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Category: movie reviews

Siskel and Ebert. Photo by Kevin Horan.

Roger Ebert’s Life The American Dream Itself

Photo Credit:  Kevin Horan

I am a midwestern son. There’s a sequence in the documentary ‘Life Itself’ that suggests that Roger Ebert styled himself as a Chicago journalist in an archetype of public figures like Studs Turkel. He was, for a time, hard drinking and hard living. Enjoying life in it’s ups and downs in a way that is both uniquely human and uniquely American. Seeing this film as I have now, in a time in life where for unrelated reasons, I’ve recently had to explain and often defend being both a New Yorker and American, it has given me pause to reflect on my midwestern-ness. It’s a claim I don’t often make about aspects of my personality and to say they are at best unsettled would perhaps be an understatement.

I grew up in California and having spent nearly a decade now in New York I’m often accused of being alternatively laid back (the West Coast side) or shall we say ambitious (the East Coast side). Sharing that I was born in Illinois and have fond childhood memories of returning to the Land of Lincoln and the land of my parents isn’t something that I’m oft to do unless you are close to me. I spent the formative years of my life learning how the world works from the perspective of diverse and conflicted California. By the time I had made it to Santa Cruz, a stereotype of California cool and a sign that you had made it by West Coast standards, I was constantly being accused of seeming East Coast. I lived blocks from the beach. I could hear the ocean crashing from my bed and on occasion sea lions barking – surprisingly – from miles away.

Eventually New York’s pull couldn’t evade me and I’ve made a happy home here and been able to watch Brooklyn change from my window and in some ways feel the gilded walls closing in in similar ways to Santa Cruz. Here people are compelled to say “Why would you ever leave?” In reference to California’s famous sun and weather and I say “Why not?” I couldn’t see getting to where I am now without moving. I’m a published author and have a successful independent business that has paid the bills for four years now. When I travel back to California and meet people from the tech industry out there I can’t help but feel that there’s not a snowballs chance in hell that I would have met them if I wasn’t where I am professionally in New York.

I’ve had a series of friends new and old visit from Europe and the continent and now that I’m an erudite New Yorker, I find myself having to explain my fellow countrymen in ways that don’t always feel natural. Perhaps that’s why the Ebert documentary hit me like a ton of bricks. When I think of celebrities, of artists, of people I admire and what I want out of life, there’s a certain midwestern quality that I find I am drawn to in somewhat inexplicable ways. It’s explained in ‘Life Itself’ that after Roger Ebert won the Pulitzer prize while writing for the scrappy Sun-Times – a commuter rag I can recall my Chicago suburban relatives explain to me – Ebert was courted by major publications like the NY Times and Washington Post. Roger was quoted as saying “I don’t want to have to learn new streets.”

When I think of celebrities, of artists, of people I admire and what I want out of life, there’s a certain midwestern quality that I find I am drawn to in somewhat inexplicable ways.

While on the one hand I’ve never lived in Chicago and on the other I feel deeply connected to the Bay Area and have a homey understanding of New York, there’s something about this sentiment that rings true for me. A loyalty to home, a sense of pride in the scrappiness of the paper. There’s something there that is American, heartland and Chicago. While in California, the dream is to be discovered and move up in the world and in New York, you wouldn’t leave because you feel well and true that this place is the best place on earth, the sense in Chicago that you stay despite being able to leave is both heartbreaking and wonderful. Something that I inherently feel and understand and fear perhaps that I’m overstating (as someone who isn’t from there) but I look at people like Studs and Ebert and Jean Sheperd and I feel like “yes” these are people who embody that spirit. They are people I aspire to be.

