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6/30/2005

 

locdog movie review: war of the worlds



when i was a kid and my friends were reading comic books and watching he-man cartoons, i was reading h. g. wells and watching star trek. war of the worlds has long been one of my favorite books, but as a movie fan i've been willing to accept that what makes a good book does not always make a good movie. (this acceptance is what separates us from the apes. and the fanboys.) if a director can stay true to the spirit of the book while producing an entertaining film then as far as i'm concerned, he's produced a successful adaptation.

and in that spirit, war of the worlds succeeds brilliantly. it's a near-flawless summer blockbuster, a popcorn movie with all the trimmings that taps into the paranoid terror of wells' overdone classic while making it feel fresh and relevant once more. there have been enough bad adaptations of classic sci-fi lately (witness the horror that was i, robot) to see what happens when the big-budget template is shoehorned onto the sacred scriptures of dorkdom, but spielberg's film breathes through the material.

wells' novel, and the campy fifties adaptation--a classic in its own right--offered more of a panoramic view of the havoc our martian neighbors wreaked. spielberg's version comes off a lot like the road movie from hell, as you zip from one war-torn nightmarescape to the next along with tom cruise, his rebellious teenage son, and wiser-than-dad grade-school aged daughter. there's an underdeveloped sub-plot centering on the desires of the son to join the resistance, and there's the obligatory creepy farmhouse interlude where we get upclose'n'personal with our new guests, but not much more in the way of story. just carnage. lots and lots of carnage.

not that that's a bad thing. it can be, if left in the hands of a lesser director, but spielberg has always had a knack for combining the big and little. seeing new york city ripped apart by what reminded me of darth vader's helmet on stilts is pretty cool, but with some directors that's all you would have got, and usually it would be presented from a detached, God's-eye view. i've always regarded disaster flicks as essentially pornographic--the mindless repetition of devastation on the grandest scales the studios are willing to finance. but here it's the little things that matter. as dark clouds gather above, blotting out the sun and masking the presence of the alien spacecraft, we see street lights blinking on below. as cruise herds his kids into a van and speeds away from the rampaging space invaders, we see bridges being leveled and houses being uprooted in the rear-view mirror. you can't truly overwhelm a movie audience unless there is some grounding in the mundane, some small connection with reality from which a viewer can formulate a relation between the impossible images on screen and his own humdrum existence.

that's also what makes this film so suspenseful--surprisingly so. enough to easily outshine the recent endeavors of the self-appointed second coming of hitchcock who shall remain nameless until he apologizes for that fraud he perpetrated on the movie-going public with the hi-mr.-park-ranger ending...don't get me started. you've probably forgotten by now that spielberg's films weren't always terminally dull, but he's had some real nail-biters over the years. poltergeist, easily one of the best horror films ever made, comes to mind. there's also a little picture called jaws that you may have heard of. even e.t. and close encounters of the third kind had their moments, despite their warm and fuzzy reputations. yep, once upon a time, this was a director who knew how to kick an audience's ass properly. well, he's back. the farmhouse sequence alone will be enough to make you wonder if he ever really left.

the acting is secondary in a film like this. basically the characters spend their time fleeing from computer-generated nasties or looking scared as they anticipate the next bout of fleeing from computer generated nasties. still, cruise does a good job. he's still the king of the popcorn flick, but he's a bit more seasoned now, more introspective as an actor and not nearly as smug. he rules with wisdom. his bratty kids, played adroitly by cutie dakota fanning and ineptly by dweeby justin chatwin, serve mainly to humanize cruise's lead and provide suspense--it's a road movie with a dozen eggs sitting on the roof of the car. fanning's eyes stretch three times their normal size as she's being stalked by the slimy evil-doers and it's impossible not to feel sympathetic, however obnoxious her character. chatwin's character is even worse. i doubt i was the only one in the theater hoping that either dear ol' dad would thump his skull or the aliens would vaporize him. why do these movies always have to resort to the after school special teen-angst broken-home a-very-special-blossom stereotypes for parent-child interactions? and i don't remember any annoying little rugrats scurrying around in the novel, anyway.

