A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 247 – Wag the Dog

Wag the Dog – November 2nd, 2010

I hate politics. Really. Political discussions never fail to leave me with a sense of vague impending dread. I work in a public position, and on election days I spend the evening in a polling location, where people frequently expect me to tell them how I voted and to engage in debates while I work. I try to take election days off to avoid having to deal with things like that. I vote (in every election) and then I sit at home and don’t watch the news.

So it’s a good thing this movie isn’t really about politics. At no point do we ever find out which party is behind the machinations in the movie. Really, arguments could be made for either side because no policies are discussed. One character, Winifred, who works for the current president, goes on a tear at one point, calling another character a Commie liberal, but then said “Commie liberal” is mentioned as being supportive of the current president. And he doesn’t actually vote in political elections. He votes for the Academy Awards. That’s it. This is a movie about spin and the media and maneuvering and manipulation and misdirection. So okay, maybe it is a movie about politics, but not real politics. It’s about modern politics and how it’s often not the policies we hear about. The policies are incidental. It’s the stories we hear. And as any reader knows, you can make up some pretty impressive stories when you put your mind to it.

Now, this is satire. Very dark satire, given the ending, but yes. Satire. It is meant as an exaggeration of the subject, but only to a point. The whole idea is that it’s presenting something that isn’t wholly unbelievable and then takes it over the top. In the movie the president is about to be embroiled in a scandal involving sexual misconduct. And so Conrad Brean is called in. Mr. Fixit. The guy who takes care of situations like this. Because the election is coming up in eleven days and this will sink any chance for re-election. And Conrad goes to work immediately, manufacturing first some rumors about a new bomber and then rumors about a situation in Albania and then, with the help of a film producer named Stanley Motss, he manufactures a war. Sure, the start of it was rumors and rumors can spiral outwards quickly on their own, but soon they need footage and people and story. And so they make them. Brean and Motss and Winifred Ames, a presidential aide, together with Motss’s assistant Grace and a team of Hollywood folks who work on fads and songs and costumes and all the trappings they’ll need.

What’s fun for me to watch in this movie isn’t just how the team comes up with piece after piece of this elaborate hoax, but watching them watch the press run with it. All they have to do is leak a word or two to the right person and suddenly the press is doing it all for them. Building the story higher and higher than they ever could have done it themselves. I can only imagine how it would play out in a more net-savvy time. This wasn’t made that long ago, but long enough ago in computer time that the web wasn’t the same sort of force it is now. Just imagine the memes that would rise out of this now. Shoe-based macros would only be the tip of the iceberg. It’s about media and the press and all that, yes. But it’s also about the power of suggestion and imagination and how much can be done with just an idea.

To be honest, I feel a little guilty about liking this movie. I don’t really like what’s done in it. I despise this sort of playing on emotions and manipulation. The whole hoax is pretty sickening, really, if you think about it from a serious perspective. But I can’t help but admire the set-up. The grandeur and audacity of it. I don’t have to like it to appreciate it as presented here. And it helps that it’s presented in a fantastically clever way by a wonderful cast. It’s just wild enough to be unrealistic (unless you’re particularly paranoid, which I’m not today, since I’ve been avoiding the news, and no, that is NOT an invitation to comment and tell me what’s going on), and has plenty of humor spread throughout. So I can laugh at it even as I find the actions reprehensible. Robert De Niro is wonderfully understated as Brean and Dustin Hoffman plays an excellent counterpoint to him as Motss. I’ve always loved Anne Heche as Winifred (a part originally written for a man) and the team who put together the whole show (Willie Nelson, Denis Leary and Andrea Martin). There are smaller parts, like Woody Harrelson, William H. Macy and Kirsten Dunst (who says one of my favorite throwaway references “These are chips!”) that are all great. I love everyone in this movie. They pull it off so well. And so I can hate what they’re doing and still chuckle as they do it. That’s a well done movie. And I still maintain it’s not really about politics at all.


November 2, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wag the Dog

November 2, 2010

Wag The Dog

Election day! We’ve done our civic duty and gone out and cast our ballets, so now we’re watching the quintessential movie about the sham that is American politics in the days of mass media. I know that this movie is a dark comedy spoof, but events that have gone on in the years since it came out make it seems likely that spin doctors and campaign managers ever since have taken it as the blueprint for how to put a person in office. (Look at some of the wilder accusations in Bush’s Brain which intimates that Karl Rove once planted a listening device in his own office so that he could blame it on a rival candidate.) About a year ago I read What Happened – the book written by Bush Jr.’s press secretary Scott McClellan about his time in the white house. It talks a lot about the never ending campaign and the teams of people that every candidate employs to maintain control over the message being delivered by the media. There really is a constant war going on to be the author of the dominant sound byte. (I’ll ignore for now Rupert Murdoch’s end run – dominating the message sent out by the media by simply being the guy who cuts their paychecks.) None of this, of course, is anything new – the power of the media has been used to further the goals of media moguls at least as far back as William Randolph Hearst, and probably long before that. This movie makes a small but plausible supposition: that candidates don’t just try to manipulate the media and put the best possible spin on a story but that they actually manufacture fake stories to feed to the media.

This is a sly, clever movie full of great dialog and fantastic acting. There is hardly any action – even the big plane crash near the end of the movie happens off screen – so the entire film rests on the patter and the actors delivering it. The script, written by Hilary Henkin (author of Roadhouse!) and David Mamet (synonymous with clever and intricate dialog) is pitch perfect. It tells the story of a mysterious spin doctor and fixer named Conrad Brean who is brought in to help with the sitting President’s campaign when a scandal breaks out. “Who cares if it’s true – it’s a story” he says early on, and that seems to be his motto. Brean, with the help of white house insider Winifred Ames, enlists Stanly Motss to produce a fictional war to feed to the media and distract them from accusations by a campfire girl that she was molested by the President during a White House tour. Motss in turn brings on his team of artists and the movie then becomes a kind of heist film. It’s all about the big con – can this group of people manufacture something and get the world to believe it long enough for the President to win the election, which is only eight days away? Think of it as The Sting, but the mark is the American people.

There are so many clever scenes in this movie that I’m almost tempted to just start quoting at random from them. A couple of times we are treated to brainstorming sessions as Motss and his team put together ideas. What they need is a quick media soundbyte to put on the television to personalise the war (in this case manufactured footage of a girl fleeing a village sacked by terrorists.) Then they need tie-ins. Patriotic songs, a hero, a moving speech by the President. At every turn the team are the perfect manipulators. And America in the movie buys right into the whole thing. It’s fun to see people caught up in fads manufactured by the Fad King. Brean even has an iconic scene where he convinces a skeptical CIA officer to go along with his scam.

It helps that this movie has an absolute dream cast. Rober De Nero as Brean is always calm, collected, and thinking several moves ahead. Anne Heche plays the sympathetic role of the disbelieving audience, wondering aloud how she can possibly save her career and then being awed by the machinations of the people she’s brought in to save the President. Dustin Hoffman as Motss looks like he’s having a complete ball – poking fun at Hollywood producers, their egos and their excesses at every turn. His team of specialists is a wonder to behold, particularly the frenetic Fad King played by Denis Leary and John Dean, the drunken and addled song writer played by Willie Nelson. (You get the feeling that Nelson is pretty much playing himself – which ads to the fun.)

How many times does this movie presciently predict the future? I mean, sure, we all know that this movie came out a year before the Monica Lewinski scandal, and Clinton’s supposed attempt to wag the dog, but there’s an awful lot more. “What do you say we line up the President for the Peace Prize?” says producer Stanley Motss in the movie – which if the film came out today would feel like a reference to President Obama. Indeed there was an entire scandal during the 2004 Presidential election when somebody DID manufacture news in an attempt to influence the election. In the end it cost Dan Rather his job and failed to alter the ultimate outcome. Since the president had very wisely started a war in his first term the voting public felt that it would be a bad idea to “change horses in mid-stream.” (I am still waiting for credible evidence that the Bush administration had the ability to prevent the September 11 attacks and allowed them to happen anyhow in order to precipitate his war in Iraq, which was the lynch pin of his election strategy and energy policy.)

If, as I suspect, American politics really is now all about manipulating the media and by means of the media the American public then this movie is part of the cure. Think of it as an inoculation. Once you’ve seen this movie and accepted that this kind of stuff could and probably does happen then you are less likely to accept what you are told at face value. Ideally the voting public should build up a healthy skepticism. I’d say that the Internet is a part of the cure as well, since it is full of people who like to pick apart perceived flaws in reporting, but it is also filled with crazy crackpots and conspiracy theorists like myself. So in short you can’t really believe anything you read or see… I don’t really know how anybody can be expected to make effective choices under these circumstances. But I voted today anyhow. How’s that for patriotism?

November 2, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | 2 Comments

Movie 35 – Jesus Christ Superstar

Jesus Christ Superstar – April 5th, 2010

Yes, we did pick this intentionally for today. Next year we’ll follow Simon Pegg’s suggestion to find our favorite zombie movie but this year we’ll stick with Jesus.

Now, there are two things that are pretty key about this movie that should turn me off. One, it’s overtly religious and I’m not, but I am fascinated by religions and their stories. Two, it’s a musical, and as I’ve mentioned, I’m not big on musicals as a genre, but the music in this is so good. I’m just very picky about musicals and this one just works for me in all its 1970s dirty hippie fringed glory. I also love the movie’s conceit of the performance of the show, beginning with the actors arriving in a bus with all their costumes and props and unpacking while the key players are introduced through their behavior and eventual receipt of their costumes. I mean, look at how Herod is introduced, climbing up onto the bus, then sitting back on the boxes in a pose that he later takes up while on his throne. It’s a great way to introduce the players, not too clobbery but not too subtle either. And then at the end they pack up, leaving the cross behind. Not being a religious person, I can’t speak to the specifics of how someone who is would see the ending, but I can say that to me it’s a supremely melancholy way to close the whole thing, even beyond the story being told by the players.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a former theater techie and love seeing the workings behind the scenes sometimes. It wouldn’t work for a lot of movies, but something like this – a movie based on a stage show – can get away with it and, in my opinion, be enriched by it. It also makes for a pared down movie. The scaffolding that Caiaphas and the priests stand on is just that: Scaffolding. It isn’t so much a set as a platform. The soldiers are just guys in camo pants and muscle shirts, but the helmets and spears make it clear what they are. Much like how I felt about the Frost/Nixon stage show versus the movie, the spare sets and props put the focus on the performances. It’s been put on the screen here to great effect. And then there’s the melding of the then-modern with the ancient. The setting is a ruin, the story two thousand years old, but the soldiers wear combat boots and they’re selling machine guns in the temple scene then there are the tanks and Herod’s whole scene and then there’s all the fringe. Granted, it also dates the movie pretty obviously, but in my opinion it still works.

So I love the production itself, but what about the story? I love the story too. It’s a difficult one to watch play out, especially since its major plot points are well known outside the movie itself. We all know what happens to Jesus. We know about Judas, we know about Mary, we know about Peter and Herod and Pilate, we know the names, we know the chain of events and their outcome. And the movie ends before the resurrection. While it’s alluded to at the end, it doesn’t happen on screen. To me, there’s a sense of tragic inevitability in the movie and it’s supported by Jesus predicting much of what happens. He knows what’s coming too, just like we do. I mentioned that it seems to end on a melancholy note, and I think that’s important. The players pack up their bus and the mood is subdued in a way I recognize from the end of many shows. Something magical and wonderful is over and there might well be other wonderful times ahead, but this one is over and you’ll never get it back. Maybe it’s a simplistic comparison to make, but I think the movie does it intentionally and it’s done well.

On a totally unrelated note, I have to admit that having realized that Barry Dennen, who plays Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar also played Claude LaMont in Kentucky Fried Movie I can’t help but snicker at him. I mean, he’s very good in this, but my brain supplies the “poisonous fish” line when I see him.

April 4, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jesus Christ Superstar

March 4, 2010

Jesus Christ Superstar

I love, love, LOVE this movie!  It was, for many years, traditional Easter viewing for me.  Although I suppose it’s not an Easter movie since it doesn’t deal at all with Jesus rising from the grave, but deals only with the days leading up to the crucifixion.    It makes perfect Easter viewing for me, however, for a number of reasons.  Primarily because it does such a great job of humanizing Jesus, Judas, Pilot and all.  I’ve never been a religious person.  I was taken to church by my parents throughout my youth, but I never bought into the notion of miracles or god or any of that.  I can, however, believe in the power of charisma and the dangers of politics.  So there’s a good story there in the tale of Jesus, and some good sentiment.  Which comes across well in this movie.

Things I love about this movie:

Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s vision and music.  A lot of the accomplishment in this movie is taking the musty and often confusing garble that is the bible and extracting a few key scenes.  The music is inspiring, beautiful and gets caught in your head.  I never have any trouble suspending my disbelief while watching a musical, and this one ranks amongst my favorites.

Norman Jewison’s direction is fantastic too.  He takes the stage play and merges it with the scenery of ruins in Israel in a fascinating way.  He uses sparse props and minimal costumes but lets most of the story come from the performances, which is a great stylistic choice for the movie.  (In particular I’m grabbed in the overture when the bus filled with cast members drives up and they start unloading props and costumes.  Every character is introduced quickly through just their actions in this scene in a clever and subtle way.  It works on so many levels!  Here we know there’s going to be a juxtaposition of modern (well early seventies) times and the biblical story.  We are introduced to the sparse feel of the film – basically told that it’s a bunch of hippies in the desert putting on a play for us.  And we see the actors getting into their roles.  It blows my mind.)

All the ecstatic hippies.  This movie was filmed in 1972 – the year I was born.  The hippie movement was near it’s end then I suppose, but here are all these long haired kids in their robes and bell bottoms and vests, and they look like they’re having such fun.  It’s like watching Woodstock: a window into an idealized world that perhaps only existed in a collective dream, but which has some appeal.

Mostly I just love a great messiah story.  Dark City, Matrix, Dune… I love the dilemma facing those destined to great power.  Sure, this movie makes Jesus out to be more a political figure than a religious one (which in a historical context seems true to me) but it’s still all about what his power brings him and how he and those around him cope with it.

So happy Easter to those of you who celebrate it!  Enjoy a good movie and some time with friends and family.

April 4, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 22 – Frost/Nixon

Frost/Nixon – March 22, 2010

Tonight’s movie is Frost/Nixon. Far more serious fare than most of what we’ve done so far. See? We do own more than comedies and scifi/fantasy action. Okay, so most of what we own is action/adventurey, but we do have some things like this. But we might not have bought this if we hadn’t seen the play on stage in Boston with my parents. We watched the play and we loved it. I did a lot of theater in high school and saw a decent amount of stage productions, so when I watch something on stage now I watch it with an eye not just to the performances but to the production as a whole. And I’ve got to say, Frost/Nixon was a fantastic production. It was so pared down, so focused, it was amazing. Yes, it placed the interviews that are the point of the movie in historical context, but the entire point of the show was to watch David Frost and Richard Nixon talking, sparring, prodding at each other. And there were a couple of fantastic performances. Stacy Keach as Nixon, specifically, made me almost feel bad for Nixon. Almost.

Anyhow, we loved the play and when the movie came out on DVD we went ahead and bought it, thinking it would be interesting to see how the movie presented it and the differences between the stage and the screen. What I found was that while I really enjoy the movie, I liked the focus of the show on stage. The intense lighting, the spare set, the small cast, it all served to make you pay attention to very specific things. I liked that.

Now, that being said? I think the movie is excellent. The atmosphere is fantastic and the acting is superb. And the story and writing do what they do in the play: They take an event from history, one which we know the outcome of already, and present it in such a way that there is tension about how it’s going to play out. It’s a matter of record that eventually Frost managed to get something out of Nixon that no one had really managed to get. But the script displays it as so far from a sure thing and the acting backs that up. The fear being shown that Frost and his people had not just lost control of the interviews, but that they’d never had it in the first place. The desperation of Frost’s team to get Nixon, not just because they had a hell of a lot of money riding on it but because for some of them it was a long-term goal. Reston’s flat out stated as being passionate about it. Frost’s whole team does an excellent job at showing just how freaked they are and the wide variety of reasons why. Meanwhile, Langella, as Nixon, does an amazing job portraying a man who’s done horrible things and justified them in his own mind. An intelligent man who’s not about to let go of control easily.

An aside about Nixon: Up until Frost/Nixon, my best pop culture reference to Nixon was Billy West’s Nixon-head in Futurama. Which means that no matter how good Keach was on stage or Langella is on screen, I still expect Billy West’s version every so often. “I’ll sneak into people’s houses and mess up the place! A-roooo!”

Back to the movie. It’s tense. It’s very tense. There are some truly heavy moments, but then every so often a bit or two of humor. Oddly enough, it’s often Nixon saying something amusing (the “Do any fornicating?” line, for example), which I’m sure was intentional. As I said above, by the end of the play I almost felt bad for Nixon. While Langella evokes a similar emotion in the movie, for me its impact is a little lessened because I’d seen such an amazing performance on stage. The final scenes, watching Frost just sit back, knowing he’s delivered a blow Nixon wasn’t prepared for, and Nixon speaking seriously about things he’d never intended to speak about, it’s an amazing piece of film. It’s an amazing piece of film about an amazing piece of film.

I can’t recommend this movie enough. It’s not light fare. It’s got light moments, but it’s not light. It’s fantastic. The only criticism I have is that it’s not the play.

March 22, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment