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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 9, 2008

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Stay Home or Go to the Movies?

Maybe you've noticed that I haven't reviewed many movies this fall.

That's because I haven't seen many.

Hollywood is convinced that box office is down because of the economic meltdown that Barney Frank and Christopher Dodd brought us this fall.

Economic worries might be a complete explanation of why candy and popcorn sales are down in the movie theaters.

But I already wasn't going to the movies. It wasn't a conscious decision. Onn a Friday or Saturday or Monday we'd sit around the table at supper and talk through the films on offer. We had seen the touting in Entertainment Weekly, the trailers, the online reviews -- and we'd say, Well, which one do you want to see?

And week after week, somebody would say, Oh, if everybody else wants to go to Stupid Juvenile Dirty-and-Gross-Joke Comedy, I could probably stand it.

Or somebody would say, Oh, if you want to see Pretentious Hate-the-Middle-Class Arty Film, I might stay awake. Or, I could probably sit through Mind-Numbing Cliche-Filled Action Turdfest.

And we'd end up staying home and watching episodes of great TV shows that we'd TiVoed for later viewing.

That's why the movie business didn't have our money. I mean, sure, I have a responsibility to the readers of this column to review the movies that I actually see. But this isn't my day job. I don't get paid enough to make me waste an evening with my family watching a movie that looks stupid or offensive or emptily pretentious.

Not when we could play Ticket to Ride or Settlers of Cataan or Rat-a-Tat Cat. Not when we could watch saved-up episodes of Smallville or Big Bang Theory or Life or Burn Notice or The Mentalist.

Sure, those TV shows have their share of cliche plotting, and Big Bang Theory goes for the low joke pretty often. But at worst, they only take up 22 or 44 minutes, we're in our family room with much higher quality refreshments, and even at their worst, the writing in these shows is better -- by far -- than most of what I see on the big screen.

The other night, I found myself so wired up and depressed (a miserable combination) that I knew I wasn't going to sleep. So I sat there in the recliner and channel-flipped.

I ended up watching fragments of several movies. I had TiVoed 40-Year-Old Virgin, which I had avoided when it was new, despite my great admiration for Steve Carell. My predictions were correct -- most of the humor was stupid, even if the actors were wonderfully cheerful about it -- but at home, with a fast-forward button, I could watch the scenes that looked interesting and quadruple-speed through the rest, so I missed nothing.

Pretty good movie, except for the depiction of male society as being slightly behind randy baboons on the evolutionary ladder.

Then I caught Inside Man, a Denzel Washington caper movie that suffered fatally from irrelevancy and incoherence. Washington was wonderful; so was Jody Foster; so were Clive Owen and Christopher Plummer. The problem is that the storyline seemed to focus on Clive Owen's character, but the actual screentime went to Washington's character, who was not well-written and so coasted entirely on the actor's most excellent charm.

And Jody Foster did her best with an empty and unbelievable character; I bet the only reason she did the movie was because director Spike Lee asked her to, not because she thought the role did much more than suck.

I watched the movie speculating on whether there might not have been a better script somewhere in the files of some agency, and what I saw was the ragged result of directorial and/or studio "improvements."

Overlapping this movie, I flipped back and forth with Open Range, a Robert Duvall/Kevin Costner/Annette Bening western that I raved about when it first came out. It was still so good -- so well-written and well-acted -- that it drew me away from Inside Man so consistently that I ended up TiVoing the rest of the Spike Lee thriller so I could watch the rest of Open Range uninterrupted.

Sure, the climactic gunfight of Open Range is a little overdone, and the important point -- that the townfolks joined in against the tyrannical thugs once somebody stood up and showed some spine -- is almost lost in some seriously visionless directing at the end. But the love story holds up perfectly and I found myself moved by Kevin Costner and Annette Bening performances, impossible as that might sound.

A few nights before, I had watched the 2005 Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice back to back with the Colin Firth miniseries version from 1995. I found that the 2005 version did a brilliant job of condensing the story down to a couple of hours, while still being full of local color and realistic life.

In fact, it made the miniseries seem bloated and repetitive -- too many dances! -- but by the end, I found that I loved both versions. And while I preferred one actor over another in many roles, there was no consistent preference for one version over the other. And in certain key places, I found that I liked several very different performances equally well.

How often do we get to see two such powerful, well-made films of the same classic work of literature, and compare actors in the same role, often saying the same words?

It made me wish we could see a new Lord of the Rings, but this time directed by someone with respect for the original story, so that we get the Scouring of the Shire and waste no time on phonied-up love-interest bushwa with Arwen. In the new Lord of the Rings the director wouldn't let the Frodo actor play him as a tortured soul from the beginning -- we'd actually get to see growth and change over time. It wouldn't erase the Peter Jackson version; it would simply show us how much better Jackson's film would have been if he'd actuallly understood the story.

Yes, I know that I raved about the Jackson version when it first came out. And I haven't changed my mind. But over time, I've come to take the grand production values and great performances for granted, while the annoyances of silly film-school "improvements" to the story and of a badly directed lead actor have only grown more noticeable.

Oh ... and don't forget the hours I spent watching all of Forrest Gump for the first time since it was in the theaters. I cried like a baby all over again, and was surprised at how annoyed I wasn't at the Robin Wright portions of the plot, which I had found tedious on first viewing.

When Tom Hanks finds out he has a son, and asks, "Is he smart? Or ..." and can't bring himself to say "stupid," and then for, basically, the rest of the movie, I could hardly see for crying. Maybe because it's one of the few bits of entertainment in recent memory that actually respects the importance of a good man to a family, and shows a man capable of faithfulness and devotion.

Do you see where I'm going with this? I don't have to go to the movies. If Hollywood chooses to dish up crap, I can either go back and watch classics like Pride and Prejudice and Open Range and Forrest Gump, or I can skim through recent middling-quality films like Inside Man and 40-Year-Old Virgin with the fast-forward button under my finger, and give myself a much more entertaining evening than I am likely to get trapped in a theater with the director in control of the flow of time.

Which brings me, at long last, to Eagle Eye.

We went because we like Shia LaBeouf. Period. No other reason. And he came through for us -- the same earnest everyman quality that made Nicholas Cage and Tom Hanks such beloved stars. The same combination of kindness and goofiness that makes us care when they are in danger -- LaBeouf is the best thing to emerge from the Disney stable since Sean Connery. (Are you forgetting Darby O'Gill?)

Director D.J. Caruso, whose work I had seen none of, is an excellent director of thrillers. Unlike Spike Lee's sometimes incoherent directing of Inside Man, Caruso left us in no doubt of what was happening or what we had just seen.

So, as a pure thriller, I really enjoyed the film. It was a terrific ride.

Unfortunately, it was also a deeply dishonest movie. Because it was a script with a Message. As my 14-year-old said, "Any movie where you know when you're being told the moral is bad."

If you haven't seen the movie, I'm about to spoil the "surprise" -- though in fact the movie reveals it fairly early so we can understand what's going on (a mark of good writing).

Eagle Eye posits a supercomputer that has been given access to and control of all the online sources of information in the United States. It can take feeds from every videocam, it can find and hear every cellphone, it can control every train and traffic light.

And it has been given the mission of protecting America. Only it decides that because the President made a decision to strike against a suspected terrorist and turned out to have guessed wrong, which provokes revenge attacks by terrorists, the administration poses the greatest threat to the American people.

Wow, does that sound like this film was made by the Central Committee of the Democratic Party in order to remind people how evil George W. Bush is?

And at the end, sure enough, we get the Moral: Yes, the government must try to gather intelligence in order to protect the people, but Not This Way.

Wait a minute. How incoherent is this movie? It was the crazy supercomputer that acted out the Democratic Party's dream scenario -- trying to remove the Bush administration because it made mistakes. There was nothing in the movie that showed that gathering intelligence was bad, or even that the President was evil for having acted on a (ridiculously overprecise) "51% certainty" and "abort mission" recommendation.

Presidents have to make vital decisions based on far less information than that, and there is no case where a percentage expression of the "degree of certainty" would have any meaning whatsoever. President Bush went into Iraq having been told, by the Director of Central Intelligence, that it was a "slam dunk" that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

But the "moral" of this movie was not based on any kind of research or intelligent thought. The writers and director and producers came into the movie with an agenda, and at no point did they let common sense, logic, or research in the real world interfere with their fantasy.

Here is the truth:

1. There is no possibility of such a computer acting in such a way. Period. Speculation about computers that turn intelligent and stubbornly self-willed have been around for a long time -- Heinlein's Mike (Mycroft) in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Arthur C. Clarke's HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the computer in War Games, Jane in my own Speaker for the Dead.

But the fact is that there is no evidence that digital computers are capable of achieving anything like "intelligence." The closest we've come is "fuzzy logic," which has had impressive results -- but it does not amount to causal reasoning and the ability to change missions, and unless the programmers were stupid enough to allow a computer to take resources it was not given, it could not ever happen.

Yet that is precisely where the only danger in the movie flowed from. If the same information had been gathered, even with the ludicrous percentages of certainty (a basic tenet of epistemology is that without one hundred percent certainty, you cannot even guess intelligently at the degree of certainty you have; and a corollary is that 100% certainty is unachievable in matters of causality), and simply provided to human information analysts, there would have been no physical danger whatsoever.

2. The only remaining danger is the bugbear of having the government spy on us electronically. I once sat in a room at a defense department briefing and heard a guy who uses computers to identify cheaters for Las Vegas casinos.

This guy showed how, using his existing software and sources that any business can easily access, he could have, weeks before 9/11, identified all but one of the terrorist conspirators. This was without any access to FBI or CIA or State Department information.

All he would have needed to do was analyze patterns of ticket buying, residences, and other connections between the couple of known terrorists and all the other conspirators.

"We would have known something was up," he said (and I paraphrase): "We would have known when they bought their tickets that we had a group of people linked to known terrorists buying passage on four airplanes on the same day at the same time. Arrests for questioning would have been forthcoming, and all the lives lost on 9/11 would have been saved."

Remember -- this is data that any business could have gathered, and that businesses routinely do gather. If the government had been this man's client, it could have authorized him to scan data patterns that follow, not "everybody," but patterns within the shifting mass of data. Individual people do not rise to the surface until and unless they become part of a suspicious pattern.

If somebody shows up through innocent coincidence, if the government simply followed existing rules, their individual rights would not be violated any more than our rights are violated by random road blocks to check for drunk drivers.

Just like the scans of international phone calls, nobody's "listening in," they're simply having computers (which do not care who anybody is, since they don't care about anything at all) scan the traffic patterns to find which calls are worth listening in on.

In the real world, computers cannot "understand" human speech, only humans can; and there aren't enough government employees to listen in on all our phone calls, unless half the population were assigned to spy on the other half.

In short, the premise of the movie (the mad computer) is stupid, the slander against the President is faked-up and specious, the danger warned about is nonexistent, and the real-world intelligence gathering methods that gave rise to this concern really do work, without violating privacy more businesses violate it all the time -- but our government is already forbidden to use these ordinary techniques in order to protect us.

Congress already blocked Admiral Poindexter from implementing these Las-Vegas-level scans several years ago.

So if the government already can't do any of the things that even resemble what this film warns again, why the warning?

Because it came out during the election campaign of 2008, and the filmmakers wanted to frighten people about the evil Republicans and other horrible monstrous people who actually think one job of government is to keep us safe from terrorist attacks.

The most vile lie in the whole film is the idea that terrorists only attack us in retaliation for the evil actions of our government..

Whatever grain of truth is in that idea comes from the CIA's stupid, bungled, illegal, and anti-democratic interference in Iran during the Cold War. Iran had a genuine grievance, though it hardly excuses their actions against civilization in the years since the Shah was toppled and our hostages were taken.

But what "provocation" did we make that led to Osama bin Laden's "retaliation" against our evil government? American troops actually entered Saudi territory in our preparation to liberate Kuwait in the Gulf War. We were nowhere near Mecca, which is on the other side of Arabia, but because the arbitrary boundaries of Saudi Arabia include Mecca, we were somehow "defiling holy ground" -- never mind that we were liberating one Arab Muslim country from a Hitlerian invader.

In other words, they hate us because we exist and because our civilization is a perpetual embarrassment for Muslims, since they cannot come close to matching the achievements of the once-Christian West. Our existence challenges the faith of the fanatics, and so they hate us, and the most evil fanatic among them feel entitled and bound to kill us.

Regardless of who is President. And when we don't "provoke" them by defending ourselves, they do far more outrageous and murderous things than when we do!

Everything about this piece of political propaganda called Eagle Eye shows either incredible ignorance or willful deception. It is an offense against anybody who understands the workings of history, government, or computers.

But it's sure a good thriller, with some terrific performances. So you can watch this movie, be vastly entertained, and get a dose of malicious stupid juice all at the same time. One-stop shopping, folks!

I've got a lot of DVDs I can stay home and watch. Maybe Hollywood can stop trying to preach their ignorant groupthink dogmas at us and start earning our entertainment dollars again. They certainly know how -- make good movies, and we'll be back in the theaters. The movie business did just fine during the Great Depression; it isn't tight money that empties the theaters.

*

You have got to see this British public service announcement. Go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ubNF9QNEQLA and watch it -- you can't just listen. When you're done, you'll watch it again. Maybe twice. I promise you.


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