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God’s Not Dead: Deeply flawed, but decent

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So I didn’t think I was originally going to go to this one before it hit the dollar theater but on some word of mouth recommendations (and the fact it is getting as much buzz as it is) this little pagan thought he would see if this was more than the typically bad Christian film.* It wasn’t, I would go as far as to say this is the best I’ve seen from this genre. It certainly was the best performance I’ve seen from Kevin Sorbo. But that is not to say that it is not without its flaws.

 

The central plot revolves around a Christian student (Shane Harper) Josh Wheaton** who is forced to either say in class that there is no God or risk his grade for the class. And as there is no tradition of taqiyya in Christianity he feels he cannot lie about his faith. This, in what I have to say is the worst teaching method I have ever seen, leads the rather pompous professor (Kevin Sorbo) to try and humiliate him by making him defend the idea that God exists before the class. What follows is his defense of God and how it affects him and those in his class…and a lot of people not in his class, and some people only connected by the most tangential lines…honestly I think they tried to squeeze way to many subplots into this movie.

 

Now his argument in favor of God takes three main points:

  • The traditional argument by cause…although Aquinas made the philosophical much better, and I’ve seen many others make the scientific argument much more clearly.
  • The argument from design looking at life, specifically he looks at the rather shaky grounding for modern evolution being set on punctuated equilibrium…rather than the stronger attacks on the fact that life could not just spontaneous come into existence, nor could sentience. But I was quite happy that the writers took the much more intelligent tack that even if evolution is true it still demands a God to work the way it has rather than the ignorant creationist or simplistic intelligent design arguments.
  • And finally rebutting the problem of evil and taking the Augustinian side that evil exists because of free will.

Regrettably the film didn’t actually use any of the names or terms I used above which would make it difficult for most people seeing this film to actually go and read the more fleshed out versions. So if the film wanted to convince people it may have whet their appetite for these ideas but it didn’t give them anything to work with from there. But overall the case presented by the student is one that is accurate if a bit over simplified.

 

Further I liked the point that behind every atheist is a very angry theist who is angry at God for some reason, which is more or less what I’ve witnessed in life…and what has at least been partially substantiated by research (it’s been shown they all fear him…and with following Yoda’s line of logic…) Although given the rather callous and shallow letter the professor’s character’s mother wrote to him before dying, I can kind of understand why he might have issues with God.

 

My biggest problem is this jump in logic the movie seems to make over and over again. If I show the arguments against God are wrong and show evidence that there is a God then it follows that a Protestant Christian interpretation of God exists.  Over and over again this movie implicitly makes this assumption.   Now to a New Ager like me this is where I have problems. If you destroy the opposition’s case and show that a God exists…that shows that a God exists. You still have a long way to go to prove that your particular interpretation of God exists. And this is the biggest problem I have both with atheists and Christians in this fight; they both seem to assume it’s either their side or the other side. It’s this one or the other. Atheists seem to feel that all Christians believe the exact same thing and can be lumped together and most Christians (or at least a very large portion of the more vocal ones) seem to feel that their interpretation of Christianity is obviously only the right one. As a non-Christian I look at this battle between these two groups with probably the same confusion that America looked at the side war between Finland and the USSR in the early 40’s: Guys you do know there is much bigger battle going on that doesn’t just involve your own petty differences? Right? Honestly as someone with many Thomist sympathies, I don’t think even Catholics would be particularly thrilled with the defense of Christianity in this film (but I could be wrong).

 

But I think this shows a larger problem that is not just specific to Christianity (nor do I think all Christians suffer from it). This film, which ostensibly should have been there to try and offer arguments for atheists and agnostics to give up their beliefs and accept God, does a poor job of it because it implies that if you believe in God you must be a Protestant. You would do a much better job by just proving that a God exists. Once that door has been opened philosophically then if you truly believe in your interpretation you should trust free will and faith (which was a central part of the argument in the movie) to bring people to the truth. By saying that if you have to accept everything or nothing you’re committing just as egregious a logical sin as atheists, and tactically making a very poor move. And I say this is a larger problem because you’re seeing the same problem in a larger political sense, where populists are currently demanding that all who are in the Republican party must be ideologically pure or we can not have them at all…and it is this attitude that drives voters away and keeps the party from winning time and time again…and if Christians* like the producers want to make a case for God they might do best to just try and prove the existence of a God by itself before they make the case for their interpretation of a God as making someone accept both at the same time might in many cases be a bridge too far.
One of the most jarring things of the whole film is that near the end one of the atheist characters in the film is confronted with death and makes a death bed conversion. Luckily there is a minister there to help guide this character back to the faith in their last minutes…and it’s not too subtle that God had a major hand in making sure the minister was there at that place in that time to help save that soul. Even as a pagan I didn’t have a problem with this because I do believe this is how God works…what I had a problem with was that between the writing and directing the scene comes off in a very cold and callous way. Immediately he begins preparing this character for death even though the correct thing for someone to do would have been CPR to save the character’s life. It comes off a little heartless. The fact the very next scene has the cast of Duck Dynasty insulting this character after they’ve already died is possibly one of the worst directing calls I have ever seen (honestly if you just flipped the order of the scenes it wouldn’t have been as bad) but apparently the director felt like insulting the dead.

