Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Lincoln Trades Vampires For History

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a mainstream media in possession of a foul reputation, must be in want of a narrative; this truth applies equally to film critics and political commentators.  In the case of Steven Spielberg’s latest drama, Lincoln, the narrative emphasized the voice of Daniel Day-Lewis; other factors contributed to the critics’ reactions, but it was the voice primarily that drove their 4-star reviews.  Since these dumber-than-dirt movie analysts always presume audiences will share their same interests, this subject of a 200-year-old man’s speech volume hogged most of the reviews I read prior to watching the movie, so I really had little idea of what to expect from Lincoln, other than statist propaganda (Spielberg pulled a Joe Biden and called Republicans pro-slavers prior to the release of the film).  Strong acting, a decent script, and detailed artistic design all left me pleasantly surprised by the credits-roll; while Lincoln doesn’t stand beside other historical dramas, such as Rabbit Proof Fence or Spielberg’s own Empire of the Sun, it’s an intriguing examination of the American democratic process, the debate over slavery, and the efforts of one man to abolish what he viewed as a monstrosity against nature.

The movie focuses solely on the final months of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and the central conflict of the story takes place not on a battlefield but in Congress.  By 1865, Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) has already earned a polarizing status: some view him as a hero fighting for liberty and human rights, while others view him as a tyrant who has overstepped his Constitutional limits in order to ruin the South’s economy and deprive slave owners of their “property”.  Now Lincoln resolves to infuriate the latter group even further by backing a 13th amendment to the Constitution that would abolish the institution of slavery once and for all time.  Most Republicans in the House back the proposition, but they don’t have the 2/3 majority necessary to overrule the voice of the Democrats, who are obstinate in their opposition to abolition and negro enfranchisement.  Abe’s struggle to unite his party, round up enough Democrat stragglers to approve the amendment, and so legislatively end the Civil War is central to the film.  For its very long running time of 152 minutes, Lincoln addresses a very short segment of the 16th president’s command, yet it explores its subject with a lot of depth and analysis.  This method of storytelling will likely irk some viewers, who will deem the movie slow and boring, but I would immensely prefer it over another drama that rushes through the whole Civil War within the same timeframe.  My mother will testify that I’m a slow reader who’s indisposed to skimming; apparently that same principle carries over into my movie-going appetites.  Besides the Congressional fight over slavery, the film also touches on the relationship between Lincoln and his son, Robert, played by that Inception guy Joseph Gordon-Levitt who’s seemingly acted in a movie every other week since Dark Knight earlier this summer.  Having seen the spiritual and literal (amputations were a common treatment for the war’s wounded; the severed limbs were thrown in mounds not far from the road) trials that war veterans endure, Robert yearns to join the Union Army and serve his country, but his parents would have him become a lawyer instead.  Robert appears in only a couple scenes, and though the audience doesn’t get to know him that intimately, I felt sympathy for him and his father alike.

As other reviewers have noted, Lincoln's cast is excellent.  Daniel Day-Lewis captures Lincoln’s authority and confidence impeccably, and the frustration he bears against his fellows is palpable.  Sally Field is fine as Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd, although her character is rather minor in the grand picture.  Tommy Lee Jones assumes the role of Thaddeus Stevens, who represents the radical right of the Republican party that supports not only emancipation but also full voting rights for negroes and punitive actions against former slave-owners to achieve “social justice”.  Stevens is perceived as an extremist by most in the government, and even Lincoln doubts the expediency of his views.  At one point in the movie, a Democrat asks the representative if he takes the statement “All men are created equal” literally.  Stevens gestures to the man and answers, “How can I say that all men are created equal when some are naturally endowed by their creator with dim wits?”  Jones credibly conveys Steven's passion and sarcasm, but his performance largely owes to a strong script.

