A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 599 – Persepolis

Persepolis – October 20th, 2011

This is one of those movies I’m sure I would have been somewhat curious about but never curious enough about to actually watch had we not been doing this project. The subject matter combined with the format led to it getting a lot of attention and it looked interesting, but I often shy away from heavier movies and every description I read of this one made me think it would definitely be on the heavy end of things. And it was. It was also well worth watching and I will, at some point, have to get the book(s) and read them. It’s also a great example for when I encounter people who stubbornly insist that animation is, by default, for children. Yes, they are still out there.

Much like there are people who insist that animation is for kids, there are people who refuse to recognize the graphic novel as a potentially deep medium. I find it hard to wrap my own head around at times, considering that memoir like Maus has been around since at least the 1980s and fiction like Sandman has been around since at least the early 1990s. And even before then, the medium was hardly brand spanking new. Perhaps it comes from people who still see anything in the format as a “comic book” and I don’t want to get all pretentious here, but that’s why I use the term “graphic novel” for some things. Even just the “comic” part of “comic book” implies humor, even if people don’t think that through every time they hear it. So this isn’t a comic book movie. It’s an animated movie using the same artwork as the graphics in the graphic novel. And while it has its comedic moments, it isn’t really comical.

I haven’t really done any research into this movie beyond the basics, but I did see some mentions of it being somewhat controversial in terms of how it portrays the country of Iran and its history and culture. The thing is, this is a memoir. It is the story of a personal and familial experience. Not being a part of the culture she’s writing and speaking about, I can’t really make any judgement on that. But I will take it as a given that what she’s presenting is authentic for her. And so long as she’s not fabricating events entirely, that’s really all that matters to me.

Marjane Satrapi grew up in Iran during a time of revolution and war and changing regimes with changing ideals and rules. The movie follows her through her young childhood and into her teenage years and then out of Iran and into Switzerland where she went to University, then back to Iran to see her family before deciding to leave for good. There’s narration over the entire movie, from Marjane’s point of view, looking back on her own actions and opinions. Marjane’s family is portrayed as involved in the revolution from the outset. Relatives end up in jail or worse. Marjane herself seems to shift loyalties based on what she hears and from whom, changing her mind as she learns and grows. I think this is really a key point for memoir – an unflinching look at one’s own past.

It’s a brutal story, with friends and relatives hurt, people confused and upset. Marjane visits her uncle, Anoosh, in prison just before he’s executed. Relatives of her friends report being tortured while imprisoned. Marjane herself rebels against the restrictions the government places on the people, listening to bootleg heavy metal cassettes and speaking out against what seem to her to be ridiculous rules about what women can and can’t wear and can and can’t do. And eventually she leaves for Europe, where things seem better but where she is ashamed to be Iranian and denies it when she meets new people. Some of her friends romanticize her background, seeing her as something of a poster child for revolution, but others see her as being from a backwards society. And this is key for me when trying to understand this movie. Marjane doesn’t hate Iran or being Iranian. She doesn’t hate the culture she was raised in. But the movie makes it very clear that she doesn’t equate what she grew up in with what she left. That isn’t a criticism of the culture. That’s a criticism of the government.

I can’t make any claims to expertise in drawing style or artistic technique, but I do think that the art of this movie, both in the style of the original illustrations from the graphic novels and the animation, is excellent. It’s deceptively simple, what with the vast majority of it being black and white with little to no shading or color, but there’s a lot of detail and care put into the visuals. It suits the story and I’m incredibly glad that it was made animated instead of live action. The only way I think this movie could have worked with live action would have been if it had gone a very Sin City type of direction, with the live action mimicking the artistic style. But even that wouldn’t have done the story the sort of justice it deserves. There’s a reason why Satrapi used the format and medium she used for the original story and to take it too far from that would have turned it into something entirely other.

Despite how good this is, I know I won’t be putting this back in unless I’m showing it to someone else who hasn’t seen it yet. It’s not a casual movie and it’s not one I could pause on while flipping channels. But it is an excellent movie and a fascinating story. I’m glad I’ve seen it once, even if I never see it again.

October 20, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 556 – The Host

The Host – September 7th, 2011

I have probably asked Andy what this is every time I’ve looked at our movie list. It wasn’t something I recognized and his description of it wouldn’t stick in my head. Probably because I’m pretty sure his description was usually something very short, like “It’s a Korean monster movie” or “It’s a Korean horror movie.” And to be honest, that just doesn’t grab me. Nothing about that tells me what the movie’s story is or how it’s done. Really, that’s a very generic description, and as I’m not a horror fan and he didn’t give me much in the way of details about the monster, it had very little to set it apart in my mind. I thrive on details. Telling me something is “a period drama” or “a musical” isn’t going to get me excited either. There had to be a reason why this Korean monster movie and not another, right? But without details, how am I supposed to know that reason?

Turns out the reason is that it’s a very well done monster movie with a sense of humor I’m beginning to consider a staple in Korean movies. It’s not a comedy. Far from it. But it has comedic aspects to it that would feel bizarrely out of place in most other serious monster movies. And make no mistake, this is also a serious movie. It has Things To Say about the government and pollution and the United States military. And the monster kills people. This isn’t some goofy monster that just causes panic or something. It doesn’t destroy buildings but leave the people unharmed. No. It kills people and eats them and saves some to savor later. It belches out the bones of its prey after digestion, leaving no doubt that it’s a killer. It is a malicious force and the movie sets that out right at the beginning. There is no question.

