Saturday, December 31, 2005

Taking Stock of 2005...

And so, 2005 comes to a close, capped off by the Graham Amendment (for the final version, see pages 341-44 of this PDF), the McCain Amendment (see page 340 of the same PDF), Snoopgate, and Snoopgategate.

Last night, some friends of mine and I were discussing over dinner two widely disparate questions: What was the best movie of 2005, and what was the most important legal development of 2005? (This is the problem with hanging out with friends who are lawyers -- we lose all sense of perspective.)

Anyway, I have to confess that I was hard-pressed to answer either question. Whether or not it's been a down year for movies, those movies that have succeeded have generally been rather dark (e.g., Syriana, Revenge of the Sith, Harry Potter). Even Charlie & the Chocolate Factory was a darker version of the Gene Wilder original.

The parallels between Hollywood and the year of legal developments were, at least to us, striking. Kelo and the Ten Commandment cases [Van Orden and McCreary County] notwithstanding, this was not the same kind of show-stopping year in the Supreme Court as 2004 was... Maybe the nominations of Chief Justice Roberts and Judge Alito will prove to be the most lasting legal developments, but short of that, lots of wrangling over torture, spying, and secret prisons -- along with painful questions about governmental responsibility in emergencies -- have been the dominant legal stories of at least the second half of 2005. And I had to stop and think to remember what the dominant legal story of the first half was, although Terri Schiavo has to be the runaway favorite (with Booker and its accompanying mess a close second).

And so, with 2006 already in full force on the other side of the world, what was (1) the best movie of 2005; and (2) the most important legal development?

My votes, for what very little they're worth, are for Batman Begins (the movie) and, probably controversially, a pair of due process decisions by the Supreme Court that have flown at least somewhat beneath the radar -- Castle Rock v. Gonzales and Wilkinson v. Austin.

Plenty of other developments were far more newsworthy, and arguably more important to a narrower class of cases. But both Castle Rock and Austin exemplify two separate, but equally important points: In general, contemporary due process analysis tilts heavily in the government's favor, especially where law enforcement or prison conditions are concerned (as in these two cases); and it is only an increasing misnomer to cast Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer as the Court's "liberals." After all, Castle Rock was 7-2, and Austin was unanimous.

But, I'm equally sure that I'm in the minority in viewing Castle Rock and Austin as such important developments. So, let the disagreements begin!!

(And Happy New Year to one and all -- even Yankees fans).

Posted by Steve Vladeck on December 31, 2005 at 06:54 PM in Culture, Film, Steve Vladeck | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, December 30, 2005

Kevorkian biopic?

Bioethicist Wesley Smith writes, over at National Review Online, that a laudatory biopic is in the works about Jack "Dr. Death" Kevorkian.  In do doing, Smith reminds us why even those who support (and I do not) a legal or moral right to assisted suicide should regard Kevorkian as a ghoul.

Posted by Rick Garnett on December 30, 2005 at 12:30 AM in Film | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Ding the King

My osita had a friend who rented out a movie theatre last night for a holiday party so we went to watch the Peter Jackson remake of King Kong.  (This, btw, seems like a good way to host a party for the holidays--no drunks, no misplaced lampshades, and sno-caps for all!) 

I haven't seen the original, but I do have a few unlearned reactions.  First: don't bother. It's horribly long and terribly difficult to suspend disbelief for much of the movie.  Second, Jack Black was miscast.  He's best off playing a funny goof, not a dull though dedicated and deceitful movie producer.  At times, Naomi Watts looks indistinguishable from Nicole Kidman; no real complaints about her performance.  The real stars of the movie are the visual effects:  so King Kong plays in Jurassic Park, all the while performing a few Jackie Chan-like fight scenes with sharp-toothed dinosaurs, under the watchful eye of scary aboriginals.

Most disturbing to me were the lurking cultural semiotics of the film, canvassed in this piece by Joshua Bearman in LA Weekly.  Nice blonde and large hairy beast=primate porn? Althouse has some contrasting reactions. 

Posted by Administrators on December 21, 2005 at 02:02 PM in Film | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, December 12, 2005

The "Narnia" Wars?

