Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsburg and the Pentagon Papers

I had studied the Pentagon Papers in several classes, as I’m sure many political science majors have, but I never got a truly all encompassing look at what the situation was about. This film gave it to me in a way that I had never seen before. By providing Dr. Ellsburg as the main narrator, the audience is given the best possible primary source, and it is surrounded with other quality sources, such as Anthony Russo, numerous reporters and lawyers involved in the case, and just about everyone involved at the Rand Corporation, several branches of government, and even the Ellsburg family. Everyone interviewed offers a fresh perspective with critical information about what was happening.
The movie is presented chronologically, starting with how Ellsburg got involved in government in the first place, and ends with what Ellsburg has achieved in the aftermath of this tumultuous period in his exciting life. The audience is exposed to how the plot to create the Vietnam War is hatched and how it is executed. Ellsburg talks thoroughly about his experience on the other side, helping craft the war, keeping it secret from the right people in government (including President Johnson), and perpetuating its life despite its questionable existence to begin with.
The film does a great job of showing how, over time, our protagonist gets fed up with the war efforts and can no longer continue to delude the American public, as well as himself. We learn what happens as the war goes on, who he meets that influences him towards his eventual course of action, and how he slowly breaks lose from the military-industrial complex that he indirectly supports.
The director does not just center around the political controversy, he interviews Patricia Ellsburg and gives us the details of what they had to do when they were briefly in hiding from the FBI. We also get critical commentary from the New York Times General Counsel about how the trial was run and what the legal implications were. The Nixon administration strived quite vigorously to ensure that the First Amendment would be compromised in this case, and in that laid its down fall. One of the highlights of the film is the showing of how Ellsburg invited Nixon to shoot himself in the foot by establishing the notorious “plumbers unit” that was responsible for the grunt work of the Watergate scandal that ended Nixon’s presidency and led to the end of the war. It is at this point that Ellsburg is praised by numerous contemporaries of what an historical figure he is, and rightfully so.
The film is important because it gives any historically inclined person such a breath of information on such an important incident. It is a piece of cinema that should broadcast to all high school and college youth studying mid-twentieth century America. Such a significant time period is given such fantastic context and coverage that it will leave all but the most studious professors with a greater understanding how our great nation came into and out of such a horrible chapter in its history, and the man who made it all possible.


It has been nearly five years since I last saw Michael Moore’s documentary on the American health care system. Back then, I remember that it riled me up to a degree. It was my first Moore film and I did not know much about him. I am now a bit older and wiser, I’ve been exposed to Roger and Me as well as Capitalism: A Love Story. In other words, I now know that he is more than a bit left of center and is not above extremist views. I also know that he is a fan of meshing entertainment and politics, often focusing heavily on the entertainment part. I think I was better adept at giving constructive criticism this time around.
The film spends the first half hour showing us case after miserable case of the people that our non-universal health care system has wronged in one way or another. We see cut off fingers, dying babies, and other tear jerking accounts. Moore is a talented filmmaker, but not necessarily a good documentary filmmaker. He knows how to subdue the audience with tragic, and probably rare, incidents before he moves into his political stances. He paints Congress members out to be evil, and of course his favorite head of state, Mr. Bush. He strives his hardest to paint a dreary picture of the American scene, being only briefly optimistic over Gitmo health care as the punch line to a nearly two hour joke.
But Michael Moore knows that if he lets people leave the theater feeling bad, they won’t respond to or remember his films as much. He wants you to feel good, know that the system is broken, but there is hope. And where is there hope? Ever hear the phrase, “the grass is always greener on the other side”? In this case, it’s the other side of the border in Canada, which has universal health care. The other side of the Atlantic is mentioned too, notably Great Britain and France. Even the other side of the political spectrum, Cuba, is revered for its positive practices in policy. In these places, we meet ex-parliament members that have ideal views of democracy, expats from the United States that are living well in the socialized system, and even firefighters that Moore makes you think respect 911 workers more than anyone in America. No one is mean, or even mild mannered. Everyone is charming, lovely, happy, and most importantly healthy.
I’m not saying that there is no truth to the benefits of socialized medicine, I actually support the idea (though not in the God awful way that Obamacare has been designed). I accept that the United States is severely flawed in this regard and must change. What I do not support, however is the way in which Michael Moore presents the issue. He is not a balanced commentator on the issue. He is hell bent on presenting his views as a mandate from heaven, while any other alternative is brutish and equivalent to seventeenth century standards of the evil monarch. He wants you to cry over your situation and drool hungrily over what the other side has. He does not consider any of the consequences of the implementing such policy here, how long it would take, and what is reasonable or achievable. He presents himself as nothing short of the ideal American, but this American thinks he’s anything but.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Say Goodnight to the Bad Guys

