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The Giver (2014)
Enjoyable Teen Dystopian Story: Sort of Like the Resulting Society if the Body Snatchers Had Won
If the emotionless "vegetable-like" creatures of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" had won their war and taken over the Earth, the resulting society might look a bit like the one portrayed in "The Giver". At the beginning of the story, the main character, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) describes how society functions in an imagined Utopian future. There is no fear, want, competition, or conflict. Occupations are assigned after childhood, so individuals don't decide their vocations. The Elders in their infinite wisdom take care of all assignments. But interestingly, all members see only a black and white world without colour, which is used to great effect in the current film. And all activity is constantly monitored by cameras. Any member engaging in the slightest infraction can be confronted by an Elder.
"Sameness" has been implemented to create an ideal world, and all community members lack memory of a time "before" the current society. Members take an injection every day to quell the possibility of negative emotions. Hypothetically, there is no reason for envy since all physical needs are met, and the Elders determine every person's role in society. However, because there is no want, fear, conflict, etc., there are other emotions and experiences which are also left out. The story is about how a youth discovers those things which have been taken away from society in order to create a supposed Utopia.
Three friends, Jonas, Fiona (Odeya Rush), and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) vow they will be friends forever, even after the ceremonies marking the ends of their childhoods and each will begin training in their newly-assigned vocations. The occupations include caring for children, education, etc. The older members of the society are "released" to an unknown place called "Elsewhere". At the ceremony, all the other youths have been assigned their new vocations, but Jonas appears to have been passed over for assignment. Towards the end of the ceremony, Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) announces that Jonas has been given a special assignment: he will be "The Receiver of Memory", the memories of the community from before the time of the Sameness Society. He will receive them from an older receiver, "the Giver" (Jeff Bridges).
Jonas is highly intelligent and was chosen to be the Receiver of Memory. But as the Giver finds out, Jonas is also curious. As he learns about the many aspects of the world in the past through the memories of the Giver, he begins to question the role of society "forcing" people into a world lacking emotions. He finds, to his dismay, that a very real emotion has been suppressed to create this Utopia. And he also discovers the term "release" has a much darker meaning which has been hidden from the understanding of the general populace.
A very interesting and entertaining Utopian-dystopian SF story. Although certainly some of the themes have been explored in other Dystopian works, such as "1984" and "Logan's Run", this one describes the world from a youth's perspective. Logan of "Logan's Run" was in his late 20's, and Winston Smith of "1984" was in middle age. Jonas of "The Giver" is probably in his teens. My only criticism was I thought there needed to be another chapter at the end, although that may be covered in future installments.
The Unknown Known (2013)
An Atypical Documentary Whose Amoral Subject Speaks for Himself
There's something maddeningly chaotic about Donald Rumsfeld's logic in terms of US international policy. When he was in press conferences during the Iraq War under W Bush, Rumsfeld's answers to tough questions often rang of the so-called "double-speak", a term which is associated with but not explicitly used in George Orwell's "1984". He would respond with other questions or make unfunny jokes. He would use strange metaphors. Rarely did he simply answer direct questions. Errol Morris' documentary about Rumsfeld is strangely similar. He has Rumsfeld do most of the talking, and what comes out of the former Defense Secretary's mouth is a barrage of inconsistencies, untruths, and illogical conclusions. In short, Rumsfeld's whole way of thinking is a jumbled incomprehensible mess. And yet, he was one of the most powerful people in the W Bush administration during the first decade of the 21st century. You could argue W Bush had flawed judgment, Dick Cheney was immoral, but Rumsfeld is in his own realm. As Morris said in an interview, he was one of the most "self-deceiving" people he had ever interviewed.
The format of the documentary is one of the strangest you'll ever see in a film of this type. The subject himself is the narrator. He narrates and then comments on the different subjects covered in the documentary. He occasionally answers questions posed by Errol Morris who can be heard in the background. One of the former Defense Secretary's most interesting phrases is "the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence", a phrase coined by Carl Sagan when referring to the unknown realms of outer space. Rumsfeld is famous for composing 1000's of email memos, and recurring throughout the memos are his definitions of particular words and terms which are displayed on-screen. The film traces his childhood, his early years in politics under President Nixon and briefly under Gerald Ford. He was an adviser for Governor Reagan and later for President Reagan and George Bush Senior. Most of the documentary concerns the Iraq War and his tenure as Defense Secretary under George W Bush.
One example which highlights Rumsfeld own self-deception and denial is when Morris asks about the public perception concerning Saddam Hussein after the 9/11 attacks. Rumsfeld in the documentary claims people knew that Hussein and Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. The documentary then cuts to a Rumsfeld press conference clip of 2003 in which a reporter quotes Saddam Hussein: "I would like to tell you directly we have no relationship with Al Queada." Rumsfeld's reply: "And Abraham Lincoln was short." The reporter than asks Rumsfeld to respond to Hussein's statement and the Secretary of Defense simply says that Hussein "rarely tells the truth". The implication is clear: Rumsfeld wants the public to believe that Hussein and Iraq contributed to 9/11. If you read between the lines, and realize what is unsaid rather than said, Rumsfeld never actually states that Hussein is lying about having a relationship with Al-Queada. He makes the Lincoln analogy joke and he says that Hussein has a pattern of lying, but never once did Rumsfeld himself directly accuse Hussein of lying about having a relationship Al-Quaeda. This is the kind of double-talk, doublespeak which is how Rumsfeld's reasoning seems to work.
People have criticized the documentary as raising many more questions than it answers. This may be the point of the film. Rumsfeld comes off, at best, as a completely self-deceived person whose rationalities have no logic, and at worst an amoral international leader who got us into an unjust war. His logic, we "lacked imagination" to see the Japanese coming when they attacked Pearl Harbor and thereby justifies the War in Iraq. As Morris points out in an interview, if we can imagine our enemies doing anything in the future, then we can rationalize military operations for almost any reason at any time.
The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014)
Cuisine Wars Between French and Indian Chefs and the Battle for Michelin Stars
When Hassan, the eldest son and "crown prince" of the Indian restaurant, tells a border patrol agent about his experience in cuisine, he simply says "My mother taught me everything." In India, such explanations may be acceptable, but in western cultures, such pronouncements seem irrelevant. These are the kinds of distances explored in "The 100-Foot Journey". When we consider the "distance" between cultures and class, we often think of these distances in physical terms. India is many thousands of miles from France. Russia and China are nearly half-a-world away from the United States. But sometimes a "distance" may not be physical. In such cases distances and even barriers may be psychological and/or cultural rather than physical. The hired-help may be inside the large manor where high society is congregating but not really be a part of it. An extra on a movie set may brush against the star actress occasionally, but they are worlds apart even if the physical distance may be very close.
In the case of "The 100-Foot Journey", the distance is simply between two competing restaurants in a small French town south of Paris: a posh traditional French restaurant under the same leadership since the 1960's and a new upstart restaurant offering Indian cuisine to French locals. Although the distance is only 100 feet, at the beginning of the film, both restaurants represent not only competing cultures, they are almost like two rival nations. Each has its monarch: Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) is Queen of the French restaurant, and "Papa" (Om Puri) is the older king of the Indian restaurant. They each have their crown prince or princess. Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon) is the young aspiring chef-in-training at the French restaurant, and Hassan (Manish Dayal) is the star chef at the Indian restaurant.
The battle is not waged with guns or cannons (except for one scene), but with meats, vegetables, and spices. Their prize is not territory but the prestige of gaining the coveted stars which are listed in the Michelin Travel Guides, a series of annual guide/reference books published by the French company Michelin. The Michelin Guides, originally published for French motorists over a century ago, are the oldest and best-known European hotel and restaurant reference guides, which awards Michelin stars for excellence to a select few establishments. Michelin publishes new editions of their guides every year with updates, and acquisition or loss of a star in the guide can have dramatic effects on the success of a hotel and restaurant.
The ratings are as follows: One star: "A very good restaurant in its category." Two stars: "Excellent cooking, worth a detour." Three stars: "Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey." We learn early on that the French restaurant has had one star since the 1960's but has never achieved another. Now the war is on between the two restaurants which covet the "prize" of the Michelin stars. But like the Capulets and the Montagues of Romeo and Juliet, the prince and princess of the two restaurants begin seeing each other in secret away from the protective "walls" of the restaurants unbeknown-st to their respective monarchs.
