J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for the ‘Clever but Immoral’ Category

Barton Fink

Posted by J on January 14, 2011

What is there to say about Barton Fink that’s not on its Wikipedia page?  It won a bunch of awards in 1991, it’s stylistic, it’s got the Coens.

But what’s noticeable on the Wiki page is that Barton Fink is a theory movie that has something to do with modernism and postmodernism.  For those who don’t keep score between literary theorists, this fact doesn’t matter.  What will matter are the inexplicable twists the movie takes that, if you’re not able to view them in terms of theory, will be far too bizarre.

The movie follows a successful Broadway writer in the 1930s who moves to Hollywood to write screenplays.  After the studio executive kisses his rear end, he tries to write a wrestling movie.  He should be able to do this, because he wants to write about the common man, even though he’s a bit too wrapped up in his own mind.  But he types a line and then … nothing.   Constants interruptions stop him from continuing. His writer’s block is only alleviated by a friend, an insurance salesman, who comes to visit him.

At this point, we’re watching a movie about making movies and a buddy picture.  About two-thirds of the way through, we switch genres to some kind of mind-bending fantasy horror movie.  This had members of our household saying “huh?” and “what does this mean?”  Your present writer, having taken lit crit classes, had a guess that the Wiki page confirms.  But the other members were left a little clueless.

It’s not their fault that they wanted a somewhat conventional narrative.  It’s not their fault that they wanted something that seems coherent.  When the hotel catches on fire and John Goodman turns into a kind of devil, it’s not their fault that they wondered what this had to do with reality or theology.

The interesting thing is that, though this is called a postmodernist movie, it’s a modernist movie, given the reactions of our household.  Like Barton Fink, it is art that alienates the common man and tries to make some artistic statement that only intellectuals can decipher.  The movie is best viewed through modern philosophies of art and literature, but it is worst viewed through the ordinary experiences of ordinary people.

Entertainment: 5

Intelligence: that depends on yours, obviously

Morality: 1


Posted in Clever but Immoral, Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again, Reality-Fantasy | Leave a Comment »

There Will Be Blood

Posted by J on October 14, 2008

We have finally reached that point.  We finally have a well-regarded story — a movie in this case — in which the villain is the one and only showstopper.  Oh sure, everybody loves Milton’s Satan.  And the Joker has been much beloved twice in recent pop culture.  But in both those cases, there was a hero to counterbalance the villain.  In There Will Be Blood, there is no hero.  There is only Daniel Plainview, a force of nothing, a supreme exemplar of depravity, on-screen.  As viewers, we can feel nothing but disgust.  Plainview is beyond pity.

Reader, if you’re looking for a fulfilling story, do not approach this movie.  Long ago, Aristotle told us what makes a tragic story work for an audience: catharsis.  There is no catharsis in There Will Be Blood.  Plainview has no redeeming qualities, and he is not a great man.  Since there is no joy in the movie either, you will leave this movie feeling like a pile of manure.

Unlike a great movie like Amadeus, in which the villain and main character accidentally enacts a useful morality tale for an audience, There Will Be Blood offers nothing more than the hollowness of Plainview.  Sure, there is lots of vague religious symbolism, underneath the great photography.  But Plainview starts out as a hideous man and grows only more hideous throughout the movie.  We’ve known people like him.  We do not want to be around them long.  So why would we want to spend 150 minutes watching Plainview degenerate into a greedy, isolated husk of a man?  Here, that is all you will see.

The counterpart to Plainview is a charismatic preacher named Eli Sunday.  In typical Hollywood fashion, Sunday represents the nuttiest of the nuttiest that “Christianity” has to offer.  You’d think they could throw us a decent, honest Methodist or Baptist every decade or two.  But no, Sunday has to cast out the demons of arthritic old ladies and shout “I bite you, devil!  And if I don’t have teeth, I gum you!”  Sunday’s church is the Church of the Third Revelation, the place where the local ignoramuses go to hear the new doctrine that Sunday dreamed up two days ago.  He’s a holy roller who’s only in it for money and power, and it’s a wonder that the movie doesn’t depict him as actively searching for paramours.