We've been hearing about the "Christmas wars" . . . now here come the "Narnia wars."  Recently, in the Guardian, Polly Toynbee wrote ("Narnia represents everything that is most hateful about religion"):

Most British children will be utterly clueless about any message beyond the age-old mythic battle between good and evil. Most of the fairy story works as well as any Norse saga, pagan legend or modern fantasy, so only the minority who are familiar with Christian iconography will see Jesus in the lion. After all, 43% of people in Britain in a recent poll couldn't say what Easter celebrated. Among the young - apart from those in faith schools - that number must be considerably higher. Ask art galleries: they now have to write the story of every religious painting on the label as people no longer know what "agony in the garden", "deposition", "transfiguration" or "ascension" mean. This may be regrettable cultural ignorance, but it means Aslan will stay just a lion to most movie-goers.

Can it really be true that "43% of people in Britain . . . couldn't say what Easter celebrated"?  Or, am I off-base in being so surprised?  In any event, after re-capping the story of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Toynbee says (among other . . . bracing things):

Over the years, [many] have had uneasy doubts about the Narnian brand of Christianity. Christ should surely be no lion (let alone with the orotund voice of Liam Neeson). He was the lamb, representing the meek of the earth, weak, poor and refusing to fight. Philip Pullman - he of the marvellously secular trilogy His Dark Materials - has called Narnia "one of the most ugly, poisonous things I have ever read".

Hmm.  I wonder why Ms. Toynbee is so confident that Christ should "surely" be no lion.  (In any event -- and she might not know this -- there is "lamb" imagery in the third Narnia book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader).  By the way, there is (I think) a "law point" here:  As we see time and again, one challenge in enforcing a constitutional prohibition on "endorsements" or "establishments" of religion is identifying precisely what it is that certain symbols or symbolic acts mean, and to whom?  But back to Toynbee:

[H]ere in Narnia is the perfect Republican, muscular Christianity for America - that warped, distorted neo-fascist strain that thinks might is proof of right. . . .  The godly will reap earthly reward because God is on the side of the strong. This appears to be CS Lewis's view, too. In the battle at the end of the film, visually a great epic treat, the child crusaders are crowned kings and queens for no particular reason. Intellectually, the poor do not inherit Lewis's earth.

Does any of this matter? Not really. Most children will never notice. But adults who wince at the worst elements of Christian belief may need a sickbag handy for the most religiose scenes. The Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw gives the film five stars and says, "There is no need for anyone to get into a PC huff about its Christian allegory." Well, here's my huff.

Lewis said he hoped the book would soften-up religious reflexes and "make it easier for children to accept Christianity when they met it later in life". Holiness drenches the Chronicles. When, in the book, the children first hear someone say, mysteriously, "Aslan is on the move", he writes: "Now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don't understand but in the dream it feels as if it had enormous meaning ..." So Lewis weaves his dreams to invade children's minds with Christian iconography that is part fairytale wonder and joy - but heavily laden with guilt, blame, sacrifice and a suffering that is dark with emotional sadism.

Children are supposed to fall in love with the hypnotic Aslan, though he is not a character: he is pure, raw, awesome power. He is an emblem for everything an atheist objects to in religion. His divine presence is a way to avoid humans taking responsibility for everything here and now on earth, where no one is watching, no one is guiding, no one is judging and there is no other place yet to come. Without an Aslan, there is no one here but ourselves to suffer for our sins, no one to redeem us but ourselves: we are obliged to settle our own disputes and do what we can. We need no holy guide books, only a very human moral compass. Everyone needs ghosts, spirits, marvels and poetic imaginings, but we can do well without an Aslan.

I suppose it is always good to encounter and engage views that seem so alien (and, to me, mean-spirited).  I'm one of those who loved (and loves) the Narnia stories.  (And, I prefer -- I admit -- Aslan to the cheesy "Jesus as my baseball teammate" pictures that some kids had when I was growing up).  But, it is clear that I read very different books -- beautiful, evocative, mysterious, romantic, life-affirming, humanist books -- than did Ms. Toynbee.

For a different take, by the way, check out Michael Nelson's piece in The Chronicle Review ("For the Love of Narnia"), which responds to Pullman and other Narnia-critics.