Ben Margot, AP Bill Murray Nate Cooper

“There’s something in the spirit of Northern Illinois that is simultaneously understated and resounding – a midwestern cool.” Photo by: Ben Margot, AP

It’s why I felt so deeply hurt at news of Robin Williams passing. I can remember as a child seeing bits of my grandpa in him and feeling he was part of the family. It’s also why I think of Bill Murray as the archetype of the celebrity. There’s something in the spirit of Northern Illinois that is simultaneously understated and resounding – a midwestern cool. Look at Oprah! In ‘Life Itself’ we’re told time and again stories of unknown directors that Roger Ebert (along with Gene Siskel) pulled up from obscurity because they thought they deserved a voice. There’s a sense of Roger as an American success story both in his talent but also in his desire to give back. His humble beginnings were a tutorial for him on both the promise of the American dream but also the sense of duty to it. That’s perhaps what’s missing sometimes I feel as culture moves to the coasts. I’ve benefited greatly from being pulled up by others here in New York. It wasn’t always out of a sense of duty, but instead a sense kinship or reciprocity. In California I was brought in by the warmth of people’s generosity but it can often feel cold and individual there despite the sun. In neither place do I feel quite the same sense of humble duty. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist in either place, but rather it doesn’t exist in quite the same way.

There’s a wonderful reflection of death as a part of life in the documentary. The film doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of declining health as Roger Ebert went through many medical procedures towards the end of his life. It also confronts what death means in the context of life, cinema and America. I find intellectual communion in statements from Roger like: “Look at a movie a lot of people love and you’ll find something profound, no matter how silly the film may seem…” Through passages of the film Ebert is painted as both a sophisticated and stubborn egotist and at the same time a populist. At one point at a conference he’s asked why his opinion on a film matters more than anyone else’s and he says “because I have a Pulitzer.” It’s both harsh and true. Later though he’s lauded for his insistence that anyone can get a movie. Time and again we’re shown filmmakers like Errol Morris, Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese who basically credit Siskel and Ebert with making their films more palatable to audiences. Morris says “I don’t think I would have had a career if it weren’t for those guys.”

Yet when Siskel and Ebert at the Movies was growing in popularity there was a staunch refusal in the LA and New York markets to pick up the show. There was a sense that New York and Los Angeles film criticism was superior. Look at this article Ebert wrote on unfair criticism of Michael Moore’s Roger and Me where he staunchly rebukes Pauline Kael of the New Yorker, a woman he admired and credits for opening up the path of film criticism for a new generation. From the article:

Does Moore “demean” the subjects in his film, the “little people,” by holding them up to ridicule? I don’t think so. I think he is looking at the infinite goofiness of human nature — at the things people will say — with the same deadpan astonishment that I sometimes have when I watch the TV news.

Though respectful and accomplished, Roger Ebert seemed resolute in his dedication to the everyman ideal found throughout American storytelling. He believed in the American dream in both it’s promise and it’s faults and in doing so he embodied an archetype of the American journalist/writer we see manifest from time to time in literature and popular culture. Throughout the film ‘Life Itself’ A thread of a quote from The Great Gatsby is played and repeated. It is noted as one of Roger Ebert’s favorite quotes and one that embodies the American dream.

“Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning ——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Watch Bill Nack, a friend of Roger Ebert recite this passage from the Great Gatsby at Ebertfest

The Great Gatsby is a testament to American idealism, failure and reinvention. Famously read on stage, presumably ironically by Charlie Kaufman and retyped in its entirety by Hunter S Thompson, another iconic writer on the American dream from a previous generation, in order to gain insight on it’s rhythm. The story of Gatsby itself is an examination of the American dream through the lens of a midwesterner, Nick Halloway who is transported to the opulence of the East Coast to find the self-made Gatsby at once incredibly successful but as is described in the quote above, chasing an unattainable past. America allows for one to build their own path and for even the humble son of a electrician as in Ebert’s case to rise to the pinnacle of American journalism. But only to a point.

For all the optimism of the American dream, we can’t stop the inevitable passage of time. “He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him…” But what makes us American is our unwillingness to let that stop us from trying to reinvent the past by focusing on the future. What is sometimes seen by non-Americans as American ignorance of the past and the foolish, resolute pursuit of forward movement, is in fact laced with knowing fatalism and sadness, regret but optimism. Optimism in the belief that the failures of the past cannot be reconciled by dwelling on them. “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning ——”  And this is Fitzgerald writing nearly a century ago. What codifies the American spirit, and perhaps terrifies other non-Americans is the fact that we know the journey is unknown, we know the clock is impossible to turn back, but the only natural course of action we know is forward into the future. Even if it’s to chase an impossible past. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

What is sometimes seen by non-Americans as American ignorance of the past and the foolish, resolute pursuit of forward movement, is in fact laced with knowing fatalism and sadness, regret but optimism. Optimism in the belief that the failures of the past cannot be reconciled by dwelling on them.