The movie’s dialogue is much more sophisticated than that of the average Hollywood creation, and sometimes borders on Shakespearean.   “He is more reptile than man!” is one example of the witty mud-slinging in Lincoln’s Congress, the sort of invective that’s sadly forbidden in today’s real-world, politically “correct” environment, wherein it’s scandalous to even call your opponent a “food stamp president”.  With that said, the script does make several desperate attempts to sound "cool" to high school/college viewers, mainly through the gratuitous insertion of 21st century profanity.  The audience of my theater got a good laugh when a character exclaimed, “Well, I’ll be effed.”  Likewise, everybody chuckled when Lincoln told his associates, “Nothing makes the English poo faster than a portrait of George Washington.”  Both these situations, not to mention the numerous gahdamns that taint Lincoln’s speech and others’, felt forced to me, although they’ll doubtless become running jokes between homeschool debaters.  The underlying assumption of the film also seemed illogical to me. We’re supposed to believe the ratification of the 13th amendment would effectively end slavery and the Civil War, but the Confederates were essentially rebels who had cast off all the laws of the federal government.  Why would the same parties that ignored Lincoln’s previous Emancipation Declaration pay any heed to the government’s 2nd call for abolition?  Repetition does not guarantee reform, especially since the southern Democrats viewed such calls for change as an assault on their property rights and way of life.  Overall, though, Lincoln is a well-written drama filled to the brim with emotionally-charged discourse, moving speeches, and reflection on the American political system.

Lincoln is just as impressive on a visual scale.  Costume, set, and art design all merge to create an authentic portal into the mid-19th century.  The cinematography refrains from the negative influences of shaky- and multiple-camera.  Instead, the camera allows the actors to dominate their scenes, by lingering on them for long periods as they deliver their lines without breaks.  In the same way, music is noticeably absent during scenes of heavy dialogue, which forces all the audience’s attention onto the actors.  The approach pays off well and underlines the power of the movie’s performances.

Lincoln is neither the best Spielberg movie nor the best historical movie I’ve seen, but it is well-made and educational to a certain extent.  My fellow debaters would probably get their $10’s worth from the theater, but everybody else might as well wait for the home video release, as it’s not a big-screen movie.   It’s a darn shame that Spielberg deliberately released Lincoln after the election, as the Democrats are the clear villains of the movie, but what would you expect from an out-of-touch billionaire?  Riddle me this: what do you call it when a Hollywood superstar with a 9-digit salary indicts a political candidate for being too rich?

Grade Review: B+ (where A is Empire of the Sun, Jurassic Park, or Indiana Jones 1 & 3)

Trailer Reviews (compilation of ads from The Dark Knight Rises, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Lincoln.  Some of these have already entered and departed theaters.) -

Alex Cross – stupid action garbage about a guy who likes torturing people to death and the Tyler Perry who must hunt him down.
Chasing Mavericks – King Leonidas trades his spear for a surfboard.  Like all sports movies, it's based on a true story.  “Radical...”
Frankenweenie – B&W stop-motion film by Tim Burton about a boy who reanimates his dead dog.  Judging by the trailer, the movie is short on plot, but it looks creative nonetheless.
Gangster Squad – Sean Penn stars in a movie about shooting and killing people.  Oh, and there's sex.
Iron Man 3 – Ben Kingsley considers himself a “teacherer”.  Lots of explosions and Transformers-style destruction.
Jack Reacher – More pointless sex and violence, this time with Tom Cruise.
Killing Them Softly – Another movie where the heroes are murderous thugs, this time with Brad Pitt.  Also flaunts an anti-America message.
Les Miserables – Little sneak preview played at Indy in which the producers boasted that they got Hollywood actors instead of real singers to perform the numbers in their musical.  Good for them (*heavy sarcasm*).
Looper – A science-fiction thriller about assassins called loopers who eliminate people from the future through time-travel.  Eventually these loopers are assigned to kill their future selves; we see this happen to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who finds himself face-to-face with his 70-some version, Bruce Willis.  This appears to be the Inception of 2012, with an intriguing, original premise and awesome special effects.
Paranormal Activity 4 – I don't think my friends and I will be making a spoof trailer based on this one.
Red Dawn – It's a remake of an anti-commie cult classic I never saw about teenagers who repel a Soviet invasion of the United States.  This time the North Koreans are the baddies, confronting a headstrong opposition led by Thor and Peeta.  The acting looks bad, but the film promises fun in its junky, cheesy, explosiony way.
The Lone Ranger – This film adaptation of an old TV show looks visually impressive like Gore Verbinski's other movies (Pirates of the Carribbean trilogy, Rango) and claims the acting of Johnny Depp, but the trailer doesn't reveal much in the way of story.  Then again, neither did the awful Rango trailer.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Comic Review: The Halo Graphic Novel

The Halo Graphic Novel was released in 2006 and compiles 4 untold stories from the science-fiction universe, only one of which is worth reading.  The one is called Last Voyage of the Infinite Succor and is set in the middle of Combat Evolved right after the Covenant inadvertently release the ruthless alien parasite known as the Flood.  Instead of taking place on the surface of Halo Installation 4 as the game does, the story intends to reveal the Covenant’s initial reaction to the Flood through the eyes of a sangheili commander named Rtas Vadum, who will later claim the title of Shipmaster and become a supporting character in Halo 2 and 3.  The comic opens in the desolate swamp of the 6th mission, where a number of the Flood manage to hijack a Spirit dropship, which they subsequently fly off the ringworld and ram into the Covenant cruiser Infinite Succor.  Rtas Vadum is training his soldiers when he receives word that the neighboring ship is under attack.  Expecting to find no more than a party of humans, the general swiftly gathers his men and flies by phantom to the Succor.  His former assumptions are soon quelled when he discovers the true culprit behind the ship’s raid, and what Vadum thought would be an easy victory escalates into a desperate struggle for survival.

This short story is a thrilling and disturbing look at the culture of the Covenant and the terror inspired by the Flood.  Amid all the green ooze, gore, and gunfire, the reader gets an interesting glimpse into the worldview and customs of the Covenant species, especially the elites, who hold values of courage, duty, and selflessness similar to those observed by our own troops; the novel effectively dispels the limited notion that the Covenant are just targets to be decimated by Master Chief.  The book also achieves moments of tragedy, particularly when the protagonist decides to slice open one of his wounded so as to circumvent his transformation into a horrific monster.  The art by Simon Bisley offers an intriguing portrayal of the Flood which is a noticeable departure from their design in the games but no less scary at any rate.  The combat scenes, many of which involved lethal swordplay between the commander and the reanimated bodies of his comrades, are gripping.  Overall, Last Voyage is a captivating thriller with ample amounts of suspense and action.

None of the other comics are long enough to tell an interesting story, numbering only 16 pages in length each.  One of them details an operation to test a new edition of Mjolnir armor, another shows how Sergeant Johnson escaped from the Flood after the video footage terminated in Combat Evolved, and the final story looks in part at the Covenant invasion of New Mombasa and the civilization that existed before it.  The Johnson comic is stripped entirely of dialogue and depends more on grotesque depictions of mutated human “combat forms” than anything to drive its plot.  The New Mombasa tale is told primarily through a boring, lifeless monologue, has a cartoonish art style, and is ultimately overshadowed by the much larger, more detailed game ODST that followed several years after the graphic novel.

In the end, only one of these 4 comics is worth reading, and for no more than $5 preferably.  Neither this graphic novel nor Uprising feature Master Chief for more than a few panels, so if the legendary Spartan hero is your main attraction to the Halo series, then you’re better off reading the Halo encyclopedia or one of the novels, such as the Fall of Reach, which so far seems like an Ender’s Game rip-off to me but is enjoyable brain candy nonetheless.  That, or you can go buy Halo 4.  Were it so easy...

Friday, November 16, 2012

Comic Review: Batman Knightfall

With the release of The Dark Knight Rises earlier this year, comic book fans yearned to learn more about the movie’s primary villain, Bane.  Batman: Knightfall, co-written in 1993 by Alan Grant, Doug Moenich, and Chuck Dixon, is an ambitious series in 3 fat volumes that should satiate the curiosity of those who are eager to witness his origins.  While it’s overly long, somewhat disheartening, and eventually boring, Knightfall deserves inclusion in the libraries of all Batman fans.

Dixon is credited with writing the pilot to the series, Vengeance of Bane.  The unnamed man who becomes the story’s villain grew up in a damp and dingy Caribbean prison called Pĕna Dura, which is devoid of light and defined by brutality.  Before he had reached the age of nine, he had already murdered his first enemy with a knife; the jailers showed him no mercy for his youth, exiling him to the most miserable room of the prison, a solitary pit “in a more ancient part of the world, where men are thrown to suffer and die”.  By an inconceivable act of strength, the boy endured the rats, the floods, and other hardships of his chamber, emerging from the ten-year ordeal far stronger than any of the pit’s other criminals.  During his isolation, he had harrowing visions of a monstrous bat, which he came to view as his nemesis and vowed to defeat in mortal combat.  While he awaited the day when he could escape his prison and kill the legendary Batman of Gotham City, Bane occupied his time with exercise mental as well physical, consuming books at a rapid rate.  Eventually, the man was selected as a test subject for a powerful, stimulating drug called Venom, which is administered to him through a system of cords and an intimidating mask.  Bane used his newly acquired superstrength to break out of Pĕna Dura and hijack a helicopter to Gotham, taking a band of elite scalliwags along with him, including the falconer Bird, who originally told him about Batman.  Jumping forward to the present day, Bane engineers a diabolical plot to bring down the Batman, and it starts by releasing the denizens of Arkham Asylum.  Bane is an intelligent villain, if not a courageous one, and he knows that Batman will be easier to fell after the other freaks of Gotham City soften him up, which is exactly what happens over the next 10 or so issues, as Batman runs frantically around the city without rest, nullifying threats from villains like the Ventriloquist, Mr. Zsasz, Killer Croc, the Joker, and Scarecrow (who incidentally gets a very intriguing and well-written subplot later in the book that doubtless inspired his treatment in Batman Begins).  In the 13th issue, Bane finally moves in for the kill and delivers a backbreaking blow to Batman readers which won’t lose its impact for a hundred years.  “I was wondering what would break first: your spirit, or your body?”

** Spoilers from this point forward. **

The biggest problem with Volume 1 of Knightfall is that its central hero, Bruce Wayne, is out of the action for half the story, which becomes dull and even more monotonous after his departure.  The authors’ replacement Batman is a young friend of Tim Drake, the current Robin, named Jean-Paul Valley, who has some anger management issues and a controversial understanding of justice.  While the original Batman mostly aimed to incapacitate his foes and deliver them alive to the authorities, the new Batman thinks that he should enforce the law and its punishments all by himself, using absolutely any means necessary, including terror, torture, and murder.  He eventually finds time to modify his costume, completing his dark transformation into the figure of Azrael.  Robin disagrees vehemently with Jean-Paul’s philosophy and questions Bruce Wayne’s wisdom in selecting him to carry the mantle of the Batman.  And so the latter half of the book proceeds, with the dynamic duo mopping up bad guys, Robin complaining about Azrael’s methods, and Azrael treating Robin like a naïve, little kid, which is not too shabby a comparison.  There are many arguments about the role of a vigilante and the rules that bind him in his pursuit for justice, and while the theme is suitable for a Batman comic, it’s so overdone here that the constant quarrelling between the two crimefighters started to annoy me.  The novel is also excessively long, stretching about 200 pages of plot across more than 600 pages.  In this sense, Knightfall is the comic book equivalent of M. Knight Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender or, on a slightly higher level, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.  The illustrations of the book are better described as cartoons than art.  None of the artists manage to inspire a sense of awe or wonder in the reader, which is disappointing considering Batman’s rich heritage of art.

** Spoilers end here.

Where Knightfall excels is the development of its main antagonist, who is intelligent, conniving, and downright intimidating.  While none of the other villains match his sophistication in character development, they don’t have to, as they all turn out to be mere pawns in Bane’s grand plan.  If I see one problem in the book’s depiction of Bane, it’s that he comes across as a coward, who gladly lets other men fight his own battles.  Bane has no such weakness in his film debut, choosing to fight Batman on even ground without the backup of his henchmen.  Alfred is also a fine character in the series who has no shortage of sarcastic remarks aimed at Tim and his curious habit of flicking through television channels rapidly to find “something to watch”.

