Archive for November, 2015

Bolshoi Babylon

November 30, 2015

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Bolshoi Babylon, a documentary by Nick Read and Mark Franchetti, is about Russia’s famed ballet compay. In 2013, someone threw acid in the face of the company’s director, Sergei Filin. This left Filin blind in one eye. This incident rocked the Russian nation. The Bolshoi is regarded as a symbol of national pride and a cultural treasure. Eventually, one of the dancers is arrested and charged with the crime. At his trial, the dancer, Pavel Dmitrichenko, says he discussed with his neighbor the possibility of his beating up Filin, but he insists that he never told the man to throw acid in Filin’s face. At the trial, Pavel accuses Filin of favoritism and of corruption.

The documentary follows the events after Filin’s return to the company. At first, Filin is greeted warmly. But then we learn that the dancers have complaints about Filin. They don’t like his casting decisions, and they accuse him of corruption. (We’re never told what exactly this alleged corruption consists of.) Filin’s problems are deepened by the fact that company’s new manager, Vladimir Urin, has a personal grudge against Filin, dating from the time when they were both working for the Stanislavsky Theatre. Urin at first seems an incongruous character to be running a ballet company: he looks and sounds as though he should be running a lumber yard. Yet it becomes clear that he deeply cares about the company and about its dancers.

Despite its gimmicky title, Bolshoi Babylon is actually quite a good film. There are extensive interviews with the dancers. We learn about the stress and disappointments they undergo in this demanding, and highly competitive, art form. One dancer refers to her daily rehearsals as “torture”. One complains of not getting enough work, then later complains of having too much work and not being able to spend time with her son. We also get a sense of the feeling of accomplishment that these dancers also get. This film introduces us to people we feel better for knowing.

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Sicario

November 17, 2015

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Sicario, directed by Denis Villeneuve, from a script by Taylor Sheridan, is a thriller set on the US-Mexican border.

Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is an FBI agent, who, along with her partner, Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya), is recruited to a special operations force, led by a Department of Defense adviser, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and by the mysterious Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro). The ostensible purpose of the force is to combat a Mexican drug cartel that has been operating inside the US. However, Kate eventually discovers that the group has a more sinister aim.

Sicario is a powerful indictment of the futility and corruption of the “War on Drugs”. And I must say that after Zero Dark Thirty, it’s nice to see a film that shows the CIA in a bad light. My one quibble with this film is that the main character is too much of a Goodie Two Shoes. I find it hard to believe that an FBI agent would show as much outrage at what is going on as Kate does. After all, we’re talking about the people who gave us COINTELPRO, the Waco Massacre, the Leonard Peltier case, and Whitey Bulger. I guess the filmmakers felt they needed to give the film a moral center. Still, Sicario is a great film.

Truth

November 9, 2015

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Truth, written and directed by James Vanderbilt, tells the story of the widely criticized CBS News report about Bush’s National Guard service. The controversy around the report resulted in several people losing their jobs, and it forced Dan Rather into early retirement.

Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) is a producer for CBS News. She organizes an investigation into Bush’s National Guard service during the 1970’s, specifically as to whether he received preferential treatment and whether he went AWOL at one point. Mapes is contacted by a former National Guard officer, Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach), who gives her documents allegedly written by a now deceased National Guard officer, which are highly critical of Bush. The documents are used in a 60 Minutes report. Almost immediately, the Internet is flooded with accusations that the documents are forged.

I found Truth to be an intelligent and compelling drama, despite some hokey moments. The acting is quite good; Cate Blanchett is affecting as Mapes. However, there were some things about the film that bothered me. In particular, I was struck by the fact that Vanderbilt goes out of his way to depict Bill Burkett in a sympathetic light, despite the fact the he lied to Mapes about how he obtained the documents. This seems odd, especially since there is very good reason to believe that Burkett may have been the one who forged the documents. The paper trail ends with Burkett, and he possessed the necessary knowledge to write the documents. Also the film doesn’t mention that Burkett was an outspoken critic of Bush before he produced the documents, which was something that Mapes must have been aware of.

In one scene, a character makes a speech about corporate control of the news media. Although I think corporate control is a problem, I don’t think it has any bearing on this incident, and the film doesn’t make a convincing case that it does.

Truth does make a valid point that the pressure of deadlines can lead reporters to make unwise decisions. However, I think Mapes should have known better than to use the documents from Burkett in the report.

In my opinion, the The New York Times’s coverage of Iraq during the build-up to the Iraq war was far more egregious than what Mapes and CBS News did, since it created support for an illegal war. Yet only one person there, Judith Miller, lost her job because of it. I think this says something about the media’s priorities.

Bridge of Spies

November 3, 2015

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Bridge of Spies, directed by Steven Spielberg, is a loosely fictionalized account of an actual incident that took place during the Cold War. In 1957, the FBI arrests Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet spy living in the United States. James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is the lawyer who takes his case. While Abel’s case is wending its way through the courts, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a U-2 pilot, is shot down over the Soviet Union. The government asks Donovan to negotiate a prisoner exchange of Abel for Powers.

I found this film entertaining, even though there were some things in it that I found hard to believe. Spielberg shows his characteristic tendency towards hamminess. For example, when the FBI agents show up to arrest Abel, they arrive in several cars that all come to a screeching halt in the middle of the street. The agents then burst through Abel’s hotel room door. Does anyone really believe that this is how the FBI arrests a suspected spy? (According to Wikipedia, two FBI agents knocked on Abel’s door.) In another scene, someone fires gunshots through the window of Donovan’s house. This never happened. Is it really too much to ask that I be allowed to sit through a film without having my intelligence insulted? Spielberg seems to have no compunction about doing this, which is why I have never been one of his great admirers.