Posted by Rick Garnett on December 12, 2005 at 10:50 AM in Film | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, December 05, 2005

Bohemia is Dead (i.e., What's Bothering Me About Rent)

Maybe I'm procrastinating from finishing my Civil Procedure exam, but I've been bothered all weekend by the movie version of Rent, which I saw late last week, but which it's taken me some time to digest (and to justify writing anything about it, especially here; thanks to the rest of the posts today for inspiring me to write about something not law-related).

Now, granted, any movie prominently featuring the Ninth Circuit's San Francisco courthouse as a backdrop (it's the big, white marble building in some of the background shots) can't be all bad.  [Note my tenuous law connection.] But as someone who first saw the play on Broadway as a teenage New Yorker in the fall of 1996, and who was just floored by its raw power, something's missing here.

Maybe it's the fairly obvious omission of a rather important plot line from the play -- that Roger's ex-girlfriend, April, "left a note saying we've got AIDS before slitting her wrists in the bathroom." (In the movie, we just know that she dies, and there's not even a hint about how.) Maybe it's the slightly less obvious omission of various bits of dialogue dealing with poverty, drug use, AIDS, and the very direct connection between the three, such as the omission of the "Christmas Bells" montage late in Act I. (Much less obvious until you aggregate the differences between the play and the movie, virtually all of which include some drug or AIDS-related dialogue.)

Maybe it's the differences highlighted by Jesse McKinley in the New York Times on November 25 (I'd link to it, but there's no pass-through) -- that the movie is frustrating to New Yorkers because there are so many obvious geographical and physical inconsistencies (e.g., the subway station in the middle of Tompkins Square Park), necessitated by changes in the City since 1990.

I searched fairly far and wide among newspapers and magazines for a reviewer who had some of my angst, as opposed to other angst about the movie, and found at least a somewhat decent candidate in Jorge Morales, writing in (surprise, surprise), the Village Voice. Here's his take:

Instead of bringing a universal love story to the living present, the film traps it in a frozen past like a prehistoric bug in amber, as removed from moviegoers' experience as a dusty diorama at the American Museum of Natural History. I was reminded of the unhip hippies in Milos Forman's Hair, released 12 long years after the Summer of Love, at the height of the disco era. Rent is about as timely now as Gigi.

But my problem with Rent isn't really what I take to be Morales's: that it's anachronistic in a way that it only barely was in the mid-1990s (based on a New York circa 1989/1990 that, even by 1995, no longer was). Because, the difference in emphasis on poverty, AIDS, and drug use notwithstanding, the differences between the play and the movie aren't all that pronounced. Say what you will about it, but the movie is pretty damn faithful. Indeed, Angel's decline in health and ultimate death are even more haunting on screen than they were on Broadway.

So what's really different? Maybe it's context. When Rent hit Broadway in April 1996, it was revolutionary, not in what it did, but in what it stood for. Rent was a message--no, Rent was the message embedded in the frenetic "La Vie Boheme": "Actual Reality. Act Up. Fight AIDS." That line is still in the movie, but the spark, the impetus to do something, is gone.

World AIDS Day came and went last Thursday, with a good (i.e., any) amount of coverage, but no true mandate to people like me. Sure, for many who saw the play, seeing the play was itself as close as they got to acting up. But even then, the play was cathartic in a way that's hard to explicate, but impossible to deny. Even for those, like me, who struggled to identify with most of the characters battling a crippling disease, the importance of and empathy with Mark -- the perfectly "normal," healthy white guy who can only dream of having the energy, passion, and lust of his dying friends -- is impossible to understate.

Now, in contrast, to the extent that the activist message survives in the movie, it's retrospective -- activism was a good idea... AIDS was a problem. Was. So, to a degree, Jorge Morales's review captures exactly what's bothering me. But he attributes it to the filmmaking. I attribute it to context. It's the same story. It's a very different audience. And that's what's sad to me. Although the meaning is largely unchanged, the message is completely gone. At best, "No Day But Today" has turned into "No Day But 1996." Morales seems to think that this was inevitable:

[T]he truth is that by the time Rent opened on Broadway almost a decade ago, it was already a period piece. Giuliani had made the squeegee men disappear, and he'd sent snipers and a tank into the East Village to clear out the squats.

I don't buy it. Because Rent, on Broadway, was still profoundly important in 1998, 1999, 2000, etc. Because New York already had dramatically and irrevocably changed, whether for the better or the worse, by 1996, when I saw it with my Aunt as a wide-eyed 16-year-old. It's not that New York is different now than it was when Rent opened; that's beside the point. It's that we are -- and the world is -- different. And what have we accomplished in those 10 years? Well, if nothing else, we've gentrified Alphabet City.

Oh, and I prefer Daphne Rubin-Vega as Mimi, too... (and, to be fair, Sandra Oh as Alexi Darling).

Posted by Steve Vladeck on December 5, 2005 at 11:05 PM in Culture, Film, Steve Vladeck | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack

Monday, October 31, 2005

Zissou, where are you?

The other day I watched the DVD of the Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.  I had been meaning to watch this Wes Anderson movie for a while, though for a strange reason.  While I was in private practice, I represented a pro bono client in the 9th Circuit who was, to my mind, wrongfully convicted for a bank fraud for which his brother was the main culprit.  (Happily, my client has just been released from prison, in part due to Booker.)  Unfortunately, the client had to face a related prosecution in New York, where he was being represented by none other than the real life Steve Zissou, a criminal defense lawyer in EDNY.  According to this article, Zissou had spoken to the film’s producers in advance to give permission for the use of his name in the movie.  I figured there might be some connection – alas, there was none.

Anyway, the movie, for which I held high expectations, disappointed, especially through the first hour, which could barely hold my attention due to its meandering pacing.  The second half was a bit better, and Willem Dafoe has some scene-stealing moments, but unless you’re an addict of all things Bill Murray and Wes Anderson, I’d advise that you just watch the Royal Tenenbaums again.  Or perhaps try L’Auberge Espagnole, which is a delightfully funny movie about a French student and his flatmates in Barcelona, with the bewitching Audrey Tatou in a small role as the protagonist’s girlfriend, who is left behind in Paris. 

Posted by Administrators on October 31, 2005 at 03:12 AM in Film | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Justice Brandeis and Yoda

Eugene Volokh explains the connection over at the VC. 

Posted by Daniel Solove on May 28, 2005 at 11:10 AM in Daniel Solove, Film | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, May 20, 2005

Some Questions About Star Wars

I recently saw the new Star Wars movie, and although I try generally to post on more legal and weighty topics, I just can’t resist saying a few words.  Having grown up on Star Wars, I had to see the new movie within 24 hours of its release, but I’m proud I at least did not go to the midnight showing and could wait until the next morning.  That’s only because the first two prequels were so terrible. 

I’ve been pondering some deep issues about the Star Wars series, and although the movies are made to require a suspension of disbelief, I still find myself asking these questions.  Warning – spoilers below.

1. How could anybody write that dialogue?  Lines like Padme saying to Darth Vader: “You’re a good person, don’t do this”?  This hilarious review in the New Yorker captures it best:

The prize for the least speakable burst of dialogue has, over half a dozen helpings of “Star Wars,” grown into a fiercely contested tradition, but for once the winning entry is clear, shared between Anakin and Padmé for their exchange of endearments at home:

“You’re so beautiful.”
“That’s only because I’m so in love.”
“No, it’s because I’m so in love with you.”

For a moment, it looks as if they might bat this one back and forth forever, like a baseline rally on a clay court. . . .

Why didn’t anybody on the set say something when they were filming?  How could the crew refrain from laughing?   

2. How come Jedi Masters are killed so easily?  Do they put any schmo who picks up a light saber on the Jedi Council? 

3. We learn that the Death Star is being constructed as Episode III ends.  Why does it take some 20 years to complete, as it is finished not long before the Episode IV of Star Wars begins?  Were there construction delays?  Union problems?   After all, this isn't the Freedom Tower.

4. I still can’t understand the reason why Anakin goes to the dark side.  He wants to save his wife, but Yoda’s advice is to just let her die.  So if you care about a loved-one and don’t just want to let them go, then you’re in danger of becoming an evil madman.  The way of the “good side” of the force is to just shrug off the deaths of the ones you love and don’t bother lifting a finger to try to save them.  If that’s the good side of the force, the dark side must be really dark.   

5. In the original Star Wars, why is it that the storm troopers, described at one point as amazingly accurate shooters, can’t seem to hit anything or anybody with their blasters? If you’re creating a clone army, shouldn't you clone somebody who can hit a target?  The Emperor would have won if he just created storm troopers who had better aim.  And why do the storm troopers wear all that clunky armor if one blaster shot will kill them?  Heck, a rock thrown by an Ewok will kill them too. 

6. Others have pointed out this one, but how in such a high-tech society is it a surprise that Padme has twins?  And if Darth Vader can be saved despite being burned to a crisp, why does Padme die despite such wondrous medical technology?

7. How does Obi Wan Kenobi age so much in the 20 or so years between Episode III and IV?  After all, although old, Count Dooku leaps around like a cricket in his battles, but poor Obi Wan goes from a spry young man in Episode III to a very old man in Episode IV who can barely wave his light saber.   And why is Yoda on his deathbed by the time of Episode VI, only about 30 years after he fights like an acrobat on speed in Episodes II and III?  After all, if Yoda is over 800 years old, why should 30 more Yoda-years make such a big difference?

8. Why does R2D2 suddenly go from being a battle bot who can fly and do amazing tricks to a much less functional droid by Episode IV?  If C3PO’s memory is erased, why does R2D2 (whose memory isn’t erased) not tell him what’s going on sometime during the 20 years they hang out together between Episode III and IV?  Why keep it all a big secret? 

9. Why hide Luke on the planet where Darth Vader grew up with people he knows?  And if you want to hide Vader's son from him, why do you fail to change Luke’s last name from Skywalker?  The witness-protection program sure isn’t up to snuff in the Star Wars galaxy. 

10. Why does Yoda say he’ll miss Chewbacca?  Since when are they such great friends?  And how is it that at the very day and moment that Luke and Obi Wan enter the cantina bar in Episode III they just happen to run into Chewbacca?  [An interesting fact I learned while typing this post -- "Chewbacca" is part of Microsoft Word's spell check dictionary, as it corrected my misspelling.  It doesn’t recognize “tortious” or other commonly-used legal terminology, but apparently it is well-programmed for Star Wars.]  In an another amazing coincidence, R2D2 winds up in the hands of Luke.  In a galaxy of millions of planets and gazillions of life forms, it just so happens that R2D2 is purchased by Luke Skywalker.  Please don’t tell me the odds of that happening.  I guess that the Force works in mysterious ways.

Posted by Daniel Solove on May 20, 2005 at 02:00 AM in Daniel Solove, Film | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Updating the Dark Side

Lucas created the first Star Wars stories during Vietnam and now bloggers are debating the relevancy of the finale to current politics.

Posted by Orly Lobel on May 19, 2005 at 10:32 AM in Film | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

W(h)ither British Social Realism?

Mark Steyn has this interesting obituary in the June issue of the Atlantic on James Callaghan, former Labor Prime Minister and predecessor to Margaret Thatcher.  Steyn's barbed comments on the state of Britan in the seventies has me, for some reason, reflecting on the state of class-conscious British cinema.  What is a grim social realist, who yearns to depict the harsh life of the working classes at the hands of the ruling classes, to do if actual conditions, which are being driven by those ruling classes, tend to move toward Pareto superiority?

Well, you could ignore reality, but that wouldn't be much good to a realist; or you could ignore the the marginally improved lot of the working classes in favor of the absolutely worst off; or you could simply change the subject.  I'm struck by how often the third option has been the one taken, consciously or unconsciously, by the champions of this class-conscious cinematic approach.  Mike Leigh's subjects in the last decade or so have included other eras altogether (Vera Drake, Topsy Turvy), social issues (as opposed to economic issues, and often involving the bourgeoisie rather than the working classes (Secrets & Lies, Career Girls)), or both (Vera Drake again).  Ken Loach hasn't ignored his standard hobby horses altogether, but one can't help but note that he seems to have caught the time-travel bug too (Land and Freedom, on the Spanish Civil War), the social issue bug (Fond Kiss...Ae), and the plain-old travel bug (Carla's Song, about Nicaragua, and Bread and Roses, about the rough lot of the underclass -- in Los Angeles).

What an unfortunate by-product of (relative) economic prosperity! 

Posted by Paul Horwitz on May 4, 2005 at 05:18 PM in Film | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack