Friday, July 31, 2009

Film Friday: The Final Cut (2004)

We all know the evils inherent in letting an all-seeing, all-powerful Big Brother spy on every moment of our lives. But could we achieve similar evils without government involvement? Do we have more to fear from each other, than we do from mystery cabals? That’s the question that underlies The Final Cut, a fascinating film starting Robin Williams and James Caviezel. George Orwell meet the camera phone.

** spoiler alert **
The Plot
The Final Cut, written and directed by Omar Naim, is a complex movie that takes place in the near future, at a time when many people have recording devices implanted in their brains when they are born. These devices, called Zoe Implants, record everything that happens during the person’s life. When the person dies, the implant can be removed and the footage taken a “cutter.” A cutter uses a device called a Guillotine, to edit the film down to a few minute tribute, called a rememory.

As the story opens, we learn that Alan Hakman (Robin Williams),a skillful cutter whose services are highly prized by rich, immoral patrons because of his willingness to overlook their indiscretions when he cuts the rememories, is haunted by a memory from his past. When he was a child, he watched a friend fall to his death after Williams apparently goaded him into doing something unsafe. Terrified, Williams ran from the abandoned warehouse, never to return. These memories become a recurring theme, as we slowly learn the truth throughout the movie.

Returning to the present, we see Williams’ work on display. He has cut a rememory and receives much praise from the friends and family gathered. But the deceased was not a nice man. As Williams wanders around the reception meeting people, we, the audience, are shown images that Williams removed that relate to the people he meets, such as the woman with whom the deceased had an affair. This gives us our first clue that Williams’ character is not as pure as one might suspect.

As Williams leaves the reception, he encounters a group of protestors. These people protest the very concept of allowing such devices to be implanted. They argue the mere fact that such devices could be inside anyone means we have lost our freedom to be ourselves, as we must always be cautious of being recorded. They further argue that rememories rob people of their memories because the video images can alter long held beliefs which formed our very personalities -- a common theme in sci-fi, the idea that we are the sum of our experiences.

Another charge is made against Williams specifically, by the lead protestor, James Caviezel, who claims Williams is complicit in covering up the evil deeds of rich clients.

Williams soon is called upon to cut another rememory. This rememory will be for an executive (Bannister) of the company that produces the Zoe devices. No sooner does Williams get this contract, than Caviezel tries to buy the Bannister footage from Williams. Caviezel knows the executive was corrupt in some manner (though he does not know precisely how), and he hopes to use the footage to discredit the company and have the Zoe devices banned. Williams refuses and begins to cut the footage.

It is around this time we learn, though we are never told directly, that the executive molested his own daughter. Williams seems appalled but he doesn't stop because he believe everyone deserves a good rememory, no matter what they’ve done. As he cuts, he spots a man in one of the frames at a party attended by the executive. Williams believes this man to be the childhood friend he left for dead in the warehouse years ago. As Williams attempts to find this man, Caviezel plots to obtain the Bannister footage, leading to a series of confrontations with quite a few surprises.
The Review
Before we discuss this film, let me warn you that while this film should fascinate you, and it definitely will keep you thinking for days after you’ve seen it, you will not enjoy it. It’s not to meant to be enjoyed. Like 1984, this film is meant to disquiet you. Let me also warn you there is a trick to watching this film. If you accept the normal Hollywood standards of good and evil, and you try to see Williams as the good guy because that’s what you’ve been taught, you will misunderstand this film. It is only when you let Hollywood’s lessons go and you see Williams as the villain he really is that this movie achieves its full potential.
Why You Might Think Williams Is The Good Guy?
There are three bad reasons you will want to think of Robin Williams as a good guy in this film (aside from any good will you may already have for him). The first, is that Hollywood teaches us that when a person has a trauma in their past, their present is haunted by that trauma and their actions are excused. We are taught, that if only they could resolve that trauma, “the real person” -- a miraculously wonderful human, will spring forth. Williams has such a trauma from his youth. It haunts him. Indeed, much of the film is about him trying to resolve this issue. Thus, according to Hollywood formula, Williams stands ready to be born-again as an new and perfect man.