A wonderful thoroughly enjoyable film which is not only a clash of cultures and attitudes but a clash of wit and ideologies. After a brief introductory episode in which the eldest son recounts his family restaurant in India, the first half of the film is about how the two restaurants dislike each other and find ways to undermine each other's businesses. But as the story progresses, we learn this rivalry has many more negative consequences than the outcome of one side winning and the other losing, which is I think the point of "The 100-Foot Journey". The journey becomes not only one of cultural respect and admiration, but I think a transcendence of our deepest fears of when "the other" comes to town and sets up shop.
A Fierce Green Fire (2012)
The History and Importance of the Environmentalist Movement
Prior to this documentary, the debate centering on environmentalism has often been between warring factions which make the Wars of the Roses of the 15th century look tame by comparison. Each vilifies the other. The more conservative (ironically) who believe in complete free enterprise and capitalism without hindrance have labeled the environmentalists quacks and anti-capitalistic, and therefore "Un-American". Particularly figures like James Watt who was the Secretary of the Interior from 1981 to 1983 under the Reagan Administration felt that environmentalists were delusional in their perspectives, prompting Reagan to say of them "They won't be happy to until the Whitehouse is a bird's nest", which is of course wasn't true at all. Simultaneously, some "Green" activists have accused capitalists of being beholden to only moneyed and corporate interests. Corporations have argued that high regulation of business will stifle the free market and compromise jobs and incomes. The "Greens" have argued that if we destroy our planet's habitability, through Global Warming, we will have no planet upon which to exist and create, be it housing, cars, or corporations, etc. If the human species is extinct, there will be no capitalism in other words.
Strangely, prior to 2012, there hadn't been a documentary which tells the full tale of the environmentalist movement, why they came to believe what they believe, and why they have protested as vehemently as they have. Films like "An Inconvenient Truth" have successfully made the case why Global Warming threatens the existence of the Earth but there hadn't been a film explaining the history of the movement. "A Fierce Green Fire" has filled the gap. This film explains where the movement came from and why it continues today.
The film is divided into five parts: Act 1, The history of Conservation beginning with the origins of the Sierra Club, headed by John Muir in the 19th century and later David Bower in the mid-20th. Act 2, the pollution of the 1970's including demonstrations against toxic waste. Act 3, Green Peace and their exploits to save the whales. Act 4, the fights against the destruction of natural resources such as the Amazon Rain Forests. Act 5, Global Warming.
Despite popular belief, the Environmentalist Movement did not begin in the 1960's with hippie radicals on the Haight-Asbury in San Francisco. It began as early as the 19th century when birds with beautiful plumage were disappearing because they were being hunted and killed for the plumage adorning ladies' hats. A group formed to save these birds from extinction. Shortly thereafter, John Muir fought against the construction of dams which would destroy the habitats of many wildlife areas west of the Mississippi. Families of the mid-west who probably had never been involved in environmentalism before engaged themselves in the debate when their children were becoming and ill and even dying as a result of toxic waste. And the threat of Global Warming is recapped, extending what Al Gore had accomplished in his documentary 10 years earlier.
The view of the documentary is certainly from a particular bias, but at the same time, I think it does a reasonably good job of not vilifying the other side unless that side deserves it. Most political anti-environmentalists didn't believe there was a real problem, and the conventional wisdom prior to circa 1960 was that environments could and should be compromised in favor of "progress". Many people until President Reagan began to sign onto the Environmentalist cause, but this shifted under Reagan, particularly with the appointment of James Watt who wanted the country to drill more and more no matter where and how.
A very professionally-made documentary as good as any PBS documentary being produced today. The talents of several Hollywood heavy-hitters narrate the film, such as Robert Redford, Ashley Judd, and Meryl Streep. Even Isabelle Allende lends her voice to one of the segments. My only hope is that it doesn't just speak to the choir but encourages those on the fence, and maybe even the other side, to take a look at this very real issue. The truth is, if we don't have a world, nothing else really matters that much. I don't want cock roaches to be the only occupants of deserted cities in a few hundred years.
Uplifting True Story About An Unlikely Working-Class Kid Who Fights His Way to Notre Dame and Its Football Team
Part-way into the film, Daniel Ruettiger, Sr. (Ned Beatty), the father of "Rudy", tells the story of how his immigrant father, Rudy's grandfather, came to America and gave his family a new life. Later he decided to create a dairy farm out in the country. He bought land and about 200 cows, probably on credit. Unfortunately, according to Beatty, the cows died of disease after only a few months. Because it was the Depression, they couldn't sell the land. As a result, Rudy's grandfather disappeared, never to be seen again, and younger siblings were split up to live with other family members. We assume he left his family because of the shame of failure. Rudy's father then goes on to say that universities like Notre Dame just aren't in the cards for members of the Ruettiger family of laborers. Institutions like Notre Dame are for rich and connected people, not for those who don hard-hats at steel mills and factories.
The moral of Beatty's story: if you try and don't succeed, it would have been better if you hadn't tried at all. Rudy's father tells him this story at a bus station where Rudy is going to travel to South Bend, Indiana, hoping to not only enroll into Notre Dame University, but also play for their illustrious football team. Rudy decides not to take heed of his father's story and instead travels to South Bend anyway with nothing except a cheap traveling pack. Which is I think the point of "Rudy": that we must try and risk failure if we are to have any chance to succeed.
Rudy's chances of getting into Notre Dame as a student are slim at best and almost negligible in regards to joining the Fighting Irish football team. He has every disadvantage imaginable. But he has one thing in his favor: he has nothing to lose, and he knows he will have to put in 400% to achieve his goals. To give him an edge, Rudy thinks outside the box and does things other kids wouldn't have thought to do, such as befriending the grounds-keeper at the Notre Dame stadium and introducing himself to the Notre Dame coach even before he's a student. But his road is hard and arduous. In a very interesting shot about mid-way through the film, we see Rudy on the outside of the Notre Dame stadium while a game is in-progress. The shot is a bird's eye view with Rudy at ground-level to the right of the large wall of the stadium to the left. This is the seemingly impenetrable wall Rudy is trying to climb. Physically, he is right near the stadium yet he is still on the outside.
This is a remarkable film about a highly implausible story that is truly a great inspirational films. While the supporting cast is perfect for the film, it's the performance of Sean Astin as Rudy which takes us all the way. Every step of Astin as Rudy is completely believable. And the film never lapses into cliché sentiment but sticks with the facts of most of the true story, with one small change towards the end. If Astin and/or the script had ever once lapsed into idealistic fantasy it would have become almost satirical farce, but luckily it never does. It ranks as one of best sports films of all time.
Eyewitness To Jesus (1998)
Interesting But Over-Long and Single-Sided Examination of the So-Called "Magdalen papyrus"
A relatively interesting documentary which explores the recent provenance and later historical analysis of New Testament fragments dating from Antiquity, now referred to as the "Magdalen papyrus", because they contain fragments of the story about Mary Magdalen. The film focuses on recent revelations about New Testament manuscript fragments which had been housed in Oxford for over a century. Charles Huleatt, a somewhat forgotten Anglican priest, purchased the manuscript fragments in Cairo, circa 1900. When pictures of the fragments were sent to other scholars in the early 20th century, the general consensus at that time was the fragments probably dated to the 4th or 5th centuries CE and therefore were nothing that special apart from being very old. They were certainly interesting, but nothing which might challenge or change current historical research and sensibility. Part of the point of the documentary is to right an historical wrong.
The documentary suffers from two major shortcomings. On the first front, the claims and conclusions made by the documentary seem not only tenuous at best but mostly one-sided. The film appears to be more than just an exploration of the fragments but also determined to prove these particular fragments date nearly to the time of Jesus. The other issue is the documentary takes far too long to get to the crux of the matter.
The fragments in question, three small pieces of written papyrus less than the size of a credit card each appear to be from the Gospel of Matthew. The documentary claims that if these fragments prove to date from before circa 50 CE, then they could make a case the Gospel of Matthew was in fact written by an eye-witness of Jesus rather than later writers who probably lived a few generations after Jesus' death. They make the further claim if these fragments date from when they hope they do, therefore nearly all Gospels could have been written by eyewitnesses, particularly since most scholars believe the Gospel of Mark was the basis for Matthew and later Luke.
Most current Biblical scholars assert the Gospel Writers were not in fact eyewitnesses to Jesus but lived and wrote much later. This is based on long intensive and extensive research based on very scant primary source evidence. While I don't have a problem with the documentary, proposing the possibility the fragments were written in the middle of the 1st century CE, the overall rhetoric seems bent on making this conclusion the final interpretation of the fragments.
The narrator often uses phrases like "therefore the date of the manuscript must be..." or "it is difficult not to conclude..." The conclusions that the fragments are highly likely to be from the middle of the 1st century are based solely on the analysis of a single scholar, a German New Testament historian Carsten Peter Thiede. Thiede concluded the handwriting styles were similar to those of the Dead Sea Scrolls found in Khirbet Qumran near the Dead Sea, and therefore must be from the same time. This seems like water under the bridge because the handwriting of ancient papyrus seems very consistent from the time of Jesus all the way to circa 200 CE. The documentary shows similar characteristics between the fragments and the Dead Sea Scrolls, but the handwriting style appeared quite different between the two, and this is coming from someone who is not a professional scholar. The Dead Sea Scroll letters were pushed together much more tightly, while there seemed to be much greater spaces between the letters of the fragments in question.
I got the feeling Thiede desperately wanted the fragments to be from the middle of the first century to take credit for not only revealing the oldest known fragments of the New Testament but proving that the writer Matthew and therefore other Gospel writers were actual eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus of Nazareth. According to some brief research I engaged in after viewing the film, the consensus among scholars today is that the fragment dates probably closer to the middle of the 2nd century CE, circa 135-175 CE, about 100 years after Thiede's claim. Simultaneously, this is no question one of the oldest New Testament fragments known to exist, which is still a remarkable discovery by any standard.
The other difficulty with the documentary is its length. Over half the documentary is spent retracing the steps of a somewhat forgotten Anglican priest, Charles Huleatt and his residency in Egypt as an Anglican priest and Evangelical. The documentary clocks in at 90 minutes, with 45 to 50 minutes devoted to retracing the journey of the Anglican priest from Britain to Cairo who bought the fragments from an antiquities dealer over 100 years ago. I wanted to get to the matter of the manuscripts themselves a little bit sooner than the documentary allowed. I found I was less interested in knowing so much about Huleatt and the culture of Cairo circa 1900. For example, the kinds of outdoor vendors who sell tourist items, often replicas of Ancient Egyptian art, were giving much screen time.
Overall still an interesting documentary about a subject with which I was unfamiliar. Since scholarship has failed to prove with relative conclusiveness these fragments actually date from near the time of Jesus, they haven't altered current Christian scholarship. They are more of an interesting curiosity than a ground-breaking discovery. By contrast, the ancient codices found at Nag Hammadi proved to be previously unknown Christian texts (deemed heretical) and did fundamentally alter Christian scholarship. Previously, it was assumed Christianity developed through a more or less traceable linear history. The so-called Nag Hammadi Library proved Christianity was far more diverse with many more off-shoot groups than previously known. While the "Magdalen papyrus" is certainly a note-worthy discovery, it does not appear poised to radically alter New Testament scholarship.
Margin Call (2011)
Underrated Indie Film Dramatizing the Eve of the Financial Collapse of 2008
New York, a nameless financial firm, circa Fall of 2008. A woman in a business suit is hunting for someone in the offices of one of New York's high-rise office buildings. She's obviously a stranger since the other workers don't seem to recognize her, and she doesn't know what the person she seeks looks like. Finally, she finds him and asks him to accompany her into a private conference room. In the conference room she lowers the boom: the firm is letting him go. She's part of a hired agency who visits firms to lay off and/or fire workers instead of the firm having to do the dirty work themselves. They act as a cushion between the firm and the poor schmuck who's getting the ax.
During the meeting, he tells the representative that he's currently working on an important project, but the agent offers a generic reply that whatever he's working is no longer his concern, and the firm will take care of it. Of course, it's obvious she has no idea what she's talking about because she's from an outside firm simply engaged to lower the ax on unsuspecting office works. She really has nothing to do with the intricacies of the firm itself. After he's cleaned out his desk, he gives a flash-drive to one of his underlings who's still with the firm and says "Just be careful." Later Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), a traders manager, holds a meeting and breaks the news that 80% of the firm had been let go, but those who remain were the most successful, the survivors. At first everything is upbeat despite the lay-offs. This is the beginning of one of the best films of its type about the cut-throat world of financial firms on Wall Street, "Margin Call".
The man they let go, Eric Dale, was some kind of senior risk-management adviser, and he was working on the profit-income-risk of the company and realizing something was terribly wrong. He had given the flash-drive to one of the lower level risk-management advisers, Peter Sullivan, who looks through the data on the flash-drive and fills in the missing pieces. The firm is in huge financial trouble. He calls his co-worker Seth at a nearby bar/strip club, who informs his boss, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany, the Albino of the Da Vinci Code)that they need to return to the firm and see the data, even though by now it's 11:00pm. (We learn later that Emerson spends just under $70,000 a year on booze and broads.) And they need Eric Dale to return to the offices, even though they not only just fired him but they disconnected his company cell phone. Sullivan shows Rogers and Emerson the data, which demonstrates the company is more heavily in debt than its entire worth. In other words, the company owes more than what the company could be sold for on the open market.
Eventually, Chief Risk-Management Officer Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore) and Simon Baker (Jared Cohen), one of the top executives, are brought together with Rogers, Emerson, Sullivan, and Seth into a meeting on one of the top floors of the executive suites to discuss the nature of the problem. By 3:00am in the morning, the CEO of the entire firm flies in by helicopter. What is the nature of the problem and what is the short-term solution? Apparently, these after-midnight meetings were occurring at many New York financial firms on the eve of the crisis.
An outstanding completely character/drama-driven film. The cast is first rate. No real big "stars" but a cast of heavy hitters in acting. And a first-rate script, one of the best since David Mamet's "Glen Garry Glen Ross". While not an escapist film, the story demonstrates an insider's view of what was going on during the eve of the financial crisis.
Pawnography Essentially Ben Stein's Money with an Insufferable Host: Should be Called "Win Rick Harrison's Stuff"
In the late 1990's to early 2000's, Comedy Central broadcast a game show called "Win Ben Stein's Money". Ben Stein was a rather obnoxious and opinionated right-winger who produced and co-hosted the show with Jimmy Kimmel who now has his own late-night show on ABC. "Pawnography", a spin-off show from History's "Pawn Stars" is essentially the same format as "Win Ben Stein's Money". Instead the prize isn't money but collectible "stuff". And the host is a bit different, but we'll get to that.
The premise of Ben Stein's original show was simple enough. Stein would put $5000 in the "bank", and the first round consisted of three contestants answering Jeopardy-like questions in "funny categories" with dollar values which would extract money from "the bank". Contestants won money which was always being propagated as being Stein's, even though it was really the money of the show. (Stein made millions from the show, so whatever money was supposedly lost during his show were negligible overall.) After the first round, the last place contestant (the one with the least amount of dough) had to leave, his or her money would return to the bank, and Ben Stein would become the third participant. Although Stein couldn't actually win, he could prevent the other contestants from obtaining "his money" by answering correct questions.
In the final round, the contestant with the most "cash" had to beat Stein directly by going head-to-head with the host/producer in order to win an additional $5000. Stein and the contestant each try and answer correctly as many of 10 questions as possible in 60 seconds. The higher number of right answers was the winner. Each contestant would be in a booth. The contestant's booth looked like a one-room brown-stone while Stein's booth looked like the sitting room of a posh château. If the contestant beat Stein, he would win an extra $5000. If not, the contestant would receive the money he had won during the other rounds plus maybe "Win Ben Stein's Money" the board game. During each airing Stein would repeatedly say things like "These contestants are trying to take MY money!"
Now fast-forward 10 years. With the success of "Pawn Stars", the History Channel has decided to resurrect "Win Ben Stein's Money" with a bit of a twist. Instead of cash, contestants are trying to win collectibles at the Pawn Shop. Each round has up for grabs a collectible item plus the virtual "cash" earnings won by answering correct questions. The first round involves two contestants, and Corey and Chumlee acting as a third contestant. In the second round, Rick Harrison becomes the third contestant. They answer similar questions as in "Stein's Money" but there are no set categories. If the Pawn Stars team ever wins the round, the item up for grabs is lost. If a contestant wins the round, they "sort of" win the item, but not entirely. After the second round, the contestant with the highest "cash" winnings must play all three Pawn Stars in the same head-to-head as "Stein's Money". Another item is now up for grabs, but the contestant must beat the Pawn Stars to win the other item(s) of the other rounds, plus the cash. (If the Pawn Star contestants came out ahead in the previous rounds, only the item of the 3rd round can be won plus the cash.) If the contestant loses the head-to-head round, he or she wins nothing. However there is one final "round" after the questions. Before revealing how the outcome of the head-to-head round, the contestant and Rick Harrison can negotiate for a money "deal" in lieu of the contestant taking away the cash and the prize(s).
In the original show, Ben Stein was a somewhat over-bearing conservative who, strangely, had charm, personality, and a good sense of humor. Despite his politics might drive liberals into setting fire to effigies of Barry Goldwater, Stein had enough of a spark in his eye to make the show at least modestly entertaining. And you always laughed when he griped about losing "his money". And contestants at least kept the money they won during the other rounds.
However, in "Pawnography" the contestant gains no prizes unless they beat the Pawn Stars in the last round, which I think is a total sham. And, Christopher Titus, the current host of "Pawnography", is an over-bearing humorless and down-right insufferable jerk. He has the dis-respectfulness of a John McEnroe and the crassness of a Howard Stern, cubed. Titus has the kind of personality which makes King Kong look like an honorable gentleman. His cutting little comments are about as funny as Joseph McCarthy during his hearings in the Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security in the early 1950's. Whether Titus is liberal or conservative, I don't care. I might have rated the show about a 7, but with Titus, it rates 3 points lower. Only Titus could make Stein seem like a courteous gentleman. Maybe the reason they got Titus is he makes the other Pawn Stars, Harrison, Corey and Chumlee, seem much more socially courteous and respectful. As long as Titus is hosting, I probably won't be able to suffer the insufferable.
The Japanese Original of Godzilla Stomps the Americanized-Burr Version to Smithereens
After having watched the original Japanese version of Godzilla, a.k.a. "Gojira", for the first time (strangely never officially released in the US with English subtitles for over 50 years) and then watching a bit of the American studio version (aka "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" with Raymond Burr), I could only come to one minor conclusion. The original Japanese version destroys the American one. Stomps on it, breathes radioactive fire on it, and obliterates it with extreme prejudice. After this viewing, the American version is laid waste, just as Godzilla lays waste to urban Japan.
The original Japanese Godzilla is in fact a cautionary tale concerning the proliferation of nuclear arms research and testing. However, the American version, which I enjoyed as a kid, purposefully left out more than the cautionary tale about the dangers of the Nuclear Age. It also cut references to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which ended the War in the Pacific, bringing a sudden and sobering end to World War II. The war was only 9 years in the past when Godzilla (aka Gojira) was released in Japan in 1954, and only two years after the end of American occupation in Japan.
However, the shortcomings of the American version doesn't end with Godzilla losing much of its political and social undertones. It loses much of its teeth as compared with the Japanese version. In the original, similar to Hollywood's "King Kong", the film employs a much more extended arc before the terrible face of Godzilla is finally revealed. Even before the monster's head is shown, we see giant legs stomping a village on an island. Much like "King Kong" in 1933 and later "Jaws" in 1975, the monster in the Japanese version reeks havoc on unsuspecting and innocent victims long before the audience actually sees the thing itself. There is much less build-up in the American version. (In Spielberg's "Jaws", the director had insisted the shark shouldn't be shown until nearly half-way into the film.)
The other aspects of the Japanese original missing from the American version concern the extended political debates. The characters are dealing with moral dilemmas which are even greater than the monster itself. The story involves, at first, the destruction of fishing boats and fisherman off the coast of Japan. Eventually the large reptilian creature, a cross between a t-rex and stegosaurus with the destructive and malevolent demeanor of Adolph Hitler is finally revealed crushing and annihilating everything in site. Four characters emerge who become the focus of the film: Hideto Ogata, a kind of coast guard/naval officer, his girlfriend, Emiko, Emiko's father, Professor Tanabe, and Dr. Serizawa, a reclusive scientist and inventor.
Professor Tanabe and the young Ogata clash, because the older scientist wishes to study Godzilla while Ogata believes it needs to be destroyed before it destroys Japan and possibly the rest of the world. The young lovers have a mutual friend, Serizawa, who sports a patch over his eye which was lost during World War II. The scientist has a secret which he reveals to Emiko but insists she swears she will never reveal it. Eventually, Ogata learns of the secret, but the secret itself presents a moral dilemma which fits in with the rhetoric of the rest of the film.
A brilliant film, which is as much a cautionary tale as a monster movie. The political overtones which permeate as much as Godzilla's destructive power play a large part in what the original version is really about but sadly lacking from the Americanized version. The large hulking creature which demolishes civilization may represent the potential horrors of the nuclear age as it does simply as a roller-coaster scary monster. Unlike American monster films, in which the monsters are very separate and deserve destruction, Godzilla appears to be something not from without but from within. The real horror of the original is that Godzilla may have been created by the human race, albeit inadvertently.
Devil's Knot (2013)
An Outstanding Film About One of the Most Troubling Murder Cases of the Late 20th Century -- Unjustly Snubbed By Critics
In 1996, HBO produced a documentary, "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills", about the much-publicized murder case of three pre-teen boys, Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers, who were murdered in the wooded creeks called Robin Hood Hills near West Memphis, Arkansas. The local authorities were convinced the murders were enacted by three older male teens, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., and Jason Baldwin. According to the present film and the HBO documentaries, the local authorities targeted the older teens as suspects in a kind of modern-day witch-hunt because of their interest in the occult, horror films, and Heavy Metal music. Echols was often seen wearing black clothing, an affront to the predominant Christian community of West Memphis. He later admitted to reading about Aleister Crowley but asserted he had never read any of Crowley's actual writings.
The case against the three teens hinged primarily on the notion that the murders were committed as a kind of sacrifice in a satanic ritual. Also, dubious testimony, particularly that of Vicki Hutcheson and her son Aaron, was later recanted. Hutcheson claimed initially that she had seen the three teens involved in Satanic rituals and that Damien Eckles had bragged about committing the murders at the event. She later said she had been coerced by police to offer false evidence, fearing authorities might take away her son. Her son Aaron in a video-taped interview said he had seen the actual murders, but then later when he was older withdrew his testimony claiming he knew nothing about the crimes. Other evidence, such as the possible involvement of an African-American who ended up in the ladies' room and smeared blood on the walls at Bojangles Restaurant the night of the murders was never adequately followed up on. No actual physical evidence linked the boys with the murders. Their prosecution was mainly based on circumstantial evidence concerning their interest in the occult.
Twenty years after the convictions of the so-called "West Memphis Three" and 17 years after the HBO Documentary "Paradise Lost", the film "the Devil's Knot" based on the book of the same name was released, starring Colin Firth as Ron Lax, a private investigator who became interested in the case, and Reese Witherspoon as Pamela Hobbs, the mother of victim Stevie Branch. First off, the film is beautifully shot. The lush swampy areas portraying the Robin Hood Hills appear almost like photos you might see in a postcard. The night shots are particularly beautiful, although simultaneously horrific as the setting for the brutal murders.
Critics claimed the film didn't add anything new to the understanding of the case, but I don't believe this was the filmmakers' intentions. The point of the film I believe was simply to tell the story in a dramatic/narrative format rather than a documentary. (HBO produced three documentaries in all about the case and probably assisted in the revelation about the poor police investigation, the witch-hunt sensibilities towards members of their community interested in the occult, and the dubious testimonies which led eventually to the release of the West Memphis Three.) Apart from whether or not audiences will believe the West Memphis Three are guilty or innocent, much of the film is about the complexity of such cases. Unless a defendant truthfully confesses to a crime, many questions and strange circumstances surround most cases. In many instances, the whole truth may be nearly unobtainable, such as questions which still surround the JFK Assassination.
An excellent and underrated film. The main reasons "The Devil's Knot" works as well as it does is because of the fine acting, particularly Witherspoon, Firth, and an honorable mention to James Hamrick as Damien Echols, the wonderful direction, and also because of the film's point of view. The film shows both sides of the case. The local authorities were pressured by the community to find the three teens guilty since a rift between conservative Christians and those interested in the occult was growing wider. In the film, one character states that those interested in the occult were bound to become enmeshed in a crime case sooner or later. Of course, the most informative details can be found in the three HBO documentaries, "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills" (1996), "Paradise Lost 2: Revelations" (2000), and "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" (2011).