Tag Archives: political movies

TIFF 2017: Chappaquiddick

I contemplated walking out on Chappaquiddick before it even started.

Those who’ve been following TIFF this year may know that the festival chose this year to experiment with assigned seating for their Roy Thomson Hall and Princess of Wales screenings. I really hope they don’t try it again.

The Roy Thomson Hall screen looks surprisingly tiny from the second to last row of the furthest balcony. I know because that’s where I got stuck sitting despite arriving nearly two hours early and waiting near the front of the line. From that distance, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy or even follow a complex political drama. I was afraid it would be like trying to watch my neighbour’s TV from a living room across the street.

It turns out I was able to follow the film just fine but I’m not nearly as confident in my review of Chappaquiddick as I am in my scathing review of the assigned seating policy. Following a complex political drama from that distance takes concentration and every time someone takes a bite of popcorn or unwraps a candy counts as a distraction that threatens to take me out of the movie.

I’m still pretty sure that director John Curran (Tracks, The Painted Veil) intended his docudrama about Ted Kennedy and his team’s handling of the drowning of aide Mary Jo Kopechne to be far more gripping than it turned out to be. Jason Clarke does a pretty good Kennedy and Kate Mara is heartbreaking in Kopechne’s terrible final hours. Ed Helms is especially good as Kennedy’s cousin, lawyer, and conscience. But there’s something missing.

Or maybe I missed it. Maybe that missing element that would have made Chappaquiddick truly powerful was a line that was uttered while my neighbour distracted me with a coughing fit or by checking their phone. Probably though, the missing element is truth. There’s just so much that we don’t know about the Chappaquiddick incident and so much of what happens onscreen is conjecture. The story feels incomplete and maybe that’s the point. It just makes for an interesting but ultimately unsatisfying and forgettable movie.

 

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TIFF: Black Kite

blackkite_tiff2017.pngAfghanistan is the last place I’d expect to find a kid flying a kite. After watching Black Kite and seeing kites be such a prominent part of life, bringing a tiny bit of joy to those who are trapped in this war-torn land, it seems strange that I ever had a presumption on kites one way or the other.  The smallest of assumptions, something taken for granted without basis, led me to think I knew more about another’s circumstances than I do.  Being wrong about kites reminded me that actually, I know absolutely nothing about what it’s like to live in Afghanistan!  I have Black Kite’s writer/director Tarique Qayumi, a Canadian who came from Afghanistan as an eight-year old refugee, for brilliantly and effortlessly challenging my preconceptions.

Black Kite follows Arian, an Afghan man who has been captured by the Taliban and convicted of the highest crime.  Through a series of flashbacks, we learn how Arian came to be imprisoned and sentenced to death.  Kites feature prominently in his story, from childhood, through adolescence, to adulthood.  There’s a remarkable contrast between the bright coloured kites and Arian’s drab, washed out existence, not only in the prison but throughout most of his life as Afghanistan is oppressed by one ruling body after another.

There are some absolutely beautiful shots of the desert and sky, and some very poignant animation that conveys a lot about what these kites represent: freedom, a means of expression and communication, and a marker of milestones in a man’s life, both good and bad.

Another assumption that Black Kite dispels is that freedom is free.  Freedom is a foreign concept for Arian, not the inherent right that I treat it as.  Arian and his family constantly live in fear, under the boot of one regime or another, with seemingly arbitrary rules that have the sole purpose of keeping them down. The rulers may change but the rules remain more or less the same, so Arian and his compatriots are denied even the simplest pleasures.  It hurts to experience these denials second hand, making the first hand experience all the more difficult for my privileged mind to imagine.

Black Kite is a wonderful film and a timely one.  It showed me how much can be stripped away from individuals, and reminded me that the little freedoms are as important as the big ones.  If those little freedoms were preserved for all, this small world would be a much better place.  There is no easy solution but we should spend our energy searching for ways to help people less fortunate than us.  Instead, we spend our time arguing over how many refugees we should accept from war-torn countries like Afghanistan, places where every day could be your last and little freedoms, like flying a kite, cannot ever be taken for granted.

By the way, the answer to how many refugees we should accept is: as many as we can fit.  And we’ve got plenty of room.

Genocidal Organ

In the near future, a devastating terrorist attack in Sarajevo shocks the world. The governments of most industrialized countries use the widespread panic to justify an increase in surveillance of their own citizens. While the developed world is safer than ever before, the third world- without the means to conduct such widespread surveillance- descends into chaos and mass murder.

