Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Movie To Check Out: Recount

This past weekend should have been great. On Saturday evening, I went to see Mission Of Burma at the Black Cat, playing songs mainly from their new album The Sound the Speed the Light. It was a good show, and I was honored to stand right in front of Roger Miller's amp (directed toward the audience, I imagine, to offset any problems with tinnitus--I also noticed that only half of Peter Prescott's drum setup, the part that faced Miller specifically, was cordoned off, meaning that I couldn't hear the drums nearly as well as the guitar). I also managed to gank a set list, and the band came back for two encores, delighting me to no end when the band ignored a dude's shrill, insistent cry for "Mica" and instead played Peter Prescott's first tune, the awesome "Learn How" from Vs.

The next day, I woke up exhibiting all the hallmarks of an extreme yet temporary fever--I was cold, yet running a temperature, plus there were aching joints in my feet that I felt probably came from standing all that time at the concert and then walking home in the extreme cold.

In any case, I was incapacitated, barely able to leave my room, and I have to thank my housemate Patrick for finally coming to my aid and making me a smoothie, without which I would have gone maybe 36 hours without sustenance.

The next day, most of the joint pain and fever had gone away, but I still had a rather insistent headache. I did manage to make it to my library, and I checked out the movie Recount, which I enjoyed a lot.

Recount is an HBO made-for-TV movie that revolves around the power players in Florida during the 2000 election. It mainly covers the 36-day period between the Nov. 7 election and the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court ruling on Dec. 12 that led to Gore's concession. Bush and Gore are barely factors in the movie itself, a wise decision by the filmmakers given that the market was already cornered on impersonations of the two.

What Recount has that a lot of movies don't have, particular ones that aim to summarize history as recent as this, is an almost crippling fidelity to the facts of the case. There is a lot to admire in making a movie that hews so closely to the established history, but that doesn't necessarily mean the drama is there. A lot of credit goes to the writer Danny Strong and director Jay Roach (as well as Sydney Pollack, who was originally set to direct the movie before he became ill and eventually died) for emphasizing those certain scenes that provide the needed dramatic contrast. Situations like the one in which a Gore aide with bad ankles is forced to catch up to the vice-president before he mistakenly concedes on election day, or the scene in which an army of young Republicans attempt to invade and shut down the efforts of Palm Beach vote counters, have a sense of flow and immediacy that would work in any thriller rooted entirely in fiction.

And there are plenty of moments in the film that are basically anti-dramatic, as well. One of my favorites is when the Democratic pollster Michael Whouley (Denis Leary) describes just how ass-backwards the Florida voting process is, and how in particular it doesn't tend to favor Democrats. The phenomenon of the "dimpled chad" (apparently it's never pluralized?), for instance, is basically exclusive to poor communities in Florida that would vote Democratic. It seems like a system set up to fail, and basically everyone in the movie admits that running the ballots through gets a slightly different total every time. And, as the movie seems to suggest, the more carefully those ballots were considered, the more likely it looked that Al Gore was actually the winner, which put the Republicans in the place of having to find a legal and justifiable way of shutting it down.

Luckily they were in Florida, where the power was on their side. In researching this movie, Danny Strong interviewed about 40 people involved, and he made sure that every single scene in the movie had been corroborated by at least one eyewitness, except in one case: Katherine Harris refused to be part of this movie, so a brief moment where she is shown by herself constitutes the biggest bit of artistic license in the movie. It's not a coincidence that Katherine Harris ends up looking worse than anyone else by film's end. She is obviously shown to be involved with some of the shadier facts of the case (such as original voter suppression efforts that singled out minority voters whose names were similar to convicted felons), and nearly everyone on both sides agrees that she was in a compromised position that she chose to handle quite badly.

