Movie Review: Christopher Robin

Trying hard and badly wanting to capture the childlike charm of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh character, Christopher Robin is mixed and bothered. I have been looking forward to this movie for months. Credit goes to Disney’s marketing. Ads make it look as benevolent as Winnie the Pooh. Who better to direct than Marc Forster, who directed the London-based, fairy tale-themed Finding Neverland?

That was a dark and poignant film laced with a sense of wonder, which Christopher Robin lacks. Combining realism with fantasy in this case nixes the impact of both. Positioning the title character’s (Ewan MacGregor doing his best in a limited role) imaginary childhood friends as catalysts to rescue Robin’s inner child, a fine and lovely premise, the film, written by six writers, is unfocused and forced.

Each animal character is based on the original stories’ conjurings by A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepard. Portrayals, lines and depictions of Tigger, Pooh and Eeyore are simply excellent. What they say is often amusing, witty and wise. Voices are superb. But the audience knows that the plot revolves around the London war veteran turned Winslow Luggage Company bean counter Christopher Robin. It’s a constricting, contradictory subplot.

Unfortunately, this turns out to be the main plot.

If the world of Winnie the Pooh originates in Christopher Robin’s imagination, and as an adult he’s joined the rat race and gone bad, lost himself or been damaged, then the characters rallying to save him amount to Christopher Robin saving himself. This could have been an outstanding angle.

But the writers instead inexplicably have the Hundred Acre Wood characters, such as Piglet, interact with other humans. Why characters imagined in Christopher Robin’s mind can be heard by others (let alone why they are stuffed, as against animated) makes no sense. It breaches the film’s sense of make-believe.

Worse, Christopher Robin deprives its main character of motivation; after all, if he is a louse, why ignore why he sold out, i.e., response to combat fatigue? Instead, Robin gets an unhappy wife (Hayley Atwell) and daughter. It’s as if a memo came down to put this movie together by formula, with directives to have a family and certain subsidiary themes, where a proper leading character motivation should have been.

In any case, the worlds do not mesh. Pooh’s is thoughtfully developed. Robin’s is not.

London is sufficiently rainy, foggy and gray and Christopher Robin looks true to period detail. But rendering Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, et al, as stuffed toys that can interact with everyone, meaning everyone in postwar Britain can see and hear the stuffed animals talk, diminishes their uniqueness.

Also, making capitalism seem incompatible with creativity further distances Robin from reality, making him harder to redeem. That Winslow’s big boss and industrial building are impressive suggest that the company rewards, not scorns, lean solutions, which contradicts the plot.

Bits about heffalumps and woozles play to facing one’s fears. Eeyore groans about having to go with the flow…toward self-destruction. Pooh asks Christopher Robin whether it’s time to let go. There’s greatness buried here, showing that Christopher Robin could’ve been like the intelligent riddle it wants to be.

But the movie splits with rationality again and again. “It’s our job to prepare her for life,” Robin says about his child to his wife at one point during a setup for the climax. This is apparently intended as evidence that he’s stiff and uptight. It is exactly a parent’s role to prepare a child for life. This includes and fully aligns with imagination.

Whomever is in charge of this film doesn’t know it.

A postscript about end credits: many of today’s movies include plugs, tie-ins and extra scenes or bloopers. I choose not to account for these. Such snippets are extraneous as far as I’m concerned and do not merit mention, let alone evaluation. If they amount to a plot point, they ought to have been included in the film. Not after The End.

My New Media and Writing Lessons

This fall, my media course returns in Burbank, Southern California’s Media City, with a new focus. Originally conceived as a workshop for predominantly self-employed artists in LA’s mid-Wilshire district, the 10-week course on social media functions as a media self-defense kit. I’ve re-formulated what was once a tutorial on essential ideas for general social media for branding, purposing and self-defense.

The Maximizing Social Media theme that rational social media is created, used and applied as the means to the end of one’s selfish pursuit of happiness remains. This means that students create, examine and discuss profiles, posts and campaigns on sites, apps and technology such as Tinder, Instagram and Snapchat as well as Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Quora and Facebook. I also instruct the class in the origins of each company and impetus for startup in addition to success and acquisition, so a company’s motives, potential conflicts of interest and record of privacy also get attention, from Microsoft, and LinkedIn to Comcast, NBC Universal and Snapchat, for instance. But it’s not a business class, so one’s personal and professional profile and development come first.

This is why I’ve come to appreciate social media as a tool for self-defense. Bearing in mind the privacy implications of any among today’s tech tools, which is an important caveat (Edward Snowden advises against using Facebook at all, for instance), media which is social in purpose and origin can buttress one’s values, arguments, body of work, reputation and philosophy. Reasons why this might become necessary are rapidly changing in today’s world, thanks to changes in technology, work and the culture. Today’s dominant or trending catastrophe, fact or news cycle can be tonight’s opportunity for advancement, management of expectation or aversion of unwanted attention. I’ll engage students in this new exercise for the first time this fall in Maximizing Social Media. (Get details and register online for my Maximizing Social Media and Writing Boot Camp courses here).

Writing Boot Camp returns, too. With emphasis on my seven-step writing process, the 10-week course affords opportunities for each student to think, formulate, re-think, finalize, detail, research, draft, edit and read aloud new pieces of writing. Then, the student gets feedback. It’s called boot camp for a reason, so I engage the student in a serious endeavor to think hard and for longer periods than many of today’s adults may be accustomed to and there’s enough practice, repetition and participation to undergird what’s learned and gained.

Students also read, break down and study excerpts, stories and great works of literature. Among the short stories, articles, essays, authors and poems past boot camp enrollees have evaluated for topic, theme, research and outline are Berton Braley, “The Lottery”, Charles Darwin, Invictus, Maya Angelou, The Early Ayn Rand, Rudyard Kipling, Leanita McClain, “The Last Leaf” by O. Henry, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and science fiction by Ray Bradbury (as well as some of my own unpublished short stories, blog posts and LA Times articles).

One of my recent boot camp “alumni” members, who enrolled and attended both of my courses, was employed by a Burbank studio as a talent scout. She recently announced on LinkedIn that she’s now a literary agent. Other past students have been published in poetry and story collections, do standup comedy and pitch pilots, movies and series to studios. Students have also been peace officers seeking to write clearer reports, lawyers, businessmen, immigrants studying English and entrepreneurs.

Next month’s course includes a new lesson integrating what I’ve learned from my 30 years of freelance writing. But, really, the whole Writing Boot Camp cashes in on that subject.

If these courses sound interesting, I invite readers to come to Southern California and attend the courses at the Henry Mingay campus near Burbank’s Bob Hope Airport. Class size is small and intimate. Tuition is low, thanks to Burbank Adult School, which pays for these courses entirely through the fees. Also, feel free to tell others and share this post, tag me on Pinterest, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and spread the word. Classes accept waiting lists when capacity is reached and I’m happiest teaching to a full classroom, so if you’re unable to attend, help me fill each class.

My Blog Turns Ten

Ten years ago today, I introduced my blog as an informal forum for my thoughts on movies, culture and ideas. Then and now, this ‘web log’ primarily exists to advertise my writing. The blog serves my purpose.

By July 20, 2008, I knew that I wanted to acquire new knowledge, so I enrolled in extended writing and philosophy studies and, later, a course by my former boss, author, talk radio/podcast host and philosopher Leonard Peikoff. Having declined an offer to write and edit for a website owned by one of the world’s largest companies, I instead pursued my goal to write in a variety of genres and formats, from stage, science fiction and short stories to serious speeches, interviews and articles.

The blog, which I never named, became an outlet. Within weeks after my first post, the U.S. economy had taken a historic plunge and America was unceasingly attacked by Islamic terrorists. During this time, amid a surge of surveillance statism and new technology including mobile devices, the media rapidly downsized, sensationalized and splintered. America was in turmoil. My blog was less of a bugle in this sense than a refuge, chiefly for myself. The blog became a means of exercising free speech on issues which were being distorted, neglected or evaded and ignored in the press and among intellectuals. One of the posts I pursued was an interview, which was granted and turned out to be one of his last (and I think one of my best), with author, historian and scholar John David Lewis (read the worldwide exclusive here). One of the bits of wisdom the then-ailing Dr. Lewis (who was my friend, reader, teacher and patron) gave me was to write about matters of personal interest, if warranted in first person, which is frowned upon in academia.

Obviously, I took the advice. I wrote about losing a friend to suicide — another downward trend, which seems to be getting worse — following Obama’s re-election. I wrote about finding the good, whether posting the first review of Olivia Newton-John’s first headlining show in Las Vegas, the first OCONs in Pittsburgh and Chicago and new reviews of good and, in some cases, exemplary movies. I have since praised TV shows, apps, movies, products and books — even a kiss during a North American riot.

I was among the first writers to praise Edward Snowden as an American hero. I did so as a warning against American dictatorship. I was among the first writers to scrutinize and denounce George W. Bush (and his father), Barack Obama and Donald Trump (by the same standard and principle). When the worst single legislation in my lifetime threatened to destroy the health care industry and what was left of the medical profession, I wrote on the blog. While others were galvanizing around flawed premises, saying and doing nothing or campaigning for fracking, fuel and genetically modified organisms, arguably good causes if not as urgent as the looming danger of the Affordable Care Act, I defended individual rights in health care, denounced ObamaCare on the proper grounds and forecast its disastrous impact — in newspapers and online publications. But always here on the blog.

So, I’ve observed, named and examined the good and the light as well as the insidious and ominous darkness. I write here about the truth as I see it, which is all a decent reporter can do, especially in a perceptual media age. With a relatively small readership of influencers, I’ve been able to write about what I regard as the fundamental conflict of our time: the individual versus the state. I exalt the individual.

Ten years later, my posts or archived articles are cited, referenced or reprinted by Stevie Nicks, the Cato Institute, Mental Floss, Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, Salon, The Hollywood Reporter, Turner Classic Movies and the New York Times. I get feedback on the posts from entrepreneurs, students, activists, scholars, artists and readers across the world.

One university professor assigns my post on the Obama administration versus free speech every semester as required reading for students studying freedom of speech. I’m told that my post criticizing Starbucks with specific solutions, posted days before this year’s fiasco in Philadelphia, was distributed by company executives in the days that followed. Top artists, such as composer Alexandre Desplat, whom I’ve interviewed a few times, post links to our interviews on their sites. The blog attracts clients. One screenwriter read one of my posts and subsequently asked for help with his screenplay.

I’ve fulfilled my recent pledge to add previously published articles to the site’s archive. This way, readers can browse and discover other articles of interest. Posts may soon or eventually be removed and appear in another format, as I clear space for new posts and make site changes. Feel free to subscribe to my e-newsletter, which is currently on hiatus. The blog, as I’ve written, is mainly a means to help me develop, pitch and write in a variety of arts and communications, including screenplays, books, social media, marketing and branding, on assignment and as work for hire (read about my method). This is why I accept support, which sponsors my writing.

If you read and gain value from my blog, please let me know. I appreciate criticism and correction. Above all, tell me what you think. Contact me if you think that I’m qualified to add value to a project (if I agree that I am able to do so, I will). The Federal Trade Commission requires that I disclose that I receive unsolicited invitations, review copies and gifts, whether an iTunes gift card or a donation (which I do not expect). Like other commercial-free blogs and independent sources, I do accept and appreciate the support. I value your readership and I am grateful for your social posts, especially when rendered with a comment, so please like, share and link to my blog posts. Any of these actions matter and directly support this blog, this writer and this life, mine and yours. Happy 10th blog anniversary and happy reading to you.

Orange County OCON (2018)

On a first-day pass, I attended part of the annual summer Objectivist Conference in Orange County, California’s Newport Beach.

Marriott Newport Beach

The town and venue are familiar. I’ve previously stayed at the Marriott Newport Beach for other Ayn Rand Institute-sponsored events. It’s a fine hotel across from Fashion Island with an attentive staff. A Starbucks affiliate capably serves coffee, food and drinks. I was writing on deadline during my visit, so I did not attend the ARI’s full OCON, which unfortunately does not offer a per-talk option. Most of the program was light, however, and did not entice me. Instead, I attended one day’s events and a few OCON affairs. The hotel’s restaurant and bar, where I visited with friends, clients and other intellectuals, were good for meetings.

This year’s conference, sponsored by Midwest manufacturer Relco, celebrates the 75th anniversary of Ayn Rand’s bestselling novel The Fountainhead and “how its themes of independence and integrity continue to resonate with readers of all ages.” Accordingly, English literature professor Shoshana Milgram, Ph.D., whom I interviewed for my exclusive report on Ayn Rand in Chicago, delivered a dynamic lecture (“Frank Lloyd Wright and The Fountainhead: The Full Story”) about the man who designed Fallingwater and the woman who created Roark and Galt and visited Wright at Taliesin.

The OCON lectures are shorter than they were in the past, which is unfortunate. So, Dr. Milgram delivered what can best be described as a dazzling account which breaks new ground in understanding The Fountainhead, Wright and Rand, whom my friend Dr. Milgram has profiled for a forthcoming biography. Hers is the primary impetus for my OCON attendance this year, though I also wanted to hear Aristotle scholar Robert Mayhew, whom I interviewed for his thoughts on Rand’s first novel, We the Living, lecture on humor in The Fountainhead. I had seen both Drs. Mayhew and Milgram present at OCON in Chicago several years ago and I consider them both top, leading new Objectivist intellectuals. Dr. Milgram’s talk at this year’s OCON was excellent, detailing newly disclosed research from Northwestern University archives, Wright’s introduction to Rand by Ely Jacques Kahn at New York City’s Commodore Hotel in 1938 and a fuller account of their exchanges over The Fountainhead.

The talk, which references Ayn Rand’s remarks on a never-reprinted Wright article and secret negotiations regarding the prospect of Wright’s working on the 1949 movie version for Warner Bros., explains why Ayn Rand was emphatic that Howard Roark is not based on Frank Lloyd Wright.

Dr. Milgram provides the literary perspective of Ayn Rand with impeccable skill. In my experience, ever since first attending the Virginia Tech associate professor’s talks in Southern California, she always does. She hunts for facts, goes by reason and, above all, she thinks for herself. Listening to her lecture on the relationship between Frank Lloyd Wright and Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead was fascinating, filling in gaps in my knowledge and helping me understand why it always seemed (and is often depicted as) one-sided, which Dr. Milgram breaks down and explains. I hope this talk, which is another reason ARI should consider offering single event OCON pricing, becomes available to the general public. The best compliment I can give OCON this year, and I am not saying this because Shoshana Milgram is a friend with whom I’ve worked, is that her presentation for the first time in my life makes me want to read an Ayn Rand biography.

A talk which did not tie into The Fountainhead, “Being a Rational Optimist” by ARI Chairman Yaron Brook, disappointed me. Since ARI founder Leonard Peikoff, who put in an appearance at OCON via video, ended his podcast, I do not listen to podcasts, so I don’t know whether Dr. Brook later expanded on his commentary. But it fell short of making a persuasive case for rational optimism. I attended with the expectation that he would probably convince me and affirm my pre-existing optimism in the future, which is qualified but real. Dr. Brook’s reasons include technology and life expectancy. He cited the fact that math and science are more widely studied. He went into some detail. But he failed to account for the discrepancy with his previous assertions in which he forecast doom or catastrophe within a 20-year time frame. Similarly, he did not mention, let alone address, alarming forecasts in Dr. Peikoff’s 1982 The Ominous Parallels or recent The DIM Hypothesis, originally presented as a series of OCON lectures.

Dr. Brook backed up his points by citing the late Steve Jobs and aviation entrepreneur Blake Scholl, a friend who addressed last year’s OCON in Pittsburgh. In reference to the standard of living, he cited the cost of an iPhone, which he said more than once costs “nothing” (which, especially if you calculate the cost of storage, apps, accessories and services, is not the case). Also, he praised Disney’s Pixar as making some of what he called “the best movies of the last 30 years”, a debatable assertion at best and I say this as someone who agrees with his remarks on Amistad and Argo. I agree with Dr. Brook that Americans generally tend to underestimate the role of the Enlightenment. But Yaron Brook’s argument that there is cause for optimism, which I’m inclined to agree with (and I have my own reasons to be optimistic), was unconvincing.

A better talk was “The Influence of Ayn Rand on My Life and Business Career” by Saxo Bank co-founder Lars Seier Christensen who, after 20 years as CEO, started his own private equity firm, Seier Capital. He made concise, convincing points about his business experience, which he delivered with humor. Christensen explained that there has to be a sense of purpose, or, as he put it, “some intention”, in making a dollar. In other words, he argued, one must choose to think about making money in some narrowly defined sense. He urged OCON’s audience, which ARI estimated at over 600 guests, to remember that there are no guarantees in life, that in business it is best to “fix conflicts on the spot” and he told us not to criticize for the sake of criticism. This is good advice backed up by his wealth of knowledge, experience and success.

Harry Binswanger gave a course on logic based on his book How We Know. The Objectivist Academic Center (OAC), which I attended from 2008 to 2012 when it was a four-year program, held a mixer for alumni, where I was able to talk with OCON speakers Ben Bayer, Robert Mayhew and Aaron Smith. I told Dr. Smith, who earned his Ph.D. in philosophy, that I appreciate his session on idealism in OCON’s “Discussing Objectivism” series. Dr. Smith explored the nature and roots of Ayn Rand’s idealism, fully tethered to characters and themes in The Fountainhead, addressing questions such as: What does it mean to be an idealist? Why does Rand think that ideals are so important to have and to fight for? What is the connection between having ideals and having a self?

I’ve seen Dr. Smith speak on other occasions, such as when former CEO Jim Brown introduced him at an event in Orange County last year, and part of what I value is his ability to express himself as a searching philosophical detective and thinker. In contemplating idealism, for instance, he asked and answered each of those questions, emphasizing Objectivist virtues dramatized in The Fountainhead such as rationality, independence and self-esteem, which he stressed is impossible to exaggerate in terms of its importance. The material, pace and clarity in his presentations is very good. Dr. Smith communicates as if he seeks to be understood by a wide audience, a quality which is rare among today’s intellectuals, especially among Objectivists, whose best arguments can be lost on a general audience because they may come off as smug, defensive and dismissive. Reminding me of what Dr. Peikoff once wrote about addressing only those academics who act like human beings, or something to this effect, Dr. Smith gave an example from when he worked as a gymnastics instructor. He said he told his students not to “inflate your currency”. Aaron Smith argued for delivering true instruction when discussing Objectivism. Speaking about The Fountainhead character Peter Keating, he was not satisfied to merely identify and underscore Keating’s selflessness. He pointed out that Peter Keating failed to scrutinize his own actions and contrast his life with his friend Howard Roark’s.

In keeping with the theme of this year’s OCON — bearing in mind that the ARI and OCON ought also to be scrutinized — this is something every individual should strive to do.

Movie Review: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Dabbling in what made the 2008 original enjoyable, this summer’s sequel to Mamma Mia! is another welcome exercise in gaiety and lightness. With players draped in loose-fitting cotton, gathering in the sun-kissed Greek isles on the premise that the individual of any age can and ought to “do something radical and wonderful”, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again‘s as carefree as the original ten years ago.

Amanda Seyfried (Cosette in Les Miserables and Letters to Juliet) returns, as do most of the original cast, as Sophie, daughter of free spirit Donna (Meryl Streep) who has died. Sophie plans to re-open the boutique hotel her late mother had created in the Greek islands. This is the plot. Sophie’s husband Sky (Dominic Cooper), who married Sophie in the original with the spirit of a pagan festival, is on a work assignment in New York City pondering a job offer. All of this is built again around ABBA’s rich, melodic pop songs.

Andy Garcia, Cher and Meryl Streep appear in small roles or cameos that feel like afterthoughts and, while they do not add to the movie, they do not detract or distract from it, either. The rest of the cast — including Stellan Skarsgard, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth as Sophie’s three fathers — is terrific, though Lily James (Darkest Hour, Baby Driver, Cinderella) continues to impress as an actress, portraying Sophie’s mother in her youth. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again begins and ends as a kind of musical postcard, teeming with life. English writer and director Ol Parker (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) takes over directing from Phyllida Lloyd (The Iron Lady) with fine results.

Imaginatively filming island bicycling, traipsing and singing while dancing with clever transitions, and keeping godawful singer Pierce Brosnan in line, Parker unfolds the movie’s grief recovery theme in flashbacks. As young Donna, Sophie’s mother, Lily James is perfectly winsome, embracing youth with an unorthodox valedictory speech at Oxford, seducing gorgeous young men in Paris and the Mediterranean and starting her career as an entrepreneur whose voice is as “sweet as sugar cane”.

Contrasting the persevering single mother with a daughter who integrates her parents’ (including each of her three dads) best qualities and, of course, songs which invite you to think twice as you swoon along, so is Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.