Archive for June, 2007

Weekend Media Links

I originally planned my previous post on the “art house musical” Once as a links post, but found myself wanting to write in a little more detail about it (hence the introductory rant about not being able to see Sicko). And if you’re one of my Fayetteville readers, go see the film this week–it’s playing here for one week only. But here are a few videos, blog entries, and articles I’ve been planning to mention:

  • First, congratulations to Chris Hansen, whose sharply funny mockumentary, The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah, has received a DVD distribution deal from Reel Indies, which will make it available in DVD retailers and on Netflix. This is incredible news for a film with no stars and a tiny budget. And it’s well deserved. I was one of the fortunate people who got to see American Messiah early on, and it’s a great film.
  • Second, a couple of links from CinemaTech, including a post offering a taxonomy of web video from Dina Kaplan of blip.tv and a discussion of Disney and Pixar’s use of bloggers to market Ratatouille. I think there’s little doubt that this type of marketing will become more common in the near future, as we increasingly encounter what I have come to call “networked film publics.” I’m planning a more detailed post on that term in the next couple of days, but for now, I’m thinking about it in terms of the ways in which film audiences are increasingly connected via the web. It’s also meant to evoke concepts of film audiences as a kind of alternative public sphere (as discussed by Miriam Hansen, among many others).
  • Karina directed me to the ultimate sequel, Arnie vs. Sly, a humorous, if slightly long mashup of films involving the two action stars. Stick with the video until the ending, which is actually pretty funny.
  • TPM Cafe reports on Hillary Clinton’s plan to release several web videos from the campaign trail. Now, of course, the promise of “unvarnished” access to a campaign is probably a slight exaggeration, but I think Clinton is smart to use web video in this way (it humanizes her and serves as an implicit response to those Hillary-Big Brother comparisons). It’s certainly interesting to follow how web video is being used in the2008 election, or perhaps more precisely, how web video is mediating the election. Again, a longer post on this topic may be forthcoming.

Update: Edited to correct some minor typos.

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Once

This weekend marks one year of living in Fayetteville, and while I’m not really in a stock-taking mood, I’ve found myself thinking about moviegoing and place a little this weekend. Sicko still hasn’t reached Fayetteville and probably won’t for at least two more weeks, which means I’ll likely be making a trip to Raleigh, maybe tomorrow. I’ll admit that I’m a little disappointed that a film with such a large built-in audience isn’t playing here by now. Fayetteville is a medium-sized city and Moore has proven that he can open films in a big way. Kind of makes me think that Mark Cuban is on to something with day-and-date releasing. I’m adjusting to living outside of a major cultural center better than I expected, but I also have to think there are better alternatives for providing more access to good, important movies to more people in a timelier fashion. This isn’t quite the same thing as Tama’s very useful concept of “the tyranny of digital distance,” but belated access to some of the movies I want to watch has been a little frustrating.

That being said, if it weren’t for Fayetteville’s one art house theater, the Cameo, I’d probably feel completely lost here. Last night, I did get to watch Once (IMDB), the Irish musical featuring Glenn Hansard and his band the Frames. Hansard plays a Dublin street musician (listed in the credits only as Guy or The Guy) who meets a younger Czech musician (Markéta Irglová), and although The Guy initially brushes her off, she returns, and it becomes clear that she is also a talented musician.  The two develop a tentative friendship based on their shared status as outsiders who are passionate about music, and they eventually collaborate to record a few tracks at a recording studio.

I’m no fan of musicals and often find the disruption of a narrative by musical numbers annoying, but Once makes the musical performances work.  As Robert Wilonsky of The Village Voice writes, “the magic of the movie is how utterly wrenching it renders these songs, which thrive alongside the film’s simple, eloquent, dusky narrative.”  And, more than anything, that’s what I liked about the film.  It’s passionate about music, about how songs can tell stories, communicate emotions, and help us connect with other people.  And as both Wilonsky and A.O. Scott speculate, Once is a film I’ll certainly want to watch again (and for a taste of the music, check out the official website).

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John McClane Kicked Ass!

The history of the “Die Hard” music video by the “comic-rock” band Guyz Nite displays many of the complications posed by the sometimes competing, sometimes overlapping interests of fan culture and the movie studios. The video itself is a mildly funny musical homage to the Die Hard franchise (lyrics include “No one dies harder than John McClane/Even when his wife’s stuck on a plane”), illustrated with clips from the first three films, and once Fox discovered the video, they ordered that YouTube pull it down. But as Maria Aspan reports in the New York Times, with a fourth Die Hard movie set to come out, Fox has reconsidered, not only paying Guyz Nite to re-post the clip but also providing them with preview footage from the fourth film to incorporate into the video. The Guyz Nite band members were invited to show up to the film’s premiere, and their video may be included in the DVD for Live Free or Die Hard when it comes out.

As Aspan’s article points out, Fox initially sought to protect its intellectual property before recognizing the video’s promotional potential (the video has now been viewed well over 100,000 times). But she also discusses lead singer Jim Marsh’s concern that the band will be perceived as “selling out” by aligning itself with Fox as well as the potential concern that the video could lose credibility once the studio’s involvement in the video is revealed (Fox’s response: “Why should something that people enjoy be any less ‘cool’ because it is supported by a film studio?”).

The issue of “selling out” here does seem like a moot point to me, in part because the original lyrics are so clearly affirmative of the Die Hard franchise (and I’m more than happy for the band members to benefit from their labor), but more than anything, I was interested in Fox’s belated recognition that the song could be used to promote their product. I’m not a huge fan of the films–I love the first one, the others are utterly forgettable–but I hope that studios will recognize that this kind of work will most likely benefit them in terms of increasing interest and enthusiasm for their films (or TV shows or whatever).

Update: I forgot to mention that I found this link via the folks at The House Next Door.

Update 2 (7/5): I just oveheard a commercial for Die Hard using the Guyz Nite song, which is pretty amazing.

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Best Movies Ever, Part 2

I’ve just blogged about the worst movies ever made, which means I should probably pay attention to some of the best films that have ever been made. In response to the American Film Institute’s 10th anniversary list of the 100 Greatest Hollywood films, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists (AWFJ) has released their list of the Top 100 movies. I’ll try to write a more detailed post about this topic later, but there are a few things I like about the AWFJ list.

First, they list the films alphabetically, avoiding the absurd idea of a single “greatest” film of all time. They also chose to create a list that’s international in scope, including films that were not made by Hollywood studios (love the inclusion of Run Lola Run, All About My Mother, Central Station, Vagabond, and Jules et Jim, among many others), while also allowing them to avoid some of the more unsupportable arguments about what counts as an American film, arguments that apparently led to the exclusion of The Third Man from consideration for the AFI list this time around. And their annotations describing why they chose to include certain films are well worth reading. It’s a playful, entertaining, and occasionally combative list of films that challenges the AFI orthodoxy, and more importantly, the list serves a far more important function than merely valorizing the already established Hollywood canon by acknowledging some of the ways in which taste itself is socially constructed. Some other interesting choices:

  • When Harry Met Sally: I don’t like romantic comedies and generally find them painful to watch, but even I have to admit that When Harry Met Sally is one of the best films of its genre.
  • His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby: I was shocked that these classic screwball comedies didn’t make the AFI list. In HGF, Rosalind Russell’s fast-talking reporter proves to be a brilliant match for an equally fast-talking Cary Grant.
  • Fast Times at Ridgemont High: I believe I mentioned Fast Times in my complaint about the AFI list and still think that it belongs in the conversation because of its influence on two subsequent generations of teen comedies.

I certainly don’t agree with all of their choices (I could live without Erin Brockovich and Tootsie) and I’m still convinced that any of these lists should include more documentaries, independent movies, and experimental films, but as a tool for tweaking the AFI canon, it’s a good list, a nice piece of water-cooler or blog conversation.

Update: On a related note, The Shamus also offers the BFG 100 over at the Bad for the Glass blog, 100 films that weren’t included on the original AFI list, many of which should have been.

Update 2: Anne Thompson offers her own Top 100 list and links to several others.

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Worst Movies Ever

Fun bad movie compilation vid complete with trolls, sharks, and some really bad dialogue (via Oliver Willis).

Update: Turns out there are a series of these “worst ever” clip compilations.

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A Mighty Heart

Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart (IMDB) belongs to the same genre of post-9/11 political docudramas as United 93 and World Trade Center, with its hyperrealist attempts to revisit a past tragedy, in this case the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. The film features the trademark hyperkinetic, handheld style common to these films, what I described in my United 93 review as a “docu-thriller” style. This docu-thriller style poses certain risks. By appearing to present history as it happens, the docu-thriller becomes an important factor in contributing to the ongoing historical narrative of our post-9/11 moment (of course, the filmmakers open themselves up to criticism when they inevitably get this history wrong). In addition, the filmmakers also open themselves up to criticism for turning important historical events and personal tragedies into consumable entertainment.

Pearl’s kidnapping is seen primarily through the eyes of his wife, Mariane (Angelina Jolie), also a journalist, and seven months pregnant with their first child when Pearl is kidnapped, creating the slightly alienating effect of turning Pearl’s story, perhaps unwittingly, into a star vehicle for Jolie. In fact, given Jolie’s widely publicized humanitarian efforts, it becomes doubly impossible to separate the actress from the performance, to allow Jolie to disappear completely into the role. I don’t think this casting issue necessarily has to be a flaw. Casting can often provide us with a shorthand method for reading and interpreting characters, and Jolie’s “internationalism” maps relatively neatly onto Pearl, and her tendency to play independent, strong-willed characters also helps to characterize Pearl. The casting of Jolie, however, reminds us most that she is the film’s star in that few of the other cast members will be familiar to the North American and British audiences who are most likely to watch the film (even Daniel Pearl is played by relative unknown Dan Futterman).

As I have suggested, the docu-thriller genre often has the effect of bringing us too close to the action. Inevitably, Hollywood films about current events will have to make choices about what to include, and these choices quite frequently play up dramatic tension, traditional romance, and other narrative features. In the case, of A Mighty Heart, this narrowing of scope has the effect of translating Daniel into a relatively unknown character, turning him into a bland, dull character with little personality (as Asra Nomani points out in her editorial on the film–more on this topic later). It also chooses to emphasize certain frames or certain questions at the expense of others, and while A Mighty Heart does depict the tireless effort of Pearl’s colleagues and friends in the efforts to find Daniel, the film seems to stop short of saying anything too specific about the “war on terror.” In short, the film stops short of being too political.

In his previous film, The Road to Guantanamo, a documentary about the experiences of the Tipton Three, Winterbottom courted controversy by using re-enactements to depict scenes of torture in the prison in Guantanamo. However, A Mighty Heart seems less willing to take on the politics of terrorism, instead operating as a serviceable thriller from which we can recover yet another narrative of heroism in the face of danger. This is not to deny the fact that Daniel and Mariane Pearl weren’t operating in Pakistan at significant personal risk, but I wonder if it does point to a representational limit of the docu-thriller, at least as it has been used to narrate these post-9/11 histories. It’s also worth pointing out that the film isn’t devoid of politics (which would, of course, be impossible). The film is pointedly critical of one Pakistani investigator’s use of torture to elicit information from one of the suspects in the kidnapping. It also generally avoids depicting all Pakistanis as unknowable Others, although the film does seem to create a contrast between the safe haven of Nomani’s home (where the Pearls were living when Daniel was kidnapped) and the streets of Karachi, which are often depicted at night, crowded with men (and very few women) who may or may not be a threat.

My reaction to A Mighty Heart has been influenced, perhaps unfairly, by Nomani’s Washington Post article on the film. In the editorial, Nomani discusses the uncanny experience of watching a character based on herself and her initial disappointment at being demoted from a colleague of the Pearls (though Nomani chalks that up to Hollywood’s “creative license”), but I think her larger points about how the film becomes a star vehicle for Angelina Jolie and how the film works to turn them into “ordinary heroes” are worth heeding (it’s also worth noting here that Paramount is promoting A Mighty Heart with a contest inviting people to nominate an ordinary hero and win a trip to the Bahamas). At one point, Nomani describes this new narrativization as “having people enter my home, rearrange the furniture and reprogram my memory.” She then criticizes the film for taking the “easy” path in its search for “ordinary heroes.” I think she’s basically right here. We need new ways of making sense of these events.

Update: David Lowery offers a somewhat more generous reading of A Mighty Heart, arguing that the film demonstrates a certain degree of honesty in acknowledging its status as a Hollywood star vehicle.

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Don’t Stop

How The Sopranos really ended.  Yes, there are about a thousand of these parodies circulating on the web, but this one is actually pretty funny (featuring Phillip Wilburn and Artemis Pebdani from the Big News comedy ensemble).

I’ve been working on the book all day but will hopefully make it to the theater tonight to see A Mighty Heart (I haven’t been to the theater in at least a week).  And, yes, I’m still jealous of all you big city people who got to see Sicko a week before I did.

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All Day Long

Andrew Semans‘ poignant and observant short film, All Day Long, offers a glimpse of teenage romance rarely seen on-screen in most films or TV series made for teens. The film tells the story of two suburban teenagers who skip school to spend the afternoon together. The teens, Alison and Daniel, speak and gesture with all of the awkwardness of first love, giving each other small tokens of affection–a mix CD, a good luck charm–and saying “I love you,” as if they are trying out the words for the first time. The film captures that initial rush of elation as Alison slips out the back door of her school and runs down alleys to meet Daniel, but as the day wears on, their initial excitement gradually devolves into boredom and disillusionment in a shift that was both subtle and convincing.

Because the teens–particularly Alison–are worried about getting caught, they spend much of the school day hanging out in the abandoned and derelict spaces of their suburban New Jersey neighborhood, hiding under a bridge along the railroad tracks, lounging in a clearing in the woods, or walking through a parking lot overgrown with weeds. These abandoned spaces give the impression that Alison and Daniel are the only two people in their world–and for much of the day they are–but as the end of the school day approaches, the requirement of returning to the real world begins to cast a shadow over their day of freedom, and Alison finds herself considering returning to school so that her mom won’t suspect that she has skipped.

All Day Long is beautifully paced, allowing Alison and Daniel’s story to unfold gradually, and the naturalistic settings quietly underscore the emotional transformations of the film’s central characters.   The actors’ performances are also remarkably subtle in their depiction of a familiar, but often forgotten, story from teenage life.

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Jem Cohen, Patti Smith, and Nirvana

I’ve had a couple of chances recently to revisit the work of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. It’s easy to forget, in retrospect, just how different Nirvana seemed when they first came out, especially in the post-alternative rock moment after Nirvana’s music has been endlessly re-packaged. But, earlier this year, I had the opportunity to watch A.J. Schnack’s Kurt Cobain: About a Son, an intimate portrait of Cobain that matches audio recordings of Cobain talking about his childhood with contemporary footage of the three cities where Cobain lived: Aberdeen, Olympia, and Seattle, Washington. Schnack’s film powerfully captures the lived experience of these spaces, using Cobain’s words to create a compelling essay film about the troubled musician (I discussed About a Son briefly in one of my Full Frame posts).

More recently, Via Karina, I came across this amazing video directed by Jem Cohen of Patti Smith’s cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Cohen, who also directed the Fugazi documentary, Instrument, has become one of my favorite filmmakers. As Karina points out, “Cohen’s work usually falls somewhere in the cracks between personal documentary and experimental narrative. Often shot handheld on low-gauge film, they’re like punk-rock home movies, always intimate (even when set largely in cold/industrial spaces, as with Chain), but never cloying sentimental.”

The video revisits imagery common to Cohen’s other work, intimately exploring a specific space using a handheld camera, in this case with grainy black-and-white film. And, as I mentioned in my review of Chain, Cohen’s films and videos often capture the hidden details of everyday life–a cat’s whiskers, magazine scattered on an end table, the act of washing dishes–allowing us to see them for the first time. It’s a fantastic video and a great re-interpretation of the Nirvana song (in fact, listening to Smith performance and seeing the video was like hearing the song afresh and reminded of how much I liked the original). I’m heading out to meet some friends, and I originally just wanted to recommend the Cohen-Smith video, but Karina’s mention of Gus Van Sant’s Last Days (another film I liked) reminded of Schnack’s similarly elegiac documentary.

Previous posts on Jem Cohen:

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100 Plus 10

Everyone is talking about the American Film Institute’s updated Top 100 list. I’m intrigued by these kinds of lists, in part because I think they do introduce important questions about taste and about our criteria for evaluating films, and while I don’t consider it part of my job as a film and media scholar to evaluate films, I certainly do that implicitly whenever I teach an Introduction to Film class (as I do virtually every semester), and while I wouldn’t describe the films that I teach as the 15 best films ever made, I am certainly telling my students that these films are important and worth seeing. And I think we can learn something about the institutions of film studies and film appreciation have changed over the last decade as we continue to evaluate our cinematic past. Of course, I’m also fully aware that these lists will be used as marketing tools to sell DVDs of these films, but there are probably worse ways to spend $20 or so here and there.

Edward Copeland has the full Top 100 plus the original list and even tracks some of the biggest movers, and over on the Newcritics blog, M.A. Peel has a close analysis of the Top 10. A few observations about the lists (and the commentary about the lists) in no particular order:

  • Both Copeland and Ms. Peel point out the re-evaluation of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which climbed from #61 in the original poll, all the way into the top 10. It’s not surprising to see several Hitchcock films on the list, but the re-evaluation of certain films is interesting. After teaching North by Northwest for so many years, I’ve grown to like it more than Vertigo, but both films certainly belong on the list. One guess as to why Vertigo made such a huge climb: the restored print of Vertigo that was produced in the mid-1990s.
  • Jim Emerson points out that Birth of a Nation completely dropped out of the Top 100 list (from #44). Good riddance. Films that endorse the Klan don’t belong on this kind of list, no matter how innovative narratively or technically. I can’t believe that the film was that highly ranked just ten years ago. Emerson also points out that The Searchers climbed from #96 all the way to #12, which appears to be the biggest leap of any film. On the Waterfront also tumbled pretty far. Could that be related to the renewed attention to Elia Kazan’s HUAC testimony?
  • Like Emerson, I would have liked seeing Lone Star among the top 100, but I have to disagree with him about Inland Empire, a film I’ve come to like less and less as I get distance from it. If any Lynch film belongs in the Top 100, it’s probably Mulholland Drive.
  • A few of my favorites are starting to climb into the top 100. Do the Right Thing finally made the list, albeit at #96, and Blade Runner squeezed in at #97. I think that both of these films will continue to look better with time, especially Do the Right Thing, which suffered early on because it was regarded as too controversial or confrontational or something (Joe Klein and Terence McNally famously feared that the film would spark riots).
  • I’m happy to see that Roger Ebert joined in the conversation, praising the list for including Buster Keaton this time around, while criticizing it for omitting Fargo (Emerson has the same complaint). I have to admit that I don’t have strong feelings either way for Fargo. It’s a well-made film, but most Coen brothers films feel a bit like an exercise to me.
  • I’ve skimmed the top 100 list several times, and unless I missed something, there’s not a single film directed by a woman listed. That’s probably not a big surprise given that only 4.5 of the 400 finalists were directed by women, but I’m looking forward to seeing the list complied by the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, which should come out in a few days. This observation is, of course, partially a critique of the tastemakers who make these lists, but I think it also says something about Hollywood’s history of hiring primarily male directors.
  • My list of snubs: The Conversation, His Girl Friday, 25th Hour, Dark City, Groundhog Day (I think Andy will agree with me on that one), and Medium Cool. I’d consider adding either Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused and I’d substitute Robert Altman’s Short Cuts for Nashville.

Update: The Reeler has one of the best responses I’ve seen so far to the AFI List, which tend–as this one does–to compile all the usual suspects.  I forgot to mention that the list has zero films by Jim Jarmusch, John Cassavetes, or the Coen Brothers.  Because there wasn’t a single documentary listed, I assumed they weren’t eligible, but Barbara Kopple, Errol Morris, the Maysles, and Ross McElwee should probably be at least mentioned, and in my pre-coffee reflections this morning, I forgot to mention Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust.  Maybe the Reeler is right–we need a list of “100 forgotten films.”  Or something.

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Wednesday Night Links

Here’s what I’ve been reading and watching tonight over one last cup of coffee.

  • First, via BoingBoing, yet another political mashup, Presidential Idol. I can’t decide if this one’s clever or not. The connection between American Idol and the political process has been done before, and most of the clips of the various presidential candidates have been seen before, but I was a little surprised by the ending.
  • Second, via Liz Losh, news that YouTube will be creating web portals in seven different languages. Like her, I’m ambivalent about English’s dominance on the web, but like her, I’m also concerned about the effects of this segmentation, wondering whether–or how–that might change what is available on YouTube as it stands right now.
  • On a related note, a discussion in the New York Times of the ongoing difficulties in creating an effective system for distributing movies over the Internet. Most services still only have a few hundred movies available for download, and systems that allow you to create DVD copies remain poor in quality. Still, I think this article points to the increasing use of the computer as a site for viewing films (which is one of the points of my book) and the larger fantasy of having all of the history of cinema available at the click of a mouse.
  • Of course, there are plenty of films available on the web illegally. I’ve briefly mentioned the debates about the piracy of Michael Moore’s Sicko (in yesterday’s equally slapdash bullet-point entry), but apparently Lion’s Gate and the Weinstein Company have decided to address the piracy problem by releasing the movie one week early in a few select cities (Fayetteville, as you might imagine, is not one of them). But Mike Nizza points to a larger issue related to internet piracy. Apparently PirateBay is on its way to unveiling a YouTube-style streaming site, which would make it even easier to watch pirated movies.

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This Blog Is Not Yet Rated…

…Pending appeal. I thought, I’d get at least a PG-13, dammit!

What's My Blog Rated? From Mingle2 - Online Dating

Via ProfGrrrl, who also got a PG.

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Pirated Sopranos Finale

Yet another parody of The Sopranos finale (caught this one on Olbermann).  Here’s another parody that imagines what would happen if several classic movies ended like The Sopranos

While I’m blogging, Pharyngula links to “The Singles Map,” which shows where excess men (blue) and women (red) live.  Two observations: First, there’s a very odd east-west split with far more women on this side of the Atlantic.  Second, there are apparently far more women in Fayetteville than I imagined.  Is it possible that soldiers aren’t counted in these numbers because they don’t conform to my observations around town.

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Tuesday Media Miscellany

Working on two or three projects at once, which always leaves me scattered. Of course, if you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you probably think I’m always scattered. And you’d probably be right. But here are some of the highlights of my recent tours around the web:

  • Hillary Soprano: You’ve probably heard about the contest to choose the theme song for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, but if you haven’t seen the video in which Hillary and Bill announce the winner, go see it (note: I have no idea how long it will be on her main page). It’s a fun little homage to the final scene of The Sopranos, a great example of the intersections between politics and popular culture. It even has a cameo Sopranos fans will dig.
  • Via Josephine Cameron, a link to the Alice Munro short story, “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” which provided the basis for Sarah Polley’s amazing new film, Away From Her. And if you haven’t heard Cameron’s music, you should check it out.
  • Karina Longworth discusses the rumors that Michael Moore’s foes may be behind the piracy of his latest film, Sicko. One piece of evidence Jeffrey Wells cites that I find somewhat unconvincing: the file name apparently includes the phrase “suckourdicks” (and apparently a number of readers of the Hollywood Elsewhere blog agree). Like Karina, I think these rumors will become part of “lore” of the film and that they fit neatly onto the narrative Moore has used to sell Sicko (that corporate interests don’t want you to see Moore’s film, that Moore is an “outsider,” whatever). Not that any of this matters. I’ll be the first in line when it comes to Fayetteville in a few days.
  • Carolina Flicks, a blog about film production in North Carolina that I discovered, I believe through Cinema Minima. Not much to add here, but it looks like a nice networking tool for the North Carolina film community.
  • Finally, via Oliver Willis, a picture of ObamaGirl with John Bolton (huh?) and news that she has a blog. OG also points to a great reading of the video on the PopPolitics blog.

Update: Here’s what appears to be a more permanent link to the Hillary Soprano video.

Update 2: Karina also has a column on the Hillary Soprano video.  Like her, I think the video does a fascinating recoding of the Sopranos ending, positioning Hillary as capable and caring (taking care of Bill),  but also populist and cool enough to recognize Johnny Sack when he walks past.

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28 Weeks Later, or The Political Limits of Zombies

After hearing about its Iraq War subtext, I went to see the zombie flick 28 Weeks Later (IMDB), the follow-up to Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, last night. To be honest, I don’t remember the original film that well. I was surprised to see that I never wrote about it on my blog in any detail (I did mention it a few times in relationship with Dawn of the Dead), but I do remember Doyle’s disturbing depiction of the initial survivors of the “rage virus” and his ability to make the survivors seem as monstrous as the zombies themselves. In the sequel, director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo takes the “rage virus” concept and translates that into one of the more visceral, if incoherent, critiques of the Iraq War that I’ve seen in a mainstream Hollywood film in some time. While the film clearly wants to criticize the occupation of Iraq, it is also caught up in the logical and political limits of the zombie genre.

The film opens with a classic survivalist scene, several weeks after the original film ends, with Don (Robert Carlyle) and his wife Alice (Catherine McCormack) holed up in a house with several other survivors, sharing meager resources as they wait for the next attack (the shift in time also allows the film to justify the absence of the original cast). They briefly discuss their children who have been evacuated to safety, I believe somewhere in the U.S. When the attack comes, Don and Alice are separated, with Don running desperately to board a motorboat that takes him to safety and witnessing, he believes, his wife being bitten. Like the first film, many of the attack scenes are depicted using handheld cameras shaking jerkily to mimic the chaotic attacks. As Paul writes, these scenes are so shaky that it often becomes impossible to tell what is happening and who is being attacked. While Paul reads this as a flaw, I’m inclined to forgive it to some extent as it adds to the overall confusion felt by the survivors and eventually by the U.S. soldiers who come to occupy a chunk of Great Britain.

But the main plot of the film–and the allegory for the Iraq War–begins several weeks later when Don is reunited with his children, the teenage Tammy (Imogen Poots) and the slightly younger Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton). The family settles into housing in the “Green Zone,” the safe area that has been sealed off from the virus while the U.S.-led NATO force works to make the rest of London and, presumably, Great Britain inhabitable again. We are introduced to the Green Zone by a female soldier who eagerly tells the settlers about the amenities they will encounter–running water, electricity, even a pub–which recalls, of course, the lack of that infrastructure in large chunks of Iraq. And here’s where the Iraq War analogies get a little slippery. As Paul points out in his review, the military presence in London is somewhat muted here, and the film generally stops well short of criticizing the soldiers themselves. It’s worth keeping in mind here that the film was produced by Fox Atomic, which is part of the massive media conglomerate News Corps, so to look for an explicitly critical political “message” makes little sense.

Despite being warned against leaving the relative safety of the Green Zone, the children sneak across into London and eventually find their way back to their old house, an adventure that eventually reawakens the rage virus (through a series of actions, especially by Don, that are, in retrospect surprisingly stupid). But, once the rage virus is reawakened, the Iraq allegory returns with a vengeance. After seeing the zombies attack the surviving British citizens, the U.S. soldiers almost immediately move into Code Red, which gives them license to shoot first and ask questions later and placing the remaining survivors in between the gunfire (and eventually firebombing) of the soldiers and the unadulterated rage of the zombies. The film’s politics are perhaps most powerfully illustrated in a scene that evokes the Odessa Steps sequence in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (also see Helen Grace’s essay), with the soldiers mowing down a group of civilians as they are fleeing a zombie attack.

Ultimately, the film focuses on the protection and rescue of the two children.  Because their mother demonstrates a resistance to (though not immunity from) the rage virus, they represent a possible cure for the rage virus, and the medical doctor and another sympathetic soldier (named Doyle, presumably after the director of the first film) spend the last third of the film trying to protect the children from both the zombies and from their fellow soldiers, reprising the whole endangered children plot that always seems tedious to me, while also having it both ways by depicting most of the individualized soldiers we encounter (Doyle, the doctor) in positive ways.   In this sense, ascribing any specific politics to the film becomes somewhat more difficult.  There’s little doubt that the film is critical of the occupation of Iraq, but mapping the current conflict in Iraq onto the pure threat represented by the rage virus offers very little as an interpretation of the U.S. military presence over there.

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