get The Boy’s opinion first so mine doesn’t influence him. In this case, I really had to bite my tongue. I’ve heard a lot about the book, and of course, you can’t ever believe what you hear, because this movie has a MESSAGE, and it’s a message book-reviewing commies have never liked. So they trash the book. And the movie could expect (and received) similar treatment.

Still, two words: Hot mess.

Wait, one word: Rifftrax.

Or two words: Cinematic Titanic.

Or a portmanteau: Fanfic.

I had this feeling when I was watching this movie that I was reading fan fiction. I realize it’s an original story but the protagonist, Dagny Taggert, comes off as a Mary Sue. Seriously, you know who’s good and who’s bad based on how they feel about Dagny. And her dialog is stilted, to say the least, especially in the opening scenes.

It actually gets worse when Henry Rearden shows up, with his super-steel that’s poised to save Dagny’s railroad. This culminates in the most awkward sex scene since Watchmen.

I’m not inclined to blame the actors here. The dialog is awful. I mean, let’s say I was trying to make a point about hating coffee, and wrote a dialogue where character A says “Yeah, it all went to hell when people started liking coffee!” and character B responds with “Why are people so crazy about coffee these days?” (Don’t hurt me, Darcysport! It’s just an example! Coffee is wonderful!)

Point is, Taylor Schilling and Grant Bowler (Taggert and Rearden respectively) aren’t looking good here. Some of the supporting actors do okay, I think largely because they have fewer actual words to speak. Patrick Fischler as Taggert’s assistant does well, and the great Michael Lerner manages to power through as the villainous Wesley Mouch, while Armin Shimerman is compelling as the weaselly state scientist.

The frustrating thing is, there is a good story here and there are so many echoes with modern life. Basically, Dagny is trying to save her family railroad from the mismanagement of her brother, while Taggert has invented a new steel that can quadruple the load capacity for high speed transport. Dagny and Henry are constantly being flanked by their competitors who prefer to go to the government rather than compete fairly.

And all the while good, competent men are vanishing, leaving behind only the mysterious phrase “Who is John Galt?”

And the movie does get better when the train stuff starts. So, what holds this movie back?

  • Dialog, as noted.
  • Characterization. Dagny and Henry are off-putting. I assume this is according to the tenets of Objectivism. They not only are against altruism, they seem to have no comprehension of it. Besides ringing false, the two of them come off as almost Asperger’s. 
  • Worldview. There seems to be the view not just that the big players are titans, but also that everyone else utterly depends on them. I don’t doubt there are titans in the world, but if the last 15 years have shown us anything, it’s that the economy is powered best by lots and lots of little players. Which brings us to…
  • Archaicness. Railroads? Steel? Really? Good lord, the government’s machinations are so unConstitutional that—well, they look a lot like a health care mandate, only not quite as bad as that—and yet the whole focus on rails and steel and ore comes off as a little silly. 
  • Music. I’m not sure I blame the composer, but the music actually competes with the dialog for clunkiness, the way it’s used to create emotion that really doesn’t seem to be there. (Fun fact: Composer Elia Cmiral scored After Dark Horror Fest flicks Tooth and Nail and The Deaths of Ian Stone.)
Elia Cmiral also scored Battlefield Earth, which this movie reminds me of. It, too, was made over the course of many years, and it, too, was a hot mess worthy of Rifftrax. 
Ace of Spades was planning to do a review of this film, and chided his readers for not seeing it when it first came out, arguing that if conservatives want conservative movies, they need to support conservative movies.
This isn’t a conservative movie, though. It’s a movie about the perils of unlimited government and populism which, while I can get behind that and push with both hands, actually undermines its own case by making its leads be amoral.
I mean, I can’t swear Dagny’s had an abortion, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
It seems to me that the stronger argument for limited government is that people do the right thing when left alone by the government, not people are as shallow as you think but that’s no excuse for limiting freedom. I agree with the latter point, but it makes a crappy movie.
That said, the left-wing attacks on it that take it on from a philosophical POV have been largely absurd. The enemy in this film is the collusion of government with business. In no way are businesses in general the good guys here, just a few good guys fighting the world. 
I’ll go see part 2 if they make it, but I can’t really recommend it, except as a curiosity. It was really hard for me to sit through, actually, and I laughed out loud inappropriately at several points.
But I’m used to being the only guy laughing and, as I said, the Boy liked it.

UPDATE: Ace of Spades’ review here.

