“W” Takes a Loss

4 01 2009

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“W.” 2008

Starring: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, Richard Dreyfuss, Thandie Newton

I had almost forgotten about George (W.) Bush. I’ve spent the last eight years trying to find ways not to despise him, and over the last several months have nearly succeeded. With the 2008 presidential election dominating the media, I was simply too distracted by my high hopes for the administration of the future to give much thought to that of the present.

Along came “W.,” Oliver Stone’s ambitious attempt to clarify the experiences that shaped the second president Bush into the widely detested leader he has become.

It turns out that (surprise!) George W. Bush was an overindulged alcoholic with a prominent family name that managed to repeatedly bail him out of trouble and simultaneously land him one undeserved job after another. He eventually dried himself out, found God, and heard his calling (to the presidency, that is. Not the priesthood. In case you were wondering.) And (big shocker here), his ego is the size of a small country, the name of which we can be fairly certain he cannot pronounce.

The film does provide some insight into the behind-the-scenes discussions and decisions that led to some of the more despised events of Bush’s eight year presidential reign. The application of more effective “interrogation methods” (that’s Bushspeak for torture), for example, was decided upon between a smug Bush and his slick and slimy cohort Cheney over club sandwiches. I’ve always tried to give Bush the benefit of my doubt that he had any of the intellectual capacity necessary to actually play an active role in the executive decision-making process. This film disputed my last-ditch effort to alleviate guilt from our president. I still maintain that he is intellectually unequipped to govern the country, but his arrogance, rather than is naïveté, is the element which has driven us to systematic destruction.

This film was released in the midst of a presidential election which, in my opinion, could have ended with either hope or utter hopelessness. The people of this country have rallied to ensure the former, and for that I am grateful and proud. The demise of an entire nation cannot be attributed to a single man, but I believe that the disintegration of our collective psyche can. A president, the leader of our nation, is responsible not only for executing decisions that act in the best interest of the country, but of upholding the sense of unity that defines the ideology of a democracy. In this example, as in so many others, the second President George Bush has failed us.

He has also failed us in providing a compelling subject for a film that felt about six hours long. I spent most of this time in anxious anticipation of the end. Ironic, as this is the very same feeling I have about the subject’s final term.





“Seven Pounds” Is a Bit Too Heavy

22 12 2008

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“Seven Pounds” 2008

Starring: Will Smith, Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson, Barry Pepper

Seven Pounds is a film with a startling revelation, unveiled in the last five minutes of running time. The problem is that the slowly unfolding mystery, which occupies the first, say, hour and fifty-five minutes of the film, is vague and disorienting, and the revelation is unnatural and bizarre. If Ben Thomas (played by Will Smith) were guilty of a horrible crime or betrayal, perhaps we might find the outcome fitting. If we truly believed that his life and spirit were irreparably damaged, we might understand his decision.

Smith gives a predictably compelling performance as a man deeply wounded by the loss of a loved one. He plays an empathetic IRS agent, which seems a deliberate contradiction, but a single scene in which he treats a physically handicapped person with coldness and cruelty leads us to believe that he has not always behaved with such compassion. Here’s where things get tricky: The timeline of the film is thrown off by the fact that the entire film occurs as a flashback in which Ben experiences further flashbacks. The scene in which Ben delivers the benevolent blind man a ruthless tongue-lashing seems so wildly out of character that we wonder is we have witnessed a scene from some former life, and the rest of the film serves as Ben’s atonement following an unknown transformative incident.

I did not dislike this film. Actually, I found it intriguing and terrifically acted. Its disorienting development was necessary to preserve the mystery, and despite the confusion, the characters were convincing, and sufficiently kind and sympathetic to warrant Ben’s charity.

The flaws in this film were initiated by Ben’s final selfish (or selfless, depending on your prerogative) act, which thankfully took very little of our time. We know from the tone of the film that the conclusion will be startling and grave. But it seems unnecessary and unfair that Ben, the embodiment of a man devastated by loss, would choose to inflict similar pain on the kindhearted people who love him.

♦♦½





The Cadillac of Biopics

22 12 2008

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“Cadillac Records” 2008

Starring: Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Gabrielle Union, Beyonce Knowles, Mos Def

“Cadillac Records” tells the story of legendary musician Muddy Waters, and his ascent from Mississippi sharecropper to national billboard chart-topper. Waters provides the anchor to which others characters attach themselves, and through him we gain insight into such brilliant and tortured musicians as Chuck Berry, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, and the tragic and fascinating Etta James.

The film is principally a tribute to those Black American musicians who played crucial roles in the rise of Rock and Roll in an era when their contribution, and often mere presence, was openly scorned. The stories aren’t always pleasant, but the truths of their lives prove far more compelling than the one-dimensional personas many are content to accept. The film succeeds by refusing to glorify the personal lives of the musicians featured. They were irrefutably talented, but they were also human. This film demonstrates the high price of fame, and the undercurrent of tragedy that often comes with it.

The performances in this film are exceptional, though one in particular is unexpectedly moving. Beyonce Knowles neither looks nor sounds much like the illustrious Etta James, but her dynamic and captivating performance in “Cadillac Records” is well worth the price of a ticket.

Mos Def also deserves acknowledgment for his portrayal of Chuck Berry. I saw him act for the first time earlier this year (my first time watching, not his first time acting) in The Woodsman, a disturbing story about pedophilia in which he played a young but seasoned detective distrusting of any person with a compulsion that targets children. In that film, he was spot-on as a good cop who had simply seen too many innocent victims to empathize with a “recovering” child molester. In Cadillac Record, his role is almost flip-flopped. He plays an easygoing musician with an unsavory preference for underage women, who, unfortunately for him, happen to be white in a time when any sexual mingling of the races promised severe consequences. Again, though his character was less than perfect, the performance was a pleasure to behold.

♦♦♦





Star-Crossed Teens Will Love “Twilight”

22 12 2008

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“Twilight” 2008

Starring: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Billy Burke, Peter Facinelli

I have never read any of the Twilight novels, and I am no longer a 15-year-old girl. These two facts eliminate me from the target audience group for the screen adaptation of the first Twilight installment.

But I liked the film, in spite of myself.

The dialogue is steeped in melodrama, but the two lead actors have real onscreen chemistry, and their story is continuously absorbing as they find themselves drawn into a forbidden romance. This is the kind of love story that appeals to adolescent girls because it shows all the passion and excitement of romance without any of the conflict or monotony that exist in more mature relationships. The main conflict between Bella (Kristin Stewart) and Edward (Robert Pattinson) is that she really wants to kiss him, and he, being a vampire, really wants to bite her. Luckily, he is a “vegetarian” vampire, so he only eats animals, not humans.

There are other problems, of course. Bella is persistently stoic and unsmiling. Her situation is strange, her love likely doomed. But she is almost instantly embraced by her peers at her new school (the live ones. The undead take a bit longer to warm up to her), and her boyfriend is mysterious and HOT (what more could a teenage girl want?) Her mother is more of a buddy than a role-model, and her father keeps a comfortable distance, hesitant to butt into Bella’s affairs, but these are the parents of an adolescent girl’s dreams. Through the second half of the film, Bella is being hunted by a pack of blood-hungry vampires, but that’s all in a days work in the world of Twilight. You’d think the girl would crack a smile every once in a while (like when Edward valiantly saves her from a rowdy and hormonal bunch of teenage bullies. That warrants a half smile at least).

This is not a great film. It is not going to win any Oscars, and its unusually low budget is obvious throughout. But if it’s steamy enough to entice a somewhat romance-jaded 25-year-old, there’s no doubt it will captivate the teenage audience it is intended for.

♦♦½





“Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa”

22 12 2008

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“Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” 2008

Starring (Voices): Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Bernie Mac

I’m not usually a fan of animated films. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa did not change my mind.

The film seemed to be a sort of patchwork of other, more superior films. The main character, a domesticated lion named Alex, returns to his birthplace in Africa to find a member of his former pride vying for the position of pride leader, which is currently occupied by Alex’s father. Disney’s The Lion King has done this before. The threat of a plane crash elicits passenger revelations that they would ordinarily not have disclosed. Cameron Crowe did this better in Almost Famous. Just two of many examples, and none of the borrowed scenes or storylines are nearly as compelling as their originals.

My guest for this feature was a four-year-old friend who spent most of the film dancing in the aisles and the rest requesting bathroom breaks. She became noticeably preoccupied less than thirty minutes into the movie, which suggests to me that the film is better suited for a slightly older viewer. The only problem might be the film’s suggestive dialogue, though I did have a laugh when the voice of Chris Rock (as Marty the Lion) encouraged another character to kick an adversary “in the batteries,” referring to his nether-regions. At that point I was thankful for my guest’s young age-as I was sure that most of the innuendo was neither detected nor understood.

♦♦





“Changeling” Could Use a Few Changes

22 12 2008

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“Changeling” 2008

Starring: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Amy Ryan

“Changeling” is a film based on true events which occurred in Los Angeles in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It is a story about a boy whose disappearance places his mother at the mercy of a corrupt police department, and her refusal to succumb to the scandal and deceit. It is also about the capture, conviction, and execution of a serial child murderer. It is not advertised as a horror film, but the content is truly horrific.

At it turns out, the killer is the least effective example of evil in the film. He is so clearly insane that it is impossible to hold him accountable for his gruesome crimes, yet director Clint Eastwood invites audience members to gain satisfaction from his agonizing death. There is also no explanation for the director’s desire to repulse his audience by depicting a child killer’s gruesome crimes onscreen, except perhaps to elicit enough revulsion towards the killer to justify the painfully drawn-out execution scene. Eastwood’s perverse focus on this particular character is misplaced, and distracts from (what should be) the real point of the story.

The story is meant to be about a woman who dares to challenge a pervasively corrupt law enforcement department with little more than her own strong will and the guardianship of an outspoken minister whose cause stands to gain a great deal of ground from her situation.

The film is effective in its portrayal of the corruption and greed that erode the Los Angeles Police Department. However, the film intermingles the discovery and prosecution of the child killer. As a result, we are distracted from a story about the cruel and inhumane treatment of adversaries to the LAPD by the unfathomable yet true story of the slaughter of dozens of innocent, terrified young boys.

Those involved in the corruption that pervades the LAPD are purely evil, devoid of empathy and utterly self-absorbed. These representations seem so exaggerated that they pose a threat to the legitimacy of the entire film. It may have been possible for an entire network of public servants to have been crooked, but we can’t imagine they were all so sadistic.

There is nothing enjoyable about watching “Changeling.” It is relentlessly distressing, and there is no opportunity for vindication, because the innocent are already irreversibly destroyed.

♦½





Maher vs. Religion

8 11 2008

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“Religulous” 2008

Starring: Bill Maher

Religion is one thing. Faith is something that is extremely personal, and equally hard to define. Faith gives people hope. A specific religion is, ideally, a community of people united in their faith. It is, for all of these reasons, very difficult to condemn, though Bill Maher takes numerous cracks at it in his comic documentary “Religulous.” He attacks the tenets of three major world religions, particularly Christianity, citing fanaticism and nonsensical, impossible legends as being the foundations upon which believers build their delusions. He accuses these religious followers of vicious self-righteousness, and does so in a hypocritically sanctimonious tone.

Maher presents many legitimate points about the absurdity and destructiveness of Christianity. Unfortunately, he doesn’t really fight fair. Maher builds a solid case for his argument only by presenting the most ridiculous representatives of the religions he targets. He interviews “experts” who represent the worst (and, I would argue, the minority) of the multi-billion member Christianity. One example: an Evangelical minister who appears to wear approximately 95 percent of the donations he collects in gold jewelry. (The other five percent he saves for his pinstripe designer suits). A second example: A U.S. Senator who refuses to commit to a belief in either evolution or creationism, and willingly (almost proudly) admits that entry into the Senate does not require an IQ test.

Two of Maher’s subjects were Roman Catholic Priests. The first undoubtedly had a better argument for his case than Maher and his fellow filmmakers allowed in the final cut (for it might have too strongly disputed the point Maher was trying to make). The second priest, cornered outside of the Vatican in Rome, never became defensive but radiated kindness and sincerity, and clearly had a more liberal read on Catholicism than Maher’s intended targets. Both priests seemed to demonstrate the idea of the fluidity of faith, the adaptation to time and change, the acceptance of science, even of those discoveries that absolutely refute tales included in the Bible.

I am Catholic, though I am neither a Bible literalist nor overly sensitive about the skepticism of others. For those who are, this is certainly not a movie I would recommend.

This film did not sway my convictions. I believe that most Christian communities are based in unity, hope, service, and integrity. Some members take advantage, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
But Maher’s mistake is that he fails to acknowledge the rest of the Christian population. Good people with good intentions who try to make the world a better place based on a message they choose to believe began with a man who lived a couple thousand years ago under extraordinary and, yes, admittedly improbable circumstances. It is not important that the legend make sense. It is only important that it inspires so many to engage in simple acts of kindness, each and every day.

Though they may not agree with Maher’s suggestions, I am confident that viewers will find it impossible to keep from laughing through the foolishness. But his suggestion that organized religion will systematically lead us to an Armageddon in which members simultaneously destroy each other and themselves is overdramatic, and unfair. Christianity (the only belief system for which I feel I can make an educated argument), like Democracy, is good at its core. And like any institution with an administration composed of human beings, it is vulnerable to corruption and fraudulence. As in any democratic system of government (which Americans declare is the most just of all forms), we are bound to find radicalism, fanaticism, and affiliates intent on exploiting the system for personal gain.

It is obvious, throughout this film, that Maher’s mind was made up long before the cameras began to roll. His opinion about religion was long-formed, and with this film, he set out to prove himself right rather than to entertain any diversity of beliefs. But to prove his point, he interviews fools, and succeeds only in making himself look foolish.

♦♦