Archive for the ‘Political’ Category
Thursday, September 23rd, 2010
Before a few days ago, I had never heard the name of Leon Blum. This man was thrice the Prime Minister of France. He was a leader in the Popular Front, a socialist movement that had great power in France before the second world war. He was taken prisoner in World War II by the Nazis, and lived through the end of the war in the Buchenwald concentration camp. He was Jewish. And I had never heard his name until I got Leon Blum: For All Mankind on DVD from First Run Features.
This is a man whose life ought to be celebrated. Moreso than it already is, I guess. I assume that the reason I didn’t know his name is that he is not celebrated enough. Or maybe I have been reading all the wrong history books. In a tight 58 minutes, director Jean Bodon has presented the man’s entire life, as described by a number of French historians and a very few surviving contemporaries. It’s a fascinating look at the life of a fascinating man. So watch it.
That being said, you will get a little more out of the experience if you understand French. The subtitles are short and concise, and they move the story along efficiently. But they do leave out a lot of what the speaker is saying – for example, one of the stories is about one of Blum’s friends who was executed by the Nazis. From the subtitles, that’s all the story you get. But the person telling the story goes into more detail – the man was taken out into the woods and shot three times in his head as he exited his car. Small details, I know. But they do give the story more life. And this is a story that deserves as much life as it can get.
Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010
Genre: Documentary, Political
Country: United States
Starring: Howard Zinn
Featuring: Daniel Ellsberg, Noam Chomsky, Alice Walker, Tom Hayden, Marian Wright Edelman, Matt Damon (narrator)
Directors: Deb Ellis, Denis Mueller
Run time: 78 minutes
DVD distributor: First Run Features
Howard Zinn was an absolutely fascinating man. He lived a fascinating life, and just hearing about it is totally enthralling. That’s You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, the commemorative edition of which comes out September 21st from First Run Features. Zinn’s story is told through the words of his contemporaries, notably Noam Chomsky (Manufacturing Consent), and Daniel Ellsberg (The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers). Yes, I’m putting movie titles in as though these intellectuals were movie stars. To me, they are.
There is one movie star involved with this project, and it’s Matt Damon who narrates. The rest of the participants (novelist Alice Walker, activist Marian Wright Edelman, politician-activist Tom Hayden and many others) are just really smart people who appreciate the life of a really incredible man.
Zinn was many things in his life. Activist, historian, author, playwright, professor, and now documentary subject. You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Train takes us from his early days as a bombardier in the second world war through his involvement in the civil rights uprising in the southern United States to his tenure at Boston University and his vehement anti-war stance, especially concerning Vietnam.
His early experiences in bomber aircraft, one of which was the early use of napalm dropped on a French town near the end of World War II, shaped his anti-war philosophy over the next fifty years. After watching this documentary, I had to go out and buy a copy of A People’s History Of The United States. Zinn’s book depicts the struggles of Native Americans, slaves, women, African-Americans and unionists, struggles that weren’t traditionally included in history text books at the time. And perhaps still aren’t.
I’m not going to summarize the entire documentary here. I’m just going to say – watch it. The best thing in the film is not the admiration you can feel from Chomsky, Ellsberg and others. It’s listening to Zinn himself speak. Old footage of him speaking at anti-Vietnam rallies is powerful stuff. More recent footage of Zinn speaking out against the Iraq war may be even more powerful. He says, “the question isn’t whether Iraq will be a democracy when the war ends, it’s whether America will be one”. Wonderful.
Sunday, January 17th, 2010
Years: 1974, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1984, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990
Genre: Cartoon, Political
Country: East Germany
Language: No dialogue, German credits not translated
Directors: Otto Sacher, Klaus Georgi, Sieglinde Hamacher, Marion Rasche, Hans Moser, Thomas Rosie, Lutz Stutzner, Peter Mibach
Run time: 57 minutes
Special Features: Behind The Scenes at the DEFA Animation Studio, film essays, biographies and filmographies
DVD distributor: First Run Features
The description of Red Cartoons indicates that it’s a collection of 16 short animated films from the former East Germany, produced by the country’s DEFA Sutiod For Animation Films between 1974 and 1990. These films are apparently full of social and political satire that would never have been allowed in live action films by the oppressive regime at the time. That being said, I can find that satire in only a few of the shorts.
This had me feeling like an idiot for a long time – how come I can’t see the subversive nature of these cartoons? Am I so poorly versed in the customs and conventions of the former East Germany and, indeed, the world that I’m the only one who can’t see this stuff? I GOT the cartoons, but not the satire. What’s wrong with me?
The first cartoon is called Drum Beat. And, admittedly, I didn’t understand that one at all, even as just a cartoon. This guy has a drum, see. His wife drops it on his head, but that’s cool he has more. Then he walks around with it and ends up in a drum band. That’s about it. I don’t get it.
The second film, from the same director (Otto Sacher) is called Stars And Flowers. At least I got that one. A guy who lives in the stars longs to touch the flower on the ground, and a guy who lives on the ground longs to touch the stars in the sky. Loneliness sees a shocking abuse of emergency services as an old man sets fire to his Christmas tree so he will have the companionship of the fire department and the ambulance attendants.
Variants sees two neighbours in a dispute over what appear to be raked leaves, and although a trip to court works out their differences, it doesn’t fix their animosity toward each other. The Rescue is a tale of greed and selfishness which involves a remarkable number of people who manage to fall down a series of crevasses. Seven Rights of a Viewer explores seven different ways an audience can respond to a performer, from the great (showering him with flowers) to the terrible (getting up and leaving).
Hello sees an unfortunate man, plagued by noises everywhere he goes and trying to escape. Deserted islands offer him no solitude, nor do forests or mountains or anything else. Eventually he meets Satan in the desert. I think I get that one. Consequence is a satire I get. After applauding vigorously for a film that details how driving in cars pollutes and destroys nthe environment, the audience gets into their cars and drives home.
The Solution involves a bunch of birds sitting on a wire. One little bird at the end is a non-conformist, which of course means he sits the opposite direction as the rest of the flock. And of course his little friends rat him out. And he gets roundly punished. Until eventually everyone else comes around, so to speak. Belly And Soul is about people feigning interest in the performance of a pianist while secretly trying to get to the massive spread of food that has been laid out following the concert.
The Breakdown sees a man desperately asking for help at the side of the road, as his car has apparently fallen in a hole. Finally, th smallest car stops to help and pull him out, with surprising results. I get the satire in this one too. That makes two. The Full Circle is the story of a plant that produces gas masks, polluting so much in the process that the people in the town are forced to wear…gas masks, of course. And Mr. Daff Is Shooting A Film makes a joke out of a poor sap of a bus driver.
The Monument sees the unveiling of a massive statue to great applause, then people forget about it pretty much right away. Then the statue gets a phone call. And ends up alone in what appears to be a desert, in an Ozymandias sort of finale. I don’t really get it. Sunday seems to depict a church, where everyone is going to look at a plant, and tickets are being ripped at the door and everyone, including the priest, is getting patted down. I guess to make sure they are not bringing in their own water bottles or snacks.
The final short on the set is Island Joke, wherein three shipwrecked and frozen men have a chance to warm themselves up with a blanket tossed to them by a helpful mermaid. Not understanding the gesture, they do what they figure is most obvious with the blanket – they build themselves a flag and salute it. Here, again, is a satire I can understand.
About four of the sixteen shorts are obvious satires, at least to me. Maybe six. I would have really liked to see a special feature that explained a little more. There are several special features on the disc, but one is a wordless slide show that just shows people working at DEFA, and the others are essays about the East German film industry and animation. Which is all great stuff – very informative and interesting, but I would have liked to see something that dealt more specifically with the sixteen films that were chosen to be featured on this disc.
Even though I didn’t understand a few of the films, I liked them. I thought they were all charming, and this is a disc I can see myself watching over and over. But the fact that I liked them all so much was the reason I wanted to know more about them. Thanks to the special features I know a little more about the directors and a lot more about the East German industry, but no more about the films themselves. Red Cartoons comes out January 19th from First Run Features.
Monday, July 27th, 2009
There are seven movies contained on the Human Rights Watch DVD box set, out July 21st from First Run Features. I have chosen to review each of the seven seperately because I think many of them are terrific films that deserve their own reviews, and all of them are worthy efforts in terms of furthering human rights around the world. A quick recap:
Dangerous Living: Coming Out in the Developing World (4/10): A documentary about gays and lesbians who are oppressed far worse in their native countries than anyone could imagine in North America. The thing is, I get it. It’s worse in Iran than it is in the U.S. But I need more than just a list of abuses that I could find online.
Silent Waters (8/10): A powerful film about a Pakistani Muslim woman whose past comes back to haunt her when her son gets caught up with a group of Islamic fundamentalist nutjobs. Not terribly well made, but it has a lot of heart.
S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (10/10): A small but very ambitious documentary surrounding the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the late 70s. A genocide that claimed the lives of 2 million people, a film maker brings the victims of the toruture and genocide together with the perpetrators of the same events at the place where it all took place. A magnificent film.
The Devil’s Miner (9/10): A remarkable, charming and heartbreaking film about a 14-year old who has worked in the mines of Bolivia since he was ten, and his 12-year-old brother who is joining him in the mines for the first time. Miners work themselves to death searching for silver that may no longer be there at all, and pray to the devil since they believe that it must be he that controls the mines. A terrific movie.
Dreaming Lhasa (8/10): A passionate, moving story about Tibetan exiles living in Dharamsala, India. An American film maker goes to India to learn more about her roots and the freedom fighters and the Chinese occupation of her homeland, and end up on a journey of revelation and self-discovery. Mostly cast with non-actors, Dreaming Lhasa has a uniquely genuine feel to it.
Roses in December (5/10): This is the story of Jean Donovan, a lay missionary who was murdered in El Salvador along with three nuns by military police in 1980. The U.S. government tried very hard to ignore the whole thing. But instead of exploring any of the reasons behind the murder, or the reasons behind the United States platform of non-involvement, the film is an hour-long biography of Jean Donovan. She was a remarkable and interesting woman, to be sure, but I wanted to know more than just that she rode a motorcycle.
The Camden 28 (8/10): A remarkable documentary about several priests and ministers, part of the anti-war “Catholic left” in the 1960s, who broke into a draft office to destroy draft cards in an act of protest against the Vietnam war. What ensued was a trial that changed protests, changed peoples’ perception of the war, and even changed the laws of the United States.
Thursday, July 23rd, 2009
“How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today? I answer that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it.”
– Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience
In 1971, a whole bunch of people, among them several religious leaders, decided to break into a draft office in Camden, New Jersey. Their intent was to destroy as many draft cards as they could, in an active act of protest against the war in Vietnam and the drafting of young men to fight in that war. The movie about their actions, Camden 28, asks the question “how far would you go to stop a war?” And although many people would likely go even farther than these men did, their act of civil disobedience was about as far as you can go without doing something truly dreadful.
Four Catholic priests, from what the media at the time dubbed “the Catholic left” and a Lutheran minister were among the 28 people eventually arrested and brought up on all kinds of charges. It turned out that one of the men in the group was an FBI informant. The subsequent trial became a sensation, in part because of the identity of the people in the courtroom and also because it was the first time, ever, that a jury returned a verdict of “not guilty” in a case of antiwar activism.
The Camden 28 reunites all the players in the drama – the men brought up on charges, the FBI informant, the FBI agent assigned to the case, and the lawyers both for the defense and the prosecution. The special features on the disc are 35 minutes long, including an extensive look at the years-later confrontation between these men. It’s fascinating viewing, and it’s a truly remarkable story. The trial came down to a question of entrapment. The perpetrators of the break-in couldn’t possibly have carried out their plan if it wasn’t for the FBI informant, who taught them how to pick locks, get around security, and even had to (seriously) teach them how to break windows and climb a ladder!
That informant’s name was Bob Hardy, and at the trial he actually appeared on the side of the 28, having been assured by the FBI that his friends would serve no time in prison. Now that they were facing up to 47 years each, he took their side and told of his whole involvement in the scheme. This film is a wonderful document about an important moment in American history, in terms of the war, the legal system, the protest movement, and the history of civil disobedience in the United States. Listening to these now-elderly men reminisce and tell their story is both powerful and charming.
There are a few minor problems I had with The Camden 28. First, I wish there was actual footage of the trial in the film. I understand that this is likely impossible, and at least we get to see post-trial news reports to put the events into context. I would also have liked to see a little bit more time spent on the ramifications of the trial, the stand these men took, and the effects the verdict had on the public. After all, if we can’t see the trial footage, and obviously the people at the time couldn’t see the trial footage, then who was receiving the message? The jurors? The men took a stand and risked going to jail for the rest of their lives in order to make a statement against the war. But how many people heard it, and what effect did it have?
It’s easy to marvel at the courage these men displayed. It’s also easy to see why they did what they did, and it’s easy to come to the conclusion that they were entirely in the right. (The conclusion reached by the jury as well, it would appear.) Some of the stuff that I felt was missed in the film appears on the extensive special features – a brief history of anti-war resistance, more information on the legal issues raised by the trial, and the relationships and animosity between the principle players that exist to this day. It’s a terrific DVD and the special features are a solid addition to a really good movie. The Camden 28 is included in the Human Rights Watch DVD Box Set released July 21st by First Run Features.
Thursday, July 23rd, 2009
“They lost their land by gradual encroachment.”
The idea behind “gradual encroachment”, as best as I can understand it, is as follows. The United States has said to the Shoshone natives that the land designated as their own is, indeed, their own, except for the parts that are not. And because the government and the authorities in the area have gradually moved in on their land, their land is no longer theirs. Because it has been gradual. The Shoshone are, understandably, not pleased about this. A quick analogy. Suppse you were unable or too busy, for a time, to go outside into your backyard. And, after six months, the guy who reads your hydro metre decides to annex your backyard. He has been in your backyard twice in those six months, therefore he has spent more time there than you have, and it follows that the backyard now belongs to him.
That is the outrage that opens American Outrage, a marvelously engaging and heartbreaking documentary about Carrie and Mary Dann, elderly sisters of the Shoshone tribe who are fighting a government whose motives and methods they can’t begin to understand. The outrages pile up from that point. The government comes onto their land and steals their horses. Actually, in the dead of night, steals their horses. You know, the kind of thing Lee Marvin or Lee Van Cleef or Eli Wallach would do in an old western movie. Old westerns were full of characters like this. Unscrupulous land barons who wanted to force the hapless settlers off their land.
In fact, there are a ton of parallels here. Usually, in an old western, the evil land baron would push the benign settlers as hard as possible within the confines of the law. And when those tactics failed because the settlers were too tough, the evil landowners would eventually cross the line and start breaking the law, stealing horses and maybe even murdering some of the homesteaders. And, if they were powerful enough, they would actually change the law to allow them to do such things. And there is obviously no entity more powerful, in terms of changing laws and ignoring them if it sees fit, than the United States government, the evil land baron in this story.
It’s no secret that the government of the United States (and of course the government of Canada as well) has not always been a friend to the native people. But American Outrage makes it clear that the unfair treaties and the bullying treatment suffered by the natives hundreds of years ago continue today. The government does everything it can to force these earth-loving, spiritually strong old women off their land. Land that is, ostensibly, protected and sacred. And why? Because of gold. Beneath the land of the Shoshone, there is a massive lode of gold, and miners and jewelers and the government want to get to it.
Of course, gold mining is one of the most destructive things one can do to the local environment. And yet the government levels accusations at these elderly women that their herd of cattle is destroying the local environment. And eventually, the Shoshone are sued, by the government, for trespassing. On their own land. Eventually, the fight reaches the Supreme Court. And the United Nations. Which is a good thing. The persecution of indigenous tribes must be recognized, and must be brought to the attention of the world. It doesn’t happen just in developing countries, but it continues in places in the United States just as it did hundreds of years ago.
The two elderly sisters, Carrie and Mary, are inspirational in their toughness and their take-no-guff attitude. They are not capable of fighting the government alone, and the people who come to their aid are idealistic and passionate. And in a tight, powerful 56 minutes, the story of these women, of the Shoshone, and of government callousness will affect anyone who watches it. I have long said that anyone who wants their girlfriend or wife to stop bugging them to buy diamonds should get them to watch Blood Diamond. Now, if you want your significant other to think twice before asking for gold, look no further than American Outrage. If this doesn’t make you think twice about the true price of gold jewelry, you had better watch it twice.
American Outrage is a remarkable documentary that not only tells an amazing story of struggle and pride, but also features some terrific camera work, and it looks amazing. Well worth it in every way, the film came out July 21st from First Run Features.
Thursday, July 23rd, 2009
“They were going to rape me to take the lesbian out of me.”
I think most of us realize that even though it’s tough for homosexuals and lesbians and transgendered people in Canada and the United States, and that the fight for equal rights is ongoing and difficult, it is much worse in other parts of the world. Being gay in Iran is not like being gay in Vermont. The scary attitudes in developing countries twoard homosexuality do not compare with the intolerance faced by those groups in North America.
Dangerous Living explores those attitudes in the developing world, interviewing people from Uganda, Honduras, Samoa, India, Namibia, Vietnam, Pakistan, Brazil, Egypt, Malaysia, the Philippines, Fiji, Thailand, Kenya and many other countries. We meet a woman who had military police storm into her house in Honduras when she was away, looking to rape her. Instead, they tortured her babysitter and six-year-old son. And there are dozens upon dozens of stories similar to that one.
Rape, murder, public beatings and torture are de rigeur for the gay communities in many of these developing nations, and it is certainly an international tragedy. But I think most of us are aware that this stuff goes on. And just hearing one oppressed person after another talking about those hardships doesn’t tell me any more about the tragic attitudes of, say, Uganda than I already knew (or assumed existed).
And because there are so many interview subjects, I didn’t get to know any one of them well enough to feel for them when they recounted the horrors they have seen. It was just a long list of terrible stuff that goes on in the world. A few times, the movie returns to one event – the arrest of 52 men on a gay party boat in Cairo in 2001. This was a major event in the way the world looked at the persecution of gay minorities in developing countries.
Through the internet, and organizations dedicated to publicizing human rights violations like the ones inflicted upon the “Cairo 52″, the case became an international rallying cry for the LGBT movement. Dangerous Living uses that incident as a touchstone, occasionally returning to Egypt to delve a little deeper into the case and the media attention surrounding it. But overall it’s just another story in a sea of stories, all of which are crammed into a very economical 60 minutes.
The one thing I found interesting in the movie was the notion that homophobia is not innate to these countries, and that for the most part it is a western value that was introduced at certain points in history. In India, for example, gay men and lesbian women were not seen as a big deal throughout most of the history of the nation, until the British Empire ruled the country and began to make people feel bad about their sexuality. When the British finally left, the homophobia stayed.
In Cairo specifically, the city was seen as a (reasonably) safe place for gay men and women to congregate and party and love one another, until the shocking raid of the Cairo 52 put an end to that. In many of the countries of the developing world, escalating homophobia coincided with the rise in religious fundamentalism (not all of it Muslim) in the early years of this decade.
There are a few hopeful stories, like that of the Thai kickboxer who rose to be the champion of the country, adored by the people, even though he/she is transgendered. Some developing countries are still very tolerant of alternative lifestyles, and do not feature the oppressive policies that one might find in Iran or Kenya. But again, the bright spots are touched on so briefly in the film that I tended to forget them almost as soon as I had seen them.
The thing is, I would like to know so much more about every single interview subject in the film. I would like to see a 90-minute documentary on the Cairo 52. Or a 60-minute piece on the Thai kickboxer. Or the woman in Honduras who was the only one to march in a human-rights gay pride parade with her face uncovered, leading to the military police assault on her house. Each story is compelling and interesting.
But not in 30-second sound bites. There is a special feature on the disc that documents a bit more of the reaction outside the trial of the Cairo 52 which indicates to me that there is more than enough footage to create a documentary about that event itself. And that is something I would much rather see. A good example of this, focusing on just one subject instead of all of them at once, is the vastly superior A Jihad For Love, which focuses on the trials of just a few Islamic homosexuals.
That being said, the global fight for equality is an important one, and any documentary made on the subject is therefore afforded a certain amount of importance. I just think this one could have been done better. Dangerous Living is featured on the Human Rights Watch DVD Box Set, out July 21st from First Run Features.
Saturday, June 20th, 2009
“I’m saying that when the president does it, it’s not illegal.”
I don’t know if Frost/Nixon is more resonant post-Bush, or less resonant. Certainly there are a ton of amazing parallels between the two presidencies, and watching Nixon deconstructed in Ron Howard’s terrific film has to have a familiar look to those aware of the activities that took place in the Bush White House. However, at the same time, I think we’re all a little desensitized. As someone who was not yet born when Richard Nixon was facing impeachment hearings in the biggest political scandal of all time, I can’t imagine what a gigantic moment that was for the United States and the rest of the world. I do know that he faced impeachment, and Bush didn’t. But did Nixon really do anything worse?
The tone of the movie suggests that he did. In that he did something that was specifically illegal, and knowingly did this illegal thing and then tried to cover it up and then got busted. He resigned, rather than be impeached, but never admitted any wrongdoing at all. Then, in 1977, he sat down for a series of interviews with little-known British television host David Frost. This movie is the story of those interviews, the preparations, and the results. Frost basically had three months to prepare, but he was one of those playboy good-time party boys who never took this moment seriously enough. Or so the movie says. Only toward the end of the 12 interview sessions does Frost realize that he needs to do a little more.
And what follows is one of the great moments in television history – the dismantling of Nixon’s stonewall, and the final word on Watergate – Nixon’s admission of guilt. Frost/Nixon does a wonderful job talking up the power of television while also discussing, frankly, the limitations of the medium. It also does a wonderful job of making both David Frost and especially Richard Nixon into sympathetic yet deeply flawed characters. This is partly thanks to Ron Howard, but I think even more thanks to Frank Langella, who is magnificent as Nixon, and Michael Sheen is splendid as Frost.
The dialogue and confrontations between the two protagonists are fantastic, and tense, and really exciting. But I think Langella is at his best in his dialogue with his right-hand man, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon). I think the best scene in the movie is the one where Nixon is thinking about investigating Frost before the interviews, and he starts telling Brennan about some Cuban ex-CIA guys he knows who can break into Frost’s hotel room to find some information. Bacon’s face, in that scene, is incredible. The look he gives Nixon is an uncomfortable one of half-horror, half hope – hope that he’s joking. And I think that encapsulates this entire movie.
Frost/Nixon is uncomfortable. And it’s horrifying. And it’s hopeful. And it is an educational and exhilirating look at one of the most incredible media moments of all time. Watch it.
Thursday, June 4th, 2009
“You’ve been nominated for the Politzer”
With rare exceptions (Brokedown Palace, Snow Angels), Kate Beckinsale has functioned more as eye candy than as an actress. She’s always been good, but she’s been eye candy. My personal favourite eye candy, I must admit, what with that form-fitting leather in the Underworld series and Van Helsing, but few of her roles required real thespian chops. My opinion of her changed, utterly, with Nothing But The Truth, out on DVD now. Kate Beckinsale is an actress. A really good actress, who just happens to be the hottest woman ever to shop up vampires and werewolves.
In Nothing But The Truth, Beckinsale plays a reporter who is clearly based on real-life Washington Post reporter Robert Novak. Now, I have seen photos of Robert Novak. He is a handsome 78-year-old man, but he is certainly nowhere near Kate Beckinsale in the looks department. Perhaps in his youth he was very, very pretty. I wonder how he feels about being played by Beckinsale in this movie. Were I Novak, I would be extremely flattered. And I would have let her shadow me for days, weeks, even months in order to help her get into her role.
Novak, it may be remembered by some, was the reporter who “outed” CIA operative Valerie Plame in his column in 2003. Plame was the wife of Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, who had written a controversial op-ed called What I Didn’t Find In Africa, published in the New York Times in 2003, which criticized the Bush administration heavily. Basically, Wilson suggested that the Bush administration had lied about their reasons for invading Iraq, and had fudged the intelligence that led them to that invasion. When sources in the Bush White House were revealed to have leaked Plame’s identity to Novak, Wilson insisted that it was retribution from the White House for that op-ed piece.
The scandal that ensued claimed several victims, the most notable of which was Scooter Libby, who remains a convicted felon today despite the best efforts of his pal Dick Cheney to plead with Bush at the last moment to grant a pardon…ah hell. If you really want to know all the details of the Valerie Plame affair, click here. You will be redirected to wikipedia. This is a review of the movie, and suffice it to say it is virtually an exact re-enactment of what took place during the Plame investigation. Virtually.
OK, Beckinsale is really playing Judith Miller, the woman to whom the name of Plame was revealed. And Novak. Rolled into one. But every other character in this bizarre morality play is pretty easily identifiable in the film. Vera Farmiga plays Erica Van Doren (Plame), whose husband is an ambassador who wrote some unflattering things about the White House administration…she gets outed by Rachel Armstrong (Beckinsale) in an article in the “Capital Sun-Times”, (a fictional newspaper standing in for the Washington Post).
The nuts and bolts of the Plame story hold true through this first tense half hour of the movie. Then the story takes a striking detour, and I think for the better. Armstrong is called up in front of a special prosecutor named Patton Dubois (Matt Dillon). Dubois is charged with finding, at all costs, the name of the person who leaked the information to Armstrong. In real life, no name was ever revealed, and no source was ever prosecuted. (Libby was charged with obstruction of justice, among other things, but was not the source. Then again, you knew that, because you read the link to wikipedia, right? Isn’t Kate Beckinsale spectacular?)
When Rachel refuses to name her source to the prosecutor, the judge in the case decides she must be thrown into jail until she divulges the name. What ensues is a searing prison drama where she can’t see her kid, her husband (David Schwimmer) initially supports her but soon grows distant and bitter as her incarceration lasts longer and longer. She must deal with her fellow prisoners, some of whom are violent and some of whom are nice. (It’s the nice ones who bring her the cutely mis-spelled message about the Pulitzer Prize.) In the meantime, Farmiga, the outed CIA operative, is having her own troubles with her kid and school and the media attention, and she questions the loyalty of her bosses even as they question hers.
All of this is dramatic, but for me the most fascinating part of the movie was the legal drama itself. The idea that the special prosecutor can compel a reporter to divulge her source or jail her indefinitely. The idea that the reporter can take a principled stand for justice and choose to remain incarcerated rather than betray her journalistic integrity. I think there is a chance that Nothing But The Truth could have been more powerful had the reporter been played by an ugly old man, and the fact that they chose Beckinsale clearly indicates to me that there was some kind of “hot woman” requirement for the role as requested by some annoying focus group.
But she not only surprised me, she absolutely stunned me in this role. Kate Beckinsale has given the best performance of her life, and has served notice that not only is she a real, serious actress but she is also capable of something even better than this. I think I’ll be paying a lot more attention to her in the future, because I think she has an Oscar nomination or two in her over the next few years. She perfectly captures Rachel’s desperation, exhaustion, depression, and conviction in every scene, and she is absolutely riveting. And this time it isn’t just for her looks! Although of course they help. She is absolutely wonderful.
Nothing But The Truth is by no means a perfect movie. It has moments of power, moments of brilliance, and gets that magnificent performance by Beckinsale to drive the whole thing. But it has a pretty silly, cutesy, easy and obvious ending, and it lags at times. But it does a good job of dramatizing one of the most sensational political events of the Bush administration, and it serves notice to the world – or at least to me – Kate Beckinsale, the actress, has arrived.
Monday, May 18th, 2009
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”
To hear the review
To hear the review
That is the quote, from Martin Luther King, that opens Sole Journey, on DVD May 19th from First Run Features. The documentary follows a group of gay and lesbian activists who took on James Dobson and his Focus on the Family group. Dobson is one of the most influential evangelical religious leaders in the States, and his group promotes a large amount of anti-gay viewpoints. The Soulforce movement sees a group of people – some gay, some family members of gay people, march to the Focus On The Family headquarters with letters to Dobson and his followers pleading with them to stop promoting anti-gay sentiment and spreading disinformation about homosexuality.
We get to meet many of the crusaders along the way, including Chad Allen, the star of the terrific movie Save Me. Although calling them “crusaders” is maybe a misnomer. They are not violent or antagonistic, but instead they take their theory of resistance from Gandhi – non-violent resistance, benign acts of civil disobedience, and a constant powerful message. And the message is powerful. Lesbian couples who have been oppressed by the teachings of Dobson and his ilk. Gay couples who are fighting for equal treatment. And parents of gay kids who see what the struggle is doing to their children.
Most powerful of all perhaps is Judy Shepard, of the Matthew Shepard Foundation. She is the mother of Matthew Shepard, the young man whose murder was one of the most galvanizing events of the gay rights movement. Her tough, positive message is resonant, and heartbreaking at the same time. There is of course a long way for this movement to go. Just last week, in the American Congress, representative Virginia Foxx called the murder of Shepard a “hoax”, a myth propagated by the pro-gay movement to help their cause. Like I said. A LONG way to go. But seeing the courage and the determination and the passion of the people in this documentary, I have no doubt that they will get there. That we all will.
“The constitution has to trump the bible. Every single time.”
Tuesday, April 28th, 2009
“The people…united…can never be divided!”
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To hear the review
That’s a pretty trite slogan, shouted at protest marches since time began. Or, at least, since protests began. But somehow filmmaker Stuart Townsend imbues even the most hackneyed protestor cliches with a powerful feel and a passionate energy. And that is the strength of Battle In Seattle. This is the true story (with, of course, considerable dramatic license) of the protests in Seattle in 1999 during the meetings of the World Trade Organization. An impressive cast of actors stars in the film, but there are so many people and so many stories that few of those actors have a lot to do.
Ray Liotta is the embattled mayor of Seattle, squeezed between political pressure from the top and a desire to do the right thing. Woody Harrelson is a riot-squad cop who gets sent out to help quell the protests while his pregnant wife (Charlize Theron) gets trapped in the chaos of the protests. Channing Tatum is also a cop, but he’s one that is acting as an agent provocateur, smashing store windows and causing violence in the guise of a protester, so the cops will have an excuse to crack down on the non-violent demonstrators. Michelle Rodriguez (Lost), Jennifer Carpenter (Dexter), Andre Benjamin (Outkast), and Martin Henderson (Flyboys) are the four starring protestors.
Also in the cast are Joshua Jackson, Rade Sherbedzija, and Connie Nielsen. The biggest failing of the movie is that there are too many characters. Although each one has a personal story, and each one is fascinating in their own right, there is not enough time to really care about any of them. But I don’t think that’s the point of the movie. In the end, the point seems to be that protests can spiral out of control, that the involvement of authorities usually makes things worse, and that protests can, against great odds, WORK from time to time.
The film is almost uniformly excellent. I felt Townsend’s passion for his subject material in just about every scene. All the characters, even those who commit some horrible acts (Tatum, Harrelson) are still seen as sympathetic figures at times. Liotta’s tortured situation is compelling. Sherbedzija, as a speaker at the WTO conference, infuses his performance with a dignified power. Theron plays a marginal character at best, but as the pregnant wife of Harrelson, she acts as the catalyst for some of the craziness later. The central character in the film is actually the least-known actor, Martin Henderson. He plays Jay, the organizer of the protestors, who can’t afford to go to prison a third time or he will be there for life.
The performances are genuine, the subject is one in which the director clearly believes strongly, and the construction and pacing of the film are terrific. This true story is compelling and powerful, and it comes out on DVD April 28th from Alliance Films.
Tuesday, April 21st, 2009
“That piecemeal approach [to the building of the New Orleans levees by the Army Corps of Engineers] came home to roost during Katrina.”
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To hear the review
The phrase “came home to roost” is an odd one to use in this film, considering the fact that the movie was made during the 2008 presidential election and there was so much controversy over the reverend Jeremiah Wright (Barack Obama’s pastor) and the comments he made about 9/11 being “America’s chickens…coming home to roost”. In fact, the documentary is very obviously influenced a great deal by the presidential election. Although I’m sure there were many senators in congress railing against the shoddy work done by the Army Corps of Engineers and the rampant corruption and ignorance that led to the destruction of Katrina, there is a lot of attention paid to speeches made by Obama and John McCain. There is even a rather innocuous Hillary Clinton clip thrown in for good measure.
Frankly, after watching the documentary, I’m surprised that this wasn’t a bigger issue during that campaign itself. Hurricane Katrina had just wrought a mind-boggling devastation on New Orleans, and three years later there had still been little cleanup done. Government policy and an absolutely stupid system of infrastucture had not only led to the breach of the levees but had also held up the reconstruction effort in a big way. There weren’t a lot of people clamoring for a solution to this problem during the election, and the issues that ended up being talked about most were…Jeremiah Wright, and so forth.
America Betrayed, narrated by Richard Dreyfuss, takes a searing and deep look into the practices of the Army Corps of Engineers, the group entrusted with building the New Orleans levees after Hurricane Betsy in 1965. As of 2005 – this is of course forty years later, the levees still had not been completed. Not only had they been shoddily constructed, poorly inspected, and basically ignored entirely, the Army Corps of Engineers had also managed to force through another project, the Mississipi River Gulf Outlet, which was essentially a canal, that exacerbated the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in a major way.
There is a lot of information in America Betrayed. The movie talks about the $8 billion that has gone missing in Iraq recovery money. And the $2 billion missing from the Katrina recovery effort. It deals with flood insurance, shady business practices, the department of Homeland Security, disaster capitalism (which is like war profiteering, except that it occurs after a natural disaster), the protection of wetlands, and the dangerous condition of various other levees, dams and bridges around the United States. But mostly (almost entirely, in fact), the film is an excoriation of the Army Corps of Engineers, specifically in relation to the before and after of Katrina.
The shots in this movie of sections of New Orleans, still completely destroyed three years after Katrina are just as devastating as the shots of the bodies in the water during the flood itself. Over and over again, residents, politicians, engineers and journalists hammer home the point that Katrina was a MAN-MADE disaster. That the levees, had they been properly constructed and maintained reasonably, would have been more than enough to hold back the flood waters and save the city. But of course, as we all know now, this was not done, and the tragedy was played out on the news for us all to see.
America Betrayed is not a terrifically structured movie. It relies a little too much on unnecessary footage of the presidential candidates, footage which would have played very well and been far more timely and interesting during the election. Now that the election is over, and Obama is president, it would make sense to use the footage of his comments only if you were trying to make a specific point to his government. And I don’t get the sense that this is what America Betrayed is trying to do. I feel like it’s a documentary more interested in mobilizing people and in educating Americans about the dangers that face them all over the country because of mismanagement and corruption. (California especially.)
That being said, it is a terrifically interesting and powerful statement about America and politics and corporate greed and most of all the dangers of the Army Corps of Engineers holding what is basically an engineering monopoly across the U.S. with virtually no oversight whatsoever. Now that oversight is such a big buzzword in the halls of congress, I certainly hope that Obama will act on the statements he is seen making in this movie. Something clearly needs to be done, and fast. I’m frightened about it – and I’m not even an American! America Betrayed is a strong, important documentary, and it comes out April 21st from First Run Features.
Tuesday, April 21st, 2009
To hear the review
To hear the review
Inside The Third Reich, a four-disc box set of documentaries about Nazi Germany, comes out April 21st from First Run Features. It’s a fascinating look at four different facets of World War II, all stuff I didn’t already know. And I am a big World War II history buff. The four discs are as follows:
Television Under the Swastika (10/10):
“Good Cheer And Willpower”
An absolutely riveting documentary about the world’s first television network, one created by the Germans and the Nazi party in the 30s, years before television became a staple in American households. This German TV was on the air for nine years, and featured an amazingly wide range of programs. For the purposes of this documentary, some of those programs are shown, although very few examples have survived all the years until today. Fitness programs, childrens’ gymnastics shows, variety shows with singing and dancing and piano playing, and the 1936 Olympics were all covered on this station.
Although it seems, initially, like a pretty innocuous television network, closer examination reveals the sinister propaganda behind much of the programming. Watching the shows is a lot like watching a college-training TV station, in that there is a large amount of inept camera work and some terrible interviews. After all, it was a brand-new medium. Some of Hitler’s rallies are covered, with shaky cameras that could capture only one shot at a time. The fact that the rallies and parades were shot with one, long, take actually reveals some things that would otherwise have remained hidden.
A lot of the Nazi propaganda behind the programming, such as cooking shows, is fairly subtle. Then again, in some cases it is absolutely overt. But it is always there. Some of the scenes – like one of a bumbling, stupid Nazi official being interviewed – are actually quite funny, although it’s almost painful to laugh at something like that, knowing the historic context. One of the most amazing unearthed shows is called “Good Cheer And Willpower”, where a bunch of war amputees with one leg run an obstacle course to show soldiers in the field that losing a limb isn’t such a bad thing – I mean, look how happy these guys are! Again, it’s almost funny. But mostly, this documentary is chilling. Terrific stuff.
“At 2:25 a.m., a new term, until then unknown, was entered in the records of the German Civil Air Defense Department: Firestorm”
Firestorm refers to the British practice, toward the end of World War II, of firebombing. They would drop flares during their night time raids on German cities, partly to light the way for their bombers and partly to set the cities ablaze. The film examines this tactic, and asks whether it crossed the line. Many of these firebombing raids came after the British had already basically defeated the Germans, and they seemed to be more retaliatory than necessary. Especially since the bombing campaigns claimed the lives of civilians, more so than soldiers.
35,000 people killed in one attack on Hamburg. Tragic, disturbing pictures of dead people, children and babies, many of whom would later be buried in paper sacks. People rendered homeless, historic buildings destroyed, all by incendiary bombs. After the Battle of Britain, the English targeted civilians with their bombing raids. While most concede that at first, this was a legitimate war tactic, it soon became questionable. The best argument for the actions of the British comes from one man who says “these [German civilians] knew why they died. In Auschwitz and the gas chambers, they didn’t.” The film is a very interesting one, and seems to come down against the British. Although, it does end with the line “a consequence of 12 years of the Nazi regime”.
The Reich Underground (8/10):
A two-part documentary about the massive network of underground tunnels the Nazis built under German cities during the second world war, mostly toward the end when they needed to protect their factories from bombing raids. The movie deals with the slave labourers who were forced to work in these areas, digging out the tunnels in inhuman and brutal conditions. One man in the film estimates the life expectancy for any slave working in the tunnels at 40 days. The film details the brutality of the SS, the production of the V2 rockets that were supposed to win the war for Hitler, and also talks about the “Dam Busters” squad which dropped “tallboy” bombs into some of the deepest, most impenetrable building sites. It also shows stock footage of chemical weapons being tested by the Nazis on a monkey and a cat. That is disturbing to watch, knowing they were hoping to use those weapons on human beings. It’s too long, with two parts, but it’s very interesting.
The Goebbels Experiment (10/10):
“National Socialism is a religion. All we lack is a religious genius.”
Joseph Goebbels was the Nazi party’s Minister of Propaganda, the man responsible for turning the German people to the side of the Nazis. He kept extensive diaries, and it’s those diaries that make up The Goebbels Experiment, the best documentary in the box set. The story is told entirely in the words of Goebbels, as read from his diaries by Kenneth Branagh. It’s a fascinating look into the brain of a brilliant but evil man.
Goebbels was at turns paranoid, petulant, bitter, loyal, petty, treacherous, and euphoric, depending on his mood and what was happening around him. He complained bitterly about people at one time, then praised them effusively at another. (In particular Hermann Goering, the commander of the Luftwaffe.) The one thing that remains constant in Goebbels’ writings is that he was a very insecure man. He thinks Himmler hates him. Then he thinks Goering is out to sabotage him. Then he thinks Hitler doesn’t appreciate his advice enough. Then he believes that he is under surveillance by the SS (chances are that one was absolutely true).
“Jews don’t respond to generosity or to a spirit of magnanimity. You have to show them what you are prepared to do.”
The documentary features many speeches by both Goering and Hitler. It’s easy to forget, in hindsight, that “propaganda” wasn’t always a bad word. That when these speeches were being made, no one saw the horrors that were to come. And there is no denying that both men had a powerful ability to whip a crowd into a frenzy. The diaries dissect both his speeches and Hitler’s. Goebbels critiques them, usually heaping praise on his own speeches as well as those of the Fuhrer. He has an affair with a mistress, then blames her for being angry. Goebbels is not a man who is capable of seeing his own faults.
There isn’t much in the film about the beginning of the war. Perhaps Goebbels was too busy at that time to write very much. And since the whole movie is told in his words, only the subtitles in certain locations exist to fill in the gaps. The one time Goebbels seems to be even a little self-aware is when he discusses, with a grudging respect, the writings of Winston Churchill, and contemplates stealing his phrase “blood toil, tears and sweat” for himself and German propaganda. This is far and away the most fascinating documentary in the set, and this film alone makes it worthwhile.
One more thing – since the movie didn’t cover this, I thought I would make mention. Goebbels, at one point, writes of the elation he felt when Max Schmelling, a powerful German heavyweight fighter, knocked out Joe Louis, an inferior black man, in a heavyweight title fight in the United States. He heard about the great Schmelling victory on the radio, and he is thrilled. Well, I am a boxing buff as well as a World War II buff. And I was pretty sure that Schmelling never knocked out Joe Louis. In fact, I was absolutely positive. I don’t know whether this was because German radio was editing the fight to make it seem as though Schmelling was the victor, or whether Goebbels lied into his diary.
Either way, I looked it up to be sure. I was right – Louis fought Schmelling twice. Once in June of 1936, a knockout in the twelfth round, and once in June of 1938, a first-round KO. Both fights were won by Louis.
Tuesday, March 24th, 2009
Ingrid Bergman is known for a few key movies. For Whom The Bell Tolls, Notorious, and of course Casablanca. Paramount Home Entertainment is releasing a movie on Tuesday that should rank up there with Bergman’s finest work.
A Woman Called Golda is a three and a half hour TV movie from 1982 that tells the story of Golda Meir, the first female prime minister of Israel. It traces her story from her childhood, which is dealt with briefly, to her young years working at a kibbutz in Israel with her husband, played by Leonard Nimoy. At this stage Meir is played by Judy Davis, but it’s when she gets older and is played by Bergman that the film really shines. It’s a TV movie, so at times it can be hokey, but in one of her final roles Ingrid Bergman is magnificent as the real-life Golda Meir. It’s worth it to see her cap of an astonishing film career with a performance of this caliber.
A Woman Called Golda is on DVD for the first time on March 24th.
Tuesday, March 10th, 2009
“If it were true that children emulate their teachers, we’d have a lot more nuns running around.”
Milk is the true story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man ever to win an election for public office in the state of California. He was shot and killed, along with the mayor of San Francisco, by a rival politician in 1978. We know all of this information going into the film, which focuses mostly on 1977 and 78, and the controversial statewide initiative that sought to ban gays, and their “supporters”, from teaching at public schools.
Through a taped statement that Milk (Sean Penn) reads just before his death, we see the movie mostly through flashbacks related to this tape. We also get to see archival footage – Walter Cronkite with the news, Anita Bryant and her crazed crusade against homosexuality – that creates a really great late-70s feel in the film.
The only bone I have to pick with Milk, really, is that it spends too much time introducing us to Harvey Milk. We get to see him hook up with a new boyfriend, move to San Francisco, open a camera shop, and begin to become politically active. But we’re not really getting to know him through all this. The real Harvey Milk shows up when he decides to take on certain local issues, and begins to become a voice for the gay community. I would have been just as happy had the movie started here.
But that’s a small issue when compared to the big picture, which is a very good movie featuring some very, very good performances. Emile Hirsch (Into The Wild) is a former street hustler who joins Milk’s campaign for city supervisor, adn he is almost unrecognizable. He’s also fantastic. James Franco (Spiderman) is terrific as Milk’s steady boyfriend Scott, and I really liked Alison Pill as Milk’s lesbian campaign manager when Scott left.
One actor I found unnecessary and distracting was Diego Luna, who played Milk’s new boyfriend, Jack. A crazy, possessive, lunatic boyfriend, he’s one of those characters who makes you cringe every time he shows up on screen, and makes me want to fast forward through his scenes so I don’t have to share in the embarassment he’s causing himself. But you can’t fast-forward at the theatre, can you?
The best performances in the film, however, are by Josh Brolin and Sean Penn. Of course, the Academy has already acknowledged this themselves, having nominated both for acting Oscars. Brolin is nominated for Supporting Actor for his role as Dan White, the rival politician whose bitter feud with Milk ends with the murder. A brooding, seething presence, Brolin still manages to remain reasonably likeable and utterly convincing. And Penn as Harvey Milk has done some of the best work of his already remarkable career.
Milk serves well as a terrific snapshot of the late 70s in San Francisco. The clothes, the characters, and the actors are all able to create a very convincing 70s gay Castro district scene. The movie also serves as an inspiration for a civil rights movement that still has gigantic challenges in front of it, and it functions as a pretty solid biopic of a very interesting man. I don’t think it deserved to be the Best Picture of the Year at the Oscars, but I do think it deserves to be watched by as many people as possible. It comes out on DVD and Blu-Ray March 10th from Alliance Films.