Sunday, like Plainview, is nothing but a vile man.  Sunday, though, is the more pathetic of the two, a petty hypocrite with an annoying, boyish yell.  Both Sunday and Plainview are slaves to money and personal greed, and the movie’s attempt to be intellectually brilliant is to create an ever-changing power relationship between Sunday and Plainview.  Sunday baptizes Plainview so that Plainview can build an oil pipeline, and Plainview baptizes Sunday, in his own way.  Need we say that neither baptizm is really effectual?

Oh, but what of the plot?  Not that it matters much, since it’s the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis and the nice photography that’s on display for the credentialed critics to “ooh” and “aah” at.  Plainview is an oilman who creates a town called Little Boston in the middle of the California desert, thanks to the participation of poor families like Eli Sunday’s.  Plainview promises to make Little Boston into a boomtown.  This is music to the ears of Sunday, who longs for a larger audience in his Church of the Third Revelation.  The more people to hypnotize each week, the better.

But there’s one problem: Sunday cannot take his mind off the money that Plainview owes him, and Plainview refuses to pay.  You see, the Church of the Third Revelation needs its $5000 smackeroos.  As usual, the church gets greedy, and then gets conned by crooked capitalists.  The Word becomes the servant of Mammon, for it can get rich no other way, so the thinking goes.  Sunday thinks he can serve God and Mammon, while Plainview just thinks that God is a superstition.  These are your heroes.

The movie’s final scene absolutely flounders. It punishes Sunday more than it does Plainview, whose atheism gains something of a conquest as the movie closes.  It is a failed ending of what begins as a promising movie.  The first twenty minutes have no dialogue, just oil prospecting.  These are the best twenty minutes of the movie, with the opening shots alluding to Plato’s allegory of the cave.  At the one-hour mark, the movie shifts for the worse, when Plainview’s degeneracy is obvious and painful, and by the time it flashforwards to the 1920s we’ve already long known that Plainview is utterly despicable.   At least twenty minutes needs to be cut from its runtime.

The movie has almost nothing good to say about entrepreneurship or Christianity.  The local townsfolk who get roped into Plainview’s schemes and Sunday’s false church are merely dupes.  Everyone else is a greedy son-of-a-gun.  Only Plainview’s adopted son escapes the madness, and he retreats to Mexico.  Since the movie obviously attacks the idea of the self-made man, the central American myth, this flight to Mexico by the movie’s only honorable man can only mean that the American Dream is a total sham. That dream, so say says the movie, is practiced only by crooked capitalists and stupid holy rollers.  Trust us, if you watch this, there will be pain.

Entertainment: 1-9

Intelligence: 8

Morality: 1 (what morality did it demonstrate?)

Posted in Clever but Immoral, Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again, Period Drama | Leave a Comment »

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Posted by J on September 4, 2008

It’s a shame that Order of the Phoenix features good witches and benevolent sorcery.  Cut that part out and you’ve got an okay movie. In fact, Order of the Phoenix provides one of the most scathing critiques in recent memory of government-run schools.  Actually, it goes further than that: government-run anything, so the movie argues, is buffoonish and ineffective.  Incapable of combating external threats, it imposes tyranny on its own citizens in reaction to external threats.

The movie begins with an attack on Harry by a couple of soul-sucking skeletons.  Since these skeletons are government-workers — prison guards at the Azkaban penitentary — somebody on the inside has ordered them to attack Harry.  But Harry is blamed for this attack.  He is brought before an intimidating, secret government court and subjected to a rigged trial.  Only by a last minute intervention does he find himself vindicated.

And yet the government (called the Ministry of Magic) uses the media to attack Harry for claiming that the Dark Lord Voldemort has returned.  This government-media connection is featured throughout Order of the Phoenix, and it is not to be admired.

Meanwhile, Harry’s school is taken over by a Ministry of Magic bureaucrat named Deloris Umbridge.  Umbridge asserts that the students don’t need any practical training, and that the students will now learn solely in order to pass a government-mandated exam.  Umbridge makes Hogwarts its own little hell.  Curiously, she is the main villain in this movie, while the disturbing Voldemort plays second fiddle to Umbrage’s ultimate, government-sponsored evil.

So Harry starts his own, de facto homeschool.  Forced to teach themselves, Harry and his friends form an extracurricular group to learn the ways to defend against evil wizards.  And, of course, it pays off.