If I had $20 to burn, I’d probably take a friend to see The Dark Knight Rises before buying Knightfall again, but for those who have seen the movie a sufficient number of times (at least twice), the 1st volume is a good 6-hour diversion.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Socialist Monopoly

This is the third member of a 4-part series on products which subliminally attack classical liberalism and free market economies.  The final installment will be a two-parter Imax 3D review of Sid Meier’s addictive and strategic computer game, Civilization 3, on which I might persuade my dad to collaborate, as he’s actually won it several times, unlike I who have started many games and finished none.  Darn that greedy warlord Tokugawa.

Monopoly as described

Some of you might remember my controversial arguments concerning the beloved family board game Life, which I defamed as socialist propaganda designed to incite class envy and entitlement mentality.  While the Game of Life certainly deserved the full blow of my criticism, it’s a relatively “moderate” game when contrasted with its distant cousin, Monopoly.  The Parker Brothers’ classic not only serves up a plethora of class warfare, but the conflict that plays out around the game board can be described as a kind of microcosm of humans’ natural opposition to taking risks, which are so crucial to the survival of a capitalist society.

Monopoly in Realville

Monopoly, like Life, is loaded with communist, utopian ideals, including the income tax (self-explanatory), the school tax (so that more kiddies can be indoctrinated into statism, become Democrats, and vote for more school taxes which will redistribute even more money from homeschooler parents to teachers’ unions), the poor tax (which is a sin tax on the immoral practice of not being poor… I think), the luxury tax (a toll levied upon the consumer who dares to buy products which aren’t total crap), and the property tax (financial punishment for the criminal activity of owning things, i.e. on private property), all of which are coercively collected by the corrupt and greedy bank, not the government.  In the ideal nation, the ruling class would not have to put a gun at the head of business owners in order to provide “charitable” causes with funding, but as the situation stands in Monopoly and New Deal America, deadly force and violation of property rights are necessary to serve the “common good”.  However, these aspects of Monopoly all seem trivial when juxtaposed with the fears it inadvertently instills in the minds of its players.

Two things are certain in Monopoly: jail and taxes.

The concept of Monopoly is that players move their figures around a game board, buying properties and paying rent on the land owned by others. By the wheel of fortune – sorry, wrong game.  Monopoly has dice of fortune – players will acquire a greater or smaller percentage of the tiles than their opponents do and will proceed to win or lose based on that factor.  The more players involved, the slower the victory will be, for when the number of competitors exceeds 3, an individual very rarely manages to obtain all the members of a set or railroad, which are essential to a rate of income substantial enough to win the game within 10 hours.  For this reason, players have the option to trade or sell their properties among themselves so that they can charge higher rent and collect money faster, but such exchanges of land barely ever happen, as players fear the possible consequences of any risk they take.  Those who play Monopoly demonstrate the natural, human apprehension of change, the reluctance to go beyond the status quo and to break away from a life of mediocrity.  Monopoly discourages players to let go of any squares they possess because such an action could allow their opponent to pull ahead, and thus nobody ever takes risks during the course of the game.  Without risks, capitalism collapses and life devolves into the sort of unbearable limbo that defines the community in The Giver, where the free will to make choices is denied due to the potential cost of making a wrong choice.  Such a life is meaningless, moronic, and monotonous; the stupidity of running around the game board, landing in jail occasionally, bribing your way out, passing Go, collecting $200, and immediately giving that dough back to the bank in income tax soon becomes apparent.

Monopoly is a slow game in theory and practice.  It requires an excruciating amount of math as few of the rental fees are multiples of 5; this requires the player to constantly trade in $5 bills to the bank in return for $1 bills, whether he’s giving change to someone staying on his land or paying exact rent to another homeowner.  The Game of Life and Monopoly have many things in common, and one is that they play faster on a computer, which does all the mindless addition and subtraction for you.

In conclusion, Monopoly, like Life, is not so much about pulling oneself ahead as it is about holding everybody back, the integral purpose of socialism.  The game is rigged to make prosperity almost unachievable, using taxes and disincentives to trade in its ruthless war on the individual.  As such, it deserves a boycott from all who love America and want to see its foundations restored.