Archive for movie review

War Don Don [Full Frame 2010]

in focusing on the war crimes trial of Issa Sesay, one of the leaders of the Sierra Leone rebel forces, Rebecca Richman Cohen’s War Don Don asks a difficult and thought-provoking question: what role do war crimes trials serve? Do they offer the “justice” that citizens and survivors of the war want? Do they provide us with unambiguous answers about culpability or agency?  What happens when the enormous expense of the trials is measured against a country’s extreme poverty and need to rebuild after a brutal civil war.  To Cohen’s great credit, War Don Don (which translates to “war is over”) never offers simple answers, making the film one of the most thought-provoking documentaries I saw at this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.

The film focuses on the war crimes trial of Issa Sesay, which lasted over five years and cost millions of dollars to conduct.  Sesay was the second in command of the RUF, under Fuday Sankoh, who is described by at least one observer as apuppet of Liberian President Charles Taylor.  The war itself is characterized by its extreme brutality.  RUF soldiers raped women, or “bush wives,” as they are euphemistically called, and took on underaged soldiers. But soon after Sesay took command from Sankoh, he quickly and unilaterally disarmed, bringing an end to the conflict, as his defense attorneys, led by Wayne Jordash, are quick to point out.  Prosecutors, including David Crane, complicate this defense by comparing the conditions in Sierra Leone to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and describing initiatives such as “Operation No Living Thing.”

Residents of Sierra Leone themselves seem ambivalent about the war crimes trial.  Many are unconcerned about whether Sesay is tried for his crimes.  Others point out that both sides used brutal techniques and add that the money invested in trying Sesay could be spent on rebuilding the country.  These questions are especially pertinent when we consider whether the trials are meant to arrive at the “truth” of what happened in Sierra Leone or whether they serve some greater purpose, such as national healing or legal justice.  Many, including Eldred Collins, question the reductive narrative about the RUF itself and see the rebellion as symptomatic of the nation’s problems with poverty and inequality, while adding that it’s unclear how much control Sesay might have had over individual soldiers.

Shot primarily in a talking-heads style, but supplemented with courtroom and news footage, War Don Don moves at a brisk pace while allowing the complexity of the issues at stake to unfold carefully.  It is an intelligent and engaging film that forces us to ask what happens after a war when a people tries to make sense of a national trauma.


12th and Delaware [Full Frame 2010]

One of the more compelling documentaries examining the Bush-era evangelical culture was Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Jesus Camp.  The film obviously touched a nerve for me.  I wrote about it several times, and updated my main review multiple times, reflecting my own ambivalence about how the movie represented the politics of Christian fundamentalism.  Now Grady and Ewing have returned with another culture-war exploration, 12th and Delaware, which looks at the intersection between pro-choice and pro-life groups by looking, quite literally, at a Florida intersection where an abortion clinic and a pro-life pregnancy center are situated.  Grady and Ewing’s film is unapologetically pro-choice and often explicitly undermines pro-life misinformation, but it treats its subjects, especially the women seeking abortions or counseling, with a great deal of care and sympathy.

The film’s pro-choice politics are certainly clear.  The film challenges some of the pro-choice misinformation, such as the fabricated link between abortions and breast cancer.  At the same time, they use patients to challenge some of these false claims.  When a counselor tries to suggest that condoms aren’t especially effective, one patient retorts, “If I used the condom I wouldn’t be pregnant.”

Although such a project might seem to be redundant–most people have relatively clear positions on the issue of abortion–12th and Delaware seems less focused on persuading people to hold a specific political position than it is about the difficult choices that many women face when it comes to abortion, as well as the physical and emotional risks that abortion providers face on a daily basis.  As the film illustrates, the pro-life “Pregnancy Care Center” thrives on confusing women who are emotionally vulnerable, through the name of the clinic, choosing locations near abortion providers, and through props and other forms of “counseling” meant to make women reconsider their decision to have an abortion.  Due to incredibly active anti-choice activists, the abortion providers often fear for their physical safety. Doctors are driven out of the clinic undercover, and in one unsettling scene, a protester actually follows and seems to stalk the doctor.

Most powerful for me is the depiction of the patients who seek out abortions or even advice about what choice they should make.  Many of them, rather bravely in my opinion, appear on camera, absorbing the counseling from the pro-life clinic, and often challenging the primary counselor when she attempts to bribe patients with food and promises of care for the baby after its born.  The most powerful tactic of the pro-lifers is to take the women in for ultrasounds, with the hope that the image of the fetus will make the women reconsider.  Many listen patiently, others become fascinated by the image, and most find their way to the clinic across the street.  Similarly fascinating is the different rhetoric used by both sides.  The pro-lifers are immersed in the language of spiritual warfare and often use highly confrontational and graphic images in order to persuade women to chose not to terminate their pregnancy, while the clinic itself seems besieged and mostly saddened that they are unable to perform their work without facing almost daily threats.

Given the nature of this material, 12th and Delaware will no doubt polarize audiences.  More than anything, it is a window into a very complicated issue and a powerful portrait of the women who are often unwilling participants in this highly emotional conflict.

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The Mirror [Full Frame 2010]

David Christensen’s The Mirror has a quiet charm, offering what The Columbia Missourian describes as a “modern fairy tale” about a small Italian village, Viganella, nestled deeply in the Alps.  In fact, the village is so deeply nestled, a nearby mountain blocks the sun for 83 days every winter.  Most of the people in the village seem to welcome this seclusion and the simplicity that life in this remote community provides.  In fact, the Italy from Videocracy, another film I caught at Full Frame, seems to exist on another planet compared to the farmers who spend their spare time playing games in the local pub, attending mass, or quietly meditating at home.  Many of them, like Thomas, a forty-something farmer, seem content to have found a place to escape from the noise of the rest of the world.