Still, there is humor here. Mostly from the main cast and their interactions. The Park family runs a snack cart near the river, serving up fried squid, instant ramen and beer to people relaxing on the riverbank. The family consists of the owner of the cart, Park Hee-bong, his three adult children (unemployed college grad Nam-il, archery champion Nam-joo and lazy eldest son Gang-du) and his eldest son’s pre-teen daughter, Hyun-seo. The whole family loves Hyun-seo, but derides Gang-du for always being asleep and for not even attempting to do anything with his life. Really though, the whole family has problems. There’s Gang-du, obviously, who spends all his time working at his father’s cart and sleeping. Nam-il finished college (paid for by his father’s tireless work at the snack cart) but all he’s done since is drink. And Nam-joo has the makings of a gold medalist, but hesitates every time and always lands lower than she should. Hyun-seo obviously loves her family, but is exasperated by her father and uncle and saddened by her aunt’s failure to live up to her potential. And the movie takes the time to introduce all these characters to the audience and make them at least a little sympathetic as individuals and more sympathetic as a family. And then it has the monster kidnap Hyun-seo.

The monster is created early in the movie, well before we meet the Park family. An American military doctor tells a Korean assistant that the formaldehyde bottles in the morgue are too dusty and to dump all of it. The assistant argues that dust on the bottles doesn’t mean they have to dump it all and that the chemicals are dangerous and shouldn’t just be dumped. But the doctor insists and so the formaldehyde is dumped down the drain and into the Han river in Seoul. I suspect it’s meant to be more than just formaldehyde. I have a vivid recollection from high school of being told to be careful mixing formaldehyde with other chemicals. And given the results, it seems like it would make sense for it to be a combination of noxious chemical liquids that produces the giant fish monster that is the basis for the movie. Formaldehyde alone just doesn’t work for me, so even though it’s the only chemical mentioned by name in the English subtitles, I’m going to run with “formaldehyde et. al.” to describe what gets dumped. Formaldehyde alone would be boring.

So this big fish monster with legs comes up out of the river one day and attacks a ton of people hanging out on the shore. Gang-du runs, tries to fight it along with a American dude, sees it kill people by the dozen, then tries to grab his daughter to keep her out of harm’s way and finds that he’s grabbed a similarly dressed stranger by accident. The monster has Hyun-seo. Everyone who was present for the attack gets quarantined, especially Gang-du, who was in direct contact with the creature. And in the middle of all of this somewhat serious monster movie drama the entire Park family engages in over-the-top hysterics and slapstick fighting while grieving for Hyun-seo. It is one of the stranger things I’ve seen in a movie recently because it just seems so unlike what I expect from the tone of the rest of the movie. And it’s not the first or last time there’s a bit of slapstick comedy tossed into an otherwise serious plot. I’ll just have to make a point of watching more Korean movies to see if it’s a cultural thing I’m just not personally familiar with. I like it! I’m just a little bemused by it.

Anyhow, it turns out that Hyun-seo isn’t dead. She’s been stashed in a sewer for the monster to snack on later. So the family breaks out of the hospital and cashes in everything they have to pay for weapons and a map of the sewer system so they can go find her. Things escalate and one member of the family gets killed. The government bans people from the whole river area and news comes out of the US that the monster transmitted a deadly virus to the American guy Gang-du fought the monster with. It all turns out to be a smokescreen for the Americans to save face after being the cause of the monster’s existence in the first place and the movie’s pretty clear on that. There’s a whole lot going on in this movie, and I’m not just talking about the monster and the action and the family drama. Reading over some analysis done by people native to Korea, it makes me wish I knew more about the culture and country. There’s some very obvious messages, such as the dumping of the formaldehyde (et. al.) in the river and the US lies about the creature. But then there’s some subtle stuff I didn’t pick up on at all. It was an interesting movie, and a well made movie. It also wasn’t at all what I was expecting, which is a good thing, because I was expecting something generic and forgettable and that’s not what I got.

September 7, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 552 – Fahrenheit 9/11

Fahrenheit 9/11 – September 3rd, 2011

I refused to watch this for the 9th 9/11/01 anniversary last year and damn sure I refuse to watch it for the 10th anniversary this year. Honestly, I believe that the people who died and the people who were injured and the lasting impact the attacks have had on our country deserve a better memorial than a sensationalist Michael Moore documentary. A week from tomorrow I plan on doing some heavy reading and thinking and I plan on watching something that has little to nothing to do with the events of ten years ago because nothing we own is really suitable and it would be cheap of us to claim that it is. This? Certainly isn’t. It’s not about 9/11. It’s about Bush. It’s all well and good to criticize the man. I’m nowhere near a fan of his. But on the anniversary, I’d rather think of the people in New York and DC and the people on the planes, not George W. Bush.

I will tell you my own experience on 9/11: We hadn’t seen the news. We hadn’t turned on the television or checked our email. We’d planned what to make for dinner and gone to the market and been confused by the huge crowds of people. Then we’d gone by our workplace and stayed there, watching the towers fall on the television in the back room. And I watched the unthinkable and felt my legs give out. I had friends who worked right there. I had friends who lived in the area. We went to my alma mater and found our friends and brought them to our apartment. We clung to each other and waited to hear from our New York and DC friends. Andy got sick. I took care of him. And one month later, when I was working in the library, I met most of my coworkers for the first time while we evacuated the building due to a bomb threat on the one month anniversary. I was not directly affected, but the long-term effects have touched me and everyone else in the country.

And that’s largely what this documentary is about. It’s not all it’s about because it’s about a whole hell of a lot of things. In fact, it’s about so many things I’m not entirely sure whether it has a single topic other than “George W. Bush sucked and 9/11 was his fault and look at all this shit that happened after!” Which is remarkably unfocused when you get down to it. It’s such a nebulous sort of concept that’s really far bigger than a two hour long movie. To be honest, I think a miniseries would have been a better forum for this sort of topic. Spend an hour on military recruiting. Spend an hour on Haliburton. Spend an hour on the ties between the Bushes and various people later shown to be inimical to the United States. Spend an hour on The War on Terror. And so on and so forth. Instead, what this movie does is hop, skip and jump from topic to topic like it’s got no solid message.

