Wednesday, August 31, 2016

THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016): Third Disney Remake

Rudyard Kipling’s classic children stories contained in The Jungle Book was first filmed as a cartoon by Disney in 1967, then in 1994, and finally into a more updated animated version in 2016.  Though the latest version comes closest to capturing the spirit of the stories as Kipling envisioned them, this still is little different from the previous films.

Disney did try to make a production out of this 2016 version of The Jungle Book.  With an estimated budget of $175 million, The Jungle Book provides a spectacular visual viewing.  (Despite the amazing scenery depicted throughout the movie, the moviemakers apparently filmed The Jungle Book in some Los Angeles warehouse.)  Also, Disney did not hold back on the casting.  The voices of the characters include Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken, and Garry Shandling among others.  Director Jon Favreau and the producers of the film were also wise enough to keep the movie to 106 minutes to keep the interest of young viewers.  Bill Murray and Christopher Walken also provide some good comic relief as the film may otherwise be a bit too dark for those only familiar with the earlier Disney versions.

Mowgli (Neel Sethi – the only live actor shown on the screen) is a young boy raised by wolves in the jungle, befriended by a bear named Baloo (Bill Murray), and counseled by a wise panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley).  What otherwise would be paradise for Mowgli is threatened by his enemy, a tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba), who disdains any man entering the jungle.  Attempts by Bagheera to bring Mowgli back to a village inhabited by humans are unsuccessful.  Mowgli runs into several adventures where he is put under the spell of a cobra (Scarlett Johansson), temporarily kidnapped by a large orangutan called Louie (Christopher Walken), and eventually returns to his home where the wolves live.  Mowgli eventually gets Shere Khan to follow up into a tree where a branch snaps and the tiger falls to his death.  Mowgli is then once again free to run with the wolves.

At least two critics I’ve read stated that Disney wished to avoid controversy by leaving out Kipling’s colonialist message.   Unlike the Kipling stories, Mowgli never returns to civilization in the film.  This would likely be too complex of a twist to be contained within such a short film – even if Disney did not give Kipling intent in writing the stories a second thought.  In the Disney versions, the jungle is not such a terrible place for a young boy to live.  In the Kipling version, failure to abide by the rules of the jungle, which would be almost impossible for even a boy like Mowgli to follow, would lead to almost certain death.

Though it is understandable leaving out Mowgli’s return to society, since the intent of the movie is to be charming rather than compelling, the film ultimately is little different than the cartoon version filmed almost fifty years ago.  One only has to consider all of the sequels and remakes made today in Hollywood to understand how moviemakers wish to bring in more dollars.  And so while The Jungle Book is momentarily entertaining, we will probably forget about the movie until Disney attempts to create another version with even more updated visuals.
August 31, 2016

© Robert S. Miller 2016

Sunday, July 31, 2016

ELI WEISEL: Plight of a Gentle Jew

When Eli Weisel died on July 2, it was astonishing to discover he lived to be 87-years-old.  By all probability, he should have been dead in 1944.  I also felt some shame as I had not read or thought about the author and holocaust survivor in quite a few years.  I had read Night when I was in college and was jarred by almost every sentence in the memoir.  In this book barely more than 100 pages long, Weisel speaks about his recollections of Auschwitz.  Much more personally, he speaks about the death of his mother and sister and, at greater length, the murder of his father that he was present to witness.

Night is not merely a depiction of the horrors or Auschwitz.  Weisel devotes much of the book towards how his experienced impacted his religious beliefs.  Some of the most moving pages of Night take place in the years before Weisel even knew Auschwitz existed.  During his early teenage years, Weisel sought instruction on the Cabal, and was mentored by an eccentric teacher who prayed chiefly in order to learn how to pray.  Weisel sought such instruction because – deeply sensitive as he was – he knew that the organized Jewish faith was not enough to satisfy his mystical cravings.  

It was this same teacher, by the way, who was first to warn the small community about the manner in which Jews were treated in Nazi-occupied territory.  A firsthand observer of a slaughter of Jews at the hands of the Nazis, Weisel’s teacher faced mockery in his community who thought he was mad.  No one knew how truthfully he spoke until the trains entered Auschwitz. And it was what Weisel saw at Auschwitz that made him declare: “Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust.  Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself.  Never.”

