Commentary From the Mile High City

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Joshua Sharf

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June 11, 2007

The Sopranos

The meaning of a story is in its ending. That's why we don't like the deus ex machina, since it violates everything about the story up until that poiint. It's a cheap way out.

The failure to provide an ending may be a gimmick that works once, as in "The Lady and the Tiger." But for the creators of a years-long series - which took a year off to go find itself, remember - to fail to provide an ending, is artistically a similar act of cowardice.

October 15, 2006

One Night With The King

The story of Purim, the biblical Book of Esther, would make a terrific movie. Hopefully, One Night With the King hasn't ruined its chances. This is what happens when you start letting goyim make movies. (That's a joke people.) The producers of the film are religious Christians, whose hearts are clearly in the right place, but who could have used a little more research before committing this thing to film.

Hollywood of the 1950s and 1960s produced tremendous biblical epics, based on Hebrew Bible and the Christian one, set in the First Temple period and the Second Temple era. I'm willing to give a wide degree of artistic latitude to filmmakers who take on this material. I'm even willing to allow for screenplays that do some violence to subtleties in the Rabbinic backstory (known as MID-rash).But in this case, the decisions to do so were completely unnecessary, and more inquisitive minds, who go back and actually read the story, may end up believing that the filmmakers' innovations are part of that tradition.

To be sure, they did get a couple of details right. Ahashverosh is a fool, easily manipulated by advisors. The Jews, by and large, did not return to Israel after Cyrus the Great permitted them to, and the existential threat is interpreted in part by the Rabbis as punishment for this assimilation. But these details are lost in the reworking.

The main motivation for the action is Xerxes's impending invasion of Iraq, er, Greece, to avenge his father's death four years earlier, and to prove his manliness to the court. Vashti, who in Esther refuses to attend the King's banquet out of her regard for her own royal dignity, is now set up as an anti-war protester. Esther - rightly called Hadassah - has some sort of magic jewel that acts as a kind of planetarium projector under the right light.

The Midrash tags Ahasverosh as being insecure because he's a usurper, having married Vashti, Nebuchadnezzar's granddaughter, to secure his right to the throne. What, marriages of political convenience aren't enough? And if you're going to make a story out of a book who main point is that God can act through seemingly natural events, having a tailor-made-for-marketing magic crystal act as the witness for Esther's Judaism undermines the whole enterprise.

In the Midrash, Haman has spent time among the Jews, and hates them anyway. Here, he's just sort of anti-Semitic from the get-go and from afar, murdering Esther's parents (another complete invention). How much more texture would the real Haman have had.

The Midrash provides more than enough material for a great movie of palace intrigue, romance, and politics on an epic scale. The changes replace the sublime with the ridiculous. Esther's bold venture into the King's presence, and Mordechai's moving speech that prompts it, are robbed of almost all their considerable inherent dramatic value by this setup act.

I'm even willing to cut the evangelical filmmakers a little slack when it comes to Christological interpretation, even though the older generation usually played it straight with Samson and Delilah, and David and Bathsheba. But the whole Greek-invasion-Jewish-sympathizer stuff acts as a Trojan horse, so to speak, for their ideas. Haman wages his campaign against the Jews on the notion that they're forming a fifth column for the Greeks. He also claims that the Jews talk of a redeemer, a "King of Kings" who will level all men.

The implication is clearly that the Jews are being persecuted for their correct beliefs. But Christianity stands on Jerusalem and Athens, and the Jews refer to God, never the Messiah, as the "King of Kings." In any event, the concept of the Messiah does not appear to have been developed anywhere near that fully by 500 BCE. It's possible, of course, that they don't even realize what they're doing, that they think they're doing Jews a favor by showing how Judaism shares democracy's core idea that "all men are created equal."

They get their western history wrong, too, claiming that the Persians "permitted" the Greeks to retain their hate democracy after a military defeat. In fact, the Greeks defeated the Persians in defense of their civilization.

