Movie Review: The Shallows

shallows-poster-lgExpecting another mediocre thriller about scary monsters in the deep, I was surprised by The Shallows, Sony’s summer shark movie with Blake Lively (Green Lantern). Horror is not my genre, as readers know. I probably haven’t seen a shark movie since whatever lame sequel to Jaws was on TV. Something about The Shallows caught my attention.

It might have been nostalgia for Jaws, which, after seeing gruesome daily news feeds, is less shocking in an age of nonstop Islamic terrorism, a toddler dragged by a reptile into a lagoon and endlessly brutal tales of housebound sex slaves. It turns out that The Shallows is gruesome, too, though at least its sense of purpose keeps the shark bite marks, gashes and wounds on point. The ads made it strike me as a movie that might have paid homage to the nameless woman plunged into the water at the beginning of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws.

From the sound of lapping water to the sound of thrashing in the water, The Shallows, contrary to its horror-oriented title, is single-minded about depicting the lone woman (Lively) against the shark. Barcelona native Jaume Collet-Serra directs the movie with a range of diversionary tactics—loud electronic dance music, imagery to project use of modern technology, the looming male as potential predator—and his visual style is scattered and inconsistent, sometimes to incoherence. Despite this, The Shallows is an engaging horror thriller. Gaps between action heighten the tension. For her part, San Fernando Valley native Lively carries the lead, instilling instant appeal with her easygoing Southern Californian manner. As a local drives her to her exotic destination, Lively’s surfer/medical school student Nancy flips through her phone’s photo gallery while riding to a remote Mexican beach where her late mother took her as a child. She sets her terms, invokes memories and chooses direction.

Clearly, she has an active mind. When the Spanish-speaking driver, named Carlos, translates her use of the term ‘reliable’ to describe herself—a best friend has a hangover back at the hotel, leaving Nancy to venture to the beach alone—as “bossy”, she laughs it off, then thinks twice and accepts ‘bossy’ as a badge. This is a woman at ease among men and at ease with herself. Nancy is also at ease in the water, where she encounters two local surfers, letting them know that she prefers to be alone. Pulling on gear over her tattooed, toned body, she might be bossy but she exudes self-confidence. Nancy knows how to put others at ease, too.

With waves forming and cresting in slow motion, The Shallows begins its dance with death. Rather than use a soundtrack or the fin, The Shallows lets the audience wonder where the shark will strike. Its style is disjointed, with quick cuts and little time to linger or build tension. I leave it to shark experts to judge the film’s realism for how a shark responds and pursues prey. A medical student’s insistence on going it alone on a secluded beach in a Third World country is hard to take. So is her inability to speak Spanish—any Spanish, though she manages a gracias. Nancy’s strained conversation with her father, who’s been handed the phone by Nancy’s sister without Nancy’s consent, leads the sharp American from Galveston, Texas, to make a serious mistake.

Having returned to shore as the two men depart the beach, still angry with her dad, Nancy goes out again. She thinks she’s alone. Porpoising suggests otherwise but still she swims and surfs. I’ll leave it that things turn crimson after she spots a dying whale. The contest between man and nature—in this case, woman versus shark-infested waters—is on.

Nancy, however, goes by reason; she calculates time and distance, she engages in positive self-talk, she nurses a wounded bird, and she thinks with one goal in mind: to escape the shark, which won’t be a cinch (you might want to skip seeing The Shallows if you’re queasy about self-surgery). As Nancy’s battle against what appears to be a great white shark reaches horror movie cliche proportions, and it does, I started to wonder if this display would end up as grisly as watching James Franco cut off his limb in 127 Hours. Thankfully, it is not as grim, though The Shallows, for its stunning photography, is quite bloody.

“I can make that”, Nancy tells herself at one point, inspired by her late mother’s example. After striking an Olympian’s pose on a jagged rock, whether she can and will propels this cautionary teaser-thriller about the surfer who surfs alone to become the doctor who heals herself.

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Zootopia on Home Video

If you want to know why Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Zootopia (read my review here) delighted audiences and broke worldwide box office records, earning over $900 million, watch it on home video and see at least some of the bonus material. The Blu-ray edition shows how much thought, artistry and hard work were expended to make one of the most enjoyable movies this year.

