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Safe, Easy Answers for a Sleeping America
I wanted to like this film but unfortunately, it's a bit of a mess since it constantly jumps from one argument to another in the way it trashes both illegal AND legal drugs, contradicting itself at every turn. They never go into addictions in general, which is the main problem of our society (personally, I think that television is the worst drug in our society).
For those who will insist on disagreeing with me... Do you really think that if drugs DID become legal they wouldn't be sold by the same corporations that now sell tobacco or alcohol? If there's a dollar to be made, then it will either be by "criminals" on the street or by corporate executives, who are both snakes as far as I'm concerned. It's almost hilarious that Ricky Ross, one of the top drug dealers in US history, is depicted a poor hapless fellow who - aww-gee just wanted to pursue the American Dream, yet our government is 'evil'. In my book they're ALL after the same thing: power and M-O-N-E-Y! As Ricky Ross said, "if it hadn't been for the money, I wouldn't have gotten into the drug trade". Duh! Ollie North couldn't have said it better although at least his motive was also about his vision of a 'better America', as depraved and twisted as it was! Anyway, the same pharmaceutical companies that lobby against medical marijuana today will be the first to produce the magic weed if/when it does become legal. At which time the average Joe on the street who grows and sells his own will STILL find himself in prison for selling a product that's not licensed (the licensing will have to do with the 'purity' of the product, since home-grown could have other substances in it).
And that's where this documentary bungles its stance the most. It does a good job of depicting the true profit motive of the US government in terms of the drug war but it does not seem to want to investigate what the true profit motive of the anti-war on drugs campaign is. Is there a profit motive? For many casual drug users and those of us who want to see the US government's involvement in the anti-drug war disappear, there is no profit motive. But there is a strong wing of the Libertarian Party led by Ron Paul that is hooking liberals in on this issue. Once again, it's all about money and power and in this case, the end of federal taxation in America. What's wrong with that you may ask? Well, if programs for the people aren't funded by federal taxes, then they will either be funded by corporations, or they'll just go unfunded altogether (state taxes can't even come close to covering any state's needs). I don't believe that this film is totally out to endorse this particular agenda; it ironically makes an argument that we should get rid of taxes, while praising the socialist Dutch, who have the highest tax rates in the world. But the libertarian talking heads in this film scare me as much as our government does because they want to decriminalize drugs AND they want to get rid of all the funding for programs that will pay for the education and rehabilitation to solve the problems of drugs, crime, poverty and racism. They offer no viable solutions, just as this film never makes any attempt at all to discuss possible solutions to wean our nation of its addictions.
And while I'm at it... If tobacco and alcohol are as evil as this film insists, then why compound the problem with making ALL drugs legal? I can just see the filmmaker's family portrait dwindling in ten years as more and more friends are lost to cigarettes, alcohol, and... what are now illegal drugs.
A film that claims to be about the drug war but doesn't spend a significant amount of time on addiction in general, as well as how to combat our addictions through education and rehabilitation, is this country's problem in a nutshell. We just want safe, easy answers. The "just say no to drug wars" campaign is as stupid and reckless as the whole "just say no to drugs" campaign! Those who want to really stop drug addiction, poverty, crime and racism knows that it will only be through education, rehabilitation and social programs.
To clarify... I DO want to see an end to the drug wars and I'd like to see Marijuana legalized, but I'm ALSO for viable solutions. Our government is corrupt because it answers to industry and corporations that have their own agenda (money, of course). MAKING DRUGS LEGAL WILL JUST KEEP DRUGS IN THE CORPORATE LOOP! The occasional user or small-time seller will still be harassed and/or incarcerated. The best thing we can do is not get government itself off our backs, but get rid of our current BAD government that cares more about profits than people. We indeed should use the Dutch as a model... for EVERYTHING!
A Patriot Act (2004)
In recent years, I've watched numerous documentaries and read numerous books on this administration, to the point where they're all starting to blend in. This film though, knocked me off my seat. Mark Crispin Miller gives an astounding monologue about what he calls the 'Christo-fascist' movement that is sweeping the country. That phrase may sound radical, but then 'Christo-Radical' movement would suffice just as well (these aren't republicans, they're theocrats). If you think I'm exaggerating, watch even ten minutes of the 700 Club sometime (remember Falwell and Robertson saying that pagans, feminists, gays, abortionists and the ACLU were responsible for 911? That was hardly an isolated incident). This is not a club; it's a movement that is rooted in the kind of theocratic idealism of centuries ago, "when faith registered before reason" as Miller describes it. No, this is not the stuff of paranoia that we occasionally see in other documentaries. One need only keep abreast of the Tom DeLay circus, or the Frist/Schiavo scandal, or James Dobson recently describing liberal judges as black-robed KKK members, or the API's daily headlines. Today's... "Democrats Booted Out Of Church for Politics" (in Waynesville, North Carolina), and "Kansas Board Holds Evolution Hearings" (no, that's not a headline from 1925!).
Like James Mann's brilliant book "Rise of the Vulcans", Miller shows us how Bush is merely the frost on the tip of the iceberg (though he does at least a half hour of analysis on Bush's mindset, which is as funny as it is scary). Miller presents to us, 'all the president's men': those who make up the Council of National Policy (such as Falwell, DeLay, Trent Lott, Ed Meese and Oliver North to name but a few). They're not only associated with money and power, but in a Christian Reconstructionalist movement (also called Dominion Theology - do a Google on the Chalcedon Foundation) that, in John Ashcroft's words, puts "God before kings". If you thought Reagan believing in Armageddon was scary, be prepared for worse news (Bush has even been quoted as saying that God speaks through him, yet the media never even questions these things). This is scary, scary stuff, and to steal a famous quote, "if you're not worried, you're not informed". Don't believe me though; rent this for yourself and then research this stuff out. But by all means, don't just stop there. Once you get informed - act!
