Friday, June 17, 2005

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Batman Begins Again

I saw Batman Begins today, and what it said most powerfully to me was how bad the earlier films in the series were—and how crippled by stylistic cliches today's Hollywood action films are.

The best way to experience Batman is still to read the original DC comic books from years ago and watch the TV cartoon series. This one ain't bad, but they're the real thing.

I remember that the various filmmakers involved in Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Whatever, and Batman Yadaa Yadda Yadda were uninamous in pointing out how much more serious their films were than the 1960s TV series, as if seriousness precisely equalled intelligence, and as if being more serious than the Batman TV series were some sort of accomplishment. I could do that while telling knock-knock jokes in a tutu.

As hard as they may have tried to capture the essence of Bob Kane's comic book series (well, that's what they said they were trying to do), the Batman films were frequently silly and usually not very interesting. The first one, Batman, was endurable, although I think Jack Nicholson was incredibly boring as the Joker. OK, he's angry, we get it. Now can you try to do something interesting? At least the TV show was fun, and the actors playing the villains were first-rate and managed to find the right tone for their performances. Excellent performers such as Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, Frank Gorshin, Julie Newmar, Anne Baxter, Reginald Denny, and the like all seemed to be having as much fun as the viewer (and not more!). The movie series, by contrast, was like some kind of career graveyard. Remember Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face? Alicia Silverman as Batgirl? Is it any wonder their careers went into the dumper after those stinkers? Heck, even Michelle Pfeiffer has pretty much disappeared, and I thought she did an excellent job as Catwoman.

Batman Begins is much better than that. Christian Bale is actually a decent Batman, although the affected, Dirty Harry-style growl he uses when in costume is, well, rather embarrassing for him after a while. But he's good, overall. The supporting cast is largely excellent, with Gary Oldman giving a standout performance as Sgt. Gordon (who will eventually become Commissioner Gordon, we presume.) Katie Holmes misfires in a poorly conceived role as an assistant district attorney, but Cillian Murphy is terrific as Dr. Crane/the Scarecrow, Rutger Hauer is splendid as Bruce Wayne's manipulative business partner, and Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Tom Wilkinson, and Liam Neeson lend their formidable presences in other important supporting roles. The acting is one of the real pleasures of this film, and Bale holds his own within this powerhouse cast.

In addition, Batman Begins actually has some consistent themes that are worked out in a surprisingly comprehensible way—such as the ways the theme of fear and human reactions to it comes up in different situations throughout the film. Well done, that. And it really does present the issues of vigilantism, justice, personal responsibility, and the role of government in a rather thoughtful manner.

That, however, is also one of the problems with the film. It is awfully slow, with more expository dialogue than a documentary on how to caulk bathtubs. Do really really need to see another version of how Batman obtains all his Bat-weapons and Bat-whatnot? (Hint, the answer starts with an n and ends with an o. Multiple explanation points are optional.) Do we really need to waste a lot of time watching Bale and Freeman reprise the Q-James Bond relationship? (That has become extremely wearisome in the Bond films, for goodness sake.) It's like showing us long, boring scenes from the early years of Hercule Poirot. OK, he can solve crimes, we get it. Gee, just let us see the dang Bat-things in action and we'll figure out that he must have got them somewhere. Who but an obsessive geek weirdo gives a darn where he got them from, anyway? Save that for the novelization.

And what's up with those early sequences in Asia, stolen from the film version of The Shadow and done a heck of a lot better there? It's all way much more than we need to know. We already understand the situation, people! He's a vigilante but he's conflicted about it. We can puzzle that out without watching him fight multiple Asian prison guards simultaneously or climb an unnamed mountain to get to some ancient hideaway for global vigilantes. We don't need to know about that, so just skip it. Now can we just get on with the Batarang-throwing?

OK, I understand it's Batman Begins and you feel obligated to show his beginnings, which is acceptable as a premise even though we've seen his beginnings some 55 times before, but that doesn't mean it has to Batman Begins with a Whole Bunch of Boring Dialogue and Puzzling Fight Scenes Shot in Close-Ups So That You Can't Tell Who the Heck Is Doing What or Why. That's another pet peeve for me: the fancy-schmancy tendency of Hollywood directors to cut the fight scenes up into close-up shots lasting approximately three tenths of a second apiece, quite obviously to disguise the fact that the actors couldn't fight their way out of a preschool birthday party. Man, make them learn the moves and then step back and let us see them fight it out a little.

Hong Kong directors use brief shots, too, but at least they know how to make the fight comprehensible by pulling the camera away from the protagonist's elbow or bad guy's ribs once in a while. In Hollywood films, the only way you know who's winning a fight is by how far we are into the movie: the good guy typically loses early and wins late. And in the climactic fight, he has to look like he's losing until the bad guy does something really dirty and then the good guy gets all morally outraged and wins really quickly.

Maybe if you'd let us actually see the fight, we wouldn't have time to think about how hokey the whole situation is. Just an idea, which I give you for free.

And by the way, a note to Hollywood's fine stable of directors and cinematographers: dark, muddy cinematography does not equal depth of insight. It equals dark, muddy cinematography, and that is absolutely all. You can see everything perfectly clearly in a David Lean film or an Anthony Mann epic or a John Ford drama, yet there is never any sense that the director is stupid and just doesn't know how to make us have to squint to figure out which character is the protagonist, which is the antagonist, which the leading lady, and which is actually a lamp emanating a dull, brackish nimbus. Actually allowing the viewer to see what's happening could even be thought to be an advantage, or at least common courtesy.

So, could you people buy some lights? I know, I know, that will mean that your actors will actually have to act, as the audience will be able to see their stupid, bovine facial expressions all too easily, but what you'll lose in employability of bad actors you might well gain in the ability to express the occasional insight into the human condition. At least, that's what Lean, Mann, Ford, and the like managed to do. Tom Cruise and John Travolta have enough money and can afford to be tossed aside for people who can actually act a little. Besides, they can always do some reality TV.

Nevertheless, even though Batman Begins was photographed through a jar of Smucker's Plum Preserves, includes the most boring love interest character of all the films in the series, steals ideas and scenes from countless other movies, and is more unreal than the average Wagner opera, it's a fairly thoughtful film with some real conflicts, tough moral choices for the characters, important themes and ideas, and good performances. Those things make it worth seeing. But it certainly would have been much better if it had avoided the silly stylistic cliches that blemish most of today's Hollywood action films.

That Famous/Infamous Human Events Book List

Human Events came up with a ten most harmful books list and then held a bonfire.

Okay, no bonfire, although you might think they had from some of the comments about the list.

What has raised the ire of many critics is the decision of the Human Events contributors to include books like Kinsey's work on sexuality and Betty Friedan's feministic manifesto on the list with more obvious choices like Mein Kampf, Quotations from Chairman Mao, and The Communist Manifesto.

I'm not sure the Human Events crowd was as devastatingly wrong as many believe. What the list really demonstrates is that after you name the worst books, there's a steep drop-off to the next group. Thus, the raised eyebrows at names like Kinsey and Friedan, who didn't contribute to superstates annihilating millions of people.

What interests me is Ralph Reiland at American Spectator being critical of Human Events for including work by Nietzsche and Comte.

According to Reiland, Nietzsche simply told us "the world isn't run by moral rules." I think we could take issue with that. He was somewhat enthusiastic about "the blonde beast" enforcing his will to power on the world and provided important grist for the later National Socialist project in Germany.

Reiland acts similarly puzzled about Comte, who "said man could figure things out better through science than theology." That's not exactly all Comte had to say. He was so enthusiastic about science he envisioned a religion based on science with temples, priests, etc. He also was a leading proponent of the secularization thesis which saw traditional religion crumbling before increasing enlightenment, which was pretty much a shibboleth of those scary superstates we mentioned before.

If Human Events was too harsh in its assessment of some of these books, Ralph Reiland is a bit too charitable.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Mea Culpa? For What?

In the wake of the autopsy findings for Terry Schiavo and a related post from Sam Karnick, my esteemed friend Tlaloc argues that "One can only hope that the people who spewed venom at Michael Schiavo and Judge Greer will say a few mea culpas and not rush to judgement next time."

Really? Mea culpas for precisely what? Ms. Schiavo was not dying; she was severely disabled, and nothing in the autopsy report changes that. Her wishes were, at best, ambiguous, and---I am happy to say it again---Judge Greer was a moron for ascribing finality to Mr. Schiavo's assertions about her wishes given his obvious conflicts of interest and inconsistent position over time. If Tlaloc believes that Mr. Schiavo knew the future findings of the autopsy, let him say that explicitly.

Serious policy issues attend upon this case and similar ones, and the Schiavo autopsy resolves none of them. Do we really want to be in the business of starving/dehydrating the severely (and let us assume, irretrievably) disabled? Precisely how disabled must one be to be judged unworthy of food and water through a feeding tube? Who should pay for such care? The Schiavo case actually was relatively easy along this continuum of agonizing choices: Ms. Schiavo's wishes were highly ambiguous, her parents were willing to bear those costs, her husband was obviously compromised in terms of the credibility of his opinions with respect to what was best for his wife, and the federal courts--- usually the last refuge of those contemptuous of life---simply ignored Congress' clear direction that a de novo review be conducted of Ms. Schiavo's federal rights. And so: There will be no mea culpas issued from this corner.