Frost & Nixon & Ted & Alice

Over the years, I’ve had to re-look at most of what I know about right-wing politicians because the stories I got were growing up (from school and the media) were so one-sided, that I just learned to qualify any of that atmospheric “everyone knows” stuff with the question, “Well, how does everyone know this?”

Even so, Tricky Dick was still in my book as a slippery, sleazy guy. Not so much for Watergate, which strikes me as a relatively trivial offense on the scale of Presidential crimes. (Criminally stupid, I’ll grant.) But for his rather ruthless use of various agencies to harass and punish his enemies.

Plus, he was a conservative when conservative meant “for massively expanding governmental powers, but okay with Jesus and anti-hippie.” The EPA, price-controls, kind of like W, only without W’s remarkable honesty.

I’m sure it’s not what Ron “Gee, I Hope I Get To Vote For Someone As Great As Obama Someday” Howard had in mind, but Frost/Nixon made me think that I’ve maybe been too harsh on the guy. I sort of feel like this movie was targeted at the Boomers who hated Nixon with every fiber of their being (like Matt Groening, who brought back Nixon’s head 25 years later in Futurama), and so that we’re assumed to identify with the “journalists” who join Frost in an effort to get the disgraced President.

But since I’m not one of those guys, I sat there going: “Ah. So the whole point of the interviews–for everyone but Frost–was to wring a confession of guilt out of the Nixon. Anything less meant failure and disgrace for eveyrone involved in the project.”

Let me back up a bit and say, this is a movie chock full of great acting. I’ve heard some criticisms of Frank Langella’s Nixon, but I think those views come from people who remember the guy. Langella plays Nixon like King Lear: He’s a towering giant of man, not just in stature but in ability. He’s sly, powerful, elusive, frighteningly intelligent and he intimidates his enemies easily. He controls the space, he rumbles with Langella’s marvellous bass, and he’s so confident, it’s only his enemies absolute conviction that he’s evil that keeps them strong.

Problem is, he doesn’t come across as evil at all. In fact, there are so many points in the movie where he’s validated–as a powerhouse diplomat, as a strong leader, even his defense of Vietnam is better than his enemies’ attack–that when the moment finally comes where he admits to abuse of power, it seems sort of trivial. Downright petty even. And his own confession of guilt and clear feelings of disappointment and shame, well, 30 years out, I began to feel like we weren’t really worthy of him–and that I wouldn’t mind having him in charge today.

TIP: If you want to demonize someone, you probably shouldn’t put a great stage actor up there to play him. And it’s possible, I suppose, they weren’t trying to.

In any event, the whole movie ends up having an almost Amadeus-like surreality to it. Like we’re watching a clash of Titans. Or a titan being brought down by ankle-biters.

Michael Sheen (who gave a brilliant performance as Tony Blair in The Queen) plays David Frost with Matthew MacFayden (Mr. Darcy of Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice) as his friend (agent? producer?) . They pick up the always dependable Olver Platt and Sam Rockwell (as Bob Zelnick and James Reston, Jr. respectively) for their American research team. And Frost picks up chippie Caroline Cushing (played by Rebecca Hall of The Prestige) and parties with her in ‘70s Los Angeles while the project is being put together.

Sheen’s Frost is a media-savvy charmer, a playboy, and a bit of a dilettante until the very end. He’s portrayed as being outclassed for most of the interview. (This is largely fictitious; Obviously Frost didn’t rise to prominence being a lightweight.)

The Nixon side features Toby Jones (who played Truman Capote in one of the two Capote bios that came out a few years ago) as the only truly reprehensible character in the movie: talent agent Swifty Lazar. TV news personality Diane Sawyer apparently helped Nixon write his memoirs, so there’s an actress playing her. But there’s really not much room on the Nixon side for anyone else, with one exception.

Kevin Bacon plays the most heroic figure, Jack Brennan. To get a sense of this guy, you can read this article in People from 1976. Bacon will probably be ignored and underestimated as usual, but the movie’s great emotional moments are his and Langella’s.

Again, I have to wonder if this was the intention: Without any preconceived notions, Nixon comes out nearly heroic. A tragic hero, for sure, but heroic nonetheless. The script refers numerous times to his achievements (his foreign policy coups with Kruschev and Mao), and even his fiercest opponents admit that he was quite accomplished. They just believe him to be criminal.

