Tag Archives: political movies

American Factory

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 american-factory-1this 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.

Knock Down The House

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 MV5BZmY4NTdmZGEtYjkwNC00MTkwLTliNDQtNzBhZTJmZTg2Y2E3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyOTU5NTk5Mzc@._V1_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.

What this documentary is: is inspiring.

Long Shot

On my more cynical days, I sometimes feel the only reason we have cinema is so that unattractive men can kiss beautiful women who would otherwise be unattainable to them. No shade against Seth Rogen, but let’s face it: the man is a schlub. An endearing, lovable schlub, sure. But Rose Byrne? Michelle Williams? Elizabeth Banks? Let’s call it a stretch of the imagination, one that Hollywood asks us to take a little too often. In this particular movie, it’s Charlize Theron, while Seth’s character, in a ubiquitous teal windbreaker, is actually mistaken for a homeless man.

Charlotte Field (Theron) is not just a beautiful, out-of-his-league woman, she’s the goddamn Secretary of State. Fred Flarsky (Rogen) is not exactly a slouch: he’s a journalist MV5BZWVhODA5ZmItOWYwOC00OTU3LWJiNTEtODcwMDIyMTBjZWY3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc5OTMwOTQ@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1291,1000_AL_who goes the extra mile to get a juicy story, BUT he just got fired. Well, okay, he quit on principle, but the net effect is, he’s unemployed. Which kinda works out perfectly because the Secretary of State is about to announce her run for President, and she just needs someone with a comedic touch to punch up her scripts a bit. Enter Fred, who in fact has crossed paths with her before. She was the babysitter he had prepubescent chub for, and maybe he’s been carrying just the tiniest lit torch ever since.

Anyway, Fred is the last man on earth Charlotte should be falling for just as she’s about bet her life on the polls. And yet, hormones. Theron and Rogen have some major oddball chemistry going. It turns out Theron can hold her own in pretty much any movie. But this one is more interested in pointing fingers at the ridiculousness of their pairing than exploring who either of them are as people, or explaining how exactly Fred is worthy of Charlotte (or indeed the other way around – their romance is largely inexplicable).

It works adequately as a superficial, no questions asked rom-com, and moderately better as a political comedy. There’s a familiar cynicism there, but it’s nowhere near as biting or incisive as Veep. Still, I laughed. And Sean snorted. That counts for something in an era where the comedy genre should probably be renamed “attempt at comedy.” It’s kind of a crap shoot, but Long Shot turns out to be a pretty good bet.

The Oath

A fear-mongering, power-hungry president has decided to asked his fellow Americans to sign a loyalty oath to prove their patriotism. There are incentives to signing – tax breaks, of course – but signing will be totally optional. Americans have nearly a year – until Black Friday – to opt in or out. No pressure. But during that year, things are not as easy-peasy as first promised. ‘Patriots’ turn vitriolic. Hate crimes increase. Protests often get violent. Protestors start to mysteriously disappear. ‘Concerned’ citizens start turning each other in.

Sound disturbingly plausible?

But of course holidays must still be observed, so we join Chris and Kai as they host is family for Thanksgiving.

MV5BNDM3ODAwMTc1NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTM1NDQxNjM@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_Chris (Ike Barinholtz) is staunchly against signing the oath; he and Kai (Tiffany Haddish) agree on that. But while Kai just wants to survive the family and survive her in-laws, Chris is glued to the television and obsessed with minute-to-minute reports from across the country. It’s hard to blame him: these are indeed crazy times.

Chris’s mother (Nora Dunn) insists on “no politics” at the table, but Chris can’t help but clash with his right-wing, oath-signing brother Pat and Pat’s alt-right, fake news spouting girlfriend. Even Chris’s “more reasonable” sister Alice (Carrie Brownstein) can’t get a word in. The first half of the movie plays out exactly like many of our own family gatherings would under similar circumstances. Ike Barinholtz, who also writes and directs, gets right to the heart of things, satirizing and underlining America’s troubling and polarizing partisanship. He keeps things interesting by casting Chris as equally culpable. He’s on the opposite side of the spectrum, but he’s every bit the blowhard, intolerant of every opinion but his own.

And then John Cho shows up. He and Billy Magnussen play CPU agents – that’s Citizens Protection Unit to you. It seems someone has reported Chris for his unAmerican activities. Cho plays a relatively reasonable guy, but Magnussen plays exactly the kind of guy who would be attracted to the position. Never mind that this oath was supposedly voluntary, he believes Chris is the worst kind of traitor, and he’ll stop at nothing (and I do mean nothing) to serve his country in the manner he’s deemed necessary. Shit goes south FAST. The film takes a detour toward the increasingly absurd, and yet Barinholtz never loses us because it never quite feels unrealistic. And maybe that’s the scariest part.

What I’ve failed to mention is that although this is technically a political comedy, it’s also a horror movie. It’s not gory or graphic or particularly scary to watch, but it is deeply frightening to feel how close we are to this very situation.

I may have enjoyed the concept more than I enjoyed the execution of this film, but damn if it didn’t keep me 100% mentally engaged and 110% emotionally enraged.