Schiavo Autopsy Conclusions Released

AP reports that the autopsy overseen by Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Jon Thogmartin found that Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman around whom controvery swirled as her husband worked to obtain permission to have her feeding and hydration tubes removed over the objections of her parents, had suffered from massive brain damage and was blind, and that her brain was less than half the size of a normal human brain at the time of her death.

The story did not say whether Thogmartin had specified when the shrinkage had occurred, although his quoted statements seem to imply that he believed it happened when she suffered her collapse fifteen years ago.

According to AP, the findings confirm the contention of her husband, Michael Schiavo, that Terri Schiavo was in a persistent vegetative state. The autopsy did not uncover any evidence that she had been strangled or otherwise physically abused. The cause of her collapse remains a mystery at this point. Ms. Schiavo's parents, who insisted that their daughter had not been in a persistent vegatative state and could recover if proper therapy were provided, "plan to discuss the autopsy with other medical experts and may take some unspecified legal action" according to a statement attributed to their lawyer.

As medical advances continue and end-of-life issues become increasingly complex, such disagreements will undoubtedly become more common, and clarity in the laws and in individuals' directives will hence become increasingly important.

Lemming Aid

We Reform Club types got a sneak preview, but now the greater financial world is abuzz with Karnick's wisdom about Africa.

Just when you thought that Africa's biggest suffering was caused by AIDS, Karnick makes you wonder whether AID may be almost as big of a problem.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Zycher of Striped-Pants Land

Just back from a week in Geneva schmoozing the international diplomats, who are there to negotiate an "Access and Benefit-Sharing" system for the Convention on Biodiversity. More about this policy issue later, but essentially it is an effort to (choose one): a. Obtain competitive compensation for the use of such indigenous resources as plant and animal materials and the "traditional knowledge" of various third-world shamans; or b. Use international treaties and lawsuits to steal patents. Later on, I'll report, you'll decide.

Anyway, it was a fun crowd at the after-hours cocktail gathering, a great, vibrant, colorful, multicultural conga line following the one waiter carrying an hors d'oeuvres tray. (Can't our tax dollars buy more than that?) There was the very attractive young lady wearing a skirt made of about as much cloth as a handkerchief; I know not---and my wife insists that I not find out---precisely how she was able to sit down at the sessions. There was another attractive lady wearing on her dress a huge carnation; only my finely-honed sense of diplomacy induced me to refrain from reaching over to see if it squirted water. And there was the King of the proceedings, a man known to all as Nanook of the North (not his real name), who wore a full, traditional Lapland outfit, complete with leather belt, hat, and moccasins to which was stuck some seemingly genuine dried bear droppings. Afterward, we tried to get a taxi back to our hotel, but not one was to seen anywhere in the vicinity; apparently all the diplomats have government-issued cars, many with drivers. The life of the deeply caring is not too shabby. And so we walked back, an outcome that proved quite fortuitous, and not merely for the exercise and the stroll along Lake Geneva. On the way we passed a store called the "Tax-Free Shop for Diplomats." And that just about sums it all up, doesn't it?

Hilarious Matt Labash on Democrat Country Boy Consultants

The Weekly Standard's intrepid reporter spent a lot of time with a fella named Mudcat who brings NASCAR GOP types over to the dark side for a living. Labash is confrontational. After Mudcat claimed he could tell whether deer droppings were from males or females by tasting them, Labash challenged him on the first pile they found. Mudcat declined, saying the droppings were not fresh enough. They came upon another batch. Here's the description:

As we come off the mountain, we see a fresh, gleaming pile of deer droppings. "You gonna eat some?" he asks, since I had earlier promised to. "No chance," I tell him, "I thought you were kidding." He picks a few pellets up, and pops them in his mouth. After chewing them thoughtfully, he renders a verdict. "Buck," he declares. "What does it taste like?" I ask, now in medical shock. "Like s--," he says.

Welcome National Review Readers!

As you now know, The Reform Club is the home of The Greatest Living Film Critic in the English Language (TM), S.T. Karnick. Previous reviews included Luther and The Passion. After writing those superior essays, Karnick retreated into silence on the big screen for a period of months. He has finally chosen to make his return to the form. One can only assume it was for one of the great films of all time. It was, in fact,

THE ADVENTURES OF SHARK BOY AND LAVA GIRL IN 3-D!

Having read the review, however, we all know now that the film contains deeper water than most would suspect.

Welcome back to the film reviewing business, Mr. Karnick. Mr. Roeper is not long for his chair alongside Mr. Ebert.