The fact that this movie basically recounts the story word-for-word makes some of the goings-on that much more astonishing. We have the Supreme Court to thank for shutting down the recount effort when Gore was about 500 votes away from victory. The film is brilliant at exploring the absurd minutia used by the Supreme Court for justifying what was clearly a victory handed to their favored candidate. When the main character of the movie, Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey), reads the SCOTUS' verdict at the end of the movie, he notes a part of the fine print that would in a decent world scare all of those afraid of "judicial activism": "The court has ruled that this decision is 'limited to the present circumstances." So basically, they're making sure it will never again be used as a precedent, probably because they know how shoddy of an interpretation of Florida law it is (and how it flies in the face of more well-established election laws, such as the ones signed into being by Governor George W. Bush in Texas).

I highly recommend this movie for the same reason that I would recommend In the Loop: it doesn't dumb down a situation more prone than many to political interpretation, and yet it somehow manages to keep a handle on what's important, and in the end, we manage feel for characters on both sides of the debate.

(Except for Katherine Harris, but we can be happy knowing that she would eventually be getting what she deserved.)

Friday, February 19, 2010

Steve King, who reps for the district adjacent to my own, appeared on CPAC, and offered a helpful list of "who we are up against":

The list, for easy consumption, includes the following:
-Che Guevarians
-Democratic Socialists

We can remove several of these designations as wishful thinking on the part of Rep. King. The number of legitimate "Leninists" in this country has to be approaching zero, and Stalinism, insofar as it ever actually existed (Solzhenitsyn doubted so), died a few years after Stalin. Similarly, one is unlikely to find any legitimate adherents for Maoism.

As for "Democratic Socialism' (mentioned not by King but someone in the audience), we do have at least one member of Congress who considers himself such, Senator Bernie Sanders. So in this case King's relentless strawman bashing has a slight whiff of truth. And yet the teabaggers never manage to focus very much of their ire on Senator Sanders. This may have more to do with his location in a liberal stronghold than it does any real differences with his agenda.

Castro and Che Guevara both have their adherents and their own cults, none of which have any remote pull on modern electoral politics.

One name popped out at me: Gramsciite. Of all the names Steve King chooses to call me, I would perhaps be most proud to call myself a Gramsciite. I think that Antonio Gramsci, like Trotsky, really resists the sort of blanket pejorative designations that Lenin and Stalin deserve far more. His wasn't a deliberately oppositional or radical form of socialism--rather, he came to see that the working class not only had the rights to question the system that held them captive, but they also had to foment their own intellectual development as a means of carefully considering capitalism as a system. Unlike Che or Mao, Gramsci wasn't really "rejecting" anything, other than rule under Mussolini.

I'm both bewildered and gladdened by the fact that Steve King mentioned Gramsci, and not only because I'm sure now that his average number of Wikipedia visitors will increase dramatically. Conservatives may have a more difficult time arguing with adherents of a philosophy who are capable of standing outside the sort of debate as an exercise in coercion and subjugation. Then again, this is not a philosophy that would be easy to spell out on cable news.

At another time, I will provide a much more strident analysis of Steve King as a human being, and how inexplicable it is that Iowans keep reelecting this guy.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Cheney Breaks With Expectation--Slightly

Dick Cheney was on ABC's This Week this morning (unofficially facing off against Joe Biden on CBS), and despite his misgivings with nearly everything Obama does, foreign policy-wise, he does support the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

This means that Cheney is to the left of John McCain on this issue. No one should be too surprised about this admission--not only was Cheney speaking out against DADT back in 1991, but remember that he is also a nominal supporter of gay marriage and gay rights, due to his lesbian daughter (I'm willing to guess that Mary Cheney's homosexuality is the only factor keeping Cheney from spouting the party line).

As expected, National Review showers the expected praise, conveniently doesn't mention the one part of Cheney's appearance that readers would find disagreeable. However, they are having a book sale!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Like everyone else in this rapidly expanding universe, I'm always apprehensive about the Academy Awards, and particularly what their choices for Best Picture say about the Academy/America/culture in general. I tend to come from the standard school of argument--that the Academy favors the middlebrow, the America-centric, the studio Hollywood film. But others have taken the opposite tack, attacking the organization for ignoring science-fiction blockbusters and animated films. And, considering strong fare like The Dark Knight and Iron Man, they have a point. The Academy people saw it that way, and this year expanded their list from five to ten.

But I would never criticize any organization simply because they don't have the exact same taste as I do, especially when I'm more comfortable targeting the politics of the thing. But really, there's already enough of that, and some people have worked themselves up into such ridiculous histrionics about Avatar's supposed "overrated-ness" that I see no point in trying to follow the same path this year.

The reason I pay attention to the Oscars is the same reason that I pay attention to so many different film polls and lists--I enjoy an opportunity to catch up on movies I might have otherwise ignored. So over the past few days I've watched all ten nominated films, and I would like to tell you what I thought of them (in alphabetical order).

Avatar: I happen to be one of those people that refuses to apologize for liking Avatar, and while I was severely engaged by nearly the whole thing, I refuse to be bothered by petty criticisms along the lines of questioning James Cameron's anti-colonial bona fides when he makes movies that both cost and make a lot of money. If this were to win Best Picture, it would be because this film does a more solid and thorough anthropological study of the fictional Na'vi than Dances With Wolves did with real Native Americans. The visuals are, as everybody has told you, as amazing as anything I have seen on a movie screen, and I applaud Cameron for spending a lot of the movie simply exploring his endlessly inventive landscapes. Surely, the pro-environmental plotline is heavy-handed, but I think Avatar is in more interesting territory when it has something to say about the state of masculinity in action movies, post-20th century. The final battle between Sam Worthington's sleek, feminine blue avatar and the General in that familiar Aliens mech suit at the end acts as a sort of contest between the future standard bearers of movie action, people and machines--and I will take this over the cold, metal war-thumping of Transformers any day. On the other hand, he's still running around with a machine gun...

The Blind Side: I remember seeing the trailer for this movie and thinking it was really hilarious, and in a way, embarrassing. Without knowing too much of the back story, it appeared to be about a friendship between Sandra Bullock and a Gentle Black Giant who is shaped by Bullock into a future NFL star. It looked like an alarmingly backward take on southerners and their issues with race, and I dreaded seeing yet another movie with a humongous black man who is kind to white children and loves butterflies or whatever. After seeing the movie, I can confirm it is indeed plenty embarrassing and still pretty bad; however, I will admit that Sandra Bullock is by far the best thing is this movie, and she probably deserves a lot of accolades. As for the rest: we've got a few horrendous child actors, a conflict introduced in the final act that seems laughably invented, and a few good football scenes. I was basically unimpressed, but it is very popular.

District 9: This film, though it contains a few good ideas, isn't nearly as politically incisive or thoughtful as I imagined it to be, given what critics have said. I still liked a lot of the action sequences, as well as the basic atmosphere in the scenes set in alien internment camps, but none of the parallels to Apartheid or Palestine seem very deep or probing. Though it confuses legitimate ideas with set-pieces, I still felt there was a lot left to be said about District 9, especially about the insane inhumanity of the South African government and how that came to be an issue after however many years of Apartheid rule. As far as statements against militarism and unchecked imperialism, I think Avatar is more thoughtful.

An Education: Sandra Bullock was good, but Carey Mulligan is so watchable in this movie, I had trouble concentrating on anything else. Which has its advantages, as once again we have a movie that is actually kind of slight (in a very Nick Hornby manner). For instance, Alfred Molina, who plays Mulligan's overbearing father, strikes me as a cipher throughout merely pretending to be complex and thoughtful. And Peter Sarsgaard's character is also kind of unpleasant and creepy, which makes sense at the end, but you wonder by 16-year olds would fall for him (the question of why he is so into Mulligan is more obvious). Mulligan, at the center, shows talent and a sense of comic timing far beyond her years.