 

 

On a final note I did appreciate the film showing that China is a repressive tyranny and the religion of peace is anything but.

 

If you’re a Protestant you’ll probably be able to overlook some of the glaring philosophical problems and downplay the bad writing and actually enjoy the film (again I’m not entirely sure how much the Protestant interpretation will grate for non Protestant Christians)…if you’re not a Christian that philosophical jump between God’s existence and Jesus died for you might be a bit much to overlook and ruin the enjoyment.

 

I give the whole thing a C-.

 

*That is not an insult to Christianity…that is an insult to the absolutely pathetic writing and production values faith based movies have had for the past couple of decades. Let’s be honest, Lifetime laughs at the production values of faith based films.

**I still am not sure if the fact that his name bears a great deal of resemblance to a very famous atheist is intentional or not.

***Again certainly not the entirety, but an awfully large number with access to mass media.

 

 

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The best and worst movies of 2012

So I have had time to reflect on the few gems among the tripe from this year and once again prepared to offer my Top 10 List of movies of 2012. And like previous years,  I can’t find 10.

I was hoping for a full list this year. But The Hobbit ran too long, focused too much on dwarves eating, paid more attention to effects than character, and then didn’t have an ending. I wanted a dragon, goddamnit, not as a tease but as a character! The Odd Life of Timothy Green was cute, would make a good date movie, but I can’t justify it on a top list. Red Dawn was great in terms of the patriotism and mood, but I’ll admit the production quality, while certainly higher than the first, is still a bit shaky. Brave, while well done, is not as good as some of its other Pixar counterparts. And I know I may be the only one, but I find John Carter endlessly entertaining.

Now just as a quick reminder I have 4 criteria for great art.
Remember I have 4 basic criteria for great art.
1. It must be enjoyable (I have some kind of positive emotional reaction)…so that throws out most of the critic’s picks out.

2. It must understand human nature
3. It must use the tools of the medium well
4. It must have a meaningful and correct theme.

So here we go. The top 7 films of 2012. (For the movies that I’ve done full reviews of, I have them linked in the titles.)

#7. Cabin in the Woods

“Cleanse them. Cleanse the world of their ignorance and sin. Bathe them in the crimson of – Am I on speakerphone?”

Usually you wouldn’t see a horror movie on any top list because it’s a silly genre. But Cabin in the Woods is a merciless critique of the horror genre and all its stupid tropes. And it is done with wit, with skill and with a wonderful mocking of the horror genre.
This is obviously a little weak at meeting my 4 criteria, but it’s lambasting a genre that never lives up to them, so I think the weakness comes from the source not the material itself.

The Avengers6. The Avengers

“With everything that’s happening, the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old fashioned.”

We all love this film. We all waited for the several years for it to come out. We doubted if it would be any good after we saw how bad Captain America was. But Whedon pulled it out and gave a film that was not only entreating but developed the characters in ways we had not seen in the previous films.

Right, wrong, or indifferent, comic book characters have replaced the myths and legends that pervious societies used to convey ideals of heroism and virtue, and for all the flaws of the individual Avengers, we see something to strive for in terms of human nature within them.

M Bond5. Skyfall

M: Not very comfortable, is it?
Bond: You gonna complain all the way?
M: Go on! Eject me! See if I care!

I would say this is both the best Craig Bond film yet, and the most mature Bond film of all time (I still say that GoldenEye is the best Bond, but that is certainly up for debate). The movie offers us a deeply moving closure to the Bond/M relationship, a chance for Bond to grow as a person, and of course all the final pieces of the Bond mythology (Moneypenny, Q, Martini’s shaken not stirred, not to mention the car from Goldfinger). And at last we had a Bond villain that was both frightening and over the top in the way only a Bond villain can be.

Its only flaw is that it didn’t continue with the plot that the last two films with the Quantum (SPECTRE?) organization. Just one line from Bardem of “I got information from your friends at Quantum, they really hate you Mr. Bond” or something like those lines, it would have kept the plot line alive without ruining the pacing of the film. I can only hope we come back to this plot in the next film.