But the village’s mayor, Piefranco Midali, develops an inspired idea: install a giant mirror in one of the nearby mountains that could reflect sunlight into Viganella during the winter.  Midali comes across as a cross between a showman and a dreamer.  We meet him during his full-time occupation as a coach driver, which he compares to his job as a mayor: you’re out among the public, meeting people and helping them.  And Midali’s main purpose for building the mirror initially seems to be to make it easier for people to socialize.  More light in the city square will make stopping and chatting in the winter afternoons a little more inviting.

And so Midali commissions a local contractor to build and install the giant mirror, a task that takes on almost mock epic qualities, especially when they learn that the mirror must be dropped into place by a helicopter, the mirror itself hanging precariously from a cable dangling below.  At first, Midali and the crew did not factor in the force of the wind created by the helicopter’s blades, and the mirror is badly dented.  Meanwhile, as the story builds, Midali and the village of Viganela become an international news story, with Midali cheerfully giving interviews over his cell phone or to the news crews who arrive to watch what happens.

As the Missourian review points out, The Mirror revels in the play of light and darkness, and the sheer excitement of watching the village of Viganella suddenly illuminated for the first time by the winter sun (even if it’s a reflected sunlight) is pretty contagious.  It’s difficult not to be charmed by Midali and the town’s inhabitants, and Chistensen’s camerawork helps you to become conscious of the play of light and shadows in our daily lives.


Videocracy [Full Frame 2010]

Note: This is the first in a series of reviews of films that played at this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham.

Many web surfers have probably stumbled across clips from Italian television on YouTube.  Studio hosts joke with laughing and cheering audiences during inane “talent” competitions while half-naked young women dance or pose beside the host in an absurd demonstration that the “vast wasteland” thesis about television may not be far from the truth.  Much like their American compatriots in the world of  reality TV, celebrity is seen by these competitors as a form of escape, whether from their boring workaday lives as mechanics or office workers or from the anonymity that makes them feel as if their lives lack purpose.  This fascination with celebrity may seem harmless, but when the Italian president, Silvio Berlusconi owns most of the country’s major TV stations and is, in some sense, the county’s biggest celebrity, these questions become a little more troubling.  Swedish filmmaker Erik Gandini explores this phenomenon in his documentary, Videocracy, which he made, according to the Onion reviewer, out of a desire to explain Italy’s absurdities to his friends back in Sweden.

Gandini traces these absurdities by following three primary subjects: a soft-spoken mechanic who dreams of becoming a reality TV star, imagining himself to be a cross between Ricky Martin and Jean-Claude Van Damme; a famous talent agent who is introduced reclining in a pure white house and who demonstrates his admiration for fascism by playing his ringtone, which is a Mussolini “hymn;” and a papparazzo who attempts to use a prison stint to make himself into a celebrity, eventually to the point that he seems to lose touch with reality.

This exploration of the ways in which the fascination with celebrity might occlude political thinking is a worthwhile project, but like the Italian TV Videocracy sets about to criticize, the film gets lost in the funhouse of opulence and eye candy.  Shots of half-naked young women auditioning to appear on Italian TV are filmed in a gauzy, dreamlike fashion that only seems to reinforce–or even heighten–their prurience, as Ella Taylor points out in her Village Voice review.  Further, the film does little to convey the shallowness of political thinking.  There is no real guide through the Italian political scene, other than Gandini’s halting, impressionistic voice-over.  More striking, we never (or rarely) hear from any of the women striving to appear on these shows, much less anyone who is critical of them or of Berlusconi’s degree of control over Italian TV and politics.  Although the film has some strikingly funny and absurd moments, the film seems to enjoy much of what it is ostensibly criticizing.

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Monday Links: Alice, Box Office, Green Zone

My spring break is now officially over, but for once, it has been fortuitously timed. Next week, I will be going out to Los Angeles for the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference, and thanks to having the break before the conference, I’ve had a chance not only to finish my talk but also to sort through some ideas for future writing projects. I’m not ready to divulge too much, but obviously the topics I’ve been thinking about in my blog are a pretty good clue for measuring what I’ll be writing about in longer form. Now, here are some links, some of them (at least) involving my attempt to peak through the window at this week’s South by Southwest festival and conference:

  • Deadline Hollywood Daily has a discussion of the role of Avatar (and, presumably Alice in Wonderland) in pushing theaters in Europe to convert to digital projection systems capable of showing 3D films.  Given that theaters in Denmark, Slovakia, and several other European countries have been able to charge twice as much for 3D, this isn’t terribly surprising.  What is surprising is that, in some countries, including the United Kingdom, taxpayers are helping to pay for this technological changeover.
  • Jeremy Kay at The Guardian has a thoughtful reading of some recent numbers from the MPAA about theatrical box office in 2009.  Worth noting: nearly 11% of all box office in 2009 came from 20 3D films.  Kay is certainly correct to point out that these numbers should be placed in context with DVD, cable, and VOD totals, but it’s worth noting that DVD revenues have actually declined in relation to theatrical in the last couple of years.
  • Further evidence that Twitter is not just a social media platform but a powerful tool for market research: the new Twitter ap, Trendrr that, according to Mashable, “tracks online conversations by gender, location, sentiment, influence, reach and volume.”  The Mashable article offers a nice breakdown of how the tracking service works, showing a number of screen shots of data on commentary on the 2010 Winter Olympics.  Although I’m generally enthusiastic about Twitter’s status as a media “water cooler,” it’s well worth thinking about how those conversations are archived and monitored by others.
  • Speaking of Twitter, here is a quick pointer to Jason Mittell’s thoughtful response to the recently reemergent debate about the state of film criticism.  I think Jason is right to illustrate the (positive) ways in which critical categories have been blurred due to the rise of film blogging.  He also raises some useful questions about access and audience toward the end of the post, pointing out that we may need to rethink what we value in academia when a widely read film blog can receive many more daily views than a scholarly book or article.
  • I’ll wait until I’ve had a chance to see The Green Zone to comment further, but I have to admit that I find Ross Douthat’s op-ed review of the film fascinating, not because I agree with his politics or his defense of the Bush administration lies about weapons of mass destruction (in fact, I find Daniel Larison’s more thoughtful response from the American Conservative website far more persuasive), but because I’ve been finding myself increasingly intrigued by how Hollywood films get appropriated for political debate.  I’ve discussed these issues quite a bit in terms of video-based satire (as have a number of other sharp-eyed scholars), and quite often the political readings conducted in these sites are pretty shallow, but they do help to set the conditions of interpretation for many people who watch the films (or who watch and participate in politics).


Alice in Wonderland 3D Imax

Because of my interest in 3D filmmaking practices, I was curious to see Tim Burton’s adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (IMDB).  Because the book has such vividly imagined characters and landscapes, it seemed uniquely suited to both the surreal visual imagination of Tim Burton and the perspectival potentials of 3D filmmaking. But when I caught the film at an Imax theater in Raleigh, I was disappointed by the degree to which the diegetic world of the film seemed almost completely flat, as if it was inhabited by cardboard cutouts standing in front of a green screen rather than a genuinely three-dimensional world.

In addition, the film reimagines Alice as a slightly mopey, but independent-minded Victorian young woman, one who remembers her travels into Wonderland as a childhood dream and who was taught by her father to embrace her irrational side.  Her independence is suggested through a couple of quick conversations–she refuses to wear a corset and pushes quietly against her mother’s Victorian sensibilities.  Forced into marriage with a snot-nosed lord, Alice finds her escape when the white rabbit pops up during their engagement party.  As a result, Alice’s journey in Wonderland becomes a means for her to find her independence, primarily through a third act action sequence that offered a relatively easy narrative solution to Alice’s story.

As both J. Hoberman and Roger Ebert point out, Burton originally shot Alice in 2D, and the 3D effects were added in post-production.  As a result, many of the scenes likely were not filmed with 3D in mind.  In a couple of scenes, such as the engagement party, complete with overstuffed Victorian nobles, the flatness works well, making these characters appear to be almost devoid of depth.  Wonderland itself seemed blander than I might have expected from someone like Burton, but as Ebert points out, this could be due to the washed out palette associated with 3D filmmaking, but for the most part, the 3D felt a little more gimmicky than usual, with Kenneth Turan correctly arguing that Alice “plays like one of the last gasps of the old-fashioned ways of doing things.”

There are some fun moments in the film.  Johnny Depp is charming as the Mad Hatter, and Alan Rickman’s hookah-smoking Blue Caterpillar is amusing.  The kids I was with also enjoyed Helena Bonham Carter’s performance as the jealous, mercurial Red Queen, but even some of the fun moments (especially the Mad Hatter’s tonally bizarre dance number at the end) seemed to pander more than entertain.  It goes without saying that the film itself is just one part of a larger media franchise, one designed to sell not only DVDs but also (and maybe more importantly) toys and video games.  As I watched Alice in Wonderland, it was impossible for me not to think about another film set in a strange new world, one built around the then-new special effect of color, The Wizard of Oz.  Given reports that Warner, Universal, and Disney are all planning Oz-related projects, this probably isn’t accidental.  As 3D becomes an increasingly attractive storytelling medium, it also requires stories that are both familiar and visually compelling.



One of the highlights for me at this year’s Oscars was the discovery of this year’s winner for Best Animated Short film, Logorama, and thanks to the power of streaming video, you can view the film in its entirety at both the official website and the Wreck and Savage blog.  Logorama takes place in a world composed almost entirely of corporate logos.  Skyscrapers are Colgate boxes, while Pringles guys order food at a diner from the Esso girl.  The lion at the local zoo is an MGM logo, and security is provided by the not-so-jolly Green Giant.  It would be easy for such a world to become tiresome and preachy, but the logos are given quirky, often belligerent personalities, giving the film a humorous and somewhat NSFW edge.

The plot centers around a couple of foul-mouthed cops (played by Michelin Men) chasing a bank robbing Ronald McDonald, and as the chase unfolds, the entire world of Logorama begins to fall apart quite literally–a couple of defunct or near defunct corporations even make appearances to great effect–until we get one of the funniest concluding tracking out shots I’ve seen in a long time.  I’m trying to avoid giving away too many of the sight gags because this is one film you should see for yourself, a great illustration that short films are not necessarily apprentice projects, as Taylor Hackford seemed to imply during last night’s Oscars, but an art form unto themselves.


Crazy Heart

Scott Cooper’s lo-fi drama, Crazy Heart (IMDB) focuses on down-on-his-luck country singer, Bad Blake, a hard-drinking but talented singer-songwriter who seems meant to recall the outlaw country musicians such as Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash, a connection that is only reinforced through Bridges’ resemblance to  a slightly less scruffy Kris Kristofferson.  He’s the guy who has tons of musical talent, but thanks to bad luck or his own stubbornness, never made it big. Now he’s playing every low-rent bar and bowling alley in cities all over the southwest.  West Texas, Santa Fe, New Mexico, back to Houston.  Bad seems to stumble from gig to gig, calling his agent, pleading for a final opportunity at the mainstream success that has always eluded him.  And despite his hard drinking ways, Bad does show up at every gig, in one case stopping in the middle of a song to leave the stage and vomit in a back alley before coming back for the big finish.

Although the romance plot with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Jean, a journalist who knows her country music (she name drops Lefty Frissell) seems to offer him the clearest shot at redemption, Bad seems even more focused on his relationship with Tommy Sweet, an attractive, young, rising country star (played by Colin Farrell).  Bad expresses frustration that Tommy seems to have neglected his mentor, choosing to focus on what “his label” wants rather than on loyalty to an old friend.  And although the film seemed to be derivative of a number of films, including co-star Robert Duvall’s own film, Tender Mercies, I found this conflict between Tommy and Bad to be worth addressing, in large part because it seems to replay, yet again, one of the central thematic devices of contemporary indie cinema: the conflict between indie and mainstream itself.

I’ve been reading Geoff King’s Indiewood, USA this week, and one of the more compelling observations King makes is that many of Charlie Kaufman’s scripts, especially Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, play out this opposition thematically, whether through Craig’s puppet shows or through the challenges of screenwriting for studios. Even last year’s acting Oscar-bait, The Wrestler, seems to offer a redemptive depiction of the pure physicality of minor league wrestlers like Randy, as compared to the fakery of commercial wrestling.  I’m not entirely sure that I should be registering this observation as a complaint: questions about the nature of artistic production are of utmost importance in our culture, and in the world of indie, it only makes sense to interrogate the role of capital in shaping those expressions.

So, yes, I do think that Crazy Heart is derivative, and I’ll even acknowledge that Bad Blake is a pretty watered-down version of the outlaw country singers he’s supposed to resemble (as one or more of my Facebook commenters observed).   But I think many of these films are trying to tell us something about the challenges artists face in navigating the indie-mainstream divide today, whether that’s in music or on film.  I don’t know that Crazy Heart offers anything new to that discussion, but I think it is symptomatic of a certain tendency in indie filmmaking.



After several weeks of following the Avatar (IMDB) press, I finally got a chance to see the film itself, in 3-D, last night at a local megaplex.  I’ve been fascinated by the degree to which the film has simultaneously become a means for fantasizing about the reinvention of cinematic language, for reintroducing the concept of the cinematic auteur, and for digging out political allegories of one kind or another.  Many others seem to be watching box office numbers with the breathless hope that Avatar will supplant Titanic as the highest-grossing film (domestically and world-wide) of all-time. In a media environment typically characterized by niche cultures, it is an improbably mass-culture event, one that seems to demand that we engage with it on some level.

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Up in the Air

Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air begins and ends with documentary-style footage of workers who have recently been fired–or “downsized” in one of the more insensitive euphemisms of our times–discussing their reactions to losing their jobs.  They discuss the challenges of losing work, the financial and emotional turmoil that comes with being newly unemployed.  After watching the film, my girlfriend speculated, correctly, that the fired workers (other than cameos by J.K. Simmons and Zach Gialifianakis) appeared to be actual workers who had lost their jobs in a struggling economy, a brief glimpse of documentary realism interjected into the film’s narrative.

Because of the film’s topicality–its references to unemployment and the everyday experiences of the contemporary (white-collar) worker–it has become a kind of pretext for talking about the economy.  George Will, to no great surprise, uses the film to bash “entitlement programs,” such as unemployment benefits, drawing from the details that the movie is based on a novel from 2001, when the economy was humming along relatively nicely, and that 3.3 million people lost their jobs in 2006 when the unemployment rate was “just” 4.6%.  A few lost jobs are simply part of the “creative destruction” of capitalism.    Meanwhile, Frank Rich sees the film as a modern day Grapes of Wrath, as “dour” as anything produced during the Great Depression, showing “an America whose battered inhabitants realize that the economic deck is stacked against them, gamed by distant, powerful figures they can’t see or know.”

The film stars George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, an Omaha-based worker who specializes in flying around the country firing workers when downsizing companies are unwilling to do it.  Bingham is meant to provide a soothing, reassuring presence, providing terminated employees with vague platitudes that nobody really believes, often telling workers that getting fired is an opportunity.  Bingham spends virtually every day of his life in hotels and airplanes, accumulating an unfathomable number of frequent flier miles and an impressive insider knowledge of all of the perks offered by hotel chains.  Bingham’s life allows him to shield himself from any true emotional commitments, and his travels allow him a secondary job as a motivational speaker in which he offers even more platitudes about dispensing with any unnecessary baggage (both physical and emotional).  Here, Clooney’s cool detachment works well as a supplement to the character he plays, with the film serving as a commentary of sorts on his star persona.

Bingham’s ability to shield himself from emotional attachments is challenged when the company he works hires Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a 23 year-old Cornell grad who comes up with the idea of streamlining the firing process by setting up a “virtual termination” system. Instead of traveling around the US to fire employees, Bingham and his colleagues can simply sit in a warehouse or office park in Omaha and fire workers over video chat. It saves thousands of dollars in travel money and time, allowing the termination-outsourcing company to make even more money.  At the same time, Bingham begins to develop feelings for a fellow traveler, Alex (Vera Farmiga), first trading travel secrets and work schedules and then connecting on a more emotional level.

Although Bingham’s work is distasteful, a cold way of dealing with traumatized workers, Natalie’s plan to make the firing process more efficient provides us with one of the film’s more powerful observations about how workers are dehumanized, the video chat serving as a way of mediating the employer-employee relationship even further and making it even easier to see workers as objects rather than fully human.  Notably, these video chat shots visually echo the documentary sequences so that this commentary becomes a little more explicit.  But whether this commentary takes us into political critique is less than clear.

Both Will and Rich catch the remix of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” which plays under George Clooney’s voice-over narration of his frequent travels early in the film, but only Rich is astute enough to link the song to Guthrie’s leftist politics (Will just calls it “weird”).  And while the film criticizes the attempts to make the termination process more efficient, it does so, to some extent, within the purview of Bingham’s psychological and emotional turmoil.  But perhaps the most telling detail about Up in the Air’s ideological outlook is a closing sequence featuring more displaced workers. These are presented from a documentary POV and in the context of Bingham confronting his need for emotional connection after attending his sister’s wedding, and rather than talking about the struggles they face after being fired, the workers discuss how their families helped them to survive, providing them with the emotional support needed during a difficult time.  Family becomes a buffer against an uncontrollable economic storm.  The CEOs who make the choices to fire (or downsize) these workers remain invisible, the consequences of this unemployment appearing largely off-screen.  Instead of the impassioned speech in favor of unionization seen at the end of Grapes of Wrath, the film turns to sentimental love as an alternative to the massive loss of jobs.

As a result, the film opens itself up to a reading like Will’s that allows him to place emphasis on the film’s emotional storyline (Will even resorts to the cliche of citing E.M. Forster’s “only connect”).  And although Rich is correct to suggest that Up in the Air makes visible the disconnect between “the two Americas,” it never quite offers the fired, indebted workers an alternative to their current conditions.  Significantly, these workers are typically seen in offices and skyscrapers, not in the factories where blue-collar workers dominate.  Although Detroit is prominently mentioned, it appears that these lost jobs would, perhaps, disrupt the narrative world too much.

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Capitalism: A Love Story

For nearly two decades, Michael Moore has built a career out of staging confrontations between himself, as representative of the poor and working-class populations, and the incredibly rich.  Moore’s trademark baseball caps, blue jeans, and his Everyman physique have fed into a public persona meant to expose the limits of capitalist exploitation and political manipulation.  However, as Moore’s street theater antics, which often involve being barred from entering steel-and-glass skyscrapers by bemused security guards, have become increasingly predictable, they have lost much of the power. Thus, much like Erik Marshall, I went to see his latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story, with relatively low expectations, but as I consider what Moore is doing here, I think the film serves not only as a productive contribution to the conversation on What Went Wrong with the economy over the last year but also as a thoughtful consideration on the potential of activist documentary.

Like many of his films, Capitalism is grounded in Moore’s personal childhood experiences.  In fact the opening sequence both echoes and cites Roger and Me, establishing that many of Moore’s family members had been able to maintain a comfortable middle-class living working for General Motors and related companies and establishing, from the beginning, that union-busting in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan had created the conditions where today’s disparities in wealth were made possible.  These connections are powerfully reinforced when Moore walks with his father past the site where his factory had been located, now an empty lot, a small sign on a chain link fence the only indication of the work that had been done there.  Moore’s father reminisces about his colleagues and describes his ability to provide for his family, a modest goal that now seems lost in the Flint, Michigan, where Moore has set so many of his films.

But, unlike many of Moore’s films, especially Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, the “antics” he uses to stage conflicts between rich and poor were, if anything, underplayed, as the film took on a somewhat more somber tone.  This tone is established when Moore shows a number of people, from various parts of the country, having their homes foreclosed.  In one heartbreaking case, a worker from Peoria, Ilinois, living on a disability compensation, sees the home and property that has belonged to his family for a generation being taken by a bank.  In other scenes, we are introduced to a foreclosure vulture who is remarkably unapologetic for his practice of seeking out and turning over foreclosed homes and to commercial pilots who earn something close to the wages paid to a fast-food employee, forcing them to take part-time work in addition to their flight schedules.  Moore also traces out the absurdity of “dead peasant” insurance, where an employer can take out a life insurance policy on their employees, without their knowledge or consent, setting up a situation in which the employee may be worth more to the company dead than alive.

All of these segments are carefully designed to illuminate some of the absurdities of unregulated capitalism.  If the logic of capitalism is to maximize profit no matter what, then our safety and health may be sacrificed.  From there, Moore traces a historical trajectory, starting with the 1950s and ’60s and running through the union-busting practices in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan and, via Alan Greenspan’s economic manipulations, through the Clinton era, to the present.  Moore is careful not to present an overly rosy picture of the 1950s, acknowledging that economic prosperity not only depended on the destroyed German and Japanese auto industries but also allowed the violence of segregation and other social ills; however, he does show how higher taxes on the wealthy made possible eveything from bridges and dams to the interstate highway system.

As Erik points out, Moore’s primary argument is essentially as follows: “Americans are no longer in control of the economic system in the United States, and that we must act to reintroduce democracy into all areas of government.”  Instead, corportions, through political contributions and through nominations to organizations meant to regulate capitalism, have control over how our financial system is managed.  And although Moore (insightfully) reads Obama’s election as an ideological expression of a desire for social change, he is somewhat careful to indicte that he will be holding the President accountable, especially given that Goldman Sachs and other financial companies became some of his most significant campaign contributors.

