Religulous: One Cheer out of Three

 Posted by on 8 October 2008 at 11:32 am  Culture, Film, Religion
Oct 082008

Bill Maher has a new documentary slamming religion, Religulous, which opened Friday night around the nation. Short review: Sure, go see it. It will make you snort and laugh and shake your head at the endless nuttiness of religion. And it will make you think — but not that much. Unfortunately, there is a fundamental flaw that keeps it from being great.

The movie had the working title of “A Spiritual Journey,” and it begins that way with homey early photos of Maher up to his adolescence, and some sit-down exchanges with his mother about their family’s religion (raised Catholic, though half Jewish). But the movie isn’t really about him and his spiritual journey; it is mainly spent in interviews with an array of religious figures representing various big and some not-so-big religions and sects. We get to gawk at their goofiness, and Maher gives them plenty of opportunities to show their plumage. Interspersed are passages of him talking while driving around the nation. (Maybe that’s the sort of “journey” he’s really referring to.)

Maher is a comedian who’s made religion a target for years, so he’s got lots of funny, biting material to toss off. And sometimes his boldness and quick wit really pay off in his interactions with the religious loonies he’s rounded up for inspection. That is where the film shines. He wraps the film up with a speech about the dangers of faith and religion, and generally encourages people to grow up.

It is refreshing to see a film here in one of the reddest of the red states taking a huge swing at the endless goofiness and insanity of religion. But as with ‘New Atheists’ like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, its effect will be necessarily shallow and likely counterproductive in improving the culture. Consider: Maher wants to ding the destructiveness of faith and expose religionists’ obvious nuttiness — yet he works from the weak platform of a Skeptic who Just Doesn’t Know, and who explicitly touts Doubt as his big epistemological tool. Well, the faithful will simply see him as ultimately expressing just another kind of faith, and they’ll rightly think him a bullying hypocrite for baselessly attacking theirs. If he wants to be effective, he has to gain enough of the correct philosophical grounding to be able to explain just how one knows with valid certainty that faith and reason, science and religion, are fundamentally different and utterly irreconcilable.

And believers will see the gray kind of Relativism that flows from such skepticism and rightly dismiss his approach as a dangerous prospect — after all, humans’ need for morality is real. Lost in this sadly-partial exchange is the fact that both the religious and the subjectivist approaches to morality are dead wrong.  Values have an objective basis here in reality — they aren’t subjective constructs or edicts from another realm — and moral principles to guide us in pursuing the values required to live happy lives are just as open to discovery, dissemination, and proper use as the principles of engineering and economics.

While Maher’s movie has a lot of humorous red meat for the god-free, all that believers will find is a journey out of the frying pan and into the fire.  That is a shame, if the goal is to help humanity get over religion.

The Ethics of Emergencies, Gotham Style

 Posted by on 25 August 2008 at 11:45 pm  Ethics, Film
Aug 252008


In the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight, there is a climactic scene, as follows. Gotham must be evacuated, and part of the evacuation is effected by putting 500 people on each of two ferries. One ferry is filled with civilians, and the other, with convicted felons and their guards. The Joker supplies a dilemma: he has provided each boat with a detonator, and unless one ferry uses its detonator to blow up the other before his deadline, the Joker will blow both ferries up. Hashing out what one would do in that situation became the focus of discussion on at least one blog, which managed to capture the attention of a blog published at the New York Times, “Freakonomics.”

I enjoyed The Dark Knight as a well-made movie with some terrific performances (your mileage may vary). But the ferry dilemma didn’t occupy any mental real estate in my brain once the movie was over, in terms of caring to figure out what I would do. So my reaction upon discovering the fuss about this scene in the movie was first amusement and then bemusement–why did some people still find it such a hot topic for discussion? Then I remembered what Ayn Rand wrote in one of her most famous articles, “The Ethics of Emergencies” (published in her anthology The Virtue of Selfishness).

The psychological results of altruism may be observed in the fact that a great many people approach the subject of ethics by asking such questions as: “Should one risk one’s life to help a man who is: a) drowning, b) trapped in a fire, c) stepping in front of a speeding truck, d) hanging by his fingernails over an abyss?”