Now some have complained about the pacing of this film, but I think it’s because they made this film a five act story instead of the three acts we have become so used to. It’s a more complex story requiring a more complex structure.

But this movie quotes my favorite part of my favorite poem. How can I not love that:

Though much is taken, much abides, and though we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are… One equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

4. Trouble with the Curve

Trouble with the Curve
“Now get out of here before I have a heart attack trying to kill you.”

Not Eastwood’s best performance of the year (that would involve a chair), but it is still a great movie. It serves as a great counterpart to last year’s best film Moneyball. Moneyball showed up that in life we must adapt or die. Trouble with the Curve shows that any new innovation shouldn’t throw out all the old tried and true methods—that life is more than just numbers. That there needs to be balance. And it does this with three very unbalanced characters who together grow and learn from each other.

Okay those are the also rans who are on the list because a Top 3 would be rather sad…now let’s get to the three I actually had a hard time ordering.

3. ArgoArgo

“Bad news, bad news. Even when it’s good news, it’s bad news. John Wayne in the ground 6 months and this is what is left of America.”

This is the movie that the best director Academy Award should have gone to (stupid Academy). Affleck manages to have this movie go from a good thriller to a hilarious dark comedy and back to great thriller seamlessly. The skill required to take the tone of movie in radically different directions without making it jarring or seem forced is something most directors are smart enough to not even try. Affleck does it without flaw.
Maybe it’s that Hollywood hates Ben Affleck. Yes he’s made some very questionable acting choices (he’s not a terrible actor but he does pick terrible scripts on occasion). But between Gone Baby, Gone, The Town, and now Argo Affleck has cemented in my mind as one of the great actors of this generation. While I disagree with him on most politics I am more pleased that he is not running for the Senate because this means there will still be more great movies to come.
Anyway Argo is a great film. It shows the creativity of our people in the intelligence services. It shows the unscrupulous and inept people whom an anti-Semite like Carter surrounded himself with (oh, let’s leave them all hanging because of the optics on a mission). Affleck manages to gives us excellent characterization on a large cast for a movie this short. The only reason I would say that this is not the best film is that the theme of this film is not as momentous as the next two films.

2. The Dark Knight Risesdark-knight-rises-cast-1920x1080

“A hero can be anyone. Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a little boy’s shoulder to let him know that the world hadn’t ended.”

Christopher Nolan outdid himself again with this film. In this retelling of A Tale of Two Cities we have a skillful critique of the philosophy that says all wealth is evil and an equally damning critique of those who would use this lie to gain power over. And to top it off they give us a philosophical discussion of the nature of fear, heroism and living the good life. I only give Affleck my call for best director by mere fractions due to his ability to switch tones in the film so well, but Nolan is also a truly great director who took a story that was little more than fluff and action and gave us three films of depth and soul. He made us care about Bruce Wayne the person, not just the costume, and he showed us what a hero is and can be.
This film should win best screenplay, but again I fear it won’t.

1. Les Miserables

“To love another person is to see the face of God.”

Les Miserables Posters
This film does stand a good chance of winning the best picture award it so richly deserves. While I have previously commented on some flaws in the directing and editing this movie still soars above the rest. It gives us salvation and redemption, tragedy and comedy, passion and vengeance. And it does it in possibly the hardest form to work in, the musical. It is without question the best film of 2012.

So what was the worst film of 2012? Promised Land for bad politics? Lincoln for finally proving Spielberg has only hype left and no talent? Life of Pi for taking a book with an infantile understanding of religion and spirituality (I liked the points it made, but it made them so poorly) and let it be directed by one of film’s worst directors? Taken 2 for the plot line of, dad didn’t want daughter to go to Paris because it’s unsafe, but hey, let’s have a family get together in Istanbul, because that’s gotta be safe? Atlas Shrugged II for being even more poorly made than the first even though it had more money (oh please let them recast everyone again for the third)? Cloud Atlas for being a pretentious and tedious attempt to redo The Fountain? Zero Dark Thirty for breaking more federal intelligence laws than any other film in history? Twilight for, well, being Twilight? The Lorax for being useless bullshit? Safe House and Flight for making me realize the glory days of Denzel are over, and I have no hope of them coming back.