Yes, we like to look on the bright side.  This is the first Potter movie to have anything meaningful to say without resorting to some vague point about good overcoming evil.  Still, there are a few trite soundbytes uttered as profundities of wisdom.  Such as: we all have good and evil inside of us, and it’s up to us to choose.  And: friendship trumps evil.  Those came near the end, and it’s this kind of goofy, sentimental message we’ve come to expect from the visually imaginative Potter series.

This is the fifth movie in an eight-movie series.  It will be about six movies too long.  At about movie #3,  you need a map and a scorecard to keep track of the characters, and even at movie #5 it is still not clear how the invisible world of witches practically co-exists with the real world.  In fact, until movie #5, It was not even clear that there was much of an invisible world of witches beyond Hogwarts.  Of course there are always lots of spells, lots of curses, and a great witch fight as a climactic moments.  You, dear reader, know how much of this you can stomach.  If you are to view a Potter movie for style, go with Prisoner of Azkaban. If you are to view a Potter movie for content, Order of the Phoenix is probably the one to watch.

Entertainment: 7

Intelligence: 2

Morality: 3

Posted in Big-Budget Eye Candy, Clever but Immoral, Pretty Good | Leave a Comment »


Posted by J on July 30, 2008

Aliens is not a movie we’d recommend to anybody, but if, like us, you’ve seen it and are willing to recognize it as the best of its kind (the blockbuster action movie), there are several things to consider about what you have learned by viewing it.

One of these is already well-known. Aliens is yet another Vietnam War movie from a defeated American perspective. The overconfident marines hired to destroy the “natives” quickly turn into scared pansies once they realize that they cannot defeat these natives. It’s not just that they can’t defeat them, but they never could. The aliens are in their natural environment, they are relentless, there are a lot of them, and they will not stop attacking until either the marines are dead or they have left. Though the marines have all the firepower they could ever dream of, they could never subdue these aliens; the only way to beat them is to utterly destroy them via aerial bombing. Otherwise, the marines can’t regain control of the colonial outpost and maintain a long-term, military presence there. Obviously, in a way, this is all more than a comment on Vietnam; it is a general comment on imperial rule in the modern-day context.

The unremarked aspect to Aliens is the purpose of the final showdown, which is not between the marines and the alien horde, but instead between Ripley and the alien mother. Ripley, of course, is the female hero who exhibits military leadership and soldier skills. There is a feminine side to her — she adopts the tough, orphaned girl found at the colony, its last survivor — but she is clearly a feminist model for a woman in the army. She could never assume the traditional role of mother while conducting a mining operation in deep-space or while shooting up alien monsters.

In a future Alien movie, this point is amplified. Her adopted child dies and Ripley is infected with an alien host, which bursts out of her abdomen as she commits suicide, knowingly killing the creature gestating inside of her. The aliens are hideous, but Ripley was probably never going to give birth to anything anyway.  She is a career woman.

Ripley’s opponent, however, is a traditional mother in both the animal and human sense. The alien mother, like a queen ant, rests in her hive and makes babies all day long. Her job is to reproduce the species, caring for her babies and making sure that they develop and thrive. It is clear, then, what will happen when Ripley and the marines come to shoot up the aliens’ hive. The alien mother gets ticked, so ticked that she is willing to leave her nest, latch onto a spaceship, and ride it into orbit, where she will battle her masculine rival, Ripley, in a deathmatch. The movie’s obvious preference is for the G.I. Jane figure to defeat the full-time mother, obvious because the full-time mother is hideous-looking and G.I. Jane is a bona fide moviestar.

Other than these two issues, colonialism and femininity, Aliens is all guns, monsters, explosions, tension, and military talk (with much taboo language). It is well constructed, which is why we say that it’s the best of its kind.

Entertainment: 10

Intelligence: 4

Morality: 0

Posted in Clever but Immoral, Sci-Fi and Fantasy | 1 Comment »

Hamlet (1996)

Posted by J on July 22, 2008

Hamlet the play offers a crucial choice for directors.  The character Hamlet, prior to the opening lines, just experienced his father’s death and his mother’s marriage to his uncle.  He’s also got issues with his sometimes-girlfriend.  So directors can choose option 1, which is to make Hamlet a depressed mope.  This depression is exacerbated when Hamlet sees his father’s ghost, and so Hamlet spends at least the first four acts sulking and raving.

Option 2 is what Kenneth Branagh chose for his uncut, 72 mm version of Hamlet.  His Hamlet is upset about burdensome family issues, but he has a degree of emotional control over them.  Instead, he goes on a mission.  Just after Branagh’s Hamlet sees the ghost, he is out to produce the downfall of his uncle Claudius with every word and in every scene.  This is a cunning, calculating Halmet.  His mad fits and crazy actions are feints, deliberately pretended in order to provoke Claudius and his court.

Consider the famous “to be or not to be” speech in this movie, which is probably its best scene.  Claudius and Polonius hide behind glass doors that look like mirrors on one side but are windows on the side they are on.  Hamlet walks into the stateroom with glass doors, and while it looks like he doesn’t know Claudius and Polonius are behind one of those doors, he might; it’s not clear.  Then Hamlet stands in front of the door Claudius hides behind and gives a monologue on the option of suicide for a troubled person living in a weary world. Hamlet looks right at himself in a mirror, but he is also looking right at Claudius, who interprets the speech as if it’s meant for him.  Is Hamlet giving a moment’s thought to suicide, coincidentally looking at Claudius, or is he really provoking Claudius?  A few minutes later, he certainly is provoking Claudius, when he realizes that Ophelia is questioning his sanity on behalf of her hidden father. In other Hamlets, the “to be or not to be” speech follows the confrontation with Ophelia, which means that Hamlet contemplates suicide because of, on top of his other problems, his lost love with Ophelia.  In Branagh’s version, the “to be” speech is not at all about lost love.  It is about the powerplay between Hamlet and Claudius, internally and externally.

That is one of several of Branagh’s brilliant scenes in what is an uneven movie.  The reason it is uneven is because Hamlet is massive — Shakespeare’s longest play — and contains a lot of repartee that needs to be cut.  Branagh cut nothing, however, so the four-hour runtime is going to take up a third of your day.  Also, some scenes don’t work.  The one in which Hamlet sees his father’s ghost, for example, looks like a bad horror movie.  Most of the flashbacks, which can’t be done in a stage version anyway, are not necessary.

This movie provides a crucial test of a family’s standards.  In the first act, we see brief flashbacks of Hamlet’s liaisons with Ophelia.  Unfortunately we didn’t know this was coming; there’s no way of knowing.  It’s basically one naked actor on top of another, though the camera angle doesn’t allow a viewer to see everything (a PG-13 rating).  Now we think the seventh commandment — don’t commit adultery — is a good rule for life.  So here we are with a scene in which two people, at least one of whom was married at the time, took their clothes off and rolled around as if they were married.

Some people just call this “acting” for the sake of great art.  But it is a simulation of the real act, and a simulation that is real in the sense that two living persons participated.   We wouldn’t want either of us to pretend to love somebody else physically (or emotionally for that matter), especially when it’s being recorded for all of posterity to remember.  Not even a peck on the cheek.  So what are supposed to think and feel when we see two real people — not just characters in a movie — being recorded while pretending to have sex?  It seems like it should be repulsive.  Would you want your wife, or your daughter, or your mother, in such a scene with another man?  Wouldn’t you squirm if you watched such a scene with them?

All of these thoughts and questions flash through our mind, so we turned off the movie immediately.  Only later, months later in fact, did we skip through much of the rest of it.  If that makes this review incomplete, so it is.

Posted in Clever but Immoral, Period Drama | 3 Comments »

Say Anything

Posted by J on June 11, 2008

One reason we watch movies is to analyze their moral statements, to discover what they say about human values and ethical priorities, especially as they relate to a Christian ethical system. By watching in this way, we arm ourselves. Either we get recommendations for movies with worthwhile viewpoints (very few and far between) or we can provide others with reasons for avoiding popular movies with warped morals.

Say Anything is a classic example of a movie that’s founded on a certain moral principles. Or, really, many moral principles. It’s chiefly about love — that is, about how men and women get together, and how in the process they break away from their parents. Like Jane Austen stories, Say Anything aims to get a guy and a girl together. When we see this kind of plot, we immediately ask ourselves a few key questions. How does it think they should get together? When and why should they get together? These point us toward the moral.

Now, we admit that we liked the guy’s relentless pursuit of the girl in this movie. That’s about all we can say that’s good, but it’s something. He’s courageous, determined, and zealous, but not so much that he alienates everyone else in his life.

But then there’s the rest of the movie. The male and female characters are freshly out of high school. She’s the brightest student in the country, headed to England on a full-ride scholarship. He’s a Seattle slacker — the kind made famous in moronic early ’90s movies about recent college grads — who likes martial arts and has no direction. Not that he has to have direction, but if he’s going after this girl, he probably should. Anyway, he makes her laugh, she begins to like him, and the rest of the movie plays out towards the ultimate goals of modern guys and girls: pre-marital sex and then a “committed” relationship. Nevermind that that commitment can be broken off in a heartbeat by either party. As long as they are together, it’s all great. That’s where the movie ends, and we’re all supposed to feel happy. It’s not like your typical Victorian English novel, where you know it’ll all pan out when the characters get married and are happy. No, in Say Anything, the guy and girl just need to be “more than friends” after having sex.  Then the credits roll.

In order for the guy and girl to get together, the girl’s father has to get out of the way. The movie at first presents the girl and her father as a closely-bonded pair who have surprisingly great communication. But — and you probably knew there was a ‘but’ coming — there’s one big problem: the dad is cheating old people out of their inheritances. He’s covered this fact up from everybody, including his daughter, who is so offended when she finds out that she might not speak to him again. Now the father is a much more complicated character than we’re presenting here (the movie generates a lot of sympathy towards him), but the fact is that he ends up looking more fraudulent than the IRS agents who are after him. And any movie that makes the IRS look somewhat respectable, in our humble opinion, has its priorities backwards.

So, in the end, the older parental generation is fraudulent or non-existent, while the younger generation is peppy, hopeful, and decent. And the main characters, the two lovebirds, fly away to England together to pursue the female’s career. Make no mistake, these are moral statements. If you attend a church that champions them, you’d better leave that church.

What makes the movie seductive is that these moral statements are sort of hidden under its presentation, which is fresh and realistic. The dialogue resembles real people talking, and the sequence of scenes keeps pushing the story to where it should go, not to where it will become like every other date movie (i.e., it’s doesn’t feel cliched, even though it basically is). For those reasons, we wanted to like this movie. Maybe some Christian director can study this one and separate the good from the bad, in order to learn something about movie-making and storytelling.

Entertainment: 8

Intelligence: 7

Morality: 1

Posted in Clever but Immoral | Leave a Comment »

The Illusionist

Posted by J on May 23, 2008

(SPOILER ALERT here: but we don’t think it matters much if you read before you watch.)

There is much of the Gospels in The Illusionist. That is what makes it all the worse. Consider the “hero,” Eisenheim the Illusionist. He’s a great, mysterious man who can amaze crowds with supernatural tricks. He could be a demagogue if he wanted to; he’s clearly a man with the power to woo the masses. His problem is that the government is after him. That is, a German prince gets jealous of Eisenheim’s crowd-control abilities, something that any government would like to have more of. So the prince sends his pack of bureaucrats, the police, to hound and investigate Eisenheim. Yet Eisenheim evades them, while coming up with a new trick: bringing people back from the dead.

Our miracle worker, Eisenheim, is an illusionist. How does he really summon forth ghosts? The movie never tells us, unfortunately. This was one of our problems with it. While the audience in the movie is amazed at Eisenheim’s magic, we (the real movie audience) can see that every trick is a CGI effect, a fake “trick” integrated into the movie in its post-production phase. We were never awed at all by Eisenheim. The movie is not about tricks — certainly not about tricking us — and since we saw the plot twist coming an hour before it happened, there were no surprises here.

Eisenheim is no Christ, though. He merely succeeds in getting his girl and moving to the country — the American frontier dream. Actually he beds the German prince’s fiancee — an acceptable move because Hollywood is our Moral Authority (“Blessed be thy name!”) and “True Love” must conquer all. We don’t mind “True Love” tales — they can symbolize Christ and His elected church — but we get sickened when they okay cheating and fornicating. The end of this movie considers those actions acceptable.

For all of its high-class actors, period sets and costumes, and gold-tinted frames,The Illusionist is just a cheap combination of Shakespeare’s MacBeth and The Tempest. Looked at another way, this movie is a cheap fairytale. A poor boy loves an aristocrat’s daughter. They grow up. The boy, a magician now, reunites with his love. She happens to be engaged to a prince, who is jealous of the magician. The magician tricks the prince, the prince dies, and the hero and his lover live happily ever after. And that’s all we really learned.

Entertainment: 7

Intelligence: 3

Morality: 0

Posted in Clever but Immoral, Period Drama, Reality-Fantasy | Leave a Comment »

Ocean’s Eleven

Posted by J on May 2, 2008

By the end of Ocean’s Eleven, you will want to be George Clooney. He’s stolen millions, won his wife back, his best friend is Brad Pitt, and he has great abs. Praise be for Hollywood movies! If we can’t be celebrities, by golly, we can vicariously share in their exotic fantasies.

Yes, the entire premise of Ocean’s Eleven is that a group of “heroes” elaborately steal money from a casino vault. In the end, they rejoice to Debussy’s Clair de lune. Fountains gloriously shoot streams of agua. Ocean’s gang of eleven men smiles and revels. They’ve done it. They are officially thieves.

Best of all — for George — his wife has a brief moment of erotic thrill when she learns that he’s pulled off the heist. So she ditches her casino boyfriend to return to George, the real macho man. Sigh, we wish we could be George. Then we could make movie fantasies about breaking the eighth commandment. If only Hollywood had written the tablets on Mt. Sinai. It sure pretends that it did, movie after movie after movie.

Entertainment: 8

Intelligence: 2

Morality: 0

Posted in Big-Budget Eye Candy, Clever but Immoral, They Spent Millions on This? | Leave a Comment »

The Office (American TV Series)

Posted by J on January 28, 2008

A thought-experiment we recently encountered: What performers, artists, directors in popular culture are worth our serious attention in the last 10 years? The criteria for this question’s answer are that the artist/cultural production must be technically competent and also have an overall positive influence.

If you are like us, you had a hard time coming up with an answer.

Sadly, The Office would not fulfill the requirements. When we began watching Seasons 2 and 3 recently, we believed it might have a chance, hilariously refracting as it did at least two previous work experiences we’ve had. Yet the show is awash in foolish sexual talk–gradually increasing it throughout the third season–and has a fixed hierarchy of idiotic cultural caricatures. It’s no surprise to us that the show’s one Christian is supposed to be funny because she’s an uptight jerk, and that the one farm boy/nerd is funny because he’s a farm boy and a deranged nerd. They both, of course, are having a secret affair.

While the show is filmed documentary-style, including in-character interviews and movements only a handheld camera would make, it does not play equally with every character. Jim Halpert, the suburban fratboy who plays pranks on Dwight Schrute, the aforesaid countryboy and nerd, gets off easily. Everyone else is the subject of subtle jokes rooted in social criticism, made solely by the show’s mockumentary tone. Halpert, however, gets to be at once in and out of the world of the office. His casual, “who cares?” demeanor, combined with his frequent glances at the camera, given as the other characters say something stupid, make him the show’s hero of sorts. His frequent flirtations with the office secretary are constantly forced upon us, as their friendship-slowly-turning-into-romance is a constant, trite subplot (the fact that’s she’s already engaged does not keep the morally-challenged Halpert from wooing her by “being her friend”).

This is all too bad. Otherwise, the show blisters many of the stupidities of modern-day white-collar work, while charitably respecting the characters caught up in them. It is something like Herman Melville’s short story Bartleby the Scrivener, but whereas Melville’s narrator sighs “Ah Bartleby, ah humanity!”–conjoining Bartleby’s ethical issues related to work with humankind’s–The Office doesn’t bemoan the tendency for the business world to create isolated individuals. Instead, it smirkily sympathizes with the attempted forging of human communities–located in the modern office, in this case–among people who seem to want them but don’t really know how they work.

The workplace–here, the regional office of a dying paper-supply company–is a poor but necessary substitute for traditional, closely knit social groups, such as families and churches. It has to be, since none of the characters seem connected to anything else. The young MBA student, who is dating the Indian (Asian) girl addicted to fashion and gossip columns, seems taken off guard when the girl’s traditionalist parents ask him what he’s saving his money for. “Uh, I’d like to travel. Oh, and an XBox.” They had expected the answer to be a dowry and child-related expenses (1). No one in The Office seems future-oriented, except Stanley, who admits to grudgingly showing up for work solely in order to retire. The office itself is the place for social bonding (demonstrated by the frequent parties and gatherings that seem to coalesce for different reasons), though these bonds are tenuous and superficial.