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Available today on Digital HD, Blu-ray, Disney Movies Anywhere, DVD and on demand, Zootopia in these various incarnations includes an alternate opening, deleted characters and scenes and some clever, interesting tidbits. On the Blu-ray disc I reviewed, the most informative parts are what Disney calls a series of 10-minute “roundtables” (they’re not really) introduced by Ginnifer Goodwin, who voiced the lead character Judy Hopp. One of the interesting disclosures here is that her character wasn’t always the lead.

In fact, the creators originally had Jason Bateman’s fox character as the lead in a whole other plot involving a jaded, dystopian world with electronic animal collars. Well into production, studio screenings—this is one of those movies in which the movie studio apparently improved the final cut—apparently demonstrated that the cynicism drained the motion picture and Goodwin’s rabbit wannabe cop took the lead. The differences are discussed, explored and shown in several spots on the extras, including a humorous deleted alternate scene in the elephant-run ice cream shop.

Another piece shows hidden Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters, icons and designs. Frozen pops up in the ice cream shop, too, though these really amount to Disney plugs. Still, the extras are not as thin and wispy as they usually are and behind the scenes features are more relaxed, less formal and more open to scrutiny, too. The creators reveal a consistency error in the train scene that runs through Tundratown, for instance.

Viewers learn about complexities in creating an all-animal world, including making characters’ fur and clothing, the logic and impetus for Tundratown, Sahara Square and the Rainforest District and old-fashioned field research conducted—and, I suspect, doubling for water drinking scenes in The Jungle Book, too—in Africa. It’s there that filmmakers traveled to gain knowledge for Zootopia‘s variety of distinctive animal characters. Of course, they also visited Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park in Orlando, Florida, but the African savanna trip proved useful for developing Zootopia looks, behaviors and plot points.

A piece on the score features Academy Award®-winning composer Michael Giacchino demonstrating how percussionists added to the movie. Directors Byron Howard (Tangled) and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph, The Simpsons) introduce bits with dry humor. One clip involves Bateman’s fox character, Nick, pitching his start-up idea to Zootopia’s bankers for funding his money-making vision of an amusement park made exclusively for predators. Maybe a sequel if there is one (who am I kidding?) will explore Nick’s entrepreneurial spirit and mark a Disney Animation Studios return to portraying capitalism as a positive for the first time since The Princess and the Frog.

Shakira’s can-do-themed single “Try Everything”, which accompanies the end credits, too, is included as a stand-alone pop music video. Unfortunately, Bateman and other cast members, are not. I would have liked to have seen and heard from Idris Elba (Thor, BBC’s Luther) on voicing Chief Bogo, Jenny Slate’s thoughts on her character, Bellwether, Nate Torrence doing Clawhauser, Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake as the parents, J.K. Simmons (Oscar® winner for Whiplash) as Mayor Lionheart and Octavia Spencer (Black or White, Oscar® winner for The Help) as Mrs. Otterton. I would have liked to hear from the story writers, too, on the plot twist, which is part of what makes Zootopia unique, and I do wonder what artists were planning to do with one of the deleted characters, Zootopia’s female pig mayor.

But this one disc package with the 108 minute movie (1080p High Definition/2.39:1, DVD Feature Film = 2.39:1 aspect ratio; subtitles in English, French & Spanish/English SDH, French & Spanish) is a good home video package for a terrific little movie.

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Book Review: Our Republican Constitution (2016)

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Taking account of the United States Constitution, Georgetown University scholar Randy Barnett, whom I interviewed about ObamaCare after it became law (read it here), makes the case that this historic document is essentially republican in his simply titled new book, Our Republican Constitution: Securing the Liberty and Sovereignty of We the People.

The author proves his thesis. It’s worth mentioning the book’s problems, however, which, in general, are to be found with works by most right-wing, libertarian intellectuals: the intended audience appears to be fellow libertarians and conservatives, so the assumed context of knowledge may not apply to the leftist, liberal or general reader. Also, given the dense material, certain sections are uneven. Barnett writes like the legal scholar he is, so the back and forth can be exhausting. And, as he did in our interview about ObamaCare, Barnett declines to name the correct moral premise of his argument.

With the republic urgently at stake, though, Our Republican Constitution is extremely informative and Randy Barnett makes a powerfully important case for activism in order to save the American republic. He accomplishes this by reducing multiple ideas, if circuitously, to the rights of the individual.

As he observes in the introduction:

At its core, this debate is about the meaning of the first three words of the Constitution: “We the People.” those who favor the Democratic Constitution view We the People as a group, as a body, as a collective entity. Those who favor the Republican Constitution view We the People as individuals.”