You know, this would be a far better documentary without Michael Moore’s voice. I find his delivery and his choice of words so incredibly grating it makes me want to punch him in the face. And technically speaking, he’s on my side! But within ten seconds of the start of this documentary I wanted to turn it off. Moore is a jackass and I find his ego distracting. I find the music choices grating too. They’re too self-consciously ironic. And then there are the clips of things like Dragnet. It’s the same issue I have with Moore’s script and delivery. When he’s narrating facts, he’s fine. When he’s making commentary it’s delivered in this sing-song “told you so” tone that the music echoes and then there’s lighthearted joking attitude the clips provide. It feels like he’s thumbing his nose at something. I just can’t for the life of me imagine what. It’s all just so self-satisfied, and that feels like a very strange attitude to display when talking about such a horrible event that killed so many people. And that ends up making me feel like Moore is using the tragedy without actually paying attention to it. That’s pretty gross.

And the thing is, when the documentary is showing commentary from soldiers and from people on the streets in both the US and in Iraq, when it’s interviewing people and showing news footage and the like? That tells the story Moore is aiming for far more effectively than Moore himself does. Whenever he goes adding ironic visuals or making commentary it just makes the whole thing seem like a joke. The bit where he shows horrible dated racial stereotypes for each of the “Coalition of the Willing” countries? No. Just. No. You’ve just invalidated your message. You’ve just shown your ass. Pull up your pants and walk away. Now, let’s get things straight: I hate the US PATRIOT act. I hate it professionally. The increasingly intrusive security measures at airports (by many accounts inadequately tested, ineffectual and needlessly invasive) make me more leery of flying than the hijackings did. But I was already pissed off about those. I didn’t need Michael Moore to clumsily come tell me what to think by using tactics too obnoxious for even FOX News to contemplate.

It’s a mess of a documentary and I honestly believe the only reason it got the accolades that it got was because Moore is loud and has made a name for himself and that makes his stuff easy to sell to people who don’t want to go saying things themselves. But volume and attitude do not a good documentarian make. And I always feel like by criticizing him I’m betraying my own side, but I’m not. I feel he is a poor mouthpiece for the well-earned criticism of Bush and the war and the effects it’s all had. He’s alienating and smug and then when people don’t want to engage with him he can argue that they’re hiding from the truth, when really, they might as well just be hiding from him because he’s obnoxious and clearly looking for a gotcha moment. That doesn’t make for a convincing argument. That just makes for a morass of frustration.

September 3, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 491 – Team America: World Police

placeholderTeam America: World Police – July 4th, 2011

Last year we decided to go the obvious route for US Independence Day but we did briefly discuss watching this movie instead. But we looked at our enormous list and figured hey, we’ll probably hit the holiday again the next year! And so we did and thus today’s movie is a thoroughly ridiculous satire on patriotism, politics, acting and the militaristic attitudes many people associate with the United States. Done with marionettes. By the South Park guys. Happy Fourth of July, everybody!

I’ll be honest: I’m really not in the mood for this movie today. I’m not sure what specifically made me want to turn it off when in the past I’ve quite enjoyed it. Maybe it was that I was totally wiped out yesterday (I blame the heat – give me winter back, please) or maybe it was that we’d already watched a movie earlier in the day (Lucky Number Slevin, which we’d wanted to show my mother) or maybe it was just that this is a movie you have to be in the right mood for. And if you’re not in the right mood for it then watching it won’t put you in the mood for it. It’ll just irritate the crap out of you. Because that really is much of the point of the movie anyhow: Humor through jackassery. And puppets.

The whole idea of the movie is that it’s an over-the-top action flick a la Michael Bay. Full of explosions and disasters and dramatic tension where you don’t know if the heroic soldiers are going to be able to stop the evil terrorists. There’s more drama from the romance that occurs between the two leads and is then, of course, broken up when one of the leads panics and leaves his team in the lurch, only to storm in when things are desperate. And of course he saves the day! Every plot point is hackneyed. The lines are overwritten and the characters are cliches. Our hero, Gary, is a Broadway actor who joins Team America: World Police because they need an actor to be their newest spy (since spying is pretty much acting with surveillance equipment apparently). Team America’s base is in Mount Rushmore and they’ve got a tough-as-nails-but-dressed-in-a-suit boss, a supercomputer and a mission to stop terrorists whatever the cost. And through the course of the movie they end up going after Kim Jong Il and drawing the ire of the Film Actors Guild.

Now, regardless of my mood, there are some things I enjoy about this movie and they tend to be things that were either so spot on in their parody/satire elements that they’ve become part of our personal lexicon or they have to do with the movie’s visual conceit. I love the montage song. I think of it any time there’s a training montage in a movie because it is spot on. It’s a montage with a song about how you need a montage. I also like America, Fuck Yeah as bit of satire, same for Freedom Isn’t Free. Over-the-top jingoism in the news will always get an “America! Fuck yeah!” from myself or Andy. And let’s face it: “Freedom isn’t free” or variations thereof pop up all the time, which usually means one or the other of us will mutter “No, it costs a buck 05.” Panthers played by housecats? Yeah, I’m down with that too. As with everything that reminds the viewer that the entire cast of the movie is made of marionettes and they’re on a much smaller scale than people. Not HO scale, certainly, but small. There’s a statue in Kim Jong Il’s palace that’s actually a man in heavy makeup. There are the “panthers” and a variety of little props that you’re likely to see in the Look-a-Like books (which I love). And it’s that sort of winking cleverness that makes the whole marionette conceit play. That and that it’s not treated seriously at all.

I really do like the marionette idea. It’s thoroughly laughable. And it’s not that they’re bad marionettes! They’re obviously incredibly sophisticated things, with servos in the faces and whatnot. But they will always look like marionettes. Always. There is no mistaking that look when you make them walk, and at no point are they at all disguised. There’s no attempt to disguise them. They’re the point. They’re the humor. You try to play out a serious scene between a couple of characters, then smack their faces together to approximate a kiss and it will be funny. Every time someone references the expression on their face? Funny, because they have no expressions. And the main character is supposed to be an actor who can convince anyone of anything through his amazing acting skills. And he has the same blank look and jerky movements that every other marionette in the movie has.

What made this movie frustrating to watch tonight was knowing that I’ve enjoyed it before. That I’ve snickered at the lampooning of actors taking up political causes as if they’re experts in foreign policy. That I’ve laughed at many of the songs and many of the lines and all the marionette work while still being impressed at the sheer scale of the puppetry being performed. Tonight it just fell flat. I still laughed at the cats and the montage, sure. But the rest of the satire just didn’t feel as sharp as it was supposed to. And add to that a couple of scenes I just plain don’t like? And as a whole it just wasn’t fun to watch.

I find the racial and cultural elements of the movie to be questionable at best. I get where they’re going here, and the intent of the humor is more to poke fun at US audiences and how the media portrays other cultures than to poke fun at those cultures themselves. That being said, it’s a very dangerous line to toe. It requires that your audience be in on the joke and be able to laugh at themselves, which one would hope anyone watching this movie could do, but I can’t count on it. I’ve met too many people who could laugh at Team America themselves while still thinking that the depictions of other races were hilarious because haha, those people in the Middle East who speak gibberish! So funny! And making fun of speech impediments is a riot, right? I get it, I just don’t find it as funny as it’s supposed to be. And then there’s the sex scene and the vomit scene. Yeah, you know what? I could do without them. They’re beyond parody or satire and are just gross-out humor and I’m sure plenty of people find them hilarious but they’re not my sort of humor. I honestly think they take away from the satire and parody aspects of the movie, which makes the rest of the humor less sharp.

All in all, I can still see a lot of things I enjoy about this movie. The very concept of it is amusing and the marionettes were a fantastic way to take what might have come off as simply a cheesy parody and elevate it to satire. That being said, it does have a lot of weaknesses, not the least of which is a tendency to aim for offensiveness in hopes of hitting satire and managing to hit the slim border between them. If I’d been in the mood to watch it perhaps I could have looked past that to enjoy when they do hit the satire target dead center. But I wasn’t, so while I’ll still be amused by the montage and I know how much freedom costs in USD, I don’t think I’ll be putting this back in for a while.

July 4, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 440 – Brotherhood of the Wolf

Brotherhood of the Wolf – May 14th, 2011

This is a movie I’ve been hearing little things about for some time. I’ve meant to watch it for ages, but it’s so long! And it’s subtitled! And it seemed pretty dark. All together that’s a pretty hefty movie viewing experience, so I put it off. And put it off. And put it off. Until tonight when we had the time and Andy suggested it and a long dark French period piece sounded like a good idea. I don’t know why it appealed to me tonight and not some other night before now, but it did and so we put it in utterly ignorant of what we were actually going to end up watching.

I’m not entirely sure how to even begin to describe this movie. It isn’t any one single type of story. It isn’t even two types. It’s a whole laundry list of genres combined into something unlike anything else I’ve ever seen before. Oh, I’ve seen period action, which is part of what this is. I’ve seen political drama, which it also is. I’ve seen political action and period political. I’ve seen mysteries and martial arts and supernatural themes woven in through intrigue and I’ve seen many combinations. But not all of them in one place. Oh, I’m sure they exist, but I haven’t seen them. But now I have seen this and it is a wonderful thing to know that it exists.

The story is apparently at least superficially based on actual historical events involving a beast or beasts that killed a large number of people in south central France between 1765 and 1767. The exact nature of the beasts responsible for the historical killings is still debated, though there were two large wolves killed at the time which seemed to stop the attacks (if you’re curious, try poking around the links in the wikipedia article on the beast). In the movie the beast attacks are merely the hook to draw the viewer into a story of political intrigue, religious fervor and a small and somewhat isolated town terrorized into submission. It appears to be a supernatural thriller but really, Sherlock Holmes might as well be in play here, for all the actual supernatural events that happen.

The main character in the movie is Grégoire de Fronsac, a royal taxidermist and naturalist who studies animals and has done quite a lot of traveling. He is indisputably the hero of our story, arriving in the area to study the beast’s attacks and to preserve it once it’s caught and/or killed. And Fronsac quickly determines that the beast is far from supernatural, but is also far from the wolf most people believe it to be. It’s something else entirely and he aims to figure it out. Staying at his side is the mysterious Mani, a Mohawk shaman whom he met when in America. Mani may not be the hero of the movie, but he is certainly awesome, kicking a fair amount of ass as well as giving some great little quips and sly looks at just the right moments. Fronsac is all well and good and I certainly liked him as the hero, but Mani’s more fun to watch, and not just because he’s played by Mark Dascascos (who is also the Chairman on Iron Chef America). Of course, since Fronsac and Mani are so determined to get to the bottom of the whole situation there will have to be something standing in their way.

I don’t think I can really go any further with the plot synopsis without spoiling things even more than I already have so I’ll gloss a little. There’s a lot more at work here than a beast attacking shepherds. The title alone implies that there’s a group involved and that group has a motive and a goal and they certainly don’t want Fronsac ruining it all. And all of that would be complex enough, but then there are the two female leads. On one hand you have Marianne, a young noblewoman whom Fronsac becomes enamoured of right from the start. She’s sheltered and young but also clever and compassionate and unwilling to be swayed by tricks and wit. She holds her own quite well for the vast majority of the movie, even in the fairly constrained position she’s grown up in. On the other hand is Sylvia, an Italian courtesan who works in a local brothel. Sylvia is, without a doubt, my favorite character in the entire movie. Mani’s a close second, but Sylvia wins, hands down.

Sylvia is ruthless and calculating and cold and brilliant and very well versed in manipulation and observation. And Sylvia has her own agenda and motives and follows her own path through the events taking place around her. She sleeps with Fronsac several times and seems to know far more of what’s going on than anyone else does. But being a woman of ill repute, she’s gone unnoticed by those who might otherwise try to silence her. Sylvia kicks ass. Sylvia is precisely the sort of character who always makes me giddy and she is played beautifully by Monica Bellucci. I loved every second she got on screen and she certainly made the entire plot more interesting and complicated and I love that.

And even after all of that I have yet to really touch on the fight scenes, which were a fantastic combination of styles and weaponry and camera work. I hadn’t been expecting the sorts of fight scenes this movie has, with beautifully choreographed stunts and enough martial arts to keep it from being just brawling and European swordfighting. Not that I’d have been disappointed with swordfighting! But that would have been expected and really, nothing about this movie is what I expected. Not the action, not the plot, not the intrigue, not the characters and not the epic quality to it.

The movie exists in several acts. There’s the first act, where Fronsac arrives and studies the situation and meets Marianne and her brother, Jean-François and the marquis, Thomas d’Apcher and all the rest of their friends, relatives and associates. The second act involves Fronsac and Mani returning from Paris to resume the hunt. And the third act is when it all comes to a head, with Fronsac exposing the whole conspiracy and exacting revenge for every wrong done against him, his friends and the people of the area. That, plus the gorgeous scenery both inside the buildings and out in the countryside make this movie feel larger and more expansive. It’s both folklore and political history wrapped into one package, a politically minded tall tale with the ultimate femme fatale and some truly awesome fight scenes and yes, it’s a little long, but it’s worth every minute.

May 14, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 415 – Bush’s Brain

Bush’s Brain – April 19th, 2011

Why, oh why do we own this? Apparently it’s because one of Andy’s former staff members and a suggestion he made. The thing is, when someone tells Andy “Hey, you should see this movie” he doesn’t rent it or look into it. He finds a copy and buys it. This is why we have the collection we have and this is why we own this movie. It’s definitely not my taste. I like to keep my political views to myself. It’s a work thing, and I could go into detail about public librarianship and why I keep my mouth shut most of the time but it would take up this whole review. Suffice it to say that I have some very strong feelings about politics and political parties and policies and so on and so forth, but I tend not to share them.

And I admit, part of that? Is because politics make me angry. Really angry. So angry I stop being able to express myself coherently. To be honest, I feel like I’ve got very little in the way of control over how anything in this country goes. I can vote. I can write letters. But I’m not a politician and I don’t want to be one and my workplace does require a certain amount of public neutrality. And I firmly stand behind the ideals of my job, but it does make for some frustration. So one might think that in my private life, when I don’t have to be so careful, I would appreciate a documentary that’s a series of attacks on a political figure I dislike, right? Wrong. It just makes me all the more frustrated. Watching this doesn’t change the amount of power I have. It doesn’t put me in a different position or give me anything useful to do about him or people like him. And let’s face it, I didn’t need a documentary to tell me that many politicians do shady, scummy, underhanded things to get ahead. That some of them go beyond what’s considered the norm? Not a shock here.

Really, it makes me feel much like how Michael Moore makes me feel. Sure, make your arguments, but you’re making them to the wrong audience. I highly doubt that anyone who likes Rove would watch this and have their minds blown and do a 180 on the man. I mean, it makes me dislike him more, but I didn’t go in with a positive opinion of him anyhow. He always struck me as an incredibly intelligent and ruthless man with a boatload of privilege. But this documentary is preaching to the choir and doing so with a whole lot of talk and rumor and very little fact. Aside from some excerpts of a letter Rove sent the authors of the book this documentary is based on when he go a copy of the manuscript (and I do wonder if this was made as a rebuttal to his rebuttal to the book) it’s mostly got a lot of interviews with people Rove worked with or worked against or both. It’s got interviews from a variety of politicians and journalists and really, aside from some specific events and items like ads he put together or election dates? It’s opinion.

“Can I definitively tell you Karl Rove did this or that? No.” So says one of the interviewees here when talking about the Texas gubernatorial race between George W. Bush and Ann Richards. And that, I think, sums up so many of the interviews this documentary is based on. It’s a lot of people speculating and making assumptions and you know what? That makes me angry. It makes me angry because I don’t like Rove and I think there are plenty of reasons not to like him. But this documentary is going about it in such gossipy ways. It makes a poor case for the accusations they’re leveling against him and that makes it that much harder to claim that said accusations have any foundation. It’s so damn frustrating and it makes me angry. Just like everything political.

And then on top of it all, for the last twenty minutes or so of the movie there’s an extended piece about a Marine named Fred Pokorney who died in battle and we sat there waiting for it to involve Rove somehow. We floated ideas about friendly fire cover-ups and the like, but no. Sad as it is, it’s not really anything to do directly with Rove. It’s one in far too many stories of soldiers who haven’t come home and never will. And I can see what the filmmakers were trying to say here, blaming the war on George W. Bush’s presidency and therefore on Rove since the whole point of the documentary is to claim that Rove put Bush in the White House. But the closest connection they could actually manage was Pokorney’s family saying they don’t think politicians care about the soldiers who’ve died, juxtaposed against Rove giving a speech where he states that every individual matters. It’s a tenuous connection at best and really, its major impact should come from the Rove connection to Bush.

The trouble with that connection is that the movie spends so little time on it. We hear plenty about Rove’s early years and apparently dubious campaign methods (I say apparently because quite a few of them are supposition, not evidence-supported fact) but when it comes to George W. Bush? Well, there is some time spent there on how Rove got to know Bush, but his actual role in the White House and actions and all? The lack of in-depth reporting is pretty sad. What comes across the most is more personality than anything else. The description of Rove as so clever he could shut you down with a swift quip puts me in mind of nothing so much as the queens of last night’s movie, reading their opponents and throwing shade. But I doubt Rove has ever vogued and unfortunately none of the folks in last night’s movie had the opportunities he’s had. If it turned out that he had then perhaps I’d have actually learned something from this movie.

I asked Andy if he’d watched this yet when we grabbed it tonight and he admitted that he’d only made it through about twenty minutes before having to turn it off. I asked why and he said it was “heavy handed”. I had no idea. It’s even got that scare music used in the worst sorts of negative political ads, which, considering the subject, would seem to me to be either a very poor choice or some badly played irony. Andy further admitted to me that he’d never have put this in again if we hadn’t been doing this project. And yet he never got rid of it. He disliked it and couldn’t get through it but it’s still taking up shelf space. I am so confused by that, so we’re going to make a list of movies we’re ditching as soon as the project is over. And this and Death Proof are the first inductees.

April 19, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Bush’s Brain

April 19, 2011

Bush’s Brain

I bought this movie at the urging of a heavily left leaning staff member of mine. At least that’s my recollection of things. I’ll freely admit that I’m about as far to the left politically as it is possible to be. I spent a lot of the early part of this millennium upset with the president of our nation. I was angry with him, his decisions and the things he did to our country. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that I hated George W Bush. As such I didn’t particularly mind the notion of a movie that attacked the man regarded as having been responsible for putting Bush in office.

There’s no kind way to say this though: this is a poor excuse for a documentary. It’s a collection of interviews based on hearsay, speculation and bitter grapes. It’s fear mongering and hate speech. I don’t mean that Karl Rove is innocent of the shady dealings that this movie accuses him of taking part in. I simply mean that no good case is made in any of the allegations.

Most of this movie is interviews with the two authors of the book the movie is based on and with various political opponents of candidates that Rove worked for. Hardly unbiased. Even that would be acceptable if a single thing they said was backed up by fact. They accuse Rove of bugging his own office. They accuse him of sicking an FBI agent on his political opponents. They talk about the Valerie Plame leak, constantly saying things like “I can’t prove that Rove was responsible for the leak, but if he were it would be his style.” That’s not reporting, it’s speculation.

Not to mention the transparent emotional manipulation. There’s an entire segment of the movie that briefly explores the life and death of an American serviceman named Fred Pokorney. Amanda and I kept waiting for the movie to explain why this tragic tale of a life cut short had anything to do with Rove. It doesn’t. It just shows us Pokorney’s wife and father mourning, and implied that he wouldn’t have gone to war and died if Karl Rove hadn’t used Iraq as a chip in a political poker game.

What this movie drives home more than anything else for me is the acriminous nature of modern politics. A much better insider take on it in my opinion is Bush press secretary Scott McClellan’s book What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception. McClellan talks a lot about the never ending campaign shapes not just the spin put on politics but every political decision. Are there people, Karl Rove among them, engaged in a constant war of words to promote their candidate and denigrate the other side’s? I don’t doubt it for a second. Are the stories we read in the paper often fed to the press by these political wranglers? No doubt. Indeed I’ve become more and more skeptical of all news stories regarding politics precisely because I know this kind of maneuvering goes on. But Karl Rove is only one example. I don’t doubt that there are equaly duplicitous political masterminds on the Democratic side.

So where does that leave this movie? Well to be frank it’s not worth the time it takes to watch in my opinion. Karl Rove IS a force to be reckoned with, this I have no doubt of. He can be credited with formulating the entire Republican strategy for re-claiming congress in the last elections (a strategy of blocking every effort to get anything passed in congress over the last two years and then blaming Obama and the Democrats for not getting anything done.) But this movie doesn’t build any sort of credible case against him. It just vents its spleen for an hour and a half, and then is mercifully over. I don’t believe I will be watching this movie ever again.

April 19, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 354 – Vantage Point

Vantage Point – February 17th, 2011

I’d totally forgotten about this movie. Not that I’d seen it before, but once Andy described it I remembered seeing ads for it and thinking it was a neat idea. The whole concept is a story told over and over from different points of view, each one telling a little more, taking you a little further. And I love seeing stories from other points of view. When I was in fourth grade we read two books: A Dog on Barkham Street and The Bully of Barkham Street, both telling the same story, but from two totally different characters’ perspectives. I’ve been hooked ever since. So the gimmick here tickles me. Yet I never got around to seeing it and I’d been clueless as to what it was whenever I scrolled past it on our list.

The movie starts off with a news van. Sigourney Weaver as the producer, Rex, is calling the shots, ordering cameras around and lackeys in the van to find archive footage or switch views. We meet young reporter Angie, played by Zoe Saldana (seriously we have so many movies with her – it makes me happy) and we learn the set-up for the plot: We’re in Spain. There’s an anti-terrorism conference going on and the US president is about to arrive. The plaza is full of people. The president shows up, a speech is made and then he’s shot. He’s shot and a bomb goes off, and then another and there’s Angie, on the ground until Rex shuts down the feed and we’re spun back twenty-three minutes to follow someone else. This is how the movie works, and I like that it starts in the news van, with the crew spinning the footage back and forth, playing with a variety of views and perspectives, looking at what came before while looking at what’s happening. It’s a sly little metaphor for the whole movie and it sets the stage nicely.

As we follow Dennis Quaid’s Agent Barnes, a secret service agent who protected the president the year before we learn more about what happened out in the plaza. We see moving curtains, shots fired, a man filming it all. We see that he sees something, but we never see what he sees. We go back again and follow Eduardo Noriega as Enrique, a Spanish police officer. From him we get a glimpse of a larger assassination plot than a lone shooter. We get his girlfriend and a stranger and a meeting in an underpass. Go back again and we’re with Forest Whitaker as Howard Lewis, an American tourist who’s been filming everything, catching the odd movements and flapping curtains, a bag tossed under the platform in the plaza, things no one was supposed to notice. Back again and we’re with William Hurt as the president. And again and we get the leader of the terrorists responsible for the whole scheme. And this is where the problems start for me.

By the time we reach the terrorist leader we know a lot about what’s going on. We know where one bomb came from and we know there’s a little twist to the president’s presence. We know Lewis caught some stuff on camera that will help out eventually. We know there’s a little girl lost and foolishly trying to cross a highway. But now that we’ve seen those events from a variety of viewpoints, the movie’s run out of things to show us without going wildly off concept. Instead of building a story that could be unfolded bit by bit within the confines of the gimmick the movie created a story that begins that way and then unravels. We meet the terrorist leader and suddenly it’s not just his POV. It’s the sniper and Barnes and the president and Lewis and the little girl and Enrique and it flips back and forth between them all just like any typical action thriller.

I like the concept. I like the concept a lot. I enjoyed a lot of the ways things were done and switched around. I liked all the different people involved and I liked their performances. I liked the twist during the president’s POV section and where it leads from there. I liked that there was an attempt right from the outset to keep tension going. That there were bits and pieces at the beginning that only get explained much later. But I have some issues with how it’s all put together at the end. There’s some magic tech and the skipping between multiple POVs at once like a typical movie instead of the movie’s conceit. And I had the big twist figured out from the second POV. And as soon as it’s revealed the rest of the movie is just a big car chase to the end we’ve seen several times. Then too, while we know five or six characters very well, thanks to getting their points of view, the rest of the characters are ciphers, all form and no substance or reason to care about them. I wish they’d found a way to keep unfurling the bits and pieces. I wish it had stuck to its concept better and closer. I wish we’d gone out with a note about Angie. Because there’s some cool stuff in there, and some good performances and a not-bad-but-not-revolutionary assassination plot that had a lot of twists and turns to suit the concept. And it just couldn’t quite follow through. It just had to have that Hollywood car chase climax ending and it just doesn’t fit.

February 17, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 353 – V for Vendetta

V For Vendetta – February 16th, 2011

Looking back, there is an excellent reason we did not watch this on Guy Fawkes’ Day, though I am now rather disappointed that we didn’t find a way to manage it. At the time, I was heading out of the state to visit a friend and so we watched something incredibly easy on our brains because we were watching it just after midnight on the previous night. We did some Monty Python. Not really the same sort of thing at all, even if both works are British in origin. Still, as I said, it’s too bad we didn’t manage it. I honestly don’t remember if we even floated the idea or just skipped to the familiar out of necessity. Ah well.

I am a bad comic book/graphic novel reader and have never read the work this movie is based on. Oh, it’s crossed my desk at work several times. I’ve had the opportunity, but, you see, I knew the basics about it, and it is the sort of thing I have to be in the right mindset and mood for. And to be honest, I don’t know if I was tonight. I get the point of it and I can see all the possible parallels and given the current political climate in certain geographical areas, well, I’m sure there are film students and political science students and pop culture students writing theses on it all as I type. Cheers to them all. I’m sure they’ll say very interesting things about England and the US and Egypt and Tunisia and Iran and protests and fascism and totalitarianism and fear and torture. Were I in college I believe I would try to do something with this movie, The Stand and Wag the Dog and I could likely have made a good go of writing something coherent, if I could bring myself to really prod at the political history necessary to anything halfway decent.

And therein lies my problem with a movie like this. Any movie that’s making an overt statement about current politics, really. And while this movie can be said to be pointing backwards at regimes like Hitler’s in Germany, it is set in the future in the UK, with references to civil war in the US. And while allegory as an artistic form is often used to comment on political or social issues of the day without actually flat out stating them, I don’t believe this to be allegory. It is straight up cautionary dystopia. And while I can appreciate it for its brazenness it pings a little hard on my anti-propaganda meter. It swings so hard and so fast away from what it rails against that it makes me give it the side-eye. Which I find immensely frustrating

All that being said, I did enjoy it, and I credit that enjoyment to the performances, which totally sold me on every moment of the movie. Natalie Portman as Evey, a young woman whose whole family seems to have fallen victim to the chaos and destruction that have brought England to the state it is in as of the time of the movie. There was a viral outbreak at a primary school that claimed her brother. Her parents became activists and were arrested, never to be seen again. There were riots and chaos and now the country is under a strict rule of fear and hate. And against it all is a masked vigilante named V, who, we learn, was a victim of the government’s secret experiments on its own people. V and Evey become connected through a couple of minor events that end up leading to far more than either one expected. I don’t really feel the need to go into much more detail really. If you don’t know the movie, then I think it’s better to see it play out. If you do, you know how it goes. It is brutal in places and oddly sweet in others. It has moments of sadness and melancholy and moments of exultation. And really, it is Portman as Evey who carries it all. Hugo Weaving, as V, is fantastic as well, but you never see his face. It’s all in his voice. Evey gets to show us expressions, and often that’s all she needs. The rest of the cast stands up to it too, whether they’re on the side of the government or V or somewhere in between (most people seem to be in between, really). So it’s the performances. They made this movie for me.