The romance portion is just silly as presented. They could have at least had the King come up to Esther at a masquerade ball and ask her if she knows where he could find, or even if she were, this Esther that he's heard about. Instead we get "The Bachelor in Shushan," with the Master of the Harem acting as Master of Ceremonies. I'm sure Chris Harrison is delighted to be played as a eunuch.

Even some of the attempts at Jewish authenticity are laughable. In a scene from the book, Haman confronts Mordechai when he refuses to bow down, knocking him down with his scepter. The Jewish hand extended to help Mordechai up is clearly wearing a red string around the wrist.

The casting director got it about half-right. John Rhys-Davies is natural and riveting as Mordechai. Omar Sharif turns in a workmanlike performance as Xerxes's general. Someone named Tiffany Dupont proves that you don't have to be Jewish to play Esther, although the role here isn't all that demanding. But Luke Goss is as wooden as his sword as Xerxes, and a number of the minor roles stick out like afterthoughts in a community theater production of Shakespeare.

The main redeeming feature of the film is that it looks fabulous. The rendition of the city of Shushan is jaw-dropping. The costumes are what is usually called, "sumptuous," and the military encampment is appropriately, er, Spartan.

For anyone who's interested in reading a coherent narrative of the Purim story, based on selected Midrashim and presented as a compelling story, I'd strongly recommend putting the price of the movie tickets towards Turnabout, based on the writings of Rabbi Meir Leibush. It's a great read, will probably take about as long to read as to sit through the film, and will be much more rewarding.

October 10, 2006

The Departed

Suitable for children.

Ahhhh, no. As your head stops runing like a bell from the soundtrack, the first thing you remember about The Departed is the prodigious amounts of tomato juice. There's a hell of a lot of blood in this film, which is so unlike Scorsese, and a couple of the shots are jaw-dropping, less for the violence that for the suddenness and for their plot implications.

The second thing is that about 2/3 of the dialogue consists of f-bombs, yet still manages to get off some good lines. At a command center during an attempt to trap Nicholson, there's, shall we say, a little inter-departmental rivalry. "Who are you?" "I'm the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy."

The last thing is that this is a terrific movie, with some fine performances, a premise that grabs you from the beginning, and pacing that never lets up.

The setup is deceptively simple: Jack Nicholson is a Boston mob boss who inserts Matt Damon as a mole into the State Police. The State Police insert Leonardo DiCaprio as a mole into Nicholson's organization. Both Damon and DiCaprio fall for the same police psychologist. So...who gets to whom first, and how many other people do they have to go through the get there?

Both Damon and DiCaprio are impressive. Damon's still the action-anti-hero, but the performance here is a little more subtle than in the Bourne films. DiCaprio is starting to grow on me as an actor. I liked him in Catch Me If You Can, and here, he's an appealing guy who wants to do the right thing, but whose life is coming apart under the strain of being undercover.

Nicholson will get raves for his performance, but he doesn't really deserve them. It's a solid job, but he's played the criminal-with-subcutaneous-currents-of-violence a couple of dozen times by now. He doesn't mail it in by any means, but it's also clear that the role's not much of a stretch for him. When he stands at the front of his guys, confronting the Chinese mob at a drop, wearing sunglasses in the middle of the night, you'd swear it was the Joker.

The only role that doesn't quite come off is the shrink. Vera Farmiga just doesn't carry off the mix of professional, vulnerable, confused, and suspicious that the role demands. She is all of those things, but the transitions aren't believable, and her character is hard to pin down as a coherent personality.

One small bonus is getting to hear Alec Baldwin praise the Patriot Act.

Make no mistake, this is a violent, violent film, unusual for noir, which relies on the threat of violence to ratchet up the tension. There are enough surprises to keep it interesting, but Scorsese never relies on coincidences. We see enough of both mob and police culture for them to be believable as well.

Enjoy, at your own peril.

June 13, 2006

Who Is Brad Galt?

Apparently, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie bonded during the making of Mr. & Mrs. Smith by reading each other passages from Atlas Shrugged. Now they want to make a movie out of it.