Secondly, Hollywood tells us that where there is a bad guy, there must be a good guy -- false logic which Roman Polanski manipulates so beautifully in The Ninth Gate. And the villain here is clearly James Caviezel. We know this because he’s a zealot and all zealots are evil. He is obsessed with this one issue; it consumes him. His group even protests at funerals. What more proof do you need? How about an admission that he killed someone to help his cause and a plot that involves him killing again. And since he’s clearly evil and he focuses his anger on Williams, Hollywood teaches us, Williams must be good.

And if that is not enough, the movie itself misleads a bit, by advancing two strawmen arguments against Williams and then beating them up. Do you remember the charge that Williams distorts history by cutting out all of the evil deeds of his clients? The movie points out that this is really no different than what is done in eulogies today. And that’s true. We don’t use funerals to present “fair” pictures of the dead. We don’t dig up and expose all their secrets. So what makes Williams evil for doing to the Zoe footage what we ourselves do with our speeches, our photographs and our video cameras? And what about the argument that it’s wrong for Williams to knowing the secrets of people who have not shared them with him (e.g. the woman who had the affair with the deceased man)? Is that not an unheard of invasion of privacy? Actually, no, it’s not. Lawyers, doctors and priests know these things today. Indeed, when you share a secret with someone, you have no guarantee that they won’t share it with others.

Thus, we see the allegations of evil made against Williams as false, i.e. he is wrongly accused. Ergo, Hollywood law declares him innocent and, therefore, good. But this too is false logic, especially as neither allegation is what make Williams evil. He is evil because he abuses his power.
Why Does It Matter How You See Williams?
But why is it so important to recognize that Williams is a villain? Because the story barely works if you keep trying to shoehorn this odious man into the cookie cutter form of a good guy. If you don't understand that Williams is a villain, you will be unable to grasp the purpose and meaning of the film.

Indeed, many critics just saw this film as a thriller about a man, pursued by others, who hope to obtain video he possesses which might bring down an evil company. And they found this movie to be unfulfilling. Indeed, they complain bitterly about their disappointment in the film. They wonder why the conspiracy isn’t a bigger part of the movie, why the subplot about the molested girl doesn’t turn into chase scenes with men in black suits hunting down Williams and the girl as they head to the sole good agent in the government who can bust the case open and save the day. They wonder why Caviezel doesn’t suddenly reveal that he works for some mystery cabal intent on taking over the world. And they complain that Mira Sorvino is miscast as William’s love interest because she doesn't seem like the kind of woman (too hot, too young, too different) who would be interested this sad little man. . . even if he is the hero.

But if you realize that Williams is a villain, then the movie becomes inspired. Williams portrays a man who thinks he is a decent man, who seems meek and kind on the surface, but who abuses his power without a second thought. For example, in a scene dismissed as an "awkward" romantic moment by the critics, Williams treats Sorvino to a video he has created of recorded dreams -- a sort of greatest hits from people he’s cut. But is this really romantic? If a photo developer kept your best family prints and shared them with his dates, is that romantic or creepy? Is it not an abuse of trust to do this?

And speaking of abuse of trust, here's why Sorvino doesn’t fit with Williams: the only reason she dates him is that he manipulates her. Her former soul mate, a man she loved deeply, died. . . and Williams cut his rememory. In a scene that is truly enlightening of Williams’ character, Sorvino discovers that Williams used the Zoe footage from her dead boyfriend to learn about her deepest feelings and desires, and used that knowledge to present himself as her perfect man. Suddenly, we see abuse of power in a truly vile, invasive form. And while the critics complain that there is no attempt reconciliation (thus making Sorvino irrelevant), smarter viewer understand how truly devastating this revelation was to Sorvino, what an utter betrayal this was, and what it says about Williams that he would do this. They also understand how damning it is that he simply moves on without her.

