Archive for the Film Category

Go See Dark Knight Rises

Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Dark Knight Rises, is extraordinary, showing that a “comic book” movie is capable of intellectual and adult themes as well as stunning action sequences. These are real people, some of whom happen to wear masks, not caricatures. I highly recommend it; indeed, I intend to see it at least one more time in theaters.

I do recommend that you watch the first two films first, as the final film continues aspects of those stories. Particularly, the first film, Batman Begins, sets up the “League of Shadows” conspiracy, while the second film, The Dark Knight, explains why Batman took the blame for another’s evil. (I’m very glad that the third film rectifies that injustice.)

I am glad to see that many have resisted naming the recent atrocity in Aurora in a way that invokes the film. Neither the film nor any of its creators deserve that association. Indeed, one little way of giving the perpetrator what he wants is to make that association; he obviously targeted the release of the film for symbolic purposes. We ought not fulfill any of that thug’s wishes.

I’d like to thank the Westminster Police Department for having an officer at the local theater. “We want people to know they can come out and have a good time,” in safety, one officer said.

Christopher Nolan, director of the film, writes on the web page for the film:

Speaking on behalf of the cast and crew of The Dark Knight Rises, I would like to express our profound sorrow at the senseless tragedy that has befallen the entire Aurora community. I would not presume to know anything about the victims of the shooting but that they were there last night to watch a movie. I believe movies are one of the great American art forms and the shared experience of watching a story unfold on screen is an important and joyful pastime. The movie theatre is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me. Nothing any of us can say could ever adequately express our feelings for the innocent victims of this appalling crime, but our thoughts are with them and their families.

Thank you for the sentiment, Mr. Nolan, and thank you for your fine works of art. Please keep doing what you do best: make great art.

Moving Picture Institute Advances Liberty

Adam Guillette of the Moving Picture Institute (which helped support the stunning short film against egalitarianism, 2081) attended the Free Minds Film Festival in Colorado Springs earlier in the month. He explained the goals and achievements of MPI:

Reaction to ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2′

The final film based on J. K. Rowling’s novels, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, is a fabulous movie, featuring great production and effects and fine acting. I especially enjoyed the addition of Ciaran Hinds as Aberforth, Albus Dumbledore’s brother. Michael Gambon turns in his best performance as Albus, and it is wonderful to see Gary Oldman (briefly) return as Harry’s godfather.

My wife and I watched the double feature, and viewing the two parts back to back was definitely the way to go. The second part returns to Dobby’s grave, giving his death some of weight and emotional impact lacking in the first part.

We saw the film in 3D, which seemed distracting at first, but I quickly got used to it. I didn’t think I’d enjoy the 3D, but it did give the both the architecture of the castle and the interactions of the characters lifelike depth.

The rest of this review contains spoilers.

After the three leads leave the safe house on the beach, their first major test comes with breaking into Gringotts bank. Here the effects and cinematography become especially stunning with the rail ride to the vaults. Helena Bonham Carter, still dressed as Bellatrix, carries Hermione’s persona perfectly, and her misplaced courteous vulnerability creates a lot of fun. (Also, Emma Watson’s Hermione looks awesome in the black witch’s dress.)

Soon we meet Aberforth outside Hogwarts castle. Unfortunately, while Ariana Dumbledore’s image appears in a painting, we learn little about her backstory. Thus, the film leaves viewers mostly ignorant of Albus’s past mistakes and redemption, something central to the final novel. True, even a two-part film must omit some elements of a lengthy novel, but the film devotes a hefty sequence to a trivial exchange between Harry and a Hogwarts ghost.

The trio’s return to the school and reunion with the other students bear the expected excitement and triumph.

The first battle sequence plays forcefully, filled with drama and impressive effects. This transitions well into Harry’s eventual confrontation with Voldemort. Snape’s backstory, including his love for Harry’s mother, comes across exceptionally well. (Much of the last half of the film drew audible sobbing from among the audience, largely due to this sequence.) And Alan Rickman performs the part in tragic beauty; he’s perfect, really. And both the resurrection of Harry’s parents and guardians and the King’s Cross segment come across very well.

