Category: Movies

40

The Allure Of Unquestioned Premises: "The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz"

Print This Post

Smart people are a-dime-a-dozen. Very smart people are common. Though geniuses are statistically uncommon, humanity's surging tide produces tens of thousands of them in every generation.

But even geniuses are people, and people tend to play the hand that is dealt to them, or else discard just a few cards to draw new ones. Few question the rules of the game or why they should play it at all.

The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz depicts a rare genius who questioned the premise of the game. It's terrific and moving. I bought it, downloaded it, and watched it on my iPad on a plane trip, all of which seemed very appropriate. It was well worth the time and attention and money.

(more…)

Fruitvale Station: Subversive Humanity

Print This Post

Saturday was date night, and Katrina and I went to the local over-the-top-luxurious movie theater, where you sit in recliners and swaddle yourself in soft blankets and order food and drink from the full menu to be brought to you in your seats.1

Now, if I am presented with an opportunity for someone to bring me Chimay whilst I recline and watch a movie, I view it as morally wrong to miss it. Am I to be ungracious? No.

The luxury and decent food and excellent beer didn't really feel right this time, though. They felt deeply incongruous and increasingly uncomfortable. That's because we were at the theater to see Fruitvale Station, a harrowing but stunningly acted story of the last twenty-four hours in the life of Oscar Grant, a young man fatally shot in the back by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer as he lay prone and unarmed on the ground of the train station of that name. That officer — Johannes Mehserle — was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter. I previously wrote about the law governing the charges against him and how they applied to his defense that he accidentally grabbed his pistol rather than his taser.

The movie starts with actual footage of the shooting, then flashes back to the last day of Grant's life, plagued with trouble but centered on his girlfriend and daughter. It's powerful, and moving, it's amazingly well-acted, and I recommend it wholeheartedly, with the reservation that it is like a kick in the gut. The film's treatment of the fatal moment allows varying interpretations, which might arise from your preconceived notions based on media coverage or political or social views: did Mehserle lose control and execute an unarmed man in a moment of rage? Did he make a terrible, reckless error reflecting bad judgment and bad training in a moment of chaos? The movie has things to say about how police act towards young men like Grant, but it doesn't force the ultimate conclusion.

The movie has been deservedly well-reviewed. One review caught my eye, because it says things that, as a criminal defense attorney, I hear a lot. At Variety, Geoff Berkshire says:

Yet even if every word of Coogler’s account of the last day in Grant’s life held up under close scrutiny, the film would still ring false in its relentlessly positive portrayal of its subject.

. . . .

Consequently, “Fruitvale” piles on examples of Grant as a loving boyfriend to Sophina (Melonie Diaz), son to Wanda (Octavia Spencer) and father to Tatiana (Ariana Neal), with only fleeting glimpses of his foibles. Sophina remains angry about a recent affair Oscar had (though she has to forgive him, because he’s so darn sweet). He also spent time in prison (for reasons never made clear), has a temper that occasionally flares up and was fired from his grocery store job for missing work. Yet there’s never any question that by the time we meet him, all of this dubious stuff is firmly in Oscar’s past, and he’s dedicated himself to pursuing a better life.

Berkshire seems to feel that filmmaker Ryan Coogler is cheating by depicting Oscar Grant as a loving father and fond if imperfect boyfriend and son, without portraying him sufficiently as — to be blunt — a criminal.

Geoff Berkshire didn't see the same movie I saw. I saw a movie in which Michael B. Jordan convincingly portrays a young man who has recently cheated on his loving and patient girlfriend and is somewhat defiant about it, a young man who knows his choices threaten to make his daughter miserable, a young man who still flirts with drugs, a young man who can be cruel to his devoted mother, a young man who has a hot temper and poor self-control and a capacity for violence. The film shows a young man who went to prison and was immersed in its brutal culture.

But the movie shows other aspects of Oscar Grant, too, and that may be what is upsetting Berkshire. The film shows Oscar Grant is all those things, but still others at the same time. The film shows that Grant genuinely loves his girlfriend even though he wrongs her. The film shows he is devoted to his daughter even as he's made choices that separates them. The film shows he loves his mother and regrets the pain he's caused her. The film shows that he can be kind to strangers and form connections with people.

