Friday, April 30, 2010

An Allegory

Imagine there exists a company that runs athletic centers all around the world. It's a massive company with influence on fitness throughout the United States and Europe as well as many other countries. Each center runs special fitness programs for children. It's inexpensive, even free in most places, surviving largely on donations. It's a great way for children to feel a part of something, give them something to do after school and on the weekends that is good for their bodies and their emotional development. It gives them the chance to interact in a positive way with other children from different neighborhoods.

A news story breaks that at your local chapter of this athletic company the man running the children's program has been accused by several people of sexually abuse. As the news spreads around the country, other victims start to come forward stating that they too were abused in the children's program at their local chapter. Middle-aged adults begin coming forward stating that it happened to them many years in the past. You see where I'm going with this, right?

Additional news stories break in European countries of the same kind of thing involving the same company. Further investigation reveals that in many cases, the immediate supervisor of the head of the children's program was made aware of the sexual abuse. In most of those cases, the supervisor reported it to the general manager, who passed it on to the area director and it's possible (probable even) that news traveled all the way to the CEO and Board of Directors. In each case, from the top down, the decision was made 1)not to fire the employees engaging in child sexual rape and abuse, 2)not report the crime to the authorities and 3)to keep the scandal under wraps for fear that the bad press would ruin the organization.

In other words, the top management in the company made a decision that the PR of the company was more important than protecting the children. What do you think would be the public reaction to such a story? How would people treat this company? Would people continue to 1)send their children to these programs and 2)go to the centers themselves? Would people continue to donate money to this organization? Would criminal charges be brought against these top managers for failing to report the crime of child sexual abuse and for being complicit in the abuse itself?

Obviously I've created a bit of a thought experiment to parallel the rampant, systemic sex abuse that's been going on (quite possibly for many centuries) in the Catholic Church.

While there is some evidence that church attendance will decline, especially among young Catholics, and that donations will slow, it seems very unlikely that the Church will take a major hit from this. Let's not even discuss the possibility that high-ranking bishops, cardinals or The Holy Father Himself, Pope Nazi I, will ever be charged as criminals.

Incredibly, many people around the world will continue to play an active role in supporting the Church. But the real problem is the vast majority who will play a passive role in support of the Catholic Church. These are the people who aren't strongly involved in the Church, who don't go to weekly mass and who rarely, if ever, donate. These are the people who propagate the Church by baptizing their children, forcing their children through the rigors of Holy Communion and Confirmation, who decide, in spite of these heinous crimes, to get married in the Church.

In fairness the athletic center analogy is not perfect for one crucial reason. I freely admit that I don't know what it feels like to have a personal connection to the Church, or any church for that matter. I can't speak to the deep convictions a devout Catholic has toward the faith. Surely this creates a very different relationship to the Catholic Church as an organization than people would have toward an athletic center. It's this deeply felt connection that makes it so difficult for people to renounce the organization, despite the revelation that it's one which has allowed child sexual abuse to thrive for decades (or more).

Andrew Sullivan has a compelling thesis for why sex abuse scandals among religious organizations seem unique to the Catholic Church and why the celibacy law must be eliminated.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Let's see how many absurd state laws I can pick on this week.

“I like you guys who wanna reduce the size of government – make it just small enough so it can fit in our bedrooms.” Josh Lyman, The West Wing.

Okay, this isn't a 'bedroom' law, but it is a law aimed at legislating a very private issue and what people are thinking.

I'll leave Arizona alone for a moment to focus on Oklahoma, that wonderful land where all women will now be required by law to undergo an ultrasound and hear a description of the fetus before having an abortion. But wait, there's more:
Though other states have passed similar measures requiring women to have ultrasounds, Oklahoma’s law goes further, mandating that a doctor or technician set up the monitor so the woman can see it and describe the heart, limbs and organs of the fetus. No exceptions are made for rape and incest victims.
Let's unpack this, shall we? This is quite simply one of the most patronizing laws ever conceived. This establishes a doctor-patient relationship in which the patient must be treated like a child. It's a form of legalized bullying, a method of guilting women into reconsidering what was most likely a horrendously difficult decision anyway.

And even for rape and incest victims? So a teenage girl who is raped and impregnated by her father and wants nothing more but to be rid of the fetus that was forced upon her by her criminally abhorrent father must first see the ultrasound and be subjected to a lecture on the development of her rape love-child. The miracle of life is a beautiful thing, you see, and it must not be taken for granted.

But wait, there's more:
A second measure passed into law on Tuesday prevents women who have had a disabled baby from suing a doctor for withholding information about birth defects while the child was in the womb.
Brilliant! Now a doctor can voluntarily withhold vital information on the health of an unborn baby without fear of a legal claim against him. Believe it or not, abortion is not the only (nor probably the primary reason) expectant parents want to know about potential birth defects. There is a huge amount of mental and emotional preparation that people go through before raising a baby with Down's Syndrome or a missing limb, for example. To keep this information from the parents-to-be is immoral, unethical and downright disgusting. To protect doctors who choose to withhold such information is the worst kind of zealotry.

But wait, there's soon to be more:
Two other anti-abortion bills are still working their way through the Legislature and are expected to pass. One would force women to fill out a lengthy questionnaire about their reasons for seeking an abortion; statistics based on the answers would then be posted online. The other restricts insurance coverage for the procedures.
Okay, I happen to agree that insurance shouldn't be paying for abortions unless there is a medical emergency and the mother's health is in jeopardy. However, I don't think the law should be denying insurance companies the right to cover abortions if they choose to. I thought part of the Republican platform was about letting business owners do what they want. But a questionnaire that women will be required to complete before having an abortion? Again, this is legalized browbeating and a bullying tactic.

What all these measures ultimately point to is a desire to legislate what's in women's heads when they have an abortion. Because abortion is legal the Oklahoma State Legislature can't ban it so instead they pass laws designed to make particular types of thought into crime. Basically they're forcing women to have abortions for the 'right' reasons. They don't like that some people would choose to abort a baby with a birth defect. They can't make it illegal. So they find a way to keep that knowledge from the woman. The questionnaire under consideration is another tactic to regulate what women are thinking and their reasons for having an abortion. You know what? Abortion is legal. That's it, until the Supreme Court overrules a 37 year old decision. This would be akin to enacting a law that prevents a couple from adopting unless they have some proscribed set of criteria in mind when they do it. It's not unlike hate crimes legislation, which also makes thought into crime. Incidentally (and ironically) most Republicans are against hate crimes legislation.

What's in a woman's head when she has an abortion is no one's God-damned business.

Draconian Measures to Solve the Immigration Problem

The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan highlights this lovely quote from Pat Bertroche, Republican Congressional Candidate in the Iowa 3rd:
I think we should catch ’em, we should document ’em, make sure we know where they are and where they are going,” said Pat Bertroche, an Urbandale physician. “I actually support microchipping them. I can microchip my dog so I can find it. Why can’t I microchip an illegal?
Jesus Christ! Can he not even mask his view of illegal immigrants as sub-human? This is only a small step removed from the loons on the right who believe that allowing same-sex marriage will open the doors to allowing people to marry their pets, their children, their siblings.

You know the Nazis had a really great way of tracking people in custody - numerical tattoos! There are still quite a few Jews alive with those numbers on their arms. The only reason the Nazis didn't use microchips was because they hadn't been invented yet. Does this guy not realize what he's proposing?

Sullivan links back to this piece in the Iowa Independent gets into what the other Republican primary candidates said at the same event. For example, State Senator Brad Zaun claims that illegals use up government services such as education while not paying for any of those services. The Independent article helpfully breaks down the numbers to reveal that an undocumented family typically winds up paying about 80% of the total tax contribution of a documented family of comparable income. This comes in the form of sales tax and property tax. Not to mention the cost of not allowing illegal immigrants' children access to public education will simply perpetuate their existence as menial labor. If their children have access to education (as they should because every child has the right to a free education in our country) then maybe they'll grow up to contribute more to the economy than their parents.

Anyway, does Iowa really have such a huge population of illegal immigrants? Not really. According a report by the Pew Hispanic Center, estimates put it somewhere between 2 and 3 percent of the total population which is in the bottom half of all 50 states. Compare that to California's 5%, 5.6% in Texas, 4.5% in FL, 3.33% in NY and a whopping 7.5% in Arizona (but not for long after their new immigration law).

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Secret in Their Eyes Movie Review: Love Comes in many Forms, but the Eyes Hold the Secret

It’s somewhat crucial to understanding The Secret in Their Eyes to know that the original Spanish title, El secreto de sus ojos simultaneously conveys the sense of ‘their eyes’ and ‘his eyes’. The English title is the best possible choice because superficially the original refers to several characters, but we are also meant to take it to refer to three separate individuals and their own private unrequited love.

First and foremost is Gómez (Javier Godino), the prime suspect in the brutal rape and murder of Liliana Colotto. The investigator working the case first spots him in a class photograph of the victim in which Gómez is looking directly at her. Second is Benjamín Esposito (famed Argentine actor Ricardo Darín), the investigator, now retired, looking back on the case twenty-five years after the fact. He is trying to write a novel based on the gruesome crime and in so doing he reconnects with Irene Hastings (Soledad Villamil), his former boss in the Justice Department. As Benjamín and Irene look through old photos, we see a similar look from Benjamín toward Irene.

Don't Talk to Aliens (No, this isn't about Arizona)

Stephen Hawking warns that humanity shouldn't be so keen on making contact with extra-terrestrials. Mathematically speaking, it is highly likely there are other planets in the universe that have life and some of those with intelligent life. His argument is basically that there is a possibility that any intelligent life out there may not have benevolent intentions toward us. And if they have the capability to reach us, they most certainly have the capability to destroy or enslave us.

He points to Columbus's discovery of the Americas (which is only one such example) as evidence of what happens when an advanced civilization makes contact with a more primitive one - almost complete annihilation of its people, reaping the benefits of the abundant natural resources available. It's a somewhat reasonable assumption to make, except in thinking about how we would treat a planet of sentient beings after traveling there. It's hard to imagine humanity getting away with the wholesale slaughter and destruction of an alien civilization on the order of the European destruction of American Indians.

We have evolved beyond those kinds of attitudes, most people would agree. Although, those primitive cultures (and the prejudice is evident in the use of that word 'primitive') in the history of our planet were largely considered inferior and perhaps even less than human thus alleviating the people of guilt. Suppose we traveled to a distant planet that had life, but only in the form of microbes and small animals. Would we have any misgivings about strip mining such a planet for resources? Doubtful. Oh, the hippies and environmentalists would be loudly outspoken about it, to be sure, but in the end common sense would win.

Up the ante a bit. Suppose we discovered a planet populated by animals with an intelligence roughly on the order of the great apes, but still nothing approaching the intelligence and ingenuity of homo-sapiens. I'd still be willing to bet we'd have little problem taking what we wanted from such a planet.

Upon finding living beings capable of some form of clear communication, use of tools and possibly technological developments, I find it hard to believe we would act as the Europeans did toward the Indians. It seems logical to assume that any society that has achieved the ability to travel to distant planets (namely ours) has also evolved a higher sense of moral order and would not be coming here for nefarious purposes.

But then we come back to how we would treat a hypothetical planet populated by nothing more intelligent than the average chimp. What if the alien life that makes contact with us, travels to our planet, is advanced so far beyond what we are capable not only of doing, but of understanding? What if, to them, we are nothing more than chimps? Would they not have few reservations about kidnapping us and using us as test subjects and then taking what they want from our planet?

Yeah, Hawking may be right. Let's just sit quietly in our little corner of the universe and hope no one notices us.

Monday, April 26, 2010

New Arizona Immigration Law a Disgrace to the Constitution (Part II)

The commentary on the new Arizona anti-brown people law is starting to come in. The New York Times has an article highlighting the divided opinions on the measures which includes this choice bit, which, incredibly enough, doesn't come from The Onion:
In a nearby neighborhood, Ron White, 52, said he felt a sense of relief that something was finally being done about “the illegals” — whom he blames for ills like congregating on the streets, breaking into homes in his neighborhood, draining tax dollars and taking jobs from Americans.

“I sure hope it does have an effect,” Mr. White said of the new law as he packed his car with groceries. “I wouldn’t want to show proof of citizenship, but I also don’t feel it is racial profiling. You are going to look different if you are an alien, and cops know.”
Yes, that's true. If you're an alien, you might look something like this and the cops will definitely know who you are. Doesn't the opinion of this Ron White seem to underscore the fact that it's really not about wanting illegal immigrants out, but basically everyone who came from south of the border?

Meanwhile, John Judis in The New Republic points out some interesting facts and statistics indicating that during The Great Depression many states began arresting and deporting Mexicans despite a near stand-still in Mexican immigration to the US. Furthermore, the Arizona bill arrives at a point when immigration is at a low most likely due to the recession:
The recession has sharply curtailed illegal immigration to the United States. According to Princeton political scientist Douglas Massey, the number of undocumented residents in the United States peaked at 12.6 million in 2008 and fell to 10.8 million in 2009. Nowhere did it fall more sharply than in Arizona, where the number of illegal immigrants dropped by 100,000 over the last year. But Republicans in Arizona are acting as if illegal immigrants are pouring across the border and must be stopped by any means necessary.
Finally there's The Atlantic's James Fallows who likens the situation to Communist China, where he lived and where it is also a requirement for all people to carry documentation. He notes, as a small sign of hope, that he rarely encountered officials asking for ID on a whim. But he provides nothing short of a stinging ironic indictment of how the Arizona law enforcement will have to learn the proper techniques:
With some notable and serious exceptions, I typically did not see Chinese police asking for papers on a whim. Usually something had to happen first. Maybe soon the Chinese State Security apparatus can travel to Arizona and give lectures to local police and sheriffs. They can explain how to avoid going crazy with a new power that so invites abuse. "Civil Liberties: Learning from China" can be the name of the course.
I have spent four years living as an illegal immigrant in a foreign country. This happens to be a country where it is required to always carry identification documents. I accepted long ago that if I were ever caught and deported then that's my tough luck for being here illegally. I wouldn't want anyone to feel I was wronged. However, it's important to recognize the main reason I've never been caught, including when leaving and re-entering the country. I've been incredibly lucky not because I've never been stopped, but because I'm a white man whom the police are unlikely to ever find reason to stop.

I have, on occasion, seen Latin Americans presenting ID to police. Granted, I have no way of knowing the circumstances in those instances. Although the last time involved a line of about 7 or 8 young men in a park presenting papers one by one. Nothing about the scene struck me as if there'd been any crime committed other than perhaps drinking in public (which is done by virtually everyone here, especially in parks).

My very strong feeling is that you can't maintain a free society in which citizens are required to carry proof of identification. The Arizona law runs deeper than the wrongs that will likely be perpetrated against people with dark skin. A human being is not some object in need of being catalogued and tracked by the government. This is a freedom the people should not be so willing to give up.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Hollywood Scripts Can't Save Themselves

One of Hollywood's dirty little secrets is that studios frequently turn to so-called script doctors to do last minute polishing on screenplays. Quentin Tarantino has been known to add his personal touch to films and John Sayles (perhaps one of the only true independent filmmakers) often does it to earn money to finance his own films.

As this article in Variety points out, the top level Hollywood script doctors can earn as much as $300,000 a week. This sounds outrageous at first until you read further into the article and find that this doesn't mean the writer comes in for a week or two and is then finished. They're basically on call until the product is completely finished. And these writers want to keep getting these gigs so they take those calls.

Still, it's incredible to me that studios will shell out that kind of money to do touch up work on their films. Okay, when the total budget of the film is $30M (on the low end) then a quarter million isn't really that much. But as a critic (and one who is more tired every year of terrible Hollywood screenplays) I wonder how they can justify spending that kind of money and still have the end result be that the script is consistently the worst element of a Hollywood movie.

Think about this for a moment. Hollywood movies are by far the best in the world in terms of sheer production value. There is no national cinema anywhere in the world that can consistently match Hollywood for costume design, art direction, location shooting, cinematography, musical scores, editing, sound mixing, visual effects - all the technical aspects of filmmaking are 100% top notch in Hollywood (when they put the effort in). Don't get me wrong, there are wonderful films from virtually every country in the world, but you can always tell that the talent and money is not thrown into production design and technical prowess. Directing and acting are both frequently just as good anywhere you turn.

So given Hollywood's ability to turn out wonderfully crafted product, why the hell is the writing almost always mediocre at best and dreadful at worst. I'm not even talking story writing here (although that is frequently garbage in the big studio pictures) but just simple dialogue writing. If a studio is putting loads of money into the development of a script, then the actual writing of the script, then shooting the script and then finally paying $300K a week for a top writer to do touch up work, why can't I walk into a Hollywood movie without hearing contrivance after cliche upon hokey sentimentality and wisdom?

The Variety article hints at the possibility that with so many people getting their hands on a screenplay, it loses its unique voice. You end up with a mishmash of styles. That hardly ever seems the problem to me. Seriously, take another look at 2012 and just listen to the dialogue. Ask yourself if you can really imagine anyone speaking the way those characters speak.

I can write clunky wooden dialogue. Why won't someone pay me that kind of money? Oh, because unlike Akiva Goldsman (Academy Award winner for A Beautiful Mind, but not for Batman & Robin), I've never won an Oscar.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

List: Top Ten Palme d'Or Winners

The Cannes Film Festival is always an exciting time for seeing what's on the world cinema docket for the coming year. This year's festival is a few weeks away and the lineup is set. In addition to new films from Cannes regulars Mike Leigh (Palme d'Or 1996 for Secrets and Lies; Best Director 1993 for Naked), Abbas Kiarostami (Palme d'Or 1997 for Taste of Cherry) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Best Director 2006 for Babel) there is a sequel to Nikita Mikhalkov's Burnt by the Sun (1994 Grand Prix winner), a new film from Doug Liman based on the memoir of Valerie Plame.

Burnt by the Sun 2 picks up the story of Col. Kotov several years after his execution (he was never executed on screen, but a post-script revealed he'd been shot) as a soldier in Stalin's army fighting back the Nazis in WWII.

Liman's Fair Game stars Naomi Watts as Plame, the former CIA operative, whose identity was revealed by Washington Post reporter Robert Novak, and Sean Penn as her husband Joseph Wilson who claims the Bush administration leaked her identity in order to discredit him after he criticized the Iraq invasion. Liman had a promising start to his career with his hilarious debut Swingers followed up by the Pulp Fiction-for-kids Go and then the first in the Bourne trilogy. After that he started a two-film downward spiral that culminated in the horrifically received (16% on the Tomato Meter) Jumper. I don't imagine his new film will be much more than standard Hollywood boilerplate conspiracy theory. And that Liman has established himself as a premiere action director, I would expect this new film to have several unnecessary action sequences thrown in for good measure. Don't look for any awards to be handed to this film.

As for the rest of the line up, I have no idea. It's virtually impossible to make any kind of prediction about the festival until it kicks off and we hear what critics, producers, executives and attendees are saying.

So with that in mind, I decided to throw together a list. I promised lists at the beginning and I haven't delivered any yet. Well I looked over the list of Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or winners and selected what I think are the 10 best, listed below alphabetically. In so doing I discovered how deficient my knowledge of foreign films is. I've really only seen about half the big winners of the last 60 years. Hopefully I will correct that one day and revise this list to reflect it.

4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days (2007) dir. Cristian Mungiu - The herald of a New Romanian Cinema. This is a harrowing story of a young woman who enlists the help of a close friend to obtain an illegal abortion during Ceausescu's reign.
Barton Fink (1991) dir. Joel and Ethan Coen - Possibly the Coens' best film. It's certainly the darkest. About a New York playwright who tries his hand at Hollywood screenwriting on the eve of WWII.
Blow-Up (1967) dir. Michelangelo Antonioni - A brilliant comment on the truth and nature of photography, especially as it is delivered in the medium of motion pictures. A photographer thinks he's photographed a murder, but the blown up photo isn't clear enough to reveal truth while his own investigation fails to turn up evidence outside his own observation.
The Conversation (1974) dir. Francis Ford Coppola - Brilliant filmmaking in this exploration of paranoia in a post-Watergate America.
MASH (1970) dir. Robert Altman - Hilarious anti-war satire set during the Korean War but ostensibly a commentary on Vietnam.
The Mission (1986) dir. Roland Joffe - A Spanish slave trader in colonial South America does penance and slowly converts to the Jesuit order to help bring Christianity to the native people. This is one of the best films you've probably never seen.
Paris, Texas (1984) dir. Wim Wenders - A man is found wandering in the desert and brought to his brother. He can't make peace with himself until he finds his ex-wife and asks her forgiveness for his past treatment of her.
Pulp Fiction (1994) dir. Quentin Tarantino - Surely you know this one.
Taxi Driver (1976) dir. Martin Scorsese - Vietnam veteran Travis Bickle goes a little funny in the head trying to clean up the streets of New York.
The Third Man (1949) dir. Carol Reed - In a divided post-WWII Vienna, Harry Lime has been killed just before his close friend arrives from America. It turns out Harry has been involved in a black market trade of penicillin that has left many children horribly disfigured. One of the best of the original films noirs.

Friday, April 23, 2010

New Arizona Immigration Law a Disgrace to the Constitution

This has been expected for some time now, but Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona has just signed into law an immigration bill that, among other things, will make it a legal requirement for all immigrants to carry their documentation and give law enforcement broad power to enforce it.

The crux of the bill relates to employment, trafficking and transportation of illegal immigrants. But the provision (the first section of the bill) that has a lot of people in a tizzy (including President Obama) is the new power bestowed upon the police.

Not to worry, however. Governor Brewer is aware of the potential for abuse of power:
She said that racial profiling would not be tolerated, adding, “We have to trust our law enforcement.”
She completely misses the point of how authoritarianism is born. The idea of a free society is that the people have inalienable rights that are neither granted them nor controlled by the government. These rights belong to the people. We trust law enforcement because we the people have the power. When you give too much power to the police, the door to distrust is thrust open and somewhere the power will be abused.

Here's another bit that caught my attention:
It requires police officers “when practicable” to detain people they reasonably suspect are in the country without authorization and to verify their status with federal officials, unless doing so would hinder an investigation or emergency medical treatment.
This is giving way too much wiggle room to law enforcement, it seems to me. What is a reasonable suspicion that someone is in the country illegally? How many legal and documented immigrants (not to mention both naturalized AND natural born citizens) do you think will be asked for "zeir papuhz pleaz"? I'm no friend to the Catholic Church at the moment, so you know something's amiss when I'm in perfect agreement with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

I know what people like my Dad would say: "If you're not doing anything wrong you've got nothing to hide." A very easy thing for a white man to say when he'll never have to put up with the kind of police harassment that is sure to be reported when this law takes effect later this year. What happens to citizens who aren't required to carry ID, yet "look like" immigrants? Will those people, unable to cough up a birth certificate or US passport on demand be detained and held in county jail until such documents can be produced?

Surely it's no accident that this piece of legislation was signed into law on Trash Day, a day when unpopular news gets dumped so fewer people will pay attention.

I'm not hyperventilating about this law. I have full confidence that it will be swiftly challenged and struck down in court. But I do think it's worth paying attention to and recognizing that the kind of thinking that completely misunderstands the Constitution and would seek to undermine it for personal gain continues to pervade. Don't travel to Arizona as long as this law is on the books. Don't give them the satisfaction of your tourist dollars.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

A Courageous and Bold Undertaking in Band of Brothers

The Onion A.V. Club has a regular feature I often enjoy called “Better Late Than Never” in which one of their pop culture correspondents takes a first look at a past-dated film, TV show, game, book, etc. through the prism of history that comes with it.

In that spirit I recently watched the 10 hour HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, which first aired in late 2001. I remember that it was a highly anticipated event, coming on the heels of the enormous success of Saving Private Ryan and produced by the director and star of that film, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. Somehow I never watched an episode (although in watching the series now there was one scene that was familiar to me, recalled from my days of channel-surfing no doubt) despite the critical and popular raves it got at the time.

I can’t quite remember what it was this year that prompted me to seek it out. Perhaps it was hearing about the new HBO series The Pacific which will focus on the war against Japan in the Pacific as opposed to the European theater that is gloriously rendered in Brothers.

My assumption in approaching this saga was that it would be more akin to SPR in terms of the kind of gung-ho bravura, small band of simple soldiers against the whole German army which was the focus of that previous project. What I discovered instead was a thoughtful and poignant study of a single company of elite paratroopers that follows their exploits from basic training at Camp Taccoa, Georgia, through their field training in England, the jump behind enemy lines on D-Day, their near defeat in the Battle of the Bulge, finally ending with their arrival in Berchtesgaden – Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest hideaway in Bavaria.

What I didn’t know about this series, based on the Stephen Ambrose book of the same name, was that it was culled from first-hand accounts of what happened and that the characters in the show are all based on the real men of Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment in the 101st Airborne. Each episode opens (save the last, which closes the episode) with WWII veterans talking about the experience. It turns out that these men are the real life veterans of Easy Company portrayed on screen. It must have been a tremendous and daunting undertaking to turn this real life story into a piece of entertainment to be consumed by the public, but a remarkable job was done by all the screenwriters and directors involved to keep the story honest without pumping it up full of Hollywood clichés.

The most impressive aspect of the series is what the writers leave unsaid. There is nary any pontificating on the meaning of war, responsibility, love of country and honor in serving. No one ever discusses the horrors of the battle experience except to put replacement soldiers or those returning from the hospital and have missed out on combat in their place.

Above all I would say the show exhibits grace, both in its depiction of war in general (it rarely flinches from the nightmarish horror of combat) and of its characters. At the end of the first episode, “Currahee”, as the boys are preparing to load into the planes to jump behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied France, there are no grand speeches made, there is no talk about what they might encounter when they land. This kind of quiet reflection defines the entire series providing it with verisimilitude.

The first combat sequence arrives in episode 2, “Day of Days”, which sees the 101st Airborne jumping into Normandy to help clear the way inland for the units preparing to storm Omaha and Utah Beaches. This sequence is unbelievably chaotic and gives a sense of the sheer magnitude of the D-Day operation. These were the first guys into that war, landing in enemy territory and surrounded by Germans on all sides. Not to mention that the planes they were flying in were taking copious amounts of anti-aircraft fire from coming in so low and the paratroopers had to take small arms fire while floating toward the ground defenseless. When you consider the opening landing sequence of Private Ryan in concert with the Airborne assault you realize what a miracle of strategy and execution D-Day truly was.

The central character in the series is Richard Winters (Damian Lewis), who starts as a platoon leader, becomes Company commander after the death of Lt. Meehan on D-Day and is later promoted to Battalion XO. His role as the man who ties the stories together is only one example of the many troops who invaded Europe and later episodes take the time to focus on other soldiers. This is reflected at the close of the first episode as Lt. Winters peers out the jump door of his C-47 transport plane and the camera zooms out and pans to reveal the dozens of other planes and ships below about to embark on the great invasion – a great visual representation of one man lost in a sea of a military expedition. We are left at once attached to a single character while being awed by the scope of the operation.

Winters is the very model of a great commander. He is not only a skilled combat leader, having earned the Distinguished Service Cross for leading an assault on a German artillery position in Normandy, but also a compassionate leader, always knowing when a soldier needs a short break or a hot meal to restore his energy and confidence. Episode 5, “Crossroads”, (directed by Tom Hanks) focuses on him and his leadership. It is perhaps the most introspective episode, but solely relying on the performance of Damian Lewis, the way the camera shows us his perspective on the aftermath of a skirmish and a narrative device that has Winters reflecting on the events while typing his report.

Winters stands in stark contrast to the Company’s first commander, Herbert Sobel (David Schwimmer), who is something of a tyrant during basic training and their stint in England. The casting of Schwimmer in the role of a belligerent nitpicking commander seems at first an odd choice until he is revealed to be nervous before a practice jump, and later jumpy and borderline incompetent in the field. He instills no confidence in his men, all of whom volunteered for the paratroopers specifically to fight alongside the best rather than an untrustworthy draftee. Schwimmer brings a history of playing the nebbish and socially awkward Ross Geller on “Friends” which makes it easier to accept him as a leader grossly overcompensating for a lack of courage and nerve.

One of the great things about this series is the way it focuses on the relationships these men forged which was itself a rather unique set of circumstances. The soldiers went through basic training together as a unit unlike other military units comprised of members who trained separately and were brought together in the field of battle or just before. Easy Company not only had two years together before D-Day, but sat on the front lines of some of the most harrowing fighting in northern Europe between June 1944 and April 1945.

If I have one complaint about the series, it is that it is very difficult to tell the difference between the soldiers early on. There are those characters who get more screen time early on and you very easily identify with, for example Lt. Winters and Sgt. Bill Guarnere (Frank John Hughes) as well as those played by recognizable actors, such as Capt. Lewis Nixon (Ron Livingston), Sgt. Malarkey (Scott Grimes) and Sgt. Carwood Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg). But as far as matching names and faces of other characters, it doesn’t really start to come together for many of them until about halfway through. This makes it difficult to connect during one of the big emotional climaxes of the Battle of the Bulge when Joe Toye (Kirk Acevedo) loses his leg to artillery fire and his good friend Bill Guarnere loses his own leg trying to drag him to a foxhole. For me, Toye was a brand new character in that episode (although Guarnere was well-known to me given his distinctive Philly accent), but looking back on the early episodes a second time I discovered that Toye was always there. However, by the end of the series there are several recognizable characters who you can easily identify with, bringing the long arduous ordeal to a satisfying, if rather sad, conclusion.

The series reaches its emotional pinnacle in episode 9, “Why We Fight”, when a patrol squad stumbles across a concentration camp. The men bear witness to the atrocities committed by the Nazis, heretofore unknown to the average foot soldier. They find hundreds of prisoners wandering about the camp, starved and near death. The shock registers on all their faces as they begin to understand what the war has really been about, even if no one comes out and says it. David Frankel, the director of this episode, allows the power of the images to convey the message. Some prisoners wander past the soldiers in a daze, others hug them with all their might, eternally grateful that someone has finally come to their rescue.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Flower of My Secret Movie Review: Almodóvar Turns a Corner

Seeing as how I’ve lived in Spain for some 4 years now I thought it time I take a look at a Pedro Almodóvar film that I never got around to seeing. The Flower of My Secret (La flor de mi secreto) marks Almodóvar’s shift from his comic beginnings to the more serious drama he’s now so well known for. However, the film has its share of great comic moments including a mother-daughter relationship at once frightening and hysterical.

As usual, the typical Almodóvar flourishes are there: the abundant use of bright reds and blues; the 1950s style Hollywood melodrama; riffs on the meaning of identity; use of reflective surfaces within the frame; strong female protagonists. This film arrives at a point in his career where Almodóvar was going through a new learning process as he transitioned to more dramatic narratives. And you can often see the machinations at work in this film.

The story centers on Leo (Marisa Paredes), a middle-aged woman whose military husband, Paco, is stationed in far-off Brussels. Although they are seemingly like teenage lovebirds on the phone, there are underlying problems that surface quite quickly when they see each other. Leo, who makes lucrative living secretly writing trashy romance novels under the pseudonym Amanda Gris, is no longer satisfied with her life such as it is. She hates the trash she writes and takes a job writing a literary column under a second pen name in order to tear apart her previous work. It is through this new job she meets the affable editor of the newspaper El País, who has an immediate attraction to her even if she still can’t let go Paco, who is finished with her. Meanwhile her sister and her mother, who is slowly going blind, live together under circumstances that could charitably be described as ‘difficult’ and her best friend, Betty (Carme Elias), is carrying on a secret affair with Paco.

You can really see Almodóvar developing the themes that would come to dominate his next films, although at this early stage he was still a bit ham-handed about it. Leo’s dissatisfaction with her current life, itself already divided into two identities (Leo and Amanda), manifests itself by bringing out a third identity through which to criticize the second. The fascination with identity and character as well as the blurred lines between fiction and reality are interesting and worth exploring, but he doesn’t take it far enough in this earlier work. What’s more, he overuses mirrors as a symbolic image both in terms of reflecting a character’s image (identity) back at her or by diffusing the image through a pane of glass so she appears separated into multiple images. These themes eventually came to fruition in his most recent work Broken Embraces (Abrazos rotos).

Another theme that would become the focus of his later film Volver (and interestingly enough, Leo describes the storyline for one of her books as identical to that of Volver) is the power and image of the pueblo, or village, in Spanish culture. Most Spaniards are not far removed from the villages where they were born and raised and continue to return frequently (in some cases every weekend). For Almodóvar in The Flower of My Secret, the pueblo has a kind of restorative effect, a place to relax and to heal. It’s the place where Leo’s mother wants to return as her blindness grows worse. This idea would develop more fully into the sort of magical realism exhibited by the pueblo in Volver.

The Flower of My Secret is not the best example of Almodóvar’s work nor is it fully realized, but it’s a lighter place to start for the uninitiated or perhaps a breath of fresh air after his recent films of such deep weight.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Alice in Wonderland Movie Review: Tim Burton's Hit and Miss streak Continues with Another Dud

I should admit up front that somehow I’ve managed to get through more than 30 years of life without ever having seen any adaptation of or read either of Lewis Carroll’s books Alices Adventures in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass, both of which provide the source material for Tim Burton’s latest, Alice in Wonderland. A little bit of nosing around the Internet led me to discover that both books generally form the basis for most iterations of the story, that they are deemed members of the genre of literary nonsense, and that Burton wanted to imbue the story with a narrative thread that would make it easier to connect with Alice and other characters.

That’s all well and good, but somehow Burton has directed a film completely absent any sense of joy or wonder, the latter of which I would say is a necessary component to a story entitled Alice in Wonderland. The screenplay (competently written by Linda Woolverton) seems to be capitalizing on the previous decade’s fascination with fantasy/adventure stories featuring a Chosen One tasked to save the world (a trend started by The Lord of the Rings). Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is prophesied to wield the sword of destiny (or some such hooey) to kill the dreaded Jabberwocky (voiced all too briefly by Christopher Lee) in order to save Underland (turns out Alice misunderstood the name once upon a time) from the clutches of the Red Queen.

One of the major changes to the original stories is the much expanded role of the Mad Hatter, which gives Johnny Depp the space to create yet another bizarre character to add to his growing pantheon. He does a fine job, switching emotions and vocal characterizations at the drop of a hat (ha ha!) to illuminate the sheer insanity of the character. However, the real centerpiece of acting is Helena Bonham Carter, perhaps by virtue of the fact that there’s so much to relish in the character of the Red Queen. Every time she shouts, “Off with the head!” she seems to find a new way to express the joy she feels at her power and the frustration at being nothing more than a feared tyrant. Crispin Glover also makes a notable appearance as the Red Queen’s dastardly and obedient enforcer.

In an attempt to provide pathos to the narrative and a protagonist we care about, the story opens with six-year-old Alice waking in the night to another bad dream featuring a white rabbit and blue caterpillar. Her loving father indulges these fantasies and helps her return to restful slumber. Flash forward 13 years. Alice’s father is dead, and her mother has all but arranged her marriage to a sniveling bore of a creature. And in case you didn’t pick up on Alice’s predominant character trait during the intro, Woolverton’s script hammers the point home with as much nuance as a sledgehammer to the skull: Alice refuses to wear a corset and stockings; during a staid dance routine she bumps into others because she was contemplating the clouds; she is too distracted by a rabbit in the garden to pay attention to a lecture from her future mother-in-law. Do you get it? Alice is a dreamer NOT MEANT FOR THIS WORLD of stuffy British attitudes and rules.

Perhaps the story will enthrall you in ways it failed to for me. That being the case, I will turn my attention to what I believe is the film’s most glaring misstep which is the visual scheme. Burton has always been a master at creating an on-screen feast for the eyes and he certainly earns his pay in that respect here. But his overreliance on CG effects to create about 75 percent of what you see is the biggest failure. Much of the effects work looks cheap. There is nothing here on the level of what Peter Jackson achieved with The Lord of the Rings or King Kong or James Cameron with Avatar.

With the exception of Alice and the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), incidentally the least interesting characters in the film, everything that moves is at least partially altered by CGI. This includes the Mad Hatter whose eyes have been enlarged and Glover’s legs have been abnormally stretched to make Stayne taller, giving him an unnatural gait as he walks and mounts his horse. With so much CG on the screen I’m left asking myself why the film wasn’t simply made as an animated film. The answer is perhaps because Disney (which financed and distributed the film) has been there and done that. But if it had been made as a CG animated film, which is essentially what it is anyway with a few live actors thrown in for good measure, or even better as stop-motion it might have been much better. Imagine what this film could have been given the gothic vision Burton brought to A Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride.

As it is the CG characters are not meant to be animated as far as the story is concerned, in the sense of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but to replace the difficult to render physical characters. But then we end up with a muddled mash of animation that doesn’t look real and live actors interacting with things I kept recognizing were not actually there on set.

I must say that the one exception is the Red Queen, who I think has a great look to her. With her oversized head and small body she’s been made to resemble a toddler – a perfect fit for her petulant personality. And the effects rendered on Carter don’t distract from the performance or the character, but rather enhance it, unlike most of the others.

Burton might be better off sticking with what he has always been quite successful at in the past: traditional effects used in more original stories that allow him the freedom to impress his unique vision onto the story. I’m thinking of films like Big Fish and Edward Scissorhands. His least successful films (from this critical standpoint) have been those drawn from established works of fiction such as Charlie and the Cocolate Factory, Planet of the Apes and this newest offering. When you see this white rabbit disappear, I advise you not to follow it down the hole.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Ajami Movie Review: Urban Drama Set in a Faraway Land

Obviously some movies require more concentration than others. Anytime you’re dealing with a foreign language and the need to read subtitles while also taking in the moving images (hence the word ‘movie’) on the screen your concentration level must already be on full alert.

Then we have the Israeli film Ajami, nominated earlier this year for the Foreign Language Film Academy Award, which draws its title from its setting – a religiously mixed neighborhood of Jaffa populated by Jews and Arab Muslims and Christians. Unless you’re intimately familiar with the metropolis of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, you will have your work cut out for you in working out the subtleties of the film. Add to that the film’s disjointed narrative, broken up into 5 chapters which don’t necessarily occur in a linear timeline, each section focusing on a different protagonist and building upon and enlightening the previous entries and you have a recipe for disaster.

This is meant as a warning, not as a criticism, although the film’s structure is somewhat faulty. Think about all the films set in LA or New York that demand a certain geographic knowledge of the city. Ajami not only demands that of its viewers but also an understanding of the tense sociopolitical underpinnings of the region. The story is understandable without such knowledge, but your appreciation would be enriched by it.

One example is a subplot involving one character, an Arab Muslim, in a clandestine relationship with a girl. I did not know until late in the film, when her father says it explicitly, that she and her family are Arab Christians. Surely someone familiar with the particulars would have picked up on that detail, unless it was the intent of the filmmakers to keep it hidden.

But what of the social aspects of the film? It was co-written and directed by Scandar Copti (an Arab Israeli) and Yaron Shani (a Jewish Israeli) so to some extent we, as outsiders, have to trust that they’ve done their best to present a balanced view of life in the Ajami neighborhood.

The film opens with the murder of a 15 year old boy in the street, the victim of mistaken identity by the local mafia who had intended to continue a blood libel by killing the eldest nephew, Omar, of a local business owner who shot one of the mafia. Omar’s younger brother Nasri narrates the opening, saying he had a feeling some weeks earlier that something bad was going to happen. I’ll tell you up front that this is not the only bad thing that happens.

Omar works out a truce which gives him 3 weeks to come up with an amount of money he can’t raise without doing something illegal. If he doesn’t pay, both Nasri and his mother will be in danger. If they run, they’ll be found.

Subsequent chapters follow Malek, a teenager kept in hiding in Tel Aviv as he works illegally; Binj (played by Copti), a friend of Malek and Omar; and Dando, a Jewish police officer searching for his brother, a soldier gone missing; Malek’s mother requires an expensive medical procedure to avoid death. So already in the second chapter you can see the groundwork being laid for Omar and Malek to join together because, after all, necessity is the mother of invention.

Although several stories are told in the separate chapters, Omar is really the main character. He is introduced in the first and the biggest moment of dramatic impact in the film, which comes at the end, is directly related to him. One of the unifying themes of each story is that of family and of brothers, in particular. The blood libel against all members of Omar’s family sets his story in motion. He is protective of his mother and Nasri, who fears for his older brother’s safety. Malek betrays the man who employs and hides him in order to help his mother. Dando is motivated by the search for his missing brother and then revenge for his ultimate fate. Banj’s fate is sealed in some part by the unfortunate actions of his brother, who has a late-night altercation with a Jewish neighbor that ends in bloodshed. Despite the differences in religion and upbringing, family remains the tie that binds.

The trivia listing at IMDb notes that the dialogue was improvised. I have no trouble believing that as the whole film has a kind of documentary feel to it. There are a lot of handheld shots and the camera stays close and intimate with the characters. Wide shots and cross cutting are rare. As for the dialogue, I was sure in some early scenes that the actors were stepping on each others’ lines. Now I know why. It adds a very natural and unpolished feel to what is supposed to be a gritty street drama.

The film’s biggest flaw, however, is its structure. Each chapter layers itself onto the others. We glean more information about the previous chapters as the current one unfolds. Each chapter contains some event we don’t fully understand which is then explained in the subsequent chapters. This has some dramatic effect in that we’re often left wondering why something has happened or why a character has made what seems a very bizarre decision. You carry that tension with you through the next twenty minutes or so until the reason is revealed. This keeps the audience primed and nervous with anticipation.

After the film was finished I kept asking myself if it would work as well with a linear narrative. My suspicion is that, although it would fundamentally change the way the tension in the narrative plays out, we would have a film that still gets the same message across while being a lot less confounding. That’s a difficult question to answer with certainty with just one viewing, but it wasn’t quite good enough to warrant a second.

Downloading, Piracy and Me

The Atlantic’s Megan McArdle has a piece on entertainment piracy primarily focused on the music industry. While the specifics of what she has to say with regard to that specific business enterprise, I’m more interested in the topic at large and specifically how it relates to and affects the film industry.

The various entertainment corporations, in their feeble attempts to limit the amount of file-sharing and piracy that occurs, have repeatedly ignored, to detrimental effect, an important aspect of the psychology of downloading. McArdle hits on it:

Reflecting on this problem, the computational neuroscientist Anders Sandberg recently noted that although we have strong instinctive feelings about ownership, intellectual property doesn’t always fit into that framework. The harm done by individual acts of piracy is too small and too abstract. “The nature of intellectual property,” he wrote, “makes it hard to maintain the social and empathic constraints that keep us from taking each other’s things.”

I find this to be a compelling insight. It’s very difficult to see something as property you are unlawfully stealing when it’s completely divorced from its physical presence. This is the main problem with those absurd warnings at the start of most DVDs which say, “You wouldn’t steal a television,” etc. “Piracy is stealing,” or something to that effect. Obviously the studios are trying to draw a connection in people’s minds between breaking into a shop and taking something without paying and downloading a movie through a file-sharing site. The problem is I find it hard to believe anyone is going to watch that and have a light bulb suddenly switch on.

To explain my personal stand on piracy, I’m against it. I think it’s wrong. However, this certainly hasn’t stopped me from illegally downloading both music and movies. But I, like anyone else who knowingly does wrong, find a way to justify it in my head. Now, this is perhaps only coincidental but I never downloaded music before moving to Spain four years ago. That event happened to coincide with my receiving an iPod. So perhaps downloading was the natural progression after that step and I would have engaged in it regardless of having left the country.

Why did leaving the country cause me to begin downloading? Well, it started small with songs that I missed hearing on the radio while driving. Then artists I liked started releasing new albums that I wanted. I always had the intention of eventually returning to the US. So on the assumption that I would one day buy the CD, I didn’t want to spend money on iTunes. I refused to buy CDs here for two reasons: I had very little expendable income in my first two years here and I didn’t want to burden myself with more possessions that would have to travel back with me.

As far as movies are concerned it’s a matter of downloading films or (for the most part) not seeing them until they are released on DVD in Europe. This is because all films are dubbed in cinemas here (another post on that at a later date) with the exception of the odd Original Version cinemas which show them subtitled. There is one such cinema in Seville. It is basically an art house cinema with 5 screens. They rarely have the big Hollywood films unless they have some artistic pedigree like Alice in Wonderland because it’s directed by Tim Burton. Basically I’m impatient and don’t want to wait several months to a year to understand why everyone thinks that Oscar contender is so great.

Occasionally something I’ve already downloaded will play at that cinema. If it was something I thought was worth seeing a second time I will pay for it (No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man, The White Ribbon, Precious). I do this because I am a bit of a purist and I believe cinematic films were made to be seen in the cinema and also because I want to support artists like the Coen brothers because I want them to keep making movies I enjoy.

Now I doubt there are many people like me, who have such strict rules when it comes to downloading. Most people surely do it because they don’t feel like spending the money at the cinema. But I seriously doubt that people are choosing to see a pirated copy of Avatar in place of seeing it in the cinema, especially in light of its box office totals. Maybe that’s a bad example because 3-D may have been the main draw. But you need only look at the box office takes of most big event action/adventure movies to realize that piracy is not hurting that market. Films smaller in scope and focusing more on story and character with little to no razzle dazzle are perhaps the films most hurt by piracy.

McArdle wonders if people will continue to produce music and movies and books if the revenue to be drawn from it continues to dwindle. She ultimately concludes that they will but that the business model has yet to be realized. I feel confident that the advancement of better and cheaper technology for making movies will only increase the number of movies made. Whether we see them all in a cinema or even on DVD is another story. If I had to guess, I’d say that eventually the majority of the films we see in cinemas will be big budget special effects extravaganzas with the lower-budget films (including dramas, comedies, romantic comedies, relationship dramas) relegated to what, until now, have been considered lesser media (direct to video; cable TV; Internet). These are changes that I think are being driven slightly by piracy, but much more so by technology. I will cover that in a future post dealing with the travesty of 3-D.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Michael Specter at TED: Why is the Scientific Method so Difficult to Understand?

This TED talk exemplifies at a fundamental level some of the problems I have with so many opinions in the world. "Everyone's entitled to their own opinion...but you know what you're not entitled to? You're not entitled to your own facts," he says just before launching into a rant against denialism. He covers the loons who champion the elimination of newborn vaccinations and growing number of people (for the most part of both privilege and wealth, I have to say) who campaign against GM foods.

What's most troubling to me, however, is reading the comments below the video. I know, that's always a bad idea for thinking people. But there's a startling number of people who've written comments basically assailing his talk because they're skeptical of the science. Specter is giving a talk about how the scientific method as a process for finding facts, truth and answers is the best way to understand things in the world.

He says people like Jenny McCarthy, who campaign against disease vaccinations because of a ridiculously mistaken belief that they cause autism, are responding to anecdotal evidence rather than scientific evidence. Specter even comes out and says, "I understand why people think that," in addition to saying that we should ask questions and ask for evidence and proof. But once the proof has been provided, it's necessary to accept it. We can't deny science when it comes to policy and broad solutions.

Then people watch this talk and say, "I'm skeptical of science." Making a statement like that is a complete misunderstanding of how science works. The vaccine/autism link wasn't disproved by one scientist in a single lab. This was years of research done in several countries, each of which found no evidence of a causal link. That's how science works - through extensive research and experimentation, peer review, follow-up experiments.

What Michael Specter says in this video seems so self-evident to me. It saddens me to realize how many people will carry on without deference to facts.

If you're interested in more, Specter has a book on this very topic.

UPDATE: The doctor who made the connection between infant vaccinations and autism has been revealed as a fraud.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Martin Scorsese to Go 3-D

It seems not even Martin Scorsese (film historian, cinephile, archivist) is immune to the allure of making a 3-D motion picture. His next film will be an adaptation of the Brian Selznick children's book "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" about a boy in 1930s Paris who fixes his father's broken robot.

Lest you fall into the mistaken belief that Scorsese is merely bowing to studio pressure, the film is, in fact, being independently produced. It will be distributed by Sony and is currently slated for a December 2011 release.

I'm both truly astonished and somehow not all that surprised by this move by Scorsese. He's a filmmaker who understands how to tell a story visually. He can exploit the medium better than 99 percent of film directors. I think he's a guy who is interested in how 3-D can help him tell a story in a new, different and possibly better way. Unlike the studios, who love it because it's basically pirate-proof, and theater owners, who love it because they can add a surcharge for the special glasses. Scorsese is even on record saying he thinks Precious should be in 3-D.

I don't want to go on a tirade now about 3-D movies (that will come at a later date, I'm sure), but I'm dismayed by the move toward more and more 3-D. Especially when it comes to the films shot in 2-D and then later converted in order to capitalize on the fad (Clash of the Titans and Alice in Wonderland). The only modern 3-D film I've seen is Avatar, which I saw in both traditional 2-D and then the 3-D version. I have nothing to compare that experience to, but I can say that I much rather prefer the 2-D version.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Justin Bieber's Early Life

Like most men my age, I think, I love Tina Fey. So after seeking out the clip of her SNL monologue from this past weekend I was left with a question that perhaps I wouldn't be asking were I not living in Spain: Who the f--- is Justin Bieber?

I always turn to Wikipedia as my first source for answers and there I learn that he's one of the newest pop music teen idols. But seriously teen. As in SIXteen. Wasn't Annette Funicello still a Mouseketeer at that age?

What really caught my attention and prompted this post was that his Wiki page has a section titled "Early Life." What!! He's not like Liesl von Trapp's 16 going on 17. He just turned 16 a little over a month ago. Justin Bieber's early life? When was this exactly - two years ago? Can some Wikipedia editor over the age of 20 get on this please?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sin Nombre Movie Review: A Crossing of Two Very Different Lives

Many of the iconic American films have been those stories that focus on the aspects that have defined the history of our country: immigrant stories such as The Godfather; the taming of wild country as depicted in the entire Western genre; and stories of expansionism and manifest destiny as seen in Chinatown. It’s easier for us, as Americans, to recognize these themes and how they fit into our understanding of the American story. But what about the national histories of other countries? It’s quite difficult to translate a film steeped in history from one country to another. Without a reference point we can only watch the film unfold as entertainment, missing out on the possibility for a deeper resonance.

Mexico and the United States share a great deal of history. Although we may not be as well informed as to the particulars of life below the border and their own history, we may reflect on our knowledge of immigrant stories, especially those involving Hispanics, when we watch Sin Nombre, last year’s feature debut from director Cary Fukunaga. Being raised in southern California surely made Fukunaga sensitive to the issues surrounding Central American immigrants, but what a bold choice of subject matter for a recent graduate of the NYU film school to tell a story in a foreign language (and rife with slang unknown even to most native Spanish speakers) of immigrants and gangs crossing paths in the slums of Mexico.

The film opens with a harrowing scene in which a young boy nicknamed Smiley (Kristian Ferrer) is initiated into the Marero gang by receiving a beating that lasts until the leader, L’il Mago (Tenoch Huerta), counts to thirteen. It seems Smiley’s introduction to the gang has been made by Casper (Edgar Flores) who whisks him away from his protesting grandmother.

After this brief introduction to Casper and the Marero, which takes place near the Guatemalan border, we abruptly shift to the teenage Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) in Honduras as she meets her father for the first time. Her father has already been deported from the United States where he has a family in New Jersey, but now that he has access to his eldest daughter, he intends to bring her and his brother with him on his next attempt to return.

The journey undertaken by Sayra and her family is the typical dangerous route used by the majority of Central American migrants headed for the US. After crossing from Guatemala into Mexico they have to be on the lookout not only for Mexican border guards, but also marauding bands of pirates and gangs such as the Marero who either steal what money they have or kidnap them in order to extort money from their families in America. They travel on top of a freight train, which carries enough perils of its own. And as if that weren’t enough, there are corrupt police and border guards willing to sell them to gang members and extortion artists.

The train ride takes them through the seediest parts of Mexico along a mostly defunct rail line. The virtual ghost towns and abandoned rail yards they pass through call forth images of the wild and untamed west we hold dear. But these places are often fraught with danger and there’s no John Wayne or Gary Cooper to watch over the less fortunate. My mistaken belief about the immigrants who cross the border into California and Texas has always been that the most dangerous part is avoiding the US border patrol. On the contrary, once they reach the American border, they’re basically home free. The migrants traveling on the train encounter both farm laborers who toss fruit to them as well as youths who throw rocks at them shouting epithets and telling them to go home to their own country.

At one point, the migrants are stopped in a rail yard that we recognize from a scene involving Casper and Smiley and we know that eventually Sayra and Casper will cross paths. The reasons for this convergence I shall not reveal except to say that Casper is done a great injustice by someone in his own gang. Later, while robbing the migrants atop the train, he has the opportunity to save Sayra and exact his own vengeance simultaneously. This, of course, sets him on the lam from his own gang as well as the different branches located throughout the country. He is doggedly pursued by Smiley (anxious to prove his mettle to the gang leader) and El Sol.

So far I’ve provided a lot of exposition, but I haven’t even gotten to the heart of the story which is the bond that develops between Sayra and Casper. In some ways it’s a tired convention, but Fukunaga’s screenplay allows it to happen organically. His attraction (and I don’t necessarily mean romantic attraction) to her takes some time to show. He feels responsible for her, but she may also remind him of his girlfriend, who he may not have realized he truly loved until he lost her. She is drawn to him primarily because she recognizes what he’s gotten himself into by saving her life, but I think there’s more to the attraction. She’s dazzled by the mystery of the young man before her and the tattoos he wears marking him as a killer. There’s an element of danger, but also a level of protection she sees from him that her father has never provided during his absence. It is one of the great strengths of the film that neither of these attractions is explicitly discussed. The actors use body language and eye contact, Fukunaga allows us to watch Casper as he replays video of his girlfriend on his camera.

The attraction of Sayra to Casper is similar to what we see in the character of Smiley who seems to want nothing more from life than to be a Marero. There’s a key scene between Smiley and some other boys his own age where he gets to show off his newly acquired gun. The boys are impressed and want details about his experiences. This is a culture of admiration. They see the gang as something to belong to. It gives them purpose and protection. There is also an element of magical mysticism surrounding the Marero which we see reflected in the nicknames they give themselves: the leader L’il Mago (Little Wizard); the second in command El Sol (The Sun); and Casper, whose name recalls images of a friendly ghost.

This brings me to the larger point I think Fukunaga is trying to make which is the idea that the abject poverty these characters and a great deal of people from that part of the world find themselves in is likely to drive them to a choice between two lives: be part of a gang or be an illegal immigrant in the US.

The writing is truly the film’s strong point, but Fukunaga shows his technical skill as a director in shooting several scenes on top of a moving train. It is seamlessly edited, including the cutting of action sequences and the joining together of two plot lines, by Luis Carballar, who brings with him the experience of working on another film with multiple storylines – Amores Perros – and Hollywood veteran Craig McKay, whose work has included both action and drama, most notably Reds and The Silence of the Lambs.

The title of the film, which means “Without Name” in English seems at first to refer to Casper, who has given up his given name to be part of a gang. However, I’d say it has more to do with the fact that the principal characters’ (Casper, Sayra and Smiley) stories could potentially be anyone’s story. The film may be focused on these people at this time and place, but ultimately there are millions of people who struggle daily with the same kinds of things that these characters struggle with. Any of the three could be the protagonist in his own film. I’d be most interested in seeing how Smiley’s story continues. Tell me you don’t agree.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Those Wacky and Weird Coen Brothers

If you like the Coen Brothers (and I love the Coen Brothers) here's a wonderfully edited YouTube video cutting together clips from their first 12 features (the video was made before Burn After Reading and A Serious Man).

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Polanski's Ghost Writer Traffics in Too Much Conspiracy Theory

The Ghost Writer, the new film from director Roman Polanski and based on a novel by Robert Harris, is a movie made for people who think 9/11 was an inside job, that no man has ever set foot on the moon and who subscribe to the Gospel According the Michael Moore.

That is to say this is a film that will appeal directly to conspiracy theorists and other people who are incapable of using logic to discern facts from fantasy. It stars Ewan McGregor as the eponymous hero brought in for a quick touch-up on the highly anticipated memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), a thinly disguised stand-in for the real life Tony Blair.

McGregor’s Ghost is a last minute replacement after his predecessor’s untimely and somewhat suspicious drowning death off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, where Lang now spends most of his time tucked away in a dreary, lifeless beach house. He is kept company there by his longtime assistant and mistress, Amelia Bly (for whom they bafflingly cast Kim Cattrall), several bodyguards, a couple of ominous house workers, and a wife (Olivia Williams) who is never shy with her opinions, be they political or related to her husband’s personal affairs. The already written memoirs are a closely guarded secret and may contain damning evidence that will inculpate Lang in the war crimes for which he has been accused.

What could have been the makings of a savvy political thriller ends up as a hack job. Co-written by Polanski and Harris, a former British political reporter who became disillusioned with Blair in the wake of the Iraq war and the WMD fiasco, the story would have us believe Lang is a complete tool of the American government. I thought finally a film would have something more interesting to say other than the tired trope that the US Government is all-powerful and capable of manipulating not only its own inner politics, but the foreign policy of other nations. And not just carrot-and-stick incentives, but absolute hands on manipulation. The film, and surely the novel before it, have their roots in John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate from 1962, but Harris seems to have lost sight of the political satire woven throughout that classic.

Polanski directs with the sure hand of a veteran filmmaker. He is able to rely on his skill as a storyteller rather than the shocks and jolts that typify the genre. And although he manages to inject moments of humor, the film has a tendency to take itself too seriously most of the time. Movies that traffic in conspiracy theory can be diverting fun. They can be spun into taut thrillers that keep the action moving at a quick clip, making us forget how harebrained the plot really is, but they run into trouble when they start believing the hokum they’re peddling.

The look of the film is dreary and gray, as it takes place on a beach resort in late winter. This seems to be an attempt to couch the film in drabness, hinting at the darkness below the surface, but the result is a muddy looking film. This is not aided by the occasional use of CGI and blue screen technology which is distractingly low-budget. It’s the kind of cheap effects work I would expect on a TV movie, but not from a studio feature film.

Brosnan and Williams are well cast, as is Tom Wilkinson in the key role of a Harvard professor who knew Lang during their university days at Cambridge. These three gifted actors do what they can with a paper-thin script. They are the only actors with any real pathos to convey. Each one may or may not have something to hide, which is real juice for any actor to relish in. Wilkinson comes across as perhaps a tad too sinister in his one scene while Williams (perhaps more a result of weak screenwriting) can’t conceal her true colors. Brosnan, on the other hand, is just magnificent. He’s cocksure in the face of damning accusations, frustrated by his lack of political will (the source of which is revealed in the end), and confident in his beliefs. The film leaves aside what is perhaps the most interesting character development. Without revealing too much, Lang has very strong courage of someone else’s convictions. Thinking back on the performance you realize Brosnan got it just right.

McGregor, while good, doesn’t have much to do except look scared, surprised, shocked and occasionally ambivalent. It’s a thankless role and I might even go so far as to call his entire character the MacGuffin of the film. But my biggest complaint is why Kim Cattrall, sporting a barely passable English accent, was cast at all. She’s a C-list actress, a veteran of Porky’s and Police Academy who became a latter day star because she was a 40-something woman willing to take her clothes off on “Sex and the City”. She’s barely up to the challenge of playing a woman who is both manipulator and manipulated in ways she’ll never know.

SPOILER WARNING: In general, this is not very compelling stuff. It wants to demonize a PM accused of war crimes for failing to avail himself of the justice system (rich judgment coming from a man who has been a fugitive from justice for more than 30 years) while at the same time disregarding him as a puppet for a much more powerful and nefarious organization. Add to that the hilarity of the big revelation that the memoir contains a secret code. Really? Seriously? The deceased writer hid the big state secret in the text of a ghost-written memoir? And the implicated individuals fear this as some sort of hard evidence? And let’s not forget that this movie does nothing to advance the evolution of cinematic depictions of the Internet: a keyword search that reveals the secret identity of a CIA operative? Perhaps that’s the reason for the recent enmity between Google and China.