What I’m reminded of watching ‘Life Itself’ as a Californian turned New Yorker is that while that indomitable spirit of constant progress may be born on the coasts, it’s the midwesterners who celebrate it, give it life and frame it in such a way as to make it sustainable. Roger Ebert’s gift to us wasn’t only the work he did himself, rewarding and important as that is. Like Gatsby, Ebert is as aware of the past though refuses to acknowledge it. Unlike Gatsby he’s aware of his shortcomings. Ebert’s giving life to the next generation is a way of addressing the inevitability of death while reminding us it isn’t an obstacle to progress but a motivator. For all his success he recognized our world isn’t perfect and sought to make the best world out of what he was given.  He “beat on, boat against the current” and was able to give new life to others through the stories he chose to give light to and the stories he created in his own life. Ultimately he was adding to the story of what it means to be American and what make up American ideals by backing up his writing with action and determined spirit. His midwestern values informing his perspective. What could be more American than that?


Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Elizabeth Taylor in Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Finally got around to Seeing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on Netflix streaming and wow what a powerhouse. I had no reason to suspect it wouldn’t be — I believe I haven’t seen a Mike Nichols film I haven’t enjoyed. What was surprising was how up to date the film appears even though I know it’s history and context. In some ways it reminded me of a more recent Nichols production, “Closer”, in the way it deals with despicably human characters. Though the characters are vicious and mean to one another they are at the same time tremendously frail. “Closer” made me think that I was seeing a group of characters who kept misfiring, always one step behind one another. They were at the same time cold and calculating and simply desirous.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” offers a window into the same sort of world of miscommunication that “Closer” did, but rather than simply misunderstanding one another George and Martha perhaps know each other too well. They offer a window into a marriage that is both highly familiar and meaningful and at the same time on the verge of complete annihilation as characters are (at times quite literally) smothering each other.

The film (based upon a play of the same name) also has a lot to say about constructed-ness and storytelling. The dialog plays out in the form of games that the characters are inadvertently playing. Games where the rules are maleable from round to round and where there is no clear victor. It’s hard to say what is true in the stories the characters tell throughout the film but at the same time one wonders if it matters. It’s all a construction in the end, a play, a movie, a marriage. It doesn’t matter what is real and what is not. The point is the struggle, a bumpy, horrible, exhilarating and ultimately darkly funny struggle.

Review of Dark Knight

There is a scene (and mind you; spoilers are coming) in the new Batman movie that perfectly captures the zeitgeist of modern America. Two ferries are filled with passengers escaping from Gotham city. One ferry is filled with prisoners from the city jail and the other with ordinary citizens. Both are told that there is a bomb on board and are given a trigger. The trigger is for the opposite boat. If one boat is blown the other will be saved if neither chooses to blow the other up then both bombs will be triggered. They have half an hour to decide.

While the boat with prisoners is relatively placid the other starts a vigorous debate about whether they have the right to take another’s life to save their own. The passengers take to voting to decide whether to destroy the other boat. What a fantastic scene in an election year! When faced with mutually assured destruction democracy will solve our problems! All we have to do is vote against what we despise.

There are so many great elements to this movie that make it at once complex and at times overwhelming but at the base level enjoyable. Mostly what this film accomplishes is in making icons out of people. The Joker and Batman (through spectacular performances) achieve a status that moves beyond human to archetype status. In that way the film succeeds in being one of the best comic to movie adaptations. The Joker is a sadistic, insane mastermind who is only after chaos and Batman is a vindictive, calculating detective.

