Gangsters and Movie Houses
My wife and I went to see "American Gangster" yesterday evening. I thought it a mediocre movie at best, but that's not what I want to write about.
It was the first weekend of a major first-run movie; movie houses and complexes all over town were playing "Gangster" -- we could have gone almost anywhere to see it. But we chose to go to the Van East movie house in our own neighbourhood. Two great seats cost us $10 (it would have been $11 if we had chosen the balcony), a dollar or so less than EACH ticket would have cost downtown. Sure, the seats are not the plushest, but they are comfortable enough with a lot of legroom and with available cup holders. The house is well cleaned between shows, and we were subjected to ZERO commercials and only two brief trailers before the main feature began. The house was about half full.
Why on earth would one NOT support a local business when you get excellent service for half the price?
About 18 months ago, my wife and I accidentally came across Episode 2 of "Rome" on TV. We were immediately hooked, and sat transfixed each week until Series 1 ended after 12 episodes. We knew that a second season had been made, but it never seemed to appear on any station available in Canada. Most frustrating. Then I happened to notice that Amazon was selling boxed sets of the entire 2-series show, a total of 22 long episodes. Over last weekend and each evening this week, we watched the whole thing from beginning to end.
This is truly great television, epic in scale, consistently of the highest quality in production values, writing and acting. Even more, the political background is remarkably accurate. The series covers the period from Julius Ceasar's decision to bring his armies back from Gaul to Rome, through the Civil war against Pompey, his dictatorship and assassination, and includes Octavian and Marc Anthony's campaigns against Cassius and Brutus. The series concludes with the deaths of Anthony and Cleopatra before the power of Octavian, about to become the first true Emperor of Rome as Ceasar Augustus.
We follow this history through various tracks: In one part of the foreground are two men, soldiers in Ceasar's legions: Lucius Verenus, and Titus Pullo, who represent the plebs, the lower orders; in another part of the foreground are the senior politicians and soldiers: Julius Ceasar, Marc Anthony, Cato, Brutus, Cicero, Pompey, Cleaopatra, Octavian, whose bloody rivalries drive the narrative and time lines; and the aristocratic women represented most clearly by Servilia of the Junii, Atia of the Julii, and Attia's daughter Octavia, who allow us to learn about the style and culture of the time, and whose vicious feuds make modern soap operas look like nursery rhymes. All of the major characters are examined in depth, as are a dozen or more lesser figures.
The series cost a fortune to make -- no wonder they quit after 22 episodes. And all the dollars are on the screen in sets, costumes, props, extras. The acting is very fine throughout. There is a great deal of sex and at least as much gore. This is not for the faint of heart or the conservative Reader's Digest viewer. The episodes were written by a number of separate authors. But their consistency in quality and pace shows the strong guiding hand of, I suppose, Bruno Heller.This is marvelous stuff and if you haven't seen it, I urge you get hold of the DVDs and enjoy it.
Death and Nothing
This weekend saw the death of two film directors widely recognised as masters of their medium: Ingmar Bergman and Michaelangelo Antonioni. Both were, it seems to me, fascinated by the estrangement of individuals from their social mileus. It was as if both had absorbed Erich Fromm's psychological treatment of capitalist-consumerist alienation and regurgitated it as movies. But their respective birthplaces clearly affected their visions -- Bergman seeped in the greyness of Scandinavia, while Antonioni could better handle a multi-coloured tapestry.
I have rarely enjoyed a Bergman picture. I can intellectually understand the soundness of his direction and his mastery of material. But I found his vision and his settings too bleak, too cold (emotionally and physically) to hold my interest. But I adored Antonioni.
My father was a senior executive of MGM in London when the director was hired to make "Blow Up". I was about sixteen and intricately involved in all things London and sixties and I so wanted to be a part of the movie. I had heard of Antonioni but had never seen any of his films. Through my father and through other contacts, I managed to see Red Desert and the L'Aventurra-La Notte-L'eclisse trilogy in a single weekend. I was hooked. I managed to visit the set of Blow Up a few times, and enjoyed wild arguments with my father and his fellow execs about whether or not the director should be allowed to have real dope on the set in the party scene.
It took me three times of watching to see Zabriskie Point. I've watched it again several times and each time I like it better than before. I know American critics, in particular, hate it with a passion. But most of them hate Coppola's One From The Heart, too, which simply shows they have been numbed to sleep by all the dreck they are forced to watch. The Passenger, with its famous ending, is also immensely watchable.
Farewell to both Bergman and Antonioni. At 89 and 94, they had good long lives.
Sicko Is Superb, Should Bring Revolution
I suspect that, with a single major exception that I'll discuss below, most of us -- and most Americans -- already know about the failures of the US healthcare system. What Sicko does is to contrast and compare it, in depth, with the successful systems in Canada, the UK, France and Cuba. The differences will probably come as a true shock to most Americans (because they have been lied to by both politicians and insurance carriers): every other Western country has universal and free medical coverage, with complete choice of doctors and procedures, paid for with a tax system that is no more onerous (perhaps less) than what Americans pay for taxes plus incomplete insurance today. And every other Western country has smaller percentages of their populations afflicted with the major diseases than does the US, and their populations live on average several years longer.
Michael Moore's interview with that old British Labour warhorse Anthony Wedgewood-Benn was perhaps the most important segment in terms of explaining the differences. Benn recounted how, in 1948, the British National Health System was established. Remembering the billions upon billions of dollars the Brits had managed to raise to defeat the Germans in the War, he recalled that the post-war leadership realised that if one could spend that kind of money to kill people, then you could equally well spend that kind of money to make people better. And thus was born the concept of free health coverage for everyone, rich or poor.
It was also Tony Benn, I believe, who pointed out that the significant political difference between Europe and America is that in Europe the politicians are afraid of the people, while in the States most people are afraid of the government. As he said, even that generally-insensitive doyen of the British right wing, Maggie Thatcher, would never have dared to try to eliminate the National Health Service.
My only complaint about the movie is in the marketing. The ads have one viewer saying it is "hilarious", and another saying that he couldn't stop laughing. Well, I have no idea what movie they saw. Moore is often sarcastic and certainly likes to point up the ludicrousness of the American situation but, in a crowded theatre yesterday, I heard nothing even approaching a chuckle. The situation is simply too dire for that. Moreover, the section of the movie where Moore takes American 9/11 first responders who cannot get treatment in the States to a Cuban hospital actually brought me to tears. The compassion shown by the superb Cuban medical team is in such stark contrast to the terrible treatment these people suffered in the States that I was overwhelmed.
I mentioned above that generally the bad state of American healthcare is well known. Most of us can recall reading stories about US insurers refusing treatment. However, I suspect that most of us will be shocked to the core, as was I, to see elderly and desperately sick patients being dumped out of cars in the Los Angeles' skid-row neighbourhood by a hospital who had evicted them for inability to pay. The picture of an elderly woman, very sick and completely disoriented, shuffling along the street wearing nothing but a thin hospital gown should be branded on the foreheads of every HMO CEO.
If the American people don't see this film and use it as the kickoff to a mighty revolution in US healthcare then, frankly, they don't deserve anything better than the crappy system they have today.
Robert Altman Is Dead
I loved all his movies, but most especially "M*A*S*H", "Short Cuts" and "The Player". He will be missed.
This evening we went to see "Control Room", a documentary about Al-Jazeera.
This film is a marvelous piece of work that simply shows Al-Jazeera doing their job in Iraq from two days before the US started bombing last year until the tanks took over Baghdad's central square. The filmmaker's sympathy with Al-Jazeera is clear but, unlike "Fahrenheit 911" for example, the bias such as it is is completely subsumed within the documentary form. There is no Michael Moore-style narrator, just interviews and straightforward documentary coverage of what is happening in the Al-Jazeera and CentCom newsrooms. The Americans -- in the form of Donald Rumsfeld, Brigadier-General Brooks, media advisor Lt Rushing, and endless civilian casualties -- are allowed to make the filmakers' points for them.
The conservatives will find everything they need here, too. After all, several of Al-Jazeera's staff were happy to announce that they were not disinterested observers, that they had a specific point of view. But that too must backfire on the Americans. The Al-Jazeera staff are honest about their positions. As one of them says, how many of the US reporters can genuinely say they are unbiased, and yet they pretend to be fair and balanced.
"Fahrenheit 911" is a far more entertaining couple of hours, but I think "Control Room" tells a more interesting story.
New Jersey's Woody Allen? Hard to say after a single film, but.... Tons of intimately observed local colour; a gallery of intriguing characters, none of whom is a sterotypical cut-out; massive self-absorption and introspection; the use of humour in the search for deeper meaning; the writer, director and star credits: Zach Braff's "Garden State" feels like a movie I imagine Woody Allen would make if he was Zach Braff's age today, brought up in New Jersey.
I really enjoyed it. The casting was superb with Natalie Portman shining as the odd love interest, Ian Holm wonderfully underplaying the estranged father, and Peter Sarsgaard completely right for Braff's best friend. Zach Braff himself plays a very believable guy, who manages to fit in (sometimes uncomfortably) wherever he is. The story wasn't particularly original (long-exiled son returns home for parent's funeral, discovers what he's been missing) but the setting and specific execution made this stand out. The writer/director Braff has a great eye for the visually interesting shot. The soundtrack rocks! Well worth seeing.
Braff has a regularly maintained weblog through which you can share the rollout of the movie.
We went to see "Fahrenheit 9/11" along with a jam-packed theatre-load of people on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Moore and Miramax have done an astounding PR job to get people in to see the movie. It is wishful thinking, I guess, to hope that all worthwhile projects will now get such a boost.
I have to say that I was very impressed with the film. It hits every one of its marks and, from what I could see and hear, pulled the audience along exactly where it wanted to take them. It is funny in places, tear-jerkingly maudlin in others. Moore limits his trademark stunts to two brief and innocuous passages (the ice-cream truck, and buttonholing Congressman to send their kids to Iraq) and, in my opinion, therefore enhances the value of his main set piece narrative speeches.
I suspect that a transcript of the movie would be less effective. I have a suspicion that he left several arguments unclosed, hanging in the air, while he segued laterally to something else. I have a strong suspicion that -- while probably accurate -- several of his arguments were less than adequately supported, that the internal logic may have been incomplete. But no matter. It was very effective cinema. Moore is a natural filmmaker and I look forward to his next.
Finally, it is good to see that John Samples does not stoop to the hypocrisy of so many on the distant shores of the fundamentalist right wing. In an article at National Review Online, the Cato Institute director says that First Amendment rights should protect the movie from attempts by the Federal Elections Commission to shut down the movie's advertising.
"Conservatives who support limited government and political liberty should be outraged about this. Yes, Moore's movie is obnoxious. But the remedy for bad speech is more speech. David Brooks has evoked Moore's own words to bring the movie and the Democratic Establishment into disrepute. That's the right strategy: More speech, not less. Besides, some of us may wish to say some obnoxious things about a President Kerry in a few months time. Should we have to ask the federal government for permission to say them?"Refuse to be shackled by ideology, and one finds temporary allies everywhere.
The internet is home to pornography and paedophiles and loud political bullshit and almost endless commercial garbage. It swamps us. So much so, that it is sometimes hard to remember that the net is also the place where extraordinary creativity is available for all to see. In honour of that, I want to share three fine little films that I recently came across.
The first is called "Endless Love" and tells the tale of a potato and a tomato. The animation is in "Toy Story" style and quality.
The next is a short political satire called "Tony's Dream".
Finally, we have "Maximus Plumbeus", an actor takes on the "Gladiator" role.
In each case, it will probably take longer to load the files than to watch them; but they are all worth it. Bravo to the artistic chops of the artists involved!
I don't seem to watch TV much these days, and certainly not the talk shows which appear to be ever more boring and predictable. Because of that, it seems, I have missed Michael Moore complaining about Pete Townshend's "refusal" to allow him to use his song "Won't Get Fooled Again" in "Fahrenheit 911".
No idea who is right or wrong in this issue (and don't much care, to be honest) but I am impressed by the articulate response that Townshend has posted on his website about the affair. I haven't seen Moore give his side of the story, but I can bet it was a lot more "blood and thunder" than this. One interesting snippet:
"I have nothing against Michael Moore personally, and I know Roger Daltrey is a friend and fan of his, but I greatly resent being bullied and slurred by him in interviews just because he didn’t get what he wanted from me. It seems to me that this aspect of his nature is not unlike that of the powerful and wilful man at the centre of his new documentary."Touche.