While struggling with my own religious beliefs during my college years, this was in great deal a pose to demonstrate my intellectual independence.  Weisel struggled because of his inability to come to terms with what he saw in the Nazi concentration camps.  If one ended with what Weisel communicated in Night, you would assume Weisel no longer believed in God.  Yet whatever happened in the intervening years, Weisel later stated that belief in God was a continual necessity for otherwise one would cease to exist.

I do not feel I am in the position to question anyone who had seen such things regarding his inability to believe in God, nor his finding religious significance in what he had seen.  So I spent years trying to reconcile the Weisel making his statement about the death of God and his later statements about his belief.

Weisel did engage in political controversy long after he became famous as a writer.  He was a strong advocate of Israel and thought such a nation entirely necessary because of the manner that so many countries abandoned the Jews before and during World War II.  He begged President Ronald Reagan to not visit the Bitburg cemetery in 1985 because buried there were members of the SS.   Reagan did visit the cemetery after making the statement that the Nazi officers buried there were also victims.  However, Reagan did change his itinerary by also visiting the Bergen-Belsen concentration site.  Weisel was also firmly opposed to providing Iran any sort of opportunity to develop nuclear devices.

Disagreeing with Weisel over such issues proves almost as difficult as disagreeing with him over his statements about religious beliefs.  The problem in confronting Weisel is that you had in one man a holocaust survivor plagued by guilt, an author and intellectual, whose ideas sometimes appeared to be contradictory, and a decent man who was a truly deserving award winner of the Nobel Prize.

With his passing, we are coming towards the end of holocaust survivors who can speak about their experiences.  Sadly, such lessons do not appear adequately learned by most of us, and we may be in danger of raising a new generation who thinks little more about the lessons of the holocaust than they will about the Spanish Inquisition – which they already probably know little to nothing about.

I wish I had come across Night in some other setting than a college class.  It is a book that more individuals should seek to read on their own in the privacy of their homes where the lessons can be truly absorbed.

July 31, 2016

© Robert S. Miller 2016

Saturday, June 18, 2016

MUHAMMAD ALI: 1944-2016

If he didn’t rule boxing, Muhammad Ali at least dominated the conversation regarding the sport for twenty years.  When it came to conversation, other fighters had little else to say.  As great as his boxing skills were, we won’t remember him for this alone.  What made him probably the most famous boxer in history was the manner in which he inserted himself into popular culture through his boasting, his conversion to Islam, the changing of his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, and his refusal of induction to the Vietnam draft.

He called himself the greatest, but in later years he admitted that he really didn’t mean it.  Ali actually picked this gimmick up from watching the professional wrestler, Gorgeous George.  The highlights of his career included his defeating Sonny Liston and later George Foreman – both holders of the heavyweight championship at the time of these fights and viewed as being almost invincible.  Ali actually defeated Liston twice, but the second fight ended so controversially that it’s difficult to know what credit Ali should receive.  But from winning the gold medal in the 1960 Olympics to revenging his defeat against Leon Spinks in 1978, there were many moments of brilliance during his fighting career.

Ali knocked out Archie Moore in four rounds.  He twice defeated former champion, Floyd Patterson.  Even late in his career he managed to outbox Ernie Shavers, one of the hardest punchers in heavyweight history.  And no one will ever forget the three fights he had with Joe Frazier – the last in Manila and probably one of the greatest fights of the 20th Century.

Yet with his dazzling speed and his remarkable ability to slip punches thrown at his face, we forget that he had his awkward moments in the ring.  Henry Cooper knocked the then 21-year-old Cassius Clay down, and that fight may very well have ended in a knockout if not for the delay tactics of Ali’s corner man, Angelo Dundee.  Ali did have trouble with a number of lesser fighters like Oscar Bonavena, Ron Lyle and Jimmy Young.  And while he fought both Ken Norton and Joe Frazier three times, it’s arguable that both of these opponents actually got the better of Ali overall in these fights.