No this dishonor of worst film of 2012 goes to Prometheus. Prometheus? Yes, Prometheus. This may come as a bit of a shock. After all, while not the best prequel ever, it wasn’t that bad. It was a great thriller, kept me on the edge of the seat nearly the entire time. It had some pretty good character development. It was well done. So why is it the worst film of the year? Well first I thought the movie was flawed because it asked massive questions about the nature of life, the universe and everything…but it failed to provide even a hint of answer. Which made it unbelievably dissatisfying. But that was only why it wasn’t going on the top of the list. Little did I know when I first saw it that there were answers in the original script. I’m not going to go into how bizarre these answers are, (I only have two words and a link, follow at your own risk: Space Jesus ) but let me just say that if that was the original intent of Ridley Scott then this is by far the dumbest movie I have ever heard of. Ridley Scott has made some of the best films ever created… this is not one of them.

Which movies am I looking forward to?
A Good Day To Die Hard (Mindless fun), 42 (could be pointlessly preachy, I hope not), Oblivion (I’m still unsure what this is about), Iron Man 3 (mindless fun), Thor 2 (mindless fun), Much Ado About Nothing (Whedon does Shakespeare, need I say more), Man of Steel (Nolan please give me a fourth great superhero movie), Red 2 (mindless fun), Ender’s Game (this all depends on the visuals for the game).

As you can see not exactly a list composed primarily of deep films. So it will be a short list again next year in all likelihood.

What do I have no intention of seeing?
Star Trek and Hangover III

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Movies for Conservatives: Les Miserables

Les Miserables Posters

“Do you hear the people sing? Singing the song of angry men.  It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again.”

Les Mis a movie for conservatives?

Yeah.

But let’s first talk about the qualities of the movie apart from political or philosophical points.

The High Points

This is the play in all its glory.  And the play is a truncated version of one of the most moving books ever written.  All the passion, all the empathy there.  You will cry for Fantine.  For Eponine.  For Gavrouche.  For the revolutionary Friends of the ABC.  For Javert. And of course for Valjean.  Bring tissues this is movie that you will cry at, a lot.

And this movie has a few truly wonderful scenes that supply motivation that was missing in the play.  For instance it has Javert arrive on the same day that Fantine is dismissed from her job, which gives a reason for Valjean not taking a more serious interest in her case.

The movie also supplies little moments from the book that were never in the play, like Grantaire standing by Enjolras at the moment of execution.

I think director Tom Hooper created something truly genius with the live singing way this movie was made…however it appears in the early scenes that there was certainly a learning curve involved in using this technique (I wish this wasn’t the first movie to do it so Hooper could have had something to reference).  But for any inconsistency it brings up at some moments, it adds deeply to the rest of the film and emotional impact of the songs.

Les Mis HathawayAnne Hathaway deserves an Oscar.

And Russell Crowe’s singing was a pleasant surprise.  He added more humanity to Javert than any actor I have previously seen.

The Low Points.

I feel there was a lot that got left on the editing room floor. At 2 hours and 37 minutes this was pushing it for most movies nowadays and I’m pretty sure if all the little things that were taken out were put back in it would be well over 3 hours.  And since Hollywood has no intention of returning to the idea of an intermission (to me this makes no sense as most of the money comes from concessions and if there is a break at an hour and a half we would be more willing to buy soda since we wouldn’t have to worry about running out to the rest room and we would buy food at the halfway mark as we would be hungrier by that point…but at least it seems that way, real data I’m not privy to might show otherwise) they were probably forced to make some heavy cuts to the movie.  This creates some odd pacing issues, where certain parts feel a little rushed.

Also, and it may be a personal issue that others may not have a problem with, I was not overly impressed by Jackman’s singing. It wasn’t bad, but I’m used to a deeper more sonorous voice for Valjean.

On the technical points, the movie is one of the best of the year, the acting and visual work was spectacular. The editing needs work (or at least a director’s cut DVD…please.) and the directing while exceptional still could have been just a little better (I think the high cost of production may have prevented doing reshoots that other films might have done)…Hooper gets an A not A+.

The Political/Philosophical Points

Did you know this was Ayn Rand’s favorite book?  It was.  Kind of puts any thoughts that Les Mis is liberal out of the “obviously” category doesn’t it.

Okay let’s look at some of the points. On their own merits.

“I am the master of hundreds of workers, they all look to me.  Can I abandon them, how will they live if I am not free. I speak I am condemned, if I stay silent, I am damned.”

Jean Valjean is a convict, yes. But while that’s all that Javert sees, we’re supposed to see more.  We’re supposed to see the successful businessman who not only created a whole industry in a town, bringing it out of poverty and into an economic renaissance, but who also out of Christian charity (not guilt, it should be noted that if you read the book Valjean is motivated by a desire to be a better person, not by guilt about his prior actions) creates hospitals and schools for the poor.  In a day and age when lesser writers like Dickens would just recycle the terrible image of the robber baron, Hugo gave us a noble businessman as an example of what others should be. It should also be noted that in a very Atlas Shrugged kind of way, Hugo has no illusions that once Valjean is forced to run the industry and the town is not able to survive in its thriving state without Valjean’s leadership. The book to a great degree, with touches still in the movie, shows that prosperity is driven by captains of industry.

“Take my hand I’ll lead you to salvation.  Take my love, for love is everlasting.  And remember the truth that once was spoken: to love another person is to see the face of God.”

Further it should be noted what a deeply religious story this story is.  It is God and the Bishop of Digne, not government that redeems Valjean.  God and faith permeate all levels of this story.  Faith ironically is what drives both Valjean and Javert.  And it never condemns any form of faith, showing that all those fallen (except sadly Javert, whom I’m sure Hugo would have placed there) together in heaven.

The novel, the play, and now the movie praise faith.  It’s a rarity these days in serious well produced films.  And given the desperate need for spirituality in our modern world, something like this must be embraced.

“Let us die facing our foe […] Let others rise to take our place until the Earth is FREE!”

And dare we forget that much of the second half of the story is taken up by an uprising by Republican revolutionaries, seeking a return to law and not the capricious whims of a king.

“But, but, but” some liberals will complain.  The book is about helping the poor, and how unjust the criminal justice system is.  Those are liberal issues. And what they fail to realize is that these are different times and different issues.  The poor in 19th century France were starving (a problem with accuracy is that even the slums of France look too pretty in this movie…honestly we wouldn’t have felt comfortable actually watching what the “The Miserable” of 19th century France looked like…it wasn’t quite Nazi Concentration Camp, but certainly not as pretty as this film depicts it), the poor in 21st century America are suffering an obesity epidemic.  Hugo critiqued those who were lazy and those who felt entitled.  Poverty of the kind Hugo witnessed in France was what he wanted us to feel empathy for, modern poverty would not likely bring as much empathy from Victor.  And he would be horrified by the lack of the churches and religion in the government welfare that modern liberals champion.  And don’t even get me started on the fact that you can’t compare the legal system that punished Valjean for 20 years and hounded him for life for stealing a loaf of bread to our modern system…yes we have problems, but we have the kind of problems Hugo would have only dreamed of.

“Then join in the fight that will give you the right to be free.”

Of course for me one of the most revealing passages in Les Miserable is when Hugo takes a moment to critique communism.

(It should be noted the terms Socialism and Communism at the time do not have the same meaning now…what he calls Communism would be more in line with modern European Socialism…the term Capitalism was first used in 1854, 8 years before Hugo published Les Miserables—it took him nearly 20 years to write—and its usage as a economic system did not begin until Marx used it in 1867, 5 years after Les Miserables was published.  So he could never expect to hear him use the term capitalism even thought that seems to be what he’s calling for.   He certainly did not have the term cronyism which describes the economics of 19th century France better than anything.  So pay attention to the systems and practices he is referring to, not the titles, as he had no access to the title we currently use.)

“The reader will not be surprised if, for various reasons, we do not here treat in a thorough manner, from the theoretical point of view, the questions raised by socialism. We confine ourselves to indicating them.

All the problems that the socialists proposed to themselves, cosmogonic visions, reverie and mysticism being cast aside, can be reduced to two principal problems.

First problem: To produce wealth.

Second problem: To share it.

The first problem contains the question of work.

The second contains the question of salary.

In the first problem the employment of forces is in question.

In the second, the distribution of enjoyment.

From the proper employment of forces results public power.

From a good distribution of enjoyments results individual happiness.

By a good distribution, not an equal but an equitable distribution must be understood.  The highest equality is equity.

From these two things combined, the public power without, individual happiness within, results social prosperity.

Social prosperity means the manhappy, the citizen free, the nation great.

England solves the first of these two problems. She creates wealth admirably, she divides it badly. This solution which is complete on one side only leads her fatally to two extremes: monstrous opulence, monstrous wretchedness. All enjoyments for some, all privations for the rest, that is to say, for the people; privilege, exception, monopoly, feudalism, born from toil itself. A false and dangerous situation, which sates public power or private misery, which sets the roots of the State in the sufferings of the individual. A badly constituted grandeur in which are combined all the material elements and into which no moral element enters.

Communism and agrarian law think that they solve the second problem. They are mistaken. Their division kills production. Equal partition abolishes emulation; and consequently labor.

It is a partition made by the butcher, which kills that which it divides.

