Sunday, December 23, 2012

KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2012): And the Economic Crash

Killing Them Softly is one of those films that at times seem to have approached greatness.  It never comes close to reaching that destination for the same reason that many films of the same type never reach greatness.  The movie comes near to being swallowed up in its bleak and hopeless outlook.
In the movie, three minor criminals feel that they can outsmart the mob by staging a robbery of a card game where mob leaders are present.  The robbery takes place with relatively few hitches, but nobody in the movie audience is convinced that the robbers will ever get away with it.  One of the robbers, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) almost from the moment the robbery is over feels as if the whole plot is going to fall to pieces and spends the remainder of the movie in a state of paranoia.  Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), his drug addled partner, is only concerned with using the proceeds of the robbery to purchase (and use) his heroin as he knows it is only time before the mob catches up with them.
And the mob does find out very quickly what is going on.  Russell can’t keep his mouth shut and he talks to the wrong people.  Soon the mob’s counsel, an unnamed driver played by Richard Jenkins, has a conversation with an expert hit man by the name of Jackie (Brad Pitt).  After originally hiring on another hit man named Mickey (James Gandolfini), who instead of making plans to conduct a hit ends up blowing great sums of cash on booze and hookers, Jackie decides that he needs to take care of the hits himself.
The time period is 2008 and the location is apparently New Orleans.  In the backdrop, we hear speeches delivered first by President George W. Bush and then President-to-be, Barack Obama.  The volume of these speeches is turned up as the movie progresses, and we never are for sure whether we are hearing the shallow talk of politicians (as Jackie suggests) or an alternative approach to the jaded and desperately unhappy viewpoint of the characters in the movie.  Perhaps the only character in the movie that we can even somewhat care for is Markie (Ray Liotta), the individual that sets up the mob card game that is robbed, and he is beaten so brutally in the film that we understandably know why all he wants is to die quickly.  Russell perhaps gets off the most easily as he ends up back in jail after being busted for drugs.  And Frankie is shot in the head by Jackie only after he begins to believe that Jackie is the one person he can trust.
The film ends with Jackie and the mob counsel sitting in the bar dickering over the price of the hits that Jackie has performed.  While listening to the speech of the newly elected President on television, Jackie spews scorn both on Obama and, going all the way back to our founding fathers, on Thomas Jefferson.
Killing Them Softly is a film with many attributes.  At 97 minutes, the film is short and to the point.  The dialogue, though in the same vein as a film like Pulp Fiction, helps the story along and is never a distraction.  The acting is first rate from everyone in the film.  The setting is stark and befitting for the story.  The story is happily never sentimental.  Despite casting Pitt in a leading role, the film was never designed to be a commercial blockbuster.  And using the mob as a metaphor for the banking industry is apt, and the criticism of a shallow and narrow materialistic culture is just.
Yet for all the good things that can be said about the film, it is not a movie that most audience members will repeatedly want to see.  This isn’t because the film makes us uncomfortable.  Rather, the film is limited in scope as the lessons do not go as deep as the director and writer, Andrew Dominik, may believe.  Unless you juxtapose the message Obama attempted to bring in his speeches to those articulated by Jackie in the film’s conclusion, Dominik’s critique of our capitalistic society provides no alternative solution.  This film tells us we live in a shallow and self-seeking society.  What do we replace it with?
In my opinion, Killing Them Softly fails in the same manner that many near great movies also fail: for example The Wild Bunch, Raging Bull, Trainspotting, The Departed, No Country for Old Men and about every film directed by Quentin Tarantino – ambitious, clever and well acted movies that were intended as an expose of a sick society but contain no other message.  These movies will probably not be watched over and over again except by a small set of superior feeling viewers that flock to joyless comedies.
I give the makers of Killing Them Softly and most of its viewers more credit than this.  I don’t think that these individuals are simply giving in to derision, but the film does at times come close to being one more crass depiction of society.  The classic definition of a cynic is an individual that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.  The filmmakers of Killing Them Softly only avoid this label by actually seeming to care about what the banking system and our political culture has become. 
December 23, 2012
© Robert S. Miller 2012

