Tim McMullen's Missives and Tomes

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

May the FARCE BE With ME

I notice that I have only posted three times since June, and two of them are movie reviews. This one is prompted by Michael Hiltzik's review of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" in the Times. His review is under the headline: Admit it: 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' stinks -- and here's why.

Here's the irony. I was not a big fan of the original Star Wars, but at least I did go see the second film. I have not seen any of the other four sequel/prequels. Nevertheless, and knowing what I know of the original, unoriginal Star Wars, and despite Hiltzik's cogent attack, I will still probably go see this one in IMAX 3D because I like the format of the big screen, big sound, and these days I watch most of the "gotta' drive backwards at least once in the car chase" movies (in other words, nearly every movie that makes it to the IMAX action/adventure screen) if only for the nostalgic glimpse of Harrison Ford in the "Chewie, we're home," scene that has already played 20,000 times in the previews and ads over the last year.

In 2014, I saw 55 movies in the theater. This year, I saw only 40 although Star Wars will make it 41. I didn't venture out to any of the "art house" movies this year. We didn't even see the Woody Allen movie this year which we used to go to every time one opened, but it didn't play close enough to home, and we were busy enough that we didn't get out to see his latest.

I give ratings to all the movies that I see at AMC (where I see 99% of my movies), and these are the ones that got "5 stars" from me this year (in the order in which I saw them): "Selma," "Birdman," "Spy," "Love and Mercy," "Mr. Holmes," "The Intern," and "The Martian." I wanted to see "The Walk," but I was busy those couple of weeks.

The ones that I gave top marks to were simply because they were fully satisfying films within their genres. The docudramas on a period in the lives of Martin Luther King and Brian Wilson focused on interesting and well-told aspects of those lives, though quite different in presentation. Except for those two, I noticed that each of the movies is in a different genre. "Birdman" is a quirky flight of fantasy comedy and gritty realism intertwined. "Spy" is a funny spoof of the genre, far more satisfying than "The Kingsmen" or "The Man from Uncle" because of much greater wit and humor, while balanced with a star turn for Melissa McCarthy. This is the first time that I truly enjoyed her because they allowed her to be other characters than the brash, crude, slovenly, obnoxious character that has been her stock and trade.

"The Intern" was a modest "non-rom com" casting DeNiro against type, and exploring the vagaries of today's corporate world against the questions of life and home (something that we are exploring with a political vs. business twist as we are binge-watching the Danish series "Borgen" with which we were gifted as a Christmas present). Whereas "Borgen" is gritty and dark, but enjoyable, "The Intern" was very light, but very enjoyable. "The Martian" is the only big "blockbuster" on the list, and despite being somewhat predictable, it was carried off with the right amount of humor, drama, action, and "McGyveresque" ingenuity to offer a satisfying theater experience.

I have saved "Mr. Holmes" for last because, for me, it was the best. It was perhaps the gentlest of the seven films (and the other 40 films that I saw), but it had fine character development, it had marvelous performances from the three principal actors (the child actor was terrific), and it was intriguing, powerful, and touching in a very nice combination of those emotions. "Mission Impossible-Rogue Nation" got a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes; "Inside Out" got a 98%; whereas, "Mr. Holmes" only got an 87% and only 75% of the audience liked it. Nevertheless, I rank it as my most enjoyable movie of the year. By the way, I did see both of those, and I gave them each 4 stars.

The worst on my list from this year are the remarkably story-less, character-less, "The Fantastic Four"; the mindless regurgitation with an alarmingly uninteresting protagonist and plot of "The Transporter" (the TV series is actually much more amusing, compelling, and interesting than any of the franchise movies); and my surprising number one entry for over two hours of mindless tedium was "Mad Max" which I already panned in great detail in earlier blog.

And if you haven't seen it, I still recommend my last year's top disagreement with the critics and the fans, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," for it's marvelous blend of humor, character, story, fantasy, and marvelous cinematography. I blogged about it last year in my negative reviews of "American Hustle" and "Inside Llewyn Davis."