From here, incorporating the ideas of John Locke, Montesquieu and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Barnett tells stories based on facts, quotes and history, of American government in decline, from major mistakes during the nation’s founding to the suspicious Supreme Court decision to uphold ObamaCare, in which he notes that “it was reliably reported” that the nation’s Chief Justice—conservative John Roberts—switched his vote on the individual insurance mandate, possibly due to intimidation.

The central conflict in Our Republican Constitution is between these two opposing views, the Democratic Constitution—”first comes government, then come rights”—tied to Rousseau’s notion of the General Will, which Barnett eviscerates, and the premise of the Republican Constitution: “first come rights and then comes government.” After outlining his case with ample historical sourcing and documentary evidence, the author sets it up, asking the reader: “Were the founders really against democracy? You bet. They blamed the problems in the states under the Articles of Confederation on an excess of democracy.”

Differentiating between both sides’ views of popular sovereignty, which he acknowledges are both consistent with the idea of representative government, Barnett breaks down the story of slavery in the United States, which he develops throughout the book. He points out that Democrats defended slavery as a form of socialism, as against capitalism, because, Democrats argued, slaves are cared for from cradle to grave. He digs into details and aspects of whether, “given the sovereignty of the people as individuals, the people cannot be ‘presumed’ or ‘supposed’ to have confided in their legislature any power to violate their fundamental rights.” The answer is No.

Not according to Democrats, of course, who believe that a majority of the people gets to speak for everyone (President Martin Van Buren’s idea of democracy, he writes, was close to Rousseau’s: “He ‘seems to have conceived of the democracy almost as a unified body with a single true will’). Barnett adds: “And the majority, if it wishes, can even authorize the enslavement of the minority!”

Along the journey, which is in turns jaw-dropping, illuminating and, given today’s political context, terribly depressing, the reader learns about an Ohio senator who, in 1854, demanded to know “[w]hat kind of popular sovereignty is that which allows one portion of the people to enslave another portion? Is that the doctrine of equal rights? Is that exact justice? Is that the teaching of enlightened, liberal, progressive Democracy? No, sir; no! There can be no real democracy which does not fully maintain the rights of man, as man.” Or that the Civil Rights act of 1866 granted that:

citizens, of every race and color, without regard to any previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude…shall have the same right…to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, give evidence, to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property, and to the full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property, as is enjoyed by white citizens…any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom, to the contrary notwithstanding.

Midway through Our Republican Constitution, it is evident that that’s not the civil rights act that today’s students learn about in state-controlled U.S. history classes (to the extent American history is taught in government schools) and the state of the union today might be very different, which is to say better, if they did!

Piling on shocking tales of early American acts of anti-capitalism, Barnett goes on. Democratic Constitution proponents include Democrats, Rousseau and Oliver Wendell Holmes, whom Barnett demonstrates believed that “if there exists anyone who is rational and fair who thinks that a measure is constitutional, then it is.” Other arch-opponents to a republican Constitution were Woodrow Wilson, who sought to subject America to parliamentary rule, and Theodore Roosevelt who once said of the judiciary: “our prime concern is that in dealing with the fundamental law of the land, and assuming finally to interpret it, and therefore finally to make it, the acts of the courts should be subject to and not above the final control of the people as a whole.”

After establishing the arguments for and against and setting the contrast, the Georgetown University professor sums up the cold, hard truth that America’s “system of voting does not [in fact] allow the sovereign people to ‘rule,’ and it is a pernicious myth to claim that they do.”

Though he never fundamentally, philosophically challenges “the social compact” or General Will, it’s easy to apply the detailed, persuasive points of Barnett’s thesis to today’s ominous possibilities. The prospect of Donald Trump‘s proposed strongman rule comes to mind as Barnett quotes Montesquieu, who explained that: “There is no liberty if the judiciary power be not separated from the legislative and executive. Were it joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control; for the judge would be then the legislator. Were it joined to the executive power, the judge might behave with violence and oppression.”

Barnett delivers a good explanation of the rise of the omnipotent state, closing the loop with an excellent summary and warning from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas:

we have too long abrogated our duty to enforce the separation of powers required by our Constitution. We have overseen and sanctioned the growth of an administrative system that concentrates the power to make laws and the power to enforce them in the hands of a vast and unaccountable administrative apparatus that finds no comfortable home in our constitutional structure. The end result may be trains that run on time (although I doubt it), but the cost is to our Constitution and the individual liberty it protects.”

To his credit, Barnett, who has written several Constitutional volumes and whose new book includes a foreword by George Will, is aware that this thoughtful, timely and intelligent book isn’t exactly what you’d buy for reading at the beach—after one section, he admits that “perhaps you had difficulty even following it”—but he doesn’t identify the ends where we’re heading, merely referring to “whatever progressive political agenda may be at any given time”. Our Republican Constitution would benefit from stronger connecting of the dots, as Barnett himself seems to grasp. For instance, perhaps sensing that an outright socialist such as Bernie Sanders might follow the disaster of a Trump or Clinton presidency, he rightly observes that “[f]or our modern-day progressives, what matters is the end, not the means. Social justice, not democracy.”

Though he does not spell out what this really means in practice, let alone demonstrate why socialism is evil, a chronic libertarian deficiency, and in the following chapter, he magnifies the minutiae, Randy Barnett leaves the reader with an abundance of historical facts and useful intellectual weapons with which to fight for Our Republican Constitution, all but daring the reader to use it or lose it with the words of President Calvin Coolidge: “We live in an age of science and abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them.”

And, while his defense manual for “securing the liberty and sovereignty of We the People” was undoubtedly written before the rise of the orange-haired fascist and state-bred crony and the impending end of the Republican Party, Barnett clearly anticipates danger ahead. Referring to Coolidge’s above quote on freedom as the precondition for progress, Barnett boldly concludes that “we need a Republican Party that can say this, understand this, and truly believe this once again – and, if not the existing Republican Party, then a new one to replace it.”

With an index, extensive notes and a poignant acknowledgment of his father, a victim of Alzheimer’s—”this book is dedicated to the memory of the man who had the greatest influence on my political convictions: my father and personal hero, Ronald Evan Barnett — who was a true “Republican” as I am defining the term”—Our Republican Constitution is a thoughtful Father’s Day present and an eye-opening self-defense for the rational American which offers historical enlightenment about America’s true origins.

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The End of The Greatest

Muhammad Ali, who called himself The Greatest, is gone. He was 74 years old.

The Kentucky-born boxer who became a world champion told his story in 1977’s The Greatest co-starring Ali and Ernest Borgnine as his trainer. The film originated “The Greatest Love of All”, the egoistic anthem later made famous by the late Whitney Houston.

Ali’s life was exceptional for his arrogant expression of egoism rooted in superior athletic achievement. I think Ali’s life is likely to be distorted and misunderstood for many complicated reasons, stemming from the times in which he died, this season in which a con man, the fraud who is Donald Trump, claims to be the best and isn’t. Muhammad Ali, whatever else his flaws, claimed to be the best and, in fact, he was.

Ali’s pride in his own ability, not to mention his poetic and often profound musings, commentaries and thoughts, was larger than life.

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He was a poor boy in Louisville, Kentucky, encouraged by a policeman to channel his rage against injustice into training as a boxer, which he did. Soon, Ali, originally named for his father (who was named for an abolitionist) and known then as Cassius Clay, won the Gold Medal at Rome’s 1960 Summer Olympics, appeared in Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight with Anthony Quinn and upset the world’s heavyweight champion. He was then mentored by Malcolm X and joined the Nation of Islam, adopting the new name and seeking his own set of beliefs, a practice he never let go. He kept winning—Ali lost five bouts—and thinking for himself. He sometimes did so by race-baiting, bluster and dubious tactics.

He eventually left the Nation of Islam and mellowed his anti-white views and practiced his religion in private but not without first citing his personal beliefs as a conscientious objector to being drafted by the state into the Vietnam War. Ali was arrested, lost three years of prime competition due to persecution by the United States government and, long before Apple‘s Tim Cook, he fought a Democrat-controlled Department of Justice and later won in the U.S. Supreme Court. The damage to his career, however, had been done.

Yet Ali had influenced the nation, which turned against the Vietnam War, which was never declared and never won, and the military draft, which was abolished by President Nixon. By the time Muhammad Ali triumphed the last time as world champ, having defeated great boxers such as George Foreman and Joe Frazier and Leon Spinks, Ali had inspired Sylvester Stallone to make Rocky. Future athletes, such as Oscar De La Hoya, would invoke selfishness, too. According to Objectivist scholar Harry Binswanger in 100 Voices, Ayn Rand wanted Ali to play a role in an adaptation of her novel Atlas Shrugged.

If you think about it, it’s not difficult to see why. Amid today’s numerously preached and accepted contradictions and confusions, with scoreless sports games and entrenched egalitarianism, Muhammad Ali stood out as one—against the mob, the intellectuals and the state—proudly proclaiming his own excellence. He was arguably often tactless and vulgar, sometimes animated or even cartoonish and occasionally his means and ends were in legitimate dispute. But, in asserting with pride his own superior ability, Muhammad Ali was never wrong. Unlike today’s frauds, he dared his detractors to check the record. Ali earned his poetic and prideful proclamations.

It turns out that Ali, who was afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, paid a high price for his fierce and determined, possibly overlong and overzealous, competition. But Muhammad Ali was right. He was, in fact, the greatest. As the song from his movie says, “learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.”

This is fundamentally true. As the nation once in turmoil during Ali’s blustery, arrogant and triumphant youth goes into a violent new era ominously threatened by a blustery, vacant and bankrupt power-luster who would be president, Ali leaves a magnificent legacy which calls upon Americans to differentiate between the proud man whose pride is based in reality and the loud man whose bullying and boasting spews from raw, unchecked emotions.

Ali once said: “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.” Repeatedly, consistently, he did. This is what makes a man great. This—authentic self-esteem realized by human action—is what makes Muhammad Ali a great man.

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Roundup: TCM Classic Film Festival 2016

Classic movies tend to linger. Last month, TCM’s seventh annual Classic Film Festival, which I attended for the first time last year and wrote about here, offered a range of marvelous movies.

I covered festival events, discussions and interviews and watched or reviewed films from every decade from the 1920s to the 1990s. Besides my blog, reports and articles appeared elsewhere online. I’m also writing articles for a new, independent film print edition planned for future publication.

80fd3868f6692b85f0c9a3cca2d9d1dbThis year, I was finally able to see a 40-year-old past Best Picture Oscar winner at Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 hit Rocky, a film I had never seen in any format. Now, I think every adult should see it. What an inspiring movie.

Besides the new Rocky review, my other TCM festival reviews also include thoughts on the live interviews as applicable. Among the new reviews: thoughts on Stanley Kramer’s brilliant Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) starring Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, John Singleton’s powerful Boyz N The Hood (1991) featuring Cuba Gooding, Jr., Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne, and Vincente Minnelli’s lively, inventive The Band Wagon (1953) starring Fred Astaire.

Happily, I’ve also discovered Frank Borzage’s restored, Rachmaninoff-themed I’ve Always Loved You (1946), Josef von Sternberg’s striking Shanghai Express (1932) with Marlene Dietrich, and I enjoyed seeing Elia Kazan’s insightful A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) with Dorothy Maguire on the big screen for the first time.

John Frankenheimer’s conspiracy-themed The Manchurian Candidate (1962), about an assassination plot to control the United States of America by a global Communist cabal, was an incredible moviegoing experience—also at the Chinese. It was introduced by Angela Lansbury.

In addition to the interesting discourse on journalism in movies and composer Michael Giacchino’s audio-visual presentation on making the musical score for film, I had the pleasure of watching Faye Dunaway, who’d previously introduced an anniversary screening of another still-timely picture, Sidney Lumet’s satire Network, interviewed at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre. Dunaway, a glamorous movie star whom I found intelligent and discriminating about her career, did not disappoint. At that point, I’d already run into the Washington Post‘s Carl Bernstein, who was there for a screening of All the President’s Men, and met fellow movie bloggers and buffs, including TCM curator Charles Tabesh after a press conference. Socially, the best aspect was trading thoughts with moviegoers from across the world.

Classic film fans might also be interested in new Western critiques of Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) co-starring Barry Sullivan and Barbara Stanwyck and the 1946 version of The Virginian starring Joel McCrea, both screened at the Autry Museum of the American West.

As much as I enjoy seeing new movies, and I do, I must say that I appreciate the classics more on the larger screens and I think they get better with age. I was filled with a similar rush last year with the TCM-screened movies—film noir Too Late for Tears with Lizabeth Scott, George Stevens’ Gunga Din, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata!, Walt Disney’s So Dear to My Heart and Robert Wise’s adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music—and, afterwards, the same sense of motion picture withdrawal.

Good movies leave me wanting more.

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