Sunday, November 11, 2012

OPEN LETTER TO CBS SUNDAY MORNING: The Scientific Truth about Climate Change

Dear Sirs:
Your news special, though interesting, shows how the debate continues to remain politicized.  The chances of CBS objectively picking four experts that had purportedly divergent views upon the subject of climate change and yet (1) remained convinced that man-made climate change is occurring; and (2) that we can do something about it, are around one in ten.  That these experts would actually come out on national television and suggest that climate science is still in its infancy and the debate about climate change is still in dispute is about one in a hundred.  That the editorial staff of CBS would suggest the same is about one in a million.
We need a real debate upon this subject before one cent is spent on preventing a real or imagined problem.  That debate is not forthcoming because of the lack of courage of politicians and of media outlets such as CBS.
Let me mention a few observations regarding your presentation.  That certain of these experts you interview can erect 1,000 foot towers and have access to so much land supposedly untouched by pollution shows that they are well funded and may have a vested interest in the result.  Also, could we at least have heard other scientists provide their opinion on whether the experiments conducted truly meet the requirements of objective science?
I guess I’m supposed to be enlightened when you suggest that Hurricane Sandy is the “elephant in the room.”  Apparently, that team of experts on your program that suggested there were no more tornadoes or hurricanes currently occurring now than at any time in history were wrong about this one particular point.  Let me ask: Was the hurricane in Galveston in 1900 that killed 8,000 people caused by climate change?  Was the dust bowl in the 1930s caused by a man made technological warming of the atmosphere?  CBS appears to have forgotten the mantra of all climate science enthusiasts that climate is indeed different than weather.  So please stop drumming up a story based upon a solitary current event that is getting a great deal of coverage.
Again, the science of predicting climate or the weather is so relatively new that there are too many unanswered questions for experts to arrogantly suggest that they know what is about to occur in fifty or a hundred years.  We’re presented computer models showing temperature patterns through history.  Yet accurate temperature measurements likely have only been occurring for 120 years, and much of the science that has gone into making these models is based upon temperature estimates at best.  There is likely no way that core samples, taken from beneath the earth's surface, provide temperature measurements as accurately as a thermometer.  Yet the debate is about fractions of degrees of temperatures that will change over the next century.  Can we at least examine as to how temperature measurements were taken in creating these models to begin with? Can we look at the role of the sun?  Can we look at the differences between temperature measurements taken in rural versus urban areas?  Can we be honest?
Seriously, you have a 90 minute program.  Let’s have a real debate (different than any Presidential debate that consists mostly of sound bites). Devote one single CBS Sunday Morning program to having a debate as follows:
(1)    Allow each side of the Climate Change debate to present their side for 25 minutes without interruption.
(2)    Each side then be allowed 10 minutes for rebuttal.
(3)    Let the actual scientists in the debate rather than media moguls choose who they want as presenters.
(4)    Let the public know the credentials of those presenting their side of the case.
(5)    Keep all politicians away from the microphone.
For the last 20 minutes of the show, you can give another one of your feel good celebrity stories if you so wish.
I’ll write back in a year or so if you still have failed to objectively cover the topic.
Robert S. Miller
November 11, 2012
© Robert S. Miller 2012

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

THE GODFATHER: PART II (1974) – Award Winning Sequel

The movie The Godfather, Part II is my opinion not as good as the original.  It was wishing for too much to hope that the sequel would ever be as good, and we miss the presence of Marlon Brando playing the character of Vito Corleone.  Also, juxtaposing the two stories of father and son side-by-side in the sequel may seem fashionable, but it wasn’t as successful as director Francis Ford Coppola may have hoped.
I’ve never been satisfied with the flashback scenes in this movie, despite an Academy Award going to Robert De Niro as a young Vito Corleone.  These scenes are well choreographed and well acted.  Still, the young Corleone played by De Niro is not the same entity as the older Corleone played by Brando.  The young Vito in Part II joins the underworld only for magnanimous reasons and - despite the carrying off a pair of revenge killings - we never see the sinister side to the young Vito that comes out so starkly every time Brando came on the scene during the original Godfather.
Nevertheless, Al Pacino as Michael Corleone plays his part consistently powerful in both of the first two films, and his counterpart, Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth adds a dimension that was missing in the first film by providing Michael with a worthy adversary that we get to know in depth.
The film is 200 minutes long.  It features the cat-and-mouse game that Michael and Roth play in trying to best each other.  There are also the great side plots concerning betrayal by Michael’s one remaining brother, Fredo (John Cazale) and a betrayal by an old friend of the family, Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo).  Both feel left out of the family business and, disastrously, attempt to sidestep Michael’s authority. 
The major women in the film play far smaller parts.  Connie Corleone (Talia Shire), Michael’s only sister, tries to hurt Michael by letting her life go into disarray.  In the end she rejoins Michael.  Kay (Diane Keaton), Michael’s wife, on the other hand hurts Michael almost as much as any character shown in either the original or the sequel by aborting Michael’s baby.  (Only in the poorly made Godfather, Part III would Michael have ever dreamed of forgiving her.)
Like the original, The Godfather, Part II is a glossy and violent soap opera.  Michael is so believably corrupted by the end of the film that he begins assassinating old enemies, old friends and even a brother – none of which any longer serve as a threat to him.  Michael keeps around a corrupt Senator (G.D. Spradlin) only because the Senator still proves to be useful for him.  Even his most loyal follower, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), a stepbrother to Michael, is no longer completely trusted.
In the end, Michael outsmarts everyone but himself.  Whatever victories he achieves as the undisputed head of the Mafia, Michael achieves no satisfaction.  He has made good on the promise that he made to his father in the original Godfather to be with him always, and it has rotted away his conscience.  There is nothing left of the young and sensitive man that volunteered to fight when America went to war in Germany and Japan.  Only the brain is still functioning.  The rest of Michael becomes a cipher.
Coppola may be one of the best storytellers in film since movies began.  In his major early efforts (The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, Apocalypse Now), Coppola had the skills to hold a loose story together.  He has not been successful at doing that since that time. 
In any case, Coppola directed three of the more powerful movies from the 1970s – the kinds of which we have never seen remade by anyone.  Coppola did it by taking chances.
October 31, 2012
© Robert S. Miller 2012

