Hayden Pedigo is a 24 year old experimental musician who makes weird performance art videos that go semi-viral. His go-to character is a politician, and he gets just enough attention from these silly uploads that he decides to actually run for city council, as if having played one on Youtube somehow makes you qualified.
Pedigo may have honourable intentions, and he certainly loves his city, Amarillo, Texas. He’s even got a couple of ideas for improving things – almost, though not quite, some policy. But he does not have the heart for shaking hands and kissing babies or giving speeches or raising money or being criticized or talking to people. It’s going to be quite an uphill battle campaigning against an incumbent backed by the town’s elite, not to mention their very influential dollars.
It’s great to want to fight corruption and to unite communities, but let’s be real: Pedigo doesn’t actually stand a chance. And like its subject, Kid Candidate lacks the vision and ambition to really make a go of things. However, film maker Jasmine Stodel does get one thing right. She backs a youth movement that’s attempting to be the change they want to see. Maybe their inexperience and naivete mean they’ve failed today, but they’ve seen how dirty the game is, how rigged the system is, and they know the only way to change it is from within.
Every year, the American Legion hosts a thousand 17-year-old boys from Texas and has them build a representative government from the ground up. Every state but Hawaii does the same or similar, but this particular documentary is hanging around Austin, Texas, to witness their particular experience. High schools nominate which students will be sent, ostensibly some from all different political backgrounds, dividing them up into ‘cities’ which will then elect mock municipal officials, and representatives of state legislature, even state officials all the way up to governor. It sounds rather noble, definitely educational, like a mock-UN for local politics. But in practice, it’s actually pretty ugly. The kids aren’t learning to be civic-minded good citizens, they’re learning to lie, cheat – and worse.
Obviously politics is a dirty game, but I think it might be nice to at least teach kids the right way, the better way, the idealistic way before we give up on them entirely in adulthood and actually let them vote…or run! But no, these kids are petty and ruthless. They’ve come to win at any cost, and there’s no pretense in running clean campaigns. While organizing political parties, their fundamentals are decided upon by what tracks well, not by anyone’s actual beliefs. They’ve already learned about identity politics, and they’ll comb each other’s social media, looking for any weakness they can leak and exploit. They make empty promises, pass harmful bills, and shamelessly pander for votes.
It’s clear that as far as American politics goes, the corruption is baked right in. It’s being taught and endorsed by the American Legion! While I of course abhor the Boys State program for what it’s allowing, I applaud the documentary for exposing it for what it is. It’s important to understand just how ingrained these dirty politics have become. By the age of 17, it is clear to these kids that a life and career in politics is not about values or beliefs or doing what’s right or helping people or serving one’s country. It’s about winning, at any cost, and being willing to make any compromise in order to cross that finish line in front of one’s opponent. If adult politicians are varying degrees of good at concealing that naked fact, these kids are not. Some of us (by which I mean myself) often make the mistake of believing that things will be better when the old guard dies out, but this film makes it clear that this is a dangerous expectation – not only have the bad habits already been passed down, these kids are honing them. Soon there will be no pretense at all in the game, simply undisguised greed and self-interest.
It feels almost mean to be posting this today of all days, when things are particularly “totally under control.”
That’s a direct quote from a certain president, of course, in reference to a certain virus, and you will not believe how many times he can work it into the same sentence. It’s also unbelievable that he can say it with a straight face, that he can so easily, so thoughtlessly lie to the very people he is supposed to protect. Or – so much worse it’s almost inconceivable – does he really believe it himself? He can’t possibly be THAT dumb, can he?
It was a pandemic that swept across the globe in a matter of weeks, with over 48 million now infected and more than a million dead. It was not under control then and it is even less so now, thanks to months of American non-response by its leader. Ignoring it didn’t make it go away. Not testing for it didn’t make it go away. Not reporting the numbers didn’t make it go away. Totally Under Control is an “in-depth look” at how the United States government handled the response to the COVID-19 outbreak, but of course it’s a testament to the lack of appropriate response and will serve as evidence as to how Trump’s actions directly contributed to the deaths of 233 000 Americans and counting.