Another valuable insight here is that Moore offers two distinct tactics that have led to current capitalist practices.  One is ideological and echoes arguments made by Thomas Frank and others: supporters of hypercapitalism have promoted the idea that capitalism is identical to freedom, and argument Moore undercuts by crosscutting between a Bush speech espousing “free enterprise” and the “choice” to work anywhere with the image of unemployed workers skimming classified looking for any jobs for which they are qualified.  Mortgage ads by Countrywide offer home ownership to people who cannot financially afford it and are given APR mortgages that become impossible to pay.  But he is also attentive to issues of power and the ability of the very powerful to control all of the financial regulations and tax codes.

Given these conditions, it is somewhat difficult to imagine an alternative to the existing system.  The powerful have rigged the game, with both Democrats and Republicans supporting the bailout last year.  Jobs continue to disappear, and corporations continue to carve out increasingly perplexing ways of extracting profit.  Moore himself even expresses concern that his movies are not having the desired effect of translating awareness into action, concluding with a reminder that, as the film ends, the next step is up to “you,” the viewer.  Moore does offer some useful alternatives: a small company where each employee makes a similar salary and has one vote each on company decisions and, most powerfully, a brief segment on the sit-in at the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago, where workers succeeded in using media publicity to get their modest demands.  For the most part, however, Moore can do little other than posit a renewed democracy as an alternative to capitalism.

Update: In skimming Gerry Canavan’s excellent review, I realized I’d forgotten to mention one of the film’s key scenes, in which Moore shows footage of FDR delivering his final State of the Union address when he proposed a Second Bill of Rights, one that would have (among other things) protected the rights of all Americans to have a job and to be able to support their families.  The footage, apparently, was believed lost, and Roosevelt, speaking from beyond the grave, offers a haunting presence, one that is marked by Moore’s admiration of him and of the unrealized potential of FDR’s agenda.  If anything, that proposal represents the closest thing to Michael Moore’s utopia and a goal toward which we can strive.

Gerry’s review is a must-read, especially for its trenchant critique of Moore’s shoddy historical analysis and his conflation of left and right populism.  As Gerry notes, Moore seems to imply that opposition to the bailout came from principled Democrats, when much of the opposition was expressed by right-wing populists.  There is quite a bit of slippery analysis here, but as an attempt to use documentary as a tool for populist activism, Moore’s film is worth engaging.

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The Age of Stupid

It’s impossible to review Franny Armstrong’s fascinating and persuasive hybrid documentary about climate change, The Age of Stupid (IMDB), without also talking about the distribution and promotional practices that have shaped its reception.  In an impressive achievement for word-of-mouth, low-budget marketing, the film was distributed to over 500 theaters worldwide in over 45 countries in a live-via-solar-powered-satellite premiere that attracted over one million viewers (according to estimates reported by the filmmakers).  As I mentioned the other day, the filmmakers sought to leverage social media tools not only to build an audience but to create a movement around climate change. And although I learned about The Age of Stupid relatively late–just a day or two before its premiere–the screening in Raleigh was certainly well attended, suggesting that the campaign generally worked, at least in terms of getting audiences in the door.

The film itself used a relatively innovative hybrid documentary structure in which Pete Postlethwaite plays what seems to be a lone surviving human living in the year 2055 who has assembled an archive of all of the great works of art, literature, and culture in a giant library somewhere near the Arctic Circle, now turned into a tropical beach-front setting.  The archivist navigates a series of documentary news clips, using an invisible touchscreen imposed between him and the viewer, in some sense directing the movie, as he seeks to make sense of how the world allowed climate change to continue unabated until the planet itself became virtually uninhabitable.

The Archivist toggles between four or five primary stories, one focusing on the efforts of Piers Guy, a UK-based windfarm developer who faces opposition to one of his windfarms because local residents worry about having their view tarnished and express concern about noise pollution. Others include a Shell employee, who despite seeing his home destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, steadfastly defends his employers practices, and a mountain guide who observes the receding glaciers in the Alps Mountains where he has lived much of his life.  A young Nigerian woman who dreams of becoming a doctor, discusses how oil company practices have led to polluted water and increases in water-borne illness.  The approach here seems significantly different than the Al Gore lecture model seen in An Inconvenient Truth, although like that film, it proceeds in part through mechanisms of identification, especially with Guy and his family.

The overall effect is to illustrate, in part, that climate change is a global problem and one that deeply effects ordinary people while also emphasizing the ways in which others, often while juxtaposing them against others who seem oblivious about the effects of climate change on the planet, including one well-intentioned Indian executive who seeks to create a low-cost airline that will allow poor people to fly rather than travel by train.  In places, this opposition could have been more carefully established, and quite often the assertion that global warming is happening is asserted anecdotally, rather than through scientific reasoning, but The Age of Stupid seems to be after something a little different by trying to make sense of one central question, expressed by The Archivist: Why, when the science seems so obvious, did we let this happen?  In other words, why were/are we so stupid, especially when all of the science was there?  The Archivist solemnly concludes not that we didn’t believe climate change, but that we believed we weren’t worth saving.  It’s a somber thought and one that might have worked better had the film offered more evidence to support it or had it explored the topic a little more carefully.

The film’s premiere, timed to an important environmental conference held September 22 at the United Nations,  seemed well-suited to shape the conversation about climate change and to regain the sense of urgency that seems to have been lost in the years following the release of Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth, and the post-movie discussion featured short speeches by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, among others, designed to underscore the need for serious reduction in carbon emissions.  That being said, Armstrong and others seemed, at moments, a little too caught up in the sense of urgency set up by the film and the context of a massive premiere to communicate clearly how to change the course, and quite often, the climate change talks to held in Copenhagen later this year seemed to be set up as an all-or-nothing proposition.  A more explicit endorsement of the 10:10 proposal, the plan to encourage consumers to cut their carbon emissions by the year 2010 (to name one example), might have helped.

Still, The Age of Stupid offers, one level, new ways of thinking about the ways in which the networked documentary can be used to advocate for social issues and, more broadly, it offers one enticing model for new models of film distribution, as Jon Reiss has recently argued in The Huffington Post. It may be a slight exaggeration to say that The Age of Stupid is “the future of film;” however, as Reiss points out, the film illustrates a number of key points regarding digital distribtion and the use of social networking as a promotional tool.  First, Reiss is correct to note that theatrical screenings can still serve as an important part of independent or DIY distribution, especially with more theaters converting to digital projectors.  That being said, it’s less clear whether these “event” screenings will work for all (or most) indie films, especially given the timeliness of the subject matter in Stupid.  Second, his reading of the role of NGOs and other organizations in promoting Stupid seems right to me.  They are crucial not only to helping the film find an audeince but also in shaping its meaning for the audiences who saw it.  It is, in short, a movie about a much larger conversation, and one that has significant global implications. 

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Julia, Adam, and, Summer

Some quick thoughts on some of the movies I’ve seen recently:

  • Via MaryAnn Johanson of the American Women Film Journalists blog, a pointer to Katha Pollitt’s insightful take on Julie & Julia and (500) Days of Summer, in which Pollitt explains that her appreciation of Julie & Julia stems in part from its rich depiction of two female characters–the famous chef Julia Child and food blogger Julie Powell–who “struggle to express their gifts through work.” And although I was left somewhat cold by the film, I liked the use of parallel editing to tell the stories of two different women who worked to find their voice in two very different eras.  Pollitt is correct to point out that it’s somewhat rare to see two career-driven female characters in the space of a single film without pitting the two of them against each other.  I’ll go ahead and add that I appear to be one of the few people who liked the Amy Adams/Julie Powell section better.  It may be an unconscious (and unfair) reflex against the Meryl Streep hype, but I also think that I related to the very specific experiences of the Adams character (Julie Powell) who discovers her voice through the online audiences who read and commented on her blog.  Given my own professional and personal trajectory of finding my book project through blogging, Powell’s story really resonated for me.
  • In the same article, Pollitt is critical of (500) Days of Summer for depicting Summer as having “all the external trappings of individuality — aloofness, a sly smile, vintage clothes and indie tastes–” while lacking any clear sense of an inner life, career ambitions, or anything else, for that matter.  She’s just there so that Tom can find his path as an architect.  I didn’t really address this point in detail in my original review, but I think Pollitt raises a valid point about the film.
  • Finally, I saw Adam last night, a passable romantic drama about Adam, an engineer with Asperger’s Syndrome, and Beth, a teacher with aspirations to become a writer of children’s books.  In our post-movie discussion, my girlfriend pointed out that the film often simplifies the range of emotional attachments that people with Asperger’s Sydrome have, and although I appreciated Hugh Dancy’s understated performance as Adam, I’m inclined to agree with Ebert that the film tried to tie “their story in too tidy a package,” falling into some of the more annoying habits of a crowd-pleasing indie.  In places, the casting was a little distracting, too, especially seeing a much older and slightly heavier Mark Linn-Baker playing a role other than the straight man on Perfect Strangers (in this case one of Adam’s bosses).  Bad 1980s sitcoms are simply too much to overcome, and as a result, I was distracted every time he was on screen.  Plus the corrupt criminal father–a good fit for Peter Gallagher–felt like it was ripped off from Say Anything.  A little too paint-by-numbers, especially for something with inide or art-house aspirations.

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(500) Days of Summer

I finally had a chance to catch this summer’s indie darling, (500) Days of Summer (IMDB), the feature debut from music video director, Marc Webb.  The film, through the story of greeting card author, Tom, and his girlfriend, Summer, at worst, offers a mature reflection on romance between two urban hipsters, and at its best, it serves, as A.O. Scott points out, as an effective rejoinder to some of the worst cliches of romantic comedy, at least until the film’s final sequence.  Instead of the childish, smut-loving guys (and the girls who indulge them) of The Hangover and Judd Apatow films, Tom and Summer’s romance seems somewhat more recognizable.  Add to that, a creative storytelling structure, in which Tom looks back at the five hundred days that mark his relationship with Summer, flashing back from day 488 to day 12 and then forward again (a technique Roger Ebert admires quite a bit), and it’s not difficult to understand why the film has been so well regarded among critics and fans alike.

It’s also a film that is fluent in the language of indie culture, one that allows the signifiers of indie credibility to speak about and through Tom and Summer.  Both of them, as children of the 1980s, have posters of The Smiths’ Viva Hate cover on their walls.  Summer’s vintage clothes and haircut straight out of ’60s Paris helps segue neatly into a black-and-white Nouvelle Vague-inspired sequence, while the couple’s forays into a company karaoke party allow them to slum by performing and listening to covers to bad ’80 songs from Patrick Swayze’s “She’s Like the Wind” to Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.”  In the language of (500) Days, this allows Tom and Summer to distance themselves from the vapid greeting card publisher where they work, treating the manufactured sentiment less with a sneer than with a bit of bemused eye-rolling.

Tom and Summer are also able, during several key scenes, to both embrace and mock modern constructions of domesticity when they spend leisurely afternoons running through an Ikea store, sitting on sofas and lounging in a fake bedroom, joking about the customers who watch curiously nearby.  If the banal furnishings of the local Ikea made Brad Pitt and Edward Norton want to fight, Tom and Summer, instead choose to play a semi-ironic version of house, lounging on the couch, playing with a remote control that does nothing and turning on sinks where no water comes out.  The scenes seem to suggest that the couple is mocking the Ikea-inspired American Dream of traditional bourgeois romance, although it’s clear that Tom, who ignores Summer’s protestations that she’s only looking for a fling, clearly seeks out some version of this idealized life.  And although the film depicts Tom and Summer post-breakup, as Tom tries to make sense of what happened, Zooey Deschanel succeeds in making Summer both likable and honest enough to prevent her from seeming overly villainous.

And yet, despite these flourishes, I found myself becoming frustrated with the film in places, wondering if the film’s “indie” elements and its ironic nods to 80s kitsch (the film threw in Knight Rider and Hall and Oates for good measure).  Like Brian Orndorf, although his reaction is far more negative than mine, I sometimes wondered if these moments weren’t a little too calculated in places.  In particular, the film uses Tom’s dream of becoming an architect to introduce a hand-drawn aesthetic.  Tom is frequently seen sketching sections of the Los Angeles skyline and pointing out the handicraft of many of the city’s buildings.  These sketches provide the backdrop for (500) Days’ many transitions and replay what has become something of a cliche of contemporary indie, the use of a hand-made aesthetic, one that seems to be a response both to the big-budget Hollywood features and (quite possibly) to the encroachment of digital media into aesthetic artifacts.  A similarhandmade approach dominates the work of Michel Gondry and was a major design principle in this summer’s Away We Go (a film I’ll admit that I liked quite a bit).

I don’t think it makes sense to talk about such flourishes in terms of the language of “co-optation,” of accusing a Fox Searchlight film of taking something that is authentically “indie” and then marketing it to naive audiences, so accusing the film of lacking authenticity seems to miss something crucial about it, at least as the use of handicraft plays out in a commercial project such as (500) Days.  I’m currently reading Kaya Oakes’ engaging history of indie, Slanted and Enchanted, so these definitional questions about indie are in the forefront of my mind, so my reaction to the film is somewhat torn between appreciating the film’s thoughtful engagement with constructions of modern hipster romance and frustration at what, in some places, seemed like a cynical recycling of some of the more fashionable tropes of handicraft as an oppositional stance.

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This Way Up

Throughout Georgi Lazarevski’s quietly contemplative documentary This Way Up (IMDB), the residents at the Catholic–run Our Lady of Sorrows Nursing Home in East Jerusalem find themselves increasingly closed in by the security barrier built by Israeli forces. The nursing home, “an incidental victim of the wall’s zigzag through the West Bank,” happens to fall on the Israeli side of the barrier, separating the aging patients from their families, making it more difficult to plan visits and to receive needed medications. Some of the patients upbraid their adult children for not visiting more often, but without the proper documentation, such visits become increasingly difficult, and soon they seem to accept the infrequent visits as a part of life at the home.  The Palestinian Christians who live there regard the barrier with degrees of curiosity, sadness, and resignation, sometimes quietly observing, but in other cases, lamenting their isolation from family and friends.

Lazarevski uses a vérité approach, content to observe the residents, their families, and the medical personnel who patiently run the nursing home, often mediating conflicts between residents who argue over the television or complain about someone singing too much.  One resident, Jad, remains in good health, and he serves as a guide of sorts, observing the construction of the wall and wandering the spaces behind the home that, thanks in part to the looming barrier, have become rocky and closed off (in fact, the film’s French title, Le jardin de Jad, reflects both Jad’s centrality and the tiny yard behind Our Lady of Sorrows).  Both Jad and another female patient are frequently seen puffing on cigarettes, and the female patient in particular, offers what may be her only smile when she is given the opportunity to satisfy her nicotine fix.  The doctors and nurses don’t bother to stop the cigarette smoking, perhaps reasoning that a small pleasure such as a cigarette outweighs the harm, especially at that point.

Even the medical staff must improvise to fulfill their daily routines.  Supplies are more difficult to obtain.  Many of the workers must sneak in from the Palestinian side of the wall; while others climb a ladder over an incomplete portion of the wall.  And the wall itself becomes a site for all manner of political statements and absurd observations.  In fact, the film’s title comes from a spray painted message “this way up,” painted quite naturally upside down, reminding us of the ways in which the wall has disrupte all sense of direction.  For the most part, teh actual conflict takes place offscreen.  Momentary glimpses of the conflict show up on TV, and sometimes a patient will complain about Bush or Arafat, but for the most part the geo-political battles are felt only in their implications for the residents and their families.

Lazarevski arranges these elements to depict the patients with great warmth and compassion while also teasing out the absurdities and difficulties of aging in the shadow of a security barrier, separating them from their families and friends.  In fact, during a couple of key segments, particularly when one patient was cursing out another for singing and when another admitted she’d “rather eat oranges” than follow the Israel-Palestine conflict, I found myself reminded of a Samuel Beckett play, as the residents sought to make sense of aging and the isolation brought about by the chance location of the nursing home where they live.  It’s a fascinating little documentary, one that brings an unexpected light on one aspect of the Israel-Palestine conflict and its effect on the people who must endure it on a daily basis.