Sunday, September 30, 2012

A BRONX TALE (1993): Modest and Decent Gangster Film

Since I’ve so far refused to subscribe to cable or satellite television, I often end up watching movies that best fit onto a 17 inch screen television.  The best of such films are usually shown around two o’clock in the morning for individuals working odd shifts or that cannot sleep at night.  One such film is A Bronx Tale that was directed and starred Robert De Niro.  Strangely, it co-stars Chazz Palminteri who also wrote the play and screenplay for which the film was adapted.
Especially for a film that is about gangsters, A Bronx Tale is unusual in that it’s so devoid of cynicism  – a trait that have practically destroyed a large percentage of Hollywood movies.  It’s sometimes a bit too cloying, and the chief gangster, Sonny LoSpecchio (Palminteri) can be unbelievably benevolent and gentle when he’s not out to eliminate his perceived enemies.  Still, we care for the major characters because the emotion projected by such characters is honest.
The story takes place somewhere between the Bronx and Brooklyn during the 1960s.  Calogero (Francis Capra playing the young boy, and Lillo Brancato as a teenager) very early in his life witnesses Sonny commit a murder over a minor traffic accident.  Calogero never turns Sonny in, and Sonny tries to show gratitude by offering Calogero’s father, Lorenzo (De Niro), a good paying job.  Lorenzo refuses the offer and, in fact, discourages Calogero from ever seeing Sonny.  Nevertheless, Calogero continues seeing Sonny and even does what he can to help him out.
Lorenzo and Sonny living completely different lives often share similar world views.  Though Lorenzo is strictly hard working and blue collar, he can never convince Calogero to stay away from the easy money presented by association with Sonny.  But though this typically would be a disastrous choice, Sonny provides sage advice about romance, growing up and racial tensions in the Bronx, and he dissuades Calogero from ever pursuing a career in the mob.  In the end, Sonny makes his point when he (Sonny) is gunned down by a rival mobster seeking revenge.
Both Lorenzo and Sonny are remarkably open minded about Calogero’s pursuance of romance with a beautiful black high school student named Jane (Taral Hicks), and though the relationship never goes beyond that of a teenage romance, Calogero’s feelings for Jane allow him to see the difference between a decent world and the narrow world inhabited by many of his bigoted friends.  The problem with both the romance and the racial overtones is that it’s forced.  When it comes to racial dealings, it’s perhaps the only portion of the movie that is preachy.  This film was meant to be about two father figures, and the female presence in this film becomes a distraction.
A Bronx Tale, a 122 minute film, is remarkably much like the movie Hud, though the Bronx is very long way away from Texas.  One film takes place in the inner city, and the other takes place in wide open land.  Yet torn loyalty on the part of a 17-year old boy is the chief theme in both films.  In A Bronx Tale, the wiser of the two father figures wins out.  In Hud, no one wins – though the unscrupulous Hud does outlive his own father.
The decade of the 1990s was made up of a number of crass films, but at least here we had a movie that tried to give a positive message.  And when De Niro and Palminteri are on the screen, the movie’s sentimentality is manageable.

September 30, 2012

© Robert S. Miller 2012

Thursday, August 30, 2012

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962): “Revolt in the Desert”

Many years ago I read Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the book on which the film Lawrence of Arabia is based.  The book is phenomenal, and the movie in many respects lives up to the book.
The film can be a bit showy at times.  Though Director David Lean for the most part cast established names in the major roles, the most interesting exception was the casting of Peter O’Toole to play the part of T.E. Lawrence.  It was the role that would make O’Toole famous.  Yet I’m guessing that the late Colonel Lawrence would have been disconcerted by the way that he was portrayed in the movie.  No doubt, Lawrence comes across as a brilliant military figure in the film, but he often comes off as a bit of a fruitcake as well.
Individuals under great stress often do remarkable things, but its particularly remarkable that Lawrence could have so ably negotiated with the Arabs to fight together against the Turks while at the same time keep the Arab leadership and English and American military leaders happy at the same time.  One can tell by reading his works that Lawrence was an eccentric individual, but the film portrays him as being extremely unstable as well.
I suppose it’s inevitable that moviemakers feel the need to dramatize to make the story more compelling.  To the credit of such individuals with regards to Lawrence of Arabia, we never lose interest in the character on the screen – and it is extremely rare in this film that O’Toole is not shown playing his part.  It is the first modern film biography, and virtually no biography since has lived up to this film’s standards.
I earlier mentioned the casting.  We have Alec Guinness playing the wise and understanding Prince (and later King) Feisal.  Guinness actually looks the part of Feisal, but at times he seems so otherworldly that we almost forget that he’s a human being.  Omar Sharif plays Sherif Ali, a leader of an Arab faction that has been for centuries warring with another faction.  Is he believable in the role?  To some degree he is.  He grows through the film to a semi-barbarian to one that seeks political answers and weeps over the troubles of his off and on friend, Lawrence.  Anthony Quinn as Auda Abu Tayi may be the most stereotypical (at least by Hollywood standards) of any major character in the film playing the part of an Arab, but in many ways he comes across as the most human as well.
Of the other roles, Jack Hawkins as the manipulative General Allenby comes across as the most convincing.  Many other characters, including Claude Raines as Dryden, are stereotypical Englishmen set out to conquer the world.
What make this film so unique are the chances that it takes in storytelling.  At 216 minutes of filming portraying various settings all over the Middle East, the film obviously was intended as an epic.  Yet this was an epic like none other shown before in the extreme complexity of the hero of the film.  Lawrence is portrayed as a visionary, intellectual, eccentric, a sadist who at times was repelled by bloodshed, a masochist, possibly a homosexual, and one that had a love/hate relationship with the Arab people.  Lawrence was attracted and repelled by Bedouin morality which at times he considered clean and other times pushing the limits blood thirstiness.
The film can at times be as ambiguous as the main character.  The Arabs are treated reverentially at some moments, and treated with disdain at others.  Some characters like Sherif Ali are allowed to grow, and others never change or outgrow their resentments that seem to have no beginning or end.  Yet what we see filmed in Damascus where petty rivalries once again take hold after the Turks have been repelled still seems mild to what we are seeing in Damascus today.
Lawrence of Arabia is a great film because of the lead actor, because of the direction, because it takes risks, and because it does not insult one’s intelligence.  Seven Pillars of Wisdom is an extremely complex book that leaves one baffled about its author.  T.E. Lawrence admits in the book that he could never truly be one with the Arabs, and yet in fighting their cause never again truly be an Englishman.  The film is also perplexing, but that’s in part to do with the difficult questions it asks and the difficult character it presents.
August 30, 2012

