Hurting the World’s Poor in the Name of Helping Them—Poverty, Inc.

The vast sums of money transferred by the governments of wealthy nations to the governments of poor nations do not help the world’s poor, for the most part. Rather, such foreign aid serves to prop up corrupt dictators, finance a giant network of Western nonprofits, disrupt local markets, and keep many of the intended beneficiaries dependent and poor. Even private aid often has deleterious effects. Or at least Poverty, Inc., a 2014 film by Michael Matheson Miller of the Christian, free-market Acton Institute, plausibly argues those points. Continue reading “Hurting the World’s Poor in the Name of Helping Them—Poverty, Inc.

The Martian Presents a Hopeful Future for Humanity

The Martian is a tense action-drama focusing on the efforts of astronaut Mark Watney to stay alive on Mars after he is left behind in the course of a near-future mission.

The Martian Film

Readers of Andy Weir’s novel The Martian (which I reviewed for Objective Standard) knew that the science presented in the film would be highly realistic. (The major exception is the opening dust storm, which, as Weir has granted, is much more powerful than is possible in Mars’s thin air; Weir strayed from the science here for dramatic effect.)

We knew that the story would be a tense action-drama focusing on the efforts of astronaut Mark Watney to stay alive on Mars after he is left behind in the course of a near-future mission.

We also knew that the characters, particularly Watney, would be colorful and engaging.

What I did not know is whether the film would be very good. On one hand, it’s directed by Ridley Scott, and it stars Matt Damon and a superb supporting cast, so what could go wrong? On the other hand, lines such as Watney’s remark, “I’m going to have to science the s**t out of this” (added by screenwriter Drew Goddard, not Weir), could have come across as hokey in less talented hands. Was this film going to bring Weir’s enthralling tale fully to life or paint it by numbers?

I loved it. The film version of The Martian surpassed my hopes, which started out pretty high. I had been excited about the film since I first heard about it after reading the novel. In some ways, the film improves on the novel, as with its better-developed ending.

True, after an intense opening sequence, the film progresses a little slowly. But it builds steam as it develops its characters and reveals the enormity of the challenges that Watney faces. This is not your typical high-explosion, constant-motion (but ultimately meaningless) action flick; it is a story that is both exciting and deeply human.

Matt Damon is excellent. He nails the intensely emotional scenes as well as the funny ones. All of the lines, many of which a lesser actor would have bungled, come across as authentic and in-character—even the pirate jokes.

Among the supporting cast, standouts include Jessica Chastain as the mission commander who plays a pivotal role in the rescue effort; the always-outstanding Chiwetel Ejiofor as a NASA official; Mackenzie Davis as a young NASA satellite operative who first discovers Watney is still alive; and Donald Glover as an innovative astrophysicist who hatches a plan to bring Watney home.

Also, Sean Bean has a nice role as the earth-stationed flight commander—and he doesn’t even die!

Both the Martian landscapes and the scenes in space are gorgeous. Watching this film, it’s easy to imagine yourself on Mars.

I love Watney’s determination and his sense of humor under enormous pressure.  But mostly I love The Martian‘s glimpse into the future of space colonization that we humans are destined to have—if only we choose to strive for that future. This is probably the most enjoyable film I’ll watch this year—and it may the most important film of the era.

Related:

Three Sci-Fi Reviews: Edge, Martian, and Trek

edge-tomorrowThe Fall 2014 issue of the Objective Standard features my reviews of the following works:

Edge of Tomorrow, directed by Doug Liman, starring Tom Cruise.

The Martian, a novel by Andy Weir (soon to be a film).

Star Trek: First Contact, directed by Jonathan Frakes, still my favorite Trek film.

I loved all three of these works. Check out my reviews (the second two of which are partly behind a paywall, so feel free to subscribe to the journal).

That’s Captain China to You

captain-americaA Chinese film reviewer for Douban.com wrote of Captain America: The Winter Soldier that the hero’s enemy “is the very country he loves and protects. To love one’s country isn’t the same as loving one’s government: This is the main draw of Captain America.” This translation comes by way of Warner Brown’s article for Foreign Policy (via Edward Gresser via James Pethokoukis). (I checked the original in Google Translate, which produced a bit of a jumble, but the translations seem to roughly square.) Of course, Captain America’s enemy in the film is not the “country he loves”; it is instead a corrupt group controlling the country’s government. By defeating that group, Captain America saves his country. Hopefully that message is appealing to Americans and Chinese alike.

Nicole Perlman’s Marvel-ous Adventure in Writing Guardians of the Galaxy

Image: Ewen Roberts
Image: Ewen Roberts

Boulderite Nicole Perlman has exactly one credit to her name at IMDB, but it’s for co-writing Guardians of the Galaxy, a film that made $94 million its first weekend. Not surprisingly, she how has an announced second credit, for Black Widow. Time has out a remarkable article on how Perlman broke into the “guys’ club” of sci-fi script writing. Congratulations to Marvel for recognizing her talent. What caught my eye is that Perlman has also written biopic screenplays about Richard Feynman, Neil Armstrong, and the Wright brothers—I hope somebody funds those films, because I’d love to watch them.

See Guardians of the Galaxy

Image: Mingle Media TV
Image: Mingle Media TV

How could a movie featuring a talking raccoon, a walking tree, a green lady, a overly-literal hulk, and a guy named “Starlord” be any good? The latest Marvel outing makes such a film work with Guardians of the Galaxy by blending silly humor with heartfelt drama and plenty of action, featuring great actors, and hiring a great effects crew. Sure, the premise is a little thin—the story revolves around a small magical rock—and the universe is sometimes mind-numbingly complex. But at its heart Guardians is a buddy film, and the friendships work. The Associated Press reports the film will earn an estimated $94 million on opening weekend. Paul Dergarabedian of Rentrak told the AP, “[F]or Marvel to have four films this year [including Guardian] open with over $90 million is amazing. It’s unprecedented success.”

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.

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?