It is therefore impossible to pause over these pretended solutions. Slaying wealth is not the same thing as dividing it.

The two problems require to be solved together, to be well solved. The two problems must be combined and made but one.

[…]

Solve the two problems, encourage the wealthy, and protect the poor, suppress misery, put an end to the unjust farming out of the feeble by the strong, put a bridle on the iniquitous jealousy of the man who is making his way against the man who has reached the goal, adjust, mathematically and fraternally, salary to labor, mingle gratuitous and compulsory education with the growth of childhood, and make of science the base of manliness, develop minds while keeping arms busy, be at one and the same time a powerful people and a family of happy men, render property democratic, not by abolishing it, but by making it universal, so that every citizen, without exception, may be a proprietor, an easier matter than is generally supposed; in two words, learn how to produce wealth and how to distribute it, and you will have at once moral and material greatness; and you will be worthy to call yourself France.”

[Emphasis added]

You will notice he is proposing such things as universal education, due process of law, and property rights.  He condemns any attempt for everyone to have their fair and equal share and envying the wealthy.  He proposes that people be paid just wages for their work (which was an issue then, not so much now). He proposes to make every man his own master, that everyone may earn wealth.  I can’t speak with certainty what political path Hugo would take in the modern world, but I can be fairly certain that if a modern day liberal went back to see him, Hugo would try to slap the stupid out of the Occupy trash.  I can also be mildly sure that Hugo might encourage the building of a few barricades against some of the government overreaches of the modern world.

All in all, the story is one of the value of liberty, of the individual, of redemption through works and of God.  Those are conservative themes if I ever heard them.

“Do you hear the people sing, lost in the valley of the night

It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light.

For the wretched of the Earth there is a flame that never dies,

Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.

We will live again in Freedom in the garden of the Lord.

We will walk behind the plowshares.  We will put away the sword.

The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward.

Will you join in our crusade?  Who will be strong and stand with me?

Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?

Do you hear the people sing, say do you hear the distant drums?

It is the future that we bring when tomorrow comes!”

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The Great Greg Gutfeld at The Reagan Library

The first 8 minutes is dead air, but if you skip that it is a great speech by the most under-appreciated personality on the right.

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The Greatest Films of American Patriotism: Overview and Honorable Mentions

This was a much harder list to compile than a lot of the others. Halloween films is there are a monster or lots of blood? Yes? Okay it qualifies. Christmas films? Does it take place in December? Yes? Okay it qualifies. Romances? Did two people fall in love? Comedies? Did I laugh?

Patriotism…
…not as easy to define with film. Going through internet lists of patriotic films I find that most of them come in two categories. The first seems to be does it show that the U.S. military can really blow shit up? And there is no denying that we can, but is this American patriotism? Do we, should we, love our country because we have an efficient military? No. We love our country because of the ideals it represent of the greatness in humanity that it speaks to. Yes, the fact that time and again that our military has stood not to just defend the liberty of this nation but the liberty of other nations is cause for admiration, the fact that our soldiers have given their lives to see that those ideals are persevered is cause for veneration. But it is the ideals and the causes that are worthy, not the efficiency of the battles or amount of ordinance dropped.  So that threw out a lot of war movies that were more about the battle and the tactics and the people involved. Remember the line is “First to fight for right and freedom and to keep our honor clean” not about death tolls.

The other category of films that seem to be made into patriotic films are historical films. There are a lot of people that seem to think that just because you show a historical event that was important in U.S. history it’s patriotic. Ummm…there is a difference between history and patriotism. And I’m sorry but just because Forrest was really involved in a lot of events or even because Sinise has become a hero to our troops from that movie, there is nothing explicitly patriotic about that film. If being about a major event in U.S. history and showing the might of the U.S. army were the only requirements for patriotism, then Gone with the Wind would be the most patriotic film of all time…but you know while I love Gone with the Wind, a movie that glorifies traitors to the U.S. I somehow don’t see it making my list of patriotic films.

So that took out 90% of all the films you will see on most lists of the most patriotic films.

So then I was left having to go through a lot of other options. Part of what makes America great is our belief in individualism, the free market and the ability to achieve the American Dream. But I felt that there are many films that show the American Dream being reached, and you know while there is a certain implicit tip of the hat to American liberty I couldn’t quite call these films patriotic because often they were giving justified credit to the individual more than the nation that made it possible. And I have no problem with this focus. So I decided, I’ll save the living the American Dream moments for a different list at a different time. Only films that give due credit to America, if only subtly should make this list.