but one thing i'm pretty sure would have delighted that old lefty wells is the film's politics. there's no bigger democrat in hollywood than steven spielberg, and that's really saying something. his views on the war on terror and iraq are somewhat apparent in wotw, but i'm sure there will be enough written in the chatrooms and blogs that i don't need to spend too much time on the subject. don't misunderstand: you don't need to go to the theater looking for a deeper meaning. there isn't one. what there is is a thin skin of liberalism stretched over the film's ambiguous skeleton, but as with a spielberg crony/competitor's recent revenge of the sith ("if you’re not with me, you're my enemy!" "only sith deal in absolutes!"), it's not obtrusive. actually it's more confounding than anything. it would be a stretch to call the martians "symbolic," but at certain points in the film they seem to be representative of different things. we learn that they had burrowed themselves deep underground, lying in wait as they silently plotted for years, and then were summoned by bolts of lightning from the heavens to lay waste to our proud civilization...at one point dakota fanning even cries out "is it the terrorists!?" later, we get tim robbins as a deranged freedom fighter commenting on how if history has taught us one thing, it's that occupations always fail. so are the martians the terrorists or those trying to stop them? there's also a weird tension in the film between spielberg's pacifist instincts and the need to fight, which culminates in the film's climax and gives the overall impression that it's ok to fight, but only at the right time. that striking the right blow at the wrong time will ultimately result in greater destruction. or something. there's enough here for liberal film critics to praise the film as "timely" and allow spielberg to maintain his pretensions, but does a movie this good really need to be justified?

the one consistent lament i've seen in other criticism is the film's ending. i didn't find it as disappointing as others did--it's typical spielberg schlock, but if you steel yourself for it in advance, it's not that bad. it does raise some interesting questions, though. does he really like the sappy stuff or does he think we do? didn't he learn anything from the huge-sellout ending of AI? i don't want to give anything away--although if you don't already know at least the basics of how this film is going to end then you've probably spent the last million years burrowing underground yourself--but to me the ending played like a tribute to our troops. right war or wrong war, let's hear it for our boys...that sort of thing. i actually sorta dug it, except that by the time our boys were able to do anything, it no longer mattered.

war of the worlds is an exceptional summer blockbuster and the perfect film for the fourth of july weekend. it's intense sci-fi demolition, slithery suspense, 100% scientology free, and, of course, there's all the juicy rumors of tom cruise's budding romance with dakota fanning. poor katie holmes, no spring chicken, she. it's also a chance to see a master filmmaker at the absolute top of his game, which ought to be enough to get you film snobs in there as well.

locdog will now hibernate the rest of summer, until the teeny-bopper slasher flicks, bad news bears remakes, cornball t.v. series adaptations, and stock gross-out comedies have subsided once more




6/28/2005

 

great speech



one of bush's best.

solid content, superb delivery. bush's speeches have produced few memorable lines, but what is memorable about many of his speeches how he takes the material and makes it his own through sheer force of personality. the president's ability to convey moral conviction has ever been his greatest political asset, and tonight was no exception.

the speech had a profoundly unifying message. the emphasis wasn't on what we were doing in iraq in the first place, a hotly contested issue even today, but on why it's so important to win now that we are there, whatever the cost--and that whatever-the-cost mentality was evident throughout the president's remarks. while the president's opponents take potshots from the gallery with calls for arbitrary timelines and other politically-imposed constraints ranging from the meaningless to the outright suicidal, he remains focused on victory.

the speech centered around what the president plainly sees as the fundamental truth of iraq, something that all americans, regardless of party affiliation, should be able to agree on: iraq is now the epicenter of the war on terror, and however high the price of victory, the price of defeat will be higher still. the enemy believes this unwaveringly, all the way up to bin laden himself. our resolve must be firmer still.

much has been made over dick cheney's "death throes" remark concerning the state of the insurgency in iraq. general wesley clark on fox's coverage remarked on how the president failed to reconcile his own appropriately sober assessment of enemy strengths with cheney's somewhat rosier take. but is this such a contradiction? one of the many things the president made abundantly clear tonight was that the fate of the insurgency has already been written. they have failed every step of the way, from destabilizing the provisional authority in iraq to preventing the transfer of sovereignty to inciting civil war. that doesn't mean they can't inflict painful wounds, but without the ability to seriously contest american military supremacy, without a viable alternative to the democratically-elected iraqi government, and, most importantly, without the popular support, they can never prevail. their only chance of victory is to dispirit the american people in hopes of prompting a unilateral withdrawal. if we do not lose faith, we will not lose the war. victory is our choice.

beyond this grand strategic vision, the president also presented some encouraging details, notably those relating to the training of iraqi troops, the founding of an iraqi military college, the international support (both monetary and military) that's benefiting the iraqi people, u.n. assistance on the iraqi constitution, etc. these didn't come across as a typical your-tax-dollars-at-work laundry list of accomplishments, but as a way to give the american people some tangible examples of the night's broader themes.

the president's dipping poll numbers have been all over the news, but the important thing isn't the popularity of a given politician on a given day, it's the commitment of the american people to our troops and their mission, and in that regard, there's grounds for optimism. despite the public's souring on the decision to enter war, our determination to prevail seems greater than ever, and that's something that all americans should feel good about as we approach the fourth of july. taken in that spirit, the president's address tonight was a masterstroke.

locdog doubts it will help him much in the polls as most people's minds have long since been made up, but if it keeps their will to fight strong, then it will have done enough




6/27/2005

 

the entitlement generation



interesting AP story today on what employers have begun to think of as the "entitlement generation," the crop of kids 18-24 entering today's workforce.

who are the members of the entitlement generation? they have "shockingly high expectations for salary, job flexibility and duties but little willingness to take on grunt work or remain loyal to a company," or, in other words, they're a bunch of lazy idiots.

the story focuses on the efforts of employers to comprehend and manage the kiddies, and the strategy that has proven most effective should come as little surprise: bribery. if junior won't eat his veggies, promise him a cookie. if he won't behave in the store, promise him a toy. if he won't do his homework, promise him a new video game. lazy, idiotic parents have produced a generation of lazy, idiotic children (that's right, once again--and not for the last time--the boomers have given america the shaft) who are incapable of exhibiting the slightest degree of self-discipline or pride in their performance. why? simple. they suffer from a fundamental lack of respect for authority, and without respect for external discipline and authority, true self-respect is impossible.

it's not enough, employers have discovered, to tell junior to smile politely while bagging mrs. clark's groceries. never mind that this is what junior is being paid to do, he must be given additional incentives beyond his pay, except instead of a cookie it's more like a gift certificate to a sporting goods store or record shop. if you hire junior to work the griddle at big boy, it's not enough that you're giving him his 200 bucks a week, he must be allowed, employers have learned, to wear piercings, tattoos, listen to music while he works, etc.

please note that i am not talking about incentives for those who go above and beyond the call of duty, which is a fine idea and integral part of our proud capitalist tradition. no, i'm talking about a program of bribery and cajolery and permissiveness to simply get junior up to minimum standards.

i can hear you liberals laughing this off now: "oh, locdog, you 28-year-old curmudgeon you. people have always complained about the younger generation. this is nothing new." no, that's quite correct. these things don't happen overnight. and i imagine that for generations prior to the fall of rome, old met sat around weeping at the depravity of youth, until finally the country was too soft to brush off a disorganized horde of rabble that they should have nicely annihilated.

in his excellent book the warrior elite, former navy SEAL dick couch was allowed the rare privilege of tagging along with a BUD/S (SEAL basic training) class from beginning to end, recording the successes and failures that winnowed over one hundred hopefuls down to around a dozen graduates as they were subjected to perhaps the most difficult military training in the world. buried among his many invaluable insights were two seemingly minor observations that have stuck with me: a recurring theme among kids who did well was a mid-western rural upbringing, and conversely, the more tattoos a kid had, the more likely he was to fail.

locdog weeps for the future