Review of Cradle will Rock

Review of Cradle Will Rock

It’s been some time since I’ve seen Cradle Will Rock [IMDB link] but surprisingly I’m still finding new things in it. It’s like a strong cup of coffee, well-brewed and with varying textures and flavors. Most of these tinge of politics and the social climate surrounding the great depression so it should be no surprise that it is right up my alley.

The latest little gem comes in the form of a conversation Nelson Rockafeller (played by John Cusak) has towards the end of the film about the new wave of Art that he and Hearst plan to create. A tour of Europe of abstract art so as to control anti-capitalist sentiment. To anyone familiar with the CIA’s connections to Jackson Pollack this should ring quite an alarm bell. As far as the rest of the film it is built upon such gems; Federal Theater’s demise in the midst of communist witch-hunting, Orson Welles’ bombastic attitude, Unionism, the death of Vaudeville, Diego Rivera’s feud over the mural in Rockafeller center.

The framing story is the true story of a musical set to open under the Federal Theater Project. The musical “The Cradle Will Rockâ€? is an overtly political, pro-union satire about struggles in a fictional town called “Steel-town.â€? The movie draws parallels between what the fictional play is representing and the reality of the film world by creating a fictional steel tycoon who is a friend of Rockafeller and Hearst.

There’s something amazing and alive about the film in that it captures the sentiment of a time where truly contrasting ideas were coming into conflict. As we gear up for this election year I grow more and more weary of two-party politics. The arguments and sentiment are skewed so far right that watching a movie like “Cradleâ€? really makes me long for the past. It’s fascinating to think there was a time only a few generations removed where fascism and socialism were considered viable political paradigms.

There was much pain during these times I’m sure but we see a similar trend today with bank’s closing and a mortgage crisis. What we don’t, however, see is a reciprocal rise in workers standing up for their rights. We don’t see large scale organizing and for the most part the greedy robber-barons — in bed with politicians go largely uncheck as society becomes more and more apathetic.

I’m not saying I’m better than the rest of them. It just is somewhat sad and disappointing that I find more interesting political stories in a movie set 8 decades the past than in today when we truly need charismatic leaders and change.

That said the movie has also wonderful stories about art. Aside from the fascinatingly true story of Diego Rivera’s commission for 30 Rockafeller center which alone would make a pretty fascinating movie we get to see Orson Welles in his prime. Pre-Citizen Kane but at the height of his theater and radio popularity Welles is played with over the top charisma by Angus Macfadyen. It’s a scene with Welles that delivers my favorite dialog in the film and some of my favorite all time of any movie.

In a cab Orson Welles the director of the play has a chat with John Houseman the producer and Marc Blitzstein the writer.

Blitzstein: “I am faithful to the ideals of the party.â€?

Welles: “I am faithful to the party of ideals.â€?

Houseman: “You are faithful to the idea of a party!â€?


Incredible Hulk Musings

The Incredible Hulk [IMDB link] delivers on a lot of personal scores for me. The main point which can not be denied is the homage to the 70s T.V. show. I posted a few weeks ago about the Hulk marathon that the SciFi channel was running and it was fun to reminisce. I remember that I had watched the show when I was a kid but re-watching it now, it’s hard to see how I related to it then. It’s dark and sometimes somber attitude is kind of a downer as far as superhero stories go. It is clear now, however, how it has informed some of my perceptions on the world and life.

What that show gets right is the melancholy of living with an affliction. Bruce Banner (in the TV show David) is a smart and in most ways down-to-earth man. It’s only when he is pushed to the brink that the Hulk comes in to smash. Because of Banner’s inability to control his rage he purposefully rejects stability and becomes a lone drifter. In another world he would be a respected scientist but in this world he is hunted and spurned.

In retrospect there may be something to the mind of a youngster which looks at uncontrollable rage and society’s need to repress it and finds communion with Bruce’s situation. What I personal enjoy about the character, however, is the lone drifter style. The fact that this inability to control rage and rejection by society forces Banner to never fully reach stability. He wanders town to town relying on the help and hospitality of others. I don’t practice what I preach but I feel most at home when I’m away from home. Travel and those who seek it — especially in its extreme form as a nomad have always attracted me.