Every single character is acting out of love of family and love of country – every single one. But they’re coming at it from such different directions it feels impossible that they should all want the same thing. This is exactly American’s biggest problem right now, and the gap between the sides widens every day. No matter which side of the problem you think you’d come down on yourself, you must admit that in 2019, the most revolutionary act we can commit is one of compassion.

The Oath is a smart, thoughtful movie that I wanted to end only because I couldn’t wait to start talking about it.

The Death of Stalin

You know that feeling when everyone’s on a band wagon, and it looks like a nice wagon, it probably has bales of hay and ribbons and shit, maybe even a thermos of hot cocoa nestled in there somewhere. A damn nice wagon, and all  your friends are on it, everyone you like and respect. And you’re just standing on the side of the road like a dummie, waving at the wagon that probably has speakers blasting cool music and everyone’s got spiked punch and they’re whispering juicy secrets to each other, the kind that make them raise their eyebrows. But you’re not on the wagon. The wagon’s having its wagon parade without you. You are a lonely loser, unworthy of wagons.

Anyway, this is what it feels like to be me today. And by today I mean for the past month, ever since I watched the movie everyone’s been talking about it, and didn’t like it.

MV5BNWI0MjZkN2EtMTE5MS00MDYxLWE1ZDAtOTMwYTY2YjI1OTI5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzI1NzMxNzM@._V1_It’s 1953 and the awful dictator Stalin has just died unexpectedly, and left quite a stain on a very nice rug. All of his cronies spring into action, each filled with fantasies of how he might benefit from the situation. Most bypass grief or even basic respect and go straight to power mongering.

It’s supposed to be this wonderful, hilarious political farce. It stars Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi, and Jason Isaacs, among many, many more. Big titles, small men. And everyone was raving about it!  And the thing is, I wasn’t bored by it, I just wasn’t entertained by it. So I feel like I failed. For some reason (perhaps its 96% score on Rotten Tomatoes), I can’t dismiss it, can’t find fault in the movie. Instead I’m blaming myself for being a bad movie watcher (distracted? grumpy? too obtuse to appreciate the humour?) and I’d resolved to simply not write about it so that no one would know my secret shame. No one could look down on my from atop that rockin’ wagon and point their judgy little fingers at the lame movie reviewer who couldn’t get her shit together.

So there it is: apparently a very good movie that I was not very good at enjoying. This is not the first populist movie I’ve failed to love, and it likely won’t be the last. Possibly you’ve got a movie or two housed among the skeletons in your closet. Don’t worry, I won’t ask you to reveal yourself (no, please do, please confess your movie sins!) but I’m thinking of starting up my own little reject wagon, possibly more like one of those little red flyer ones, with tinsel on it, or streamers. Not too festive of course, but not totally oozing with shame either. A recovery wagon, for losers like me, losers like us, who occasionally just hate the fuck out of movies for no reason.

TIFF18: The Front Runner

Jason Reitman has been busy lately. It’s been just four short months since the release of the bizarre but undeniably interesting Tully but the Oscar-nominated director was at the festival this year with a new movie and a very entertaining live read of the original Breakfast Club script to host.

Tully was the kind of movie that takes a couple of days to digest and decide how you feel about it. The Front Runner is a much more straightforward, Altmanesque look at three dramatic weeks during the doomed Presidential campaign of Gary Hart. I’m just young enough to be too young to remember Hart (played here by a fantastic Hugh Jackman) but even I know that his campaign was derailed after a story broke that he’d been cheating on his wife (Vera Farmiga).

When we first meet Hart, it’s 1987 and he’s the clear front runner for the Democratic nomination to run against George Bush. Hart just wants to talk about the issues and resists the distractions of talking about his private life and pandering to voters with cheap campaign stunts. His campaign manager (a rarely better JK Simmons) supports this approach and watching he and his staff debate strategy and plan campaign events while twelve things seem to happen onscreen at once is just a blast. Both Altman and Sorkin would be proud. Even as scandal begins to dampen everyone’s spirits, the pace rarely slows down. Intimate character moments of two people alone on screen tend to be so few and far between in this movie that it makes those moments resonate all the more.

I try not to read too many reviews before I post one but I can already see that critics have tended to respond to The Front Runner less enthusiastically than I have. On the one hand, I can understand why. It’s easy to get burnt out at this point on movies and conversations about how much political campaigns and political discourse has changed so much. Despite its clever dialogue, fast pace, and excellent acting, I can’t claim The Front Runner has much to add to the discussion nor does it give its audience much to debate or think about after.

I would argue that there is one very important subplot that keeps The Front Runner from being a classic case of all style and no substance. Hart’s scandal didn’t just affect Hart, his family, and his campaign. Young Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) was thrust into the public eye with little support from anyone except for one sympathetic Hart campaign volunteer (very well played by Molly Ephraim). A lesser movie wouldn’t have given Rice so much screen time (or at least have lost interest in her after the sex scenes).

Still, I’ll concede that maybe we didn’t need this movie. It’s less an Important movie than it is an impeccably made one. Which is really all I need. I plan on seeing again next chance I get.

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 given 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.