Rex Appeal

Oliver Stone’s 2008 movie W. portrays the 43rd president as somewhat of a tragic persona, a person who might want to do the right thing despite his own inabilities and shortcomings. It’s an interesting movie to watch, regardless of your opinion of the subject matter.

I say this because there’s some interesting drama playing out in Washington these days, and I can easily envision Stone or some other filmmaker making a similar movie about the embattled Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson.

It doesn’t take a political scientist to look back at the process leading up to Tillerson’s nomination to the post — for which he would have to leave his role as CEO of ExxonMobil — and see that the nomination was mostly (if not entirely) an effort to undo the sanctions imposed on Russia for its annexation of Crimea in 2014. Those sanctions have prevented Exxon from inking a lucrative deal with Russian oil firms.

Then two things happened. First, Tillerson was actually approved as Secretary of State, and second, congress passed a law preventing the sanctions from being lifted without their approval.

With regard to the former event, Tillerson clearly knew going into the position, that there were things about the job that he wasn’t prepared to handle. Despite a bumpy start to things, he does seem to have at least been trying to lead the State Department the way it ought to be run.

With regard to the latter event, it actually freed him a little bit. Knowing he can’t really do anything about Russia, he seems to have sought out things that he can do that might be best for the entire country and not just his former company.

And that freedom has enabled him to speak more freely, including the reports that he called Donald Trump a “fucking moron”. His non-denial of using those words (and I wholeheartedly agree with that assessment) only angered Trump more.

That’s not to say he’s been an effective Secretary. His tenure in the government is likely to be quite short (I’m guessing he’ll stay until January or so) and if it’s remembered at all, it will be as a footnote or a cautionary tale about the proper sources of cabinet-level positions.

But I do kind of feel sorry for the man. He’s out of his league and he knows it. He’s trying to do the right things but is hampered by his inexperience, attrition within his department, and, of course, the fucking moron he reports to.

Sounds like the makings of a somewhat engaging movie. Where’s Oliver Stone these days?


Movieguide’s New Low

I've written before about the Christian movie review site Movieguide. I've come to expect dishonesty if it furthers their worldview but they've got a new article that's appalling even by their standards.

Entitled "Wake Up Google," I first thought (hoped?) that maybe they'd take a stand for simple human decency and condemn the so-called Google manifesto that's been circulating on social media for about the past week. That manifesto is the stuff of another essay, but I'll just say that diversity is almost always a good thing and you look stupid if you try to argue otherwise.

No, Movieguide is up in arms about the supposed hypocrisy of Google for simultaneously supporting The Equal Justice Initiative while lobbying congress in opposition to changes to the controversial Communications Decency Act of 1996.

Let's ignore, for a moment, that whatever lobbying is done by Google's parent company, Alphabet, is completely unrelated to its social outreach. But the CDA is problematic on simple first amendment grounds. If any right guaranteed by the constitution is sacrosanct, it's the freedom of speech. No matter how outrageous the speech is, it is protected. It's why we have the right to protest outside of military funerals with signs reading "god hates fags." If that kind of speech is legally protected, I can't imagine what wouldn't be.

Certainly not pornography. And the CDA is thinly veiled censorship. When you hear people say things like "what about the children?" you know they don't know how to protect their children from some of the less desirable aspects of the world and/or things the children are not yet old enough to see and hear. Google is right for not wanting to expand the CDA.

Movieguide then goes on to list six murder victims in defense of their position that we need to get violent pornographic images off the internet. Since they didn't provide any links to their stories, I decided to google their stories (ironic, I know…). And damn, did they mislead its readers about what happened in their cases.

What do the six victims have in common besides being female? First off, they were all citizens of the UK, which means that nothing related to changes to American law would have made a difference in their cases. Five of them were strangled, and the sixth we simply don't know how she died because her body was never found and the killer isn't talking. Of the other five killers, only one could claim to be influenced by violent pornography he found online. But even he said that he was interested in erotic asphyxia before he found the porn of it. And the sex was consensual with his girlfriend/victim as he choked her. He went too far and pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He was convicted of murder anyway.

I get that sites like Movieguide are big on censorship and they have no use for sexually charged imagery. But let the truth get in the way of a good narrative when the lie serves your purposes much better?

Rube Goldberg Endings

Even though all of the Little Fivers are currently on hiatus, I am the moderator of the Top Five Horror list. Before it went on vacation, I had a lot of fun with this list, and hope to have fun again once we resume.

One of the topics I came up with last year, was Signs It’s Time to Retire the Final Destination Series.

For those who don’t know or aren’t familiar with the original movie Final Destination, I thought it was a fascinating twist on the “teenage slasher” genre of horror movies. It starts with a high school class getting on an airplane for a class trip to Paris. Once they board the plane, one of the kids on the plane has a premonition that the plane would blow up mid-air and he starts to panic. That kid, and several others get off the plane before it takes off.