Film makers Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan, and Suzanne Hillinger are telling a story that’s still unfolding. The camera’s gaze is unflinching, the film devastating and dizzying with the litany of warnings gone unheeded. Viruses can be dangerous. Pandemics can be deadly. But the kind of incompetence and negligence seen in America is a crime. Preventable deaths are a tragedy. This documentary doesn’t bother to point any fingers; it doesn’t have to. Trump’s action speak louder than murder charges.
This “moviefilm” could have been simply called Borat 2 but clearly Sacha Baron Cohen figured, why not have an 18 word title instead? Considering that Borat 1 had a 12 word title, a troublesome pattern is emerging, and that’s far from the least troubling pattern in the Borat franchise.
Borat is a terrible character and you can rest assured that Cohen has not toned things down in any way for the sequel, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. Borat is just as offensive as ever, a racist, misogynistic reporter travelling through the U.S. and A., on a mission to gift a monkey to Vice President Pence as a tribute to Trump’s great success in undoing a hundred years’ worth of human rights. The difference this time is that everyone in America has seen his first movie so it’s much harder for him to sneak up on anyone. Fortunately for him, his non-male son Tutar (Maria Bakalova) stowed away in the money cage, and she has always wanted to follow in her journalist father’s footsteps. Unfortunately for Borat, he does not believe women can be journalists (or really anything other than residents of cages). Unfortunately for both, Tutar had to eat the monkey to survive the trip to America. So naturally, Borat decides to gift his daughter to Pence instead. And off we go on an adventure that includes Borat embarrassing a number of people who should know better, most notably Rudy Giuliani, who I expected to have been better coached by his friends in the KGB in the art of kompromat.
In 2006, I have to admit that I enjoyed Borat’s first moviefilm. Who could believe that people would say such outrageous things on camera after being offered a little bait by Cohen? It seemed unbelievable at the time. Fast forward to 2020, where no matter what Borat “tricks” people into saying, it pales in comparison to what happens every day on President Trump’s Twitter feed, or any given afternoon at Giuliani’s hotel suite. Cohen’s brand of shock humour seems almost quaint in comparison, which is terrifying.
For all its improvised scenes, Borat 2 has a remarkably focused and cohesive narrative, and contains quite a few funny character moments. But by nature, it also serves as a near-constant reminder of the ongoing nightmare that is American politics, which for me sucked all the fun out of the movie. No matter how hard Cohen and Bakalova tried (and they tried hard), I just can’t laugh at this stuff right now.
The trial (little t = not the movie, the trial itself) of the Chicago 7 was a clusterfuck from the start. From before the start. From before the trial, from before the election, from before the protest, from before the war…injustice is as American as apple pie and is baked right into the constitution. To say it wasn’t a fair trial assumes it was ever even a trial. By its very definition, a trial is an examination of evidence in order to determine guilt. Although the trial of the Chicago 7 was by jury, the judge on the case made it clear the evidence didn’t matter and wouldn’t be heard because their guilt was presumptive and anyone who disagreed was an idiot. Of course, not only was the trial of the Chicago 7 not a trial, there weren’t technically 7 of them either. We start with 8 and end up with 5, but more on that later.
A quick pre-trial bit history: it’s 1968. American is gearing up for a tough election amid a lot of unrest. MLK has been assassinated, and civil rights has become more dominated by the Black Panthers than by peaceful protest. The Vietnam war is increasingly unpopular but still racking up a disturbing daily body count. And so a bunch of different protest groups are descending upon Chicago, which is hosting the Democratic National Convention. Though there are many different organizations with different goals and methods of exacting them, they all pretty much agree that change starts with electing the right kind of leader. But the convention becomes secondary news to the riots and bloodshed that surrounds it. When the dust clears, “seven” men have been arrested for conspiring to start a riot. They did no such thing – some had never even met before being indicted for the crime, but like I said earlier, this was never about justice or truth. It was about politics.
The five men who wind up on trial are Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), and David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch). The bonus 8th is Black Panther Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who was only passing through Chicago at the time but got lumped in because a group that includes an angry black man looks 90% guiltier to any jury of “their: peers. As you can see, this is already a fantastic cast and I haven’t even told you about Mark Rylance, who plays a defense attorney, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt who plays the lead prosecutor. But the man who steals the show (and this is indeed an undeniable sausage fest) is Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman, a man so inept at his job, so obviously biased and painstakingly obstructive in his own courtroom that he appears to be mentally incompetent. The trial is a circus, the truth is irrelevant, the law has no part to play, and the whole thing gets so wildly out of control you simply won’t believe what is allowed to happen in a court of law. And yet it did, it’s all true.
Writer-director Aaron Sorkin is absurdly good at sifting through months worth of testimony to find the perfect exchanges to illustrate this absurd miscarriage of justice and a mind-boggling waste of resources. He’s also deft enough (un oeuf) to point us toward the inevitable conclusion; this was train wreck of a trial but an excellent diversion that dominated the news cycle, elbowing things like an unpopular war and an unpopular president off the newspaper’s front page. Sorkin’s direction keeps things simple. History has provided some outsized personalities and a court transcript so outlandish you couldn’t make it up. It’s not a flashy film but it is a memorable one.
However much you thought I was looking forward to seeing Hamilton on Disney+, double it. Then cube it. Then add 10 000 more. Then halve it. Then times it by 13.24 million billion. Then you’d at least be within a three planet range of my excitement supernova.
Hamilton: the hit Broadway play that no one could ever get tickets to, and now you don’t have to! I mean, still do, if you haven’t already. There’s an electric current to a live performance that streaming can’t quite replicate – but this one sure comes the closest. This is not a film adaptation of a play, it is the stage performance itself, taped in front of a live audience, with so many cameras and angles and microphones even Lin-Manuel Miranda’s own mother can’t get seats this good.
Miranda disrupted Broadway with his follow-up to the very well-received In The Heights. Hamilton is a very old story told in a very fresh way. American founding father Alexander Hamilton is perhaps not the most enthusiastically remembered by history, but Miranda gives just cause for his placement among the greats, and pays tribute to him with his own unique blend of culture, politics, and song. The actors portraying contemporaries such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are from diverse backgrounds, representative of today’s American population, and reflective of the period’s influx of immigrants. The costumes are relatively period-appropriate, with just a kiss of the modern to still feel true to the hip-hop-heavy numbers.
The original Broadway cast appears on stage, performing together one last time before many of them dispersed to other projects (the musical itself of course lives on, or it did before COVID darkened Broadway’s lights). This show was so electrifying that it blew up every single person in the cast – making the likes of Daveed Diggs, Anthony Ramos, Leslie Odom Jr., Jasmine Cephas Jones, and Renée Elise Goldsberry household names, or pretty near. Certainly they were the toast of Manhattan and all have continued to find fame and fortune beyond the shadow cast by Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda is chief among them of course, tapped by the folks at Disney to write songs for Moana, and to co-star in Mary Poppins Returns.
Disney was so exuberant about Hamilton that it paid a record-setting $75 million for its distribution rights, and set it for a fall 2021 release. However, COVID-19 reared its contagious head, shutting down stage and cinema alike. So Disney made the decision to bring Hamilton to the people, and Miranda made family viewing possible by sacrificing two of his 3 f-bombs (only half of one remains, the f word started and implied but not completed).
Hamilton is such a startling and tasty treat it simply must be seen. Director Thomas Kail makes sure this film feels just as vital and urgent as any live performance. The actors, having rehearsed their roles on Broadway for an entire year before filming in 2016, are at the very tops of their game; besides Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Phillipa Soo, Jonathan Groff, Daveed Diggs, Christopher Jackson, and Renee Elise Goldsberry all earned Tony nominations. Of its unprecedented 16 nominations, Hamilton won 11, including, of course, Best Musical. And it really is.