We're used to stories that depict criminals as protagonists, like The Godfather or The Wire or Boardwalk Empire. The culture accepts — with occasional grumbling — fictional characters being more than one thing at once, made of good and bad parts. But when it comes to a real human being like Oscar Grant, our culture tends to be scornful of complexity and nuance. Berkshire's review suggests that Oscar Grant is a criminal, and shouldn't be portrayed otherwise. (It's entirely possible that somewhere someone is writing angrily that Oscar Grant is a victim and shouldn't be portrayed otherwise.) But Oscar Grant, like all of us, was more than one thing. Oscar Grant, a real live human being, could make terrible decisions that threatened his relationship with his daughter and still love her fiercely. Oscar Grant could love his mother and break her heart. Oscar Grant could commit crimes but be kind to strangers. If we're honest about human beings, we can depict one side without diminishing the other side.

Society has a stake in depicting people like Oscar Grant — people who have gone to prison, people who have committed crimes — as all one thing. Society has a reason to get anxious, as Berkshire seems to, when the Oscar Grants of the world are depicted as people like us with good and bad parts, people to whom we can relate. Society runs on treating many people as less than human. Society depends on the social compact not falling apart when a young man is shot to death as he lays prone and unarmed on the pavement. Society depends on us accepting the fact that we jail people at a greater rate than anyone on the planet. Society depends on us accepting, as we are more and more enthusiastic about jailing people, that we are less and less interested in paying for adequate legal representation or adequate jail conditions. Society depends on us shrugging at brutality. Society relies on us not recognizing the essential humanity of the targets of the state's power. Depicting people who commit crimes as one-dimensional criminals supports that social compact; depicting them as people — people more like us than unlike us — threatens it.2

Society can't function as presently constituted if we recognize the Oscar Grants of the world (or for that matter the Johannes Mehserles) as a human beings, and act accordingly. Fruitvale Station is not subversive because it suggests Oscar Grant's death was a grave injustice; it's subversive because it suggests his life had value in the first place.

Talking the talkies

Print This Post

How will you be passing the time as Hurricane Sandy– aka "the Frankenstorm"– passes your way?

We'll be watching 1930s and 1940s movies unless and until the power goes out. Our goal is to make it through at least one flick by each of the actors who have possessed and now torment actor Scott Ratner's mind:

('Like' the vid if you like the vid!) Good thing he became obsessed with talkies instead of silents. But I hear he also does a mean Buster Keaton and a passable Harold Lloyd.

For Plagiarists, The Internet Is A Double-Edged Sword

Print This Post

If you're on a deadline, and you need to produce written content, the internet makes it ridiculously fast and easy to rip other writers off.

But people who live by the sword also die by it. Once someone suspects plagiarism, the internet makes it easy to search for other people who used your words first. It also makes it easy to spot-check your other work to see if any of it appears lifted from prior sources without attribution. Finally, once plagiarism is detected, the internet — full, as it is, of both successful and frustrated writers — makes word of the misconduct spread like wildfire.

This week's example: the Movie Junkies.

John Scalzi — who hates plagiarism the way you hate Hitler and the way I hate reality TV — writes the Alpha post, noting that MaryAnn Johanson's review of a film — appropriately enough, "Shame" — was plagiarized at MovieJunkies. As Scalzi notes in an update, MovieJunkies has now edited that review, leaving an incoherent mess that still has elements of the plagiarized work. A screenshot is here, and the sentence fragments, run-on sentences, and other errors are in the original:

A powerful plunge into the mania of sex addiction. The feelings of isolation and all-consuming need so piercingly in “Shame”. Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a New Yorker who shuns intimacy with women but feeds his desires with a compulsive addiction to sex. His troubled sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) moves into his apartment stirring memories of their shared painful past and Brandon’s insular life spirals out of control. Sissy is her brother’s polar opposite, and she proceeds to invade his carefully cultivated privacy.

Shame offers something different than I have ever seen on screen in a main stream movie. For the first a main stream audience can see a man with extreme vulnerability. Fassbender is exceptional is expressing is misery and utter weakness in the fight against his obsession and addiction. Most movies that are available to the mass audiences protect the male image and ego. Even male nudity is treated much more tabu than female nudity.

The only issue I had with the direction was that some shots were held for too long where I got a little bored numerous times throughout the movie.

Movie Junkie Rating: GOOD BUZZ :) Note: GREAT HIGH for Fassbender’s performance!