Unfortunately, I thought the film muddles the final battle a bit. For no reason that I can detect, the film alters Neville’s killing of the snake, and it totally discards the final public dialogue between Harry and Voldemort. That’s too bad, because that meaningful exchange serves to educate the partisans of both sides about the basic facts concerning Voldemort and Snape.

I really enjoyed the epilogue, except it inexplicably shortchanges the son of Lupin and Tonks, wasting the earlier setup of his appearance.

In all, it is a great movie and a deeply emotional and satisfying conclusion to the series.

For in-depth analysis of the themes of the novels, see my book, Values of Harry Potter.

Films Show Fight Against Tyranny: Atlas Shrugged, Harry Potter, King’s Speech

The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published April 29 by Grand Junction Free Press.

The same day Atlas Shrugged Part I arrived in theaters, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I came out on disk. A few days later the Oscar-winning King’s Speech followed. These films vary dramatically in content and quality, yet they share an important theme: the fight against tyranny.

The hastily produced, low-budget Atlas Shrugged hardly does justice to Ayn Rand’s epic novel, though it remains basically true to Rand’s story and offers some good cinematography and acting. (It also offers some really bad acting in parts.) The film opened April 15 in Denver and other larger cities.

While the film misses the rich psychological complexity of the novel, it conveys Rand’s critique of the political oppression of producers. The basic story is that a railroad executive and steel manufacturer go into business together to rebuild a Colorado rail line of vital economic importance. Meanwhile, bureaucrats and politically connected “businessmen” join forces to shackle and loot the producers. Mysteriously, the nation’s top producers begin to disappear.

Part of the power of Atlas Shrugged is that much of the real world sounds remarkably like the novel. FreedomWorks even put a quiz online, asking, “Can you tell the difference between quotes from elected U.S. government officials and [villains in] Ayn Rand’s iconic book Atlas Shrugged?” Often it’s difficult, with President Obama threatening to soak the rich and Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., castigating the iPad for displacing jobs.

Unlike the low-budget, limited release Atlas Shrugged, the Harry Potterfilm consumed an enormous production budget and earned the box office to justify the expense. Like Rand’s works, the novels of J. K. Rowling offer richly complex characters that challenge the filmmaker.

While Rowling and Rand would clash over various political and philosophical issues, the writers would agree about the importance of defeating tyrants. The basic story arch of the Potter series follows Voldemort’s rise to dictatorial power and Harry’s quest to stop him.

(For more detailed discussion of Rowling’s work, see the Expanded Edition of Ari’s book, Values of Harry Potter, at ValuesOfHarryPotter.com.)

In many ways Voldemort resembles one of the 20th Century’s most vicious tyrants, Hitler, particularly in his bigoted cruelty. The King’s Speechtargets Hitler directly.

Mostly The King’s Speech is about a man with a speech impediment, a stammer, who works hard to overcome it. Only the man is King George VI, and his ability to speak becomes vitally important when he must lead his nation to war.

The King’s Speech richly deserves its awards, having presented an inspirational story with a phenomenal cast on a limited budget. The film offers two lessons to the producers of Atlas Shrugged. First, a great film can overcome meager funding. Second, a film climaxing with a long and important speech, whether the king’s speech or John Galt’s speech, can keep the audience riveted if properly set up and presented. (Galt’s speech does not appear until the third part of the story.)

True, as Christopher Hitchens warns us, The King’s Speech downplays the missteps of George VI. For example, Hitchens writes for Slate, ”When Neville Chamberlain managed… to hand to his friend Hitler the majority of the Czechoslovak people, along with all that country’s vast munitions factories,” George congratulated and supported him. Yet George and the English came through in the end, and that counts for a great deal.

When you watch The King’s Speech on disk, be sure to listen to the original address on which the related scene of the film is based (or catch it on YouTube). It is moving seven decades later.

King George says, “We have been forced into a conflict. For we are called, with our allies, to meet the challenge of a principle, which if it were to prevail, would be fatal to any civilized order in the world. … Such a principle, stripped of all disguise, is surely the mere primitive doctrine that might makes right.”

The films about Harry Potter and George VI portray the defeat of a tyrant who would institute that primitive doctrine. Somebody like Hitler or his fictional counterpart Voldemort takes might, brute force, to its logical conclusion and attempts to impose universal enslavement.

Rand too had intimate knowledge of tyranny, having lived through Russia’s bloody revolution and escaped the oppressive Soviet regime, which slaughtered even more people than the Nazis did.

But Ayn Rand went further and fully articulated the opposite principle of “might makes right,” the principle of individual rights, according to which each individual holds the right to his own life and the fruits of his labor. If we wish to restore vitality to the “civilized order in the world,” it is the principle of individual rights for which we must fight.

The King’s Speech is spectacular, and the Potter film is very good. The film based on Rand’s novel, though flawed, is good enough to view and at times very moving. But, after you enjoy these movies as works as art, take to heart their warning against tyranny.

***

Benpercent commented May 6, 2011 at 9:20 AM
*Toy Store 3* is also another good film about combating tyranny. The toys actually find themselves in a dictatorship imposed within a daycare center where some “elite” toys live at the expense of other toys, and they work to establish a voluntary society.

Overall, it seems there’s a lot of films coming out lately about the evils of statism, at least implicitly. Could this be a sign of good ideas percolating in the culture?

Why Atlas Shrugged Part I Is a Good Movie

The views on Atlas Shrugged Part I range from lavish praise to moral denunciation. My reaction immediately after viewing it opening night was that it is “basically good,” despite some obvious problems with it. See myinitial review as well as some audience reactions.

Having just watched the film again, I stand by my initial review, though I enjoyed the film even more the second time.

I wanted to see the film again just to enjoy it on the big screen. However, I also wanted to check my initial estimation of it. Undoubtedly before I saw it I expected it to be an utter failure, yet I was nevertheless excited to see it, so I felt quite relieved that it turned out to be much better than I expected. But had I erred on the side of overemphasizing its merits while ignoring its flaws? No. This movie got a great deal right, much more than its detractors recognize. The fact that it also got a lot wrong explains why I describe it as good but not great.

I have seen several basic camps emerge in evaluating the film.

1. Some fans of Ayn Rand lavish the film with praise, regardless of the virtues and flaws of the movie, simply out of fandom.

2. Some fans of Ayn Rand bitterly condemn the film, refusing to acknowledge any virtues of the movie, because the film does have some flaws and is not consistently true to the spirit of the book. (The fact that the film lists David Kelley as a consultant, while Kelley remains on very bad terms with Rand’s heir Leonard Peikoff, does not help in this regard. Disclaimer: while I recognize the value of some of Kelley’s older works, such as The Evidence of the Senses, I think he’s gone basically off track since then and that Peikoff’s criticisms of him are on target. Moreover, I think the film’s producers would have done far better to turn to somebody who actually knows something about film, such as the Ayn Rand Institute’s Jeff Britting.)

3. Various conservatives praise the film for its political messages, regardless of the quality of the film. This group likes the film basically for its propaganda value.

4. Various leftists condemn the film because they hate Ayn Rand and everything she stands for, and there’s no way they’d ever say anything good about anything relating to her.

5. Some, like me, enjoyed the film yet see in it virtues and flaws. Some basically didn’t enjoy it because they put more weight on the problems that I too recognize.

6. The large majority of Americans, meanwhile, wonder what the hell this is all about or ignore the film completely. But maybe the film will encourage some of these people to grab the novel off their shelves and blow the dust off of it.

Frankly, I’m as skeptical of those who cannot find fault with the film as I am of those who cannot find anything to like about it.

First I’ll review what I liked about the film. Obviously there are spoilers below!

The Cinematography: The Colorado landscapes are gorgeous. The bridge is stunning. The interior settings are rich. I particularly enjoyed the construction scenes of the John Galt line. This is all the more impressive considering the film’s limited budget.

The Acting: I have heard that the acting is “wooden,” claims I regard as silly. Some of the acting is superb: see Patrick Fischler as Paul Larkin, Rebecca Wisocky as Lillian Rearden, and Armin Shimerman as the bureaucratic scientist. Matthew Marsden does a very good job as the entitled sniveler James Taggart.

Unfortunately, the acting of the heroes is on the whole less-good than the acting of the villains. Of the heroes, my favorite performance is Graham Beckel as Ellis Wyatt. Though physically he does not match the Ellis of the novel, I liked what he did with the role. He turned nicely from bitter anger toward the Taggarts to warmth toward Dagny and Hank.

I really liked Grant Bowler as Hank Rearden. I like the way he smiles lightly at his metal. I have heard the complaint that he smiles too much throughout the film; this is not the Hank of the novel. No, it is not, but the Hank of the novel is horribly emotionally repressed for the first third of the story, and that would have been extraordinarily difficult to portray in a stand-alone movie. Notice that Bowler invokes both the fond half-smile as well as a sarcastic, forced smile with his wife. His acting is anything but “wooden;” it is subtle and emotionally rich.

Those who call Taylor Schilling’s performance of Dagny “wooden” I think unfairly malign her intentionally understated performance. What I get from her performance is what I get from the Dagny of the novel: a very rich emotional life hidden (from those who don’t know her) by a hardened exterior. I thought she did this very effectively, though I grant some of her hand gestures are a little awkward.

The Setting: The film does a very nice job setting the context for the story. Very quickly it establishes that we are in the near future, that the global economy is falling apart, that rail is now the most critical component of transportation, and that bureaucrats continue to seize control over the economy.

True, the novel Atlas is timeless, almost an alternate reality of a slightly altered America of the past. But imagine how hard that would have been to set up in a film. You’d have to communicate to the audience why we’re seemingly in the past, but not America’s actual past. That would be incredibly difficult to do, and I think critics of this aspect of the film simply haven’t given much thought to the enormous challenge of setting the context. Remember, we are now several additional decades away from the quasi-historical setting that Rand envisioned.

My own solution, what I’ve envisioned, is a film shot in black-and-white, with certain scenes (including Galt’s Gulch) shot in color. But such an approach brings its own set of difficulties and risks.

The Themes: True, the film only skims the intellectual surface of Rand’s novel. But consider what the film does manage to convey. Dagny makes decisions based on her first-hand understanding of the facts. The producers move the world. There is a difference between producing versus mooching and forcing, and the latter are wrong. The film largely stays true to the intellectual underpinnings of Rand’s works, and it does so without (or only rarely) sounding didactic. That’s quite a feat.

The Pacing: I’ve heard the complaint that the film is too fast, that the audience won’t follow the story, etc. I disagree with all that. Yes, the film moves along briskly, as I think appropriate. Imagine the reviews if the film seemed to drag! The best comparison I can think of on this point is Joss Whedon’s Serenity, which also compresses an enormous amount of background into the opening sequence and moves the story along quickly. I’m not bothered by this. Anyone who pays attention to the movie can follow the basic turns of the story. To me the film is “richly layered” in a way that invites multiple viewings.

Next I’ll address some of the other criticisms I’ve heard about the film.

The Bracelet: I did think the film misses much of the emotional richness of the bracelet scene. Dagny is nearly out of her mind with anger during the scene, and that simply does not come across. Dagny should have confronted Lillian as she berated the Rearden bracelet in front of others, as happens in the novel. Still, if you forget the book, the scene works okay.

The Music: Frankly, I didn’t even notice the music my first viewing. I’ve heard complaints that it’s not spectacular. But usually if you’re thinking about the music while watching a film, the music isn’t doing its job. This time, because I was consciously thinking about the music, I did notice it, and I enjoyed it. I liked the pristine horns during the train run.

The Drinking: The first time I watched the film, I didn’t notice that the characters often have a drink in their hands. I noticed this time because others have commented on it. But it doesn’t bother me. I also noticed that Hank was drinking coffee at his anniversary party, sitting in bored solitude, which is just right.

The Sex: True, the sex scene between Dagny and Hank captures nothing of the emotional complexity of the book. Rather than include a silly “I want to kiss you” scene, I think the film should have cut straight from the train scene to a far more rowdy sex scene. That would have left all of Hank’s conflicts suitably in the background. Still, I didn’t hate the sex scene; I just don’t think it did much for the movie.

Ellis’s Strike: I didn’t notice this the first time, but I did after others pointed it out. Ellis’s strike is oddly split up. It’s as though he goes on strike, then comes back to burn his wells. But I think it’s not too hard for a viewer to make this work; just assume that Ellis had to stick around for a while to close down his business, which is actually how the characters often go on strike in the book.

Stadler: Yes, I was surprised by the casting for Dr. Stadler. But, again, try to forget the book and just contemplate whether the character works within the movie. He works okay (not great). Yes, the dialog about the three students seems to come out of nowhere. But, again, it’s fairly easy for a viewer to fill in the gaps: Stadler is generally disillusioned because he lost three great students, so now he doesn’t give a damn about Rearden, either. I don’t think that’s too big of a gap for a viewer to cross. A few words could have made the connection clearer.

Owen Kellog: Ethan Cohn’s “Owen Kellog” is again nothing like the book. I think the role was basically miscast and misacted. Still, it’s not impossible to believe that a mousy man is nevertheless quite competent at his job, and the viewer basically has to take his background on Dagny’s word, anyway.

Now I want to touch on the truly bad aspects of the film.

Hugh Akston: It’s absolutely impossible to believe that the Hugh Akston of the film is a brilliant philosopher. Hopefully they’ll fix that for future parts.

Dagny and Francisco: I still hated the scene where Dagny casually offers to sleep with Francisco to secure a loan. That line served no purpose, and it greatly distracted from the emotional impact of the sequence.

Francisco: I didn’t consistently hate the film’s portrayal of Francisco, but I didn’t like it, either. It’s impossible to believe that this scruffy barfly is some sort of great man. I think the actor could have done an okay job if he’d had a better understanding of the character or better direction (and a better costumer). One of the film’s missed opportunities is the first scene between Francisco and Hank; this should have been electric, but it was instead a little boring.

The Motor: In the case of the motor, I think the film needed to stray farther from the novel. You have this great climax of the train run, then this long and seemingly pointless quest for the motor. That time could have been spent building up the train run more completely. For example, the novel’s scenes of the room full of engineer volunteers, and the guardians of the rail, reveal the deep importance and emotion of the event, yet those scenes are absent from the film. In general, the train run, though inspiring, didn’t capture Dagny’s ecstatic state of mind, which means it didn’t set up the sex scene as well as it could have.

Some of my favorite films are far from cinematically perfect. I absolutely loved Equilibrium and saw it many times in the theater, though it too has some problems. Whedon’s Serenity remains one of my all-time favorites, despite some somewhat cheesy scenes with “Mr. Universe” and some less-than-spectacular digital effects. While I’ll never like Atlas as much as I like those other two films, it definitely joins my list of favored films.

I return to where I began: I think Atlas Shrugged Part I is a “basically good” film despite its flaws. And I just don’t get those who think the film deserves nothing but praise or nothing but condemnation. I still think I’ve made the best analogy: it’s Atlas Shrugged as directed by theFountainhead‘s John Snyte, though I would add, on a good day.

Grassroots Radio Hosts Atlas Shrugged Event

Ken Clark and Jason Worley of Grassroots Radio broadcast from Westminster April 15 to celebrate the release of Atlas Shrugged Part I.Here three people who attended the event share their thoughts on the political scene.

Atlas Shrugged Audience Reactions

After the Atlas Shrugged Part I opening in Westminster last night, I asked audience members what they thought of the film. Of course, I could catch only a few people, and some didn’t want to be recorded. (One lady who declined an interview said the film reminded her of Dynasty.) Here are all the interviews I did capture. Among this group the view of the film was relatively positive. See also my take.

Go See Atlas Shrugged Part I!

As I mentioned earlier in the week on Twitter, I had never been so excited to see a film for which I had such low expectations. But I truly enjoyed the film adaptation of (the first part of) Atlas Shrugged.

I see that one lonely reviewer listed at Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a passing grade, leaving Atlas with a paltry six percent rating overall. Yet I am reminded of the scenes in Atlas in which the State Science Institute pans Rearden Metal for political reasons. While Atlas is not as good a movie as Rearden’s product is a metal, I think the film faces comparable biases. I think that a film of comparable production value, but based on a politically correct novel or pushing a leftist agenda, would have scored in the forty to sixty range at Rotten Tomatoes.

Based on the trailers, I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy the performances of Taylor Schilling (Dagny Taggart) or Graham Beckel (Ellis Wyatt). But I thought they did a fine job. Generally I was impressed with the acting throughout. I was disappointed with Jsu Garcia as Francisco D’Anconia; he played more of a bar-hopping playboy, whereas the real character is a refined, intensely elegant man. And the character of philosopher Hugh Akston is completely misplayed. But everyone else is quite good, and at moments inspired. Patrick Fischler brilliantly portrays the conflicted Paul Larkin, and Rebecca Wisocky nails the serenely devilish Lillian Rearden.

The film looks beautiful. The outdoor scenery and the interior locations are gorgeous. I loved the sequences of building the rail line. And the train run itself proves inspirational (though it retains something of a digitized look).

No, the film does not come close to the intellectual or psychological depth of the novel. And sometimes the film gets the book totally wrong, as when (according to the film) Dagny casually offers to sleep with Francisco to secure a loan. Wrong, wrong, wrong. But the film remains basically true to the story and gets a great deal right.

I’ve spent quite a lot of time contemplated the Harry Potter universe, and, like Atlas, the last two Potter films leave out wide swaths of the books on which they are based. Both Rowling and Rand spend a lot of time inside the heads of the characters, and that’s extremely difficult to carry across on screen. While obviously the Potter films have much larger budgets, I think they’re roughly as true to their source material as the Atlas film is to Rand’s novel.

Another apt comparison is the 1949 adaptation of Fountainhead. Atlas is a far better adaptation. In the older film, both Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal play their characters (Howard Roark and Dominique Francon) totally wrong. (In fairness, Roark would be very hard to portray well.) By contrast, at least at moments Schilling and Grant Bowler (Hank Rearden) revealed the true spirit of their characters.

Of course, it may be hard to top the 1942 unauthorized Italian production of We the Living.

Honestly, I prepared to endure the movie clinching my teeth and trying to keep myself from getting continually ripped out of the story by bad acting and technical faults. But that didn’t happen at all. Instead, I was impressed by the opening sequences, and slowly I relaxed, forgot my trepidation, and started to enjoyed it.

No, the film is not the novel. But at least the film respects the novel. Overall the film succeeds, which is a feat under any circumstances, and particularly given the film’s extremely low budget (something like ten million dollars). So go see the movie. And then forget the movie as much as possible and return to the book.

***

Joshua Zader commented April 16, 2011 at 6:54 AM
You write, “And there’s no ‘Money Speech,’ or even a quick line!”

Francisco’s speech on money appears in Part 2 of the novel. This movie covers only Part 1 of the novel.

Ari commented April 16, 2011 at 6:59 AM
Good catch! I deleted the line accordingly. I’m not sure why I was misplacing it mentally.

Rob commented April 16, 2011 at 10:49 AM
It will be interesting to see how they handle the Money Speech in Part 2 – if there is a Part 2 – as it may tell us something about their approach to Galt’s Speech in Part 3.

SteveD commented April 16, 2011 at 6:45 PM
I’ve gotta admit that galt’s speech seems insuperable to me. Though I understand AR actually wrote an adaptation of it. Maybe they’ll use that.