Archive for November, 2014

Citizenfour

November 29, 2014

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Citizenfour is a documentary by Laura Poitras about the recent revelations of NSA spying on US citizens. For those who have been following this scandal, this film will reveal nothing new. It is primarily of interest as an historical document. There is footage of the first meeting between Snowden and Greenwald and Poitras in hotel room in a Hong Kong. In these scenes, Snowden appears confident, yet one sometimes senses a feeling of anxiousness in him. He is clearly concerned about what might happen to him. (Snowden has been criticized for seeking refuge in Russia, which is a dictatorship. This film tells us that he had intended to fly from Moscow to Ecuador. He no doubt had to give up this idea in the face of the US’s manhunt for him. A plane carrying Bolivian president Evo Morales was forced down because it was suspected that Snowden might be hiding on board.)

Citizenfour ends by hinting that there are even bigger revelations to come. Yet it never really addresses the question of why the government is doing so much spying. Is it really about the “War on Terror”, or does the government have a deeper motive? In one scene, Jacob Appelbaum suggests that the government collects this information so that it can target people who get too much out of line. This may sound conspiracist to some people, but it should sound plausible to anyone familiar with the FBI’s Cointelpro program.

You are being watched. Always remember that.

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Whiplash

November 24, 2014

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Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, tells the story of Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), an aspiring young jazz drummer who is attending a highly prestigious music conservatory in New York. He is picked to be in the school’s premiere jazz band, which is led by Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). When Neiman attends his first band practice, Fletcher shows up and immediately begins acting like a sadistic bully. He humiliates Neiman in front of the other band members, slaps him repeatedly, and throws a chair at his head (this is in a crowded room). Over time, Neiman becomes obsessed with trying to live up to Fletcher’s exacting standards. He practices until his hands bleed. He dumps his girlfriend, Nicole (Melissa Benoist), telling her that she’s a distraction from his becoming a great musician. He is rude and insulting to members of his own family. However, Fletcher’s abusive behavior leads to a violent confrontation, which results in Neiman being expelled from the conservatory and Fletcher being fired.

Later, Neiman runs into Fletcher in a jazz club. To Neiman’s surprise, Fletcher is friendly towards him. Fletcher explains (not convincingly) that the reason he was such an asshole was that he was trying to get Neiman to “break through” as a musician. He tells a story about how Joe Jones once threw a cymbal at Charlie Parker’s head when the latter wasn’t playing well. (That wasn’t really what happened, but I’ll let that go.) This motivated Parker to work harder and become a better musician. Fletcher then tells Neiman that he is going to be conducting a band at a jazz festival, and he needs a drummer. He assures Neiman that they will be playing pieces he is familiar with. When Neiman shows up for the performance, however, Fletcher has the band play a piece that Neiman doesn’t know. Neiman realizes that he has been lured into a trap, that Fletcher wants to humiliate him in front of an audience.

Now, I have a few problems with this. First, we are expected to believe that when Fletcher bumps into Neiman, he immediately concocts a scheme to get even with him. We are also expected to believe that Fletcher, an obsessive perfectionist, would deliberately sabotage his own band’s performance – and in front of an audience that has record company executives in it. (And the fact that Fletcher didn’t have him rehearse with the band should have tipped off Neiman that something wasn’t right.) In fact, I found the film’s whole premise – that a teacher would try to inspire his students by acting like a raving lunatic – impossible to believe.

I’m sure that a musician’s life can be stressful and difficult at times. (I imagine this is particularly true in a competitive field like jazz.) Instead of trying to depict this, however, Chazelle has given us an overheated melodrama.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay

November 22, 2014

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, directed by Francis Lawrence, picks up where the last installment in the series left off. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has been taken from the Hunger Game by the rebels. (These rebels have a set-up that would make Che Guevara’s head explode: a vast underground city and fighter planes. It is never explained where these rebels get their resources from, in what appears to be a tightly run police state.) The rebels want Katniss to become the “Mockingjay”, the symbol of their revolution. Katniss refuses unless the rebels promise to rescue her sometime boyfriend, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who has been taken prisoner by the government. (Some revolutionary. Imagine Robespierre saying, “If you don’t rescue my Fifi from the Austrians, you’ll have to find yourselves another Incorruptible!”)

When Katniss sees government planes destroy a hospital, she seems to finally embrace her role as the Mockingjay. Soon after, however, she goes back to moping and whining about how she wants her Peeta back, until, to make this prima donna happy, the rebels send a group into the capitol to rescue him.

What makes all this somewhat distasteful is that we see rebels sacrifice their lives to fight the government, yet our main concern is supposed to be that Katniss is worried about her sweetheart. The revolution will not be televised, but it will be made into a teenage romance.

Some Thoughts about Bill Cosby

November 21, 2014

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The accusations against Bill Cosby have left me feeling conflicted. I grew up listening to his early comedy albums and watching his TV specials. I would listen to his records with my friends and my brothers and sometimes with my whole family. I recently re-listened to some of the routines from those old albums, and I must say that they hold up pretty well.

During the 1970’s, however, I began to lose interest in Cosby. First, he produced a Saturday morning cartoon show called Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, which flattened all the subtlety and nuance that had made his childhood stories funny. (The fact that the show was “educational” only made it worse. Comedy isn’t supposed to be educational.) Then there were the TV commercials. Jello pudding and Jello pudding pops. He did a commercial for Hi-C, in which, with a perfectly straight face, he assured us that this soft drink is good for us because it contains “ten percent real fruit juice”. He was the pitchman for Coca-Cola during the “New Coke” fiasco. (Spy magazine once called Cosby “grimly unavoidable”.) It seemed to me that Cosby had ceased to be a comedian and had become a brand. (It’s perhaps worth noting that the accusations against Cosby date back to this period.)

I never watched Cosby’s 1980’s TV show. For all I knew, it may have been funny, but I didn’t really care. For me, Cosby was someone who had started out being really cool and had become uncool. I could never get over my disappointment.

Whether or not the accusations against Cosby prove to be true, I will always think fondly of his early comedy. It seems to me that he is someone who got lost.

Kill the Messenger

November 16, 2014

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Kill the Messenger, directed by Michael Cuesta from a screenplay by Peter Landesman, tells the story of Gary Webb, the journalist who reported on contra drug-dealing in the US, and who was blacklisted by the news media for his efforts. The film follows Webb (Jeremy Renner) as he gradually uncovers the story and then writes about it for the San Jose Mercury News. The article causes a sensation, but then it immediately comes under attack from major news outlets, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times. Webb then struggles to defend the article, as well as his reputation.

An interesting question here is: why was Webb’s article so controversial? I remember during the 1980’s hearing rumors that the contras were running drugs. A Senate committee eventually confirmed this as true. So why did Webb’s revelations upset so many people? I can only guess it was because Webb drew an explicit connection between the contras and the crack cocaine epidemic that swept South-Central Los Angeles in the 1980’s. I remember at the time, some journalists expressed fear of “black anger” as a result of Webb’s article.

This film suggests another possible motive: reporters at major newspapers were incensed that they had been scooped by a mid-size paper. Webb was, in that respect, a victim of the news media pecking order. What this movie also makes clear is the extraordinary vindictiveness of these people: even after the CIA admitted that Webb’s story was basically true, he was unable to get work at any newspaper.

Kill the Messenger is a tribute to a courageous reporter.

Interstellar

November 12, 2014

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Having sat through The Dark Knight Rises, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see Christopher Nolan’s latest film. However, having seen it, I am pleased to report that Interstellar is a better film than The Dark Knight Rises. It is, however, pretentious, melodramatic, overlong, and ultimately silly.

Interstellar is set in a dystopian future. A blight is killing food crops and threatens to starve the human race. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a retired astronaut living on a farm with his family in a region that is plagues by dust storms. One day he notices the dust forming a pattern on the floor of his daughter’s room. It seems to him to be a binary code for a GPS location. When he goes to the location, he finds a secret NASA facility. There he finds his former teacher, Prof. Brand (Michael Caine), as well as Brand’s daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway). Brand tells Cooper that NASA has found a wormhole orbiting Saturn. Brand has devised a plan to transport the human race from the dying earth through this wormhole to another galaxy (shouldn’t this film be Intergalactic?) where they will settle on another planet, once he has solved the “problem of gravity”. (Wouldn’t it be easier just to find a way to kill the blight? One thing I’ve noticed about Nolan’s films is that no one ever does anything the easy way.) NASA has already sent astronauts through the wormhole to find habitable planets. Brand tells Cooper that he wants him to pilot a mission to go through the wormhole and find which astronaut has discovered a habitable planet.

I found most of the second half of this film entertaining, but the first half is a hard slog. There are scenes of people philosophizing about such things as man’s destiny and the true nature of love. There’s a subplot about Cooper’s relationship with his daughter, Murphy (Jessica Chastain). Michael Caine recites a Dylan Thomas poem. And there is a wisecracking robot, who, I take it, is meant to serve as comic relief. (Nolan has apparently forgotten that the comic relief is supposed to be funny.) It’s not until Cooper, Amelia, and the other astronauts travel through the wormhole that this film finally starts to pick up steam, and even then there’s a long lull after they visit the first planet. It seems to me that Nolan wants to be seen as a director with ideas. The problem is that his ideas aren’t very good. (The ideas in The Dark Knight Rises are terrible.) Interstellar could have been a nifty sci-fi adventure. Instead, it’s an ungainly hodgepodge of a a film.

Birdman

November 11, 2014

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Birdman is the latest film by the Mexican director, Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is an aging movie actor who twenty years earlier played a superhero character named Birdman. Riggan has written, and is directing and starring in, a play based on a short story by Raymond Carver. Thomson is hoping the play will revive his career as well as his reputation. He begins to worry, however, that another cast member, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), an egotistical method actor, will overshadow him. At the same time, he is trying to reconnect with his emotionally estranged daughter, Sam (Emma Stone). His girlfriend, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), tells him that she is pregnant. Riggan begins hearing a voice inside his head, the voice of his old Birdman character, telling him that he is wasting his time with this play.

Birdman is a black comedy and a satire of show business. As someone who used to work in the theatre, there were many things in this film that were familiar to me. Its depictions of the competitiveness of the acting profession and the petty humiliations suffered by actors all ring true. Iñárritu and cameraman Emmanuel Lubezki have contrived to make it appear that the film is almost entirely one long tracking shot. This is more than just a gimmick, for it sometimes gives one the feeling that one is almost part of what is happening.

Birdman also contains fantasy elements. I did not mind them at first, and some of them are funny, but they overwhelm the story towards the end, culminating in an ending that I found unsatisfying. Iñárritu’s previous film, Biutiful, also had fantasy elements that I found distracting from the main story. I would like Iñárritu better if he stuck to the realistic storytelling that he does best.

For all its flaws, though, Birdman deserves to be seen.

Against the “Don’t Vote” Argument

November 8, 2014

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Over the past few days, I have read a number of articles that have posited various reasons for why the last election turned out the way it did: low turnout, Republican gerrymandering, the weak economy, the stupidity of the Democrats, etc. I think there is some truth to all of these arguments. What I would like to address here, though, is an argument that some of my leftist friends made, which is that we shouldn’t vote. I can understand why people would feel this way, since our political system is such a scam. Yet I think the argument is seriously lacking in some ways.

In the last election, Oregon, Alaska, and D.C. all voted to legalize marijuana. Massachusetts passed a paid sick days law. Denton, Texas, outlawed fracking. Here in California, voters passed Proposition 47, which reduces many non-violent crimes, including drug possession, from felonies to misdemeanors. This is a major blow against what the late Alexander Cockburn called “the prosecutorial state” – in other words the warehousing of human beings who committed petty crimes. This vote indicates there has been a huge shift in consciousness since the 1990’s, when Californians passed the god-awful “Three Strikes” law, which resulted in people being sentenced for life for such trivial offenses as stealing a slice of pizza. People are beginning to realize that mass incarceration is not only not the solution to our society’s problems, but it actually makes them worse.

Should you vote? I would argue it depends on the circumstances and what’s on the ballot. Yes, we have a terrible political system, but we should take advantage of what little room to maneuver that we have.

St. Vincent

November 5, 2014

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Last Saturday, I went to see Nightcrawler. When I got to the ticket booth, I was told that it had just sold out. I didn’t feel like going home. I saw that St. Vincent, which I had heard was receiving good reviews, was playing at the same time, so I decided to see that. After watching it, I felt that I might just as well have gone home.

Bill Murray plays Vincent MacKenna, a grouchy old coot who spends most of his time at bars and racetracks. Maggie (Melissa McCarthy), moves in next door to him with her son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). Just as you expect, Vincent ends up befriending Oliver. After a series of misadventures and scenes of Vincent being an asshole, Oliver realizes that Vincent isn’t really a bad person, and everyone lives happily ever after.

The early scenes in this film gave me some hope that it would not be just another run-of-the-mill “feel good” movie. Alas, writer/director Theodore Melfi decides to play it safe, while appearing to be “edgy” by having Vincent make racist comments. Also, he leaves loose ends. In one scene, Vincent steals a large amount of money from Oliver. Neither Oliver nor any of the other characters refer to this later in the film.

As I have mentioned previously on this blog, I don’t care for this whole genre of “feel good” movies. Yes, life is worth living, and, yes, most people are not entirely bad. My question is this: why is it so hard for Hollywood filmmakers to make this point in a way that is not contrived and dishonest?

Nightcrawler

November 3, 2014

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Filmmakers seem to have it in for the news media nowadays. First there was Gone Girl, and now there is Nightcrawler, written and directed by Dan Gilroy. (There is also Kill the Messenger, about the media’s trashing of Gary Webb, which I have yet to see.)

Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a petty thief living in Los Angeles. One night he sees a freelance camera crew filming an accident. He gets the idea that he might be able to make a living this way. He steals an expensive bicycle, and he takes it to a pawn shop and trades it in for a camcorder and a police scanner. He struggles at first, but then he manages to get some graphic footage of a crime scene. He takes it to a local TV station. The station manager, Nina Romina (Rene Russo) buys the film, and she offers him advice on what things to look for. Louis then hires an assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed). Louis sees an enormous opportunity for himself when he arrives at a home invasion before the police do.

Louis Bloom speaks in a mixture of self-help cliches and technocratic jargon. At times he sounds almost as though he were giving a TED talk. (I have had bosses who have said some of the same things to me that Bloom says to people.) He is an embodiment of our society’s penchant for hype and boosterism. Yet underneath his glib facade is a man with no empathy for other people, who is willing to commit murder just to get ahead. The film implies that it is these very qualities that make it possible for Louis to be so successful at what he does.

Nina tells Louis that her station promotes the idea that urban crime is spreading into suburban areas. She tells him that she prefers him to cover crimes in wealthy neighborhoods in which the victims are white. She is open and honest about the station’s fearmongering.

Nightcrawler is a powerful indictment of the news media.