I saw a man with great ambition and ability who was beset by partisan hacks out to destroy him. They blame him for Vietnam, for the Khmer Rouge, for Watergate–though the point is never the crime, as the gotcha–and all Nixon wants is respect. There’s a fictitious scene where a drunk Nixon calls Frost and goes on a rambling analysis of his own and Frost’s sense of inferiority which I felt overplayed the dramatic hand, but even that didn’t undermine my sense that this was a partisan witch hunt.

This is the guy who famously won his first election by (falsely) accusing his opponent of being a communist. (Though, you know, come to think of it, maybe that’s an “everyone knows” thing, too. The guy was a massive liberal/New Deal type.) The real Frost interviewed the real Nixon on that topic but that wasn’t part of the movie.

Meh. Treat it like you would Amadeus or Richard the III–an interesting fiction with historical figures as characters–and you can have a good time.

The tough question is whether Langella or Jenkins (The Visitor) should win the Oscar. The two performances are nearly polar opposites.

An American Carol: Fa la la la la, la la la la

Hectic weekend that it was, I was glad to get out of the house for a bit to the movies, and did go–with much trepidation to see Zucker’s An American Carol.

Regular readers know how I feel about clap humor, but as I pointed out earlier, this is the first overtly conservative movie made in my lifetime that’s ever gotten a semi-wide release.

So, what did I think?

Not bad. Pretty good even. I didn’t laugh as much as I did for, say, Dodgeball. And I would issue the caveats that you probably had best like the Zucker style of humor. Having said that, this movie probably falls somewhere between BASEketball and Top Secret! in terms of comparison with his earlier work. And it’s more like the former in terms of “reality”: In other words, where the Top Secret!/Airplane! style of movie has people acting deadpan in a zany world, the BASEketball-style movie posits a less zany reality with more broadly humorous characters.

I laughed a lot more than I expected to, and it works much better than I would have thought. There were only a few parts I cringed at, and a couple of genuinely touching parts.

The story concerns a fat, narcissistic documentary-maker named Michael Malone who wants to stamp out the 4th of July celebrations. Some terrorists want to make a professional jihad movie using a Hollywood director, but they need the most America-hating director in Hollywood. This provides a framework for a Christmas Carol ripoff that powers the bulk of the film.

There isn’t a rigorous adherence to the Dickens story, which is good: The primary ghost who torments Malone is George S. Patton, who takes him to see the anti-war protests of WWII and how life would be if the Civil War hadn’t been fought. (George Washington makes a brief appearance. And the third ghost is living country music star Trace Adkins!)

The movie opens strong with a “duck and cover”-style terrorist training film, follows into a weak (more accurate than funny) parody of “Sicko”, segues from there into a sometimes funny, sometimes not parody of a movie awards show, and hits and misses for the rest of the movie. But a lot of the less funny parts are worth a chuckle, and occasionally, if you’re inclined, a clap.

What particularly worked for me were: the zombie lawyers, the slavery scene, the crowd chanting scene, the “It’s the Christians!” documentary, and a surprising amount of the slapstick.

What didn’t work for me were: the Bill O’Reilly scene (the first one, the second one in the outhouse was pretty funny) with Rosie O’ Connell (except for the “It’s the Christians!” documentary), the Hitler scene, and the occasional long didactic tract thrown.

Parts I’m on the fence about: the ‘68 musical number, the inclusion of certain serious moments, and the inclusion of heavy slapstick during some of those moments.

I wouldn’t expect critics to review this favorably. I’m a little surprise no kudos have been forthcoming for the talent: Kelsey Grammer does a servicable Patton, for example, which isn’t easy to pull off in the shadow of George C. Scott. Chriss Anglin plays a pissed JFK, more accent than looks, while Fred Travelena does a Carter that’s all accent. Voight plays Washington himself during one of the heavier moments, and pulls it off.

Kevin Farley plays Malone, and if there’s a problem, it’s that he doesn’t ooze a fraction of the sleaze Michael Moore does. He’s self-absorbed, cruel and destructive but he never reaches the level of dislikability that Moore manages effortlessly. In fact, he’s kind of a heroic character: He realizes the error of his ways and risks public humiliation to save lives. And while there are a few stale fat jokes, he’s never portrayed as stupid.

And there are a bunch of other people you’re likely to recognize: Gary Coleman, Kevin Sorbo, Gail O’ Grady and Dennis Hopper as a gun-totin’ judge.

The audience laughed–though not at the whole thing–and clapped at the end pretty easily, but the theater was only about half full.