Her point was that altruism doesn’t tell you how to live, but only under what conditions you’re supposed to sacrifice your life. Rand explained this approach to ethics as follows:

If a man accepts the ethics of altruism, he suffers the following consequences (in proportion to the degree of his acceptance): …

[A] lethargic indifference to ethics, a hopelessly cynical amorality–since his questions involve situations which he is not likely ever to encounter, which bear no relation to the actual problems of his own life and thus leave him to live without any moral principles whatever.

Altruism is the dominant morality in our culture, meaning there are a lot of people for whom morality is irrelevant, most of the time. Yet no-one wants to think of himself as amoral. So when can an altruist take morality seriously? In a hypothetical life-or-death situation. The ferry dilemma in The Dark Knight provides a perfect outlet for seeming to take seriously the morality of altruism–in a fantasy world where it doesn’t matter if you practice what you preach.

For what it’s worth, here’s my take on the ferry dilemma–in 20/20 hindsight. When one is forced to make a decision under threat of violence, all bets are off. The world becomes a topsy-turvy, down-is-up, Alice-in-Wonderland kind of place, where it’s impossible to know what actions would be in one’s own best interest. Nothing the Joker said could be a guide to action; he might just as well have kept his mouth shut, for all the content to be found in the ravings of an irrational psychopath. Therefore, I think the movie sensibly resolved the dilemma: throw the detonator overboard. There was no way to make any rational decision about what to do with it; it was just as relevant to the situation as a rubber ducky. Strictly speaking, the scene didn’t depict a moral dilemma at all. Where rationality is impossible, morality is impossible, too.

(An aside: just what does it say about the screenwriters that it was a criminal who made the correct choice? Inquiring minds want to know …)

Does Wall-E Deliver on the Pixar Promise?

 Posted by on 21 July 2008 at 12:52 am  Film
Jul 212008

Okay… I’ll admit it. I anxiously anticipate each new Pixar film. Not only that, I get tingly just thinking about the pre-feature short animations that inevitably precede each Pixar release. And when the lamp in their logo hops across the screen, I can’t help but grin.

Things haven’t always been this way. When Pixar started working their magic back with Toy Story, I was less smitten with animated feature-length movies than I was with the sundry amusements of adolescent boyhood. But by the time Finding Nemo hit the theaters in 2003, I was ready to give ‘cartoons’ another shot. I’m glad I did. When The Incredibles followed a year later, I was a bit skeptical at first… did the world really need another superhero movie? Prior to seeing it, I couldn’t have even begun to suspect that Pixar’s superheroes were not just struggling against an evil villain, but also against an egalitarian culture marked by disdain for achievement (and a legal system in serious need of tort reform). To me, The Incredibles was another delightful Pixar surprise. And while I found Cars, their next movie, to be a vacuous disappointment, Ratatouille renewed my enthusiasm for the Pixar brand. In light of all their recent successes, Pixar’s future seemed promising.

Wall-E, Pixar’s latest film, was released on June 27th. For those of you keeping track, that was just about the time that OCON 2008 got underway, so I didn’t get a chance to check it out on opening weekend. This past Sunday my girlfriend and I found the time to head off to the multiplex and give Wall-E a proper viewing. In what follows, I’ll provide an indication of why I regard Wall-E as an enjoyable but deeply flawed movie. And just so you know, my comments are basically spoiler-free.

As you may have been able to gather from the media buzz, Wall-E is a movie about a robot. A robot trash-compactor. More precisely, it is a movie about a “Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth-class,” or “WALL-E,” for your anthropomorphic convenience. (I’ll henceforth use the all-caps “WALL-E” to refer to the robot character, and “Wall-E” to designate the movie itself). According to Wall-E writer-director Andrew Stanton, the original spark that ultimately gave rise to the film was a scenario in which the last robot on Earth toiled away in lonely isolation, longing for companionship and social fulfillment. Indeed, this is how Wall-E begins. After briefly surveying a horrific, almost post-apocalyptic landscape, the viewer is introduced to WALL-E who is busy performing his characteristic task: compacting and organizing trash. After another extreme wide shot or two, the magnitude of WALL-E’s project becomes clear, as his stacks of trash reach towering heights alongside abandoned skyscrapers and other similarly massive pillars of industry.

