Thursday, December 31, 2015

End of the Year: Critics are wrong about Daddy's Home

Daddy's Home from Paramount Pictures is now in theatres

2015 has been a good year for movies: Star Wars, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, The Intern, The Good Dinosaur, Spectre. Hollywood did a few things right, and I have been privileged to the results of their work.

Before the year ended, I felt the need to return to my long dormant blog with a few comments on Paramount Pictures’ Daddy’s Home, the family comedy now in theatres starring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg. The film follows the attempts of Ferrell as a step-Dad who’s trying to win a place in his new kids’ heart, competing with their much hipper real Dad (Wahlberg). It definitely exceeded my expectations. Based on its trailer, I described the film as “pleasant enough to be watchable” in a piece for the LA Times HS Insider. After viewing the actual film, I must correct my statement: it’s one of the best family comedies I’ve seen.

That’s a bold statement, and certainly only older kids and up should watch the film, thanks to its crude humor. But it was an exemplary family comedy nonetheless. It was about family, which always has a touching aspect about it, and it was funny. Now you will have to watch it and judge for yourself if it succeeded in those two fundamental aspects.

I’m in disagreement with a lot of critics, but this isn’t the first time. The Rotten Tomatoes consensus says that, among other things that it “lacks enough guts or imagination to explore the satirical possibilities of its premise.”

First off, the movie is very funny. The characters are well-conceptualized in their variations, the scenarios over-the-top, and the witty commentary on parenting and the horrid ride of public education elegantly executed. Ferrell and Wahlberg definitely do a stellar job of playing off each other--you feel for Ferrell, but Wahlberg puts up a good fight. And the film has guts. While some of the scenes might make audience members a little uncomfortable, often enough that’s part of the film’s genius.

I’m not sure what Rotten Tomatoes means about it lacking imagination. I’m not sure they do either; this is a film that knows what it is: a comedy that understands that working to achieve the best in entertainment value is an end in itself.

Often what critics mean when they call a film simplistic is that it doesn’t address race, class, gender and the evils of prioritizing financial success as a family man. Indeed, Ferrell’s character isn’t rich, but the fact that he’s financially stable is viewed as a positive. Furthermore, the film pokes fun at the “race card” and, to make it even more politically incorrect, champions standing up for yourself—in the family-appropriate manner of dancing. Of course all of this only adds to the overall package of laughs—and the nice thing about it is that all the characters grow, overcoming some of the cynicism around them.

Daddy’s Home is witty and a lot of fun. If you haven’t yet seen it, make it a new year’s resolution to do so.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

A Worthy New Sound of Music Delights in Downtown LA

by Robert Mack

The Ahmanson’s joyous new production of The Sound of Music is a good bit of medicine for Los Angeles. Broadway veteran director Jack O’Brian delivered something now considered unusual: a work that touches thought-provoking themes without making the whole evening depressing.

The time is the late 1930s, and odd-ball, music worshipping, beauty-loving Sister Maria (Kirsten Anderson) can’t seem to swing with her abbey’s pious ways. So, Mother Abbess (Ashley Brown) sends her to fulfill a governess position to widower Captain Von Trapp’s (Ben Davis) seven eclectic youngsters. Little does she know that the Von Trapp’s home isn’t much less strict than the dimly-lit abbey.

Rejecting Von Trapp’s military child-rearing philosophy, she teaches the children to sing, helps them through their worries, hormones and generally shows them there’s more to life than responding to whistles.

Guess what? Von Trapp fancies her as well, so he eventually marries the would-be nun. But in the midst of the exuberance, the Nazi threat emerges from Berlin, leaving the Von Trapp family left to decide its greatest values.

Anderson, a Pace University sophomore, has a very nice voice, but can’t match the tremendous majesty of Julie Andrews in the 1965 film. Still, seeming to understand the character, she was bright, energetic, and well portrayed Maria’s conflicting sense of duty and free spirit. Ben Davis wore a beard as Captain Von Trapp. He too was believable and seemed to understand O’Brian’s vision to not dumb the show down.

Brown’s hymn-singing voice was actually breath-taking, while Teri Hanson as Elsa, Von Trapp’s fiancĂ©e, was more heinous than her nicer London West End 2006 counterpart. That’s nothing to complain about.

Erwin Foard as Max Deitweiller was the evening’s most colorful character. Portrayed unapologetically as an anti-hero, his best line was his self-designation as “lovable,” and it received boisterous laughter from the audience.

Recalling the successful 2006 London Palladium production, one can note the differences in their strong points. In America, the Von Trapp children (while portrayed by the best America has to offer in young talent) over-enunciate their T’s while dropping the english accent and moving into Americanized drama a moment later. Liesl (Paige Silvestor) initially came off not as sweet and curious about the world she’s soon to enter, but a slightly narcissistic teenager. She grew up later in the show, which was nice to see. Also, contrary to the London production, Rolf (Dan Tracy) was underutilized.  Still, Svea Johnson as Brigitta was spunky.

At the Ahmanson (unlike the much larger London Palladium theatre), towering Nazi flags could not descend from every corner of the house and envelope a struck audience.
But these are little things when judged by itself, for the show has much to offer. It’s more open in its themes than the film (now in its 50th Anniversary), ultimately following a struggle to claim character’s dearest values. The revealing of Mother Abbey’s youth, Maria’s relationship with the church, and Von Trapp’s neglect of household joy are all examples.
At the end of the second act, Maria peeling off her religious scarf was fantastic.

When the characters claim their identity, their values are put to the test. Max and others urge Von Trapp to remain passive at the Nazi invasion. They even sing a whole Chamberlain-like tune about compromising. But Von Trapp makes sure that his family does not cave in a heroic statement of the value of freedom and love of life.

While O’Brian has actually stated that he wouldn’t mind shocking people a little, this is not some boorish “message” outing. With purity, splendor, and fabulous music, Los Angeles must not let this show go without applause.

The Sound of Music plays at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles through October 31st. Prices range from $50 to $150. Address: 135 N, Grand Ave., Los Angeles 90012

*Originally published in the October 15th edition of Chadwick School’s The Mainsheet.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Causation for the Collectization of a Society

by Robert Mack
The following essay was a finalist in the 2015 Ayn Rand Institute Anthem Essay Contest.
In the founding of the Soviet Union, men were moved by the cry of collectivism—the subjugation of the individual to the collective, the community, the tribe - and the creation of a state that would “encourage” that doctrine.  Touted by leading intellectuals as the greatest utopian premise ever conceived, the collectivist ideology and its movement ultimately led to the slaughter of millions. All this was led to by the idea that man cannot take care of himself and must depend on the community. This idea is propagated by a select group of gun-holders proceeding to create a totalitarian state that results in mass inequality before the law. That’s the concrete. More abstractly, what about everyone simply belonging in a collective? Take away the obvious drawbacks with statist systems, and some may argue that is surely still the ideal. In Anthem, Ayn Rand reveals the literal consequences of the abstract collectivistic ideology—one in which men accept it under the illusion of bringing a higher good to mankind, even if it means the acceptance of suffering as the norm. In her novella, Equality 7-2521 lives in such a society as an outcast, yearning to pursue happiness, and ultimately breaks free of the bonds that hold him there. In the process, Rand displays how the altruist and collectivist doctrine robs man of the self-esteem needed to think for one’s self and pursue their own happiness – and ultimately how it turns men into mindless robots squandering in a love-less society.

            In Anthem, men in Equality’s world give up the pursuit of happiness in the name of the altruist/collectivist doctrine, despite its consequences. This philosophy is unearthed in the common chant of men in Equality’s world: “We are nothing. Mankind is all. By the grace of our brothers are we allowed our lives. We exist through, by and for our brothers who are the State” (21). The “We” refers to individual entities universally proclaimed as subservient to the group. According to this chant, it is by the collective’s grace that a man can exist. If men owe their existence to the group, then they are its property and as such must not break away. To think or to behave differently is to rob the group of an achievement that is rightfully theirs. The highest expression of this rule of the collective comes in the form of the state—the moral authority earned from the ability to make concrete disobedience to the altruist/collectivist doctrine punishable as an action of thievery.

The constant implementation of this philosophy in Equality’s world brings a depressed population to cower in low self-esteem. As Rand describes, “The heads of our brothers are bowed. The eyes of our brothers are dull…the shoulders of our brothers are hunched, and their muscles are drawn , as if their bodies were shrinking and wished to be kept out of sight. And a word steals into our mind as we look upon our brothers, and that word is fear” (46). These men’s physiques are contorted in ways that suggest a lifestyle lacking in laughter, joy and achievement. Their bowed heads and “hunched” shoulders suggest a fixation with the ground, as if too ashamed to rise up and soar to the fullest extent of their ability, too ashamed to admit they are not themselves a part of the ground. It is as if they are ashamed to admit that even their bodies are somehow separate human beings. Their eyes “are dull” with fatigue and disinterest in the reality that forms their prison; their sense of life has been zapped with nothing left to light the world for them. Rand shows how holding the collective as the standard of value breeds in men an unhappy, diminished society. If the collective is what an entire life’s effort is targeted towards, natural deep-seeded disappointment will follow. There is no actual “society” as a valuing entity, only the individuals that make it up. If the individual’s interest is not attended to, the picture of society will be bleak. As a result of the collectivist chants telling how individual lives are secondary, men of Equality’s society are devoid of self-esteem – and so don’t even bother to rebel.

Through the lens of Equality, the rational contemplation that individualism requires is over-run by this altruist/collectivist doctrine. In his youth, Equality found that he had a curse - he was better than others. “This is a great sin to be born with a head that is too quick. It is not good to be different than our brothers, but it is evil to be superior to them” (21). Such difference is discouraged as a corollary of the society’s condemnation of superiority. Since all men live for their brothers, the surpassing of one particular man in any way is an act of thievery. Equality says that he is more intelligent than his brothers, which is particularly dangerous. With the mind as the entity that says “I am I,” it is possibly man’s most individualistic attribute because one such mind cannot be replicated. On his vying for knowledge, Equality says, “We think that they are mysteries in the sky and under the water and in the plants which grow. But the Council of Scholars has said that there are no mysteries and the Council of Scholars knows all things” (23). Equality wants to know the nature of things and to determine reality, but "authorities" in his society notably discourage inquiry by on such subjects. If one questions current knowledge about science, one has the capacity to question the ideas of government, which would threaten the entire totalitarian system. But even more fundamentally, the mere act of thinking for yourself clashes with the core of collectivism. Authorities therefore indoctrinate men with collectivist ideas through tribal chants, and strongly discourage any further thinking about the world.

Authorities in Equality’s world indoctrinate men with ideas that discourage self-esteem, and in the process discourage active thinking among men. From the dirty streets of Soviet Russia to the terrifying prison that was East Berlin, humanity has a long and bloodied history of sacrificing the individual to the collective. In Anthem, man was taught that having self-esteem was evil and that one’s life should be rightly sacrificed to the collective. Within the last few hundred years, select societies have made significant strides in sanctifying the sovereignty of the individual. These strides are more important than we sometimes give them credit for, and we should not forget why.