The Oscars Become a Commercial

I heard this morning that at the Oscars last night Will Smith slapped Chris Rock in the face for making a joke about Smith’s wife’s hair problems (apparently she’s going bald).  I watched the clip of the incident.  The two entertainers cuss a bit and seem upset.  You know I have a very hard time believing it wasn’t staged.   So little about the world nowadays isn’t fake that I have to assume everything about Hollywood is fake.

It’s not that I couldn’t imagine that a man would react with anger over his wife being the subject of public ridicule.  But Will Smith was probably the strong favorite to win the best actor’s award in a film that featured the theme of a strong man empowering his daughters.  This kind of an event at the awards ceremony sounds like just the kind of publicity stunt that Hollywood would come up with to generate box office for their property.

Who knows, maybe I’m wrong.  But at this point I think most of the country is in the same boat I’m in.  We’ve lost all belief in the tainted institutions like Hollywood and we’ve lost all interest in supporting their products and programs.

Sure, it’s possible Hollywood could make a movie I’d watch.  But it’s now on a case by case basis and I’ll have to have the evidence of someone I trust to tell me something is worth plunking down hard earned cash to see.  I have nothing in particular against the Williams sisters or their family or Will Smith.  But if it isn’t something that specifically aligns with the things I stand for then it’s just one more thing I don’t have the time or money to support.

When they make a movie that portrays Kyle Rittenhouse as the hero, I’ll go see that.  When they make a comedy that’s actually funny, I’ll go see that.  Until then I’ll stick to the classics.

Enemy of the State (1998) – A Movie Review

Back when this movie came out in 1998, before the 9-11 attack and the Patriot Act, the idea of the surveillance state having the wherewithal to use information from telephones, e-mail, surveillance cameras and satellites to choreograph a manhunt in real time seemed like a paranoid’s conspiracy theory nightmare.  Well, other than for the ineptitude of our intelligence agency doofuses it’s now a living breathing reality.

(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)

Jon Voight plays Thomas Reynolds, a mid-level NSA official who is trying to ensure the passage of a bill very close to the Patriot Act that will legalize the kind of surveillance of American citizens that back then was thought unthinkable.  In furtherance of this aim he corners the chairman of the congressional committee responsible for approving the bill at a lake where the congressman is walking his dog.  He tries persuasion then threats.  But when the congressman refuses to approve the bill and walks away from him Reynolds has an assassin assault him and inject him in the neck with a drug that will simulate a heart attack.  Then the congressman is thrown back in his car which is then sent rolling to the bottom of the lake.

Unfortunately for Reynolds, there was a surveillance camera in a wildlife blind that was being used for Canadian Geese wildlife research.  This motion activated camera captures the murder and the identity of the murderers.  A member of the cabal spots the researcher, Daniel Zavitz, replacing the memory on the camera and alerts Reynolds who has the NSA trace the researcher.  Zavitz discovers what he has and hides the video in a video game just in time to escape the NSA hit squad sent out by Reynolds.  What ensues is the squad being fed street location information on the fleeing researcher via satellite images.  Finally, Zavitz runs into a lingerie store and sees a man he knows named Robert Dean and hides the video in Dean’s shopping bag before running out of the store.  He is chased by the team into heavy city traffic where he is run over and killed by a speeding fire truck that happens by at that moment.

Will Smith plays Robert Dean, a labor lawyer that is using his friend, Rachel Banks’ connections to get damaging surveillance evidence against a mafia mob boss to help his client fight back against union breaking intimidation tactics.  Rachel has an ex-CIA agent named “Brill” who can get surveillance on anyone.  Dean brings the video to the mob boss and tells him to lay off or risk being exposed to prosecution for the evidence on the video.  The mob boss threatens Dean that if he does not reveal the identity of Brill, he will kill Dean.  Undeterred, Dean goes shopping for a Christmas present for his wife Carla in a lingerie store when Daniel Zavitz shows up.  Recognizing Zavitz he hands him his business card before his old acquaintance rushes out of the store.

Meanwhile the NSA team searches Zavitz’ body and fails to find the video but they find Dean’s business card.  Reynolds orders them to destroy Dean’s life to facilitate finding the video and also to discredit him in case he tries to expose the video to the public.

And very systematically that is exactly what they do.  They break into his home in order to place microphones and tracking devices into his home and his clothing.  They send evidence to the police, newspapers and to his courtroom adversaries that makes it appear that he is guilty of fraud, theft and malfeasance.  They send photos to his wife that make it appear he is having an affair with Rachel Banks.  He’s fired from his job, his credit cards are cancelled and his wife throws him out of the house.  Finally in desperation he goes to Rachel Banks’ house.  She had at one time been his mistress so he needed her help in clearing his name with his wife.  But when he gets there, he finds her murdered and his clothes and belongings staged in the house to make him the suspect.

Now with nowhere else to turn he uses Rachel’s secret signal to contact Brill.  Brill, played by Gene Hackman, tells Dean the bad news that the NSA is destroying his life for some information he must have received without knowing it.  He also warns him that his clothes must be bugged then he leaves Dean to his fate.  Finally, after a manhunt that chases Dean through streets and tunnels and down the side of a hi-rise hotel he sets fire to a building to summon police and rescue personnel to scare off the killers.  After he is inside an ambulance, he steals an officer’s gun and escapes.  He returns home and finds the video and then meets up with Brill.

We learn that Brill was an NSA agent who was disowned by the agency out of convenience when a mission went sour.  His partner was killed in the mission and the partner’s daughter was Rachel Banks.  Brill brings Dean to his secret hide out.  They decipher the video and discover what the fuss is about.  But unfortunately, right before reaching Brill’s base, Dean made a phone call to his wife and the NSA was able to find his location and using satellite data they followed them back to Brill’s base.  As the agents break in, Brill and Dean escape just as the building is pulverized by an enormous fireball of an explosion.  In the ensuing chase the video is destroyed and so Brill and Dean decide to entrap Reynolds into a confession.  But the plan backfires and Brill and Dean are captured by Reynolds and the team.  Reynolds threatens to kill Brill and Dean if they do not give up the video.  Brill refuses and Reynolds shoots him in the hand.  Dean agrees to get him the video and tells them to drive to the restaurant owned by the Mafia mob boss.

Dean goes into the restaurant with Reynolds and some of the agents and using confusion between the video that Dean had shown the mob boss previously and the video that Reynolds wants, he gets the two groups into an argument that turns into a full-on fire fight.  Reynolds, the mob boss and most of the gunmen on both sides are killed in the shootout.  But Dean had hit the floor and survived.  Brill escaped in the confusion and the FBI which had been monitoring the crime family shows up in time to collect the survivors and sort out the crimes involved.  Dean is cleared of all the crimes he had been accused of and reinstated in his job and restored to his family.  Brill escapes to an island paradise to leave behind the world of espionage.

This movie is one long frenetic chase.  But for the most part it’s entertaining.  Sure, there are some over the top sequences and some of the characters are a little thin on acting skill but the action sweeps you along and the predicament that Will Smith’s character endures keeps your attention through all the running, jumping, hiding and seeking.  And after what we’ve learned in the last five years about the capabilities and lack of ethics at our intelligence agencies it doesn’t seem far-fetched at all.  Will Smith and Gene Hackman provide just enough old guy-young guy chemistry to provide some interest in their espionage mission.  I’ll recommend this movie as a full tub of popcorn’s worth of thrills.

I Robot – A Science Fiction Movie Review

My regular readers will know that my estimation of Isaac Asimov’s work is not uniformly positive.  I read the “I Robot” stories as a kid and enjoyed them a good deal.  I think what I found entertaining was the cleverness of the interplay of the Three Laws of Robotics with the plot lines.  Re-reading them many years later I saw that aside from the cleverness, the stories were not particularly rich in characterization or description.  And for short stories of that era that wasn’t unusual.  So, let’s say I Robot is a worthy example of its time and type.

A film was made from the stories back in 2004.  It bears no resemblance to any of the stories but involves the concepts of the three laws and how they relate to a world that has adopted an almost universal use of robots in commercial, industrial and even personal service.  Will Smith is a cop in Chicago who despises robots because of a past encounter.  The plot revolves around his investigation of a murder that contrary to the requirements of the three laws has apparently been committed by a robot.  For fans of Firefly the voice of the killer robot Sonny is provided by Alan Tudyk (aka Hoban “Wash” Washburne).

I was sort of busy back in 2004 and didn’t see the movie when it came out.  But I Robot, the movie, has been in almost constant rotation on AMC for the last year or two so I’ve seen all or part of it a number of times now.  When I first viewed it I wasn’t very enthusiastic for it.  The dissimilarity from the Asimov stories probably annoyed me.  If I grasp for any other reasons, I’ll point to the presence of Shia LaBeouf in the cast in a part so insipid that it makes you shake your head wondering what the director was thinking.

Interestingly, over time I actually grew to enjoy the movie more.  It’s an action adventure movie and the scenes featuring Will Smith battling enormous numbers of robots are cleverly done and quite a lot of fun.  Tudyk does a good job making the robot character sympathetic.  And Bridget Moynahan makes the Susan Calvin character more personable than Asimov ever did.

So here we have a couple of inversions of the typical situation.  For the most part, I find that a movie made from a book almost never lives up to it.  But in this case, it surpasses it.  And here is an example of a book that has decreased in my estimation over time while the movie has done the reverse.

I Robot is not a film version of the Asimov stories and it does not break any new ground as a science fiction movie either for the special effects or for original story telling.  But it’s a pretty good Will Smith action adventure.  And he does kill a lot of robots with a big gun.  How can you go wrong with that?

Independence Day – A Science Fiction Movie Review

I have never reviewed the movie Independence Day.  It may seem as though I have because I have used the movie setting as the background for four parts of a Trump vs Independence Day post.  In any case it’s time for me to rectify the deficiency.  I’ll start out by declaring that I have a love/hate relationship with the film.  There are numerous strengths and weaknesses to the movie that cry out for mention.  So, let’s do that.

The concept of Earth being invaded by space-aliens intent on exterminating the human race is almost as old as science fiction itself.  H. G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds well over a hundred years ago.  In the era of modern science fiction the concept has been done and redone.  And there have been two film versions of War of the Worlds.  But Independence Day broke new ground in the tradition.  By the 1990s special effects had progressed far enough along so that the images from Independence Day of New York, Washington and Los Angeles being obliterated were groundbreaking in their impact.  Seeing the energy weapon explode the Empire State Building and then unleash a super-heated shock wave throughout Manhattan was at the time remarkable.  Even today, the destruction scenes are visually impressive.  The visual effects for the alien ship are also well done.  The aliens themselves I would say are more of a mixed bag.  They have some interesting features but just didn’t seem all that scary.  All in all, I’d say that the CGI and other technical effects stand up pretty well to present day expectations.

Next up is the cast.  Will Smith, who plays Marine pilot Capt. Steve Hiller, would of course now be considered the biggest name in the cast.  Back then though, Jeff Goldblum coming off his part in Jurassic Park would have been the more prominent star.  He plays David Levinson an electronics genius and ex-husband of President Pullman’s Chief of Staff.  Both of these guys get plenty of screen time.  Bill Pullman plays President Tom Whitmore and has about equal importance with Smith and Goldblum in the story line.  Other memorable parts are portrayed by Randy Quaid as Russell Casse, Robert Loggia as General Grey, Adam Baldwin as Major Mitchell and Judd Hirsch as Julius Levinson, David’s father.  Most of the humor in the movie are provided by Randy Quaid and Judd Hirsch but there is a general humorous atmosphere in the film despite the catastrophic nature of the action.

The plot of the movie has an enormous alien space craft arriving in earth orbit from which smaller city-sized ships fly down and hover over Washington D.C, New York City and Los Angeles in the United States and the other largest cities around the world.  David Levinson figures out that the space craft is preparing to launch a simultaneous attack on all the target cities around the world.  Once the attack destroys these cities the President and his advisors counter-attack with military aircraft but the alien ships have force fields that turn the counter attack into a disaster.  After this the personal stories of the three main characters and their loved ones are skillfully blended with the race to find some way to stop the aliens from systematically wiping out the entire human race.  And of course, the decisive battle occurs on the Fourth of July.

So, what’s the verdict?  As I mentioned at the beginning I have a love/hate relationship with the film.  But on balance I consider the movie a success.  The cast is for the most part likeable.  The plot is undeniably exciting.  And the resolution is almost completely satisfying.  I have some quibbles about messaging by the David Levinson character about the use of nuclear weapons and environmental crap.  And the President gets a little too globalist during the pep speech before the world-wide battle at the end of the movie.  Saying that from now on the Fourth of July would be a world-wide holiday was pretty annoying.  But for the most part it’s a good movie and has lots of great action, heroism and even some excellent comedy.  Highly recommended.