It’s obvious now that Ali’s greatest mistake was staying around the boxing ring too long.  Like Jim Jeffries and Joe Louis, he had to see if he could make that one last comeback against a superior foe.  Larry Holmes, whose boxing skills were probably as great as Ali’s when Ali was in his prime, won by TKO over Ali in ten rounds, and it was a fight that many of us now wish had never happened.  This would probably include Holmes who was in tears after the fight for inflicting so much damage upon his hero.  (Holmes went on to make a similar mistake when he attempted a comeback fight against Mike Tyson.)  Ali still did not learn his lesson and tried to fight one more time in a losing effort to a boxer named Trevor Berbick.

We will never know how much more there would be to say about Ali’s boxing career if he had not lost three years of his boxing career due to his refusal to serve as a soldier.  The boxing world stripped Ali of his championship.  He then had to wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to unanimously rule that he was certifiably a conscientious objector.  Only then could he again fight.  Whatever else we can say about Ali’s judgment, he at least did not flee the country and he risked jail time rather than serve in what he called an unjust war. Ali stated in his own defense: “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”

Yet just like during his boxing career, we forget that Ali was not always the perfect public personality.  In fact, at times the monologues could be grating and extremely self-righteous.  Ali seemed most comfortable when he was the center of attention, and only did he during his later years seem to get past his own narcissism.

Ali said many unflattering things about his greatest rival, Joe Frazier.  Ali went so far as to call Frazier an “Uncle Tom” – a slight that is almost unforgivable considering where Frazier came from.  Ali directed this remark at a fighter who came up in much worse circumstances than Ali ever did.  Frazier, the son of a sharecropper, grew up in poverty.  Frazier gave Ali money during the time Ali could not fight.  When defeating Ali for the first time in his professional career, Frazier earned the victory and deserved respect.

Time tends to make us forget.  I recall seeing Ali on the television screen for almost as long as I have been alive.  As kids, we debated about whom would win: Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali against almost whoever else he was fighting.  Many times we hoped Ali would come out on the losing end, but that almost never happened.

Ali outlasted his opponents and the negative press.  Many sportswriters now rate Ali as the greatest heavyweight fighter in history.  Muhammad Ali, someone with little formal education, has received honors from Presidents and other world leaders.  Ali as a fighter and as a public figure endured the punishment inflicted upon him and perhaps this is where Ali’s greatness lies.  He never felt sorry for himself, and never criticized the very sport that likely contributed to his Parkinson’s disease.  Unlike the critics of boxing, he understood that he would never have had the fame and celebrity he did without his great boxing skills.  And so he took the almost 30,000 punches to the face while participating in the sport that he loved.

In the future, we will mostly read about other great fighters in the record books.  Ali’s name will show up in a large number of history books.

June 18, 2016

© Robert S. Miller 2016

Thursday, March 24, 2016


The first Republican Presidential debate since Super Tuesday was no disappointment for those looking for entertainment and little substance.  It followed Mitt Romney’s denouncement* of the frontrunner, Donald J. Trump, and Marco Rubio’s reference to the size of Donald Trump’s hands.  It’s no great surprise that the debate itself consisted mostly of personal attacks.

Where Did The Bad Feeling Come From?

Character attacks are not new to politics, and such attacks will continue for as long as there are elections.  Yet there was a period following the 1970s where Presidential candidates did try to appear civil.  I don’t remember any election involving Ford, Carter, Reagan, or George H.W. Bush where the rancor was spilling across the media.  However, we began seeing touches of rancor directed at President Clinton after accusations of his marital infidelities became very public around 1998 prompting impeachment actions to move forward.  Clinton survived this ordeal.

The civility really came to an end on December 12, 2000 when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Bush v. Gore.  Since that time, mostly on the internet, Facebook and Twitter, there has been a constant hurling of insults – first from the left concerning George W. Bush and then from the right regarding President Barack Obama.  That each President managed to be reelected didn’t seem to quiet down anyone.  Ever since 2000, as soon as one presidential election has concluded we are already discussing who we will vote for in the next one.

It all leads to this: every four years we hear of a new savior running for office who will save our country and make everything better.  And though disillusionment is inevitable, the disappointment with one candidate only makes us all the more hopeful for the next.

Following the Iraqi conflict and the real estate market collapse in 2007, Barak Obama made a wide variety of promises on how he would remedy the situation.  Unsurprisingly, Obama delivered on some promises and not on others.  Yet the failure of Obama to deliver on certain promises never made the hopeful believe such measures were out of reach.   Instead, the hopeful turned their support to Bernie Sanders who promises even more – to create a single-payer plan, promote free college education for everyone, etc. 

The Republican hopeful are no more realistic.  As the Republican establishment has not put a stop to illegal immigration, angry voters are now turning to Donald Trump who promises to build a wall across our borders.

We should know by now that such promises will never happen, but I suppose enthusiasm to be maintained needs to be blind.  It is also the result of a particular type of conceit.  This is the conceit among supporters and political pundits that they know without reservation what can be accomplished, and which candidate will best meet the needs of everyone.  Look what happened in the South Carolina Democratic Primary.  During the course of the primary, many pundits somehow thought they could speak for black voters by telling them that Bernie Sanders was a better for their interests than Hillary Clinton.  The strategy didn’t work.  Black voters overwhelmingly snubbed these pundits by supporting Ms. Clinton. 

Since presidential elections first began, candidates have used simple and mostly meaningless campaign slogans.  Examples include: “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” “Return to normalcy,” “A chicken in every pot,” “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people,” and “We like Ike.”  Notoriously, Woodrow Wilson ran in 1916 with the slogan, “He kept us out of war” – this right before U.S. troops went to Europe during World War I.  And right before the reelection of Nixon to the Presidency in 1972, his Secretary of State pronounced, “We believe that peace is at hand.”  Enlisted troops continued to fight in Vietnam for another three years.  This election will be no different.  It won’t be clear why a large number of voters voted the way they did, but somehow one candidate or another will reach them by slogans calling for political revolution or promises to make America great again. 

Why Has Trump Been Successful?

While mostly unfriendly to him, the media has done a wonderful job of keeping Trump in the spotlight.  Such publicity not only appears to be leading to his nomination, it also seems to ensure he could be a formidable opponent in the 2016 election.  Like most nominees for either major party, he will likely receive at least 40 percent of the vote.  And judging by how successful he has been in the primaries, he has an outside chance of winning.

The media and Trump opponents have made a terrible mistake contributing to Trump’s success.  Not only have they gone after Trump, they have also gone all out in insulting his supporters.  And while many admit they do not know any of Trump’s supporters, these detractors continue to insist his supporters are mostly ignorant and racist.  This will change nobody’s minds.

It is true that the baggage of Trump is there for everyone to see.  Trump should have known without prompting that David Duke was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.  And while not solely responsible for the rioting at his rallies, Trump should have taken some accountability for the violence occurring there.  Trump also is not telling us how he will live up to his promises.  Like Sanders (but seemingly more effectively), Trump supplies easy answers for difficult issues by mostly saying what his supporters seem to want to hear.  And as I write this, with Trump’s unfavorable ratings with women too low for him to realistically expect to win against Hillary Clinton unless something changes, Trump insults Ted Cruz’s wife.

Yet while the average Trump supporter may never have received a college education, this is far different from being ignorant.  Trump supporters consist of a large number of blue-collared workers who have worked hard to support their families.  Among them, there will be a large portion who have run their own businesses successfully and who did not have well-to-do parents to help them get started.  Whether the anger of some of Trump’s supporters is justifiable, these individuals still are facing a set of issues that many other voters are not facing. 

To his supporters, Trump’s an outsider, has business experience (though perhaps not real world business experience), and has demonstrated in three quarters of the primaries and caucuses his ability to win.  And it appears Trump supporters understandably do not feel that candidates like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton are anything to boast about.

What Happens Next?

Just a few days ago we had a terrorist attack on Brussels which likely is tied to the one in Paris.  The stakes are very high and we cannot afford to allow ISIS to win.

William Buckley once stated: “I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.”  While I reluctantly agree, I’d also rather entrust the government of the United States to these same 400 people than the editorial staff for the National Review or any other news outlet.

I hope that voters take the time to educate themselves on who is best qualified for the office and don’t make up their minds too quickly.  Having done that, I also hope that these voters remain humble in the knowledge that whoever they pick may still end up being a disastrous choice.

* As an aside, the same week Romney made this speech he also filed his name for consideration of the Presidency of the United States.  In other words, his speech may seem a bit self-serving.

March 24, 2016

©  Robert S. Miller 2016