The drifter senario may be ultimately indicative of the 70s, when people were more free -wheeling and likely to trust. I remember hearing stories growing up of people hitch-hiking from one place to the other. It’s not that it doesn’t happen now. But it’s more that it’s not prevalent or more aptly the heart just isn’t there. Society is much too jaded now for any one to think its a good idea or even possible to make it from place to place without a plan, without a focus and with little to no money. Yet this is precisely the premise of the Hulk. Banner hitch-hikes from town to town with no money expected to barter or get hired in odd-jobs. Mostly he relies on the hospitality of others and where the movie and T.V. show become appealing is in their passing glances at normal, mom and pop businesses who extend a hand sometimes job to Banner before the Hulk comes and forces him to move on.

There’s a Horatio Alger in there somewhere, taking odd jobs, having adventures and moving on. Placelessness to me is a relatable concept. The fact that it all pins on a secret just makes the stakes higher and the concept sadder. Given a choice Banner would probably give up his powers and seek a normal life. His affliction, however, is endemic. It makes the placelessness all the more despondent.

There is nowhere for me that this feeling of being constantly uprooted, feisty and rejected is better projected than in the theme from that show – something I posted about when I mentioned the SciFi Channel Marathon. This is again an area where the movie borrowed and rightfully so. While the character wanders from place to place we hear that same sad theme. It’s an ode to the lost and the broken-hearted and in the Hulk pantheon a hint of the lurking underbelly – the rage within.

Review of Be Kind Rewind

While Be Kind Rewind wasn’t the best movie I’ve seen recently — heck its not even the best Gondry film in my opinion — it did strike a cord that’s resonated with me ever since. I keep coming up with new ways of thinking about the film weeks after my first and only viewing. What’s captivated my attention is the films interweaving of two strong core-principles that are very dear to me. The community and its relation to a DIY aesthetic and copyright law in relation remixing.

If you’ve seen my blog in the past you might have noticed that copyright law is of particular interest to me. Most notably I’m a huge fan of Larry Lessig and his book Free Culture. In it Lessig argues that all works of art are inherently indebted to the works that come before them. The mixing and re-mixing of works has been an important staple of our creative ecosphere. Disney for example built his empire on cartoons based upon existing works for which he paid no royalties.

Graffiti and (for lack of a better word) urban culture has been a proponent of mixing and remixing since its early beginnings. What Be Kind Rewind gets right is the sense of joy and accomplishment achieved when making art for oneself irrelevant of the originator of that content. The original is not used with disrespect — actually quite the opposite — it is because of its importance to the remixer. The great thing about BKR is that not only does it get this right, but it also makes a terrific argument for how a down-trodden community (or any community) can be built around this sense of remixing and investment in DIY.

Now BKR isn’t the best Gondry film on record. He’s got a wonderfully imaginative and creative mind and certainly his previous work such as Human Nature, The Science of Sleep and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are evidence of that. In contrast Be Kind Rewind has a far more traditionally structured narrative. I don’t fault the film for this, however, first off because its nice to see Gondry attempt such a structured piece — I had worried at times that all of his films would be trippy dreams and he would become a one trick pony. Secondly I do see those whimsical Gondry moments in BKR when — and this is important — the community in the film makes the films for themselves.

In a way though BKR is the least Gondry-like Gondry film, it’s the most instructive. Watching films like Science of Sleep and Eternal Sunshine I am caught up in the world and entranced by the visuals. I love these films but I also am presented with works that are distinctly Gondry’s and his alone. What BKR teaches me as an audience member is that hell I could do that! What’s important is the process of the making and taking pride in constructing works regardless of the legal ramifications. Now… if I could only get Jack Black and Mos Def for a weekend.. I have this great idea for a sweded version of The Royal Tenenbaums.

IMDB: Be Kind Rewind
IMDB: Michel Gondry
Larry Lessig

Review of Hoax, The

Its hard for me to review this film in its own context. On the one hand it is marvelously executed and performed on the other hand it rehashes material from what I consider to be one of the best movies of all time; Orson Welles F for Fake. The dynamic in The Hoax is a staunch departure from F for Fake and its celebration of deception and its ambiguous assertions of truth versus fiction. The Hoax takes a far more conservative, narrative route in its structure, however, it still has elements of whimsey because of director Lasse Hallström choice to allow for improvisation of scenes. It allows for the film to break out of what would otherwise be a staid narrative and become a visceral example of the act of lying.

The film is far from judgmental in its pursuit of truth and chooses instead to enjoy the game Clifford Irving set forth and refrain from didactic notions of “truthâ€? versus “realityâ€?. With superb performances by Richard Gere and Alfred Molina The Hoax is worth a viewing. It stands in the shadow of giants but fares well if F for Fake is a solid 10 I would say The Hoax is a 7.5. At thats saying a lot considering Orson Welles’ notoriety.

Review of Darjeeling Limited, The

A Review of Darjeeling Limited..

Its an interesting choice of names .. limited .. for a Wes Anderson film this movie shows a fair amount of restraint. It’s not that it’s not a Wes Anderson movie. Within its confines one will find the slow motion sequences canvassed with classic punk rock music, the portrait framing of characters as if for a holiday photo, Bill Murray (who has appeared in all but one of Anderson’s features). Anderson’s aesthetic and styling has become a cult phenomenon among the semi-well-read, semi-intellectual, overly-pabst-drinking hipster crowd. But as much as one may love Anderson’s work it is, to some, becoming contrived.

Darjeeling doesn’t so much shatter conventions in this vain but at the same time it isn’t as drawn out and heavy handed as some of Anderson’s other outings. That’s not to say it’s not without its heavy moments or its didactic moments especially about family. Perhaps it’s the length of the film (clocking in just over 90 minutes) or the faster than usual cutting. This film just breezes in and past like a train through a whistle stop.

The humor is key here Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman play off one another with Marx brothers like enthusiasm. There are more jokes in this film than in the last few Anderson movies and the somewhat absurdist situations read like an episode of curb your enthusiasm. Instead of the dry, New Yorker humor we get the dry, Monty Python stuff. It adds up to a maturing Anderson who seems less afraid at churning out something nearly A-list while not alienating his indie audience.

Fatherhood is a recurring theme in most Wes Anderson films. The surrogate, vindictive father in Rushmore, the one seeking redemption in Tenenbaums, the confused but willing child-father in Life Aquatic. Anderson steps out of the issue a bit with Darjeeling by removing the father altogether. One of the more memorable scenes in the film comes in a flashback to the father’s funeral as the brothers try comically to recover some artifacts while running late to their father’s funeral. Instead of the yearning for a male role model Darjeeling says more about the guidance of the mother played briefly, though strongly by Angelica Houston. Owen Wilson’s character, the eldest brother whose desire for some kind of closure spurns the cross sub-continent adventure, emulates his mother’s directness in trying to reconcile his younger brothers into acquiescence in the service of spiritual renewal. He frequently references his mother’s way of summing up a conflict and trying to work to a resolve, finishing with the perennial running line “now.. can we agree to that?â€?

Death is also a theme for Darjeeling. It hangs over the film nearly the way it hangs over real-life; as an ever-present ghost, which haunts us striking abruptly and without clear meaning. Its significance is left up to the interpreter. Any healing to be done, spiritual or otherwise, must be undertaken on ones own. Darjeeling is Anderson’s underlining of family in the importance of this search. Their messy, angry sometimes derisive bickering serving, humorously to tear down at the same time it builds up strength while healing in communion.

Review of Babel

Review of Babel

It’s hard to say how most Americans are going to see this film. To reduce the film to its elements it is 3 to 7 stories (depending on how you divide the character arches) about characters that go through tremendous trials due to circumstances essentially beyond their control. The trick to it, however, is that given the character’s cultural background and social status; White American, Mexican immigrant, Moroccan farmer, Japanese teenager the repercussions and outcome are scaled in effect and impact.

It’s probably impossible not to find a degree of sympathy with each of the characters as every one is out of their element and put through a series of horrible circumstances. But I found myself in the course of the film fighting sympathy for the American’s especially the spoiled, white privileged children who in the end I feel will probably benefit from their exposure to Mexican culture (despite the fact that being left in a desert alone is not something I would wish upon anyone). In my mind the greater tragedy in the film is the Mexican immigrant who is deported after living as a naturalized citizen in the US for 17 years. And yet even as I write that the Moroccan farmers who get harassed beaten and shot at by police also have a horrific experience that although different is equally as troubling.

What’s subversive about the film is the degree to which sympathy will take you in relation to the characters and why I wonder so much about American audiences. It would not be hard to walk out feeling greater sympathy for the Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett character and feeling anger towards their Mexican maid for bringing their children to Mexico without their permission. I found myself most enthralled with the Japanese story, which in most respects is the most removed story in the whole film. Still the lifestyle the female character and her father lead is no less bourgeois than the Americans but perhaps because the story is the least morally ambiguous and devoid of much of the same dual sympathy that carries through all the other stories.

The most subversive part in the film has to come from the nearly empty explanation for why the Cate Blanchett’s character need for help is so delayed. Its referred to only in off comments and not dwelled upon but basically the US government strands Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt in the middle of nowhere in Morocco because the Moroccan government denies the shooting to be related to terrorism. Because the US government keeps insisting it is related to terrorism and puts pressure on Morocan government to admit to it this ties up the ability to send in American rescue helicopters and leads to Cate Blanchett’s character nearly bleeding to death while waiting for some kind of medical attention. Government inefficiency at work.

The film is wonderful in many ways not the least of which is its insistence of sympathy towards all affected parties all of whom are guilty and yet are reprimanded in ways that seem egregiously out of step with their faults of judgment. Still it begs the question: will anyone notice?

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Review of Lenny

Films that were made in the early part of the 1970s in America sometimes feel like they were part of an exclusive club. The confusion created by the defunct production code (which ended in 1968) and the flailing MPAA rating system which didn’t get instituted in its entirety until the early ’80’s meant that films sometimes got a decent theatrical run without being rated at all. I haven’t been able to find significant information about the original rating of Lenny (if you have info please let me know) but it feels like a movie that was made during this period. Perhaps the greatest contribution to American system during the rating system inefficiency was to create an atmosphere of unaccountability where cinema, if properly rated for mature audiences, could get away with anything and so it freed a filmmaker like Bob Fosse (who directed this film) to take creative license in the service of a story.

The film feels much more like a French New Wave film than American cinema but also firmly smacks of its contextual peers in American cinema like Easy Rider, The Graduate, Annie Hall, and American Graffitti. Being shot in black and white helps to add to its aesthetic artiness. At the same time its gritty and real, it has elements of discontinuity which break up the flow of the narrative and help to focus on the constructed nature of the film.

The key here is that all of this aesthetic is in the service of the story and really paints the title character, Lenny Bruce as a kind of martyr to “the word”, in other words human language and more importantly free speech. The film has three deliberate strains, one Lenny’s night club act from late in his career which serves to be a cap on the narrative flow of his life story and the other two strains, in a kind of Citizen Kane zeal, are interviews with important people in Lenny’s life, his wife and mother, which narrate a flashback in which we see Lenny living through those experiences.

He is a flawed character to be sure, but he is a tragic one as well. Constantly arrested for using words like “cock-sucking” not out of malicious intent originally but we see through the course of the film that Lenny is the type of personality that, when pushed, pushes back harder. If you tell him not to go there he goes there and pisses on the lawn. Later in his life he is so fed up with being censored that his comedy gives way to simply ranting about the inequities and injusticies of barred public speech. The great irony is, of course, that all the while we are watching a movie about him not only saying but doing those very things he was arrested for.

Nudity and profanity dot the film like candles on a birthday cake but like Bruce’s material its difficult to say which instances are egregious and which directly in the service of the story and entertainment. The bottom line is that taken as a whole Lenny’s (that is the movie as well as the man) message is an important one and to throw the baby out with the bath-water is a disservice to everyone. We must look at this not only from the perspective of a 1970’s film commented on a censored 1960’s comic but also from our own current perspective in which a movie like Lenny probably couldn’t be made.

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Review of Scanner Darkly, A

It’s a rare movie that gets better as it goes as it goes along. That territory is more reserved for books. Perhaps its by staying true to the book that A Scanner Darkly achieves this feat. I haven’t read the book so I don’t know. What I can say is that the film is intricate and fascinating, confusing and charming.

Review of Superman Returns

This movie is an allegory, though not one I’m sure the filmmakers intended. We’ll get back to that in a sec I have to lay some points out and then we’ll get into it.

First off Superman comes back to earth after a five year trip and does what any sensible American does when returning from a trip out of touch… he zones out in front of the TV and channel surfs. What he sees is disturbing. The first image is one of an apparently middle-eastern looking woman screaming then images of unrest, riots, war, fires, looting. In short the same bull we’ve been subjected in the past five years. After getting his job back at the Daily Planet he learns his old flame Lois has had a kid and is apparently engaged to the nephew of the editor of that storied paper. She’s prospered in Superman’s absence not only in her raising of her son and stable relationship but also for apparently rebuking the very necessity of his existence; an article of her’s “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman” has one her a Pulitzer Prize. The world has fallen to the Lois Lane’s of the world, cynical and dangerous.

There’s also references to America’s role in this new chaotic world order. At one point Lex Luther is talking with his cronies on his private yacht and references the historical line of western imperialism Rome to Britain to America. When Clark Kent storms down a hall at one point in the movie a large poster of an old Daily Planet front page declaring “The Wall has Fallen” referencing the collapse of the Berlin wall which is historically the turning point for America becoming the world’s sole super power.

While the film does a great job with character it seems almost to drag during the villain/crime sequences. Though Kevin Spacey is great its just that I became so invested in Superman’s tensions with Lois and her undeniable attraction to him. The Lex Luthor plot is almost exactly the opposite of the first film. Instead of taking away the west coast of the U.S. in order to make money on real estate Luthor wants to add land to the east coast in order to make money on real estate. The opening title sequence features cheesy feeling graphics that have a 70s feel and harken back to the original film. What the film gets really right is the come-back kid feel poignantly debuting Superman’s return to heroic action inside a baseball stadium to roaring cheers when he saves a plane from crashing.

The movie seems set on hammering in this point disapproving Lois’ original cynical claim that the world doesn’t need Superman. Clearly they do and he’s damn good at saving them. The movie dwells on the point of this when a montage shows Superman flying around the world to solve disasters big and small. Car crashes, fires, people falling off buildings there’s nothing too small to do. What’s interesting is the way the movie points out that Superman goes all over the world in his crime and disaster stopping affairs. Here is where I think the allegory plays in.

Despite the fact that the movie clearly points out the role of the U.S. as the sole super or imperial power everyone has problems. Clearly Superman represents an American ideal but what seems clear is that ideal is to be shared. At one point in the film Superman takes Lois on a flight above Metropolis — which in the film exists as a replacement of New York City sharing its bridges shape and parks — he asks her what she hears and she says “nothing”. He replies to her that he hears everything and explains that the people need him “they’re crying out for help.” There’s no problem big or small that this man of steel does not feel an obligation to solve.

Extrapolated to the world outside the film it seems to me to be signaling an unconscious hunger if not of the filmmakers than of the American audience in general for those in power to stand up for what’s right and to wield that power in a human and just way. Not only for the good of the people of the U.S. but for the people of the world. The imperialists of the world want power through dictatorial strategies; Lex Luthor is an expansionist who wants to become a nation-builder. Superman wants peace, integrity and safety for all people of the world. What with Enron, Carl Rove and the Valerie Plame affair, Iraq and Bush’s falling poll numbers there seems to be a collective sense domestically and of course abroad that despite America’s tremendous power and influence it is not using either very well. To borrow a line from another super-hero blockbuster: “with great power comes great responsibility”. Superman embodies that perfectly in the fictional world of the movies but in real life we’re still waiting for a “return” of equal significance.

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