The bleakness of this world is expertly rendered by Pixar’s typically stunning animation and audio work. The stylistic excellence and technical proficiency that made Ratatouille burst with lush colors, textures, and sound effects, are also evident in Wall-E, though they are for the most part utilized to portray a world of trash. As unappealing and valueless as a world of trash sounds, WALL-E takes it upon himself to collect (rather than compact) those items that he finds to be of interest. After all, one human’s trash is another robot’s treasure. It’s comical to see what WALL-E chooses to collect and what to discard, though perhaps his most cherished possession is nothing to laugh at. What is it? A copy of Hello Dolly on VHS that he found amidst the refuse of civilization. Of particular value to WALL-E are the numbers “It Only Takes a Moment” and “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” both ostensibly about companionship and love. Hearing these songs played by the last, lonely robot on Earth serves to heartbreakingly accent the tragedy of such radical isolation.

I’m getting misty just thinking about it.

But WALL-E’s isolation doesn’t last too long, as another robot (EVE) is soon on the scene. After EVE arrives, WALL-E finds a new purpose for himself in the quest for companionship. And this is really what the rest of the movie is about, about WALL-E attempting to gain and keep the attention of EVE. In other words, it’s a robot love story. And it’s a pretty entertaining one, at that. But given that the principals are robots, there is a sizable barrier in telling a convincing story about their relationship: robots don’t have language. Prior to this movie’s release, I remember there being some serious concern about how audiences would respond to a movie whose main characters engage in basically no dialog. Fortunately one of Pixar’s major virtues (at least in the Pixar movies I’ve seen) is that they go to great lengths to actually show the viewer what’s going on, to demonstrate the plot without having to unnecessarily explain events as they’re unfolding. At least in this respect, Wall-E is an excellent movie. Though little is said, little need be said; the data are there for the viewer to infer the movie’s meaning without superfluous exposition or hand-holding.

Although the Pixar team is able to dispense with dialog without sacrificing intelligibility, they unfortunately sacrifice something else: depth. Since language is not a big part of how Wall-E is told, characterization is primarily achieved through action. That is, we know WALL-E not by his words (not by his stated convictions) but rather by his deeds. The same goes for the other main characters. We don’t see them engage in deliberation. We don’t listen to them make choices. We don’t explicitly know what motivates them. And, perhaps most importantly, neither do the other characters of Wall-E know such things. WALL-E cannot verbally communicate his desire for companionship to EVA, just as she cannot verbally communicate her intentions and purposes to him. What this ultimately means for WALL-E’s romance with EVA is that while these robots are capable of showing one another THAT they are attracted, they cannot communicate WHY. Although viewers can probably create a story as to why EVA means so much to WALL-E, it’s doubtful that EVA could herself construct such an account. Because of this, the romance in Wall-E is superficial. Of course, that shouldn’t suggest that the story isn’t touching. It just isn’t reflective of the values (and the expression of values) that I take to be indicative of a truly great cinematic or literary romance.

To summarize thus far, Wall-E is an enjoyable but limited success insofar as one considers it as a love story. But when one looks beyond the romantic element of the movie, there are much larger issues looming in the background that threaten to swallow the love-narrative wholly. In my judgment, these issues represent serious aesthetic deficiencies that diminish the artistic value of the movie as whole. Let’s now take a look at them.