© Robert S. Miller 2012

Saturday, June 30, 2012


It will likely be years before we can fully comprehend the significance of the United States Supreme Court decision that was released on June 28, 2012.  To figure out why the court decided as it did, we would have to try to get inside of a few of the brightest minds in our nation.  Most columnists are not up to the task.  Any court decision that does not fit into these writers limited viewpoint of the world is partisan and wrong.
Can I do any better?  I will try.  I’ll try to look at this case from its thousand perspectives.  I will make an effort to state my understanding of this complex matter in around 1500 words.  I will attempt to praise and criticize all sides and not offer the pretense that I fully comprehend every issue.  At the same time, I’m not going to parade around some fake humility and suggest that what I’m writing only comes from the perspective of common sense – rather than actual thought.  I will not wear my ignorance on my sleeve as if it were a badge of honor.
To begin with, the academic record of justices that serve upon the United States Supreme Court is outstanding.  It’s said that Antonin Scalia never received less than an A in any class that he was enrolled in during grade school, high school, college or in law school.  Elena Kagan, President Obama’s most recent appointment, attended school in Princeton, Worcester College, and Oxford, and she graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School.  Practically all other justices that have ever served on the court have similar academic credentials.
Some journalists choose to be unimpressed.  Maureen Dowd, for example, recently referred to Justice Samuel Alito as being “insufferable.”  Unwittingly, making such a personal attack likely says more about her inability to formulate her own arguments than about any personality flaws of the justice – which Ms. Dowd probably is in no position to speak about in any case.  Salon Magazine has lately had a field day in lampooning Justice Scalia by first accusing him of having temper tantrums when he doesn’t have his way, and then suggesting that Scalia went into a “bellowing, bullying and bombastic” discourse when recently addressing the court about immigration.  Likely, what Scalia said did not conform with Salon’s editorial opinions.
Many in the press of late seem to, either deliberately or not deliberately, misunderstand what the majority wrote in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, decided March 24, 2009.  President Obama decided to chide the court about how corporations were about to take over all federal elections.  Obama, of course, was trying to make political points, and he had the court at a disadvantage as the justices were sitting in the front row during a State of the Union speech.  In my opinion, what the President suggested likely will never happen since shareholders in corporations have say in how their money is spent, and becoming too outwardly engaged in politics may hurt a company’s reputation.  Besides, with however many trillion dollars is at stake during a Presidential election, it’s impossible to control how or what money will be spent on a campaign in a meaningful or just way.
Anyway, whatever the President said about Citizens United, many in the press decided to deride the case (probably while never reading it) because it made a good sound bite to keep repeating that corporations are not citizens.  This is largely beside the point because the case is actually about free speech.  It’s about my right as an individual citizen to hear whatever speech is out there – be it from a corporation, labor union, special interest group or other individual citizen.  Anyway, justices agreed and disagreed on many different portions of this opinion (as all intelligent individuals have a right to do), and, at least to even the dissenting justices, Citizens United was not so much a partisan case as the press would like to have made it out to be.
This brings us to National Federation of Independent Business vs. Kathleen Sebelius, et al - the case in which the Affordable Care Act (or so-called ObamaCare) was then discussed in front of the Supreme Court bench.  This case had a surprise ending – at least to those individuals that were ready to continue with accusations of the court being made up of partisan members.  For many liberals that actually believe in God, they are now sending prayers of thanks on behalf of the George W. Bush appointee, Chief Justice John Roberts.
Justice Roberts wrote the majority decision for this case, and he held that the Affordable Care Act was constitutional.  President Obama was understandably relieved because the Affordable Care Act has been over and over referred to as his “signature accomplishment.”  However, there are even conservative columnists such as Charles Krauthammer and George Will that are being apologists for the opinion that Justice Roberts wrote.  Such columnists suggest that Roberts’ opinion is the first in almost eighty years that has placed any limitations upon the Commerce Clause in the United States Constitution that provides Congress with the right to regulate interstate commerce. 
The way the court has defined the Commerce Clause has often been criticized by conservatives for simply giving Congress the right to regulate almost anything under the guise of calling it commerce.  However, Justice Roberts opinion suggested that the individual mandate under the Affordable Care Act compelling individuals to actually purchase a product (in this case health insurance) overstepped Congressional authority, and that the Commerce Clause cannot be used to compel people to purchase anything. Anyway, Krauthammer and Will’s opinion notwithstanding, it’s difficult to see how conservatives could be too excited about a theoretical limitation on the Commerce Clause, when the court opinion now has expanded Congressional power under the taxing power provisions of the Constitution (the right to tax and regulate almost on anything as Congress feels fit).
On a side note, President Obama and many supporters of the Affordable Care Act never referred to the funding of this act as being a “tax.”  Politically, everyone now days are trying to avoid using that term because it’s not looked at favorably by many voters.  Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader for the Republican Party, has already mentioned how Republicans will now hammer Democrats over the head for this by suggesting that the Affordable Care Act would never have been passed at all if the term “tax” had been stated out loud as a funding mechanism, and that the act was therefore passed primarily through deception.  I think most liberals will only view such a criticism as minor.  Most do understand that President Obama’s chance at being reelected in 2012 would have been extremely hampered had the Affordable Care Act been struck down in its entirety by the court.
The court did place another limitation upon Congress that few individuals have noticed.  Under the Affordable Care Act, Congress gave the Secretary of Health and Human Service the right to penalize states that chose not to participate in the expanded Medicaid Program introduced under the act.  This, the court stated, exceeded Congressional authority under the Spending Clause of the Constitution as it did not give states any choice as to whether to accept or reject participation.
So what does it all mean?  Such a decision obviously means that the real future of the Affordable Care Act will likely be decided in the 2012 Presidential, Congressional and United States Senate elections.  If President Obama is reelected, it would be almost impossible to repeal the Affordable Care Act because he will use his veto power over any attempt to do so.  Neither Congress nor the Senate will contain the two-thirds support needed to override any veto.
This may be the only thing we can say with certainty concerning the act.  Even those that voted in support of the act are not aware of all of the provisions that it contains.  As Nancy Pelosi famously stated: “But we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.”
What’s my own opinion of the matter?  I believe that the passage of the bill was likely the result of an overreach of federal power.  The bill was passed through a revision process – which has never occurred before concerning any major piece of legislation.  It was passed without a single vote of support from the Republican Party – also something that has never occurred since the Republican Party became a major political party. 
Was passage of the act necessary?  Even if it survives in its current form, we won’t know for another twenty or thirty years.  By then, maybe someone will have an idea as to how much money the bill will actually cost, and whether it really will save all of the citizens of the United States – rich and poor alike – any money concerning their healthcare.
Did President Obama do the right thing in pushing passage?  I don’t know.  He’s a politician, he was elected by a liberal base, and he attempted to reform healthcare in a major way, something almost every President has attempted to do since Teddy Roosevelt with little success. I respect the man.  He took on a task that could well have made or broken his Presidency.  And passage still may make or break his legacy.
Finally, there is Justice Roberts.  My feeling is he really would have liked to see the Affordable Health Act struck down.  However, I believe that this was one of those instances where the court may actually have been playing politics.  Justice Roberts presides over the Roberts’ Court.  He might not want his legacy to have been that he decided a case in a manner that could possibly have taken down a President of the United States.  If he had done so, he may have been vilified in many, many history books.
Some people (especially those on the left) might applaud his attempt to save his legacy.  But such an attempt to save one’s legacy may have been at the cost of not doing what one actually believes. 
Maybe the only way we can get anything done anymore in politics is through deception.  Or maybe there are so many considerations that go into getting anything done – including policy implementation, selling it to the public, and concealing what one actually thinks – that it’s impossible to act according to what one actually believes.
There are probably no victors in politics.  We had best look elsewhere for answers rather than blindly devote ourselves to those that we call our leaders.

June 30, 2012

© Robert S. Miller 2012

Saturday, April 28, 2012

TITANIC (1997): Good or Bad Movie?

What one thinks about Titanic I suspect depends on the reasons why a viewer sees the movie.  Despite all his rhetoric about class differences, it may have actually been the intention of James Cameron to market the movie towards 15-year old girls.  For such an audience the movie delivered.  It also delivered for nostalgic movie buffs looking for the most important overblown epic romance (with great visuals) since Gone With the Wind.  But no one can seriously suggest that Cameron delivered a scathing statement about how we treat our poor.  The movie is cardboard entertainment - from start to finish.
Old Rose from Cedar Rapids, Iowa tells this story to her grandchildren.  We have the good people: Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet).  And we have the bad people: Cal Hockley (Billy Zane playing Rose’s fiancĂ©), Ruth (Frances Fisher playing Rose’s mother) and Lovejoy (David Warner playing Hockley’s man-servant).  Ruth is priggish, Cal is a ruthless tyrant and Lovejoy is a sycophant.  Since there is no subtlety in this movie, Ruth and Cal are unsurprisingly very rich.  Rose is expected to sit with the boring first class passengers, but finds being with Jack to be much more fun.
Rose and Jack manage to get it on just about every imaginable place in the ship.  They also conduct a series of poses now and then that look really good on camera.  Jack even gets Rose to pose nude for a painting.  It seems like the only upper-class passenger on the boat pleased that Rose and Jack get together is the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown (Kathy Bates).  Anyway, the antics go on for so long to the disapproval of so many that we almost forget the ship is about to sink.
Well, we now know the ship did sink 100-years ago.  In the film Captain Edward James Smith (Bernard Hill) hurries the ship along against his better judgment while the ship is enveloped by a fog and scrapes the unsinkable boat against an ice berg.  The passengers all panic.  Rose is about to leave on a lifeboat but can’t leave Jack behind.  Jack, of course, is destined to die because he is poor while Hockley is to survive because he is rich.  Anyway, as if the sinking of the boat isn’t dramatic enough, Hockley becomes so upset that Rose fled the lifeboat to reunite with Jack that Hockley decides to start shooting at them amid all of the other chaos.
Jack and Rose eventually escape the ship and do swim to a piece of wood on the water.  However, Jack must immerse himself in the icy water to make room for Rose.  Jack freezes to death and Rose is eventually rescued by a lifeboat.  Meanwhile, Hockley gets to be a passenger on a lifeboat only by deceptive means.  (It does him no good because Rose wants nothing to do with him.  We learn that Hockley later shoots himself in the head after the stock market crash in 1929.  One impression one comes away from watching Titanic is that all 1500 people that died because of the shipwreck were good hearted poor people.)
We then fast forward some 80-years.  Eventually, the nude portrait of Rose is discovered by some treasure hunters while searching through the Titanic’s wreckage and the painting is presented to the old Rose.   Rose likely dies in bed while gazing at it.
Titanic is 194 minutes (or over three hours long) and it could easily be chopped in half.  Cameron could maybe then have saved a bit of the $200 million that was spent on the film (though he certainly has made that back in box office receipts).  The film has absolutely no character development.  The rich people are snobs and the poor people are all charming.  And I could think of almost no film that was any less predictable than this one – though I might have expected Hockley to at one time or another to exhibit human traits in the film.
As if the film didn’t already make enough money, Cameron decided to release a 3D version of it to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking.  For a whole new generation of movie watchers this will be great entertainment.  However, I feel sorry for anyone that feels the need to watch the film once again.  At most, viewing this movie should be a one-time experience.  And even seeing it one time will likely traumatize certain viewers not used to such cloying sentiment. 
But it did win an Oscar for Best Picture …..
April 28, 2012
Robert S. Miller © 2012

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: The Bounty Program

I recently wrote a short post for another publication concerning the wrongful death action that the family of former professional football player Dave Duerson is bringing against the NFL.  Duerson’s family alleges that the player committed suicide in part due to the concussions he suffered as a player.