Free Money (1998)
A Mixed Bag of Brilliant Treasure
Currently this film has a 4.8 rating here at IMDb but in my opinion, VERY unjustly so! It teeters constantly between quirky, sweet humor, and macabre, almost cartoonish dark comedy. Which is to say, it's quintessential Brando. There's even a brief freeze-frame in the film of Brando with his hands flapping by his face in a 'neah-neah' gesture that is so 'Brandoesque'. He knows that his physical presence (a seemingly 500-pound ballet dancer) is a grand mixture of Father Christmas, Charlie Chaplin, Edward G. Robinson, and the man who bites off the heads of chickens at the circus. You just never know what you're going to get with him, so you - and the other characters in the film - are always kept a bit on edge (he played a somewhat similar character in "The Freshman"; another film that I've always thought was underrated).
Anyway, the train heist is merely a minor plot point, so I'm guessing that maybe that's why the movie bombed. Audiences were probably expecting a heist story with a solid, formula plot (probably along the scale of "Oceans Twelve"), and I'm guessing they felt extremely uncomfortable with the film's humble speed. The big-name cast also probably didn't help, because the film has a real 'Canadian provincial' feel to it (Hollywood, this film is not!). Nevertheless, the entire cast is fantastic; particularly Thomas Haden Church who I never would have guessed was the same guy in "Sideways"! Perhaps I'm just nuts, but I think this is a sleeper gem that has yet to find its true audience.
The Boys of Baraka (2005)
I was all jazzed up at the idea of seeing a movie about a school in Kenya that introduces African-American inner city boys to a culture different from their own and gives them a whole new perspective on being a black male. Unfortunately, there is very little if anything like that in this movie. The boys go to Kenya, get some strict but nurturing tutoring (by white women and men), see wild animals, and climb Mount Kenya. That's it. If what we see is really all they experienced then I don't know why anyone schlepped them to Africa: a camp in the Pocanos with a trip to the zoo would have sufficed. There is one very brief scene where the kids talk about some of their impressions of the way people in Kenya live ("no chicken strips!"), but we never see them interact with any people other than their white American counselors, and ... one particular Sunday at an African church service in town (preachers screaming about sin, sigh!). I think some really good things did happen to these kids at The Baraka School, but the film documents nothing but badly edited soundbites to give us any hint. Even the impact of living in a rural area at a leisurely pace isn't really reflected on. We see it and can feel it, but the boys seem relatively unaffected by it even though I know it must have had a deep effect on them. I want to praise this film for being about an important subject but alas, I can only think of it as a wasted opportunity. A good documentary on the subject could have created a lasting impact on other youths who might have experienced something wildly different and exciting and been inspired by it. At the end of the day, this is just another look at the vicious cycle of ghetto life that will be nothing new for anyone who hasn't had their head in the sand. It will rightly make all of us liberals angry that there can't be thousands of 'Baraka Schools' in the US, but there are countless documentaries on that subject (see "OT: Our Town" and "Rize"). This was a missed opportunity to make a film for the kids in these communities themselves to see how much else is out there in the world.
An Act of Conscience (1997)
The Price of Having a Conscience
Although many people like myself don't mind paying taxes, we hate the idea that a significant percentage of our tax dollars go to defense contractors and the war effort. It's painful to be working for anti-war efforts knowing that you are also in a sense supporting them financially. Therefore, there are groups of people who refuse to pay their taxes. They figure out how much they owe the government every year, and give that money directly to charities that help with education, health care, housing, the environment etc. I'd like to be one of those people but what stops me personally from doing that is that I am aware of the anarchy of what would happen if everybody just supported what they morally saw as correct. Millions of fundamentalists for example would be supporting Christian schools and housing, leaving people who need secular public schools and housing out of the loop.
Still, I support the intentions of the family depicted in this documentary. The government has auctioned their house away, and a working class family has bought it for a fraction of what the house is actually worth. What the tax protesters fail to accept though, is that they've lost their house, not their home. They try to talk the new family into understanding their predicament, and at first the new family is sympathetic, but the family also knows that they will never be able to afford a house like this again. There is stubbornness on both sides. The tax protesters attract a lot of support and attention, and those who find the tax protesters 'un-American', side with the new owners of the house. What ensues is a three-ring-circus that is a perfect microcosm of America as it stands today; divided and profusely inflexible. The tax protesters try to bend over backward to help the new family by building them a new house, but the new family refuses to move which I can't blame them for after the way they have been painted as evil by some of those in the tax protesters' circle. The solution to me would have been to build the house for the family of tax protesters who were kicked out of their house (which is inevitably considered). One has to accept that one must make sacrifices for what they believe in, and to attach oneself to a piece of land and the material things on it is antithetical to the ideals they espouse. This is an interesting documentary, but it spends too much time on the sensationalist battle, instead of covering the wider picture of the tax protester's movement.
3 Needles (2005)
One of the Bravest Films I've Ever Seen!
I saw this last night and just can't stop thinking about it. This film is off-the-charts audacious in its blend of tragedy and dark humor, with cinematography that ranges from powerfully beautiful (the South African sequences reminded me of John Ford movies like "The Searchers"), to a seedy quality that subtly conveys the weirdness of its humor and unethical qualities of its characters. The film also never flinches from showing us such taboos as male nudity and the indignities of a terminally ill man. Like the movie "Babel," this movie contains three stories, two of which are set in far-off lands, all dealing with complex issues and tragic ignorance.
