Tag Archives: political movies

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.

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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.

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_tiff2017Afghanistan 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.