Then I went through movies that did involve armed service members that showed them as distinctly heroic and while I could find great movies that show every branch of the service as heroic (even the Coast Guard in the very underappreciated The Guardian) it was again the individual and not the ideals of the nation that were in focus. Now I think that it is only in a country with ideals like ours that breeds individuals with character that can be called heroic, I don’t feel it’s artistically justified to put that argument on every movie.

So my standard for the 29 parts of this list (plus the honorable mentions) is did the writer and director set to show that there is something distinct about the American ideal that breeds justice, heroism, liberty and prosperity. Is there anything in the film that was meant to show the superiority of ideals in America?

And thus we begin the list with the honorable mentions, in no particular order…

Hidalgo. The story of an American and his horse who did what others could not. There are some very patriotic moments in this film and the character’s determination is very much attributed to his being American. However I think that is in great part due to the writer John Fusco. The movie’s numerous flaws I blame on hack director Joe Johnston (the same hack who managed to not show a drop of patriotism in a movie entitled “Captain America”…how the hell do you manage that? ) Entertaining but flawed.

Tears of the Sun.A movie about a Navy SEAL team realizing to hell with orders, morality requires

For all it’s flaws it’s hard to hate a film that ends with Burke’s quote “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” after showing good men not sitting quietly by.

them to fight against tyranny and genocide. Again it has some flaws but it certainly shows Americans as a people who believe more in what is right than what is convenient.

Trial at Nuremberg starring Spencer Tracy and Nuremberg starring Alec Baldwin. Why these two films, because it shows that America, for all of it faults, does to its enemies what no country would ever give us, a fair trial where the accused was allowed to defend themselves.

An American Carol. A film by David Zucker (the genius behind Airplane, The Naked Gun, and Hot Shots…you know back in the days when slapstick movies were funny) comes a slapstick making relentless fun of a Michael Moore style tub of lard and stupidity. As the ghosts of Washington, Patton, Kennedy, and Death (along with Bill O’Reilly) try and slap some patriotism into this liberal idiot you hear a poor man version of the ideals that make America great. It has its moments but it either tries to shoehorn patriotism too much into the humor of certain scenes or shoehorn comedy too much into certain patriotic scenes. It had potential, but I think Zucker wanted to make a point more than make a good movie. Also, unlike really great humor the jokes are very dependent on current events and what strengths it does have will not stand the test of time. The movie does have the distinction of having at least half of all conservatives in Hollywood in the film.

Plus it has one of the most enjoyable scenes of all time. Shooting ACLU zombies…god I want this turned into a video game.

The ideal of the American Hero

Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Indiana Jones series. Okay none of the movies themselves about patriotism per se. But the hero is the quintessential ideal of the American hero. Independent, smart, loyal, man of action opposed to Nazi’s, Communists and religious fanatics. Now do I have to list how flawed some of the movies were?

Burn Notice. Burned spy Michael Weston just bleeds patriotism. It was motivates him, to get back into the good graces of the nation that turned its back on him because it is the only nation worth fighting for. Any single episode may lack a particular theme of patriotism, but taken as a whole there are only a few things more important to Weston than his country (Fi, Sam, Mom, honor, what’s right…but those values are very American in themselves).

And finally three movies I’m going to lump together because they pretty much all have the same theme and the same flaws: The Tuskegee Airmen,(about the black airmen who flew combat planes in WWII), Windtalkers (about the Navajo code talkers used in the Pacific front of WWII), and Go for Broke! (About the 442nd division in the European theater of WWII, made up entirely of Japanese-Americans who been imprisoned in U.S. internment camps at the start of WWII but who went on to be the most highly decorated division in the history of the U.S. armed services). The basic theme of all of them is that for all flaws, the ideals of America are so great that even those to whom our treatment of them has been nothing short of evil, still see the greatness of America as something worth fighting and dying for. (Conversely I want you to think of what would happen if Germany had armed Jews who had been in concentration camps…do you think you’d have a highly decorated division of the German army…or do you think you’d have a lot of dead Germans and a lot of defections to the other side, followed by even more dead Germans.) What’s the problem with these films? They are all terribly made. Bad scripts, sub-par acting, questionable directing. You’d almost think Hollywood didn’t want the idea that America is better than her flaws being a popular movie.

And one last note there are some movies which could theoretically have a very strong patriotic theme but they haven’t come out yet so only time will tell (disturbingly a lot of them are comic book movies): Captain America 2, The Man of Steel, Dark Knight Rises and Argo could all theoretically make it onto to this list if done well…but we’ll have to see.

Up tomorrow #29 on the list…films that use other countries as metaphors for America….