As for stars, book provides an ideal role for an actress in lead character Dagny Taggart, so it's not a stretch to assume Rand enthusiast Angelina Jolie's name has been brought up. Brad Pitt, also a fan, is rumored to be among the names suggested for lead male character John Galt.

To answer the other obvious questions:

While Rand was still alive, she had script approval, complicating the process. After the author's death in 1982, Ruddy continued his efforts and, in 1999, he inked a pactpact to produce "Atlas" as a miniseries for TNT. Ultimately, the deal faltered.

The less obvious questions point to a book that's hard to dramatize. Would you even center it around a railroad anymore? Does "motive power" still inspire the way that it did in 1957?

In an era of unsurpassed innovation, will people take the book's projections of universal decay seriously? Is the US even the most free economy in the world any more? And if not, why can't others take up the slack? After all, people will leave the theater having seen a world in ruin, and immediately hop into their ultra-safe cars, download the soundtrack into their iPods, use their phone-PDAs to get directions to the nearest pizza joint, and then check their email on the way there.

The Coloradoan in me want to keep oil shale the center of attention, but I suspect that the first thing to go will be the railroad. The slow drying up of the supply of copper wire just isn't going to rivet audiences to their seats. Transportation will be important; nothing can illustrate the problem like gas prices, but I'm sure they'll be tempted to make Dagny the head of a large biotech, trying to bring a bird-flu vaccine to market ahead of the epidemic. Hank Rearden doesn't make steel, but a GMO corn that the NGOs won't let anyone grow. Naturally, a by-product of the corn is a key ingredient in the vaccine.

And there's the problem. Big Things, like trains and steel and great giant buildings move the spirit viscerally in a way that a petri dish just can't. And the visual image of the country slowly, inevitably, literally grinding to a halt under the accumulated weight of well-meaning taxes, regulation, and redistribution is going to be terribly hard to compress into two hours. It's moviemaking on the scale of the great war epics, and the last one of those took three films and nine hours.

I have no idea if this can be done well, and it would be better not done at all than done poorly. I do think the country's ready for it now, in a way that would have been inconceivable in, say, 1973. It might help alleviate some of the current economic illiteracy. Released in 2008, it might just remind enough people of the actual cost of all that "free" stuff the Democrats will be offering. Assuming it's set in the future, a few numbers from early-21st-century Eurosclerosis might connect it to the real world. And the sheer number of entrepreneurs out there might assure it of a sympathetic audience.

I am heartened to see that Miss Rand has made fans with this kind of star power even in the Heart of Darkness, er, Hollywood. At least, if the main movers and shakers have the right motivation, there's a chance that they'll make the right compromises rather than the wrong ones.

April 4, 2006

Book Review - Animals In Translation

A review of Colorado's own Temple Grandin's Animals in Translation is here, and also available by extending this entry.

It's quite good, but a little difficult to review. It's basically applied evolutionary biology, applied in this case, to your dog. Or your dinner.

Continue reading "Book Review - Animals In Translation" »

March 17, 2006

Just Arrived

Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game is Wrong. I've been a Bill James fan for a long time, and this sort of thing never ceases to fascinate me. It'll be interesting to see how well it holds up against the baseball blogs.

February 14, 2006

Book Review - Analyzing Business Data With Excel

One more book review. This one, not so good. As always, you can read it below, or read it here.

Continue reading "Book Review - Analyzing Business Data With Excel" »

November 30, 2005

Book Review

Another book review is up, this one of Deals From Hell, wherein Robert Bruner turns his gimlet eye to the world of M&A.


Power, Faith, and Fantasy

Six Days of War

An Army of Davids

Learning to Read Midrash

Size Matters

Deals From Hell

A War Like No Other


A Civil War

Supreme Command

The (Mis)Behavior of Markets

The Wisdom of Crowds

Inventing Money

When Genius Failed

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Back in Action : An American Soldier's Story of Courage, Faith and Fortitude

How Would You Move Mt. Fuji?

Good to Great

Built to Last

Financial Fine Print

The Day the Universe Changed


The Multiple Identities of the Middle-East

The Case for Democracy

A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam

The Italians

Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory

Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures

Reading Levinas/Reading Talmud