I first heard about the premise of Wall-E in an interview between writer-director Andrew Stanton and Terri Gross, host of NPR’s “Fresh Air.” (The interview is available here.) Terry Gross lead into the interview by noting that Wall-E is set after a consumer-driven environmental apocalypse has made Earth uninhabitable. Upon hearing this, I was half-way down the road to disgust, but Stanton quickly responded by saying:

I [chose this setting] very reluctantly. I sort of reverse engineered my decision. It was all based on character and emotion. The conceit that got me interested in this movie was: the last robot on earth doing its job forever, not knowing that it was a waste of time. And I thought that was the ultimate definition of futility – I completely was seduced by that. And so, in my mind, that’s what was so charming – the last robot on earth – so I had to just come up with SOME conceit that would make that situation. Just to get this kind of character, I was forced to come up with a scenario…

At the time, Stanton’s response calmed me down a bit because the gist of it was something like: “Look, environmental destruction isn’t an integral part of the movie; it’s extra-thematic, and is only there as a pretext to allow the characters I wanted to represent to come out into the open; I had to set the context SOMEHOW, and this was just the most convenient device to allow the movie to come together.”

If this represented how the movie finally turned out, I would have been okay (though not delighted) with abstracting away from the setting and focusing in on the somewhat shallow love narrative. But in the final analysis, the setting for Wall-E is not unessential to the themes the film ultimately expresses. I haven’t mentioned any human characters yet in this review, because they’re basically irrelevant to Wall-E‘s plot. But let me digress for a moment to give you a brief indication of the type of human being you’ll encounter in this film. In doing so, I hope you’ll gain a sense of why Wall-E is the mixed bag that it is.

All the humans we see (in non-flashback form) in Wall-E are obese, weak-willed, ignorant adult-children who have been carted around their entire life by robots. Every human in the movie is a passenger on a 700+ year space-cruise that was necessitated by the environmental apocalypse. The planet was dying, so the humans went on a cruise while all the robots cleaned up. These people spend their entire lives sprawled out on moving robot hoverchairs watching computer screens, drinking meals from cups, altogether unconcerned with the need to think, work, or make decisions. Did I mention that they’re so unconcerned with physical activity that they’ve experienced severe bone loss? Moreover, the people aboard the cruise ship are altogether anti-social in that they rarely (if ever) stop to talk to those around them, but instead interact through virtual social networks on their robochair-mounted screens.

If you were to ask a contemporary neo-Marxist to draw a caricature of contemporary American “consumerism” (whatever that is), it is doubtful that the result would be much different from what is presented in Wall-E. Perhaps the best thing one might say about Pixar’s handling of the people in Wall-E is that they’re presented as relatively sympathetic creatures. That is to say, they’re not presented as drinking crude oil from their Big Gulp cups (though their ancestors apparently drank up all the oil long ago) and they aren’t shown clubbing baby seals. But they are docile, complacent, fat. Watching screens. Living a lifestyle that destroyed the world.

While viewing the film within the confines of my northwest Ohio theater, I dimly wondered if the film was intended to insult its audience.

To say that Wall-E’s presentation of humans was distracting is to say the least. To the extent that humans are involved in the narrative at all, they have been crammed into characters and roles determined by the “lonely-robot context” requirement. Simply put, Wall-E’s humans have been dehumanized so its robot could gain the shallow appearance of humanity.

Artistic license does not carry a “by any means necessary” clause; it does not entitle one to ignore or degrade genuine values (like the life-giving power of commerce) for the sake of portraying one’s pet character. If one wants, at root, to convey a story of love borne out of tragic isolation, this does not require one to invent an alternative future in which particular societal arrangements have been destructive of life as we know it. The inclusion of any such claim is not to be taken lightly; it is an indictment that certain practices are massively disastrous and deserving of moral condemnation.

To build such a claim into the setting of a children’s movie, and to do so simply for the sake of gaining plausibility for an empathetic character, is more than distracting. It’s obnoxious.

I’m not the only viewer who took notice of Wall-E’s apparently didactic, anti-industry sub-theme. In the interview mentioned above, Terry Gross read Stanton excerpts from two prominent reviews, one liberal and one conservative. The liberal review amounted to the endorsement that Wall-E was more in tune with current political issues than candidates on either side of the debate platform; the conservative-leaning reviewer felt that the movie assaulted him with environmentalist propaganda. Responding to these reviews, Stanton said:

Sadly, I’m not surprised. But I tried very hard not to have any kind of a [didactic message about environmentalism or consumerism]. I just went with [the] logic of how you could be in this scenario so that I could tell the story of a lonely little robot.