The Hurt Locker: I hate to have to state the obvious, but this movie is basically as good as anyone says it is. I haven't seen any war film like it that I remember--not only is it one with a highly specialized subject (focusing on the dangers and delights of those who are tasked to disarm bombs in war zones), but it also has characters that never seem like they fulfill any war movie caricature--everyone in the movie is competent, smart, more than a little afraid, and always on the verge of losing it. And the action scenes are really exciting too, brilliantly illustrating Hitchcock's comment about the difference between surprise and suspense, and which one we know to be preferable in our Hollywood storytelling.

Inglorious Basterds: I was really surprised by this movie. Far from the hyper-violent and hyperstylized World War II movie I was expecting, the movie seemed to be more about Tarantino's love of film lagniappe than any particular action or character sequence. Tarantino's geekery really shows in the scenes set in the movie theater, and there are several conversations throughout the film that basically amount to the kind of conversations I imagine Tarantino had in film school. Christoph Waltz is good as the villain, easily overshadowing most of the Basterds, but this is also a movie that I think is more concerned with its female characters (this continues to be more of a Tarantino trademark with each passing movie). The scenes of extreme violence tread familiar territory, but there really aren't that many compared to something like Reservoir Dogs. Good for Tarantino. It makes me think that Tarantino could make a great movie even if he lays off the ultraviolence that basically defined his previous films.

Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' By Sapphire: Other than The Blind Side, this was probably the worst film of the nominated, and I judge this entirely apart from whether or not the Klan would think this was an accurate depiction of black poverty. The problems start with Mo'Nique's evil mother, a cartoon character whose purpose is to be as scary and unforgivable as possible, basically so Precious can look as much like a saint as possible. Precious herself is not a very well-written character either, her distinguishing characteristics basically being illustrated by the hardships she faced and a fantasy life where she sees herself as a famous and beloved singer/model. I don't think it's fair of me to criticize Lee Daniels' depiction of the character in that she is dull (since she is supposed to be monosyllabic and illiterate at the beginning anyway), but I don't think it is wrong of me to complain that the movie does nothing legitimately insightful with her character: it's as if, by casting Gabourey Sidibe, people will find she resembles or typifies something about poor black people that doesn't need to be spelled out in the script. The result is basically anti-drama fueled by a series of drama queens.

A Serious Man: Despite those old complaints that Hollywood is masterminded by Jews, there don't seem to be many mainstream movies that look deeply at American Jewish communities and their customs. And certainly the few that do exist were never as dark as this movie, which ranks up their with the best Coen Brothers movies, in my opinion. Whether or not the Coens' intended it, I am the perfect audience for this movie, in that I have lived through enough of this and have found enough Jewish customs to be strange and off-putting to feel at times like I was in a Coen Brothers movie. While being a great Jewish movie, it's also a great secular movie (the two often go together) in that it really illustrates just how unhelpful religious guidance can be in the face of absolute tragedy--illustrated most plainly in the scenes between Michael Stuhlbarg's hapless, miserable protagonist, and a series of rabbis, each more obtuse and blind to the plight of modern American Jews than the last. And it asks us: should we really be using this bizarre, contradictory, and at times inhumane Old Testament as a means to make our lives better?

Up: Like Inglorious Basterds, I was really surprised and delighted by the third act of this movie, which morphs from a sad and austere look at old age and loneliness into an adventure movie that pits said old man against an army of talking dogs. It seems like every Pixar movie these days has at least one scene that will have me on the verge of tears; this movie has two. And Ed Asner is great as the old man, even as I was reminded of his old voicework for the 90s Spider-Man series as J. Jonah Jameson (at least I think that was him). I wonder how Pixar can top this.

Up In The Air: Another film I found to be generally successful, and a big improvement, in my opinion, over Jason Reitman's Juno. There seems to be two movies at work here: one that tacitly explores the intense emotions surrounding those who have been recently fired due to economic reasons, and another movie about a guy who basically lives in airports and rarely has to go home. These two movies could each have been satisfying in themselves, with the former just happening to match the tenor of our times, but thrown together, they basically amount to a vehicle for George Clooney's charisma, particularly in the way this lonely man interacts with the few females in his life. Despite the underlying tone of sadness that manifests itself obviously in the scenes with Clooney doing his job, a lot of the film is very hopeful in that it suggest that old, graying people are still capable of crashing parties, getting drunk, and dancing to Young MC. Of course, the film also suggests that you still have to be very good-looking to do that, but I credit Clooney with giving me hope that I will still be attending concerts in my 40s and 50s. As long as I stay alone and unloved.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

I was watching Hamlet 2, and as much as i enjoyed show tunes with names such as "Rock Me Sexy Jesus" (in addition to being improbably moved), I believe that Hollywood is severely missing out by not releasing a spin-off featuring Cricket Feldstein, the needlessly profane and litigious ACLU lawyer played by Amy Poehler:

Cricket is a comic jewel that needs to have her own movie or TV series. Choice line: "The Justice Department and the so-called Supreme Court can suck my balls!" Right on, Cricket. Poehler isn't in the movie very much, but when she is, it's a veritable goldmine of ACLU jokes (which, I'll admit, is a niche). Other favorites include referring to firefighters as "firefuckers" and claiming that she's married to a Jew and therefore has "nothing to lose."

Contrast this with the lame attempts at ACLU-related humor in David Zucker's ozone of unfunniness An American Carol:

It's these sort of puerile attempts at "political satire" (on both the right and left) that make me glad to be a card-carrying member of the ACLU.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Catholics Vs. The Mentally Handicapped

Perhaps no single religious organization has played such an important role in censoring art and prosecuting new and interesting ideas as the Catholic Church. The examples are numerous and well-documented. The Church, in particular, has always been inextricably linked with the censorship of Hollywood movies, going back to the days of the Hays Code (so afraid, people were back then, of Cecil B. DeMille's period dramas). In fact, a lot of people don't know that the original text of the Code was authored by the priest and writer Daniel A. Lord. When that was replaced by the MPAA rating system in the late 1960s, Jack Valenti devised a system by which a lot of those strictures would stay in place, and you can still tell today from the obvious problem the MPAA has with grownup depictions of sex, as opposed to finding wanton displays of violence generally less offensive.

This is all common knowledge. Did you also know that the Catholic Church actually has people in their employ whose sole job is to evaluate movies based on how appropriate they would be to the average Catholic audience? The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has an "Office For Film and Broadcasting" that classifies movies according to these ratings:

A-I: General Patronage
A-II: Adults and Adolescents
A-III: Adults
L: Limited Adult Audience
O: Morally Offensive

It's sometimes fun to read their capsule reviews. I mean, they're readable, which is something you can't say about Peter Travers. At least half of their movies end up being rated "O," I've noticed. Their considerations don't always match up with the MPAA, as you will see from their review of The Invention Of Lying, which (most people don't know this) contains a pretty devastating takedown of organized religion:
Venomous supposed comedy, set in a world where lying is unknown and every word spoken is accepted as truth, and where God does not exist until a failed documentary screenwriter (Ricky Gervais) discovers the ability to deceive and, to comfort his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan), invents the fable of an afterlife, going on to fabricate the story of a "man in the sky" who rewards good deeds and punishes evil, all of which is eagerly accepted by the credulous masses who flock to hear his message. Along with his co-writer and co-director Matthew Robinson, Gervais launches an all-out, sneering assault on the foundations of religious faith such as has seldom if ever been seen in a mainstream film, despicably belittling core Judeo-Christian beliefs and mocking both the person and the teaching of Jesus Christ. Pervasive blasphemy, some sexual humor and references, and a few rough and crude terms. O -- morally offensive. (PG-13)
Most of the reviews are in a similar, hilarious vein. But check out this writeup of Kevin Smith's Mallrats, and see if you find anything odd (my boldness):
Sophomoric sleaze about two college-age retards (Jeremy London and Jason Lee) running amok in a suburban mall after being rejected by their girlfriends (Claire Forlani and Shannen Doherty). Writer-director Kevin Smith plumbs the gutter for laughs but finds only mindless tedium. Sexual situations, nudity, drug abuse, toilet humor and constant gross language. (O) (R) ( 1995 )
The USCCB, which is the official voice of the American Catholic Church, is calling people retards? Any normal standards and practices committee would have nixed that pejorative in a heartbeat, and would probably have had words to say with the writer in question. Such is the intellectual state of American Catholics today.