Captain Clavis Shepherd  is one of the few Americans unfortunate enough to have to navigate this chaos. As a covert intelligence agent, Shepherd conducts bloody and dangerous missions around the world while his superiors monitor his vitals from Washington to make sure he’s not feeling too much compassion. His latest mission is to track down the mysterious John Paul, the architect of so many genocides around the world.

Genocidal Organ is not always easy to follow but will reward those who try to try to keep up. It took me about twenty minutes, given that this is a Japanese film with Japanese animation and Japanese voice actors speaking Japanese, to realize that most of these characters are supposed to be American. It feels weird at first. This must be how Russian people feel watching Eastern Promises. Once you’ve figured out who everyone is though, it’s easy enough to settle in and just enjoy the movie.

Visually, Genocidal Organ is an impressive film. The animators create a believable setting and the shootouts have better choreography than most live-action films do. As I’ve said before, I’m no good at describing animations so here are some stills to give you an idea.

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As a story, it’s an engaging spy thriller that tricks you into having fun because it looks so good. At its heart though, Genocidal Organ is hopelessly bleak. It’s a movie that, like John Paul (who is quite fond of monologuing), has a lot to say. While the script probably has a couple of speeches too many, its musings on linguistics, psychology, American foreign policy, and freedom are always interesting and often troubling. Be prepared to sit and think about this one for a few days after you see it.

Teiichi: Battle of the Supreme High

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Don’t ask me how this happened but in 2006 I found myself reading an interview with Chris Klein. You all remember Chris Klein, right? He was Oz in the American Pie movies and, according to IMDB, Brad on a 2015 episode of Motive. Well, he was also in one of my favourite films of the 90s and this is the one I found him reminiscing about in this 2006 interview. Klein good-naturedly admitted that he was too young while filming 1999’s Election to really understand what was funny about it.

If you haven’t seen Election, it’s a subtle but hard-hitting satire about an ambitious overachiever’s quest to win her high school election. And the best way that I can describe Teiichi is it’s the Japanese version of Election that the 19 year-old Chris Klein would have loved.

teiichiTeiichi has only one ambition: to become Prime Minister and to build his own empire. Luckily, he’s come to the right place. The prestigious Kaitei College is the place to be for future world leaders and all Tiichi needs to do is be voted in as chairman of the student council and he’ll be well on his way to power and glory. Trouble is, his longtime rival Kikuma wants it just as bad as he does. So the battle for Kaitei College gets pretty intense where everything, including wiretapping, sabotage, nipple pinching, and merciless tickling is fair game.

Teiichi, based on the manga “Teiichi no Kuni”, goes for bigger laughs than Election did and isn’t afraid to go pretty lowbrow to get them. Almost every situation is taken to the wackiest possible extreme and the performers overact in the best way possible. What impressed me most was the impeccable comic timing of the physical comedy, which went a long way in helping me forgive all the exaggeration. teiichi drum

Somehow I still couldn’t help feeling sad for Teiichi, his inner circle, and his rivals. There seems to be way too much on the line for such young boys. For Teiichi, losing the student council election would almost literally mean that his life is over. Everything in his young life has been leading up to this one moment and he seems to have no idea what he would do if he were to lose.

 

In general, I will always prefer the subtlety and bite of Election to the slapstick comedy and mostly heavy-handed satire of Teiichi: Battle of the Supreme High. But somebody needs to be making movies for 19 year-old Chris Klein and Teiichi is extremely entertaining and even a little thought-provoking once you get used to its zany sense of humour.

 

Miss Sloane

miss-sloane-32016 Golden Globe nominee Jessica Chastain plays Elizabeth Sloane, a notorious Washington anti-regulation lobbyist taking on the biggest challenge of her career when she’s asked to help take on the powerful gun lobby.

It’s timely and potentially divisive subject matter that will surely be attacked in many online comment sections as Liberal Hollywood Elites trying to take your guns away. But, honestly, can’t we use a rational discussion on gun control right now?

Well, you won’t find any of that here. Neither Sloane nor her opponents are particularly interested in facts or rhetoric. They are masters of spin, manipulation, and trickery. Never mind guns or politics, this is really a movie about sleight of hand. It has more in common with movies about magicians, con artists, or thieves  than movies about politics.

Film Review Miss SloanAnd maybe this is supposed to be the point. The only problem is that and Miss Sloane (the movie) seems to love the thrill of the chase as much as it claims to be outraged by her methods. For awhile, this behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to pass a bill in Washington (or keep one from passing) is almost fascinating and thought-provoking but the endless double crosses and Sloane’s nearly superhuman foresight make it harder and harder to take any of this seriously.

Needless to say, Chastain is pretty much the best thing about the movie. Any insight miss-sloane-2we get into her character comes more from her performance than Jonathan Perera’s script. But even she occasionally fails to convince during some scenes where she seems to be acting more for the trailer than the actual film. I can only assume director John Madden is to blame for this given that Miss Sloane also showcases inexplicable overacting from the likes of Michael Stuhlbarg, Sam Waterston, and Mark Strong that I can’t believe made the final cut. You’d think  a director of a Best Picture winner (Shakespeare in Love but still) would have done a better job of reining them in.

Madden may have had trouble keeping control of his hammy cast but he still manages to make a watchable film. It is slickly edited and never boring. And I have to admit, its most outrageous twists are the best ones. It just feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.

Maybe I shouldn’t complain. I knew almost nothing about this movie going in and expected something serious and dry. I was anticipating a chore and got a preposterous guilty pleasure that I’m still trying to forgive myself for kind of liking.

 

 

Zero Days

I was so nervous the morning of the election that I could barely concentrate on anything else. I worried about voter intimidation at polling stations and about what would happen if Donald Trump and his supporters refused to accept a Hillary Clinton victory. I think my biggest fear  was a close enough race that would send the message to future candidates that, despite Trump’s loss, there was still a place for his brand of inflammatory rhetoric.

Well, most of you now know that I may have lacked imagination when dreaming up Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Keene, New Hampshirethe 2016 American Election’s worst-case scenario. Misogyny and xenophobia  seem to have its place in American political discourse after all- the Oval Office on weekdays and Trump Tower on the weekends. A lot of people have said a lot of things to try to make me feel better. “Geez, give him a chance. If he succeeds, we succeed,” they say. “He’s not going to do any of the things he said,” seems like a popular response, which even if true seems to miss the point. One person even made the bizarre claim “Don’t worry. Orange people never do anything”.

zero-days“Sure, he’s unprepared and easily distracted but give him time,” would makes more sense if the world was a simple place where nothing all that important or complex were going on. Zero Days, the new documentary from Alex Gibney and the film I’m using as an excuse to talk about the feelings I can’t shake since the election, paints a scary picture of the complexity of the security threats that face the United States and the world. Specifically, Zero Days is focused on cyber security and the story of  the Stuxnet virus.

If you are as unfamiliar with Stuxnet as I was, I won’t spoil it for you. Even thoughzero-days-2 Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, The Armstrong Lie, Going Clear) takes his subject seriously, his documentary can’t help feeling like a Hollywood thriller and the twists can feel pretty exciting until you remember that this is real life. The director is wise to play up the suspense given that all this talk of worms and centrifuges can get a little technical and continually reminding us how high the stakes are is an excellent motivator to pay attention to all the tech talk. The interviews with the security company that discovered Stuxnet, the politicians who can neither confirm nor deny anything, and the NSA whistleblowers are all gripping.

Maybe it’s all these film festivals that have me so worried. If you’ve been watching the documentaries we’ve been watching lately, the future- even without Trump- can seem like a pretty uncertain and scary place. From cyber attacks to nuclear weapons, climate change to sexting scandals, the challenges facing our and future generations can seem overwhelming. Electing wise and level-headed world leaders would have seemed like a logical place to start.

 

 

Dick

I wonder why I’m so attracted to satirical political movies lately? I’m in some kind of mood I guess.

Two ditzy, boy-crazy blonde teen girls (Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst) are on a field trip to the White House in 1972 when they wander away only stumble upon the President himself, Richard Nixon! This film is a parody, a not-true imagining of who and what brought down Nixon with the Watergate scandal. What if Deep Throat is actually two fifteen year old girls?

MSDDICK EC003In light of recent events, I suppose a film like Dick actually harkens back to simpler times, and I don’t just mean a time when Dunst would get top billing over Oscar-nominated  Williams. It was a time when teenaged girls had the luxury of not thinking about the president very much.

With a cast including Harry Shearer, Dave Foley, Dan Hedaya, Will Ferrell, and Bruce McCulloch, it’s a great big serving of farce, an alternate version of history, and maybe one we could live with. I can’t help but wonder how people will rewrite the new administration, and if Trump’s legacy will eclipse Nixon’s as Biggest Joke Ever. The thing is, it seems to take at least a generation before we can find these things funny. At the time, Nixon was the guy swimming in corruption, sending your brother off to die in Vietnam. The reality of Trump as president may be even worse than that. It seems to already be inspiring some extremely  gross acts of hatred.

In order to buy the girls’ silence, Nixon appoints Arlene and Betsey dickpromo02sthe official White House dog walkers. Meanwhile, Trump’s shoe-horning his kids into his cabinet is an even scarier prospect. Since when can a 70 year old man not do business with being able to ask  his kids for advice? I guess that’s what you get for electing a dude with no experience. His kids are probably the least scary amid the many “contestants” he’s considering for staffing the White House.

As Nixon’s “secret youth advisors”, Arlene and Betsey have the president’s ear, and manage to influence a lot of his policies. Which has more positive outcomes for America than, say, Putin’s input will, or the KKK’s. And eventually it’s these sweet, optimistic young women who reveal the truth, which is a stirring reminder that the youth can indeed make a difference (whether or not they accidentally witness majorly classified evidence of wrongdoing).

Actually, I read an article recently that really broke my heart. It was about the fracture between young women and their fathers. The fathers, middle-aged white men, are the demographic who voted Trump in. Their daughters, however, not only abhor him, but will suffer the consequences of his actions for years to come. It feels like a betrayal to learn that their fathers so devalue their worth, their health, their bodies, and their prospects. That the men who raised them can also vote for a racist, a bigot, and a misogynist, a candidate who violates almost every lesson we teach our children from the youngest age. If you want to give it a read, you can find it here. And if you want to give yourself some hope that this too shall pass, watch Dick, a movie that re-writes a painful political past.

 

 

 

 

Weiner

“Good to see a bunch of political junkies like me,” quipped a beaming NHFF programmer as he introduced last week’s screening of Weiner. “You’d think most people have had enough of political scandals at this point. But not you”. The packed Music Hall Loft cheered in agreement.

I’ve been so busy feverishly reading everything I can find about the American election lately that I couldn’t help seeking out anything the festival had to offer on elections and the issues facing voters this year.

There’s nothing quite like a public meltdown. I’ve caught myself snickering out loud all morning just thinking about some of Trump’s most quotable sulking from last night’s debate. I didn’t know nearly as much about Anthony Weiner’s crash and burn so was looking forward to learning more with Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s documentary Weiner.

Directors Kriegman and Steinberg were given seemingly unlimited behind the scenes access to Weiner’s 2013 campaign for Mayor of New York City, just two years after his resignation from Congress after his first sexting scandal. Amazingly, everything seems to be going just fine with the campaign until another embarrassing photo resurfaces. Kriegman and Steinberg’s cameras are there from day one to capture his staff’s attempts at damage control and some seriously uncomfortable moments between Weiner and wife Huma Abedin.

“So, yes, I did the thing,” Weiner admits at the very start of the film. “But I did a lot of other things too”. His self-destructive habits, of which his fits of public anger are as damaging as his possible sex addiction, make it hard to find anyone but himself to blame for his downfall. But as tempting as it is to laugh at him (the festival audience laughed, cheered, and jeered at he screen so much you’d think you were at a midnight genre screening), a nagging feeling  of weird sympathy for him may give you pause. There’s something almost unjust about seeing a charismatic politician fighting so passionately for his constituents brought down by such an embarrassing scandal. Sure, the story plays well on late night comedy shows and his last name- hilariously appropriate to the fourteen year-old boy in all of us- makes his mistakes impossible to forget. But he did other things too. And this documentary makes a strong case that his wiener isn’t the only thing he should be remembered for.

Holy crap. Never mind. I literally just read an article about him carrying on texting a 15 year-old girl. Fuck that guy.

So…. still. It’s worth watching for the voyeuristic pleasure of watching an ambitious and prideful man dig a hole for himself. And it might just make you ask some important questions about what really matters when deciding who to vote for and about the media’s obsession with scandal.

 

 

 

 

Command and Control

We Assholes were in the lovely town of Portsmouth, New Hampshire over the weekend for a film festival, but little did we know we’d be joined by a 4th on Saturday – the king of the assholes himself, Donald Trump. Don’t worry, we managed not to catch fleas or throw pies, and we did see plenty of great movies.

Command and Control was one of them, a super scary documentary about that one time in 1980 when American almost launched a nuclear weapon ON ITSELF. Well, scratch that: no “almost” about it – the bomb was in fact compromised, and it just luckily failed to obliterate humanity. This whole thing happened before I was born, when my mother was just a pixie-haired 19 year old – roughly the same age, incidentally, as the men charged with preventing the doom of civilization

Even the best-case scenario, which the military obviously deems adequate, sounds terrifying: the Titan II, a big-ass missile carrying the biggest warhead on the books, was bunkered in an underground silo manned by teenagers not skilled or disciplined enough to get a better posting. And why are we surprised that shit went down?

It was end of shift when two little words heard over the radio would change everything -“Uh oh!” – not words you want to hear when a weapon of mass untitled.pngdestruction is at stake. Some kid used a ratchet rather than a wrench, and an 8 pound socket was dropped. Picture, for a moment, what this giant missile really looked like: from the bottom, you couldn’t even see the warhead, which was at the top, 8 stories up. The boys, working somewhere in the middle, dropped a big hunk of metal which made 1 bad bounce, tearing a chunk into the side of the missile which immediately began spurting oil. Nobody really wanted to own up to this possibly extinction-level fuck-up, so a half hour went by before anyone with any authority knew what was going on. And this being a government operation, a further 8-10 hours went by before anything was done about it. So the bottom fuel compartment was emptying quickly, which meant the top part was about to collapse in on itself at any moment, likely causing a huge-ass explosion even not counting the fact that a MOTHER FUCKING WMD WAS SITTING ON TOP!

Since I’m writing this and you’re reading this, we didn’t get wiped off the face of the earth, but the thing that saved us was dumb luck. The bile will rise in your throat watching this, knowing how close we came. The lady behind me uttered “Oh Jesus” 17 times before I lost count. But Command and Control, based on Eric Shlosser’s book of the same name, tells about that ONE time in 1980 when everything almost went black. That one time. This documentary lets us know that in fact, there have been hundreds, maybe thousands of accidents involving nuclear missiles. Every single day that some dopey American doesn’t accidentally kill us all is a miracle, and that reliance on constant miracles doesn’t exactly sit well with me. People with an awful lot of medals on their uniforms refer to the nuclear program as a “seat of the pants operation”; then-secretary of defense Harold Brown says about safety “we probably didn’t worry about it enough.” Gulp.

Today, in 2016, the U.S. still has 7000 nuclear weapons just waiting for an accident to happen. And to make matters worse, they’re threatening to elect a buffoon named Donald to hover his dumb little fingers over the big red button. So here’s the thing: accidents happen all the time. Most are covered up. American nuclear weapons have taken American life. But the bigger the accident, the more loss of life. And if there’s a big accident, there’s a mushroom cloud and ten million dead instantly. Who’s going to tell Donald to stand down, that this is “friendly fire” and not a button-pushing incident? No one. That guy will be dead. His superiors will be dead. It’ll just be Donald and his excellent decision making between us and all-out global war. Oh sweet Jesus – if this film isn’t another in a long list of compelling reasons not to vote for this guy, I don’t know what is.

 

Charlie Wilson’s War

Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) was a Texas congressman, a jolly womanizer but otherwise fairly low-level until his good friend former beauty queen Joanne (Julia Roberts) convinces him to take time away from his hot tub shenanigans to make a little trip to help the Afghan people.

In the early 80s he visits the Pakistani president who is frustrated with inadequate American support in opposing the Soviet Union. Pakistan is flooded with Afghan refugees (a fifth of them!), but thousands of others have been slain. They send Wilson to a refugee camp and he can’t help charliebut be moved by what he sees there. Going home a changed man in his heart, he rallies around the cause. His personal life, though is still a shambles: US Attorney Rudy Giuliani is leading an investigation against him for allegations of cocaine use.

Philip Seymour Hoffman provides brilliant support as a maverick CIA guy who is leading the covert US effort in Afghanistan. Wilson ultimately multiplies the American contribution by a hundred fold, and it becomes a huge part of the foreign policy of the time, but there aren’t exactly a lot of easy answers here and Hoffman’s crazy windmilling arms tell us a lot about the near-impossibility of his job.

Julia Roberts is of course poised as hell, the perfect choice for a controlled, smart, beautiful woman who knows what she wants, and how to manipulate men to get it. The few scenes she shares with Amy Adams, playing Wilson’s administrative assistant, are quite punchy, their rivalry crackling. Emily Blunt makes a brief appearance in her underwear as well, which means I didn’t know who Emily Blunt was back in 2007 when I would have seen this for the first time.

Tom Hanks is commanding as always, but I have to wonder whether he was the right man for the role. Some of the juiciest material of this “true story” seems to have all but disappeared, his drug use played down (have we ever seen Hanks snort cocaine?), his DUI unmentioned, and his worry about what happens when the US inevitably disengages from Afghanistan only vaguely alluded to.

The truth is, there were unintended consequences to this involvement. When Afghanistan lay in ruins, the US pulled out, washed their hands of death and destruction they had funded, and this left a vacuum for Osama bin Laden to emerge as a power player. I have read from multiple sources that Tom Hanks couldn’t deal with the 9-11 implications, so they were largely written out, with just the identifiable sound of a plane flying over Washington hinting at what was to come. The film is quite good, almost great, but I do wonder if someone else was bringing it to life, could it have maybe been a Dr. Strangelove for a new generation? I guess we’ll never know.