But there is something much worse. Consider again the comparison to the eulogy. The movie makes the point that a rememory is nothing more than a eulogy, and there is some logic in this. But Williams goes beyond merely turning a blind eye about the dead. When he meets the molested daughter of the executive, the little girl reaches out to him for help. Yet, he initially turns a blind eye to this supposedly on principle.

But after he discovers the footage of his supposedly-dead childhood friend in the Bannister footage, he becomes obsessed with finding out more about this man. When Bannister’s wife refuses to help and orders him to ignore everything except for the few parts of Bannister’s life that are needed to make the rememory, Williams ignores her demand and invades the family’s privacy to satisfy his own curiosity. But even worse, he now exploits the little girl’s plea for help to give himself a chance to use the girl to get information about the man. Thus, he slowly builds up her trust just so he can get the information he needs. And when he has what he needs, and the mother orders him to leave and to never mention again what he has learned about the family (after the Bannister footage is accidentally destroyed), he does so without a second thought -- entirely abandoning the little girl.

To punctuate this point, we see the girl’s reaction as she knows she has been abandoned by Williams to the uncaring (and likely complicit) mother. Interestingly, we also see, momentarily, footage from the Zoe device implanted in this girl. The implications of this are very disturbing, though they are not openly touched upon. Consider that we cannot see this footage until she has died. It is possible this glimpse is just for our benefit, as a sort of -- “someone will know one day” type moment. But at the end of the film, there is a strong implication that everything we’ve seen in the movie was being witnessed by a cutter, whose identity you will learn near the end of the film. Knowing that Bannister’s footage was lost to them, could our seeing this footage mean that the little girl was murdered so the zealots could obtain this footage? There is no direct evidence to support this, but there is a suggestion to that effect at the end of the film. I can say no more, but this is something to consider when the film ends.

In any event, this level or evil and selfishness by Williams is truly staggering, and should inform our view of Williams’ performance (which is much stronger than the disappointing One Hour Photo (2002)) -- unless you insist on trying to make Williams into the hero.
So What Does This Film Tell Us?
Ultimately, this film tells us that it doesn’t take government to create the kind of dangers we were warned about by civil libertarians. It tells us that we must tread cautiously with new technology that gives people significant power over the lives of others. It tells us that we must develop a code of ethics for all to follow, and that some inventions, even those that don’t seem significant, are perhaps, a genie we should not be let loose from the bottle.
Finally, Compare Williams To Depp
Finally, as an interesting aside, compare the portrayal of Dean Corso by Johnny Depp with the portrayal in The Ninth Gate of Alan Hakman by Robin Williams. In many ways, at their cores, the characters are identical. They are both nihilistic, self-centered, remorseless, shameless, evil beings, and both are mistaken by the audience for good guys. Yet, the two characters are played very different -- and yet both are believable. Depp plays Corso as confident to a fault. He is disorganized and ruffled, but he takes what he wants without hesitation. He is aggressive. But Williams plays Hakman as passive-aggressive. He must trick others out of what he wants. He is cowardly, fastidious and sniveling.

One wonders, how these movies would have changed if the characters had changed places? I doubt the devil would have been interested in Hakman, and I can’t see Corso caring about having killed a childhood friend. Thus, while they are identical at their cores, they are entirely different people who can’t be exchanged for one another -- unlike any two villains from your typical mainstream Hollywood film. It is an interesting comparison that shows once again, that evil can come in many forms. . . unless you’re in a mainstream Hollywood film.

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Friday, July 24, 2009

Film Friday: Capricorn One (1978)

Some movies are cultural markers. They highlight the beginning, or end, of an era. Capricorn One, directed by Peter Hyams (Outland, 2010), is such a movie. Capricorn One marks the moment American culture recognized that average Americans had not only lost their faith in their government, but actively began to believe their government capable of great evil. Capricorn One marks the beginning of the Conspiracy Era.