The first story is about how practically an entire village in China acquires AIDS due to poverty-driven greed. The film's edge is in how it turns the tables on us psychologically; the people are not what they seem, and greed is not always clear-cut when it is a basic means of survival. The second story is a strange tale of a mother who handles the death of her husband and 'acceptance' of the fact that her son has AIDS in a way that leaves the viewer extremely perplexed and uncomfortable, which is actually a good thing. This film doesn't flinch from showing us AIDS stories we don't want to believe, such as those people who purposefully acquire it. It mixes dark humor with beautiful metaphors, such as the mother driving her sports car into an enormous pile of red leaves, until she's practically buried in it. The final seconds of that story leave a chilling print embedded on one's brain; what is this woman thinking?? The third story juggles a whole range of issues regarding ignorance, religion, greed, selfishness and selflessness, and balances them all on a head of a pin. One false move and the story would have come off as preachy or exploitational. Again, there is an iconic scene that stays indelibly in my mind; the beautiful and horrific sight of a woman's dead body lying under a thin blanket of mud.
The entire film does has some rough edges, which may at first put some viewers off. I found Olympia Dukakis' narration a bit difficult to accept at the beginning of the movie (during a strange and fascinating African ritual of male circumcision), but it all comes together by the very end - in fact, quite powerfully. The film also jumps back and forth in past and present, which may at times seem confusing, but the ultimate effect makes us reread our initial assumptions. And the first film in particular is quite slow, although again, I think there was a point to its languorous pace. We all know that the disease in question in this film is AIDS, but the location used in China is so rural that one feels that the time period could be any time in the past fifty years. In fact the circumcision scene at the beginning of the film makes one unaware of even what century we are witnessing! That I think, is the director Thom Fitzgerald's genius. I read a review that criticized this movie for not mentioning the word AIDS, which actually I was unaware of. But the fact is; this movie could be about any disease, as even the Chinese initial reaction to SARS was one of denial. This film does certainly illustrate the stigma associated with AIDS, but the fallout is much deeper than sexual practices in developing countries. The reason it has spread, as this film so eloquently shows, is not because of people's sex lives; it's spread because of ignorance, poverty, superstition, fear and greed. If we can just focus on fighting those battles, then maybe maybe we can win.
The Man Who Got His Own Medicine
The so-called tragedy of Barry Goldwater can be summed up by a soundbite comment he made at the 1964 convention, "extremism in the face of liberty is no vice". It looks nice on a bumpersticker but a slam-dunk remark like that begs any thinking person to ask, "ANY form of extremism?" and "whose liberty are we talking about?" Joseph McCarthy defended liberty by persecuting thousands of innocent Americans. The Ku Klux Klan (and Goldwater himself) wanted to defend liberty by protecting a constitution that did not specify that people of color should not be second-class citizens. And President Johnson wanted to defend liberty by murdering hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians and by creating an extremist political ad that assumed that a man who championed extremism might just be extremist enough to use nuclear weapons in a world that was still reeling from the Bay of Pigs incident two years earlier. Was the ad extremist? Yup Barry got a dose of his own medicine!
Janet Goldwater, granddaughter of Barry Sr. (us Californians remember Jr. only too well!), has made a sweet, homey movie showing us that her grandpa was a good man of the people who befriended Hopi Indians, created lovely photographs and like most men of his generation, couldn't say the words "I love you" to his son. We all like Barry the man; what's not to like? The fact is that this film indirectly illustrates the problems with the majority of people in power who are good ol' regular people who are not evil, but will do evil things to protect ideals that they but not all Americans believe in. A recent Gallup poll asked Americans if they chose politicians either based on their character or how they stand on the issues. Goldwater is a perfect example of why one should pay more attention to the issues than the man. Janet Goldwater's well-meaning but dangerous documentary shows that like Bush, Goldwater loved his family and looked good riding a horse. But the film shows very little of the political climate of 1964 (the bombing of black churches and the Bay of Pigs were not even mentioned). It is as out of touch with the American heart as Goldwater was. After the Bay of Pigs, people were a lot more terrified of nuclear war than communism. And after the consistent persecution and even murder of black people who wanted to be treated as equals, most Americans felt that it was more important to protect the rights of individuals than a document that was passed in lieu of allowing slavery to continue in this country.
Hot and Stupid
Spoilers! Do not read unless you've seen the movie!! I have to admit, I find the leather guys in this movie very sexy, so I have always enjoyed this movie on some level. But it IS lame and dangerously so, mainly because we are led to believe that a person exposed to the S&M gay scene could easily become a pathological killer, as Pacino does at the end of this movie. Let's assume that it isn't about the gay S&M scene but the straight S&M scene. It becomes more obvious then how ludicrous it would be for a cop or anyone for that matter to become a murderer just from hanging out at S&M clubs! If that were the case, there'd be millions of S&M murderers all over the country! It also makes no sense that a cop would become a killer just from spending several months tracing a killer. If that was the case, then most cops in the homicide department had better retire! Then are we to assume then that Pacino is a latent homosexual? If so, we're shown no reasoning for that in the film, and even if he were, his sexuality wouldn't have anything to do with being homicidal! The most change we can see in his sexual behavior is that he begins to discover that he likes it rough with his girlfriend. There's a big leap between that and murder! Seriously, this misunderstanding that S&M equals murderous impulses is about as ridiculous as someone who plays pro football being consumed with wanting to bash people's skulls in. OJ Simpson aside, S&M is far less violent than the world of football because anger and rage aren't facilitated in S&M. It's a very controlled act that is entirely permissive don't forget, it's sadoMASOCHISM; the recipient 'wants' a certain amount of pain!
At this juncture in gay history, a film like Cruising wouldn't register much on any scale of political incorrectness but back in 1979, this was the first major Hollywood movie to deal with the subject. Because of that, it had a responsibility to keep truthful in its depictions of sex and violence. Friedkin knew damn well what he was doing. If one watches the scene where the man who was tied up gets stabbed over and over in a very slow scan, they'll see that Friedkin had edited in a gay hardcore sex scene of penetration. Homo Sex = Fatal Violence in Friedkin's warped mind. MAYBE one can accept that the murderer in the film was murderous because he couldn't cope with being gay, but there's nothing in Pacino's character that would make him succumb to such a mindset.
As for the murderer in the film, his character is also pretty lazy writing if you ask me. A closeted man studying Broadway musicals of all things, virtually turns into his disapproving father whenever his sexual impulses ahem arise. Again, if all the gay men into Broadway musicals with disapproving fathers became schizophrenic murders... I suppose the Christofascists would create a new holiday in celebration! Still, every few years I take a peak at this movie, for the hot guys, the (unintentionally) hilarious dialogue, the fabulous score (when's the soundtrack gonna be re-released?) and for the nostalgia. It was after all, the halcyon days for gay men; a type of murder that was far more sinister than what was dreamt up in this movie was just around the corner. I say, try to enjoy this movie the way you would "Gone with the Wind" with its outrageously offensive black stereotypes. We are a wiser more sophisticated society now and we can wink knowingly at the stupidity on the screen. And don't worry, homophobes wouldn't go near this film with a ten-foot pole, so no one's going to be using this film as a textbook example of homosexuality. Just put your intelligence aside and enjoy! Now, where did I put my handkerchief?
Bling: A Planet Rock (2007)
Bling = Shame
This is a documentary about several rappers who are famous for being draped in bling, and one of the guys who designs bling for them. They're banded together to go on a fact-finding trip to Sierra Leone. It's a harrowing experience; visiting children with missing limbs, women who were raped incessantly as girls, and some of the poorest areas in the world (including a major port for slavery, where one can still see the shackles on the walls). It's a wake-up call for these rappers as well as for the audience but I'm not optimistic. Apparently, this documentary aired on VH1, but thus far, there aren't even five ratings at IMDb. And given the fact that the guys were still wearing their gold at the end of the film (apparently no one told them that gold mining countries face the same level of poverty and exploitation) I have to wonder how much these guys are going to change, let along work to educate the public about what they saw. They said they would, so I will try to have faith. The people of Africa are laying their hopes at the feet of role models like these.
Winter Soldier (1972)
This is virtually ninety-plus minutes of testimonials of 'war crimes' by Vietnam vets at a conference in 1971, and while all of the atrocities - there's no other word for them - were the kinds of things I'd seen before, the sheer numbers were what got to me. Not the numbers of tortured and dead; that number I don't suppose I'll ever digest. It's the numbers of decent Americans like you or me who through exaggerated training of 'manhood', became savages. One can better understand what it must have been like to come home to our normal world of shopping malls, fast food, and sitcoms, and try to stuff back the memories and repressed emotions that made one kill children for fun and hack off body parts for a reward of a six-pack. Actually, I still can't understand it. I don't suppose I'll ever know at one point one stops becoming human, but at least I did find some hope in seeing these hundreds of men who found their humanity again after the war. Don't think that this is a film that tries to make Americans look bad, for virtually every culture in the world has had its share of atrocities. The atrocities are the symptom; war is the disease. From that perspective, I wish the film had gone further in having someone articulate the ignorance that these guys had in even going into this war. They really only understood why they were sent to fight when they returned, and it's that ignorance that is the virus that our government - that all governments and extremists - like to spread. The most upsetting image I saw in this film was a snapshot of an American soldier smiling over the exposed body of one of his kill. The chill down the back of my neck hit me before my mind brought up what it reminded me of. The smile on that soldier's face was the exact same smile that one of the soldiers Abu Ghraib had as he stood over a pile of naked bodies and crooked his thumbs up in a sign of victorious glee. The horror is that it just never stops.
Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000)
There will be those who will see only junk, and those who will see "a cluster of possibilities"
To glean is to see something beautiful or useful in something that is conventionally useless, pointless or ugly, and to make that thing even more beautiful or useful. One can consume the stuff they glean, or they could recycle it into an art form, creating a whole new purpose for the object(s). Gleaning also applies to our basic ability for survival. In the worst times of our lives, whether it's the death of a friend or facing poverty or illness, there is a way of seeing things positively that helps us survive. Thus, faith and hope are gleaned in the face of disparity. Scientists glean facts and turn them into theory. We glean possibilities every time we use our imaginations. We glean memories when we write (James Joyce was probably the world's greatest literary gleaner). And psychiatrists pay attention to what others don't notice by gleaning beneath the stubborn surface of our egos. This film blew me away in how it depicted how much waste our society makes, and the myriad of ways in which those who glean what we discard benefit society. But the film is even more than a fascinating documentary and social statement. As one can see from the concepts listed above, it's also a celebration of seeing our world and ourselves as a "cluster of possibilities." There are many theories that we are all in essence stardust developed from fragments of 'the big bang' and quintessentially, this film is about "gleaners of stardust." It pertains to those who metaphorically glean the hidden mysteries and possibilities of our world (i.e. the gleaners of dreams and ideas). Come to think of it, film lovers and the best filmmakers are in fact, gleaners by that very definition. Agnes Varda has proved that she is one of the greatest gleaners of all time.