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Greatest Moments of Comedy in Film #9 & #8

#9 The Trouble With Tribbles

“Most curious creature, Captain. It’s trilling seems to have a tranquilizing effect on the human nervous system. Fortunately, of course, I am immune to its effect.”

Okay, technically not a movie…although I’ve included TV episodes on my lists before. But this is the only standalone episode of any show to make it on this list…true there were some very funny episodes of the other Star Treks, some great moments of X-file humor, and I am still looking forward every year to The Closer’s Flynn and Provenza episode. But while almost every show has a great moment in comedy, I think only the “Trouble with Tribbles” really rises to the bar of the Top 30 comedies (if I did a top 40 there might have been an X-file episode or two, “Bad Blood” & “Jose Chung’s”, but I figured 30 was pushing it as it was.

Tribbles are possibly the cutest prop ever developed. A purring ball of fur. How can you not love a purring ball of fur? But it’s not just the tribbles that make the episode.

I will be the first to admit there were some pretty low moments in the original Star Trek. Episodes of bad writing, bad directing, bad special effects and yes bad acting. And when it was bad it was really bad (see “Spock’s Brain”)…but, oh, when they had a good script and a good director then the actors would bring up all the talent they had and everything worked into some of the finest moments of TV history. And “Tribbles” is one of those truly great moments.

Near perfect comedic timing from both Shatner and Nimoy in almost every scene in dealing with a situation that is beyond preposterous.

Looking for a quick 45 minutes of nonstop laughing The Trouble with Tribbles never fails.

#8 Duck Soup

“Remember, you’re fighting for this woman’s honour, which is probably more than she ever did.”

I love the Marx Brothers. Mad cap wit and pure insanity. And Groucho as the Prime Minister of a nation is just more insane than you usually get even in a Marx Brothers film. (And there is the sad fact that he’s a better leader than a lot of the world’s current chief executives). I will admit that this has a much weaker plot than some of the other Marx Brother films…but why are you watching Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo for plot? But the mirror scene, the war scene and a dozen others I find this perhaps the funniest of the Marx Brother movies…but only by a small margin.

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Greatest Comedy Films #25-#21

I loved this scene. Not humorous, but it does a great job at conveying the sense of accomplishment at what they just did.

#25 Ocean’s Eleven (and Twelve and Thirteen)
While the original has its place in my heart, the remake is one of the few remakes in history that I think was actually better than the original. And I know I’m not the first to say it, but part of what makes all three movies so enjoyable is that the cast clearly just had a fun time making all of them.  And one of the greatest part is that this movie does an excellent job of subltely playing off the plotline of the original where the money was lost when the oldest member of the gang had a heart attack and the money was burned up with him when he was cremated.  It was little things like that where they paid homage to the original that made this a great film.

All of the humor is witty and seldom goes for the obvious joke which really helps keep what could easily be a silly heist film fresh and original.

#24 Get Shorty
Get Shorty (and to a much lesser degree Be Cool) are one of the few examples of an ensemble cast working out. Usually when you try to shove more than three actors that people might recognize things get lost very quickly yet this movie manages to balance all of the different parts. I make this comment here and not with Ocean’s Eleven because as much as we love all the characters in the Ocean films Clooney, Pitt and Damon do dominate, whereas in Get Shorty there is a healthy balance of all the characters and their individual expressions of insanity.


#23 Men In Black

They should have stopped with the first one.

The sequel was terrible and I have few if any hopes for number 3, but the original was a masterful work of wit and whimsy. Yeah there were some issues with the supporting cast and a few scenes that I think didn’t work but overall the movie is not only funny but, despite the stupid concept, seems to have stood the test of time and remains watchable and enjoyable.

#22 Snatch
As far as I can tell British comedy is a bit of an acquired taste for most Americans…especially since it seems to be broken into low comedy which seems obsessed with the radically different attitude toward sex that the Brits have and high comedy which isn’t much different than high comedy over here (although we don’t have much of it anymore)…but that said, the works of Guy Richie are more in the high witty and surreal category, and by that virtue hilariously bizarre. Now while I love Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels I found Snatch to be just a little more entertaining (especially with Brat Pitt’s utterly incomprehensible Irish gypsy character).  As opposed to the other films listed here there is a chance you might not know what this one is about…but I couldn’t try and summarize the plot in a sentence or two, it’s just too damned insane.

#21 My Fellow Americans
A movie that portrays politicians as idiots.   Not so subtle hits at Bush and Clinton…and really Democrats and Republicans in general.  It’s kind of obvious why I love this film.  Can’t you just see Joe Biden saying some of the things that the VP in this movie does?  Actaully no, Biden is a lot dumber than the VP in this movie.

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