The Boy loved it, by his own admission being very right wing. He wanted to know if there other such movies and I had to regretfully inform him that I wasn’t aware of anything like it. That seems a little skewed.

A Paean To Sexual Harrassment: Charlie Wilson’s War

Just got back from Charlie Wilson’s War. (And hang tight, there are about eight movies out on my “to see” list–after weeks of scratching to find one worth watching.)

I had read Extreme Mortman’s review (via Instapundit) and figured I could risk this politically themed movie, as the subject–America’s contribution to the Soviet-Afghanistan war–was of some interest. (EDIT: Actually Karl’s review at Protein Wisdom, which looks at some of the more political reactions, was probably more influential.)

What I was immediately struck by was that the movie positively glorified what we now call “sexual harassment”. Wilson is introduced to us–after the left end of a bookend scene with a medal ceremony assuring us that the Cold War never would have been won without him–at an ‘80s strippers ‘n’ coke party and he staffs his office with gorgeous chicks. Much of the negotiation the Congressmen does involves having sex with women. These things are obliquely referred to however, since the actual act of–well, the actual acts might take some of the sheen off of even Tom Hanks (last seen lending his credibility to The Simpson’s Movie’s dubious US government).

This part of the movie is fun. Hanks gets to pour on some of the southern charm he marvelously overplayed in the Coen brothers’ Ladykillers. The movie picks up real speed when Philip Seymour Hoffman shows up as an offbeat CIA agent, and is humming along nicely when Julia Roberts does her turn as the aging Texan ex-beauty queen who pressures the Congressmen into acting to giving the Afghans armaments. (And unlike the Mortman, I had no trouble hearing either Hanks or Philip Seymour Hoffman, but it’ll probably be inaudible in the TV mix.)

For a based-on-a-true-story, this is a rather odd film. The movie wisely avoids partisan politics for the most part, concentrating on the dysfunction of the process–with only a few scenes that (fairly, I’d say) show how the idiosyncrasies of a particular party. For example, Dems are shown backing the aid to Afghanistan for the “tough” street cred. (The CIA takes another huge black eye, though, both for missing the invasion and not backing the resistance.)

It seems, though, that this was partly accomplished by ignoring huge chunks of history. Reagan was referred to once in the movie–and only as “a Republican President”. Democrats and media types who were (and still are) sympathetic to communism are completely ignored. The Afghanis themselves are practically props in the acts of heroism of a guy who, when you get down to it, is gonna be okay no matter how things turn out.

The Boy once again encapsulates this in his laconic style: “It was pretty good but it could have grabbed me more.”

This complete disconnect from historically significant events means the movie sort of drifts in its second half, devolving into a sort of money/body count (for hardware). And the end veers way to the left, implicating America in the subsequent rise of fanatic Islam. It’s almost like–or maybe exactly like–the writer can’t stand for America to have done something unequivocally good.

There are a number of things worth bitching about as far as the historical events that actually are portrayed as well. It’s really quite challenging to imagine large swaths of the Democratic Left talking about killing Russians with the sort of vigor that is portrayed in this film. At the time, Reagan was soundly mocked for viewing the world in such a simplistic manner.

It’s also weird to see the hero engaging in all sorts of sexist activities. Or activities that would be regarded as such today. At least if a Republican did them. This movie sort of makes you wonder why we have all those laws, all that grab-ass looks like fun for all involved.

Anyway, I give points to the film for showing that grassroots Reps were involved and concerned, and for showing that the Communists fielded a vicious army that routinely and deliberately engaged in the sorts of atrocities that a few outliers in the US Army commit (and are punished for).

It shouldn’t be noteworthy but it is. I can’t think of the last American film that portrayed the Soviets (and their satellite governments) as the horrors they were. Or any American film, come to think of it. (Das Leben Der Anderen should be required viewing for anyone who wants to push centralized economic planning. And even it’s mild.)

Overall a flawed but fairly entertaining movie, especially if you’re not too wrapped up in historical accuracy. Sort of a left wing Red Dawn. Top-notch acting. (I’m not a big Julia Roberts fan; this was probably my favorite of her work. Also, while I love Hoffman, he can veer toward the precious, and this was a nice switch from Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead. ) Mike Nichols doesn’t dawdle or have characters engage in lengthy speeches: Evil is shown and we’re expected to recognize it as such.

It may not do well, of course. People are already sick of politics as we enter this election year, or so it seems. But in this year of highly political bombs, you could do worse.