Leave the supposed logic of the situation aside. As an artist, one’s primary concern is the presentation of a theme, one’s central idea and vision. If a film’s theme concerns a “lonely little robot,” viewers shouldn’t exit the theater wondering how they can do their part to stem the coming post-industrial holocaust. And sadly, I think that’s what many people (especially children) will do.

I believe Stanton was sincere when he said that he didn’t intend for his movie to have a didactic message. I don’t think he intended to brainwash children into joining radical environmentalist movements. (In this respect, Wall-E is obviously superior to Fox’s FernGully: The Last Rainforest.) For all Stanton’s intelligence, he seems to have simply made a mistake in constructing his story. The fact that multiple reviewers paused to note that his film has strong political/policy undertones is indicative that he let his theme get away from him. This is the main reason I regard Wall-E as a major disappointment.

As it stands, the movie is too thematically disjointed to qualify as great art. The doom and gloom of the sub-theme end up distracting the viewer from what’s really supposed to be important. Regardless of how one evaluates Wall-E‘s anti-industrial elements, they unnecessarily divert attention away from the screenwriter’s primary concern. At some points it seems as though a polemic against consumerism is of central importance, with the romantic element being a mere interesting side-issue. In light of Stanton’s stated purpose of creating a love story, the movie fails to effectively communicate what is supposed to be essential to its theme. And unfortunately, Wall-E is overly successful in emphasizing elements that are inessential to Stanton’s central message. While watching, it’s too easy to forget that even robots can fall in love.

What a shame.

Quantum of Solace Trailer

 Posted by on 8 July 2008 at 4:45 pm  Film
Jul 082008

Quantum of Solace, the new James Bond film, will be released in early November. Here’s the new trailer:

Daniel Craig is delicious!

Update: I fixed the video, so now it’s working.

UNwanted Movie

 Posted by on 7 July 2008 at 2:25 pm  Culture, Film, WTF
Jul 072008

We went to see the new Angelina Jolie flick, Wanted, the other night. Having watched the trailers, and noting that 75% or so of 150+ reviews were coming out positive, our expectation was of basically mindless summer action in a slick package.

We got all that: the production values were excellent, and the acting was just fine — most of all, the action sequences were extremely stylish and fantastically unrealistic, though a bit over the top on gore at times. All of this is what you would expect. It’s the “message” that is so horrid.


The movie started out pretty quirky and random, and I was fine with cutting it slack even while Tammy was alternately squirming with boredom and revulsion at gory stuff as we waited for things to unfold. Soon enough, we got to see the main protagonist — someone we are supposed like — struggle briefly with and then accept the idea of killing innocent people on nothing more than blind faith in a mysterious, unseen and unfathomable authority saying they must be killed now to prevent never-specified future harms. Yes, the movie presents the issue that clearly, and then basically endorses the cold-blooded murder of innocents on faith. Our jaws dropped.

Oh, but it gets worse. Even after the danger of such blind faith and obedience was demonstrated to be problematic in the course of the plot, a second important character who we are to sympathize with and enjoy the action of goes and deliberately acts on such faith in the face of that demonstration — and in a gigantically self-sacrificial manner! Our eyes boggled.

As if all that isn’t horrid enough to be whacked in the face with, the movie underscores it by closing with a direct challenge addressed to the audience, along the lines of “see how I took splendid control of my life — well, what have you done lately?”

We stood up and shuffled out, numb at the Columbine-level insanity of it’s message… and of so many people thinking it is just fine, if not great.

Lives of Others

 Posted by on 17 June 2008 at 7:16 pm  Communism, Film
Jun 172008

Some time ago, I recommended the movie Lives of Others. It’s a beautiful, heart-wrenching movie about life in East Germany under the watchful eye of the Stasi secret police.

The movie was so good that I thought I’d recommend it again, along with this interesting Wired article from a few months ago on the attempt to reconstruct the Stasi records, so that East Germans can learn exactly what their government recorded about their lives.

