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Monthly Archives: February 2012

A Find for Ghost Movie Fans

February 29th, 2012 - 7:37 am

Once again, tirelessly searching through the piles of obscure, unwatched spooky films that litter the floor of my elfin grot, Klavan on the Culture has unearthed a really good ghost story that you — going about your ordinary, humdrum, non-scary-movie-watching lives — might have missed.

If, like me, you enjoy pictures that deliver genuine spookiness instead of gore, shocks and startles, check out the terrific Spanish entry, The Baby’s Room.  If you get Netflix streaming, you can search it there and watch it directly. It comes up as part of a package called “Six Films to Keep You Awake.”

After a generally unnecessary and kind of standard prologue, the film delivers a really frightening premise and then develops it in a clever and original way. I hardly even want to tell you the idea for fear of spoiling it, but to be as vague as possible:  a young couple with a new baby move into a house and weird things start happening in the title location.

The picture has the good sense to remain a little bit fuzzy and mysterious with its explanations. As a result, it’s not all tied in a neat bow at the end and you may have some questions, but you’ll get the idea and it’s a scary one. It’s not a big picture — like The Ring or The Sixth Sense, say. Coming in at under an hour and a half, it’s more along the line of a large Twilight Zone episode. But it’s very satisfying and chilling and with its precise and subtle psychological insights, it sticks with you even after the last creep is crept.

One caveat, since it’s in Spanish with subtitles, you might sometimes miss some of the quicker, more subtle scares, so keep your eyes open.

If you like the spooky stuff but have no use for horror, this is a really good one to check out.

It’s Not You, Islam, It’s Us

February 27th, 2012 - 7:05 am

Whenever I find myself swelling with a pleasant sense of righteous indignation, I wonder what exactly I’m getting wrong.

Thus, for instance, when I hear that Afghans and other Muslims are rioting and murdering people — including American soldiers — because the American military burned some Korans at Bagram Airfield in Kabul, I try very hard not to harrumph and start spouting such banalities as: “Ungrateful savages and their benighted religion! Ought to be gunned down, the lot of them!” Sure, the Korans had already been defaced by detainees trying to send extremist messages. And yes, American officials from the president down to a guy cleaning latrines at FOB Kalagush have apologized profusely. But before we condemn the rioters, American flag burners and murderers out of hand, let’s be fair.

After all, it was not that long ago, that this very blog — from which I get most of my information — included a post paying homage to the Jews of ancient Palestine, who stood up to the Romans in defense of what, to the Romans, must have seemed a pretty intolerant and backward faith. I argued that it was this very Jewish intransigence, later refined by Jesus, that ultimately gave rise to our western conviction that the religious conscience of man is sacred and deserves protection from rulers of all stripes. (Unless it gets in the way of my scoring some free abortion pills, in which case forget I said anything.)

Now you may respond: “But the Jews of ancient Palestine never wanted to spread their religion to the world. Plus, they took their stand 2,000 years ago and Jews have learned a thing or two since then. In fact, Jews, singly and en masse, are now among the greatest contributors to the good of mankind the world has ever known, whereas the Muslims invented coffee and then called it a day.” To which I would say: “Shut up. Who let you onto my blog?” Because you have to admit that these Afghan riots really could be a scene right out of Josephus. An imperial power — the Romans/us — marches into a backward nation — Palestine/Afghanistan — insults their religion — Judaism/Islam — and sets off exactly the kind of behavior one would expect from the locals — the defense of religious freedom/chaos and murder.

What else do you expect? Pre-medieval people who believe they are called by God to reduce the rest of the world to their own state of misery are going to kill people when you insult them. That’s how they roll.

The problem isn’t them. It’s us.

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Consider the following:

In Denmark, author Lars Hedegaard was recently fined 5,000 kroner (roughly a thousand bucks), for pointing out that Islam seems to encourage rape. He was giving an interview in his own home at the time he made the remarks. Truth, under Danish law, is no defense.

In Iran, meanwhile, Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani was recently sentenced to death (roughly death) for converting from the religion of peace to a religion that actually believes in peace. Converting to Christianity is a capital offense in Iran, especially if there are aggravating circumstances, like you’re caught loving your neighbor or acting charitably.

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Turn off the TV when I say so.

I hereby provide my list of the Ten Hardest Movies to Turn Off Once You Start Watching Them. These may not be the best movies ever made — or they may be. But no matter where you come in on these films — no matter whether you intended to watch them or stumbled on them while lazily channel surfing — they grab you and won’t let you go. Or at least they grab me — which is more important, because I live here and you don’t.

Except for the first one — the most compulsively watchable film ever made — they’re not in any particular order. And any further suggestions will be welcomed and watched.

1. The Godfather

The black hole of movies. You’re turning the TV channels. You hit The Godfather. Two hours are gone. What the heck happened?

2. Heat

Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson reincarnated in the form of Al Pacino and Robert de Niro. Michael Mann directed and every actor in it went on to have a career, even a lot of the bit players. I have a copy of this in my small collection but I bury it under the floorboards with a magical sign scrawled on top of it to keep it from jumping up and stealing my life.

3. Ben Hur

Prime Chuck Heston in a story so big even the Son of God only gets a cameo. Recently I came in on the middle of this on Turner Classics while I was working out on the elliptical machine. I lost 35 pounds because I couldn’t stop watching. It was like that scene in movies where the hero gets locked in the sauna.

4. Gone With the Wind

Still the one. Not just unturnoffable, but probably the greatest movie of all time, too. People who say the greatest movie is Citizen Kane are just lying to sound smart. Also, Gone With the Wind is practically a school on how to deliver a strong female lead without turning her into a make-believe man. What a woman!

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So Long, Kid

February 22nd, 2012 - 11:02 am

Lou Requenia/A.P. Photo

My Wall Street Journal op-ed saluting baseball great Gary Carter now seems to be out from behind the paywall. I wish I had written it while he was still alive, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I’m not sure I would’ve done it even now, but one of my brothers browbeat me into it. Anyway, here’s the opening:

I never met baseball Hall of Famer Gary “Kid” Carter, but his death last week from brain cancer at age 57 moved me deeply. Some 25 years ago, his life and his style of play spoke to me and inspired me in a moment of terrible need. It was an example of what celebrity can do when it’s done well.

The second half of my life has been so bright with blessings that it’s difficult for me to think back to the 1980s, when I could see no end to my emotional pain. Personal demons left me blind to the gifts that God had showered on me so generously. I began to think my beautiful wife and baby daughter would be better off without me.

I can’t really say how serious I was when I began to contemplate suicide. But I remember one night, sitting alone in my room in darkness, smoking cigarette after cigarette as I considered the ways in which I might put an end to myself.

The radio was on, playing a Mets game. I’d been trying to listen before the dark thoughts took over. By the time the ninth inning came around, I wasn’t paying attention at all.

One sentence ran through my mind again and again: “I don’t know how I can live.”

As I write, you can read the whole thing here.  If they put it behind the wall again – buy the paper!

The Tyranny of Hip

February 20th, 2012 - 7:00 am

Desperately racing to catch up with the conservative sociologist Charles Murray whom they so despise, the leftist New York Times front-paged a story Saturday that basically bore out the central findings of Murray’s new book Coming Apart.

More than half of births to American women under 30 occur outside marriage. … The fastest growth in the last two decades has occurred among white women in their 20s. … One group still largely resists the trend: college graduates, who overwhelmingly marry before having children. That is turning family structure into a new class divide, with the economic and social rewards of marriage increasingly reserved for people with the most education.

The leftist Times adds:

The shift is affecting children’s lives. Researchers have consistently found that children born outside marriage face elevated risks of falling into poverty, failing in school or suffering emotional and behavioral problems.

In other words, educated people do better because they marry more. They’re also, according to Murray, more religious and industrious, which further improves their lives.

The leftist Times, of course — and many of Murray’s leftist reviewers — try to slant these findings to suggest poor people are somehow being made to suffer by society’s unfair privileging of the marriage state. We can soon expect to hear a good deal about how a more tolerant Europe does illegitimacy better. It is frustrating to know we will have to wait at least a decade before the Times and its leftist camp followers are proven — as they are always ultimately proven in these social matters — wrong yet again.

Those unwilling to wait that long can turn directly to Murray, who tends to go blithely about getting things right even as the left excoriates him. Murray understands that the debilitating shifts of poorer people away from marriage and religion are culturally induced and that the prescriptions to reverse them must be cultural as well. Among those fixes, as he said in a recent article in the paper of record (the Wall Street Journal):

The best thing that the new upper class can do… is to drop its condescending “non-judgmentalism.” Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn’t hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms. When it comes to marriage and the work ethic, the new upper class must start preaching what it practices.

This is so clearly true that the only real question is: why don’t they? If marriage and religion give smart people joy and improve their living standards, why don’t they spread the word?

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Movie Critics And Ghosts

February 17th, 2012 - 4:53 am

Recently I noticed that if I’m thinking of going to the movies, I no longer check movie reviews — I check reviews by non-critics at critical websites like Rotten Tomatoes and others. It’s not that the comments there deliver any particular insight into a film, but people generally know what they like and if I read enough of them I can pretty much tell if I’ll like it too.

Movie critics, on the other hand, do not seem to have the faintest idea what they’re talking about. Oh, they know if some small off-beat snooze-fest is “stunning” or “shocking” or “changes the face of movie-making forever” even though no one goes to it and it’s soon completely forgotten. But they have no idea what a good movie looks like.

This seems to be especially true in the case of children’s movies and ghost stories.

When I was the father of little kids (before they passed a law against that), I would read movie reviews of kids’  movies and realize that most critics either didn’t have children or didn’t pay much attention to them. They would pan something because they didn’t like it without ever stopping to think:  ”Why should I like it? It’s for kids.”  The 5- to 8-year-old audience was clearly going to think it was great. Barring any egregious lapses, that made it a good kids’ movie.

The same problem seems to apply in one of my favorite genres — ghost stories.  I see for instance that a lot of critics gave very solid reviews to the third installment in the Paranormal Activity series. Which really was pretty bad. The critics could not tell the difference between the first PA — subtle, original and wildly frightening in the quietest possible way — the second one — a still-fairly-subtle and clever sandwich of a sequel that dealt with events both before and after the first film and thus explained away some of the openers’ storytelling lapses — and the third one — which resorted to all the crappy fake startle scares that the first two eschewed and had an idiotic plot out of one of the lesser Hammer films.

Likewise, when the Woman in Black came out a couple of weeks ago a lot of critics worried that it would be too subtle for teenagers enamored with blood and gore. Subtle? Just because people dress in Victorian clothing and speak with English accents doesn’t mean they’re subtle. The film is one screaming boo after another — and if teenagers are so in love with gore why did they show up for the first, almost utterly gore-less, Paranormal Activity?  Possibly these critics don’t know any teenagers, who, for different reasons, will show up for a cheap thrill or for quality storytelling, whichever happens to be on offer.

But the real problem is that critics seem mostly to be fuddy-duddies who look down their noses on excitement, thrills, chills and all the other things that make movies worthwhile. They don’t like spooky stories so they don’t trouble to educate themselves on what makes a good one.

Critics too good for the audience. It’s just one more reason the movies are on the ropes while TV and video games are thriving.


DVD: The Debt

February 15th, 2012 - 10:32 am


Maybe it’s just me, since this film got lots of good reviews, but I found The Debt to be a good half hour movie wrapped in a mediocre movie that went on for 104 minutes.

It’s billed as a Helen Mirren vehicle, but she’s really just in the frame story. The main tale stars the smashingly lovely Jessica Chastain as young Helen, along with Martin Csokas playing the young Ciaran Hinds and Sam Worthington playing the young Tom Wilkinson. Clearly, these characters became more talented actors as they got older! The only really great performance comes from Jesper Christensen who plays an evil Nazi so convincingly he better hope God knows he was only acting.

A remake of an Israeli hit I haven’t seen, the movie is the theoretically good story of three Mossad agents sent into East Berlin to bring a Nazi war criminal back to Israel for trial. When the kidnap goes awry, they get stuck in a house with their prisoner — a man of Satanic evil who can torment our heroes psychologically even with his hands tied behind his back.  That’s the good part of the story — an entertaining cat-and-mouse game with some interesting moral implications. But everything that happens before and after it manages to be both unbelievable and completely predictable. On top of which, the plot points make us care less and less about the characters as the story progresses.

Also — and for me most annoying of all — the morality of the story is skewed and ridiculous.  I don’t think any real Mossad agent would have had a moment’s hesitation about silencing this Nazi demon with a bullet — nor should he. This notion that Jews — and by extension westerners — are meant to be so fastidiously committed to civilized norms of justice that they can’t get their moral hands dirty in an emergency or war situation is the figment of child-like artistes more interested in displaying their own pristine virtue than telling real stories about real people. I’m reminded of Steven Spielberg’s stinky film Munich which shows Mossad agents suffering from remorse and moral degradation after they deliver vengeance for the Palestinian massacre of Israelis at the 1972 Olympics.  In real life, the agents who killed the killers felt no remorse whatsoever nor should they have. Sometimes our killers have to kill people.  That’s why we have them. Life’s tough. Our stories should celebrate their courage and commitment to justice instead of sticking them with the namby-pamby souls of pampered filmmakers.

Likewise, in The Debt, when Csokas puts a gun to the Nazi’s head, Worthington stops him saying, “We’re not animals.” It would have been both more realistic and more admirable if he’d just helped mop up the brains afterward.

Celebrate Black History Month: Slap a Leftist!

February 13th, 2012 - 7:05 am
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Of all the sins of leftism — its assault on our Constitution, its undermining of our inalienable rights, its hobbling of the economy — none is quite so wicked as its virtual enslavement of the black underclass. It was increases in welfare and the institutionalization of leftist attitudes that, beginning around 1964, brought a century of improvements in black life to a crashing halt. In this 2007 City Journal article, my brilliant friend Myron Magnet explained how it happened:

Though welfare was part of the answer, the real explanation was larger. It was cultural, not economic. Begun by the elites, vast changes reshaped mainstream attitudes in the 1960s. Sex became fine outside marriage, and illegitimacy lost its stigma. Drugs were cool; social authority and tradition weren’t. America was deemed a racist, unjust society that victimized and impoverished blacks, who could rarely better their condition and who therefore deserved generous welfare benefits as reparations for past and present oppression. If blacks committed crime, the system that drove them to it, out of poverty or as an act of protest, was at fault: we shouldn’t blame the victim, as the saying went—meaning the poor criminal, not his prey. Since people shape their actions according to the ideas and beliefs they hold, when these new attitudes reached the inner cities, what could result but an epidemic of social dysfunction?

This leftist witchcraft transformed the once-great gains of the Civil Rights movement into a virtually inescapable structure of government hand-outs and dependency, establishing the Democratic Party as masters of a new plantation with black front men like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton playing the role of go-betweens and overseers. Unlike the original forms of slavery which the Democratic Party defended and upheld for so long, this program of dependency introduced a new wrinkle: it enticed blacks into facilitating and supporting their own subjection. Over 90 percent of blacks vote for the party that has locked them in the slums of Detroit, New Orleans, and Chicago. Some 96 percent of blacks voted for Barack Obama, during whose presidency black unemployment and poverty have skyrocketed, especially among the young.

In order to prevent any liberating message of moral and economic self-sufficiency from reaching their captive black constituency, leftists have waged a scurrilous 50-year campaign to brand conservative whites racist. To do that, of course, the term had to be redefined. Racism once meant a belief that some races were inferior to others. It now refers to any misspoken word or gesture or slightly untoward attitude that might be used to silence a conservative or at least prevent dependent blacks from listening to him. Just watch the ugly, twisted, dishonest, and corrupt attempts by the network news media and others to paint the Tea Party movement as racist per se. Why do that to innocent Americans whose agenda has nothing to do with race at all? Because — if the Democrat Party’s economically enslaved black base ever listened to the Tea Party message, it might come to its senses, break its shackles, and head for freedom.

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The Woman in Black

I believe it was Big Hollywood’s John Nolte — the Hulk of the culture wars (lovable until angered) — who first pointed out that Hollywood could revitalize its failing self by learning some lessons from the National Football League. I mentioned his column in a blog here and recently taped a discussion on the topic with my PJTV pal Bill Whittle.

But while I acknowledge that everything Nolte says is true because otherwise he might turn into an enormous green giant and crush me, I also think there are certain ways in which Hollywood simply can’t compete with the NFL – and shouldn’t. Art is art and sports are sports, in other words. For me, this was driven home last week like a stake through a vampire’s heart when I compared the Super Bowl (LXVCDL whatever) with the movie The Woman in Black.

Careful students of this blog will know what a crazed fan of ghost stories I am and Woman in Black is one of my favorites. (I’m also a big fan of The Woman in White so clearly when it comes to women’s fashions, I’m easy to please.)  I first saw WIB as a two-handed play in London (one of the longest running plays in the West End, I believe). I was riveted and terrified. At the intermission, I stood up. The lady behind me had her foot on the back of my seat and when it folded up on her toes, she let out a loud scream. I was already so tense that they had to bring in a cherry picker to pry my head out of the ceiling plaster.

I wasn’t all that thrilled with the Susan Hill novel the play was based on, but I loved the 1989 Granada Television adaptation. The new film, however, starring Daniel Radcliffe, is just awful. All the subtlety gone, the characters uninteresting. One big startle after another with a prettified ending that was gag inducing. My guess — and it’s just a guess — is that none of this was the fault of the creative team, but that the various suits involved worried that modern audiences wouldn’t tolerate subtlety and tragic implications and so forced the movie makers’ hands. Again, just a guess, but that’s what it smelled like to me.

And here’s the thing — financially, the strategy was right:  it worked.  The film came in a close second at the weekend box office, earning around 20-million dollars, and got decent enough reviews (64% critical, 69% popular on Rotten Tomatoes). It seems to have been a hit – a single maybe, but a hit nonetheless.

The Super Bowl also worked — big time — scoring the biggest audience of any US telecast ever, garnering somewhere around 111 million viewers.

But here, once again, is the thing. The Super Bowl worked because it was good:  a thrilling back-and-forth rematch between the juggernaut Patriots and upstart Giants, and the conclusion to a season of delights and excitement.  The Woman in Black worked because it pandered to teens and had a good advertising campaign. The Super Bowl will be remembered by sports fans for a long time. The Woman in Black will be forgotten before I even finish writing…  what was I talking about?

And the truth is, all sports events that work work because they’re good and are also good because they work. Experts may say, oh, no one truly appreciated this great game or that, or such and such a player wasn’t fully recognized because he played in a small market instead of a big one, but basically every one knows a really great game or player when they see one and if they can see one, they will.

With art, it just ain’t so. If you had been alive during the greatest season of English poetry—alive with Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Keats, Shelley and Byron—even if you were a literate, intelligent person, you might only have been aware of Byron. Blake labored in utter obscurity, Keats died before anyone really knew he was there, Shelley pretty much likewise, Coleridge wasted a lot of time on opium, and Wordsworth lived through a lifetime of the worst reviews any great writer has ever had before getting a small portion of the love he deserved.

Some people will tell you that quality in art is all a matter of taste but they’re wrong. Shakespeare is better than Ian Fleming, whether audiences think so or not. And yet the recognition of greatness in art is capricious. Some great art is for intellectuals and goes over the head of the common man, some great art is for the common man and is dismissed by intellectuals out of snobbery, some great art is lost to view by chance or personal foibles (crazy Van Gogh only ever managed to sell one painting in his lifetime, kooky Kafka left most of his work unfinished and unpublished), and some great art comes out before its time and critics and audiences alike just simply don’t get it for years and years. Conversely, a lot of art that becomes hugely famous and well-reviewed just stinks. In fact, going back in history, many of the most famous and appreciated artists working in any given generation are terrible and soon justly forgotten. They managed to amuse the people or mesmerize the critics, but they weren’t really any good.

Leftism, political correctness, foreign markets and bad business are removing Hollywood movies from the mainstream of American culture they once dominated. Imitating the NFL’s respect for its audience would be a good place for movies to start to find a way back. But American movies were also once great art. And the journey back to that greatness is far more complicated than throwing a football.

Victory for Baby Jonah!

February 8th, 2012 - 7:25 am
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Never mind Santorum’s stunning upsets in the midwest.  Don’t even mind the Giants win at the Super Bowl. The real victory today that the Mainstream Media doesn’t want you to think about:  Baby Jonah’s triumph over all in the USA Today Super Bowl Ad Meter. Doubtless boosted by a flood of voters from this blog, the Doritos ad Sling Baby won the poll for most beloved Super Bowl commercial.  Justin Folk – the mastermind behind the visuals on PJTV’s Klavan on the Culture – worked on the ad’s SFX. He also worked on the star of the commercial, his son, Baby Jonah, who appeared as a reasonable facsimile of himself. Justin will share in a cash prize, and I’ll be hitting him up for a loan.

Pundits will be talking about the ramifications of this amazing victory for years, but one thing is certain. Klavan on the Culture voters have it within their gnarled and palsied hands to make the difference in any election anywhere any time. Let us then, with our hearts high and our eyes on the future, begin to collect as much money in political bribes as is humanly possible.  Why should Democrats have all the fun?