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Religulous (2008)

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Celebrate Character Day; George Lucas's Visual Symmetry; Understanding feminist criticism; Legacy of Muppeteer Steve Whitmire; Sarah Silverman on P.C. culture backlash.


Thumbnails 10/13/14

David Lynch's Los Angeles; Islamophobia on cable news; Interview with U2; Journalism startup Latterly; Why social impact is more important than ever for documentaries.


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The tortured history of Entertainment Weekly; Francis Coppola predicts the future of cinema again; the hypocrisy of Hollywood when it comes to abortion; Stanley Kubrick's boxes.

Far Flungers

Is Bill Maher a performer, a preacher, or a pimp?

On Netflix and Amazon Instant.

Considering that we normally think of documentaries as some sort of academic discourse at the fringes of popular cinema, this relatively new genre of Celebrity-driven docs is something peculiar. That we now watch documentaries starring Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, and Bill Maher is something inevitable, I suppose. We already have that tradition of following on-screen directors as characters in their features, including Kevin Smith, Spike Lee, and Woody Allen. But, the point here is that we watch some documentaries because of their host celebrities, more than the topic, even though the topics seem to be extensions of those same celebrities.

I suspect few people outside of his fan base will watch this movie: in Larry Charles' documentary "Religulous," (2008) popular Television talk show host Bill Maher is a playful microphone-toting cynic, roaming the landscapes of Christianity, with a few references to Judaism, Islam, and Scientology. The film is very strong and vastly entertaining in finding absurdities in absurd places, but fizzles when it attempts any serious commentary.

May contain spoilers


Slutgate: Limbaugh backs wallet-based free speech

Rush Limbaugh's so-called "slutgate" brouhaha reminds me of a scene in Kenneth Lonergan's great film "Margaret." After a heated classroom argument about 9/11, a student says: "I think this whole class should apologize to Angie because all she did was express her opinion about what her relatives in Syria think about the fact that we bombed the shit out of a practically medieval culture... and everybody started screaming at her like she was defending the Ku Klux Klan!" Whereupon, one of the teachers says that jumping down someone's throat when you disagree with them is "censorship." Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) goes ballistic: "This class is not the government!"

Lisa's point is significant -- and it's one of the movie's many sharp insights into how Americans argue. We have a hard time separating our personal feelings from the legal system, a conflict that's goes to the core of Lisa's moral dilemma. (And for some reason we think it's a rational defense to say that someone else did something just as bad but didn't get punished for it as much.) The classroom of teenagers, reacting spontaneously and having a free discussion (even if it became raucous and uncivil) was not an attempt to prevent, modify or control the expression of Angie's ideas, but an attempt (by some, at least) to refute them. And while censorship isn't limited to government, church, commercial or social repression, the phrase "freedom of speech" (as outlined in the First Amendment) applies to government restrictions on what "the people" can say.

Roger Ebert

A campaign film in search of a campaign

"The Undefeated" is a documentary about Sarah Palin made by and for the faithful, who may experience it in the way believers sit through a rather boring church service. At nearly two hours, it's a campaign advertisement in search of a campaign.

But that's not surprising. What astonished me is that the primary targets in the film are conservative Republicans. Yes, there are the usual vague references to liberals and elitists (although I heard the word "Democrat" only twice). But the film's favorite bad guys seem to be in the GOP establishment. This seems odd, considering that the target audience is presumably Republicans.


Bill Maher almost nails it

"Now, getting over 200,000 people to come to a liberal rally is a great achievement, and gave me hope. And what I really loved about it was that it was twice the size of the Glenn Beck crowd on the Mall in August. Although it weighed the same." -- Bill Maher, "Real Time," 11/06/10

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear was all about tone. As Stewart said in his speech, "I can't control what people think this was. I can only tell you my intentions." And that boiled down to this: "We can have animus and not be enemies." Stewart and Colbert are masters of tone, and I have often argued that Bill Maher is not only tone deaf in his delivery (some find it funny; I find it sanctimonious and condescending), but too often plays fast and loose with facts and logic. And yet, he provided an important perspective about false equivalencies in his remarks about the rally on "Real Time" this week, which he summarized like this:

With all due respect to my friends Jon and Stephen, it seems to me that if you truly wanted to come down on the side of restoring sanity and reason, you'd side with the sane and the reasonable, and not try to pretend that the insanity is equally distributed in both parties.

Keith Olbermann is right, when he says he's not the equivalent of Glenn Beck. One reports facts, the other one is very close to playing with his poop.


Maher vs. Mohammed

Here's what Bill Maher said on his HBO show last Friday night:

MAHER: The most popular name in the United Kingdom, Great Britain -- this was in the news this week -- for babies this year was Mohammed. Am I a racist to feel alarmed by that? Because I am. And it's not because of the race, it's because of the religion. I don't have to apologize, do I, for not wanting the Western world to be taken over by Islam in 300 years?

MARGARET HOOVER: If you were with NPR you'd be fired.

MAHER: Right. That's so similar to Juan Williams, who said last week, 'I'm nervous --'

LAWRENCE O'DONNELL (MSNBC): No, it's worse. It's way worse than what Juan Williams said.¹


Bill Maher attempts to corroborate his theory that Americans are stupid by behaving like one

"If u get a swine flu shot ur an idiot." -- Bill Maher, Twitter, September 26, 2009

"This is not a liberal versus conservative issue. This is a science versus nonsense issue." -- Thomas H. Maugh II, Los Angeles Times health blogger

Bill Maher may as well believe in Creationism, for all he knows about science or religion. (See above.) The problem I've always had with him is that, no matter what position he may take up, his reasoning is likely to be manifestly unsound. Listen to him talk and most of the time you soon realize he doesn't know what he's talking about. It doesn't matter if you eventually "agree" with his stance because he's reached it for invalid reasons.

Take his latest anti-vaccine pronouncement, made to Bill Frist on Maher's HBO show: "I would never get a swine flu vaccine, or any vaccine. I don't trust the government, especially with my health." OK, fine. If Maher doesn't "believe" in vaccines, or the ability of the U.S. to provide a working one, he's free to pass and to keep himself quarantined if he gets sick so he doesn't infect anybody else. When he reaches Medicare qualification age (he's 53) he can choose not to take advantage of it or any other health insurance he doesn't believe in and pay cash for his hospitalizations and medical treatments. But telling people (like young people and pregnant women) who are at high risk from serious flu complications not to get vaccinated because he doesn't "believe" in vaccines or doesn't "trust the government"? That's sick.


Debate Based on Total Lack of Logic

"We have now sunk to a depth at which re-statement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men." -- George Orwell

The above headline excerpt is from an article at LiveScience, but this post (like my earlier one, "Maybe Bill Maher was right...") is not about health care or Obama or Nazis. It is about logic -- critical thinking -- and why our brains just aren't terribly good at it. All of our brains. Not just those inside the skulls of people who "disagree" with us. Because how often are we even able to locate the precise nature of the "disagreement"? Writer Jeanna Bryner reports that sociologists and psychologists are studying why humans are such irrational creatures:

The problem: People on both sides of the political aisle often work backward from a firm conclusion to find supporting facts, rather than letting evidence inform their views.


"Oh yeah? Well, I criticize you back!"

If critics have become irrelevant, it has little to do with how many people say they pay attention to them or how many movies get press screened before they open. No, I submit it's because so many people don't even know what criticism is. They think it means "saying something bad." Listen to the way they reason argue with one another. Watch the talking heads on TV. Listen to the little kids on the playground, or the couple in the bar having a marital spat. News reporting or blog commenting. It's all the same. Critical thinking is not a value prized by our culture.

"I criticize something!"

"I disagree! So, I criticize you back! You are a criticizer!"

Never mind specifics, subtleties, reasons -- they're superfluous. All that matters is point-of-view, pro- something or anti- something else. A "debate" is merely a series of unrelated expressions of agreement or disagreement -- usually expressed as disparaging characterizations of the other person. Republicans say this, Democrats say that, nothing else exists outside of their opinions. In this climate, that quotation from Daniel Dennett in the upper right column is indecipherable. See Monty Python's "Argument Clinic" sketch, where argument is hopelessly confused with abuse and contradiction.

So, say whatever you want about "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" or President Obama or Michael Jackson or Bill Maher (to cite a few recent topics hereabouts). What matters is only whether the remarks are critical (in which case you will be characterized as a naysayer) or approving (in which case you will be characterized as praisegiver). In either case, what you actually said will be considered trivial by many, if it is considered (or noticed) at all.


Beware of all jokes requiring punch lines

U.S. Senate apologizes for slavery and segregation: Bob Byrd breaks down on Senate floor. "Too soon. Too soon."

I think that's a funny joke. Normally, I find set-up/punch-line jokes the lowest form of humor (far below puns and slapstick in their paucity of imagination), and I regard them warily, not unlike the way Thoreau viewed "all enterprises that require new clothes." But I cracked up when I saw this tweet from Robert A. George. To find it funny, I guess you'd have to know that Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) is very, very old, and that he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan in his youth. But in the ad hominem '00s, many people would first look at the identity of the joke teller before deciding if it was humorous.

Robert A. George, eh? Wait a minute -- he's a conservative and a libertarian! He's black! He's a naturalized American citizen, born in Trinidad (and Tobago)! He's a Catholic! He's a blogger, a Twitterer, a Facebooker, a New York Post columnist, a stand-up comedian, a comic-book geek! Soooooo, of course he's going to make that joke about Bob Byrd, right?!?!


Bill Maher: Dumb jokes for the TV talk show set

"Remember during the campaign when John McCain attacked Obama for acting like a celebrity and we all laughed at the grumpy old shellshocked fool? Well, it turns out he was right. [...] It's getting to where you can't turn on your TV without seeing Obama."

What grumpy old shellshocked fool said that? It was comedian Bill Maher, whose approach to political satire is to talk about televised presidential photo ops as if they were interfering with, or substituting for, policy-making. I mean, the guy admits he thinks what he sees on TV is "news," and then he watches PR puff pieces about presidential puppies and romantic nights out on Broadway and thinks it's Obama who lacks substance? Turn off the boob tube, Bill, and read a newspaper or a web site -- or a blog. If you wanted to learn something about politics (and "topical humor") from TV, you should be watching Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, not Leno. But I warn you, it's going to make you feel as tired and ancient as your schtick. You may as well be telling jokes about airline food and Geritol. (Anybody remember Geritol? That's my point.)


Hecklers as critics, critics as hecklers and comics as critics

Psychologists say that depression is rage turned inward. Stand-up comedy, on the other hand, is rage turned back outward again. (I believe George Carlin had a routine about the use of violent metaphors directed at the audience in comedy: "Knock 'em dead!" "I killed!") In the documentary "Heckler" (now on Showtime and DVD) comedian Jamie Kennedy, as himself, plays both roles with ferocious intensity. The movie is his revenge fantasy against anyone who has ever heckled him on stage, or written a negative review... or, perhaps, slighted him in on the playground or at a party or over the phone or online.

"Heckler" (I accidentally called it "Harangue" just now) is an 80-minute howl of fury and anguish in which Kennedy and a host of other well-known and not-well-known showbiz people tell oft-told tales of triumphant comebacks and humiliating disasters, freely venting their spleens at those who have spoken unkindly of them. At first the bile is aimed at hecklers in club audiences (with some particularly nasty invective for loudmouthed drunken women), then it shifts to "critics" -- broadly defined as anybody who says something negative about a figure whose work appears before a paying public. Some of the critics are actually interested in analysis; some are just insult comics who are using the Internet as their open mic. It gets pretty ugly, but it's fascinating -- because the comics, the critics and the hecklers are so much alike that it's no wonder each finds the others so infuriating.

Movie Answer Man

Bond Reborn, 'Bourne' Style

Q. At least until the recent "Casino Royale," James Bond has always been rather silly as an action hero. He is essentially a hired killer for the British government. Daniel Craig is the first actor who truly looks and acts the part. And as any cinematic assassin-for-hire should be, Craig's Bond is an emotional train wreck. With "Casino Royale," we finally got away from the boring, two-dimensional Bonds of the past. We meet a vulnerable, interesting, lethal secret agent with real flaws and feelings. The latest movie continues that tradition. Jason Schofield, Peace River, AlbertaA. After 20 Bond films, the last thing I want is a new kind of Bond. Yes, Daniel Craig is ideal for the role. But Bond is a role. If we want someone vulnerable, interesting, lethal, with flaws and feelings, we go to a Le Carre movie.Q. In your review for "Quantum of Solace," you wrote what has to be one of the most incomprehensible statements of all time: "James Bond is not an action hero"! Are you kidding? What was he doing not just in this movie, but in the 21 that preceded it? Playing Scrabble? Surely you know that every action hero that has appeared since 1962 (including and especially Jason Bourne) owes their very existence to Bond? Bond isn't just an action hero, he's the one against which all others are measured. Nobody, as they say, does it better.Daniel Young, Bensalem, Pa.A. There must have been a word missing, as in "merely an action hero."Q. James Bond was indeed not intended to be an action hero. And was it just me, or did the "Quantum" roof-chase sequence in Italy rip off "The Bourne Ultimatum"? There was the same severely angled jump from a balcony, the sideways crash through a window of the adjacent building, and then the use of a book in the culminating fight scene. The similarity was so obvious that many in my audience chuckled. Could it have been a tongue-in-cheek homage? (Since when did James Bond need to show tribute to Jason Bourne?) As good as Craig was, the Quantum Bond looked distinctly uncomfortable in such an unnatural milieu. Thus all the brooding and seething. Jimmy Jacobs, Columbia, S.C.A. When you are chasing across rooftops, there is only a finite number of things you can do, apart from falling to your death, which I have never seen an action hero do.Q. I'm the entertainment editor of The Record/Herald-News and have been copy-reading your review of "Twilight." There seems to be a discrepancy about the vampire Edward's age. You say it's 114, another story says it's 118, and my math says it's 107.Marlaina Cockcroft, Hackensack, N.J.A. And you are ... correct. I rather like the answer of the prepubescent vampire in "Let the Right One In." Asked "Are you really my age?" she replies: "Yes. But I've been this age for a very long time."Q. My wife and I went to see "Rachel Getting Married." In my opinion, a fine movie was ruined by extensive use of the hand-held camera. At home, there is mercifully a pause button, which gives respite from the never-ending, herky-jerky, oh-God-I'm-starting-to-get-nauseous, will-someone-PLEASE-buy-the-cameraman-a-tripod feeling. I have two pieces of advice for anyone making a film who is thinking about using a hand-held camera in a scene: (1) Don't. (2) For advanced cinematographers only: Not Yet. Bob Felice, Cupertino, Calif.A. The Queasy Cam bothers me when its shots are cut into baffling montages in action scenes. As a device to enter us into a group interaction, it has been used since Cassavetes and even before. It all depends on how it's used.  I thought it was essential to enlist me into Rachel's wedding party.Q.Give a Stephen Colbert-style "Wag of the Finger" to Agatha Jadwiszczok. Her argument regarding the New York City/Chicago/Gotham issue was spirited, to be sure, but ruefully inaccurate. Her assertion that, "even if we give you Batman, we'd still have Spider-Man, Superman, the Hulk, several X-Men and the Fantastic Four" is just plain wrong. Superman patrols someplace called "Metropolis" and the "Hulk" has no central base of operation, unless she's mistakenly referring to the latest movie in which the climactic battle takes place on Yonge Street in Toronto.Corey Stewart, Mississauga, OntarioA. For that matter, the X-Men have battled in outer space, near Madagascar, near Singapore, off the coast of Scotland, Antarctica and, briefly, in the East Village, which was too weird for them.Q. I came to your site for a review of "Religulous," which I have already seen once and thoroughly enjoyed. Thus, I agree with your rating. What I find appalling is your cop-out vis-a-vis Maher's religious criticism presented in the movie. It appears as if you are terrified of the backlash from believers and cannot bring yourself to really review the movie. I would encourage you to take courage and provide a more thorough review.Andrew Freeman, ChicagoA. I guess this didn't cut it for you: "The movie is about organized religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, TV evangelism and even Scientology, with detours into pagan cults and ancient Egypt. Bill Maher, host, writer and debater, believes they are all crazy. He fears they could lead us prayerfully into mutual nuclear doom. He doesn't get around to Hinduism or Buddhism, but he probably doesn't approve of them, either."Q. Why would you torture me by reviewing a documentary that can't yet be seen? "Song Sung Blue" is so right up my alley, so much grist for my mill, so much my bailiwick -- and you say I can't see it. I guess I should thank you for informing me of the film's existence, but I'm not gonna.


An American Carol: Anybody seen it?

"All the really good suicide bombers are gone," laments a trio of bumbling Afghan terrorists early on in "An American Carol," and that's about the high-water mark for humor in this jaw-droppingly awful political comedy from veteran spoofer David Zucker.

-- Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer

After "An American Carol" opened in some cities last week, received a few insinuating inquiries from readers asking why we did not publish a review of the film , a biographical musical celebration of the beloved wide-mouthed Broadway star of "Hello, Dolly!". The comedy, directed and co-written by David Zucker ("Airplane!"), is a conservative re-telling of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol, with a fat, unscrupulous, bespectacled, baseball-capped, America-hating documentarian named Michael Malone (played by the late Chris Farley's brother Kevin) as the Scrooge figure. Our correspondents suggested that, because the movie's politics reportedly tilted to the right, perhaps the liberal falafel-loving media establishment was deliberately ignoring it. (Meanwhile, the conservative corporate media establishment was evidently off celebrating a lonely cinematic triumph in a quiet place.)

Oddly, we did not receive a single comment or e-mail asking why we did not carry a review of "Beverly Hills Chihuahua," the Number One Movie of last weekend, but the reasons are the same: neither "An American Carol" nor "BHC" were screened for critics. That is usually the studios' way of ensuring that reviews do not appear on opening day. If any critic-type person still wants to cover it, he or she can simply buy a ticket to a show on Friday or Saturday and file a notice over the weekend.

RottenTomatoes lists 65 reviews for "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" (27 positive), 119 for "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" (85 positive), and 28 for "An American Carol" (4 positive), all of which opened the same day.

To help fill in the critical information gap, are some excerpts from the few higher-profile "American Carol" reviews I could find, some of which are kind of funny. The first one is from a review categorizes as "fresh":

Movie Answer Man

The Prince of Darkness casts light

Q. Why is it that the James Bond series went so far? It's not that they are particularly awful, though there have been some shockers. I just cannot imagine a scenario these days where 21 films of one series could be made. I, and everyone else, want more Jason Bourne, but another 18? How did it happen?


Why the Hell It's Funny Or Not, Part 2 or Possibly 3

Here is Borat ridiculing people who are not in on the joke so that you can feel socially superior, according to Christopher Hitchens and David Brooks.

British crank Christopher Hitchens has been writing about Borat's Kazakhstan for years, only he calls it "Iraq." Still, it's an imaginary place in Hitchens' brain, like Kazakhstan in Borat's or Nicole Kidman in David Thomson's.

I do not read Hitchens much at all anymore because he's stuck in 2002 and can't get out. But Hitchens has a perspective on "Borat" that's worth mentioning. First, he quotes a dim-witted passage from a review in "London's leftist weekly," the New Statesman, in which the writer professes that "it's shocking to witness the tacit acceptance with which Borat's ghoulish requests are greeted. Trying to find the ideal car for mowing down gypsies, or seeking the best gun for killing Jews, he encounters only compliance among America's salespeople."

To which Hitchens replies: Oh, come on. Among the "cultural learnings of America for make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan" is the discovery that Americans are almost pedantic in their hospitality and politesse. At a formal dinner in Birmingham, Ala., the guests discuss Borat while he's out of the room—filling a bag with ordure in order to bring it back to the table, as it happens—and agree what a nice young American he might make. And this is after he has called one guest a retard and grossly insulted the wife of another (and remember, it's "Americana" that is "crass"). The tony hostess even takes him and his bag of s__t upstairs and demonstrates the uses not just of the water closet but also of the toilet paper. The arrival of a mountainous black hooker does admittedly put an end to the evening, but if a swarthy stranger had pulled any of the foregoing at a liberal dinner party in England, I wouldn't give much for his chances....

Is it too literal-minded to point out what any viewer of the movie can see for himself—that the crowd at the rodeo stops cheering quite fast when it realizes that something is amiss; that the car salesman is extremely patient about everything from demands for p___y magnets to confessions of bankruptcy; and that the man in the gun shop won't sell the Kazakh a weapon? This is "compliance"? I have to say, I didn't like the look of the elderly couple running the Confederate-memorabilia store, but considering that Borat smashes hundreds of dollars worth of their stock, they bear up pretty well—icily correct even when declining to be paid with locks of pubic hair. The only people who are flat-out rude and patronizing to our curious foreigner are the stone-faced liberal Amazons of the Veteran Feminists of America—surely natural readers of the New Statesman. I'll stop there for now. Hitchens' point is that "Borat" is something of a comedy of manners, and that what many are seeing as "shocking compliance" is simply politeness and an aversion to confrontation (particularly when there's a camera staring at you). On this isolated point, I think Hitchens is generally correct and the heinous, America-hating leftist is generally wrong. But I wonder if Hitchens (or the other guy) can see that one accurate observation does not make all others invalid. Hitchens' mistake -- a fallacy he indulges endlessly in his writing -- is in thinking the one thing he deigns to mention is all that's going on.