The boss of this office, Michael Scott, is a typical fish-out-of-water, but in an intriguing way. Handicapped by political correctness and business management-speak, Scott constantly fails the systems he thinks he’s constrained by. Not that he minds being constrained by them, but he cannot help breaking the ethics of political correctness while trying to be politically correct. The joke is that any boss like Scott would be fired instantly, but in the world of TV fiction everyone puts up with him, proving still that silly comedy is the last refuge for anti-P.C. thought. Though the show sometimes involves him in nonsense–such as when he engages in an affair with his female boss, and the two enact a role reversal whereby Scott takes on typical feminine qualities– Scott is a great exemplar of a modern American dolt. (Watch him, for example, try to buy a condo or conduct a safety seminar).

Though we cannot give our full recommendation, we’ll list several particular episodes (see the comments section) that serve well to demonstrate what we’re trying to get at here. Our one caution is that The Office, like just about everything else today, is flippant about sex. However the episodes we list generally avoid the topic altogether.

(1) See the episode in Season 3 titled Diwali, maybe the best one of all.
— Also, Netflix subscribers can watch this show online instantly.

Posted in Clever but Immoral, TV Series | 3 Comments »

Word Wars

Posted by J on October 6, 2007

We’ve noted before the emerging movie genre we’ve labeled game-umentaries. Word Wars, a movie about four contestants in the 2002 National Scrabble Tournament, is the best of them, which is really not saying much.

Now competitive Scrabble itself is not exciting at all, but as Word Wars tries to demonstrate, the world of Scrabble tournaments is pretty interesting because it is full of quirky nerds. For instance, there’s Joe Edley, who’s won the national championship several times. He’s been a high-level Scrabble player for two decades, but he constantly annoys his opponents by playing psychological games during competition. Yet on camera Edley tries to project a humble image. He practices tai chi and mumbles over and over again, in New Age speak, that competitions mean nothing to him.

All of Edley’s opponents are after him. The weirdest is “G.I.” Joel Sherman, a dead ringer for Pee Wee Herman, who gets his nickname because of his constant acid reflux problem. Sherman, like the other professional Scrabble players we meet, does not work. He studies Scrabble five hours a day and gambles with fellow players. It’s never clear how any of these Scrabble pros earn a living. The tournament prizes are not even a month’s normal wage, and even if one won the national tournament, he’d only get $25,000.

The four contestants followed in Word Wars interact in complex ways. They are at once friendly, competitive, and distrustful of one another. They oftentimes surprise. Sherman, who we’d all judge to be talentless at first glance, is a fine piano player and singer. And Marlon Hill, a pottymouth and proud pot smoker from the Baltimore ghetto, who complains that the English language oppresses him and oppressed his ancestors, came in 2nd at the 1996 national tournament. There is a reason they surprise us: they are exceptionally lazy. Three of the four characters do not have jobs. They are all extraordinarily smart, and they are all clearly wasting their God-given mental abilities.

Word Wars‘ main point is that the Scrabble tournament world, far from being filled with boring nerds, contains diverse personalities, hierarchies, rivalries, expectations–in short, nothing different from the mini-worlds that we know and interact in. Its attempt to construct complex, sympathetic characters is the means by which it draws viewers into this world. We are supposed to sympathize, and thus better understand what being “human” means. For secularist critics, Word Wars succeeds at this.

But let’s not kid ourselves. This is Word Wars, not Hamlet. “G.I.” Joel Sherman is not Hamlet, and a hotel conference room in San Diego is not the kingdom of Denmark. We are dealing with Scrabble, and so the cares of this tournament world are extraordinarily petty. This point is all we could dwell on at the end the movie, and so our final question was, “Was the hour and twenty minutes we spent watching this movie worth it?”

If this short review gives you a reason to do better things, then maybe.

Entertainment: 7
Intelligence: 3
Morality: It depends. (a lot of foul language from one particular character though; should be rated R)

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