NOTE: I wonder if this review was colored by the controversy surrounding Smith's Dogma in 1999? Still, that's just harsh, USCCB, to make fun of Jason Lee like that.

NOTE II: Although I saw Mallrats again recently and they're probably right...

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Rich Lowry Pretends There is Good News

National Review editor Rich Lowry--a guy who supposedly cares more about truth in reporting than searching for ways to validate his magazine's agenda--managed to get my interest by writing a post called "The Good News For Obama." The first few sentences, however, disturbed me, not necessarily because they were incorrect but because he says a lot about National Review's online stable of writers:
. . . I suppose is that he's just had a 1994-like event without actually losing control of Congress. Tonight reminds me a little bit of the defeat of the rule on the crime bill in the summer of 1994 — a sharp crack in the edifice of Democratic rule that promised more change to come.
And then, of course, is the clincher sentence: "It was all avoidable, of course, if they were willing to compromise sooner, but they were drunk on their ideology and their power." Yeah, if only they were "willing to compromise," those pigheads. Does this sound like a dispatch from Opposite Land?

From what I recall (and I was 8 at the time), the Clinton crime bill was exactly a model of the kind of compromise that Lowry and his fellow Republicans choose to ignore--it created whole new classes of death penalty offenses, including nonviolent drug trafficking and carjacking, and it rewrote the book against habeas corpus for a lot of drug offenders. The "compromise" part was that it also included legislation outlawing assault weapons, which I don't even hear teabaggers complaining about very much (although that doesn't stop them from guessing about Obama's agenda for the guns they currently own). Newt Gingrich's Contract With America did its best to ignore whatever part of the bill might have pleased the Republican masses, arguing (and getting) legislation establishing mandatory minimum sentences for said drug traffickers and carjackers. Ignoring whatever compromises your opponents offer is itself offered in the spirit of compromise.

It has gotten to the point in National Review where even the pretense of either supporting Barack Obama or registering that he is popular and intelligent, or even a decent human being, is no longer acceptable.

In The New Republic, Jonathan Chait wrote about National Review's competitor The Weekly Standard, and sought to define their difference in this way:
A magazine like National Review specializes in making the case for conservative ideas. The Standard's contribution is to assert over and over that Republicans are succeeding, or at least doing better than you think they are. The idea is to buck up your side and encourage them to keep fighting, in order to ward off the self-defeating psychology of losing.
Maybe. Or maybe they basically serve the same function, and the only difference is that National Review has slightly better writers. It reflects a Larouchian readership that has such a foul conception of liberalism that when someone says something innocuous about how Obama did the right thing in taking out Somali pirates, they have to perform public penance for the remainder of the day. Does this really seem like the kind of atmosphere where "conservative ideas" can be expressed without fear?

You have to feel sorry for the people who work there, sometimes. I know it's not really fun to be a journalist anywhere, but it must particularly sting having to constantly walk on eggshells, satisfying a constituency that no longer sees open-mindedness as a virtue. This is probably true of any political magazine (it's why I can't stand reading The Nation, either) but in the case of National Review, you have a stable of writers that are basically forcing themselves to deny that Obama, like a broken clock, has to make a pleasing decision once in a while. The laws of physics demand it.

One of these days, in the near future, I'm going to write a long post about why I still can't believe they publish the insane ramblings of Andy McCarthy. Here is his latest piece, replete with facts clearly pulled out of his ass; here is a classic, in case you're in need of a good evening purge (not a euphemism: I mean vomiting).