Hilary campaigners woke up with a tremendous political hangover on November 9th, 2016. Liberals began to realize that they’d been living in bubbles. They were fundamentally surprised by their loss, surprised that so many people across America could vote against their own best interests. Where had they gone wrong? And how do we begin to address that disconnect?
Democrat strategist Gary (Steve Carrell) is disillusioned, like a lot of us. He regroups and refocuses in conservative, smalltown (swing state) Wisconsin, USA where he finds an unlikely candidate in Col. Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper). Jack Hastings likely doesn’t know what it means to go viral, but he has, for an impassioned speech he gave to city council. Gary smells potential: Jack, a veteran, a farmer, a widower; you couldn’t build a better crossover candidate if you tried, and god knows they have. Jack’s a Democrat…he just doesn’t know it yet. It’s just one rural mayoral race, but maybe that’s a foothold the Democrats badly need to expand their base – a Democrat for the heartland, a “redder kind of blue.”
Writer-director Jon Stewart is a master satirist and for a long time he set the tone for how we voiced our discontent, how we parsed and digested the news, how we conquered our apathy and our hopelessness. He may have given up the anchor’s chair behind the desk of the Daily Show in 2015, but he’s clearly got more to say.
Irresistible is about the disingenuous handshake between money and politics. Mere seconds after Gary makes his move to Wisconsin, the other side sends rival strategist Faith (Rose Byrne) to even the odds. If anyone had any illusion that campaigns were about ideals, values, promises, or intentions, it was quickly, summarily, definitively dispersed. A campaign is about math: who has the most money, and how to turn those dollars into votes. It’s cynical as hell, but even with a glossy coat of Hollywood spin, it’s still not half as bad as real life. People don’t matter. They’re not individuals with specific needs and hopes, they’re reduced to “demographics,” a slick political term that divorces voters from their identity. Politicians don’t want to better your life, they want to trick you into believing in them for just long enough to cast a vote. And failing that, they want to trigger you into withholding your vote on the other side. Demographics are equations waiting to be solved, and campaigns hire lots of people to crack those numbers.
Jack represents a “redder kind of blue,” a shade of blue that people who are traditionally red would consider turning pink for. Except even children know that red and blue make purple, and that may be American democracy’s greatest failing. It forces 328 million people to contort themselves into one of two boxes: red, or blue. Both boxes suck and neither one fits anyone perfectly. Worse, though, it creates a dangerous “us” vs. “them” mentality. Its binary nature focuses on what divides us instead of what we share in common. It makes enemies of the other side, when in fact those people are our neighbours, our friends, our kin. We are capitalists. We thrive on choice. The pharmacy sells dozens of brands of toothpaste. The grocery store stocks even more brands of orange juice. You stand in front of the refrigerated case, and maybe you reach for the sweetest juice, or the one that’s locally sourced, or the one with the most vitamins, or the one with the most pulp, or the least pulp, or the cutest carton, or the most memorable commercials, or the healthiest ingredients, or maybe you just reach for whatever’s cheap. Or maybe you bypass the refrigerated section and buy a can of frozen orange juice, from concentrate. Or maybe you prefer the powdered stuff. Or the shelf-stable stuff. Or orange ‘drink.’ Or maybe, and yes this sounds crazy, but maybe you prefer cranberry juice. We need 87 orange juice options but only 2 political parties? Doesn’t that seem a little…crazy? But having that much choice means the brands have to be competitive. They have to care about what you, the consumer, wants. They have to bend to your will, not the other way around. If they want to make money, they have to be the most appealing and offer the very best. But the American political system forces you to choose between two disappointing options. Sure they could put some energy into finding out what you actually need, but instead they embrace the time-honoured American tradition of fear-mongering so you vote for them, or flinging mud so that you don’t vote for the other side.
Anyway, don’t worry, the movie doesn’t actually mention orange juice once. It’s just one of the tangents my mind follows when it’s been stimulated by something thoughtful, and interesting. While some critics didn’t care for it, I enjoyed Irresistible very much. I like Carrell’s charmingly pompous performance, and Stewart’s condescending liberal voice. I did wonder, for a while, what exactly was meant to be so irresistible, but of course the answer was right in front of me the whole time: money. To which Jon Stewart has just one simple message: resist.
I know Americans think they have the market cornered in disgusting, unfit politicians, but before Donald’s fated presidential run, Canada was home to a mayor who made headlines around the world – and definitely not the good kind.
With all this extra time at home, we’re supplementing our movie watching with series watching, and one that recently caught our eye on Netflix (though it has been there a while – it wasn’t interesting enough in a world where we could go outdoors, but it was just good enough for lockdown) is Daybreak. It’s basically like Ferris Bueller’s Day off, but it’s also the apocalypse, and in this one, Matthew Broderick plays the principal. And the protagonist is a student who has recently transferred from Toronto (Canada). Though the kid refers to it as a “small town,” the kind in which all fathers take their sons hunting, it is in fact our most populous city. There are about 6 million people living in the GTA, so someone didn’t do their homework. Toronto is a frequent filming location for big Hollywood movies, movies that pretend they’re actually shooting in NYC, or Chicago. Very rarely does Toronto get to be Toronto, and the one time it does serves only to remind the world of that time when we were the buffoons.
2013: what a simple, naive time it was, looking back on it now. There are basically two sets of shockingly young people behind the wheels of basically everything: the mayor’s “special assistants”, led by Kamal (Mena Massoud), and the eager newspaper intern Bram (Ben Platt). Kamal’s job is basically to babysit the mayor and to minimize the collateral damage as much as possible. Bram’s job, aside from listicles, is to try to convince the grown-ups that there’s a major storm brewing at the mayor’s office, and whoever breaks it is about to earn a tsunami of clicks.
Rob Ford. There, I’ve said it. In the movie he’s played by an unrecognizable Damien Lewis. Rob Ford was a “businessman” who simply inherited a family business that was quite successful. He nonetheless saw himself as a “man of the people.” He was a conservative who loved to shout slogans and cut taxes. And also do crack.
Are you remembering him now? Every late night host loved to skewer this guy and he just kept feeding the fire. While he may not have been the first crack-smoking mayor, he was certainly the most photographed-with-a-crack-pipe mayor. He was also a very heavy drinker, and when he was good and plastered he’d sexually harass, or assault, female staffers, and, well, female anything. He was a black-out drunk who always denied it the next day, and often offered too much information in his denials. And yet 2013 was certainly in the time of smart phones. Video evidence was plentiful.
Run This Town is THAT story. The story of Kamal, a brown-skinned young man with the unenviable job of sweeping some extra-large skeletons back into some very full closets, despite the fact that Ford constantly reminded everyone he was anti-immigrant even if he thought Kamal was “a good one.” And of Bram, who knew this was a whale of a story but never got enough professional respect to do anything about it. It’s a reminder that these millennials we’re always accusing of being lazy are actually just very busy cleaning up boomer messes. Massoud and Platt are both excellent in this, and so are many others. But Lewis as Ford was not my favourite. The performance got lost behind the extensive prosthetics, which didn’t even feel accurate. Yes, Ford was a big, sweaty guy, not unlike a Chris Farley while Lewis’ look is more reminiscent of Fat Bastard.
Rob Ford is a sore spot for a lot of Torontonians, some of whom still defend him. But it’s also hard to criticize him, let alone mock him, since he died of cancer shortly thereafter, only 46 years old. And now Rob’s brother Doug is the premier of Ontario, because people refuse to learn lessons. I will say though, that while I despise his politics, he’s doing surprisingly well as a pandemic premier, his response oddly rational, and he’s taken care to distance himself from Trump’s dangerous rhetoric. So maybe there’s hope for the Fords after all?
The good news is that Run This Town tells the story fairly. It’s not a personal attack, in fact it’s not an attack at all. Rather than shaming Ford for what turns out to be a monumental addictions problem, the movie focuses on the very young people who actually had their hands on the steering wheel. Remember, this is the generation who cannot afford Toronto’s astronomical real estate prices. They are over-educated and under-paid. They can’t afford to be picky about who they work for. Their parents who prattle on about avocado toast are the very people who voted a crackhead as mayor.
Run This Town is now available to own or rent across all digital platforms.
As the trade war between the US and China escalates, American Factory arrives on Netflix and shows why this war is one that China is likely to win. The US is at a severe disadvantage in this war that it started, because the American Dream now belongs more to China than to the endangered American middle class, and because idyllic post-war America was built in large part on cheap imports from China and now the pendulum is swinging the other way.
American Factory is the first Netflix film from the Obamas’ production studio, and its release is perfectly timed. China and the US continue to threaten each other higher and higher tariffs, announcing another round of increases to take effect this fall. Of course, these threats are not really to the countries themselves; they are threats to consumers, who will inevitably bear all these increases in the form of higher priced goods.
While American Factory isn’t really about tariffs, the tariffs are still an important part of the story. That’s because the tariffs were instigated by the US in order to bring manufacturing back to the American heartland, which has been decimated by the loss of factory jobs as more and more of those jobs elsewhere to take advantage of cheaper labour and lower safety standards.
One of those shuttered factories is a former GM plant in Dayton, Ohio. Its closure in 2008 put thousands out of work, but in 2015 Fuyao Glass America, a Chinese-backed company, reopened the plant and brought hope back to Dayton. However, we quickly see that the reality is not quite as rosy as the fantasy, because the workers have taken a 30% pay cut, safety standards are not enforced, and management uses every dirty trick in the book to prevent the workers from unionizing.
Chinese workers are brought in to show the Americans how to operate the plant, and managers from the US are trained in China to help them better motivate the workers. American Factory captures the remarkable contrast between the workers’ attitudes in the two nations, and the attitudes of the nations as a whole. The Chinese are willing to work harder for less, sacrificing their bodies and family lives for the benefit of the company. The Americans, on the other hand, feel entitled to earn more money than their Chinese counterparts without making any of the same sacrifices.
Something has to give there. In both the Fuyao factory and in the larger trade war, the Americans can’t possibly get everything they want but are oblivious to that reality. Working-class Americans seem not to have realized that their consumer-centric society only exists because of other countries’ cheap labour, and that unskilled labourers will never again be “middle class”. If these American factory workers want to achieve their desired standard of living, they need to acquire marketable skills. Labour is no longer marketable on its own, and China and the rest of the world are eager to live the American Dream. China and the rest of the world also clearly want to realize that dream so much more than the Americans do, so in any head-to-head battle the Americans are going to lose out. The only question is whether the Americans will realize that before it’s too late.
In 2018, there was a big grassroots push to get some fresh blood into the U.S. Congress, where old, rich, white men have ruled things for far too long. That’s not a partisan problem, that’s across the board.
Knock Down The House is about the non-career-politicans who were brave enough to go up against the old guard – women, and people of colour. These are working class people, daughters of coal miners, waitresses, descendants of immigrants and slaves. True Americans who want to see true change. And perhaps most importantly, they are not taking money from lobby groups. They are ordinary people who want to represent ordinary people. But without funds, or name recognition, that’s not just an uphill battle, that’s practically an Everest-sized challenge.
What’s easy to admire about this documentary is that it challenges not a particular party, but the status quo. It confronts voter apathy and cynicism and is a literal breath of fresh air.
In the spotlight: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Paula Jean Swearengin, Amy Vilela. Not everyone can win, but the truth is, we all win just because they tried. Because hundreds will have to try for a couple to get through. Because even if it doesn’t topple over the kingpins, it makes them scared, and just a little more accountable.