Pass the Popcorn: Luck Is for Suckers!

January 6, 2015


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

How do I love the new Annie movie? Let me count the ways:

1) It’s really entertaining, as long as you don’t expect too much from it. It’s not saccharine and treacley like the original Annie. In fact, the very first thing you see on the screen is a huge, completely unsubtle, on-the-nose message from the filmmakers announcing: “This Annie will not be saccharine and treacley like that other Annie!” It’s a hilarious gag.

There’s a real artistry to the way this movie does the Annie story without treacle. I think half my enjoyment of the movie was admiring how they pulled this off.

Consider how they handle “Tomorrow.” You can’t have Annie without “Tomorrow.” But audiences in the post-Seinfeld culture are not going to sit still for “Tomorrow.” Not unless you do something that forces them to. How to do it? By putting the song in an unhappy scene. Annie gets a major disappointment – life basically kicks her in the teeth. The sad moment just lingers on screen quietly for a bit. And then Annie half-says, half-sings to herself, quietly, “the sun will come out tomorrow.” And a moment later she’s singing “Tomorrow” and it’s slowly but surely building steam. And you’re rooting for her.

These people actually know how to make a frikkin’ movie. Can you believe it? Where have they been for the last twenty years?

2) It has a fantastic set of core values. After the opening scene, Annie is racing out of school to get somewhere she needs to be on time. Her friends call out: “Hope you make it!” “We’ll cover for you!” “Good luck!” And to this last statement she turns around and shouts back: “Luck is for suckers!” We then follow her through the city as she uses her ingenuity (and several prominent product placements) to get where she needs to be on time.

The basic message of this movie is: “Yes, life often sucks, but if you work hard and have guts, you can get ahead. Once you do, remember that you need people, too.” And we can’t have too much of that these days.

The Daddy Warbucks character – who for obvious reasons can’t be called “Warbucks” anymore so he is now, cleverly, “Will Stacks” – takes Annie on a helicopter ride above the city. The following exchange occurs (I quote from memory):

Annie: So how did you get to be the king of the city?

Stacks: I don’t think I’m the king of anything. I just work my butt off. The harder I work, the more opportunities I have. In life you have to play the hand you’re dealt, no matter how bad the cards are.

Annie: What if you don’t have any cards?

Stacks: You bluff.

He then sings her a song – a song! – about how anyone can get ahead if they work hard and have “heart.” To some extent it even oversells the point; in fact, not everyone can get mega-wealthy and become famous and have a helicopter. But like I said, you can’t have too much praise for hard work these days.

Praise for hard work is basically hope.

3) The core values are wrapped in a (mild and relatively unobtrusive) progressive political veneer. Some of my conservative friends are put off by the movie’s occasionally bowing toward the idols of contemporary liberal fashion. To the contrary, that enhances my enjoyment. If the work ethic is exclusively “conservative,” only conservatives will have the work ethic. If praise for hard work is hope, seeing hard work affirmed across ideological lines provides some justification for that hope. And this leads me to my next point.

4) What I think I enjoyed most is that the makers of this movie felt responsible to the story of Annie. I almost wrote, to the “franchise,” but the “franchise” is essentially the business value of the Annie story to its copyright owners, and while that is considerable, this is about more than that.

Most remakes or reboots pay relatively little attention to the heart of the story they’re handling. They keep the superficial stuff the same – the names of the characters and so on – but they want to “update” the franchise, make it marketable today. So they swap out the old engine (the heart of the story) for a new one, and keep the chassis more or less the same for the sake of brand recognition.

This movie keeps the engine and swaps out the chassis. That’s what a remake ought to do.

So of course there are some mild liberal pieties. The Annie story is about rich and poor; there used to be a time when you could tell that story without politics, but not now. Of course there are several major plot twists that would never have worked in the original Annie. They do work with this Annie. The point is, this Annie is still Annie.

And of course the millionaire is now black and has an interracial love interest. That’s the world we live in now, everyone.

Annie is all the more Annie – she is more Annie than she ever was before – for being black. Who has more right to sing “It’s a Hard Knock Life”? And who has had more occasion to learn that life means looking toward “Tomorrow” by faith rather than by sight?

The story of Annie has always been America’s ideal of itself at its best. I’m not sure a black Annie isn’t a greater sign of triumph over historic injustice than a black president.

Now why on earth didn’t they name him “Bill” Stacks?

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey calls for expansive parental choice in inaugural address

January 5, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

“It will be a first principle of my agenda that schools and choices available to affluent parents must be open to all parents, whatever their means, wherever they live, period.”

Burke and Bedrick Discuss the Next Step for School Choice in National Affairs

January 2, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Jason Bedrick and Lindsey Burke take to the pages of National Affairs to discuss Education Savings Accounts in a very informative article. I share the author’s interest in a tax credit funded ESA model. In fact I hope that some of our preexisting tax credit programs will move to an account model. Enthusiasts such as myself however will eventually need to address the limits to scale soon to appear in the largest tax credit program- but quite frankly this is the type of problem you want to have, and it may not prove insurmountable.

Lindsey and Jason earn the first BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM of 2015.

Arkansas Conquers Texas

December 30, 2014

Oklahoma Drama Full of Sound and Fury but ends in a whimper

December 28, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

One bit of 2014 business to address: Oklahoma got their NCLB waiver back after their universities certified their previous standards and tests (which compared relatively well to NAEP) as college and career ready. Note that the story includes the nugget that 40% of Oklahoma college students require remedial education despite those highly thought of standards and tests. Paging Dr. Loveless, Dr. Hanushek! It’s possible that it would have been even worse without good standards and tests but to borrow a line from Sol Stern, good standards and tests are not enough.

On the process issue conditional waivers exceed the authority of the United States Secretary of Education and constitute a piece in a larger mosaic of an attempt to rule by administrative fiat. Unlike the Hotel California, however, you can both check out and leave the CC either without penalty (Oklahoma) after jumping through a hoop. Alternatively states can call Secretary Duncan’s bluff and simply drop their NCLB waiver because the consequences just aren’t that big of a deal (Washington- still no waiver riots on the streets of Seattle). It might at some point occur to someone in Washington or some future waiver-dropping state to file suit over conditional waivers.

It appears that the Secretary has been bluffing with a weak waiver hand, smiling to himself as states all-too-eagerly fold. States wishing to leave the CC however should give some thought as to what they would like to get out of their state testing system rather than adopting a “shoot-ready-aim” approach. My Little Pony connect-a-dot tests may not merit the approval of state university systems, and unlike Oklahoma not all states have decent systems to fall back on. The exit door however is clearly open.










My prayers have been answered…Alamo Drafthouse to Open in AZ in 2015!!!!!!!!!!!

December 24, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Oh yes!!!! Best thing to happen to the Valley since the invention of the air conditioner. Now if we could get a Chuy’s I could die happy. Plus tickets for the Interview are on sale at the Austin locations starting tomorrow.

Pass the Popcorn: How Bad Will Hollywood Get?

December 19, 2014


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Check out this excellent essay on the way franchises have transformed Hollywood. It is not, I promise, just another long lament that there are too many comic book movies, too many sequels, etc. The author, Mark Harris, is thinking seriously about Hollywood’s business model, and there are lots of data and interesting quotes I haven’t seen elsewhere. Seeing the list of franchise movies already announced from the major studios really was an eye-opener. And he makes an insightful point about how Hollywood is now so skilled at creating anticipation that it’s forgetting to provide the payoff. What used to be payoff is now only a calculated part of a larger plan to keep building anticipation for the next product.

Now! That having been said, I think Harris is too pessimistic, for two reasons.

1) While Harris acknowledges that not all franchise movies are bad, and some are very good, he nonetheless seems to assume as a basis of his case that artsy movies – that is, movies intended to be serious rather than mere ephemeral entertainment – are, on the whole, more likely to be very good than franchise movies. This has not been my experience. Even if we discount the value of entertainment and judge strictly on “artistic merit,” I think franchise movies are about as likely to be very good as artsy movies. Not because franchise movies are necessarily good, but because artsy movies generally fail to have much more artistic merit than franchise movies. My wife and I were avid moviegoers during the very height of the independent movie era, and we saw a lot of them. Most of them had “entertainment value” rather than “artistic value.” They were witty or exciting or whatever, and we enjoyed them while we were watching them. But most of them were not great art.

Harris estimates that about 150 franchise movies will open in the next six years. At the end of the article he concedes that some of them – “more than two and fewer than twenty” – will be “very good.” Let’s say “more than two and fewer than twenty” is ten movies. That’s less than two very good movies per year, so it’s a conservative estimate. If so, by his own showing one out of every fifteen franchise movies is “very good.” I’d put up that track record against the arthouse any day.

2) Harris assumes consumer tastes will not revolt against the rise of the franchise. Franchises rule because they are financially rewarded. Must this remain so, even after franchises have squeezed everything else off the studio slate? I see no reason to think so, and every indication that consumers are already clamoring for something else. The idiots who run Hollywood just haven’t figured out how to give them anything else. But someone will, and when they do, the bubble will pop. (Barriers to entry in the entertainment sector are rapidly approaching zero.)

On both points, Harris’ argument fatally rests on the assumption that movies made for the purpose of having artistic merit rather than for the purpose of pleasing general audiences are more likely to have artistic merit. Yet there is little empirical evidence this is the case.


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