Archive for the ‘Cinema’ Category

The Rise of Donald Trump

August 24, 2015

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I had hoped that Trump’s support consisted entirely of old white people. However, looking at photos of his recent rally in Mobile, Alabama; I was dismayed to see a lot of young people, although they were all white. (I did see one black guy in one of the photos, although he may have been doing security. Either way, he didn’t look terribly enthusiastic.) Trump’s message seems to resonate with people from all walks of (white) life.

I recently watched the documentary, Trump: What’s the Dearl?, which was made in the early 1990’s. It was never realease at the time, because Trump sued the filmmakers. (Trump has a thing for suing people. He once sued an architecture critic who panned one of his buildings.) It has recently been made available online. The film only follows Trump’s career up until the early 1990’s, after he filed for bankruptcy due to the failure of one of his Atlantic City casinos. It is nevertheless a revealing account of Trump’s early career.

Trump’s father, Fred Trump, was a wealthy Brooklyn real estate developer. When Trump set out to break into the real estate business in the 1970’s, the then mayor of New York, Abraham Beame, happened to be a childhood friend of Fred Trump. Beame used his influence to arrange Trump’s first big real estate purchase. Later, when Trump bought the Commodore Hotel, Beame arranged to give him a huge tax break. Trump’s whole career was made possible by the fact that he happened to have a wealthy father who was politically well-connected.

His business model apparently consists of borrowing a lot of money while doing things on the cheap. When he tore down the old Bonwit Teller building, to make way for his Trump Tower, he hired an inexperienced firm that used undocumented Polish immigrants as workers.(I guess Trump only objects to immigrants when they happen to be Mexican.) They were not given protective equipment, even though they had to remove asbestos. This approach usually works well for Trump, but it sometimes gets him into trouble. During the 1980’s, he borrowed so much money to buy up real estate in Atlantic City that the revenues from his casinos were not enough to keep with his debt payments. With his characteristic crassness, Trump tried to blame three managers of his casino, who had recently died in a helicopter crash, for its failure.

I have to admit that the appeal of Trump escapes me. He lacks charm, and he actually strikes me as being a dull person. Yet so many people in the media seem to want to regard him as an interesting person. Trump is an invention of the media, and they must take responsibility for the harm he is currently doing.

The Gift

August 20, 2015

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The heat wave this past weekend here in LA made the idea of sitting in an air-conditioned movie theater more than usually appealing to me, so I ended up watching three thrillers. Thrillers are basically my favorite genre. I would sooner watch a mediocre thriller than sit through a critically acclaimed “feel good” movie like St. Vincent. That’s just the way I roll.

The first one I saw was a French-Canadian film titled Tom at the Farm. It’s basically about a sado-masochistic relationship that often seems to be on the verge of becoming lethal. It’s OK. A big problem I had with this film is that I found the main character unsympathetic, since he seemed to like being bullied. I enjoyed Cop Car a lot more. It’s fun watching Kevin Bacon playing a thoroughly corrupt and cynical small-town sheriff. The director, Jon Watts, shows a real knack for building suspense. However, I found the up-in-the-air ending disappointing. I have to admit that I’m not big on up-in-the-air endings. A film, like a symphony, should have an ending that brings things to completion.

The best film I saw, though, was The Gift, written and directed by Joel Edgerton. It tells the story of a married couple, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), who have just bought a house in the Hollywood Hills. While shopping one day, they bump into Gordon (Joel Edgerton), an old schoolmate of Simon’s. They have him over for dinner one day, and afterwards Gordon begins to drop by their house, leaving gifts and offering to help out with things. His behavior begins to seem intrusive and a bit unnerving. Robyn starts to suspect that Simon is not telling her the whole truth about his past relationship with Gordon.

First-time director Edgerton does a good job of creating a sense of foreboding. The film benefits from strong performances, particularly from Hall, who does a good job of conveying Robyn’s conflicting emotions: she is simultaneously sympathetic towards Gordon and a bit creeped out by him.

SPOILER ALERT: I AM ABOUT TO GIVE AWAY THE ENDING

Although I mostly liked this film, I found the ending unsatisfying. We see Gordon gloating over a defeated Simon. Although Simon is truly a terrible person, Gordon’s own actions were sordid. He stalked Robyn and invaded her privacy; he basically used her to get even with Simon. I would have preferred an ending that did a better job of acknowledging the moral ambiguities of the situation.

Listen to Me Marlon

August 13, 2015

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Marlon Brando was, arguably, the greatest American actor of the twentieth century. Stevan Riley’s new film, Listen to Me Marlon is a deeply moving examination of Brando’s tragic life and work. Based on taped musings that Brando left behind after his death, it is actually more of a film essay than a documentary. Brando’s tapings are combined with clips from his films, excerpts from TV news broadcasts and interviews, and even messages from Brando’s telephone answering machine, to create a tapestry of ideas, opinions, reflections, and emotions that is deeply haunting and even somewhat disturbing.

We learn about Brando’s childhood in Omaha, Nebraska. He talks about his abusive father and alcoholic mother. His father sent him to a military academy, an experience that left him with a deep dislike for the military, whose purpose he saw was to make men into machines. After he dropped out of the academy, he went to New York, where he studied acting under Stella Adler. He immediately showed a strong talent for it, and Adler encouraged him to pursue a career in theater. He achieved success early on when he was cast as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. However, he found the role emotionally demanding. (He says the character reminded him of his father.) Performing this play night after night left him feeling drained. He decided then he would only do film acting. He achieved enormous success doing this during the 1950’s. However, he found the experience of filming the 1962 film, Mutiny on the Bounty unpleasant, and he was hurt by the fact that the studio blamed him for the film’s delays and cost overruns. Embittered by this experience, Brando began to view acting as nothing more than a way to make a living. Making The Godfather reawakened his enthusiasm for acting. However, after Last Tango in Paris, he came to feel that the director, Bernardo Bertolucci, had invaded his privacy. Apocalypse Now was something of a repeat of Bounty for Brando. The director, Francis Ford Coppola, blamed him for the film’s cost overruns. After that, Brando says little on the topic of acting or the films he appeared in.

Brando talks a great deal about his love for Tahiti, both for its landscape and for its people. Brando tells us he only ever felt at peace among Tahitians. He also talks about his involvement in the civil rights movement, as well as for his support for the struggles of Native Americans. The final section of the film largely deals with the tragic events that culminated in the suicide of his daughter, Cheyenne.

Listen to Me Marlon is a stunning depiction of the life of an extraordinary man.

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker

July 29, 2015

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One rarely hears Sophie Tucker’s name mentioned any more. Which is odd, considering that for most of the twentieth century she was one of the most popular entertainers in the US. She was known for her powerful voice and bawdy sense of humor. She projected an image of a strong, independent woman; long before it became fashionable to do so. She influenced such singers as Judy Garland and Bette Midler. Her friends included Al Capone and J.Edgar Hoover. (Members of Tucker’s family claim that Hoover would ask to borrow her dresses.)

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker is directed by William Gazecki, and produced by Lloyd and Susan Ecker. It is a documentary about Tucker that draws heavily on Tucker’s private scrapbooks and letters, supplemented by interviews with people who knew her. The producers, however, find various ways to insert themselves into the story, in such a way that the film ends up being partly about them. This might have been unobjectionable if it were not for their self-important attitudes. For example, Lloyd Ecker tells a story about US GI’s playing a recording of Tucker’s “My Yiddische Mama” on the streets of Berlin at the end of World War II. This could have been an interesting side-note to Tucker’s life, but Ecker’s telling of the story is so long-winded and bombastic that you can’t wait for him to move on to something else. Even worse, Ecker later pretends to get choked up when he tells the story of Tucker’s last public appearance. This sort of thing is just insulting to people’s intelligence, and it actually does a disservice to Tucker’s memory.

On the bright side, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker will perhaps lead to a renewed interest in Tucker’s music and life. I just wish it could have been a better film.

Cartel Land

July 20, 2015

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The “War on Drugs’ continues to take a heavy toll not only on our country but on Mexico as well. The drug cartels that terrorize that country grew up to feed the underground US drug market. Matthew Heineman’s documentary, Cartel Land, examines this situation.

The film begins with a scene of Mexican cartel members cooking meth. One of them frankly informs us that most of their meth will go to the US. We are then shown a funeral for several members of a Mexican family. When the owner of a lime farm refused to pay money to the Knights Templar cartel, they responded by killing the workers on his farm, as well as their families. We are then introduced to Jose Mireles, a doctor, who has organized a vigilante group, Autodefensas, to fight the Knights Templar in the Mexican state of Michoacán. The go from town to town and drive away any cartel members that they find. In one scene, an army squadron shows up and tries to disarm the Autodensas. The people of the town come to the aid of the vigilantes, and the army is forced to back down. The Autodefensas grow rapidly in size and power. There are inevitably abuses, and in some cases outright criminality. Mireles tries to reassert control over the group, but one gets the impression that he is in over his head. He suspects that the Autodefensas have been infiltrated by the Viagra cartel, and it soon becomes clear that this is exactly what has happened. The Autodefensas become “legal” by joining the federal police, with cartel members in their ranks. Fearing for his life, Mireles goes into hiding. He is eventually arrested by the government for illegal firearms possession, and he is now in prison. We are shown members of the Viagra cartel, some of them wearing federal police uniforms, cooking meth.

This story is interspersed with another story about a US vigilante group, Arizona Border Recon, which claims to be “defending” the border. (The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified these people as a hate group.) Their leader is Tim “Nailer” Foley, who lives in Arizona’s Alta Valley. Foley claims that Mexican drug cartels have taken over this area, although he provides no evidence to prove this claim. We see Foley and his followers patrolling the desert, with nary a cartel member in sight. (This is marked contrast to the gun battles we see in some of the Michoacán scenes.) In one scene they come across some immigrants, and they promptly turn them over to the Border Patrol. That is all the “invasion” that we see. One gets the uncomfortable feeling that the people in ABR get their ideas from watching Fox News. This is clearly another situation that can’t end well.

This film is deeply disturbing to watch. Seeing the Autofefensas turned into their opposite shows just how powerful and corrupting the drug trade is. The only possible solution is to legalize and regulate the sale of “recreational” drugs.

3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets

July 1, 2015

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3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets is a documentary about the 2012 murder of Jordan Davis and the subsequent trial of his killer, Michael Dunn. Dunn shot and killed Davis after the latter refused to turn down his car radio in a gas station parking lot. Dunn also shot at the other three people who were in the car with Davis.

This film largely consists of interviews with Davis’s parents and with his friends, as well as scenes from Dunn’s trial. Davis is portrayed as a good kid, who was well liked by his friends, even though he wasn’t very good at playing basketball. It’s the trial scenes, however, that are the most interesting. Dunn’s lawyer does a good job of cross-examining the prosecution’s witnesses, but he makes a crucial mistake when he puts Dunn on the witness stand. (Perhaps he felt he had to call Dunn because there were few witnesses, and because Davis’s friends seemed credible on the stand.) The prosecution catches Dunn in a lie, which undermines his claim that Davis had a gun. In spite of this, the jury dead-locked on the question of whether Dunn committed first degree murder. They did find him guilty of three counts of second degree murder, for shooting at Davis’s friends as they were trying to get away from him.

Dunn’s lawyer tells the jury that the trial is not about race. There is no evidence that Dunn used racial epithets at the time of the shooting. Yet one can’t help but wonder if he would have shot at three white boys playing loud music. I would have liked to learn more about Dunn: his background, his political beliefs, etc. At the end of the film, he shows no remorse for what he did, and he even claims to be the “real victim” in this case. Dunn kept a loaded gun in his car, and I suspect that he was secretly wishing that he would one day have an excuse to use it. He was an accident waiting to happen.

Good Kill

June 9, 2015

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Our recent strategy in the War on Terror is similar to our strategy in Vietnam: keep killing the enemy until there are none left. That strategy didn’t work in Vietnam, and it’s not working today. The Taliban have made a comeback in Afghanistan, and Daesh now control large parts of Syria and Iraq. Is it time for our policymakers to try something else?

This question is posed by the recent film, Good Kill, written and directed by Andrew Niccol. It tells the story of Thomas Egan (Nathan Hawke), an Air Force pilot who has been reassigned to being a drone pilot. After two children are inadvertently killed in a drone attack, he begins to have doubts about his job. The emotional stress that Egan is under starts to cause strains in his marriage to Molly (January Jones).

Things get worse when Egan’s group is placed under the direct control of the CIA, whose rules of engagement are looser than those of the military. They have a policy of a “double tap”: firing a missile at the first responders to an attack, on the theory that most such people are likely terrorists themselves. The CIA considers it an acceptable risk that innocent people will almost certainly get killed. The characters argue about this. Egan’s fellow crew member, Vera (Zoë Kravitz), makes the case that drone attacks are causing people to side with the terrorists, while Egan’s commanding officer, Col. Johns (Bruce Greenwood) makes the “we can’t risk losing one American’s life” argument. The debate is never resolved one way or another. At the end, however, when Egan literally walks away from his job, it’s clear that we’re expected to see this as a moral redemption for Egan. Although it seems an empty victory, since we know that the military will simply replace him with somebody else.

Good Kills is a well-made film that raises a number of troubling questions, but its feel-good ending cant’t conceal the fact that it doesn’t offer any answers.

Dark Star: The World of HR Giger

May 23, 2015

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HR Giger (pronounced geeger) was a Swiss artist who was known for the dark subject matter of his works. They depict the weird and the bizarre, often with a subtle, and sometimes blatant, eroticism. Belinda Sallin’s documentary about him was made shortly before his death. In it, he comes across as taciturn, but nonetheless likable. (He looked a bit like Brother Theodore.) He lived in a house that looked like a museum of the macabre. In one scene, Giger shows us a skull that he says his father gave him when he was a child. (He says that his father, a pharmacist, was given the skull by Ciba-Geigy, a pharmaceutical company. I would have liked to learned more of the details about this.) He says that he would pull the skull along the street with a string. He did this in order to try to lessen his fear of it. This film subtly suggests that this anecdote can be seen as a metaphor for Giger’s career.

Giger’s ex-wife tells us that he never really grew up. In one scene, we see him riding around on a miniature railroad that he built in his backyard. (Not suprisingly, he liked cats.) Giger tells us that he had a happy childhood. He was apparently close to his mother, although he says he found his father a “mystery”. The only tragic part of his life concerned the death of his one-time lover, the actress Li Tobler, who committed suicide. Giger admits to be being haunted by the question of whether he could have done something to prevent this.

I have to admit that I’m not a great admirer of Giger’s work. I find the recurring themes and images, and unrelenting bleakness, a bit monotonous after a while. However, this film gave me a certain respect for the man. He was determined to follow his own vision, and he managed to acquire a devoted following.

About Elly

May 16, 2015

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About Elly is a 2009 Iranian film by Asghar Farhadi, who also directed A Seperation, which won an Academy Award for best foreign language picture.

Three couples go on a three-day trip to a resort on the shore of the Caspian sea along with their children. One of them, Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), brings along her daughter’s kindergarten teacher, Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti). She wants to introduce her to her friend, Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), who has recently divorced from his German wife. Things go well the first day, although Elly sometimes seems a bit uncomfortable. On the second day, she disappears, and people fear that she may have drowned. The characters gradually begin to blame one another for what happened. Much of the blame centers on Sepideh, as it becomes clear that she hasn’t been completely honest about some things.

About Elly is a subtle and complex drama that touches upon many different ideas: the fact that good intentions can have bad results, the fragility of human relationships, how small deceptions can a devastating effect on people. This is the most powerful and troubling film that I have seen in quite a while.

One thing that struck me about this movie is that the men and women interact in a more-or-less equal manner. (The men have subtle advantages over the women, although one could make that argument about our society as well.) Iran is an Islamic theocracy, like Saudi Arabia. Yet, based on what I know about the latter country, I can’t imagine people there behaving in quite this way. (I certainly can’t imagine people in areas controlled by ISIS acting in this way.) This can be seen as evidence that Islam is a more complex religion than many self-styled “experts” on Islam are willing to admit.

It’s clear that the influence of Muslim and Iranian cultural notions about honor, propriety, and the role of women lead to Sepideh’s deceitful behavior, with grievous consequences for Sepideh herself. She is a great tragic figure.

F for Fake

May 9, 2015

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Orson Welles called F for Fake a “film essay”. That is, while it isn’t a narrative film, it’s not a documentary, because it doesn’t claim to be entirely factual. Welles seemed to think that he invented this genre, but many film historians would disagree. For example, many view Vertov’s 1929 film, Man with a Movie Camera, as a film essay. Regardless of this, F for Fake is innovative in that it uses the medium of film to question the truthfulness of film itself.

F for Fake touches on a wide range of topics, but it is mainly concerned with the story of Elmyr de Hory, a French-Hungarian art forger, and the writer, Clifford Irving. Irving wrote a biography of de Hory, and then he committed a forgery of his own, writing a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes. Handwriting experts declared the manuscript to be real. (Welles suggests that de Hory forged Hughes’s handwriting.) Both de Hory and Irving express a dismissive attitude towards “experts”. One gets the sense that this film may have been meant as a subtle dig at the critic, Pauline Kael, who wrote an essay about Citizen Kane, in which she claimed that Welles didn’t write any of the script.

F for Fake uses a variety of visual tricks. There are scenes in which Irving and de Hory seem to be talking to each other, but they are actually shots from two different interviews that have been spliced together. This film serves as a demonstration that we can take nothing at face value.

The Criterion Collection DVD of this film includes the documentary, Orson Welles: The One-Man Band, which was co-directed and co-written by Welles’s girlfriend, Oja Kodar. This film concentrates on Welles’s later years and includes scenes from many of the unfinished films he made, as well as from the unreleased film The Other Side of the Wind. (And the fact that this film remains unreleased is a scandal.) Among other things, we learn that Welles was obsessed with Moby Dick. Over the years he shot numerous scenes of himself reciting passages from this work, although it was unclear what he intended to do with these. Welles seemed to identify with the character of Ahab. Like Ahab, he spent much of his life pursuing something – in his case success – he could never quite achieve.

Welles also made this bizarre nine-minute trailer for F for Fake: