Of Gods and Men

Of Gods and Men (Des Hommes et Des Dieux)

*1/2

 

What comes to your mind when you hear the word “monk?” Tibetan Buddhists? Vows of silence? Premium Belgian-style ale with a high alcohol content?

Actually, monasticism played an important role in our history. Western civilization would not be the dominant force on planet earth right now if not for the work of monks.

After the fall of Roman Empire, Western Europe took a giant step backward. Cities were abandoned. Culture dried up. Central planning was replaced by feudal chaos.

As civilization disintegrated, though, monasticism rose. Inspired by the strict but appealing Rule of St. Benedict, monasteries sprang up all over Europe.

Medieval monks didn’t just pray. They learned. They read. They copied books by hand. When Latin died, medieval monks made sure to keep the language alive and to save the great literature of antiquity for future generations.

Western European peasants were illiterate stone age brutes compared to the more cosmopolitan people of Byzantium and Persia. However, Christian monks were the intellectual equals of anyone in the world.

Monks made a convincing case for the supremacy of Roman Catholicism with their brilliant writings and holy actions.

When the West finally emerged from the Dark Ages and Europeans began to colonize the globe, intrepid monks were right there with the armies and conquistadores.

Monasteries showed conquered cultures that not all Europeans are violent soldiers. Monks impressed people with their decency, selflessness, and intelligence. Missionary monks converted countless millions to Christianity.

The history of monasticism is important. However, the day-to-day existence of the average monk is utterly mundane.

Monasticism is interesting. Monks are boring. Unfortunately, the French film “Of Gods and Men” is about monks.

It tells the true story of a small band of Trappist monks living in rural Algeria in the mid-1990s. The monks were well-liked by their Muslim neighbors and provided free medical attention for the sick.

When a civil war between religious extremists and the moderate government broke out, the monks were caught in the middle. They refused to take up arms or take sides, so they were distrusted by both factions and utterly helpless.

The monks knew they were in serious danger, but they chose to stay put. They continued their daily routine and their good works – stoically awaiting certain death.

“Of Gods and Men” is an absolute failure. Writer/director Xavier Beauvois has no respect for the viewer’s time or patience. There are dozens of tedious, repetitive scenes of the monks doing their chores. In silence.

The film also fails to adequately communicate what inspired these brave men to lay down their lives. Some of the monks speak of “sacrifice,” but it isn’t clear to me what cause they thought they were sacrificing for.

There is a lot of speech making, but not much in the way of thought-provoking philosophy. There is a lot of grim foreboding, but not much drama or suspense.

The influence and importance of monasticism in Western History is overlooked. The most acclaimed film about monks this year – “Of Gods and Men” – is overrated. And boring.

 

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moneyball

Moneyball

***

 

It was last Wednesday night at 12:15am.

I had woken my wife up by screaming and carrying on over the unbelievable events that had just unfolded. People often misuse the word “tragedy,” but the nightmarish end to the Boston Red Sox season can rightly be described as tragic.

As we both lay in bed – too hyped up to sleep – my wife asked me whether I should remove all mention of the Red Sox from my review this week so as not to upset Boston fans. I told her that I do not have the power to make Sox fans feel any worse than they already do.

That said: I am not a monster. I promise that I would never ever have written a column about baseball right now if not for the fact that “Moneyball” was released last weekend.

The odd coincidence is that “Moneyball” partially explains what happened to the Red Sox in 2011.

One would think that a poor ballclub with a small fan base like the Tampa Bay Rays could not possibly compete with a rich, storied franchise like the Boston Red Sox. Tampa is a small city and its ugly domed stadium is always half-empty. Boston’s Fenway Park is a national treasure and its seats are always filled with passionate paying patrons.

But all the money in the world doesn’t buy a great team. A lot of brains beats a lot of money. That’s Moneyball.

“Moneyball” begins as the 2001 baseball season ends. The Oakland Athletics were pretty good. But after getting knocked out of the playoffs, the team lost its two biggest stars to free agency. New York nabbed Jason Giambi and Boston bought Johnny Damon.

Oakland General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) recognized that he couldn’t possibly compete with the big market clubs for high-priced superstars. He needed to use a different method of evaluating talent.

Beane’s scouts and advisors were recommending players based on their pretty swings and high batting average. Beane ignored their advice. Instead, he teamed up with Peter Brand (Jonah Hill): an ivy league math nerd who calculated that on-base percentage is the true measure of a player’s value.

Beane and Brand recognized that scoring runs is the key to winning so you want players who reach base a lot. And contrary to conventional wisdom, a walk is as good as a hit.

Red Sox fans believe that signing left fielder Carl Crawford to a $143 million contract was a mistake. They’re right. Crawford hit .255 this year. That’s not so good. But the real problem, Billy Beane would argue, is that Crawford’s on-base percentage was just .289. An OBP of under .300 is unacceptable.

Contrast that with Robert “Bucky Dent” Andino of the Baltimore Orioles. He finished with a batting average of just about .260 as well. But Andino’s on-base percentage was a halfway decent .327.

Robert Andino put up comparable numbers to Carl Crawford, and he did it for $421,500. That’s no more than David Ortiz spends each year on fancy beard trimmers and Ring Dings.

“Moneyball” shows how Beane assembled a rag-tag group of unknown youngsters and forgotten veterans into an Oakland A’s squad that was both low budget and competitive.

In 2011, the Red Sox organization foolishly blew $16 million on John Lackey, $14 million on JD Drew, and $10 million on Daisuke Matsuzaka. $40,000,000 bought Boston a grand total of 15 wins and 4 home runs. Ouch. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Rays cleverly assembled an entire playoff-caliber roster for a little under $42 million.

Once again: a little bit of smart money beats a ton of dumb money.

The film “Moneyball” is okay, I guess. But the two hours I spent watching it weren’t nearly as compelling and dramatic as the five hours I spent watching actual Major League Baseball last Wednesday night. Not even close.

Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Road

***

There has been a lot of artistic energy spent trying to prove that the American suburbs are a terrible, stultifying place. The older I get, the less convincing that arguments sounds.

I don’t think the suburbs are bad at all, especially when you consider the alternative. Most people in human history worked back-breaking, truly dead-end jobs on subsistence farms.

A man had to worry about being killed by roving armies of ruffians or drafted into them. A woman was likely to be married off to a guy who did not know how to treat her with respect and had no legal or social obligation to try.

In contrast, my safe job and comfy house in the suburbs don’t seem so rough.

The ‘burbs sure seem pretty bad to Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet), though. They’re a young couple in 1950s New York who have every creature comfort and yet do nothing but fight and despair.

Kate Winslet does an amazing job of expressing the deep-seated unhappiness that comes from being a very smart woman who doesn’t have a clue of how to use her intelligence in a constructive manner. Instead of finding a creative hobby or a clever friend to toss ideas around with, April lets all the sophisticated thoughts swirl around her head and drive her crazy.

You almost never see characters like her in the movies, but there are millions of people just like April: destined to be miserable because she is always yearning for the things that she could have rather than trying to appreciate the imperfect life that she does have.

Frank isn’t the intellectual equal of his wife, but he has a wiser attitude. He takes a subconscious turn halfway through the picture and begins to make an effort to accept his unexciting, mediocre existence rather than railing against it.

A problem I have with “Revolutionary Road” is that it seems to justify and even glorify discontentedness. At first it seems quite similar to director Sam Mendes’s wonderful 1999 film “American Beauty” – in that they both tell the story of middle class Americans who are not happy with their average lives.

However, the lead character in “American Beauty” – played memorably by Kevin Spacey – finds a way to change his habits and his values. By the end of the picture he has achieved happiness and inner peace.

In direct contrast, Mendes stacks the deck against poor April and Frank, dooming them to eternal misery. Mendes shows the Wheelers’ children as nothing but nameless burdens without personalities. We hardly ever see Frank or April interact with them, and they certainly never show any sign of love or affection.

Well, no wonder the couple feels so trapped! Raising children would be an unbearable sacrifice of freedom of energy if you didn’t love your kids. But of course almost every parent does. The fact that the Wheelers do not makes their predicament truly awful – and awfully unrealistic.

I appreciate a good drama more than the next guy, so I enjoyed “Revolutionary Road.” However, I don’t appreciate Hollywood big shots telling me that my humble little life is a sham that should be making me unhappy. Despite the great performance by Kate Winslet, it is hard to recommend this movie.