I received a short response from a reader as follows:

     “Bulls***, money loving bastards.”  (The asterisks are mine.)

It seemed to me like a bit of an overreaction.  It’s interesting that the commenter takes a shot at the supposed greed of Dave Duerson’s family while not mentioning the greed of the NFL, whose annual profits are in excess of $8.5 billion.  Still, I do give the commenter credit for spelling the offending words correctly.  I also believe he was sincere.  Probably no thoughtful reader with the capacity for self-doubt would have posted such a comment.

Besides the reader having an empty heart and empty head and probably being emotionally wound too tight, what are we to make of such a comment? I’m guessing he’s the type of person that represents a kind of insanity all too common.  We haven’t quite reached the point where we’ve had a soccer riot that’s left 75 people dead, but we do gamble away hundreds of millions of dollars every year on long shots that exceed ten-to-one.  Some of us threaten to kill a fellow Chicago Cubs’ fans that allegedly interfered with a foul ball.  Following the most horrific scandal in college history, Penn State football fans riot over Joe Paterno being fired rather than over the molestation of several young boys at their campus.  Finally, certain Saints’ fans are more outraged at Jerome Shockey, who may or may not have been the source for the New Orleans Saints bounty program leak, than they are by the fact that players were being paid to end other players’ careers.

It now seems the Saints specific bounty program has been going on for some time.  The owner of the Saints, Tom Benson, had ordered the Saints coaching staff to end their bounty program a couple of years ago.   Still, Head Coach Sean Payton and then defensive coordinator Greg Williams while promising to put an end to it continued with the pay-offs.  Eventually it was exposed through overheard conversations recorded on the sidelines, by a possible whistleblower whose identity remains unknown, and by some questionable shots on Brett Favre and other players during key games.  The program’s existence has since been verified by defensive coordinator Greg Williams.

I don’t think anyone should be too surprised about what was going on.  Players have probably always been trying to take out other football players on the other side in any case and there has been some give and take as far as this is concerned.  Quarterbacks have long been a target.  I once saw a film clip of Joe Namath being leveled close to three seconds after he had thrown the ball.  Namath like so many other great players from the 1960s is barely able to walk anymore. 

Such practices of course have continued.  One notorious example involved Charles Martin, a former defensive lineman for the Green Bay Packers, who in 1986 carried a “hit list” of opponent player’s names on a towel onto the field.   One of the names on the towel was Quarterback Jim McMahon who Martin subsequently threw down and injured after a play was over. 

And what has happened in New Orleans did not involve the first bounty program of its kind.  Variations of such programs go at least as far back as the fabled Oakland Raiders in the 1970s, and there probably was a similar type bounty program going on these last couple of years in the Washington Redskin organization as well.   Such programs may have been going on among several NFL organizations.

Still, the New Orleans bounty program was exposed at a bad point in NFL history when the league is under fire for not doing more to protect its players from concussions.  Roger Goodell for some time has been all about “player safety” to avoid the same type of Congressional Hearing that baseball faced concerning the use of steroids.  It seems Goodell does have some reason to worry as such a hearing has now been proposed by Senator Dick Durbin – not specifically about concussions but about bounty programs.

Goodell has now acted.  The Saints’ coach Sean Payton is suspended for the entire 2012 season and General Manager Mickey Loomis for at least half of the season.  The organization has been fined $500,000 and they have now lost two second round draft picks.  Greg William, who contributed money to the bounty fund and who claims to be primarily responsible for the bounty program’s organization, is no longer with the Saints but nevertheless faces an indefinite suspension. Several players are expected to face suspensions in the coming weeks as well.

As far as football punishments go, these were some of the stiffest ever handed down in league history.  As far as player safety goes, it will probably only make a marginal difference.  The punishments probably will lessen the use of such bounty programs.  It is also likely that the NFL will monitor concussions more closely than they did in the past.  Yet there is only so much that can be done as the sport is a violent one and players are hitting harder than ever.  Improved padding and equipment has only made such hits all the more possible.

I live in Minnesota where there is current debate going on to build a brand new football stadium for the Minnesota Vikings.  What used to be called the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome and is now called the Mall of America Field no longer seems to suffice.  I remember when the domed stadium was first built back in the 1980s.   Supporters of building the dome said that, though it would be expensive, such a structure would be a solution concerning the housing of our various sports’ teams.  The Vikings, the Twins and the Minnesota Gophers would all be able to call the domed stadium their home.  And almost from the beginning what instead happened was that none of the franchises were happy about this domed stadium.   We’ve since built separate stadiums for the Twins and for the Gophers.  So now instead of having what stadium for the three teams, we have three separate stadiums (presuming that the Vikings’ stadium does get built) at who knows how many more times the cost.

I predict the Vikings will get a stadium.  The reason I predict this has nothing to do with business factors, contributions to the community or development of neighborhoods.  Those arguments will certainly be brought up in support of building such a stadium.  The reason why I believe it will be built is because there are so many unreasoning individuals in the world such as the commenter I mentioned above.  They couldn’t put together more than a four word response as to why a new stadium is necessary, but there is no reasoning with them.  They’re interests are quite narrow.  They do not have lives outside of watching professional football.  They’re willing to insult a family whose member committed suicide.  They are willing to threaten a fan that allegedly caused their team a chance at a championship.  And many such individuals are the type of fanatics that will vote out a politician for no other reason that we lost a professional sports franchise. 

I am a sports fan. I’ve written many times about sports on this website.  I admire the skills and dedication of professional athletes and have no grudge against them for the money they make.  They simply have a job to do.  I would rather see a professional athlete take home the millions of dollars than any business executive or Hollywood star.  At least I know that the athlete had to exhibit more real talent and perseverance to get where they are at.  There’s very little politics that goes into running a 4.4 forty or bench pressing more than 500 pounds.  If only more sports fans could learn from at least some of their examples rather than live vicariously through such athletes instead.

The New Orleans Saints fans can live a season without Sean Payton.  They can go without a couple key draft picks.  The Saints had their world championship a couple of seasons back and it’s yet to even be seen if they will be in the doldrums next season.  Even so, the fans that think they know everything now believe their world is ending. 

March 27, 2012

© Robert Miller 2012

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

MONEYBALL (2011): Billy Beane and Baseball Stats

Moneyball would be a decent movie if you didn’t buy into the premise that it’s supposed to be based upon an actual baseball team playing for the pennant.  Billy Beane was the General Manager (GM) for the Oakland Athletics in 2002 when the A’s went 103-59 for the season.  And yes, the A’s dropped the playoffs to the Minnesota Twins.  And the team did have a few players that surprised the league for their performance.  But much of the rest of the film is pure fiction.

This supposed team of ragtag and low salaried underdog players disposed of by other teams and picked up only by Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and Assistant GM, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), who had a genius for baseball statistics, was put together to somehow compete with the hated New York Yankees.  Except that the Oakland A’s of 2002 also had on their team besides David Justice (Steven Bishop), Miguel Tejada, Eric Chavez, Jermaine Dye, Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder – with virtually none of these players recruited through Billy Beane’s “moneyball” scheme or referred to in the movie Moneyball.  By the way, the Assistant GM’s actual name was Paul DePodesta, but Depodesta asked that his name not be used because he in no way resembled the character of Peter Brand - as portrayed in the movie.

The movie is predictable.  Billy Beane decides to implement the new moneybal scheme because he’s tired of losing every year to the Yankees and he understands that his payroll will never compete with that of the Bronx Bombers.  Beane receives an incredible amount of resistance to his new scheme from the baseball scouts in the organization and from the team’s Manager, Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).  The team gets off to a slow start, but Beane is determined not to abandon his plan.

Beane resists the pleas of the scouts and of Howe and forces his system upon the organization.  Then the team goes on a roll and manages a 20 game winning streak.  By then everyone becomes a believer in moneyball until the team loses in the American League Divisional Series.  Then the baseball announcers and critics are telling about how you just can’t discard the scouting methods that had been going on in baseball for over a century.

Beane is nevertheless offered a shot at being GM for the Boston Red Sox.  Though he turns the offer down, we are erroneously led to believe that the Red Sox used the moneyball scheme to win their own World Series in 2004.  (I say erroneously because the Red Sox won that series the same way the Yankees had won so many series – by paying large salaries for players.)

If the film Moneyball works it is mainly due to the acting of Brad Pitt.  (I could hardly believe in any of the other characters in the movie including Peter Brand played by Jonah Hill.)  The movie is rather long (133 minutes) but moves well because of the screenplay of Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame and the direction of Bennett Miller.  The movie is probably going to be interesting to individuals with a passing interest in baseball and a more passionate interest in baseball movies. 

While claiming that the moneyball strategy is all about the numbers, Moneyball will especially appeal to filmgoers that do not want to take a close look at what the numbers actually mean.  Nobody that enjoys this movie will actually look up the salaries of the 2002 Oakland Athletics or the 2004 Boston Red Sox.  Nobody will pay too close attention to the good run the Athletics had during the early years following 2000 and the mostly mediocre years that followed during the last half decade while Billy Beane has stayed on as GM.

I don’t even know what to say about what is false concerning the movie other than it’s false like so many other movies.  The film unnecessarily humiliates the manager of the team, Art Howe, and makes one assume he made no major contribution towards a team that won over 100 games that season.  And in truth, Brad Pitt actually looked more like Assistant GM Paul DePodesta than he did Billy Beane.  Jonah Hill was probably called in to play Assistant GM Peter Brand to make him appear more like a lovable loser.

I have the feeling that the screenwriters wanted to make more of a feel good ending to the film by actually having them go on to win the World Series, but that would mean they would have to acknowledge that the film was based on a fictional plot.  Yet having the team lose in the divisional playoffs at least gives the movie an added dose of realism.  Everything else in the film comes together too smoothly for a “true story.”

Moneyball has had its accolades and is probably as good as any other current film nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture in 2011.  I’ve long discounted the merit of most films nominated in any case, and I’ve lost further faith due to there now being ten nominees rather than five.  Yet this David vs. Goliath type film would be more convincing if I didn’t feel manipulated by the manufactured facts.