I don't know who among you has had the pleasure of coming across the widely successful Canadian mockumentary comedy series "Trailer Park Boys." For those of you who have not, it is a series in the style of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" in that it is about poor and (very) stupid people getting into schinanigans that, if taken out of the comedic context, are just down right horrible and almost inhuman. Luckily, it is always in a comedic context. It is about several rednecks in Dartmouth, Nova Scoita, that live in a trailer park and are constantly trying get-rich-quick schemes that involve either drugs, alcohol, theft, or some other moderately offensive crime.

The show has produced several movies and longer specials throughout the years, and I have been marathoning them over the last week. When I saw the first movie titled simply "Trailer Park Boys" I was highly disappointed because they did not stay true to the nature of the show, left out several important characters, and switched around several key aspects that made it seem like bizaro-world. However, in this second movie, the creators decided not to mess with success and kept everything that made the show great.

Ricky is the angry and unapologetic hick that always causes more problems per minute of airtime than anyone else. He spins yarns that only the stupid cops in the show would believe as always and continues to justify being such a sad excuse for a family man. Julian is the man with the plan like usual. If you expect Bubbles to be strange, but levelheaded andloving his kittens like in the show, you will not be disappointed. Even J-ROC is his usual wiggar self. I emphasize this consistency because it was so poorly preserved in the first film and it suffered in quality as a result.

This time, the boys have squandered their inconceivable fortune again and must figure out a way to earn it back. They decide to work with Jim Lehey, trailer park supervisor, and his assistant/on-again-off-again shirtless lover Randy. They plan on having a community night at a Rec Center to promote Ray's, Ricky's disability insurance frauding father, moonshine business. As usual, Lehey sets this up as a plan to bust the boys and get them back in prison so he could enjoy another year or two of peace and quiet in the park.

The movie is filled with nonchalant gags that civilized people would find ridiculous. Every one is always hustling in their own unique way, and there is a tremendous amount of arguing and disgruntled discourse.

Unfortunately, this is not a cinematographic viewer's film. It is meant to entertain the masses, so things like symbolism, motifs, and the likes do not exist in this film. It is all low brow humor, but it is low brow humor at its finest. While I love the show and the movie dearly, I understand and accept that it will never be broadcast in film school. I write this review, more so, with the intention to promote awareness of the show because it is a gem worth exploring. Maybe the one or two of you that still occasionally glance at this page (I noticed you commented on my last post earlier today Mr. Bennett) will at least give an episode or two of this show a try. It went off air several years ago after a seven year run and a few award winning shorts to go with it. It can easily be found on megavideo, google video, and veoh.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Days of Heaven

I finally got my Terrence Malick fix. After more than a month since seeing The Thin Red Line, I was able to come across his 1978 film about migrant workers from the early twentieth century. It starts out with a series of sephia and black and white still photos of urban poor at work and play. I am assuming this is to get us in the mood for the rest of the film by providing context and perhaps to develop feelings towards the protagonists (or antagonists if you think about it) before we even meet them. Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams) are a couple from Chicago trying to find seasonal work. While on the train ride out to the Oklahoma Panhandle, they pretend to be brother and sister to avoid the gossip of their soon-to-be co-workers. The movie is narrated by Bill's little sister, Linda (Linda Manz). She parallels Sissy Spacek's character in another Malick movie: Badlands. Both are young girls with hypnotic voices that appear simple at first glance, but manage to impress the audience with their deep thoughts while telling the story clear in their respective vernaculars. Though the story is primarily concerned with the love triangle between Bill, Abby, and the Farmer (Sam Shepard), we never can forget about Linda for more than half a scene before see chimes in with that uncharacteristic, but comforting voice.

The love triangle, above mentioned develops when the farmer, a rich, new money, but honest man, notices Abby working in the field. As Linda says "maybe it was the way that the wind flowed through her hair," but the farmer falls for her on the spot. As everyone knows (but one fight scene suggests some suspect otherwise) Abby is single, because Bill is merely her brother. Bill, a life long manual laborer, sees this as an opportunity to not have to take the first train out of the panhandle when the season ends. This is catalyzed by the fact that Bill is sick and will most likely die within the next few years. He pushes Abby to pretend to be wooed by the farmer. In short time they get married. Bill and Linda are allowed to remain by relation. They spend their days by playing in the river, hunting for quail, and admiring the fields of golden wheat that stretch as far as the sea. But trouble in paradise develops. For further details, please reference the movie.
Days of Heaven is like other Malick films in several regards. In addition to the young female narrator, there is plenty of natural cinematography. We see dozens of shots of grasshoppers, birds, prairies, mountains, and rivers. A theme is his films that I believe is meant not only to reward his viewers with aesthetics, but also to remind them of the role of geography. The laborers are outside all day collecting hay, when they are at play, it usually by the river. Even in winter, we see the progression of Abby and her family first sleeping under bales in the open air (before the marriage) and later going on horse drawn carriages through the snow (after the marriage). Towards the end of the movie, there is a powerful scene of the farmer sending his laborers to swat the fields of all the grasshoppers and other pests, this is followed by a fire. The scene is belligerent and gives suggestions of things to come for the human animals in the movie as well.

The film also shows a change of the female protagonist throughout the film. Though they never smile much, they become more feminine. Linda dresses like a boy in the beginning, but blossoms into a pretty girl by the middle of the movie. This is most evident in the way see wears her hair, but the lighting and camera angles are also exploited for this purpose. There is much more darkness on her figure in the beginning and there are no clear shots of her lower half, so it is ambiguous whether or not she is wearing a skirt or pants.Her voice is border line boy-girl as well.

Also like Badlands is the way that the characters seem to take advantage of fate on a whim. Both films start this chain of events when the male protagonist decides that their current situation is not good enough and that action must be taken.

This film won an Academy Award for best cinematography, something that Terrence Malick has mastered in all his films, and was nominated for several others. So in addition to being a film worth watching for its own sake, it can also be used to observe Malick's growth as a filmmaker over the course of four decades. Days of Heaven (1978) is much more similar to Badlands (1973) than it is to The Thin Red Line (1998). Over the course of thirty years, Malick lost his storytelling ability to an extent. Though he covers all the technical bases with precision just the same. His slow moving movies do not have the ability to draw the viewer in as well. Where it was previously designed in such a way that the audience is intrigued despite a relatively uneventful plot, it is slightly boring in his late films. However, Days of Heaven still possesses the charm that turned me on to this writer/director in the first place.