The Three Stooges

The Three Stooges

***

 

I didn’t go to see “The Three Stooges” because I thought it was the best movie that is currently playing in theaters. I saw it out of pure nostalgia.

One of my earliest vivid memories is waking up early, heading downstairs by myself, turning on the old Zenith, and watching Looney Toons & Friends on TBS.

More than any of the cartoons, I enjoyed the Three Stooges. I was so impressed and fascinated by the Stooges that I researched the history of the comedy team and learned everything I could about them. (I guess that is the kind of odd five year old boy who ends up writing an entertainment column when he grows up).

I learned that theaters used to show a few short-length comedies before screening the main attraction. The 15 minute Three Stooges short comedies became a staple of the American movie-going experience in the 1930s.

Moses Horowitz, Larry Feinberg, and Jerome (Curly) Horowitz – a trio of vaudeville-trained, second-generation immigrants from New York and Philadelphia – punched and slapped their way to superstardom.

The humor was lowbrow, but The Three Stooges were about more than just slapstick violence. The Stooges were Depression-era working stiffs. They were blue-collar, ethnic Americans who existed to bring dirt and chaos into the homes of the snotty upper class and tear them down to size.

In January, 1940 – two years before the US declared war on Germany – The Stooges attacked European Fascism in “You Natzi Spy!” The politically-charged satire featured Curly as a Hermann Goering-inspired henchman and Moe as a buffoonish, Hitler-esque dictator. You never saw Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse do that (and not just because Walt Disney wasn’t necessary rooting against the Nazis).

Unsurprisingly, The Three Stooges made an impression on enough people to inspire a 21st century Hollywood remake.

Also unsurprisingly, The Farrelly brothers’ (“Dumb and Dumber”) version of the Three Stooges strips away all of the social commentary and leaves nothing but wry wordplay and silly slapstick.

But that’s good enough. I enjoyed “The Three Stooges.” The family-friendly story of three naïve friends going off into the world to raise $830,000 to save their orphanage kept me entertained and kept me laughing.

Kids will probably be in stitches when the Stooges break into a maternity ward and use the male babies as weapons in a squirt-gun fight.

I was laughing out loud when Moe joined the cast of “The Jersey Shore” and beat up on The Situation and Snooki. But I’m certainly not going to argue that “The Three Stooges” is a sophisticated film for grown ups. It isn’t.

Still, there is something timeless and magical about a sudden eye-gouge and a well-timed slap in the face. I’m pretty sure that children – especially male children – are going to like “The Three Stooges.”

Meanwhile, mature adults – especially female adults – should avoid this movie like the plague. But you already knew that.

 

Food, Inc

Food, Inc.

***

 

From the time that Europeans first arrived, North America has always been a land of plenty.

The fear of famine was a scourge of the Old World, not the New. North America has an enormous amount of arable land compared to its relatively sparse population. And North America’s native staple crops – potatoes and corn – produce an impressive number of calories per acre compared to wheat and barley.

Because technology continues to improve even faster than its population grows, North America is now facing a strange new problem: extreme food excess.

It has become easy and inexpensive to obtain enough food to sustain oneself, and most Americans consume far more than we need to survive. While our Old World ancestors worried about famine and blight, we are faced with an epidemic of obesity and diabetes.

How did this happen? How did food become so abundant, and why are the unhealthiest foods the cheapest? The documentary film “Food, Inc.” does a pretty good job of answering these questions.

Partly because the Federal government subsidizes corn farmers, the United States produces an incredible abundance. Indeed, we have been inspired to devise amazing new ways to use all that maize.

Corn bi-products like corn syrup are found in most of the bottled and packaged foods we find in the supermarket. Good news for everyone except those who are struggling to maintain a moderate, well-balanced diet.

There’s so much corn that we now feed it to cattle in lieu of grass. Now cattle are cheaper and more abundant than ever. Good news for people who enjoy a tasty burger at an affordable price. Bad news for folks who concern themselves with the welfare of domesticated animals.

Director Robert Kenner also argues – unconvincingly – that feeding corn to cows has increased the risk of food-born illness. I’ve seen a lot of people eat a lot of beef, and I’ve never known anyone who has contracted e. coli.

Kenner blames corporations like Tyson and McDonalds for destroying family farms and replacing them with gigantic, homogenized murder factories, where animals and workers alike are treated like cheap commodities to be exploited.

I agree that the way we treat animals is ghastly, disgusting, and a mark of shame on our entire civilization.

However, I am not so quick to place the blame on multi-national corporations (i.e., The Bogeyman) like Kenner does. Giving the people what they want at a low price doesn’t seem all that evil to me. As long as Americans continue to demand mountains of chicken corpses, somebody will be there to provide them. Tyson just happens to be the company that does it most efficiently.

I certainly don’t agree with every argument that “Food, Inc.” makes. But it did make me think about a very important topic, and that is more than I can say for most movies.

Horrible Bosses

Horrible Bosses

***1/2

 

Without much hype and without A-list star power, “Horrible Bosses” is a

hit.

Moviegoers are drawn in by the simple, intriguing premise: three average working men decide to kill their bosses. To some extent, we can all relate. Everyone has had a bad boss at some point or another.

“Horrible Bosses” is not a realistic “Office Space”-esque satire, however. You’ve had some sub-par managers, but none who are THIS bad:

Dale (Charlie Day) has a boss (Jennifer Aniston) who won’t stop hitting on him at work. She makes it clear that she will continue to make her sexual advances creepier and more menacing until Dale gives in and cheats on his fiancé.

Nick (Jason Bateman) has a boss (Kevin Spacey) who promised him a promotion but instead found a way to blackmail him into slaving as his underling forever.

Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) HAD a good boss, but he died suddenly left the business to his awful son (Colin Farrell).

On his first day in charge, Colin Farrell’s character calls Kurt into his office and announces that his first order of business is to “trim the fat.” “What does that even mean?” Kurt asks. “It means you go and fire all of the fat people in the company.”

On one hand, the bosses are cartoonishly ridiculous. They aren’t bad managers; they are diabolical lunatics.

We can’t really be expected to believe that a woman who looks like Jennifer Aniston is going to concoct an elaborate scheme to entrap a guy into having sex with her. Particularly a guy who is 10 years younger than her, six inches shorter, and makes less money.

On the other hand, the bosses are so irredeemable that it helps the audience completely side with Nick, Kurt, and Dale. We want those bosses dead, too, and we want the guys to get away with it.

Unlike most comedies, “Horrible Bosses” gets more inventive and more surprising as it goes. The last half hour is suspenseful, engrossing, and fun.

I did not predict the ending and I never predicted that I’d end up liking the lead characters so much.

Saturday Night Live’s Jason Sudeikis has won me over. He puts an interesting and subtle 21st Century twist on the old macho ladies-man cliché.

I don’t think everyone in America knows who Charlie Day is yet, but they should.

Day (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) has a unique talent for acting frazzled and frantic, while still remaining sweet and lovable. He does hilariously foolish and self-destructive things, but he never seems like a stupid clown. We always end up relating to him and rooting for him.

With a great cast and a consistently entertaining story, “Horrible Bosses” is easily the best mainstream comedy I’ve seen this year.

Ides of March

The Ides of March

****

 

I do not like politics one bit. And I like this movie about politics quite a lot.

If your child dreams of running for president some day, I recommend that you make him or her watch “The Ides of March.” That is unless you actually want your child to become President of the United States! You don’t, do you?

I was watching Texas clinch its second straight American League championship last week and I saw George W. Bush sitting next to Rangers executive Nolan Ryan. Bush looked optimistic and relaxed; he was enjoying the simple pleasure of seeing his team win a big game.

It made me think about how sad it is for W that he let people convince him to run for office. His life would have been calmer, more satisfying, and happier – infinitely happier – if he had stuck with his job as owner of the Texas Rangers instead of entering politics.

“The Ides of March” tells the relentlessly bleak tale of Democratic presidential contender Mike Morris (George Clooney) and his hotshot young campaign advisor (played by Ryan Gosling).

It is just days before the hugely important Ohio primary. The Morris team knows that a win in Ohio will shore up the nomination, and they are willing to do just about anything to ensure victory. A shocking amount of deception and double-dealing ensues.

“The Ides of March” is amazingly good. I think that one of the reasons why it is underperforming at the box office is that the poster is a boring image of half of Clooney’s head next to half of Gosling’s head. What does that even mean?

I have a better idea. The movie poster should be George Clooney in a toga, laying on the floor of the Roman Senate, bleeding to death. Ryan Gosling is standing over the fallen leader, clutching a dripping dagger. Clooney looks up at his treacherous friend in anguish, as if to say: “Et tu, pretty boy?”

I hope more people see this movie and begin to appreciate how impressive George Clooney is as a director.

Clooney is the new Clint Eastwood. Like Eastwood, Clooney is a mediocre actor – with a lot of charisma but not much talent or range. But like Eastwood, when Clooney gets behind the camera he’s magic.

Clooney paints a vivid picture of the political world as a gigantic pool of mud.

It doesn’t matter how you clean and innocent you are. If you jump in to politics, you will become irredeemably dirty. Or you will drown.

“The Ides of March” is the first great film of the Oscar season. It is substantive, entertaining, and uncompromising. Bravo.

Hip Hop is Great

Hip Hop is Great

 

Every February, Black History month is summarily ignored. That’s because it focuses on old achievements like George Washington Carver’s quest to promote sensible, efficient crops like sweet potatoes and peanuts.

While Carver’s work as an agriculturalist is actually really important and quite interesting to me, it is easy to see why it is considered boring and irrelevant to young people today.

We as intelligent Americans need to move past political correctness and the idle fantasy of a color-blind society. We need to embrace the greatest achievement that the black community has made to our culture: hip hop music.

Hip hop is a unique and fascinating art form. It has quickly risen from the fringes of the urban music scene to grab a strangle hold on the Billboard charts. Like it or not, hip hop has captured the imagination of a generation of Americans.

Certainly music is a matter of taste. I argue that the repetitive percussion/synthesizer sound of hip hop makes for the catchiest pop songs and the most inspiring dance songs on the planet.

Others will argue that rap music is insufferable noise and will go back to listening to the guitar music they grew up with. Fair enough.

What is UNarguable is that hip hop artists are much better writers than rockers or country singers. The level of wordsmanship and the complexity of the rhyming in rap songs is a quantum leap ahead of what passes as songwriting in white music.

This is particularly impressive considering rockers have the advantage of having the freedom to write songs about whatever they please. Anything goes in rock music: you can write about women and wine, witchcraft and walruses – whatever comes to mind. Or a rocker can simply let his or her lousy lyrics get drowned out by the music.

Rappers do not have that freedom. Their words are front and center on every song, and there are only a handful of topics they can write about. Pretty much all rap songs are about:

Boasting about how much money you have and the ostentatious things you spend your money on.

Boasting about how tough you are and how adept you are at defeating your enemies with your fists and/or firearms.

Boasting about how many women you attract and how successful you are at pleasing them.

Boasting about what a great wordsmith you are, often by specifically comparing yourself favorably to other rappers.

 

Even with the severe artistic limitations imposed on them, rappers routinely manage to come up with amazingly eloquent, sophisticated, witty, meaningful lyrics.

And it isn’t just the critically acclaimed, willfully artistic rappers like Nas and Kid Cudi who write great songs. A completely unpretentious guy like Ludacris writes consistently clever, smart, fun-loving hip hop hits.

The pop-rapper Flo Rida clearly has spent more time in the weight room than English class; yet he manages to come up with rhymes that are so catchy and deceptively complex that they make Mick Jagger and Don Henley look like slow-witted hacks.

I am not ashamed to say I have actually learned a lot about the world from rap songs. Due to the frank misogyny of hip hop, I have learned much about the sometimes ugly reality of male/female relationships.

I learned more about the challenging experience of being a black male from DMX’s evocative “Who We Be” than from twenty years of liberal schooling.

Enimen’s brilliant anti-Iraq war tirade “Square Dance” is more convincing than every bombastic Green Day protest song combined.

I understand that hip hop is an acquired taste and will never be appreciated by everyone. However, everyone needs to accept the fact that hip hop is a vibrant, intelligent, all-American art form. And it is here to stay.