Lost in the Movies: October 2008

Frontline: The War Briefing

Ah yes, the "forgotten war." It's become less forgotten in 2008, as the candidates turn their attention from Iraq to Afghanistan, where a resurgent Taliban, an unstable Pakistan, and a weak Afghan government are reminding us of forgotten promises. This, the most recent episode of "Frontline," focuses on conditions in Afghanistan and Pakistan now, following soldiers in the line of duty, examining the tribal areas of Waziristan nominally under Pakistani control, and asking what we can do about it. Its title frames the issue as something the next president must focus on, and indeed after years of flirting with Iranian strikes, and dealing with the distracting mess in Iraq, we're back to square one: Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and Pakistan.

Iran: The Next Iraq?

Like "Inside North Korea," "Iran: The Next Iraq?" is a rather sensationalist TV program. It opens with a breathless analysis of Iran's nuclear capacity which bears a disquieting resemblance to the pre-Iraq buildup, and it closes with a look at different U.S. options including a pincer-like invasion from positions in Afghanistan and Iraq, which it acknowledges is unlikely. The bulk of the program details the history of Iran, which I would suspect comes from a previous program on Iran which ran on the History Channel. This is the most interesting and informative section, particularly when we come to the Iran-Iraq War of the 80s, in which the U.S. government supported Saddam Hussein as a proxy to keep Ayatollah Khomeini in check. We see boy soldiers (some as young as 13, though they look even younger) primed for war and a Tehran fountain commissioned with red-colored water - it's supposed to flow with the "blood of martyrs." All this is fascinating but tells us little about the complexities of the situation.

Inside North Korea

Update, November 2017: While I was rightly critical of this documentary's tone at the time, and remain wary of the DPRK government today, this nearly decade-old review now strikes me as far too credulous about all of the film's claims - and frequently too glib in its characterization of an entire nation. It remains as a marker of where I was in 2008 but I would advise readers to look elsewhere if they want a more well-rounded picture of this society and its relationship to the U.S.

Though an interesting idea, "Inside North Korea" is a rather slapdash production, the kind of thing you'll watch and be fascinated by on the History or Discovery Channel late at night, but which is too sensationalistic to really stand on its own. Of course, it's admittedly hard not to be sensationalistic when dealing with North Korea. A Stalinist prison camp shut off from the outside world, ruled by the whims of a madman, North Korea is so impoverished that satellite pictures taken at nighttime show it as an island of darkness while surrounding countries shine with the bright lights of civilization. And yet they have nukes, which is a cheery though (and why this doc is included in this series).

The Devil Came on Horseback

Above all, The Devil Came on Horseback is a portrait of impotence. Its subtitle could be "And There Was Nothing I Could Do About It," or more damningly "And Then We Didn't Do Anything." It documents the crusade of former Marine Brian Steadle who took a job as an observer in the Sudan in 2003. The brutal Islamic regime in Khartuom was winding down a civil war with Christians and animists in the south but something was beginning to happen in the western region of Darfur, where a rebel movement had sprung up to challenge the government. Arab mercenaries were riding into villages on horseback and slaughtering civilians - burning huts, raping women, killing children. These mercenaries, known as the janjaweed, often waited until government planes had finished bombing the villages, and according to their own testimony, Khartuom shared information and even directed them where to go. As hundreds of thousands were killed and millions displaced, it dawned on the world that systematic genocide was taking place in Darfur. And Steadle was there to observe.

An Inconvenient Truth

In An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore and director Davis Guggenheim assemble a battery of evidence to prove global warming's impact and plead for action to arrest its malign effects. They do so with humor, grace, and a surprising amount of style. Writing about the film after its Cannes premiere in May 2006, Salon critic Andrew O'Hehir wrote, "It's difficult to imagine that 'An Inconvenient Truth' will change many Americans' views on global warming. Gore's track record as an environmental advocate is well known, and the film is not likely to play widely or well among the Fox News demographic. It may rally those of us who already agree with him to push the issue closer to the top of the national debate, and certainly that's a worthy goal." From the standpoint of 2 1/2 years later, we can already see that O'Hehir was overly conservative at best, and possibly just plain wrong. This has been one of the most influential films of the decade.

A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash

T. Boone Pickens, everyone's favorite takeover artist/swiftboater-turned-bipartisan energy guru (I thought he was just a harmless old geezer until I looked him up), likes to say that the energy crisis and the necessary solutions are issues of "national security, the economy, and the environment." There's a seed of optimism in this, the idea that by embracing clean and renewable energy we can kill three birds with one stone. A Crude Awakening, in sounding a dire warning about energy depletion and the coming blowback, largely ignores the national security and environmental aspects of the problem and foregoes a narrow focus on the economy to demonstrate instead how oil depletion would wreak havoc on our entire society, on every level. It's also anything but optimistic; in fact it's almost humorously dour when it comes time to answer the question, what next?

Maxed Out

"And you know, I run into some very smart people in our Congress and I ask the question...so what's the long-term plan here, what happens when the bills come due? What [do] the grand thinkers have in mind here? And all I ever get is this sort of blank half-smile." -Liz Warren

While preparing this blog's election series, I noted that most of the documentaries out there dealt with foreign affairs. The few which stepped outside the bounds of national security and international relations tackled trendy issues like global warming, the energy crisis, and universal health care. But this year, the economy crept up on the election and suddenly, without warning, took it hostage. I didn't see any docs that dealt with the economy as a whole, but ran across Maxed Out on Netflix and though the emphasis seemed to be on credit cards rather than the national debt (though it promised to address that too), I figured it was a decent compromise. It turned out to be more than that - it is indeed the most prescient film I've watched so far. Unlike many other documentaries which race after current issues to record them before they've slipped into history, Maxed Out saw the storm on the horizon. Watching it today, about a year and a half after it was released, in the wake of the meltdown of the debt-based U.S. and world economy, is an eerie experience.


(The above image is of a woman delivered by the hospital, via taxi, to a community rehab center after she could no longer pay for her stay. They essentially dumped her on the sidewalk where, addled and still clothed in her hospital gown, she wandered the streets until someone found her and brought her inside. She is one of many - others arrived still in pain or with IVs in their arms.)

Sicko is not an electric, polemical masterpiece like Fahrenheit 9/11; it feels longer than that film, is not as formally original, and drags in spots. However, it is a far more mature work, more subtle, more focused, and ultimately just as devastating. As "entertainment," I prefer Fahrenheit, but I have more respect for Moore's work in Sicko; flaws and all, he nails the HMOs to the wall and asks basic moral questions that can't be evaded. It helps that the subject he's dealing with is a no-brainer: why on earth does the richest, most powerful country in the world have such a shitty health care system? Why should the incentive of health care providers be to avoid treating people? Why, years after these problems became apparent, are we still unable to impose a solution? It may seem that these are "easy" questions, that there's no bravery in asking them. But the fact remains that we are currently stuck with an inhumane, indeed inhuman, situation and however obvious it may seem that it's wrong, the fact of its existence requires an outraged critique.

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts

Mournful, occasionally playful, angry, and as direct as its maker's trademark personality, Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke assembles footage of the disaster and interviews with its victims into an elegy for New Orleans, a testimonial of Hurricane Katrina, and an indictment of the government that looked the other way. Katrina was not only a disaster of epic proportions, it was a turning point in American history. It finally unmasked President Bush and his administration as clueless, incompetent, and careless, and forever sank the estimation of his presidency. It revamped the media, empowering them going into the following year's election; it effectively turned conservatives against the president; it sank Bush into a popular miasma from which he never emerged. But if these were the indirect fruits of the disaster, they provided no consolation for the miserable, the dispossessed, and the increasingly hopeless Katrina left in its wake. The movie ends on a hesitantly hopeful note, as the city's citizens vow to move on, but it's been three years, the roots and results of the problem have not been addressed (and are not being addressed in the current campaign) and it seems increasingly likely that the glum scenario of a dispirited, dissipated metropolis will continue for the near future.

So Goes the Nation

As we pivot from Fahrenheit 9/11 to the election Michael Moore hoped to influence, let us note that his film did not have the desired effect. As we all know, Mr. Currently 20% Approval Rating joined the company of Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and Dwight Eisenhower (and, hey, Richard Nixon) to win re-election. For some reason, I expected So Goes the Nation, a 2006 documentary about the 2004 election, to detail allegations of voter fraud and/or suppression in Ohio. Actually, though it appears to spring from a liberal perspective, So Goes the Nation places blame for John Kerry's loss on the Democratic Party, and its inability to get its message across. The entertaining doc cuts between a recap of the campaign and a daily countdown to Election Day in Ohio. I still don't know anything about irregularities in Ohio (the state which the whole election pivoted on), but So Goes the Nation makes a convincing case that if the Democrats want to win in the future, they had better take responsibility for their campaigns. They seem to have gotten the message.

Fahrenheit 9/11

Fahrenheit 9/11 achieves a more total immersion than any other documentary I've seen. Which is to say, it erases the distance between the audience and the material, the emotional remove that remains when we watch the news on TV. Fahrenheit 9/11 plays as a narrative film, a story unwinding before our eyes in the way all Hollywood stories unwind, complete with the appropriate formal tricks (cutting footage to echo the mise-en scene of a screen drama) and subtle manipulations (streamlining facts to fit a conventional narrative). In erasing this distancing effect, in adopting the tools of narrative fiction rather than exploratory documentary, Moore crafts a powerful work, as personal as any auteurist art film, as immersive as any escapist entertainment. He also disables our ability to think and critically analyze what we are seeing, fashions a work of sublime propaganda, and crafts an intensely manipulative, misleading, and demagogic pseudo-doc.

Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater

"One...two...three..." A little girl plucks the petals of a daisy. When she reaches the end, a freeze frame and a zoom in on her little face as a somber voice counts down. Cue the mushroom cloud. This notorious attack ad only ran once, but it got its message across. In 1964, word on the street was that Republican candidate Barry Goldwater was a warmonger. And if not that, then a bigot who opposed the Civil Rights Act. Or, at bare minimum, a radical outside of the American mainstream who declared proudly, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!" Today Goldwater tends to get a break from everyone: intellectual conservatives admire him as the founder of their movement, while liberals long for a man of the Right who considered abortion a personal matter and persecution of gays unseemly. Meanwhile, the Republican Party and the conservative movement is crumbling before our eyes. It's easy to hold up Goldwaterism as a noble principle from which the party has fallen, but as this movie reminds us, it's not that simple.

The Weather Underground

"You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."
-Bob Dylan, "Subterranean Homesick Blues"

"We're against everything that's 'good and decent' in honky America. We will burn and loot and destroy. We are the incubation of your mother's nightmare."
-"J.J.", member of the Weather Underground, as relayed in The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage

"Dig it! First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they even shoved a fork into the victim's stomach. Wild!"
-Bernardine Dohrn, member of Weather Underground, wife of Bill Ayers, on the Charles Manson murders

"They knew they were crazy...Terry [Robbins] and Billy [Ayers] had this Butch Cassidy and Sundance attitude-they were blessed, they were hexed, they would die young, they would live forever, and at their most triumphant moment they would look over their shoulders, as Butch and Sundance looked back at their implacable pursuers, and say more in admiration than in dread, 'Who are those guys?' I believe they thought they looked cute, and that everybody would know it was basically a joke. The next minute, they were lost in it and couldn't get out."
-Carl Oglesby

"You don't need a proctologist to know who the assholes are."
-Popular saying amongst Students for a Democratic Society

Ah, the Weathermen. Who'da thunk we'd still be talking about them in a 2008 presidential election? But thanks to Bill Ayers, once a member of the defunct left-wing terrorist group, now a Chicago education reformer who has crossed paths with Barack Obama, the only domestic terrorist group to take its name from a Top 5 hit on the Billboard charts has become a household name again. The Weather Underground, an excellent 2002 documentary, is a decent starting point for anyone curious about the group; though somewhat sympathetic to the radicals (you won't find that Manson quote anywhere in the film) the upshot is that it solicits interviews from many of the Weather big shots. This offers a look into the group and its history which veers from funny to scary to pathetic, but is never less than fascinating.

The Contender

The Contender is only 8 years old, but it's already a period piece. First and foremost it's about sexual politics and the politicization of private lives - not especially pertinent issues right now - but it's also about the way gender becomes politicized (or vice-versa) when judging leadership qualities. That is a pertinent issue, but in light of Hillary and Palin and the fascinatingly convoluted way culture wars have been playing out, the film's take on these matters seems somewhat simplistic. And when the film touches on other issues, it consistently favors those that are no longer a large part of the national discussion, and ignores those that are. If this all sounds critical, I should back off a bit. It's not the movie's fault that it hearkens back to the past (actually, I think a movie's "dated" qualities make it all the more interesting), and as a political thriller it's quite entertaining and engrossing. However, if its politics seemed somewhat obtuse in 2000, they now seem positively ridiculous.

Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?

First things first, congratulations to me for my 100th post.