Now, I'm gearing up to go see "Star Wars 7: The Marketing," in a couple of hours. May the farce be with me.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

A Plan for Iran and the Deal's Detractors

Here is the comment from and my answer to a Facebook friend who wrote about a satirical video featuring Jack Black and Morgan Freeman in support of the Iran Nuclear deal:

  • I think celebrities endorsements are irresponsible. What do they know any more than any citizen of this country. We have to be mindful of with whom we are dealing. Iran wants the U.S. and Isreal wiped off the globe. The Iranian government will not be honorable and keep their word. For lack of diplomatic venues, we , the U.S. and Isreal , may need to settle this with force.

    • Tim McMullen Wow, look at those statements. "I think celebrities endorsements are irresponsible. What do they know any more than any citizen of this country." Yet, clearly, you think that you know more than they do. Did you actually watch the video? It uses satire with which each alarmist statement of the actor is met with a more reasoned response from a more knowledgeable person. 

      Secondly, you say, "We have to be mindful of with whom we are dealing. Iran wants the U.S. and Isreal (sic) wiped off the globe." So, not only do you know more than the "celebrities," but you can also read the minds of millions of Iranians. 

      Do you know anything about the history of Iran and the United States? We overthrew their democratically elected leader and imposed a ruthless tyrant, the Shah, and his family as a proxy government. He was a terrible dictator for decades. When he was finally deposed in a revolution, we sheltered him from the wrath of his people. The Islamic revolution that deposed him was the direct result of our corrupting their system, destroying their democracy, and opposing their revolution on both economic and religious grounds. We had scurrilous American military in positions of leadership suggest that we should wage a Christian Crusade against Islam. If they hate us, which so many in their country do not, they certainly have reasons. Their leaders, just like Netanyahu or right-wing politicians here, use the vilification of a particular country or countries (the "AXIS of EVIL") to rally support for all sorts of internal agendas that would otherwise go nowhere.

      You then say, "The Iranian government will not be honorable and keep their word." Hopefully, given the history just mentioned, you see the irony in that statement. So, not only do you know more than the celebrities and the diplomats and negotiators for the US the U.K., France, Germany, Russia, and China, who support this deal, you are clairvoyant and can actually predict the future with certainty. 

      The people making this argument about "untrustworthy Iran" are the exact same people who made this argument about Iraq, who claimed that they were "HIDING" WMDs, who led us into an illegal, useless, and costly war in which we lost thousands of American lives and injured hundreds of thousands of American soldiers; we destroyed hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of innocent Iraqi lives (in fact, every single Iraqi, even Saddam Hussein, brutal dictator that he was, was completely innocent of every lying accusation that the Cheney/Bush administration used to get us into that war, a war that had been planned by right wing think tanks for over a decade prior to 9/11).

      Finally, you say this: "For lack of diplomatic venues, we, the U.S. and Isreal , may need to settle this with force." Have you learned NOTHING from Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq? Why on earth do you trust Netanyahu's overt political maneuvering, who has been consistently wrong in his predictions, rather than hundreds of diplomats, including 5 former ambassadors to Israel who believe that this is the much better approach? Besides, Netanyahu does not expect or plan to fight this war; he is doing everything that he can do goad the US into doing it for him.

      More importantly, you open that argument for war with this: "FOR LACK OF DIPLOMATIC VENUES"???
      These negotiations were worked on for a very long time; millions of hours of prep behind the scenes; they involved the world's superpowers, both those who are aligned with us and against us, as a way to resolve a very difficult issue. This WAS the "diplomatic venue" on a grand scale. 

      Those who oppose this deal, including the three main talking points of the TV commercial against it, have been claiming the same false things about this deal for many months, if not years, before they knew anything about it. The Republican Presidential candidates and legislators who have offered furious opposition, are stating the exact same false talking points months before they had read a single word of the agreement. My guess is that most of them have still not read it. 

      Part of the irony and stupidity of the naysayers' arguments is their parroting of Netanyahu—who only months ago was claiming that Iran was within months of having a nuclear bomb—and despite the fact that no one disputes the fact that this will absolutely prevent them from accomplishing that for at least ten years (ten years is an incredibly long time in this current world of international flux), Netanyahu and his Republican backers and hacks claim that this deal is worse than the status quo. It's ridiculous on its face if you actually listen to and think about their claims.

      Please consider actually reading this article by James Fallows in which he identifies those who are against and for the Iran nuclear agreement and articulates an analysis of the actual terms of the agreement. Then, if you want to argue on the merits of the agreement, please feel free.


Friday, June 12, 2015

"Mad Max" — It wasn't my fault; she wanted to see it, but I still had to apologize to Carolyn for this one.... We should have known better.

The high praise for this movie must be seen for what it is: adoration of one element in filmmaking at the expense of most others. The claim that it has a complex, but subtle story, or worse, that its story is "dense" seems excessively hyperbolic. It is clearly meant to be an adrenalin rush, and it is. Unfortunately, it is an excessively redundant exhilaration. Praise is heaped on the myriad forms of inventive destruction; others note the uniqueness of the various vehicles. Notice, therefore, that I do not claim "repetition" but merely redundancy. This next observation is a personal judgment to be sure, but I also found the score to be overtly manipulative and unsubtle (although occasionally silly—the guitar player being particularly goofy and amusing...one or twice...then just gratuitously absurd, especially when it became part of the climactic action). 

This is minimalist storytelling and maximalist filmmaking, offering two hours of remarkably adept choreography of acrobatic and balletic crashes, explosions, immolations and mayhem, predicated on five minutes worth of story,  two minutes of uninteresting dialogue, and thirty seconds of character development. To be honest, though, it might have actually been more interesting if it had offered no dialogue at all (I mean this sincerely).

The young acolyte who turns (absurdly quickly) from bloodthirsty minion to devoted paramour to altruistic martyr is the only dynamic character in the film. Every other character is static, as is to be expected in a video game actioner. The emerging trust between the two main characters or the young, chrome warrior was never in doubt, though hardly credible from any character's viewpoint or experience. Of course, we didn't have time to offer a rational explanation for this instantaneous teamwork because we had gauntlets to run and endless stuff to blow up. As for the great sci-fi setting credited by some, again minimalist to the extreme: sand, mud, funny cars, stilts, and a treadmill—that's it.

Many commenters have praised the film for its subtle themes and its "showing and not telling" approach, but those themes are extremely underdeveloped; in fact, they are merely nods to a range of well-worn (but significant) and much better explored (elsewhere) themes of religion, economics, exploitation, tyranny, demagoguery, fanaticism, patriarchy, feminism, ecology, war, loyalty, courage, heroism. They are all in there, but this movie neither tells us nor shows us anything of substance about any of them. It's basically, "Yeah, society's foibles...yada, yada, yada...."

I've tried to give as few spoilers as possible and still give a reasonable assessment, but as for the ending, let's just say it was the most inexplicable and unlikely part of the movie, but since we'd wasted all of our time on all that great action, the denouement just happened, voilĂ , and "happy ever after," which, again, was never in doubt for a moment. I am guessing that even if you knew absolutely nothing about the Mad Max franchise, an objective viewer would find every single development thoroughly predictable.

Having watched "San Andreas" the day before, I found that movie's action sequences relatively implausible, its mass destruction derivative (or typical ala most apocalyptic movies and every Marvel superhero movie), its deus ex machina plot contrivances and coincidences completely absurd, and its saccharin family plot line cliched; nevertheless, perhaps especially because I'm a fan of Caltech, I didn't walk away feeling that I had really wasted two hours on a pointless shoot-em-up like I did with "Mad Max." 

Don't get me wrong, from an artistic point of view, as an action movie, "Mad Max" is very well done, and if all you demand from your action movie is non-stop action, then "Mad Max" is nearly perfect. On the other hand, if you want a story that at the very least challenges you to think, even slightly, about issues or ideas, then any of the three earlier Mad Max movies and nearly any other sci-fi offering, no matter the logistical gaps, will offer you more (I would, however, exclude "Lucy" from that group—it was too silly, illogical, and gap-filled to merit viewing except as an exercise in unintentional and ludicrous humor). 

It is the hyperbolic, euphoric praise and the absurdly high rating on Rotten Tomatoes that prompted me to respond to this thread. If you want to see a fine, articulate review of the movie that offers a reasonable explanation of the praise, I encourage you to read super-reviewer Nate Zoebl's analysis at the bottom of the RT page for "Mad Max." It is very well done.

By the way, below I have offered the link to a short video, "Chains," created by Sharon Lewis, that adeptly, and with minimal budget, covers nearly all of the aforementioned themes in a meaningful and memorable way (and not a single car crash) in just ten minutes. It is a video that I used with both my creative writing students when exploring science fiction and with my video production students when looking at short, narrative film making. I am sorry for the 40-second intro (although the film series is worth viewing). Check it out.


Tuesday, May 5, 2015

“How Does an Unbeliever Develop a Sense of Morality?"

I recently noticed that it's been quite a while since I posted to the blog, so here goes.

My Facebook friend, Howard Prouty, posted an article about a young woman in a dispute with her roommates who was caught spitting in and otherwise contaminating the food of those roommates. She is being prosecuted. Howard posited the legitimate question, “How does an unbeliever develop a sense of morality? That is my morning meditation.”

I responded:
Morality and ethics are rational constructs. For an individual in true isolation, they have no meaning or purpose. However, when a second individual is introduced, a "society" is created. In order for that society to flourish for any length of time, certain rules must be established. "Not killing" is a perfectly logical first step; without that admonition, your society quickly dwindles back to "the one" and inevitable extinction (unless "the one" learns an alternative means to procreate). Animals, even without our faculty of speech, create rules for their offspring. “Listen to me and do what you're told,” “Obey your elders,” "Don't shit where you eat," etc.

The books of religion were written by men to explain and justify their existence. They were used to articulate rational rules that would control and maintain their society. Unfortunately, in every case, the initial, rational rules become entwined in superstition, and fear of the supernatural quickly becomes the rationale for adhering to the rules. Once this transformation takes hold, then the most irrational and foolish distortions become "written in stone" through dogma and ritual.

Stripped of their superstitious trappings, rules like "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," become perfectly reasonable precepts by which to live.

When Howard asked the question again, I replied:
Why would anyone make the assumption that this young woman was not steeped in religious training and religious history? If she's Catholic, she'll be forgiven with a quick mea culpa. If she's Muslim, she can claim they were infidels. If she's a fundamentalist Christian, she can do anything she wants and twist a scripture to justify her actions. If she's Jewish, she can claim that they were a threat to her existence. If she's Hindu, they were clearly lower caste. If she's Buddhist, she can claim that she thought they were Muslims. If she's a Quaker..., well, then, she has no excuse. If she'd been an atheist, she would have found better ways of coping through the application of intellectual analysis, invoking respect and problem solving to find a rational solution.

Another commenter joined the conversation:
Tim... that is an excellent reply. But it WILL get worse. It's a new day. And any and all remnants of accountability for one's actions in life are evaporating. Mankind has historically gotten off on public torture and executions. Guillotines, hangings, the rack, slaves to lions... but just as we as a race supposedly had evolved... a nation born to be a world leader against tyranny and injustices or persecution... set forth in the belief of freedoms and under the banner "In God we trust"... we have regressed to basic primitive "Godless" acts. This has happened to so many now—in the form of our children. Technology begat advancement, and while no one's watching... they murder in the name of an obscure phenomenon called Slender Man.
It isn't that man won't stop using their religious beliefs to justify but that what little tether there was by acccountable morality has been lost. Those who were to set the example gave in and joined the party. With "progress" and advanced technology... we merely expanded the options.”

I answered these reasonable observations in this way:

I understand your pessimism, Kerry. I, on the other hand, call myself "the hopeful cynic." I do see a steady advancement, but as with most progress, it is "two steps forward, one step back." Many, if not most, of those gleefully inhumane forms of audience entertainment that you enumerate were either done in the name of religion or as a form of persecuting a particular religion. We actually have moved past most of those barbarities.

As you suggest, however, technology has certainly given us new means to destroy each other in the name of God and Country. From bigger and better guns and bombs to unmanned drone strikes, we continue the killing spree nearly unabated.

The surge of fundamentalism that has recently grasped Christianity, Islam, Judaism (the monotheistic religions) as well as Hinduism and Buddhism (polytheistic) seem to be a sort of last gasp in defiance of the steady march of true freedom: not the distorted "freedom to discriminate and legislate against others based on a particular religious bias," but the actual advancement of equality for women, the advancement of equal justice for all races, the advancement of rights for the LGBT community, the acceptance of the right of every human being to a safer, healthier environment.

The fundamentalist resurgence is a backlash against the transfer of power reflecting the obvious fact that those who who have stacked the deck aren't interested in having it reshuffled.

Do I believe that the impulse for human depravity will ever be fully eradicated? I haven't a clue. But I do believe that we have gone a long way toward containing it, and it was the development of ideals and principles designed to free governments and people from the domination of the irrational excesses and oppression of religion and aristocracy (also predicated on religion, i.e., "divine right") upon which our country was founded.

Remember, "In God We Trust" and "One nation UNDER GOD" were only added to the money and the pledge in the 50's, and they were added by some pretty rotten people to accomplish some pretty rotten things. The merging of religion with capitalism, using the pulpit to champion the triumph of the ruthless greed of the few and the oppression of the many came about in the 1880's; it was under attack from 1900-1920; it reemerged full throttle during the 20's, then submerged during the 30's and 40's; it again held sway in the '50's; it was lurking under the surface in the '60's; in the 70's it gained momentum; and since the 80's it has been the dominant world view of our preachers and our politicians. The irony is that people are turning their backs on these false and oppressive expressions of faith-based economies and religious fundamentalism. Hence, the drastic measures to cling to power.

Technology can be the bane or the salvation of mankind; it is not the technology but mankind who will decide. I believe that the human race really does have the potential to outgrow our petty and foolish adherence to demagoguery and chicanery, superstition and destructive tradition. I believe that we have the potential to not only learn to "do unto others as we would have them do unto us," but that we actually have the potential to choose to do so as well.

If we don't annihilate ourselves first (which we certainly might choose to do—a lot of people are making a lot of money facilitating that possibility), we can learn to adopt an approach to life that says, simply (though not easily accomplished), "Every day of my life, I will strive to be better for myself, for other people, and for the world." Repeat after me and teach it to your kids: "Every day of my life, I will strive to be better for myself, for other people, and for the world." It could have a much more profound impact than either the misguidedly altered Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag or the ubiquitous Lord's Prayer.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

American Sniper and the Fallacy of "They Fight to Keep Us Free"

  • This piece is the conjoining of two comments from Facebook. The first is a response to an eloquent and important observation by the excellent singer-songwriter, Nathan Bell, who began his post with this statement: "Somewhat lost in the furor over American Sniper is the simple fact that almost every person in this country lets these wars continue without a second thought and just ignores the fact that it is the children of OTHER people dying and being mentally and physically maimed while they go shopping, go to movies, and carry on." He ended his statement with this observation: "We have another election cycle starting way too soon, and if we really want to fix the problems that movies like American Sniper bring out in the open we are going to have to vote out the militarists and the chicken hawks on both sides of the aisle."

    Here are my comments.

     We have been constantly at war for over 14 years in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, but it is nearly an invisible war. We hear nothing about the day to day efforts. We hear nothing about the casualties: nothing about our soldiers; nothing about their soldiers; nothing about innocent civilians being killed. Nothing about the trillions of dollars that we have poured into these immoral wars. We just hear about the "DEFICIT" and the need to cut social programs because of it.

    We have run literally thousands of air strikes and drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere, and the data suggests that at least 1/10 and as many as 1/5 of those killed were civilians. We hear NOTHING about it. Furthermore, I am afraid that we have so bought into the immoral notion of "acceptable collateral damage" and the overt political demonization of "them," that we might not care even if we did know the truth about our ugly little wars.

    We ask both our military personnel and private mercenaries to do the bidding of those who profit from endless and pointless war, while we tacitly accept the fallacious fantasy that "our brave soldiers are fighting to KEEP US FREE!" Or, as that coward Lindsay Graham mewls, "So that we don't have to fight them here." Yet, the very people who promulgate the war—the politicians, pundits, and profiteers—while mouthing patriotic platitudes and verbal "support" for our veterans, actually slash many programs that are so necessary to serve the many needs of our veterans. 

    In line with the radical social and economic policies of Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and the many others who argue that the social safety net harms the people who need it, they gleefully send people into war, then, to those who have had their legs blown off, they say, "Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps." And the American People have not raised their voices against these vicious, self-serving hypocrites.

    We have become so partisan, so much of which is based on the most petty of pretenses, that the deep injustice and immorality of a profit-based invisible war may not even show up on the radar of the 2016 election. Since it is so intertwined with the "profits over people" philosophy, perhaps we can call it out and change it.

    Here is my review of "American Sniper" from another thread, and in response to the claim that they are "keeping us free."

    Anyone is entitled to their opinion, but opinions that are not rooted in fact are merely ignorance and, in too many cases, dangerous. This "commenter" says, "...you have no idea what it takes for this country to maintain our freedoms," when he is talking about the war in IRAQ, an illegal and immoral war based on proven, incontrovertible LIES, a war that destabilized a country and radicalized a population and a region; at the same time, our cowardly response to an attack by 20 people lead us to sacrifice our basic principles of honor and integrity, free speech and individual privacy, while destroying our economy.

    I did see the movie, and it is well made. My guess is that Eastwood is actually a bit more subtle than the film's supporters suppose; in fact, I am fairly certain that most will miss the film's several deeper points. I have not read the book, but this film does not portray a shining hero (despite the accolades and moving portrayal of the real life individual in the epilogue); it portrays a very flawed man who is obsessed and deeply troubled. It depicts the powerful negative impact of war on the human psyche. The most moving part of the piece is a mother reading her son's last letter at his funeral (I don't want to give away who it is, but it is perhaps the most important statement in the film).

    Finally, whether he intended it or not, the heart of Eastwood's film is basically just a mano y mano battle between an Iraqi sniper and an American sniper. My question to anyone is this: If the American sniper is a hero for the number of kills he made of men, women and children, is the Iraqi sniper also a hero, perhaps a greater hero, because he was actually protecting his homeland and his family from an invading army? If not, why not?

    The major failure of the movie, and one that has been pointed out, is that it does not offer any historical context except a visceral reaction to the September 11, 2001, attacks. It makes the case for a man who wants to do his duty, serve his country, protect and save his comrades, but it never explores any justification of our actions in Iraq. Perhaps Eastwood expects his audience to have a sense of history; after all it was only 14 years ago. Unfortunately, this is the United States of Amnesia in which half of the country is still under the delusion that we attacked Iraq for two clear reasons, they had WMD's and they were responsible for 9/11. Both of those "reasons" were not merely "mistakes," they were KNOWING lies perpetrated on the American people, the Iraqi people, and the people of the world by many major figures in the Bush administration whose rapacious interest in Iraqi oil is well known. Without that context, heroism becomes a much easier fantasy to maintain.