I never read anything about East Germany in my obsessive readings on communism a few years ago, but I’d like to do so, preferably a personal narrative of some kind. Any recommendations?

Iron Man

 Posted by on 4 June 2008 at 11:44 am  Film
Jun 042008

Paul and I saw Iron Man on Sunday. Despite 93% on the TomatoMeter and rave review from Flibby, we found it pretty mediocre.

* * * SPOILER ALERT * * *

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In particular, we disliked:

  • Tony Stark was very clearly and deliberately portrayed as a gambling, boozing, womanizing playboy, but such a man could not have successfully managed a gargantuan weapons corporation. Even later, after his supposed moral transformation, his impulsive testing of the suit at high altitude was inconsistent with the kind of mind required to develop dangerous weapons, including the suit itself. While I enjoyed some of the humor of Stark’s character, but I’d say that it undercut the seriousness of his undertaking.
  • The plot was way too predictable. It was pretty easy to guess from the first few minutes of the movie that Obadiah Stane — the regent of the company — would turn out insanely evil.
  • The moral lesson learned by Tony Stark in his captivity was very confused. At first, it seemed like something like pacifism — or at least a determination to not allow weapons to fall into enemy hands. That was all very mushy and unclear. Certainly, Stark’s discovery of weapons in the hands of the enemies should not have been shocking in the slightest — as weapons fall into the hands of the enemy all the time in warfare. So that was not grounds for any kind of revolution about his responsibility, nor for deciding to stop selling weapons to anyone. Of course, the real problem was that his own company was covertly selling weapons to the terrorists. In retrospect, that makes more sense of his decisions, but not entirely.

    In short, we thought the characters, the plot, and the theme deficient — although not horrible. It had unrealized potential as a movie. That being said, Gwyneth Paltrow was very easy on the eyes.


 Posted by on 22 May 2008 at 10:10 pm  Film
May 222008

Paul and I haven’t been watching movies lately, as we’ve been enjoying Alias from the first season. (It’s my third watching of the series, I think. The first two seasons are particularly excellent.)

However, tonight we watched the movie Derailed. It was a surprisingly good movie, with solid acting, a clear but twisty plot, and an unusual theme.

I’d be curious to hear what others thought of it, but please add any necessary spoiler alerts in your comments.

More Quick Movie Reviews

 Posted by on 15 March 2008 at 6:39 am  Film
Mar 152008

More quick movie reviews:

  • Scoop: An enjoyable and clever bit of fun, with very good acting.
  • Million Dollar Baby: Stellar acting, and a gut-wrenching plot. I only wish I’d seen it earlier. (See this article on Hilary Swank’s training for the film.)
  • Collateral: Interesting premise, but not particularly exciting in its execution.
  • Stardust: A charming and clever fairy tale, in a similar vein as The Princess Bride. Strongly recommended.

What have you seen lately that you liked?

Super Quick Movie Reviews

 Posted by on 4 March 2008 at 7:14 am  Film
Mar 042008

Here are some uber-quick reviews of some movies Paul and I have seen lately, in no particular order:

  • Happy Feet: stupid and cute in a sickening way, then heavy-handed environmentalist propaganda
  • Flushed Away: fun and funny but not deep
  • 16 Blocks: very good drama, characters faced hard choices, definitely recommended
  • Live Free or Die Hard: good and often absurd fun, plus the Mac guy
  • Ratatouille: thoroughly funny, compelling, and endearing — with some serious themes
  • Firewall: basically boilerplate, Harrison Ford plays a computer whiz about as well as I’d play Michael Jordon
  • The Kingdom: better than expected, striking contrasts between the Americans and the Saudis
  • Black Book: overdone but not all bad, like a sauce at a mediocre restaurant with pretenses of cuisine, plot holes that I’ve forgotten
  • Fracture: good DA versus smart killer thriller
  • Rocky Balboa: predictable, unmotivated, and generally a waste of time
  • Lady in the Water: huh? okay, um, whatever.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End: I’m too confused to care any longer, and what’s so damn good about piracy anyway?

Add your own quick movie reviews of films you’ve seen lately in the comments, if you like!

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