Now comes the part where other writers — and their fans — start looking for other instances of plagiarism. Scalzi's commenters are off to a good start and have found some strong candidates for plagiarism. Mike McGranaghan of Aisleseat indicates he has screencaps of six reviews plagiarized from him, and is tracking down plagiarism of other writers. Things are swiftly becoming very grim for MovieJunkies. The plagiarism is looking serial and pervasive rather than isolated.

Using the comment form on the MovieJunkies web site, I asked for a comment, indicating that I write about various forms of internet misbehavior and wondered if they had a comment about allegations they had plagiarized multiple articles. Here's the response I got — which I feel comfortable sharing because I made it clear I was writing to get a comment for a blog post:

Hello Ken,

I cannot apologize enough.

It seems some of my views that I passed onto to one of my staff to post on the site have used other sources that should not have been included. I should have looked more carefully and we do so in the future. I apologize for this error. We have removed the requests that have been sent to us.

Please let me know if you see anything else and I will gladly remove it immediately.

Thank you very much.
Sincerely,
Michele Schalin

I find this incoherent and unconvincing. To the extent one can parse the main sentence, it's very difficult to believe. Is she saying that she voiced views that happened to incorporate the exact language of other writers' work, and her staff wrote it verbatim? Or that she referred to other writers' work, and they copied it verbatim? It's impenetrable, particularly for someone who supposedly writes professionally. Moreover, it's not believable. The hasty and incompetent editing of challenged posts — which as of now lack any apology or acknowledgement — suggests a guilty conscience, not an innocent error. The number of posts at issue, discussed above, also makes any innocent excuse hard to accept.

The people who run Movie Junkies are poised on a knife's edge. If they handle this situation correctly, with a convincing display to the extent that critics are mistaken, or (more likely) with abject apologies and acceptances of responsibility, the site might survive, even after this goes viral. If they take a dishonest, self-righteous, or evasive approach, they are done: curb-stomped by the internet they used as a source for stolen text. Just ask Judith Griggs

(If memory serves I learned of Griggs from Scalzi, too. Don't plagiarize around Scalzi. Just . . don't.)

Edited to add: another plagiarism victim.

Edited to add: Mike McGranaghan tells his story, and notes that the Movie Junkies site and Facebook page are down.

Edited to add: Eric Snyder talks about how the site plagiarized him, and about his correspondence with Michele Schalin.

Justice Alito Knows Obscenity When He Plays It

Print This Post

It won't surprise long-time readers to learn that I approve of Justice Scalia's majority opinion in Brown v. Entertainment Merchant's Association, which struck down California's ban on the sale of violent videogames to minors.  The opinion is more or less mandated by United States v. Stevens, another case we cheered.

So I won't dwell (other than to applaud it briefly) on the majority's holding that minors do have First Amendment rights, nor on the cynicism of California's attempt to end-run the First Amendment by claiming that all speech may be regulated in the name of protecting children.

I want to dwell on the concurring opinion of Justice Samuel Alito, which shows the danger posed by statutes such as California's Violent Videogame Act, and of judges who believe their opinions as art critics ought to be the law of the land.  This passage:

It is certainly true, as the Court notes, that “ ‘[l]iterature, when it is successful draws the reader into the story, makes him identify with the characters, invites him to judge them and quarrel with them, to experience their joys and sufferings as the reader’s own.’ ”  Ante, at 11 (quoting American Amusement Machine Assn. v. Kendrick, 244 F. 3d 572, 577 (CA7 2001)).  But only an extraordinarily imaginative reader who reads a description of a killing in a literary work will experience that event as vividly as he might if he played the role of the killer in a video game. To take an example, think of a person who reads thepassage in Crime and Punishment in which Raskolni- kov  kills the old pawn broker with an  axe.  See F. Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment 78 (Modern Library ed. 1950).  Compare that reader with a video-game player who creates an avatar that bears his own image; who sees a realistic image of the victim and the scene of the killing in high definition and in three dimensions; who is forced to decide whether or not to kill  the victim and decides to do so; who then pretends to grasp an axe, to raise it above the head of the victim, and then to bring it down; who hearsthe thud of the axe hitting her head and her cry of pain;who sees her split skull and feels the sensation of blood onhis face and hands.  For most people, the two experiences will not be the same.

illustrates the problem perfectly.

For those who haven't read it, spoilers follow:

(more…)

That's Entertainment

Print This Post

I have no plans, and no particular desire, to go see "Atlas Shrugged."

I do have plans, however, to read and enjoy the mean-spirited reviews of the movie, the flood of gratuitous, impertinent, and semi-literate swipes at any ideology to the right of Dennis Kucinich, and the mouth-frothing rage of the defensive Randians and Objectivists. No movie can match that.

The movie appears appalling as an expression of filmmaker's art. As for the underlying work — well, I have many small-l libertarian views, but I find Ayn Rand tiresome. Political allegory can be gripping — consider Animal Farm or 1984. No one would say that George Orwell is subtle, but he doesn't have Snowball give a eighty-page speech, because he's not pathologically self-indulgent and self-satisfied. Rand lacks the elements that I require in an entertaining political writer: tolerance of nuance, capacity for self-criticism, and a sense of humor about it all. The folks who are loudest about how awesome she is also seem humorless, in a very humorous way. (Remember how angry the Objectivists got at John Scalizi for a funny throw-away paragraph?)

Dogmatism is dreary.

That Is Not Dead Which Has Its Server Costs Paid Through The Year 2017

Print This Post

Meaning Popehat.

I can't speak for any of the other authors (remember Brian, our resident Obamican? I don't either), but for myself I've been going through rather grueling work, combined with a worse-than-usual case of seasonal affective disorder, combined with a mid-life crisis, combined with a family medical situation that demands personal attention.  Although Popehat is a very fulfilling entertainment, my involvement here is a Thing Of Mood.

It'll get better.

Anyway, I did want to share three things, in no particular order:

John Scalzi's Old Man's War is coming to the silver screen. An entirely derivative tribute to the genius 1970s novel The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (which was itself a perverse love letter to Robert A. Heinlein), Old Man's War was still perhaps the most entertaining science fiction novel of the past decade.  Wolfgang Petersen, who directed Das Boot before going on to mediocre American movies, is at the helm.  Here's hoping Petersen has one great work left in him, because this story will make a dynamite movie in the right hands.

I've been playing a lot of Vindictus in my free time.  Emphasis on "free". Most free-to-play games illustrate the engineer's dictate "Fast, cheap, right: Pick any two."  They're either bug-filled nightmares, disguised spyware, or tedious grindfests.  You can play Vindictus in twenty minute sessions.  It's a mildly persistent world with fully persistent characters.  It combines depth of play with an action-packed interactive combat system.  It's fun as all get out, and it doesn't leave any unsightly residue on your hard drive.

But my Vindictus time may stall tomorrow, now that I'm getting my life back, and Rift is making its debut.  I've messed with the beta for Rift since December, and the game has grown on me.  Even in beta I found it more entertaining than World of Warcraft, and I think it has the depth to last me until Guild Wars 2 releases, sometime in the next century.

I'll have a full review of Rift, when I'm in the mood.

Oh, Please Don't Mess With Soft, Vulnerable, Sensitive Texas

Print This Post

Lots of state and local governments offer you tax credits if you film within their borders. Though cynics say that this is just a way for government to favor its friends, some people claim it makes good economic sense. Film productions bring money to town, and employ hotels, caterers, sexually transmitted disease clinics, bail bondsmen, aromatherapists, gerbil veterinarians, and thus and such.

Some states and localities have elaborate requirements to qualify for the tax credit. That's not what distinguishes Texas. What distinguishes Texas, apparently, is that to get a movie tax credit, you have to ensure that your movie doesn't hurt their feelings. And apparently Machete did.

The Texas Film Commission has denied incentives for "Machete," the controversial immigration-related feature film from Robert Rodriguez's Austin-based Troublemaker Studios.

In a brief, formal letter dated Dec. 1 and released Wednesday by Katherine Cesinger , a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry, the Texas Film Commission cited part of a state code that says requests for film incentives can be denied "because of inappropriate content or content that portrays Texas or Texans in a negative fashion."

Big Shiny Robot speculates about what got the Texans' panties in a wad:

s for the offensive part of it, I’m sure you could argue that there are portions people may find offensive. But the offense here seems to be more political rather than content-based. I didn’t hear conservative critics harrumphing about the abundance of boobies, using intestines to rappel out a hospital window, cutting numerous limbs off, or the general pervasive sex and violence of the film.

But because there was a political undercurrent- one which discussed issues surrounding illegal immigration, made a mockery of bigoted politicians and vigalantes, and proudly declared (from the top of a taco truck) “We didn’t cross the border- the border crossed us!!” I can see how that would be threatening to the small minds which inhabit many areas of our state government.

Someone with more energy than I have today ought to do a First Amendment analysis of Texas' rather arbitrary content-based system for granting or denying tax credits.

Now, I understand the inherent goodness of being careful of the feelings and sensibilities of the delicate. I have seven- and four-year-old daughters! But I have to ask this: what "portrays Texas or Texans in a negative fashion" in a more pronounced way: a silly action movie, or a state government that denies tax credits to movies that fail adequately to congratulate the state and its inhabitants for how awesome they are?

Stay strong down there, Lone Star.

A Perfect Christmas Gift

Print This Post

If you didn't see "Inception" in theaters, it's available on DVD and Blu-Ray on December 7.

I didn't write about it while it was big, but "Inception" is the best mainstream movie I've seen in years.  A wonderfully satisfying thriller with a mild science / speculative fiction tinge, an intentionally Hitchockian aesthetic, and as much appeal for women as for men (a rarity in techno-thrillers).

And it's as good as Hitchcock at his best.   It's as good as "Vertigo," which is to say that it's a nearly perfect film that will be as great fifty years from now as it is today.  If you have a special someone, this is the stocking stuffer to get.

Sears Carries A Wide Selection Of Firearms, Ammunition, And Survival Gear

Print This Post

Just be careful going through the checkout line.  Some of the customers are pretty nasty.

Not parenthetically, at the rate George Romero is achieving mainstream saturation, he's on his way to a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars.  Which will be given one day after he dies.  As a fan of Romero before it was cool to be a fan of Romero, I like to see him getting his cultural due, but I'd prefer that he got loads of money, or at least had Martin recognized as the weird work of genius that it is.

Hat tip: David.

Lessons Learned From A Lifetime Of Sleazy American Horror Books And Movies

Print This Post

As Halloween is upon us, I thought I'd share this wisdom, which has kept me alive in a world teeming with serial killers, aliens that aren't interested in bringing peace to mankind, backwoods cannibals, and corpses that hunger for the flesh of the living:

  1. If the sign says, "Last gas for sixty miles," it's time to buy gas.
  2. Better still, turn around.  Drive to the station where the sign says, "Next to last gas for seventy miles".
  3. Historic anniversaries divisible by five are overrated. If a tragedy occurred ten years ago at the house on Maple Street, mark your calendar to visit on the eleventh anniversary.
  4. The psychiatrist is not your friend.
  5. If it sleeps an ancient slumber, don't wake it up.
  6. Don't go into the cellar.
  7. Don't get into the shower.
  8. Don't climb up to the attic.
  9. If you have to climb up to the attic, don't enter head first.
  10. I don't care how hungry you are: If a stranger offers you food, don't eat it.
  11. Bullets cannot stop it.
  12. Unless they're made of silver.  Good luck finding that in nine millimeter.
  13. Unless bullets can stop it.  In that case, aim for the head.
  14. Large black dogs are nothing but trouble.
  15. Charming, urbane, vaguely European men of wealth and education are nothing but trouble.
  16. Pale beautiful women with wide eyes are nothing but trouble.
  17. "Do not call up that which you cannot put down."
  18. If you hear a solitary bassoon playing but you're not in a concert hall, stop what you're doing immediately.  Walk out of the building slowly, get into your car, drive to the 7/11 and buy a Slurpee.  Nothing ever happens at 7/11.
  19. When you meet a small, precocious child, beat it to death with a hammer.  Just in case.
  20. Rural vacations in mountain cabins are overrated.  Miami is warm this time of year.
  21. If science teaches us anything, it's that there are Things Man Was Not Meant To Know.
  22. Old, dusty books are dusty for a reason. Who are you to open them up and disturb the dust?
  23. It's better to build a new house than to buy an old one. New construction keeps the economy strong.
  24. But do a thorough title search on the land where you build the new house.  Just in case.
  25. "Don't look back.  Something might be gaining on you."

Keep these lessons in mind, and you might live to be as old as I am.

Update: LabRat's list is better than mine: "Avoid cornfields and apple orchards at all costs."