2016 Obama’s America

Eight years ago, a piece of hysterical, conspiracy mongering propaganda, posing as entertainment, was released in American movie theaters before the presidential election. I suspect that many who would dismiss this film from Conservative thinker Dinesh DSouza, will simply view it as attempted turnabout for Fahrenheit 911. Both have political objectives, both were produced, written and directed by film makers with strong political opinions, and both of them can be criticized for problems with the data they use or selective editing of interviews or events. The final complaint is true of every documentary, because it represents the views of it’s creator. One major difference here is that D’Souza frankly admits that the film is his explanatory theory of Barack Obama’s decision making philosophy. He is looking for a holistic explanation for why the President acts and believes the things that he does, and also why Americans have largely not seen the real philosophy that D’Souza sees.

I have a hard time imagining anyone who shares the President’s views on international relations or economic issues, would ever find themselves an audience member for this film. They are likely to be antagonistic from the very beginning. There is in fact a brief segment in the movie that shows some pretty strong reactions from a variety of public figures to the articles D’Souza first published on this subject, prior to writing his two books that the film is based on. One of the most difficult things to do for any true believer, is to get them to suspend judgement long enough to hear the other side. That is true of both ends of the political spectrum. I’m not writing about this because of a political agenda, there are other places for me to express my opinions on those kinds of issues. I know that people reading this blog do so because they are interested in film. I will try to focus on the film and not the politics of the movie in sharing my opinion here.

For example, everyone on both sides of the political aisle, will accept a couple of premises. President Obama believes that American foreign policy has been over expansive and it has neglected the need of other nations of the world. He opposed the war in Iraq, and has clearly reduced American military power in parts of the world where he feels our interests are not threatened. This is not a controversial statement. Neither is the second premise, the President believes the role of the government is to protect those who are treated unjustly and to make sure that economic activity benefits are distributed in a manner that he sees as being fair. So the expansion of government to achieve those objectives is appropriate. I don’t think there are any supporters of the President who would deny that those are core principles that he holds. The thing that makes this film controversial is the theory D’Souza advances that these views reflect an anti-colonialist point of view that has morphed into an anti-capitalist perspective which is antithetical to the American tradition. In addition the point he is making is that these views are reflective of Obama’s personal history and upbringing. He also takes the position that Americans have largely not seen these things about the President for some very calculated reasons. Those are the meat of the movie.

The manner that he presents this case involves some contrasting parallels between himself and the President. Race issues are mentioned, and D’Souza has an interesting theory.He and the President, despite being the same skin color and having some similar outsider characteristics,see the race issues in different terms. As an immigrant, D’Souza believes he measures the status of race issues against the rest of the world and in practical terms. The President on the other hand is seen as defining the status of race against our history and our ideals. The film makes an effective case, using the Presidents own words and voice, that to overcome the barriers that race might present to a candidate seeking widespread support, the tone of discussion must be different if not downright diversionary. Some comparisons to African American political figures is used to make the point. It is D’Souza’a contention that Barack Obama turned the race issue into a net benefit for himself in a way that diverted attention away from the more damaging political philosophies that really define him. This was the strongest section of the film, but it was not the one that the greatest amount of time was spent on. His point here would make a good subject for a dissertation in political communication.

The sections of the movie that take up the greatest amount of time, deal with the roots of Obama’s political ideals. It is the title of Obama’s own autobiography that suggests the theme here, “Dreams from My Father”. I am suspicious of any psychology based biographies, regardless of their point of view, because the analyst basically selects the events and incidents that they want to focus on to confirm their own thesis. The insights are usually so speculative that they are tantamount to reading tea leaves as a way of interpreting history. There are two or three talking head segments in the film, that seem to conform to my worst views of these kind of analysis. There are however stronger indicators to make the same argument. Once again, the President’s own words, many of them spoken in his voice from the audiobook, and from news video, do a better job at making the case than the “living up to my father” projection that is basically the same thing Oliver Stone did with his biographical film “W”. The use of current events and political decisions that the President has made is also more convincing than those psychological profiles.

This movie could have been a hatchet job on the President, based on political differences. Dinesh D’Souza is clearly a conservative writer with a dramatically different philosophy than the Presidents’. The film is structured in a very loose, narrative fashion. It develops theories, and offers data as proof that are sometimes convincing and sometimes not. A skilled propagandist would have turned this into a much more focused, hard hitting piece that attacks continuously. It might have been a more effective political product then, but I doubt that it would have the ability to change anyone’s beliefs any more than political ads do. By structuring this as an investigation of a theory, it is more palatable to a wider audience, and it is more believable at times as well. I have read some articles on the marketing of the movie. We saw it with a crowd of thirty five people in a theater designed to hold a hundred and twenty. We saw a Saturday afternoon matinee, and I’ve seen Hollywood blockbusters with smaller crowds on an opening weekend. I think we might be surprised at the box office returns, but to me the bigger surprise is how the film presents it’s point of view, to allow any viewer the ability to accept or reject it’s conclusions. It is a one sided argument, but it is clearly presented as an argument.

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Bullet to the Head Trailer/The Last Stand Trailer

Two films coming early next year featuring the biggest action stars from twenty-five years ago. The Stallone film feels a little too slick and in the mode of his typical action films of the mid to late 90s. Arnold looks like he is playing it a little more reasonably, acknowledging his limits and being forced into the action he has to take. Stallone must have some hangup on axes as weapons, they were used by the cultist gang in “Cobra” and provided the biggest unintended laughs as the gang members banged them together like cymbals. I look forward to both of these movies but based on the trailers alone, Schwarzenegger has the upper hand.

The Expendables 2

I will admit upfront that there was very little possibility that I would not have enjoyed this movie. You have every 80’s action star, a lot of guns and explosions, and the right tongue in cheek attitude, what’s not to like? These guys are basically having fun doing a last couple of hurrah’s in their chosen fields of expertise. They bring with them a cachet of personal history, one liners and audience affection so that it is going to be hard to resist. That doesn’t mean it is going to be a good movie, but it does mean that to spoil it you would have to make a bad movie. “The Expendables 2” is not a bad movie. If you have any desire to see this movie because of what you want from it before you go in, you should be satisfied. If you are looking to find flaws or things to complain about, there are a few issues but not enough to take away the pleasure of watching some old pros go through their paces one more time.

When you have this many action stars in a film, you know that everyone is going to get a few moments to shine but they are not going to be able to take over the film because there is constantly some one else up next in the queue. Stallone and Statham are the leads in the movie and they get plenty to do and the choicest characters. If there were not so many pieces to fit in, then this would be a buddy action picture with those two as the partners of our screen bromance. Sly looks older but still has the physique to carry off a demanding action role like this. His biggest moments come toward the end when he goes one on one against the villain. There are a few moments of contemplation and mournful dialogue, but they are only narrative that is filling in until the next action scene. Statham has been making these kind of movies steadily for the last fifteen years. He hits his marks, knows enough martial arts to be very convincing and has the cool factor needed to let him be the “knife” guy for the team.

Dolph Lundgren was under used in the first movie and he gets a chance to be a stronger character in this film. The story takes advantage of his real life chemical engineering background but usually plays it for laughs. He is the main comic relief in the film. Jet Li, is part of the opening sequence of the picture and you can understand what an amazing martial artist he is from the brief sequences he participates in. Li leaves the picture pretty early, and I guess it makes sense since there is so much other activity going on. The way he steps out of the action seems to suggest he would be stepping back in at any moment, but he does not. The other members of the Expendables team do take a step back from the more high profile parts they had last time, to make room for expanded parts from the cameo slots in the first picture. Bruce Willis is not just in one scene this time, he is in three or four including a big action sequence toward the end. “Arnold” gets a brief shot in the opening and returns for the closing segment as well. Both Willis and Schwarzenegger trade off on variations of their signature characters from other films. This material might be a little too campy for some action enthusiasts but for movie lovers, it’s a set of jokes that provokes welcome groans of recognition even though getting to them seems like a belabored process.

The two new kids on the playground of this franchise are Jean Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris. The bearded wonder that is the seventy plus Norris, appears in only two sequences, but in each of them he is like a shot of caffeine. Norris pumps up the action geek in everyone and allows us to know that the good guys are going to win in the end. I had read where Norris did not want the movie to be R rated, but the reasons for the rating here are all based on violence, not language and sex. While it may not seem politically correct to say so, he and the rest of us primitives can live with the rating for the purpose of the action in the film. Norris also gets a chance to spoof all those Chuck Norris is so tough memes with a funny line about a snake. Van Damme is the action icon best served by the script. He gets to play the villain role, and he bites into it with relish. After our first encounter with his character, we hate him and can’t wait for the comeuppance that will clearly arrive before the credits. His showdown with Stallone gives him a chance to show off his unique martial arts style, ham up his villainy, and generally make the strongest impression of the ensemble action cast.

Although there is some hokiness in the struggle to get humor based on the casting into the movie, that tone does not undermine the plot and the drama that all the action is in aid of. You won’t care after the movie is over, but there is not much sense to the way plot points follow along. The macguffin is as usual, secondary to the action and emotions that are being stirred up. We want revenge, we want to be on the edge of our seats and we want a cathartic laugh every once in a while. That is how action films work best and it is why the Expendable 2 works as well as it does. I look forward to seeing this movie thirty times a year on pay television, I know I can plug in at any point and just enjoy the ride.

The Dark Knight Rises

It has taken me three weeks to come back to this movie. Many have already put the shooting that took place in the rear view mirror and have moved on. I am still trying to do so and I think I an close enough to being back to normal, that I can give an honest assessment of the movie at this time. It is a Friday night and we went to see the film for a second time in the hopes that the cloud had lifted enough do be more focused. I am a big fan of the previous Christopher Nolan Batman films. “The Dark Knight” still takes my breath away at times. The scale of what Nolan is attempting with these movies is impressive. They never felt to me like the obligatory next chapter in a long running series. It is still a comic book movie, but it has things to say about our responsibilities to each other and societies sense of justice.

After the intricate but sometimes logic defying puzzle-box of the prior film, it was hard for me to envision something that would be equally interesting and challenging. There are several aspects of the movie that attempt to live up to it’s heritage. The question of whether we should give up and just start over comes back into play. That was the original theme in “Batman Begins”, and indirectly the question that the Joker suggested with his mayhem. Also at play is the importance of symbolism, whether it is the creation of the icon that Harvey Dent turned into, or the shadowy threat that the villain Bane represents. The supposed eight year gap between the events in this story and the last one suggest that Batman himself felt that the theatricality of his icon was no longer needed since Dent had become the White Knight and as far as Gotham was concerned, peace was at hand. Symbols continue to be important though, and from an audience point of view, the return of the Batman creates exactly the kind of satisfying hero yearning impact that a comic book character provides.

The two most emotionally satisfying moments in the movie for me, are both reintroductions of Batman to the citizens of Gotham City. After a raid on the stock exchange, Bane and his cohorts are escaping on motorcycles, protected by hostages that limit the ability of the police to take the criminals out. When the Batpod reappears, and some of the technological wizardry of Batman starts being used, you can almost feel the breath of the audience being sucked in. There is a short shot of the Batman, seated on his insanely wild motorbike, looking over his shoulder that gives us the kick in the pants we need to set our story in action. Late in the movie when Batman returns after a forced exile, he sets up a theatrical symbol of his return, worthy of the Z that Zorro would scratch on the wall or his enemies. It is another powerful visual and emotional moment that at least reminds me of why I care about these movies.

The plot of the film is a bit convoluted, and of course it could only happen this way in a comic book world. There are however several elements from the real world that creep into the story to ground it a little bit more. There is a stream of Occupy Wall Street anti-social behavior that is being stoked by the villain, even though his political rhetoric does not fool any except the most gullible. I found a criticism of our military and political impotence in the face of a nuclear threat. No one makes any reference to Iran, but the unwillingness of key players to respond more assertively and the uncertainty of what the response will provoke, sure felt familiar to me. Finally, there are the everyday constraints that are placed on law enforcement, and an implied criticism of special rules for special cases that feels much like a swing at the PATRIOT Act. Nothing is simple from an ethical point of view, but when it comes to the plans of the antagonist, everything falls into place a little more conveniently than is ever realistic.

Nolan sets up these points clearly, and does not try to deal too much with the logic of the process. The events set into place are really there to allow us to watch how they will play out through elaborate action scenes and tense moments of complications. The movie is three hours long and has relatively long segments where there is no action, just exposition and dramatic background. It could be tightened a little bit but the slow moments are quickly overcome when the action beats kick in. There is a dramatic opening scene where a plane is hijacked and crashed mid-air to simply cover up the kidnapping of an important scientist. It is not essential to the plot, but is does give us some intense emotional moments and a terrific visual counterpoint to a similar scene in “The Dark Knight”. There are two intense hand to hand combat sequences between Batman and Bane, they are well staged, very clear and pretty brutal. They also give each character a chance to give us some dialogue that is memorable and position the characters power status as being in flux.