Given the way that sex has been depicted in movies throughout the world, I've always felt that my perspective on sex was a minority perspective; my perspective being that if you're not laughing while having sex, you're probably not doing it right. In my world, sex is fun and is often funny to boot, what with all the squeals, grunts and body parts flailing all over the place. But somehow, all the humor and intimacy has been drained from movies. Even in French movies, where sex is theory, or British movies where sex is guilt, or German movies where sex is angst, or God help us, Japanese movies where sex seems to require a lot of pain and misogyny. Misogyny aside, I don't have anything against those perspectives on sex, but what about those of us who strive for something beyond the cosmetic surface of all that skin and attitude?
Thanks to this film, I've discovered that I'm not part of a minority that was as small as I believed it to be. Those who watch this thinking that John Cameron Mitchell just wanted to make an American sex film, will be surprised to find out that the film isn't really about sex at all. It's about intimacy and connecting. Sex is the backdrop, but just as New Yorkers experienced a strong unity over the tragedy of 9/11 and the enormous inconvenience of the blackout of 2003, what the people in this film are striving for is an even stronger unity of love and acceptance. In these times where one half the population wants to depict sex as something ominous or naughty and baaaad, and the other half are wishing they could burn anyone who is sexually promiscuous at the stake, it's no wonder that as a culture, we're unable to get past the adolescent stage. Our culture is sick, not just because of our attitudes about sex but because the guilt and rebelliousness that are the result of a staggering repression has made us unable to honestly feel good about ourselves. As this movie shows us, one can't incorporate love in sex unless one is able to love oneself first.
This movie is about breaking through those layers of sexual angst, and actually being able to connect deeply with a multitude of strangers in a celebratory way. I once worked on a porno film (script supervisor - not participant) in my early days of film school, and when the director - who had already shot a multitude of sex scenes from every position - asked me if I had any suggestions, I timidly said, "maybe you could have a scene where they just stop and look into each others eyes?" Yeah, right. Given the looks of bafflement and bemusement around the room, I felt like a fool after I said that, but John Cameron Mitchell has redeemed me. I will state again; this film isn't really about sex. When our heroine finally has an orgasm, we don't even know what is being done to her. We just see her eyes, radiating light and joy. Yeeee-hahhhhhhh!
The radical right will no doubt regard this film as degenerate and perverted, but they would be even more upset if they actually watched it. For this is a dangerous movie. Its bare-ass, graphic depiction of sex isn't done in a seedy, shadowy way where strangers look like misanthropic sex-addicts who need to travel to the dark side of town in order to feel baaaad. At the Shortbus, people talk to each other, laugh with each other, sing with each other (and in one hilarious scene, into each other) and stimulate each other in order to feel gooood. It's a happy place that depicts sex as what it is; a healthy, joyous and yes even spiritual communion; what every church social should be, but isn't. This is the ultimate threat to those who need to use seedy porn as a mirror of our society. It's the same reason that Christo-fascists have been far more angered by the legalization of gay marriage than they were over the legalization of gay sex. Anyone who has ever had a warm and loving sexual relationship with someone - even if it was just a one night stand - knows that it is in no way 'sinful'. Such joy never could be. It seems in times like these, the most rebellious thing we can do is to reach out to a stranger, smile, make each other feel good, and even love each other, even if it's just for an hour or two. I'm all for Shortbus sequels, Shortbus TV series and Shortbus parties all over the world!
God's Country (1985)
Why Has He Forsaken Them?
Like Michael Apted's 'Up' films, this film could be used as a marker for the changes in the lives of individuals and of a community. Most of the film takes place in 1979, so the plot summary here is somewhat misleading. Only about 15 minutes of the film covers what eventually happened when Reaganomics had taken its toll on family-owned farms and businesses. The bulk of the film stands on its own as an amazing model for people who might not realize the outstanding qualities that 'everyday life' seems to offer. Somehow, Malle makes the most mundane places and 'unexceptional' people seem quite fascinating. He allows us to focus on things our eyes never notice or that we try not to see (the scene in a home for the aged is particularly powerful). Some might see the charm of this 1979 community as being antiquated even for 1979, but I can only feel great remorse for all of those families that are now working for the Wal-Marts, Costcos and corporate farms. Those quaint town squares are undoubtedly strip malls now, and companies like Monsanto probably own most of the farms. For those who want to see the beginnings of where the American dream failed; this is a good place to begin your search.
Swades: We, the People (2004)
I'll admit I'm jaded; up until a few years ago, my entire experience of Indian cinema was the gentle but brave work of Satyajit Ray, whose neorealist style gave dignity to the poor. This film tries to accomplish that, but it copies the Hollywood style of making the poor seem like adorable little children, and the leading actors incredibly beautiful and heroic. And really, don't people ever tire of the 'boy meets beautiful-but-dour girl and finally wins her over with his charm and heroism' formula? I understand that most Indian audiences demand fantasy and beautiful leads (who are always ALWAYS light-skinned) just as every culture does, but it's jarring to say the least when a film that proposes to cut the bindings of the caste system ends up perpetuating it through so many stereotypes. The film is also marred by the female lead's entire presence both in her lamentable lack of acting talent and her hilariously odd need to wear a different - and quite expensive-looking - wardrobe in every scene, even when the events are taking place in the same day.
The question is; would this movie have been seen by nearly as many people if the actors portraying real people really looked and acted like real people? I'm sorry to burst the bubble of those who thought that the weaver/farmer family represented the 'real poverty' of India. While their kind of story is true enough, again, I have to wonder what would have happened if the film dared to show the kind of squalor that hundreds of millions of Indians are really living in. We're talking about people living in tiny abodes that adults can't even stand in, sustaining themselves on garbage and water swimming with parasites, while their children play in muddy streets encrusted with raw sewerage. And the flies ... they're everywhere!!! And that's just in the rural areas; the cities are worse!
I do commend this film for what it's trying to do, but any effective change can only happen if people's comfortable sense of reality is jarred. India has a long way to go in that respect since apparently, most audiences won't be willing to make any journey toward reality unless they get their formula love story and healthy dose of song and dance routines, comic relief, and happy endings. I'd like to see Mr. Gowariker make another effort at this genre because he did show that he is capable of subtle triumph, such as the scene when the electricity finally went on. Instead of the predictable initial explosion of cheers and bulbs lighting up the entire hillside, we simply see the illuminated face of an old woman half-blind with nyctalopia as she just barely mutters the word "electricity". That's what it's all about; or at least it should be.
I'm glad to see that there are so many people cheering for this film. The true test of this film's impact though will be in how many of those who embrace it's philosophy will actually be inspired to do something. Without that; the accolades mean nothing.
Could Have Been A Masterpiece
In one of my favorite movies, "My Dinner With Andre", Andre says, "if people could see what life was like it in the cigar store next door, it would blow their mind". I've always thought that that was the impetus for Wayne Wang's, "Smoke; a fantastic movie featuring some of Hollywood's greatest talent. This movie also grabs that theme - real people living realistic, working class lives - and takes it all the way to 'Anywhere USA'. Soderbergh found real working class people in a real small town and put them in a doll factory: a place that indeed did blow my mind. The theme of people living lives of quiet desperation has never been more palpable in any movie that I've ever seen. At least until about 50 minutes or so into the movie.
Spoilers ----- to defend Soderbergh a little, he stated in the commentary that his intention was to make a little film about a triangle of real people and toss a murder plot in. Indeed, around fifty minutes into the film, the person who was quietly living the most desperately upsetting life unravels the Hollywood way and the 'if it bleeds it leads" network news way: she commits murder. Certainly, real people do occasionally unravel in such ways but seriously, Hollywood has already made what, about 50,000 such movies? The overwhelming majority of people like this character Martha do not commit murder, they simply survive in a fog of mental anguish saved by meal breaks and dreams of summering on the shores of Aruba. They are not exceptional people, even exceptional enough to commit murder. They are working class heroes (heroes because they accept the limitations that their lives offer rather than succumbing to acts of crime or violence). Unfortunately, their truth is betrayed by the strings of a Hollywood that is not brave enough to just allow us to witness the drab reality of many small town, working class lives. This betrayal is exceptionally bitter since the film was just beginning to show us how most 'unexceptional' people constantly swallow the onslaught of a life filled with nothing but disappointment. This was illustrated most deftly when we saw Martha sitting alone in a diner at midnight, getting what comfort she could from food after having been viciously berated by the 'friend' she'd just babysat for. That's what 99% of most women like Martha would do; they wouldn't strangle the woman who'd berated them any more than you or I would! But this film sold the very tangible reality of these people out for cheap, unoriginal sensationalism. Think about it: how many movies have you seen about unexceptional working class people? Now how many of those movies starred real people instead of movie stars who - because of their incredible looks and/or amazing talent - landed into the most glamorous career in the world?
I'm still highly recommending the film because the cast - particularly the two leads - are so refreshingly 'normal' and engaging (all of their inarticulate banter throughout the movie is their own) that I feel it's worth following them anywhere. Even through Soderbergh's and Hollywood's somewhat limited imaginations.
A Love Song for Those Who Don't Fit In
This is one of those really small, slice of life, indie films that get lost in the cacophony of the stylish in-your-face stuff that's out there. It's also way too sophisticated for the average TV movie-of-the-week slice of life stuff. It's a movie that doesn't fit in anywhere, which is appropriate since it's also a movie for people who feel that they don't fit in anywhere.
Although the film is about an (almost) seventeen-year-old boy dealing with being gay, it isn't nauseatingly cute like most gay coming-of-age movies. Nor is it quirky to the extreme, nor is it dark and brooding. It is in fact, like life. The characters are intelligent yet flawed, and the film weaves in and out of the lives of many types of characters, refusing to fit into a comfortable niche. For example; those who want to see a film about a Hong Kong family trying to fit into a new life in Canada might feel uncomfortable about the gay element. Those who want a 'gay movie' might feel let down by the fact that the supporting characters who are not gay, play a prominent role in the film.
However, there is an audience for this film. That audience would be people who want to see real human beings on the screen. Timothy Lee as Eric, does a great balancing job of portraying someone who knows who he is, but is unable to find what he's looking for in a world where the people around him are constantly either deceiving themselves or deceiving each other. The most difficult thing about coming of age is trying to find your way through all the hypocrisy and BS that adults and society are cloaked in. The message of "Innocent" is a familiar one; 'to thine own self be true' but the film doesn't pound its message in. It's also an extremely brief film (less than 80 minutes) and ... spoilers ahead! ... it doesn't have a traditional 'they all lived happily ever after' ending. That might be the reason the film has such a low rating here, but to me the ending is beautiful because it is honest. Sometimes things don't get wrapped up all and neat and pretty. Sometimes we stay lost and searching for a long, long time, but... that isn't necessarily a downer. Because Eric is intelligent and honest with himself, we know he will find some form of love and some answers to life along the way. He'll also get hurt many more times because we all are ultimately innocent when it comes to matters of the heart. It is through our innocence that we learn. Don't let the IMDb rating fool you; this is a simple, gentle, honest little film.
WTC the First 24 Hours (2002)
An Inhuman Event from an Non-Human Perspective
One can say that this is an impressionist view of the 24-hour period after the towers fell. There is no human expression in this documentary, either from a narrative perspective or from people expressing their feelings. In a way it's good that the filmmakers decided to let the images speak for themselves because often times, narration over-exaggerates and music exploits the situation even more. But there is something sorely missing from the impressionist viewpoint that this film offers
any glimpse of any kind of human expression at all. It's as if the casualties of 9/11 were nothing more than the buildings and cars that we see smoldering in ashes for 48 minutes. There are plenty of shots of firemen and other emergency teams, but we are never close enough to see the expressions on their faces or even hear anything of their conversations (other than the occasional barking of orders). Yes, we can use our imaginations to try to make sense of the loss of life in those ruins, but the most profound moments of that day were the moments of human contact when we reached out to one another for strength. Nobody witnessed this event alone. People raged and cried with others and hugged total strangers. I feel miserable that the generations to come will miss the reality of human suffering that day by seeing this ''document' that omits humans from human tragedy. Hopefully, they'll have the opportunity to see many other much better documentaries.
America: Freedom to Fascism (2006)
Think It Through
It's always good to ask those who are sending messages in documentaries "what's in it for you?". As we left the theater there was someone handing out brochures for an organization called 'World Freedom Ventures'. Part of their package that you buy when you join will "help you obtain a Limited Liability Corporation which will manage a bank account that holds all savings and earnings... You will also be given the opportunity to be trained and developed as a World Freedom Ventures Associate, enabling you to create your own Sovereignty business". Yes folks; it's a business. If you get fired up enough by watching this film and check out the website (and the film does a good job of prodding you to do so if you're a 'real' patriot), you'll get the whole picture. Prosperity is the name of the game, not patriotism. Why pay your hard-earned money to a corporate government when you can be your own corporation sticking it to the little guy? That's the rub of course; working class and poor people have no "assets, valuables and property" to invest; somebody's gotta get screwed! "As long as it's not me!" is maybe 'The American Way' to some people but I grew up in the incandescence of the JFK administration that said, "ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country".
I know our tax system is screwed up and our current administration is the most vile and corrupt for some 74 years. This film has some important and excellent points on the corruption of our government and the incompetence of our legal system (well, we all knew about that!). The atrocious militarism of our police force is a reality here and now, and many of the waves of the future they are foretelling are not science fiction. But... when it comes to taking in information that is as radical as we see in this film, one must consider all the sources. In this film, they've got everyone from left-wing muckrakers like Mike Ruppert to right-wing muckrakers like Dave Champion. Many of the folks in this film are from waaaaay-out there movements or at least dumb enough to hang out with those folks. Katherine Albrecht for instance recently gave a talk for the Berean Chronicle; a group so radical that they believe that Billy Graham is Satan and that the moon landing was a fake. (Check: retakingamerica.com/past_guest for verification).
I sort of recommend this film as a springboard for asking questions, not as a cause that may have you unknowingly supporting some other political agenda that you have strong disagreements with. Do your homework, and then ask the same hard questions of any organization you might join as you would your government (by all means, question them too!!!). A true patriot would do no less.
The Burial Society (2002)
Life Lessons from the Land of the Dead
I guess this film is not well known because it isn't easy to categorize and it defies the conventions of any genre. If you don't consider that a bad thing - which is to say, if you actually like movies that challenge convention and make one uncomfortable, this is A material. The film is a VERY dark comedy, very clever, very squeamish (unless you enjoy hanging out in mortuaries), and quite frankly, different from most everything else out there in movie rental land. I also found it refreshing to see elderly people who were not dotty, and morality tales intertwined within thriller twists. The film does share some qualities of the good films that the Coen Brothers used to make, but it seems to be less interested in playing into genre expectations. Rob LaBelle does a fine job of letting us inside his head, and the supporting cast are all glorious. The movie is only slow if you crave the MTV-Hollywood glossy glucose fix of adrenaline. Slow movies often provide a rich, rewarding experience, and this movie is no exception to that rule. A definite gem!
Bush for Peace (2003)
The Bush is Always Greener...
I can't believe I'm reviewing a movie that's actually less than 2 minutes long but, it's brilliant, so who cares how long it is? The filmmakers simply allowed Bush to speak for himself; they just changed the words around a little. Okay, a lot. The effect of which is, after I stopped laughing myself silly, I had the oddest notion of really liking this guy! That is the point of this little gem. All the sincerity and humility of Bush's that half of the country knows is 'b.s.', seem completely real when the themes of responsibility, respect, honesty and harmony come forth. We see and feel what the other half of America must see and feel when his usual words 'seem' so heartfelt and strong. This isn't just a gimmick film. In about 100 seconds we get a strong, chilling and of course ironic lesson in perception. I hope the filmmakers will make sequels. "Dick Cheney: The Greatest Humanitarian of All Time", "Pat Robertson: Proud Liberal and Pagan", "Donald Rumsfeld: Consummate Man of Compassion", and "Bill O'Reilly: Fair and Balanced".
Those who wish to search this down, it's available on the "Fourth Annual Media That Matters Film Festival" DVD at Netflix. The rest of the DVD is terrible but it's worth renting for this flick. "The Fifth Media That Matters Film Festival" DVD is overall, excellent.
Purple Hearts (2005)
Recruiters Should Show This One
I've seen several documentaries about our soldiers in Iraq, including a couple of brief ones that showed what life is like for some of those who are now back home. Most of the documentaries were very good but none had the impact that this one had. This one focuses on five soldiers who have come home with wounds that stagger the imagination, including a couple of GIs who were shot in the head, and a young soldier who spent three months having surgery on his intestines in order to clean out all the sand that had originally gathered in his open wound. Each soldier is emotionally dealing with his injury and his feelings about the war on different levels, which is important to see because people on both ends of the political spectrum tend to want to lump all the soldiers in one category. I happened upon this masterpiece on the Sundance channel, but it really deserves to be seen on a much wider level, especially for those who are considering on joining the army. It seems only fair that if they are effected so strongly from video games, commercials and recruiters, they should also consider the price they may have to pay if they join. Most of the soldiers in this film say that they would still have joined had they known what they know now, so it wouldn't necessarily stop young men and women from joining the armed services. But it sure would make them think more clearly about the realities of war, and hopefully question whether or not the war they may be asked to fight is legitimate enough for them to risk spending the rest of their lives severely disabled and in emotional and physical pain.
Bedwin Hacker (2003)
"Shake off the Shackles of Sanity and You Can Live Free"
This is a most refreshing film in terms of the originality of its plot and the originality of its characters. A female hacker from Tunisia occasionally jams French satellites to bring a comic but inspiring message to the people via a cartoon camel. The message is not really political, and the act is neither one of terrorism or of great harm to the population as a whole. The point of the act is to reveal the vulnerabilities of the government and the power of the people. It's of no great significance really, but I completely got caught up in this mini-rebellious sabotage partly because of my attraction to the underdog and well... my attraction to the cast. If everyone in Tunisia is as attractive as the cast in this film I may just take my next vacation there! Seriously, it's been a long time since I've seen a film that was cast with so many amiable, beautiful, intelligent and interesting people. The Tunisian locales are gorgeous, the music is terrific, and the pacing is relaxed yet never dull. It's not a "great" film, but it's an original and engaging one.
Prescription for Hope
This is a first-rate documentary series that manages to be simultaneously frightening, amazing, depressing AND optimistic. While watching this I kept feeling angry that we don't see stories on the nightly news about what people in developing countries have to endure in terms of illness. With the myriad of diseases that surround them, their lives seem like a game of Russian Roulette with five bullets in the chamber. But what reeeeally gets me angry is the fact that the heroes depicted in this series - men and women who have dedicated their lives to helping and healing these people - are not getting THEIR stories told in the nightly news. They are an incredible inspiration! We're always complaining about how depressing the news is and how hopeless everything is. If people could see material like what is shown in this series daily, they would feel great hope because all of these problems are easily solvable with financial support from individuals and governments. It would cost only a fraction of our budget- less than 2% - to eradicate most of these illnesses, and as this documentary clearly shows, these viruses are now spreading to every country in the world including the USA. We can feel great hope that there are so many good people who are doing good things in the world. It's not all serial killers and rapists and terrorists and gangs and corrupt politicians out there. Introduce yourself to the REAL world! Rent all three discs and then buy copies of the DVD for your friends. And read Jeffrey Sachs' book "The End of Poverty". It CAN be a reality!
One Step Beyond
Compared to these amazing athletes who run a 135-mile course from 283 feet below sea level to 8,300 feet above sea level, bearing 120 degree-plus heat, with no sleep and little or no solid food, every other athlete in sports seem to be wimps. For the first half of this film I was thinking these athletes are beyond crazy but then I began to understand. As one who loves running myself, I know the Zen of endurance and the bliss of reaching out beyond pain, so I can slightly imagine what the equivalent of over five marathons (!) must feel like. There's that incredible sense of 'being there' in that journey, where you're really on your own (despite the incredible support from crewmembers who help with rehydration, bandages, new shoes, and endless words of encouragement). The bliss isn't so much in crossing the finish line, but in completing each and every step (especially in the last twelve miles, which is straight up the summit).
This event also has something special that no other sports event of this caliber has; a total absence of TV cameras, throngs of crowds waving flags and balloons, and the usual billboards and signs advertising everything from shoes to beverages. The course is mostly barren road and desert, and the finish line looks like a trail of toilet paper with a couple dozen people standing around clapping. The prize is a belt buckle for everyone who can complete the course within 60 hours (the record at date is around 27 1/2 hours). I can think of no other setting that would make me so proud to run such a race. The documentary manages to keep our interest peaked throughout by focusing on several of the runners, not the least of whom is a British bloke named Chris Moon who as far as I'm concerned, won the race. His time was twice that of the 'winner', but he was running a one-legged, one-armed race (he'd lost his leg and arm while clearing land mines in war-torn countries). The next time you hear someone refer to pro-sports players as 'heroes', tell them the real definition by referring them to this film.
Shave and A Haircut - Hold the Leeches
I expected this to be a mildly interesting human-interest piece but I found it more than mildly interesting, and in the span of less than an hour (not counting the terrific extras), I felt a real closeness to each of the barbers interviewed. The film covers lots of cool history of barbering that goes back to the days of (purposeful) blood-letting and the removal of teeth and stitches, and it also includes some humorous and eeeky stories of shaving mishaps and high-stress barber-school exams. Most enjoyable though, is the atmosphere and kibitzing that goes on in barbershops. If nothing else, this is a film about the lost art of conversation. There are lots of documentaries out there in recent years about the different parts of America's personal history that are being lost to gentrification and corporate monopolies. This is among the best of them. See this movie and them go out and support your local barber.