The plane then takes off and blows up exactly as the premonition demonstrated. After that, death itself comes after all of the people who had gotten off. What makes this fun, is that each death occurs as a function of a series of rube goldberg style machinations that, at least in theory, could actually happen as a consequence of random chance and are at least partially the fault of the individual victims.

The sense of palpable fear as the premonition takes place make it a remarkable feat for filmmaking. And the movie was apparently popular enough to warrant a total of four sequels, each of which begins with someone having a premonition of disaster and takes action to save him- or herself and some people who would have died in the disaster. When Final Destination 5 came out last year, I figured it was time to do that horror list I mentioned above. Truth be told, though, I hadn’t seen the movie until last night, when I watched it after having DVR’ed it a couple of weeks ago.

I have to give the movie a degree of credit. With each of the previous movies, you could tell who was going to be next to die, even though it wasn’t necessarily clear exactly what the cause of death was going to be.

The individual death scenes in this movie are the cinematic equivalent of a garden path sentence. You know who’s going to die and they plant certain “gimmes” within the scene that could somehow contribute to the death, and then kill the character off in a way you still don’t expect.

Prime example: one of the guys goes into a massage parlor and gets a bunch of needles placed in him as a form of acupressure. The table he’s on collapses and some of the needles get pushed too far into his body and, in the process, he gets covered in massage oil. Then some candles fall over and you’re expecting him to be burned to death by the candle flames coming in contact with his oiled skin. Nope. He gets far enough away from the flames by backing into a wall, dislodging a buddha statue on a shelf, which falls down on his head, killing him instantly.

I guess a movie series like this kind of has to do things like that in order to maintain a degree of freshness, even if the opening sequences concern scenarios that are less and less likely to occur. (In order as the five movies presented themselves: plane crash, massive pile-up on a highway, freak roller coaster accident, massive crash at an auto race, and, finally (?) collapse of a suspension bridge.

And I’ve got to admit, the way the movie actually ended was something I truly didn’t see coming. I thought it was a brilliant ending; the fifth movie may actually be the best movie since the original.

It had some truly disgusting scenes in it (especially for someone like me who’s a bit squeamish about things to do with people’s eyes…) But it really was a much better sequel than most “fifth installments” might otherwise be. Especially for what’s essentially a slasher movie.

Ranking the Pixar Movies

A couple of weeks ago, the movie Brave came out in the theatres, and I took my kids to see it over opening weekend. They both loved it, as did I.

Rotten Tomatoes gives it mostly positive reviews, but, honestly, I’m surprised it’s not more highly rated. Although I don’t consider it the best feature length movie produced by Pixar Animation Studios, it’s pretty high up there.

At least, that was my gut reaction upon seeing the movie. Since I’ve seen all thirteen movies that Pixar has put out, I figured it only fair to actually try and rank them from best to worst. I’m sure some people will disagree with my placement of some movies on this list, but hey… Let’s have some fun with this, shall we. So here’s my list, in order from best to worst Pixar movies:

1. The Incredibles. Brilliant story, amazing plot, and animation that truly blows you away. It’s one of the most exciting cinematic rides I’ve gone on, animated movie or not…

2. Cars. You don’t need to be a fan of racing to appreciate this story (and I’m not). It’s simultaneously a parable about the fleeting nature of fame and popularity, combined with a cinematic exploration of Charles Kuralt’s arguments about how the Interstate Highway System enables you to drive across America without seeing any of it.

3. Brave. If I have any real complaints about the script and plot of this movie, it’s that they could have done more to explore how the characters learn to understand each other. There’s no shortage of movies out there about the sometimes tenuous relationship between mothers and (adolescent) daughters, but this one hits on a lot of the best points about it.

4. Ratatouille. What a truly clever concept! Well-thought out, and one that, it could be argued, doesn’t necessarily have the good guys actually, you know, winning. The food critic’s review at the end of the movie is truly inspiring. It’s also a good parable about balancing responsibilities to yourself, your family, and your career.

5. Up. Sometimes I joke that all computer animated movies these days, no matter what the production company, are attempts to make a statement akin to “Hey! Look at what our animation technology is actually capable of!” And having a house being lifted into the air by who-knows-how-many independently animated helium filled balloons is definitely one of those things that are amazing from a technology perspective. Add a compelling storyline and you’ve got a real winner. A minor plot ding has to go to this movie because, if we’re being generous, there’s still a fifteen year age difference between the two elderly gentlemen who have to fight each other at the end.

6. Monsters, Inc. This is an excellent play on the whole concept of every child’s fear of a monster that hides in their closet. Like with Up, above, the animation of the hair on one of the main characters is a marvel in animation technology. It’s kind of refreshing to see that corporate responsibility issues in the monster world is by and large the same as in the real world.

7. Finding Nemo. A good father-son tale about learning to let go, despite our fears of doing so. The beautiful seascapes and colors in the animation make this a truly breathtaking movie. I have to call out one scene that has a bit of dialogue that not only was unnecessary, but it also was proven wrong with no apology: when Marlin meets up with the sharks and explains that Nemo was taken by some divers, one of the sharks remarks that the diver was “Probably American.” As it turns out, the diver was Australian. It’s an unnecessary line and probably should have been edited out.