Reading Abraham Kuyper . . .

As I've mentioned previously, I'm now in the third year of a multi-disciplinary Ph.D. on church and state. We select our own reading list under supervision from four different professors and prepare for comprehensive exams prior to beginning the dissertation.

I'm currently reading Lectures on Calvinism, a reprint of Abraham Kuyper's Stone Lectures at Princeton. Having put away half of the book, I'm wondering how I could have possibly come this far in the study of religion and government and not read this man previously. He's always been out there, a ghostly image of a Christian statesman, newspaperman, pastor, and professor who was once prime minister of the Netherlands, but I had never engaged his writing. It is profound and enlightening.

One of the most interesting ideas I've come across from him is that of "sphere sovereignty," where the state is only supreme in its particular sphere. It is the rod that holds up a weak plant. It is in service to God as a restraining hand upon the evil sin may do. It may not disrupt the sovereignty of other spheres like the arts, the family, the university, the church, business, and the sciences. The key insight is that the state is not omni-competent and it is not the first institution of a society. Others are more organic and occur prior to it. This more limited idea of a state, Kuyper argues, is what lies behind the American constitutional impulse. He certainly seems correct in saying so.

Maybe more later, but in the meantime I urge any interested readers to get hold of Kuyper's Stone lectures in whatever form and pay particular attention to the section on Calvinism and Politics.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Mr. and Mrs. Smith . . .

won't get an Oscar of any kind, other than for competition between male and female leads for which one is more beautiful. I reluctantly concluded that Mr. Pitt is better looking than Ms. Jolie. Her top lip, while full and luscious, may actually be somewhat malformed. Plus, her head seems big for her body. This critique, of course, comes from a man with face, voice, and body all perfect for internet blogging.

Their film isn't worth breaking up a marriage over, but I completely understand how Pitt and Jolie ended up having a tryst. It's like War of the Roses if the Roses were highly trained spies. They generally try to kill each other and end up with spicy opportunities to make up.

The plot is not believeable. The action is fun to watch, but equally unbelievable. Ten years from now, no one will remember the movie. However, it is a diverting way to spend a couple of hours. If you've got a choice, see the Russell Crowe film.

The Cinderella Fella Flick

I saw Cinderella Man last night. Having seen it, I am at a loss to understand why this film is performing relatively poorly at the box office. The only explanation I can even suggest is that much of the film is bathed in the kind of visual gloom that frustrates many filmgoers, including me.

On the other hand, the plot is fantastic. The performances are superb. Paul Giamatti plays James Braddock's (Russell Crowe's) trainer/promoter and should easily be nominated for an Oscar. Crowe himself delivers his lines perfectly. When he is shown film of the champion killing another man in the ring, he simply answers, "What are you trying to tell me? Something like, boxing's dangerous?" The fight scenes succeed in being both more realistic than usual and still gripping.

If I were to try to sum up my feelings about the film, I think I'd say what came to me during one of the fight scenes in the movie: Nobody should ever be interested in watching those cheesy Rocky films again. That comes from a guy who REALLY enjoyed the Rocky films.

The Depression is the backdrop for Cinderella Man and it drives the plot completely. Braddock's desperate circumstances have everything to do with his unlikely comeback as a fighter. He is a boxer who has bottomed out and finds the heart to return to the sport with flair because he has nothing to lose and no one has any expectations for him. When you see the film, you'll understand the opening quote by famed sportswriter Damon Runyon, who explains that no fighter has had as compelling a life narrative as James Braddock.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

IQ HQ

Our friend Steve Sailer alerted me to this paper by Dr. Gregory Cochran purporting to explain the IQ adavantage of 12-15 points held by Jews of European origin. He tries to explain that it arose from their being forced by law into careers that require a greater application of the intellect.

This is yet another manifestation of the longstanding disrespect for the Jewish intellectual heritage. Anyone who, like Hunter Baker, has taken courses in Jewish Law, knows the tremendous degree of intellectual vitality that is invested in its study and application. And that same law which, when studied at all in secular venues, is studied at the university level, was traditionally taught to Jewish kids from about the age of 10.

When you train a whole society to consider the realities of life through the prism of legal categories, you are in essence fomenting a culture of the mind. No one should be surprised - even if, like me, you have some criticisms of the priorities applied - that it produces stronger minds. (Cochran mentions this theory, but rejects it because professional Rabbis were less than one percent of the population. What he does not consider is that scholarship among Jews went well beyond careerism and many of the greatest scholars never assumed rabbinic positions.)

I intend to write a series of articles countering Cochran's paper, the first of which will run in Monday's American Spectator on-line. Reform Club visitors get to scoop the rest of the world and read it early by following this link.