February 22, 2012

© Robert S. Miller, 2012

Sunday, January 15, 2012

MR. MAJESTYK (1974): Elmore Leonard and Melon Farming

Many early reviews of Mr. Majestyk seemed put-off by the film because it lacked social dogma.  Yet critics that didn’t outright dismiss the movie upon its release found the low budget film to be entertaining and unpretentious.  It was based on a novel of the same name by Elmore Leonard before the novelist was particularly famous.  The movie only deviates once from the novel in any major way (one of the major characters, Bobby Kopas, does not get himself blown away like he does in the book), and that deviation was actually an improvement.

The movie is more than a simple and violent story.  Mr. Majestyk is a character study.  It’s a study in that it contrasts the character of three different individuals:

1.      Vincent Majestyk (Charles Bronson): a melon farmer and former war hero who has endured hardship throughout his life, who craves simplicity and who would like to get ahead in life through hard work and the true companionship he finds from his co-workers on his small melon farm.
2.      Frank Renda (Al Lettieri): a hit man, who has probably also endured hardship throughout his life, and takes his bitterness and regrets out on the remainder of the world by taking his revenge on anyone that tries not to let him get his way.
3.      Bobby Kopas (Paul Koslo): a down and out and emasculated loser who desperately wants to make something better of his life, but who does not have the courage to make ends-meet legitimately.

Only one of the three characters will ever be happy with what he has, and therefore the other two try to thwart him in any way they can.

Majestyk meets Renda in jail.  Majestyk was provoked into assaulting Bobby Kopas and is thus sent into lockup while his melons are waiting to be picked.  Renda is quite understandably in jail for a murder, though we already suspect that the authorities are never going to make any charges stick against him.  Kopas meanwhile is licking his wounds after being humiliated in a fight with Majestyk.

An attempt to break Renda out is made that goes badly wrong.  This ultimately results in both Majestyk and Renda fleeing, but with Renda dependent upon the whims of Majestyk as to where they go.  Majestyk wants to use Renda as a bargaining tool with the authorities so that he can get out of jail and get back to finishing processing of his melons before the growing season ends.  Unfortunately, Majestyk outthinks himself and Renda escapes through the assistance of Renda’s love interest, Wiley (Lee Purcell).  (Wiley is essentially treated by Renda as a fifth-rate person, but she remains loyal to Renda until it’s fairly obvious that Renda has met his match dealing with a baffling melon farmer.)

Renda, in the meantime, was so offended by the way Majestyk belittled him and treated him while they were on the run that he decides his next hit is going to be on Mr. Majestyk.  Renda drives off many of Majestyk’s workers, threatens various contractors not to do business with him, shoots up some of his melons and eventually breaks the legs of one of Majestyk’s best friends.  Though there should be some consolation in knowing that he has brought hardship and hurt upon his adversary, Renda remains unsatisfied because Majestyk shows no signs that he either fears or respects Renda in anyway.  In a face to face confrontation when Renda tells Majestyk that he is going to kill him, Majestyk responds (since he has nothing to lose) by punching Renda in the face.  Majestyk then tells Renda to go talk to the cops if he wants to press charges.

Though essentially a loner, Majestyk really is not in this fight all by himself.  Many of his workers respect Majestyk so much that they continue to work in the face of some very real threats.  And Majestyk meets up with a beautiful migrant worker by the name of Nancy Chavez (Linda Cristal), who in her own way is every bit as tough as Majestyk, and who in just a few days falls in love with the man.  In a pursuit through the mountains with Majestyk and Nancy on one side and Renda and his henchmen on the other (also joined by Bobby Kopas who doesn’t do much to help Renda’s cause), Majestyk ultimately becomes the pursuer while Renda is the pursued.  Majestyk kills Renda and his men, spares the lives of Wiley and Kopas, and waits for the incompetent police to arrive.  We are to assume that Majestyk and Nancy finish up on picking their melons and settle down to a somewhat satisfactory life alternating with long years of labor and struggle.

Many characters in the film appear to have little or no acting experience, but the acting of the three leads is sufficient.  In fact, the character of Renda might be almost incomprehensible to most film goers if not for the acting of Lettieri (who unfortunately died shortly after this movie was released).  Paul Koslo as Kopas was perfectly cast as a heel.  For Bronson, the film had an unfortunate side effect in that it led to him to starring in the Death Wish films that forever typecast Bronson into one particular role (a role that really was very different from what we had here). 

As for the criticism that the film did not raise social consciousness, it would be interesting to consider how many books and films would have no merit whatsoever if this was the sole criteria for judging a work of art.  The director of this film, Richard Fleischer, had already tried his consciousness-raising a few years before in a film called Che!  That ludicrous attempt to glorify a historical figure that we would all be better off remembering as a murderously idealistic clown, should have warned the critics that most of Hollywood was hardly equipped to put out a respectable “message film.” 

However, there is far more to the film that these ill-witted critics originally could fathom.  Elmore Leonard’s novels, I believe, are better than those of Larry McMurtry – another writer whose fame is essentially due to his works being adapted by the film industry.  Leonard comes across straight forwardly and this makes his stories fit easily upon the screen.  In the case of Hombre, the book is better than the film.  Paul Newman was badly cast as the lead in that movie.  In the case of Mr. Majestyk, the film is better because actually seeing the main character in action makes the individual more understandable.  If Majestyk were only a loner as is implied by the early criticism, he could just as well have pursued the path of Renda.  But Majestyk found warmth and humor in his relations with the migrant workers he did business with and thus we have sympathy for those migrant workers as well.  The message is just not forced, and the story is not reduced to social issues alone.

Mr. Majestyk is far from a perfect film, but it triumphs over so many other clumsy Hollywood attempts to appear relevant.  Mr. Majestyk is a film that can be enjoyed in subsequent viewings without the viewer having to pretend to having really enjoyed what he or she has seen.

January 15, 2012 

© Robert S. Miller 2012