8. Toy Story. The grand-daddy of them all, the first ever feature length computer animated movie. While the animation of this movie isn’t as good as just about all other movies put out by Pixar, this movie works as a proof of concept over and above all else. One of the problems I have with this movie is the fact that literally every toy shares in the irrational fear that a child will stop playing with them only on birthdays and gift-giving holidays, ignoring the obvious fact that a child can and will stop playing with a given toy at literally any time.

9. Wall-E. Truly a marvel in animation to the point that it’s almost photorealistic, especially when the only two characters we see are Wall-E and Eve. It makes no apologies for the process by which Wall-E (and almost all of the other robots to a lesser extent) have developed a personality while performing their directives. This movie loses a lot in the ranking because of all thirteen Pixar movies, it probably has the most glaring hole in its plot. Specifically, if 700 years before the time when this movie is set, the president of Buy N Large sent a message back to the Axiom (and all other ships out there, I would assume) not to make any attempts to re-colonize the earth, then how and why did EVE go back to Earth still looking for vegetation samples? If Otto knew that there was a risk, however small, of an EVE probe coming back with something, then shouldn’t he have prevented the probe from going out in the first place? (I also doubt that the Captain would have been able to win any fights with Otto if he had literally never walked before…)

10. A Bug’s Life. This is a good movie, to be sure, but it feels like it tries to cram too much into too small a space. Is it about a pack of traveling flea circus performers? Or the ants’ struggle against the grasshoppers? I like the message about how one person with a dream can change society, but overall, it’s too overwrought and convoluted. One of the arguments between Flik and the performers is particularly forced.

11. Toy Story 3. Despite the amazing animation (especially the furnace at the end), I can’t help but get over the thought that this movie is both an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the original Toy Story while simultaneously pull on our heartstrings more than any other Pixar movie.

12. Toy Story 2. Okay. I might be biased here. This was actually the first Pixar movie I saw, and I can’t begin to express how underwhelmed by this movie I was. I honestly could not empathize with any of the characters as they were portrayed in this movie. It’s almost as if this movie goes out of its way not to be challenging to anything.

13. Cars 2. What a horrible follow-up to such a good movie to begin with.

An interesting thing about this list. I had no trouble putting together my top 5 and I had no real problems coming up with the bottom 2. It’s ranking the six movies in the middle that was quite problematic. Even as I post these words, I get the sense that maybe Toy Story 3 is too low and that Wall-E is too high on the list. (Even though the latter still belongs lower than the former…)

Interestingly, the Wikipedia entry entitled “List of Pixar films” contains a grid that outlines all thirteen movies and which can be sorted by rankings both at metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. There is near universal agreement that Cars 2 was the worst of all of the Pixar movies. I’m honestly surprised that Wall-E places as highly as it does on both lists and, for that matter, that Toy Story 3 places higher than the original Toy Story in the Metacritic rankings.

Bring on the disagreements!

It seems that there are no more songs

When I was in college, I was an exchange student in Russia for one semester. In my literature class that semester, the professor asked us if we could provide a good example of an American бунтар. This word — pronounced ‘bunt – AHR’ — is an interesting word in Russian, as it’s clearly derived from the Russian word for riot (бунт). The best translation of this word into English that I can come up with is ‘rebel’.

I was the only person in my class to come up with a name in that discussion. I said Phil Ochs. At the time, I wasn’t aware of the existence of a biography of him entitled Death of a Rebel, by Marc Eliot. (I picked up that book a little bit over two years later). Hell, at the time, I only knew a very small subset of his greater work. (For the record, I wasn’t even familiar with the song of his that I included in my list of songs to hear before you die at the time).

A biographical documentary on him was released last year, called There But For Fortune, which contains an amazing amount of archival footage, interviews with family and friends, and pretty much documents his life, beginning with him winning his first guitar with his college roommate on a bet over who would win the presidential election of 1960, and culminating in his decision to take his own life on April 9, 1976 at the age of 35.

If you have read the Marc Eliot book (above) and the other (better researched) biography of Phil Ochs (There But for Fortune, by Michael Schumacher, you’re not going to learn a whole lot from this movie that you didn’t already know from at least one of the books.

But the movie itself works in ways the books don’t, because we get to see film clips of Phil singing, talking about his works, and generally being Phil Ochs. I myself was struck by how much weight he had gained between a clip that was filmed around about 1975, compared with a clip from around 1965.

The movie was a beautiful homage. I’m guessing that somewhere between one-third and one-half of his overall musical library was presented, at least in part, at some point in the movie. While people often look at his body of work and respect the lyrics, or the folksiness, and the message, it becomes all too easy to forget that his voice was as much of a gift as his pen. Take this video for the song “No More Songs,” (which, sadly and/or ironically, is the last track on his last album from before he died):

If you have a passion for good music, and to know more about the people who create music like that, you have a duty to check out this movie.