The two chases that Batman takes part in are both effective. The first one puts the Batman in the role of both pursuer and pursued. It reintroduces the character to Gotham City’s narrative and it introduces some pretty cool toys to us. The last chase is the climax of the film and it is long on complications, and it is juxtaposed with several other continuing story lines very well. The race against time is multiplied by three different scenarios, each one having it’s own tangential emotional moments. The look of this final chase sequence is unique in the series because it takes place in the light of day but is still effective at conveying the darkness of events taking place in the story.

There are a dozen characters that are critical to the plot of the movie. Some of these characters are given a chance to to really shine. Commissioner Gordon gets to have an active part in the early going and then returns for more action toward the end. Selena Kyle (Catwoman) turns out to be a complicated relationship for Batman, sometimes a cohort and sometimes an antagonist. Her story arc was set up well and played out with just enough detail to make it worthwhile. Bane and the remnants of the League of Shadows are formidable opponents, but as characters they are less interesting and less developed than the Joker was in the last movie. Both Christian Bale and Tom Hardy have to play their parts through masks and they have their voices heavily modulated. It works for the movie but the performers are limited in using their skills. Hardy is reduced to acting with his thumbs, trying to make hooking your fingers into your jacket or suspenders menacing. Michael Caine is great as usual, but he disappears from the movie early on and only returns in time for an emotionally satisfying conclusion. The biggest asset to the film is the character played by Joseph Gordan Levitt. His officer Blake is the real story arc that will connect with the audience and his performance was pitch perfect.

“The Dark Knight Rises” is not a perfect film, neither was it’s predecessor for all of it’s attributes. It is however a perfectly satisfying conclusion to Nolan’s Dark Knight storyline. The quality of the music, art direction and photography are unassailable. The script and direction falter in a few places, but the audacity of vision and the talent in the action sequences rescue the movie repeatedly, and they are the product of the same minds. This is a movie that will grow on people and become even more loved as we get used to it’s cadence and we give in to it’s strengths.

Get the Gringo

This is what happens when you piss off the Hollywood establishment and the movie going public. You end up having to be in the vanguard of VOD distribution of your films. Mel Gibson was at one time the biggest star in the world. He was an Academy Award winning film maker whose personal vision stirred audiences and brought in box office, whether he was in front of the camera or behind it. His personal life has gotten out of control and it has bled over into his professional life. This is a tough action flick, done on an interesting and innovative setting, featuring a typically tough guy performance from the star. It did not play in theaters, it was viewable only as an on demand video order until this week when the film was released on blu ray and DVD.

The setting of the film is the notorious El Pueblito prison in Tijuana Mexico. Gibson’s character (who never gives his real name) is thrown into this prison after a chase and being taken into custody by corrupt Mexican police. There is a lot of narration by “the driver” played by Mel, and he sums up the scene pretty quickly, it is “either a prison or the worst shopping mall in the world”. The prison is not run by the government, it is run by the prisoners and the culture of survival is brutal. “Driver” is smart enough to steal some money to survive on in the prison but he needs help figuring out the ropes and planning his next moves. He ends up being aided by a ten year old kid, that’s right a ten year old kid in the prison. That’s because the prison works almost like a brutal commune without the traditional bars and prison cells. Many of the extras in the film actually did time in the real prison which was shut down in 2002. It is the nightmare scenario for any law abiding citizen to imagine, the worst of the worst crawl to the top of the food chain and exploit everyone else.

We never see the crime that the “driver” and his partner commit, we enter into the story as their getaway comes to an end. The sequences where Mel’s character shows his improvisational criminal skills is entertaining but of course things always go more according to the script than they would in real life. There are two or three back stories based on the corruption of the system and an innocent in jeopardy who propels the actions of several of the characters. There are some pretty ugly things that we see in the movie, but for the most part they are part of the narrative rather than just a freak show to give us the creeps. In this way this movie accomplishes things that Oliver Stone’s “Savages” misses. We get characters who we will care about, a mixture of plots that provide a satisfying revenge story and a couple of lead performances that feel like the actors were putting their all into it. Whatever you think of Mr. Gibson, he is a talented actor and the kid in the movie does a fine job living up to the role he has been cast in.

There is a funny sequence in the last quarter of the movie where the “driver” has to carry out an elaborate hoax in order to get to a particular criminal. It reprises some of those improvisational skills and requires a funny celebrity impersonation by Mel. There are two or three harrowing torture scenes and a couple of excellently staged shootouts in the prison itself. Apparently the film was shot in the actual location of the old prison, which means that the production designer on this film is not nearly the depraved mind we might be lead to believe. The look of the movie is dirty yellow with a skin of grime layered on top. The photography and lighting do a very good job at conveying an unpleasant part of the world in a pretty accurate way although sometimes it seems like these techniques are becoming a little cliched.

This is not a movie for the faint at heart and it may not be good for your stomach either. If you like a tough action movie, and are not bothered by Mel Gibson’s personal problems, you will find an interesting story and a fascinating real world background in “Get the Gringo”. The title is easier to say and remember then the original name for the movie was, but when you see the movie, the original title makes more sense.

HOPE SPRINGS

Once again I find myself the target demographic for a film designed to lure in older film goers. I’m hopeful that movies will be more open to portraying relationship stories for all kinds of groups but I’m not sure I enjoy being a member of a group that is so clearly being targeted as this film puts me in the bulls eye. The promo makes this film look like a light comedy, but most of the comedic bits are found in the trailer and for the most part this is a standard drama with humorous highlights. In that regard it is very much like this year’s earlier “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”. It looks to be a lot more escapist than it really is and puts a good deal of drama on the table by the end.

I listen to morning radio so I’ve heard people talking in a playful way about oral sex, masturbation, menopause, and erectile dysfunction. It is one thing to make a verbal joke out of those subjects, it is something quite a bit different to create a visual joke out of those things, and put it in this context. Anyone who may be uncomfortable with thinking at all about their parent’s sex life is not going to be happy if they find themselves sitting in a dark theater watching this; especially if they took their mom or dad to see it since it is targeted at that group. While some of the references are clearly meant to be humorous, there are enough psychological conversations about fellatio to make anyone a little self conscious. Much of the humor here comes from the painful awkward way that these subjects effect the couple we are watching. When Meryl goes to the bookstore for “Advice for a Straight Woman from a Gay Man”, it is funny, but when the subject comes up in the therapy sessions, no one will be laughing. The film wants to have it both ways and it feels inconsistent in tone as a result.

Meryl Streep is America’s greatest screen actress. She has been acknowledged by critics and peers and the audience as such for thirty plus years. Other actresses have given greater performances, but no other actor has been as consistently good in as many different kinds of roles for as long as she has been on the screen. Once again, she is excellent and is the main reason for seeing the film. She does desperate and hopeful and bitter and happy and those emotions all feel like they are legitimately coming from the same character. Tommy Lee Jones is the other reason for seeing the film. I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone who did not like Tommy Lee Jones as an actor. There may be performances that he is not right for but he has a presence that I think makes everyone want him to be as good as he can be. His character is a little more inconsistent in the story, sometimes breaking through for a poignant moment, at other times falling back into hard headed obstinacy for no particular reason. His face though does deliver the humorous moments really well and the payoffs seem about right.

The characters are in the thirty first year of a marriage that has fallen into companionship without much joy. My wife and I just celebrated our thirty second anniversary, so we are clearly the audience that should be identifying with this couples struggles. Everyone of course is different, but when I think of what “Arnold and Kay” have let happen to their relationship, it seems so foreign to me. Separate bedrooms, years without physical intimacy, the inability to express desires to one’s partner; what are these two waiting for to do something to help their marriage? We may see ourselves in this relationship in some ways but I hope that anyone who has gotten this far into a marriage would recognize long before things come to a head that something needs to be worked on.

Steve Carrell plays the therapist that they go to see, and he is playing it very straight. He does not make a joke with any reaction shots, there is no snide attitude in his advice to the couple, he simply seems to be a sincere marriage counselor. Elizabeth Shue and Mimi Rodgers are also in the movie. If you watch the trailer above, you will see the entirety of miss Rodgers performance. She is a fetching personality who is given one scene that is basically a payoff on a joke set up earlier in the film. Elizabeth Shue has a better part, but not much bigger. She sells her two brief scenes a an empathetic bartender really well. Someday I should do a post on all the scenes in movies that rely on the friendly ear of a bartender to forward the story. Jean Smart plays Streep’s sympathetic friend and co-worker, but despite having some fine actresses in the film, the script has very little use for any of them.

My wife liked the movie more than I did and she was moved to tears toward the end, so it is hitting some important emotional notes. I am satisfied with the film I saw but I wanted there to be more for me to really like. The two things I liked best about the film were the two things that got me into the theater in the first place; Meryl and Tommy Lee. I’ve seen them better before and there was nothing wrong with what they did here. When you get a pairing like this, you wish there was a little more magic. The final scenes and credit sequence had the best emotional chemistry between the two, everything else felt a little hit and miss.