Tag Archives: political movies

Black Panther

MLD-01496_R.JPGThe Marvel Cinematic Universe is so bloated at this point that Marvel usually crams as many superheroes as possible into the “solo” movies in between Avengers instalments.  For example, Iron Man pops up in Spider-Man: Homecoming, Falcon briefly gets in Ant-Man‘s way, and everyone other than Cap and Bucky in Captain America: Civil War are clearly uninvited guests.  The result is that every movie is more or lScrooge-McDuck-Money-Biness the same movie.  Clearly, that’s Marvel’s goal with a shared universe as that way, we movie-loving rubes have to see them all, and throw even more cash into Disney’s money bin (which by now must be bigger than Scrooge McDuck’s).

Black Panther is different than those other movies.  It feels fresh.  This is a side of the Marvel Universe we have not seen, with new characters, new challenges, and new disputes.  There are no distractions in the form of random heroes from other movies (full disclosure: there are two supporting characters we’ve seen before but I am willing to overlook that, because both felt like they belonged).  Instead, we are introduced to a whole host of new characters who we quickly feel like we’ve always known, thanks to director/co-writer Ryan Coogler’s stellar work (he’s now three for three in his young career, having already giving us Fruitvale Station and Creed).  Refreshingly, none of these new characters are white, and the female characters are just as important as the men (and maybe even more so).

Best of all, this part of the MCU is not based on good versus evil.  Most of the “bad guys” aren’t bad at all, and the biggest bad, Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, is one of the most complex villains we’ve ever seen in a superhero movie.  I’d put him second only to Sir Ian McKellen’s Magneto (and that’s a largely unfair comparison because Magneto has been both hero and villain throughout his 55 year career) and well ahead of Heath Ledger’s Joker (who for all his awesomeness is essentially one-dimensional in that his goal was simply to destroy everything). Rather than having a standard comic-book focus, the conflict in Black Panther stems from a substantial philosophical and political question, the answer to which shapes your view of the world.  This is nationalism versus globalism, superhero style, which means that rather than choosing and lobbying elected officials who then debate and vote on these important issues, these weighblack-panther-comic-con-25jul16-02ty disputes in Black Panther are resolved through lots of punching and kicking (which, for all its flaws, is clearly a more efficient political system than the one the USA is currently using).

Black Panther does absolutely everything right.  This is essential viewing and, along with Wonder Woman, shows why diversity in Hollywood is so valuable.  It’s not about political correctness at all.  It’s because a fresh perspective and cultural diversity makes the movie-going experience that much more real and, moreover, provides vitality and energy to a genre that otherwise has been beating the same horse for the last ten years.

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NHFF 2017: An Exceptional Year for Documentaries (Part 1)

Last year, the New Hampshire Film Festival was as swept up in the 2016 election drama as I was. They featured an impressive selection of politically themed documentaries and even hosted a standing-room only panel discussion on Politics in Film. I couldn’t get enough last year and took in as much of it as I could.

The documentary selection this year was noticeably less overtly political, presumably because the NHFF is as burnt out on American politics as I am at this point. Still, in keeping with tradition, the New Hampshire Film Festival remains the one time of year that I favour documentaries. The four docs I saw this year have very little in common in either subject or structure but are all challenging and depressing in their own way.

sacred cod

Sacred Cod: The Fight for a New England Tradition– Due to climate change and overfishing, the cod population in the Gulf of Maine has been dwindling like never before. As a result, fishing communities in New England that have thrived for generations are now struggling as many are forced to sell their boats.

Far from being just another climate change documentary, Sacred Cod focuses instead on the people who are affected by federal government restrictions that severely limit the number of cod that they can catch. To many of them, it feels like government over-regulation is costing them not just their livelihood but their way of life and proud community traditions. Some even doubt the science that the government is citing, given that you can still cherry pick areas that are still rich with cod.

Of the documentaries I saw at the festival, Sacred Cod is the most traditional in style but is exceptional in its compassion. The decreasing cod population and the necessity of government intervention is indisputable at this point and directors Steve Liss, Andy Laub, and David Abel know it but they show as much empathy to those affected by the quotas as they do commitment to the facts.

the reagan show

The Reagan Show– “So, what is a Canadian doing in New Hampshire watching a documentary about our greatest president?”. A young guy I met in line asked me this before The Reagan Show and I have no idea whether he was being sarcastic or not about that last part.

Nor can I tell you with any confidence what the filmmakers behind The Reagan Show thought of America’s 40th president. There are no narrators or even original interviews with which they can betray their political biases. They rely exclusively on footage from the White House archives and TV news segments to tell their story. Specifically, they’re focused on the story of how Reagan exceeded the expectations of most critics in his arms race negotiations with then Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev.

If The Reagan Show has a point of view, it’s that Reagan was the first President to really understand television and how to play to the cameras in shaping the public’s perception of him. As far as politics goes, your own point of view will likely be challenged. I went in with an anti-Reagan bias and found that point of view challenged just as I’m sure the Reagan enthusiast I talked to earlier had his challenged too.

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.

 

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.

genocidal organ 1

genocidal organ 5

genocidal organ 4

genocidal organ 3

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

teiichi hand

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.