That important matter out of the way, let me start by saying this was probably the most sheerly enjoyable movie I've watched so far in the political series. It is very short - 1 hour, 22 minutes - but packs volumes into its running time. And its premise is such a preposterously perfect underdog tale (at least as told - more on that later) that the old cliche "Hollywood couldn't make this up" rings true here. When introduced to Jeff Smith (he even shares the same name as Capra's protagonist) in the first few minutes of this documentary, I was inclined to scoff. Smith, though 30, looks about 5-10 years younger. He's short, slightly awkward, and speaks with a high-pitched lisp. As he drives around in his little car, talking about how he decided to run for the congressional seat that Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt was vacating, the candidate admits that even his parents and brother won't donate money to his quixotic campaign. Coupled with the lo-fi production values (the movie appears to have been shot on a consumer-grade mini-DV cam), it seemed clear that this was a tiny little production which found its way to Netflix - who distributed it - on the basis of a clever title and perhaps some scruffy charm. But soon both the movie and the candidate have shown they're not to be underestimated.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

When I selected a still from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to accompany my introduction to this series, I halfway-apologized for picking such an idealistic, and presumably naive, image to accompany talk of the presidential election. I shouldn't have, because a) I (and hopefully you as well) still have some of that idealism, which Capra is the king of tapping into, and b) Mr. Smith, while idealistic about its hero and (ultimately) his crusade, is remarkably cynical and critical towards the Washington establishment, essentially painting the Capitol as a grandly-designed speakeasy inhabited by slimy crooks. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington posits idealism as something that has to stand up to the harsh realities that infringe upon it, or as Jean Arthur's hardbitten secretary tells the crestfallen Jefferson Smith, gesturing towards the imposing figure of Abraham Lincoln ensconced in his memorial: "All the good that ever came into this world came from fools with faith like that!"

The Candidate

In 1972, the year McGovern went down in defeat to Nixon, The Candidate took a realistic look at a more successful liberal candidate, and didn't particularly like what it saw. Then again, it's hard to say exactly...is The Candidate extremely subtle in its criticism or more ambivalent (and perhaps confused) about its hero and the political process than its reputation as a sharp satire allows? Bill McKay (Robert Redford), the scion of a slick 40s politician but himself a seemingly principled activist, is encouraged to run for the Senate from California. Bearded political guru Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) quickly jots something down on a matchbook and hands it to McKay, calling it his "guarantee." It says, "You lose!" and McKay is supposed to take this as a liberation: he can say whatever he wants in the course of the campaign, because the powerful Republican Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter) is not going to be unseated.

Primary & 4 Days in November

To kick off the electoral leg of my series, why not start with a primary? And not just any primary, but one which was part of a turning point in American history (to call it a turning point in and of itself would overestimate the importance of primaries in the pre-'68 era, but still). And one which is also quite reminiscent of the Democratic race we saw earlier this year. Oh, and the film which commemorates it also happened to revolutionize film history too. Not bad for a 53-minute documentary about a seemingly minor contest in Wisconsin, of all places. And alongside Primary, I'll be looking at its darker twin. Four Days in November, a documentary released four years later to commemorate the Kennedy assassination, is the formal and thematic opposite of Primary, a grim bookend to the New Frontier.


(W.) -Click here for the full review.

In the last scene of W., our hero imagines himself in a baseball park at night. He's on the field, alone, the stands empty. Yet he hears the roar of the crowd and the crack of the bat and runs back to catch the fly ball. He grins, puts his glove in the air and waits...and waits...and waits. He furrows his brow and peers up into the inky black sky. Nothing. No ball. He keeps waiting, and the movie ends. Like "Bushie," "Geo," or "W" as he's variously called throughout Oliver Stone's election-eve biopic, we in the audience keep waiting for that revelation, that home run or final out that clears everything up. We never get it.

By the end of the movie, we still don't quite understand what's going on in that head, why things came to this point - but the man at the center doesn't really seem to understand either, and we're brothers in confusion. In JFK and many of his other breathless, frenetic opuses, Oliver Stone tried to shine a bright light on all the chaos, illuminating some sort of Truth (perhaps a "counter-myth" as he calls it in reference to JFK). In W., Stone takes his time, doesn't rush, avoids stylistic fireworks, and delivers the movie with a great deal of clarity. Yet he doesn't illuminate any transcendent Truth, any "ah ha! so that's what it's all about!" comeuppance to the past 8 years of obfuscation. Instead he seems to suggest that even our president didn't understand what was going on, and has passed his perplexity on to us.

Countdown to the Election

The selected photo may seem a bit idealistic for the tone of the current campaign and the cynicism that greets all these political seasons. But it's part and parcel of what I'll be examining in the next two and half weeks: the highs and lows, the idealism and corruption, the ideology and pragmatism, of what we call American politics. I've been promising this series, in anticipation of the pretty momentous date of November 4, for a few weeks now. Sorry for the delay, but though I hoped to begin a few days ago, the extra time has allowed me to plan a pretty tight package here: I've timed my Netflix to arrive perfectly in order to fulfill a series which will take us right up to Election Day, sometimes with two movies a day.

We'll begin with a movie which opened this afternoon, which I will see tonight, and which I will write about tomorrow. I speak, of course, of W., Oliver Stone's eagerly awaited biopic of the man who has been in White House for the past 8 years - and still is right now. It's the latter fact that's so astonishing to me - current events as instant history, and makes me excited to see the movie. Stone has a tendency to get carried away, stylistically, thematically, you name it. But along with this comes a certain ambition lacking in most filmmakers: who else would tackle, in fictional form, a national story still unfolding as the film hits theaters? Of the many disappointing facts that greet us when we look over the American cinema of the past decade, one of the most disappointing is that so few filmmakers made films about the times we live in. I'm not speaking of ham-handed message movies, as there were a few of those (and by most reports, they weren't very good) but of movies which - indirectly, perhaps - tackled the zeitgeist. So leave it to Stone to go all the way. Initially I expected the movie to be terrible, eagerly awaiting it nonetheless for its sheer audacity and the surrealism of seeing Cheney, Rice, et al played onscreen as if they were historical figures. But the Parallax View-styled trailer piqued my interest and I see that Roger Ebert has given it 4 stars. I eagerly await tonight's screening.

But that's only the kickoff to the series, and what comes next will follow a certain thematic ebb and flow. First comes electoral and D.C. politics - narrative films (with a doc or two thrown in) detailing the process of how our politicians come to power and what they do when they get there. We'll follow Kennedy from the campaign trail to funeral train, watch Mr. Smith take on Washington (and ask if he still can) and play persecute-the-female politician in a pre-Palin, pre-Hillary-as-President era. We'll use the gender card as a segue into the culture wars, asking who is that Bill Ayers guy anyway, mirroring the current implosion of the conservative movement with the rise of one of its founders, and of course take another look at the kingpin of culture wars in 00s America, Mr. Michael Moore (I had hoped to include An American Carol in this examination, but unfortunately it was such a big flop that's it's already left theaters - which sadly means that, given the near-nonexistence of right-leaning docs and political fiction on Netflix, the Limbaugh wing of American politics will be neglected in this seres; I mean that "sadly" seriously).

From here things get a little more au courant, as we pivot from Moore to the 2004 election he hoped to influence and the administration whose rule said election instead perpetuated. The rest of the series will be colored by Bush but will focus mostly on the issues that have come to the forefront during his rule. Domestically this means the tragic ineptitude of Katrina, the growing - and largely ignored - environmental and health care crises, and the now-impossible-to-ignore financial catastrophe. Abroad, we come face to face with the myriad challenges of our time: the bizarro world of North Korea, the heinous genocide of Darfur, and the advent of Islamic terrorism (and the use of torture as a response). And, of course, the Iraq war. The war has faded mightily as a campaign issue but it remains the defining issue of our times. We'll see how the mess was created, look at it from an Iraqi perspective, and survey the entire war operation - from 9/11 to the surge - with the help of "Frontline," the great series which I'll be using three other times as well, to look at Cheney, the financial meltdown, and the presidents-in-waiting Obama and McCain.

Yes, finally, on the eve of one of the most important days in recent American history, we will look at the two candidates who stand at the threshold. I hope you will enjoy this series and that we can get a lively back and forth going in the comments section - based as much on the topics at hand as the particular movie under discussion. I will be using many of these films to discuss their subjects as much as the formal and structural ways they deal with them; this is still a movie blog but for the moment, politics will be our focus: the good, the bad, the ugly, and yes, on occasion, the idealistic too.

THE AUTEURS: D.W. Griffith - Orphans of the Storm

With Orphans of the Storm, D.W. Griffith returns to the epic form he revolutionized with The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. Does he still "have it"? Well, unfortunately, not quite. The earlier works showed an incredible ability to balance exciting spectacle, multiple storylines, and intimate personal detail. Orphans proves itself unable to achieve this balancing act. At times it appears sluggish, at other jerky. As it cuts between different people and places it is initially confusing - a sense of rhythm is not established - and eventually distracting. The movie is at its best when it settles on telling the story of two sisters. Henriette (Dorothy Gish) is an abandoned aristocrat adopted into an impoverished family and then blinded during an illness; she becomes a beggar tormented by an evil old hag. Louise (Lillian Gish), Henriette's resilient but constantly besieged protector, is kidnapped and separated from her sister; she develops bonds with a revolutionary and an aristocrat which will serve her well in her struggles. The French Revolution and the subsequent Terror serve as a backdrop for the melodrama.

THE AUTEURS: D.W. Griffith - Way Down East

Around 1920, D.W. Griffith was at the top of his game. He had founded United Artists with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford, giving them complete control over their own work. Along with Cecil B. DeMille he was perhaps the most celebrated and popular director of the era. And when he released Way Down East, an adaptation of a popular 19th century play about a poor girl who is tricked by a slick man and must endure all sorts of hardships for her naivete, the film became one of his biggest hits. But it's interesting to take a look at Griffith's career, attitude, and style from the perspective of this time. That Way Down East was a hit probably represents, in part, a nostalgia for the pre-World War I era in the dawning years of the Roaring Twenties. That ambivalence would remain throughout the Jazz Age because (images of flappers, bootleggers, and sultans of swat aside) the United States was still a largely rural and conservative country, suspicious of the massive social changes that were seizing the big cities. Nonetheless, many hit movies of the twenties capitalized on the sparkling, glistening sense of a new world, and mass audiences ate it up. Griffith was to fall increasingly behind the times in this regard.

Indeed, Griffith's relevance probably peaked immediately before America joined World War I. With The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, he was the prophet of film form, leading the way adventurously into new territory. But increasingly, in 1919 and 1920, Griffith's work takes on a more aesthetically conservative tone. Gone are the ambitious structures and experiments in form, replaced by a simpler, if completely confident, style. I noted that True Heart Susie seemed even more basic than Broken Blossoms, which in turn was far more basic than the Griffith epics. Way Down East doesn't entirely continue that trend (the ice-floe climax is a quite stunning set piece) but emotionally, it continues to zero in rather than expand. And that is a good thing; despite some flaws, this is one of Griffith's most powerful works, in large part because its focus is so narrow and Griffith's immense compassion - redeemed from outright sentimentality by his sensitivity - imbues the film with a sense of elegiac grace.

Hoop Dreams

The other night, in composing my Shoulda Won the Oscar list, I selected Hoop Dreams as a kind of compromise for 1994, while my head suggested Pulp Fiction and my heart Forrest Gump. Actually, Hoop Dreams probably is the best picture of the year, appealing to both head and heart, and gut too (feel free to throw the liver in for good measure). Hoop Dreams' great gift is specificity which, when done correctly, opens out to infinite possibilities. Through the narrow focus on two kids trying to use basketball as their ticket out of Chicago's inner city, we come to a greater understanding of African-American communities, sports as business, family life, the American economic structure and the way it affects individual lives, the power of the media, and all the intersections thereof. And none of this is conveyed with voice-of-God narration (a neutral voiceover pops up once in a while to give us crucial information before going into hiding again), an overabundance of talking-head interviews, or stylized, finger-pointing editing.

The Thief of Bagdad

(Scroll to the bottom of this entry to see some great clips from this visually stunning film.)

I am so irritated with Netflix right now. Due to a multipart mix-up (OK, it was partly my fault) I received and watched Orphans of the Storm for my D.W. Griffith series. But the queue skipped over the earlier Way Down East, and, this being a chronological series and all, I can't tackle Orphans of the Storm before Way Down East. So I'll have to hold off on both for a couple days. Meanwhile my self-imposed deadline for beginning the political series is fast approaching, and I will be scrambling to get about three reviews in under the gun (by Tuesday evening). And there's a Patriots game on at 8:15, so I've got to fix that into the schedule. Add in work, various tasks I'm late in achieving, and general upkeep, and dammit, I will be scrambling to keep up with the work I've created for myself. Masochism aside, I come here not to gripe but to review good old Doug Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad. After the football game, that is. Proceed past the jump to travel forward in time several hours (ah, the wonders of the Internet...)

October Oscars

Dean Treadway let me off the hook tonight; rather than sit down for a few hours to watch a movie and then knock off a lengthy response, I can take him up on his meme. As a party trick (no, not that one), I've been known to spout Best Picture winners off the top of my head: "1947?" "Gentleman's Agreement!" "1929?" "Do you mean 1928/29 or 1929/30?" "1920?" "Trick question! There were no Oscars in 1920!" Actually, I haven't seen many of the winners, so perhaps I'm not fully qualified to say who should have won, but then again, the idiots over at the Academy have shamed themselves repeatedly, so what's to stop me? The list resides after the jump.


Anaconda has long been one of my guiltiest pleasures, but I hadn't seen it in years. On re-viewing, it isn't quite as much fun as I remembered but its greatest virtues still shine: among them a gigantic Amazonian serpent, writhing in flames yet still pursuing J.Lo and Ice Cube until it's been dispatched several times - but most of all, Jon Voight, who chews more scenery than the snake. I saw the movie when I was fourteen, in theaters with my dad, who reveled in Voight's hamminess and later proclaimed Voight's death scene, in which he's vomited up by the anaconda and manages to wink at Lopez, "one of the great moments in cinema."

Burn After Reading

The title of the Coen brothers' latest trifle has a sly double meaning. On the one hand, it's an ironic nod to the spy literature which the movie parodies (ironic since the sensitive info is contained on disc, doubly ironic if one considers "burn" in the CD-writing sense, rather than the literally literal). But it also nicely sums up the directors' own lackluster, near-contemptuous attitude towards their own material. Watching the first few shots of No Country for Old Men, I told myself, "These guys could direct a phone book and make it interesting!" Burn After Reading puts that theory to the test.

To be fair, the premise is interesting: a prissy CIA agent (John Malkovich) with an overinflated ego and a drinking problem gets sacked, starts writing a memoir (he pronounces it "mem-wah") and promptly loses a CD containing an early draft. A buff nincompoop (Brad Pitt) finds the CD at a D.C. gym, becomes convinced that it contains state secrets, and decides, along with his neurotic plastic surgery-obsessed co-worker (Frances McDormand) to blackmail the agent. Meanwhile, there are multiple affairs, intrigue involving the CIA, divorce lawyers and online dating services, and also George Clooney as a sex-addicted, narcissistic, increasingly paranoid government employee. Hilarity ensues, right? Not exactly.

War and Peace

When I watched and reviewed the Russian War and Peace last month, I was very focused on how closely it followed the book. I'd just finished reading Tolstoy's masterpiece and was fascinated by the ways in which Sergei Bondarchuk's 1968 adaptation reflected (or didn't reflect) the novel's form as well as its content. At seven hours, that War and Peace was certainly able to cram in much of the novel's story, but it was also interested in mirroring the book's purposeful shapelessness - the way it wanders and rumbles along without one clear, delineated narrative arc. King Vidor's 1956 Hollywood opus, on the other hand, does attempt to streamline the 1300-page book and is ultimately - perhaps inevitably - defeated in the process. But it's a pleasurable experience nonetheless and after reading and watching the more ambitious attempts, it's this version which is most satisfying for me right now. Bondarchuk's version may be more impressive, but it's Vidor's version (a bastardization, vulgarization, or purification depending upon your sensibility) that is more entertaining moment-to-moment.

Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood: Sunset Boulevard

[Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood is a series revisiting those classics of the early 1950s which turned a withering gaze on the American film industry. Whether due to the blacklist, the decline of Hollywood's Golden Age, or America's more generalized postwar anxiety, Hollywood's screenwriters and directors were suddenly driven to lift the curtain from the dream factory and take a closer look at what went on behind the silver screen. Be warned: these reviews will contain spoilers.]

And at the end of our darkening odyssey, which began at a cheerful silent-era movie premiere, we emerge at a decaying, gothic Sunset Blvd. mansion. Our attention is not only on the gothic household, with its dancefloors, screening rooms, and gilded bedrooms (no locks on the doors in case of suicide attempt). There's also the tumbling, desiccated lawn, overgrown with weeds and decorated with mounds which denote the monkeys buried beneath (in pristine white coffins). Its tennis court is scattered with dried leaves and marked by a dilapidated net, over which Latin lovers and bejeweled flappers once lobbed volleys (or so we presume). And of course, the swimming pool. Until recently, it was drained, bare, sparse, abandoned long ago by vain swimmers who were succeeded by vermin of a different sort: rats that crawled up and down the walls of the barren ditch. Now the rats are gone and the water has risen again, albeit carrying some peculiar flotsam. A man is floating face-down in that swimming pool, dead as the buried apes or the dried-up autumn foliage that blows across the courtyard. As the police poke and prod at the corpse, a voice emerges from the heavens, though as he speaks, his tone sarcastic, language at once baroque and terse, there's little heavenly about the impression. Had we any doubt, that man in the pool is dead. Our narrator should know...that's him, after all.

Tom Jones

My original introduction to this entry contained a long aside stating that I should've posted this earlier (along with several other entries for the coming days, when I'll be out of town but will have automated postings - so keep tuning in); however, political news on the TV and Internet kept distracting me. Then my computer froze, deleting the original, I thought rather charming entry and forcing me to start again several hours later. Maybe it was trying to tell me something (though apparently without success, as I've launched into a fresh aside). At any rate, politics is a bitch and quite distracting. Now that I've gotten that out of the way, Tom Jones...

Funny Face

When looking back on the 1950s with fifty-year hindsight, we tend to see it as the era of suburbanization, an old-fashioned, conservative time before the free spirit of the 60s kicked in. Needless to say, this was not how the postwar generation saw it. The first few minutes of Funny Face, admittedly an optimistic and generally innocent take on the pop culture of the time, reminds you that the 50s were also the high point of modernism. Bright colors burst from the screen, visual invention enfolds the wide frame, and as the movie swims in references to 50s bohemianism, intellectual currents, and fashion trends, however tamed down, we're reminded how far removed the 50s was from the 30s.

The End of Summer in Early to Mid Autumn

This is a response to "DR. ZACHARY SMITH'S LOST IN THE SPACE AT THE END OF SUMMER MOVIE QUIZ" by Dennis Cozzollo at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule.

Yeah, I know it's not the end of summer by any stretch of the imagination. But I've been wanting to tackle this list for a while and now is a convenient time, so let's call this the "Lost in the Space When I'm Taking a Vacation That I Should Have Taken at the End of Summer Movie Quiz," put it on automatic posting and call it a day. (Save for Monday, I probably will not be able to respond to comments, but I will respond to them in a week when I return. In the meantime, automated posts will be popping up every day so keep checking in.)

The list is after the jump.

3:10 to Yuma

The images in 3:10 to Yuma have a beautiful clarity - open skies, sloping dunes, mountains looming behind makeshift towns. Variations of these images can be found in all Westerns, but here there's a simultaneously dreamy and sharp quality - the purity of the compositions and the setting are both meditative and focused. There's something primal and direct and right about the visuals, yet they also suggest something greater, something beyond, intangible in the desert air. This complements a story which is morally clear at any given moment yet morally ambiguous when taken as a whole.


The only part of Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur I'd seen before my most recent viewing was the infamous climax on the Statue of Liberty. This is an obvious antecedent to the Mt. Rushmore scene in the director's 1959 North by Northwest and in fact, much of the film foreshadows the later movie. There's the man falsely accused, travelling across the country, attached to a woman who isn't sure if she can trust him. The element of national security is also present (though here it's more pronounced) as is the fugitive's acceptance of his false identity, in order to get in with the conspirators he supposedly knew all along. But as T.S. notes (and if you haven't checked out his recently initiated retrospective of Hitchcock, take this opportunity to do so), "Hitchcock re-tooled each theme and it got better as he career progressed. (North by Northwest is a much better film than Saboteur, for example.)"

The Verdict

When I first saw The Verdict, it was in a classroom and the teacher only intended to show part of it. When the students begged him to let it keep playing, he relented. It's that kind of movie. It fits snugly into its genre, in this case the courtroom drama, complete with suspense, mystery, melodrama, betrayal, reversal of fortune. If you're looking for a night's entertainment it will certainly provide that. But it also offers more, giving its subtext enough weight to escape being mere bait to draw viewers into the thriller. Partly this is due to the stately style, a graceful and glacial grandeur whose conviction has deeper roots than many similarly styled contemporary thrillers. It's a last gasp for classicism, and at its center sits Paul Newman. He plays an emotional and professional wreck, a drunken lawyer on his last legs, but it's not hard to believe that this man was once filled with potential and probably moved and worked with a graceful ease. Frank Galvin might be a ruin, but he's a glorious ruin at that.

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