It’s incredibly heavy-handed in many places. It presses its agenda to a fault. I really disliked the end scene with people taking the masks off because it felt so very forced and unnecessary to have some particular people there. I would have liked there to be a little more depth to the atrocities committed by the people in power (they’re mentioned and stories are told, but it all feels glossed over every time). But for all of that, I enjoyed it. I cannot say whether it touches the right notes as an adaptation of the graphic novel, but as a movie on its own I would say it is at least a partial success, and I say partial because I know some people will see the message of the movie from the very first scenes and be turned off right then and there by its obviousness. But personally speaking, I wasn’t. I acknowledge its flaws and enjoy it all the same for being a movie that deals with issues of fear and suspicion and freedom not just on a national level, but a personal level as well.

February 16, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 327 – Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country – January 21st, 2011

After last night’s farce, it’s good to be back on track with a decent movie with a decent plot and decent writing and no fan dance. Oh, it’s got a moment or two that I quibble with, but I’ll get there. For the most part this is a nicely solid movie that slots in well with the timeline and continuity from the rest of the movies. Kirk’s antipathy towards Klingons is explored in depth, as is his reputation among them. The Excelsior shows up, there are familiar faces in Starfleet and in general it’s moving the whole wider universe along. It lays ground for a few things and explains other things and contains some nice moments for some of the crew (though I feel that, as usual, Chekhov is underused). Oh, and it’s got Kim Catrall and Iman in it, along with some familiar-to-Star Trek faces such as David Warner, Rene Auberjonois and Michael Dorn.

Let me get my quibbles out of the way first. There’s a scene where the Enterprise is en route to Rura Penthe and they have to communicate with some Klingons. On board the Enterprise the crew is frantically scrambling for paper copies of Klingon dictionaries so they can figure out what’s being said and respond correctly. It’s got some humorously mangled Klingon and forced laughter and helpless shrugging and it’s cute and all, but. In the movie’s trivia there’s a note that Nichelle Nichols protested this scene, saying that it would make more sense that Uhura would either speak the language or have the technology to look things up without resorting to hardcopy dictionaries. She was overruled, but I agree with her. I mean, hell, if I want to translate something into Klingon I’m sure there are computer programs out there and I sure as hell am not in the 23rd century. It’s a comedic anachronism and it serves that purpose well, but it sticks out like a Horta at a dinner party. My other quibble is with the Klingons’ response to Kirk holding a grudge after the death of his son. Granted, a lot of development has been done with the Klingons as a civilization since this movie was released, but the Klingons I know about would totally get someone wanting revenge or at least being irrevocably pissed off after someone murdered a family member. But I suppose that’s pretty geeky, even for me.

Quibbles aside (and no, I won’t go complaining about the purple blood), it really is a solid movie. Maybe not the best of the first six, but certainly a tighter story than the fifth movie. And it’s not just that I’m comparing it to the weakest of the bunch. It really does hold together well. With the explosion of their primary source of power, the Klingons are in a weakened position and unable to sustain a prolonged military opposition to the Federation. Talks are planned so as to reach some sort of peace accord between the two groups, but while accompanying the Klingon ambassador to Earth someone on the Enterprise shoots up the Klingon ship, killing the ambassador and some of the crew and framing Kirk and McCoy for it. They’re put on trial and sent to Rura Penthe, a prison planet, and the rest of the Enterprise crew has to figure out who the traitors in their midst are before Kirk and McCoy get themselves killed and the peace talks are completely ruined by more assassinations. It’s a sci-fi murder mystery with some big political concepts providing backdrop. Overall, while I think Star Trek has done philosophy fairly well at times, it does much better with politics.

And really, the political meanings here aren’t precisely difficult to grasp. After all, the whole thing was made not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall and it was released right at the end of the Cold War. The Klingon ambassador’s name (Chancellor Gorkon) is supposedly a portmanteau of Gorbachev and Lincoln. So really, we’re dealing with some political meanings that were, at the time, striking very close to home. And Star Trek does have a history of touching on political and social issues. There are nods to bigotry and fear of change, uncertainty over old enemies suddenly no longer being okay to hate. It doesn’t go too far in depth there. Not for many more than Kirk and Bones, who get a good deal of screen time, but it is touched on. And I like that the effort was made. One of the things I love best about Star Trek is its portrayal of the future as being one to hope for. I noted to Andy the other day that the casting for the movies was very nice indeed, putting both men and women as well as members of several different ethnicities on the bridges of starships in roles of command. The characters we see on screen are ones who acknowledge their own prejudices and face them, regretting that it took them so long to recognize them. Of course it could be handled better at times, but in this movie, as with the Trek universe as a whole, there’s true effort being put in and I like that.

I’m not usually a suspense or mystery fan, but there’s something about a sci-fi mystery that I enjoy. And in this movie there are so many great little exchanges and winks for fans to notice (like Sarek’s portrait in the dining room on the Enterprise and Bones saying ‘fascinating’ to Spock). It makes it all the more fun to watch to have it follow something dreadful, but even if it had followed The Voyage Home directly it still would have been just as good.

January 21, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | 3 Comments