Monday, April 25, 2011

My Beautiful Launderette

The film My Beautiful Launderette portrays the strong problem of cross cutting cleavages in Thatcher Britain. The storyline incorporates several different cleavages and combines them in the same people, mimicking the complexity of real life. These multifaceted individuals show how much tension can exist within a society and how difficult it may be to reach progress. Factors such as history, personal values, and gender play a critical role in having a thorough understanding of such conflicts.
A majority of the characters in the film are of Indian/Pakistani origin. Both countries were once a crown jewel in the vast British empire and thus it was inherent to possess a feeling of superiority by white Britons towards this relatively new ethnic enclave. The characters, such as Omar, Nasser, and Hussein, belong to the upper class in British society, having made a fortune in their adopted country. The white nationalists feel resentment toward this Desi elite. Once the conquered property, these individuals have now surpassed natives in their own society. The Indians own many of the businesses that the whites must now use on a daily basis, such as launderettes. This is not dissimilar to how the Indian subcontinent was run throughout the colonial era. The white nationalists take out their frustration on the Indians in the form of intimidation and violence. The Indians occasionally reciprocate with malice of their own, such as the running over of a white nationalist’s foot. Such tit-for-tat only serves to put salt in the wound. The racial cleavage divides what is essentially old Britain and new Britain. Those that have ancestry on the island nation and those that seek it. At its core, this cleavage is a xenophobic one. The well established mentality of British isolationism is the driving force behind this lack of enthusiasm for integration. Such cleavages may eventually subside, but not without trademark British gradualism.
Historic prejudice is not the only point of tension present in the movie. There is also a cleavage of values. Johnny and Omar are gay lovers, but attempt their best to conceal it from those around them. Johnny hides it from his gang and Omar veils it when he is in the presence of the other Indians, even pretending to show interest in marrying Tania, one of their daughters. When the launderette opens, the pair is having sex in the back room, and quickly decease and make up lies when the door opens. They are never directly persecuted for their sexuality, but it is made clear that they are in conservative company during most of the film. My Beautiful Launderette makes the insinuation that homosexuality, at the time, was such a unitary issue, by the regards of the general public, that it is not even present at a level where most people can see it. It is hidden away, in back rooms, meant only for private enjoyment. There is not wide enough support for it to have legitimate recognition. Race is not something that can be concealed, making confrontation impossible, homosexuality can be concealed. The issue of race is further along in being accepted in British society, homosexuality is still decades behind because of its more ambiguous nature.
While homosexuality may be a more subtle cleavage in the movie, even more muted is the cleavage of gender. Though there is never any risk of violence like the previous two cleavages, women in the film are given a secondary role. Tania is not so important to the storyline as most of the men. Her story is more an additional layer, than something for the audience to focus on. Tania’s great conflict is does not carry the same gravity, she is bored with her life of comfort and wishes to runaway, preferably with Omar, as her early flirtations suggest. However, her struggle is a realistic one. She is often ignored, spends all her time in the home, and is not given the benefit of choosing for herself whom she is to marry. Tania’s character represents a frustration with domestic traditions, those that have forced many women in Britain into part time work with little pay and non-existent benefits. Her act of running away is a sign of things to come in Thatcher Britain and in the years to follow. Women in Britain are fed up with being passive and submissive and will take action. The very notion that this movie takes place while Thatcher is in office adds to the feeling of a tide that will come after the movie ends.
Britain is a complex society with many points of division that My Beautiful Launderette highlights. The film ends in a fashion that leaves audiences unsatisfied, as the director wanted. These issues remain unresolved and there is still much work to be done for the nation to be socially harmonious. Divisions that are relatively new, such as race, and as old as the nation state, like gender, coexist in fragmenting the country. However, if Britons like Johnny and Omar can have such a positive relationship, there is perhaps hope with the newer generations to shape the future of the United Kingdom.

Character Analysis of Big Daddy

Big Daddy creates a powerful presence in Tennessee Williams’ 1955 play. From early in the second act on, he makes his opinion known to the audience. He is a complex character who is conservative in his affinity towards others. For the few that he does love, however, he proves to be a valiant and capable father.
Big Daddy arrives at the plantation home to find Brick drowning in alcoholism and does everything in his power to save him. Several dialogues of over a dozen pages in this play are dedicated to Big Daddy’s father-son talks with Brick. He takes away Brick’s crutch and refuses to give him his much desired drink until Brick admits why he is an alcoholic. He then bargains with him further to explain what he is so disgusted with. He even resorts to criticism to coax his son away from liquor: “You can’t [concentrate] because your brain is soaked with liquor, is that the trouble?” (Williams 110) and “I’ve lived with mendacity. Why can’t you?” (111) He shows his love for Brick, “You I do like for some reason, did always have some real feeling for - affection - respect...You and being a success as a planter is all I ever had any devotion to in my whole life! - and that’s the truth” (111). It is unquestionable that Big Daddy loves Brick and acts in every way possible to make him see the error in his addiction. He wants Brick to be happy and restore order in his life by freeing him of the arrested development. It proves successful when late in the play, Brick proceeds to make love to Maggie for the first time in an extended period. He even repeats his father’s response to a spouse loving him in the closing lines of Act Three, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that was true?” (173) Brick possesses a part of his father that Big Daddy finds pleasing. Brick has a youthful body and was conceived according to plan. Gooper, conversely, no longer has aesthetics and Big Mama’s pregnancy with him forced Big Daddy to marry her. Big Daddy is angry with Gooper for the lack of freedom that he represents, the litter of children, and the domineering wife he is caged within. Maggie is far more submissive than Mae and does not have a child. Such fundamental differences are what make Big Daddy biased among his own sons.
Almost complimentary to his love for Brick is Big Daddy’s dislike for nearly everyone else in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He repeatedly yells at Big Mama. He says things like “You don’t know a goddam thing and you never did” and “I haven’t been able to stand the sight, sound, or smell of that women for forty years now! - even when I laid her” (110). He even accuses her of trying to “take over” for the last three years, of the twenty eight thousand acres and the family. He shows that he does not love Big Mama and the fear and frustration of being terminal brought him to make such accusations. He says that he pretends “to love that son of a bitch of Gooper and his wife Mae and those five same screechers” (110) Gooper acknowledges this by saying that he did not appreciate being treated like he was barely good enough to be spit on since the day Brick was born. Big Daddy even waits until after Margaret lies about being pregnant to have Gooper summon his lawyer to draw up a will. The only blood relative that Big Daddy has patriarchal love for is Brick. Brick showed great potential when he was younger, but tragedy befell him and he lives in a compromised existence in the play. Big Daddy connects with him for this reason. Even more basely, Brick is a child that is crying out for help, a distressful alarm for even apathetic parents. Big Daddy does not care at all for the rest. He was waiting for Brick to turn his life around and bare, hope of, a child because he feels that only Brick is the rightful heir to his fortunes. He will leave little, if anything, for Big Mama or Gooper and Mae. He will likely die in peace now.
Big Daddy claims to have suffered a great deal of loss and mendacity. His partial affection is likely a result of this, as he struggles to save his son with disregard for others in his lineage. Though this may be cruel, he is successful.

Shutter Island

Perhaps Martin Scorsese has a fetish for Leonardo Di Caprio with a Boston accent, seeing as this is the second such film where the two have collaborated. This however, does not take away from the film. Shutter Island is about US Marshall Edward Daniels (Di Caprio) making his way over to Shutter Island, a Boston Harbor island that houses a prison for the criminally insane. People both mentally disturbed and dangerous: wives that cut up their husbands are among the common offenses. The reason the good detective and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) travel to such a place is to investigate the escape of a patient (or “prisoner” as Daniels has the tendency to call them). As the investigation proceeds, it becomes more and more unlikely that this could have happened. There is no trace of escape in the room, there is no place on the island for her to hide without having died, no one even heard an escape attempt, “Its as if she evaporated straight through the walls.” The more insane the investigation becomes, so does Daniels it seems. The film draws us deep into the psyche of past traumas in his life (the liberation of the Dechau concentration camp, the death of his beloved wife, dependency on alcohol before and after the latter). By the end of the movie, we learn that Di Caprio has been living in a delusional, yet complex world, where he plays the hero, but can never catch the villain because he is the villain in reality. For his wife was not killed by the one he believed (Andrew Leitus), it was Daniels himself. Scorsese has once again created a great film. This psychological thriller is looking like an early strong candidate for at least a few 2011 Academy Awards.
Though this is quite an extreme example, Shutter Island highlights what is experienced by delusional people. They have fixed beliefs that, while not bizarre, are definitely false. It is not a serious disorder and is highly treatable if a quality therapist-patient relationship is built. Those diagnosed can lead highly functional lives.