** spoiler alert **
The Plot
Capricorn One opens as NASA prepares to launch the first manned mission to Mars. Astronauts Charles Brubaker (James Brolin), Peter Willis (Sam Waterston), and John Walker (O.J. Simpson) board the rocket. The Vice President sits in the reviewing stand awaiting the launch. The President did not come because many have begun to question whether the country can afford to continue exploring space in bad economic times. As the countdown slowly winds down, the capsule door suddenly opens. The astronauts are told to leave the capsule and are whisked away to a waiting plane. The rocket takes off without them.

There was a mistake, Dr. Kelloway (the always-fantastic Hal Holbrook) explains to the confused astronauts. A simple mistake. A contractor messed up, and if the astronauts had remained on the rocket, they would be dead by now. Unfortunately, Holbrook continues, the mistake was discovered too late to be corrected in time without scrubbing the mission. Scrubbing the mission would have meant the end of the program. . . and an end to manned exploration in space. So an alternative plan was formed. They would fake the Mars landing on a studio set. And when the rocket returned to Earth, Brubaker, Willis and Walker would be secretly flown to the splash down site, where they would await rescue, before returning home as badly-needed heroes.

Left with no choice, the astronauts reluctantly agree to participate in the deception. But on its return, the capsule loses its heat shield and burns up in the atmosphere. The astronauts are dead. And when Brubaker, Willis and Walker figure out what happened, they realize NASA can’t afford to let them be seen again. The chase is on.
The First Modern Conspiracy Movie
Released a few years after Watergate, Capricorn One marks the moment the American public first began to believe that their own government was capable of great evil. It marks the beginning of the modern conspiracy theory. Prior to Capricorn One, conspiracies were confined to criminal endeavors or foreign agents. Rarely did the government set out to deceive the population. And when it did, as in Close Encounters, it was done by honest government officials who were looking out for the best interests of the public. The idea of manipulating the American public for personal gain or to protect an agency from embarrassment was simply unheard of. . . and the government never killed its own people (except spies).

Compare this to the modern version of conspiracies, as seen in virtually any movie today. Typically, the most important officials in the government have entered into a secret deal to engage in some nefarious activities that will cause significant harm to the American people. Their motives are sinister, and their methods are murderous and sadistic. Modern conspirators waste no time sending out armies of black-clad, cold-blooded killers to eliminate anyone who even tangentially stumbles upon the conspiracy.

Capricorn One is the movie that marked this change in our culture. It is the film that first told us the American government itself could be a sinister, evil force -- not just a single bad actor in the government. And interestingly, intentionally or not, Peter Hyams lets us watch this transition within Holbrook’s character as the movie unfolds.

Indeed, when we first learn of the conspiracy, Holbrook acts like every other “conspirator” you could find in a 1950’s movie. He is the noble civil servant, pressed into a difficult corner, looking to do the right thing for the American people. He believes he is acting for the good of the public. He wants to protect the efforts of the thousands of people who toiled to make this program work and to save science from the budget axe of a short-sighted Congress. He wants to give America back its heroes and he wants to avoid causing another devastating blow to America’s self-confidence -- an issue on many minds during American’s national post-Watergate malaise. As he explains what happened to the astronauts, he is clearly heartsick. There are times you think he may cry, and you share his pain. Equally importantly, he doesn't threaten the astronauts. He reasons with them and pleads for their support. He does not want to hurt anyone.

But then things begin to go wrong. A NASA employee notices the telemetry readings cannot be correct. He brings this to Holbrook’s attention. But unlike modern conspirators, Holbrook doesn't have him killed. He gives the employee a chance. He tells the employee the machine is broken and instructs him to disregard the data. But the employee persists, and soon he attempts to share this information with a reporter friend -- Robert Caulfield (Elliot Gould). It is only then that the employee vanishes and a cover up put into place to hinder Gould’s investigation.

The treatment of Gould too is telling. Had this been a modern conspiracy movie, Holbrook would have ordered Gould eliminated. But that doesn’t happen here -- no black van appears to take Gould away in the night. At first, Gould is merely misled. They try to throw him off the track. But he persists. So they sabotage the brakes on his car. Could this kill him? Yes, but more likely it was only a message, as they easily could have killed him if they wanted to. When he doesn’t get this message, they frame him for drug possession, which gets him fired. With this “threat” neutralized, they ignore him. . . they don’t hunt him down.

But soon a much more modern conspirator emerges in Holbrook. When the capsule burns up on reentry and the astronauts escape the studio facility, Holbrook stops being the innocent conspirator of the 1950s and transitions into a role that would become Hollywood cliché: Holbrook sits behind a desk in a far away office, issuing terse orders over a phone to capture (and possibly kill) the three astronauts. He literally sends black helicopters to hunt them down.

Holbrook has lost his innocence, and so has the culture. Gone is the idea the government can be trusted and will never hurt us. In its place, people now believe in black helicopters and hit squads. And this reflects in the increasingly nasty tone most conspiracy theories have taken in our culture. The government doesn’t just hide the truth about aliens anymore, it blows up buildings to “hide the truth.” It doesn’t just act in our best interests anymore, it now manipulates us so it can carry out its own sinister agenda.

Capricorn One marked the moment this transition began. (Interesting, many credit Capricorn One with popularizing the moon landing conspiracy -- a ridiculous bit of paranoia, bad science and false logic that 6% of Americans, 28% of Russians and 25% of Britons believe.)
Death of Professional Journalism
Capricorn One also marks the dying gasp of old school, professional journalism, an issue highlighted this week by the passing of Walter Cronkite. Indeed, Capricorn One not only shows us what journalism was, it hints at what journalism was about to become.

Consider the character of Robert Caulfield (Elliot Gould). Gould is not a modern attack journalist. Notice, for example, how gently he treats Kay Brubaker (Brenda Vaccaro) when he believes her husband has given her clues about what is going on. He doesn't run over and shove a microphone in her face, he asks for an interview. He is respectful. He even asks for permission to delve into more “personal” questions. And unlike modern reporters who love to hear themselves speak, he listens, he does not talk. Nor does he speculate. Nor is he a tabloid journalist, not by our standards. Gould suspects that something is amiss with the Mars landing because his friend told him about the telemetry and because his friend disappeared. But while this would be more than enough evidence for modern journalists to this story, Gould doesn't write the story because he simply doesn't believe he has enough verifiable facts. Thus, he represents old-school journalism.

Yet, his editor, played by David Doyle (Bosley of Charlie’s Angles), sees him as a tabloid journalist. He repeatedly assaults Gould for proposing wild theories, for failing to gather facts, and for failing to cover “hard news” like train derailments. He laments what Gould means for the future of the profession. And in making these complaints, he foreshadows the exact road journalism would take, and it would do so largely because of the new trade in rumor, paranoia, and conspiracy. Thus, as with the shift in thinking about conspiracy theories, Capricorn One gives us a look at how journalism once was, and shows us where it would head in the Conspiracy Era. And that’s the way it was.

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Friday, July 17, 2009

Film Friday: Breaker Morant (1980)

You should all see Breaker Morant. Directed by Bruce Beresford (Driving Ms. Daisy), Breaker Morant is a gripping courtroom drama that centers on the real-life murder trials of three Australian soldiers during the Boer War. Not only is this an outstanding drama, but it raises complex moral issues that remain relevant today. Indeed, if you replaced British Lord Kitchener with Pennsylvania Democrat Frank Murtha, you would be half way to making a movie about Iraq.

** spoiler alert **
The Boer War
Before discussing the film, let’s start with a brief (relevant) history of the (Second) Boer War (1899-1902). Tensions between the British Empire and independent Boer republics in Southern Africa simmered for nearly two hundred years. In 1899, the South African Republic (Transvaal) and the Orange Free State declared war on the British and promptly routed the out-numbered and out-motivated British Army. But after heavily reinforcing their Army, the British easily conquered all the Boer lands by early 1900. At that point, the Boers scattered into small “commando” groups (yes, that’s where the term originated). These commandos roamed the countryside, blending in with civilians, ambushing British soldiers, blowing up trains and telegraphs, and raiding British settlements. Sound familiar?

To combat the Boers, Lord Kitchener, the British commander, implemented a scorched-earth policy. He ordered British soldiers “to sweep the country bare of everything that could give sustenance to the guerrillas, including women and children.” This included systematically destroying crops and farms, burning homes, poisoning wells, and rounding up women and children into concentration camps -- the first recorded instance of concentration camps. Approximately 26,000 women and children eventually died in 109 camps of disease and malnutrition, and whole portions of the country were de-peopled (another 25,000 men were deported). This policy finally broke the will of the guerrilla movement, though it proved a political disaster, both for the British government and for Britain’s standing worldwide.
The Movie
In addition to the concentration camps, Lord Kitchener established small, mobile units to hunt the Boer commandos in open country. One of these units, the Bushveld Carbineers, is recognized as the first modern special forces unit. Breaker Morant involves three members of the Bushveld Carbineers: Lt. Harry “Breaker” Morant (Edward Woodward from The Equalizer), Lt. Peter Handcock (Bryan Cox from Cocktail), and George Witton, who are on trial for the murder of several Boer prisoners and a German missionary. Handcock and Witton are Australians, and Morant is Anglo-Australian.

The facts are these. When Morant’s commanding officer and friend, Captain Hunt, was killed (and mutilated and likely tortured) by a Boer commando group, an enraged Morant led the Carbineers on a search for the commando group. Soon enough, Morant came across a group of commandos, who sought to surrender. Several members of the group were wearing pieces of British uniforms, possibly including Hunt’s jacket. This caused Morant to conclude they killed Captain Hunt. As he considered what to do with the prisoners, the British Intelligence Officer assigned to the unit reminded Morant of Lord Kitchener’s standing verbal order that commandos should not be taken prisoner: “You know the orders from Whitehall. If they show a white flag, we don't see it. I didn't see it.” Thus, Morant ordered the prisoners shot.

Before the trial begins, it is made clear that the British government wants to make an example of Morant, Handcock and Witton. Lord Kitchener’s scorched earth policies caused a tremendous backlash against Britain, and the British hope to shift the blame from their policies onto “out of control” soldiers. To ensure a conviction, the army stacks the deck at the trial. The Australians are assigned an attorney (Major Thomas) who has never litigated a single case. Thomas is given no time to prepare. He is deprived of access to necessary witnesses, who are shipped to India. He faces biased witnesses. And he faces a biased judge.

Unlike a typical Hollywood movie, everything presented in this movie is well within the zone of what really happens at court. There are no impossible theatrics or last-second, mystery witnesses. The judge’s behavior, while infuriating, is nothing I haven’t seen many times in court. Indeed, while we despise many of the judge’s decisions, they are all well within what the law and the procedures allow. Moreover, Thomas does not suddenly transform into a super trial attorney who trips up witness after witness with an amazing wit that exists only in films. Thomas grows into his role as trial attorney, visibly improving as the trial progresses, but he remains only an average attorney at best -- though, as he grows, you begin to wonder if he just might pull it off.

That is all I can tell you about the ending without spoiling the tension for you, except for one interesting fact. The reason the story is constructed so realistically is that this is a true story. The film is based on a play, which was itself based on the book Scapegoats of the Empire, written by defendant Witton himself in 1907.
Issues Raised
Beyond being a great drama, Breaker Morant raises many issues that remain relevant today. During the trial, the movie delves into issues like: (1) can soldiers be held to the same standards to which we hold civilians; (2) does it matter that this was a new kind of war, with a new kind of enemy, that required new strategies to defeat; (3) does it matter that the defendant’s actions were militarily effective; and (4) does it matter that they were following orders or that they believed the were following orders? Indeed, right at the beginning of the trial, Major Thomas challenges the propriety of trying the defendants at all: "soldiers at war should not be judged by civilian rules."

And as for this being a new kind of war, Morant puts it best when he says:
"This is a new kind of war for a new century, George. I suppose this is the first time our enemies have not worn uniforms. Some of them are women, some are children, and some... are missionaries."
Thus, new strategies were called for. For example, Morant is accused of putting Boer prisoners in open carts at the front of trains, where they might be shot at by the enemy. This violated provisions of the Second Convention of The Hague, signed two years earlier, which prohibited soldiers from exposing prisoners to danger. But, as Thomas shows, this action stopped the Boer commandos from blowing up trains. So was this right or wrong? Also, is it relevant that Kitchener ordered that no prisoners be taken? Can they still be tried for shooting prisoners? Does it matter if this policy was the only way to break an insurrection that had already gone on for two years? What if they only believed such an order existed? And what are the moral implications of the same state that issued the “no prisoners” order being the prosecutor of Morant, Handcock and Witton? Should a state be allowed to cast off its own guilt on the people it ordered to carry out the order?

These issues all arise in Breaker Morant. They are not answered because there are no clear answer to any of these. But they are presented in interesting and thought-provoking ways that will give you much to consider, and that could challenge your views. I highly recommend seeing this film.

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Friday, July 10, 2009

Film Friday: Moulin Rouge (2001)

Moulin Rouge is an enjoyable musical with moments of brilliance. But there are two flaws that keep the movie from being a great movie. At times, Moulin Rouge tries to be too clever, but at other times, it is not clever enough.

** spoiler alert **
What Is Moulin Rouge
Directed by Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom), Moulin Rouge is an unusual 2001 musical based loosely on Guiseppe Verdi’s opera La traviata. It takes place in Paris in 1899, during the "Bohemian Revolution," and tells the story of young writer Christian (Ewan McGregor), who falls in love with cabaret actress Satine (Nicole Kidman), who happens to be incapable of falling in love and suffers from tuberculosis. The romance between the two is interrupted by the Duke (Richard Roxburgh), who is promised Satine in exchange for investing his money into rebuilding the Moulin Rouge and paying for the production of the Indian-inspired "Spectacular Spectacular." As they prepare for the show, Satine and Christian hide their love from the Duke. His discovery of their love, mixed with Satine’s seeming betrayal of Christian, leads to the climax.

But it isn’t the story that makes Moulin Rouge so interesting, it’s the music. Unlike most musicals, with songs specifically written for the musical or its corresponding stage production, Moulin Rouge samples modern pop music. At times, whole songs are sampled, with or without changes to the lyrics. And in these instances, Moulin Rouge is typically brilliant. Elton John’s "Your Song" is woven brilliantly into the story line, as it is first spoken, then sung, then spoken again. The Police’s "Roxanne" was given new life as a Tango, which also drives the plot. Queen’s somewhat obscure "The Show Must Go On," from Freddy Mercury’s last album before his death (1991’s Innuendo), is equally well woven into the plot. The most traditional musical number, "Like A Virgin," also is brilliantly done, with the original lyrics intact, but their meaning changed as Zidler and his brigade of waiters chase the Duke around the room trying to convince him that Satine is both a shy demur girl and yet a wild, passionate creature. Only one song is truly original -- "Come What May" was written for Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), but was never used prior to Moulin Rouge.

It is in these musical moments that the cleverness of the writer shines through and the film is most enjoyable.
Too Clever By Half
But Moulin Rouge is also a great example of writers trying to be too clever. Moulin Rouge takes its plot from a combination of La Boheme (young writer falls in love with sick girl), La Traviata (courtesan learns to love) and the Greek Tragedy Orpheus and Eurydice (musical genius must venture into the underworld to retrieve his love). This makes for a complex story, but in and of itself, is not the problem. The problem arises when Luhrmann compounds the complexity by shooting the film as a story within a story within a story.

It’s the last story that’s the problem. Generally, the movie is the story of the love of Christian, the penniless writer, and Satine, the loveless actress, who must hide their love from the evil Duke as they work on the story of the penniless sitar player and the loveless courtesan, who must hide their love from the evil Maharaja. Those stories are intertwined enough to challenge the viewer. But on top of this, the writer adds a third story, as we are reminded several times that this entire story is being written by McGregor, a penniless writer sitting alone in his apartment with a typewriter.

There is no reason to add this third layer. In fact, it ultimately detracts from the film, because just when the love story of Christian and Satine comes to a happy and then tragic ending, we are quickly whisked back to McGregor’s apartment, thus taking away the emotional impact of what we have just seen. What's more, this is done for no discernible reason. We are neither given further details of McGregor’s life, like why this story would be significant to him, nor are we shown that despite our grief the “real” Satine still lives. Basically, returning to this third story is the film equivalent of Luhrmann telling the audience, “just kidding.”

But even within the story within the story, the writer gets too clever. As the story unfolds, we are treated to constant foreshadowing of Christian/Satine’s story by the sitar player/ courtesan story. But the foreshadowing is done so constantly and so heavy-handedly that it stops adding tension, by giving the audience hints of what may come, and instead eliminates tension by announcing to the audience exactly what is about to happen right before it does.

Moreover, the writer crams Moulin Rouge full of historical references. For example, the elephant in which Satine lives, really was constructed outside the actual Moulin Rouge. The character of Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa was an actual midget and is considered one of the greatest post-impressionist painters. And many of the strangest images in the movie come directly from the paintings of Toulouse-Lautric. Even the green fairy (Kylie Minogue) is a reference to a famous drink from the period, absinth, which apparently caused madness in many a Bohemian artist. But these references are so fantastic and so strange -- and the audience is given no way to know that they are indeed historically accurate -- that the audience is left feeling that the director is simply trying to clutter the film with surrealistic images. Thus, rather than adding to the movie’s depth, they only confuse and distract from the film.
Not Clever Enough
Yet, in other ways, Moulin Rouge is not clever enough, particularly with some of the sampled songs. As noted above, all but one of the songs is taken from modern pop music. Some are taken in their entirety, but others are not. These others were created by sampling several pop songs, sometimes as little as one lyric, and then mixing the samples together to form medleys. The lyrics were then altered as needed to fit the story, turning these songs into Frankensongs. Finally, the actors recorded the new songs to give the vocals continuity.

But It is in the Frankensongs that the cleverness fails. Many times, the musical combinations are so jarring, particularly when a different sampled song is used for each new line, that no flow is created. At other times, the lyrics simply become non-sense. And unfortunately, some of the key moments in the film are done in this style. For example, in a particularly important scene that should establish the chemistry between Christian and Satine, Christian tries to convince Satine to give their love a chance by singing a series of lyrics from different songs that use the word “love.” But while the idea is clever, the execution is not. With each new lyric, the music changes to reflect the song from which the lyric was taken. But these songs don’t meld well together. Thus, rather than becoming an interesting medley, this becomes an exercise in “name that tune.” And McGregor, who I otherwise think is a great actor, does not have the vocal strength to bring order to this jumble. Thus, rather than building chemistry between the characters, this gimmick distracts the audience from the actors.

At the same time, the writer fails to pay the same attention to Satine. Indeed, rather than scouring the music world for replying lyrics, he just lets her sing-speak her responses. This seems lazy, as if the writer could not be bothered. Moreover, in the middle of this song, the writer suddenly switches from finding “love” songs to David Bowie’s "Heroes," which is a total non-sequitor: “we should be lovers” suddenly becomes “we could be heroes”? How the characters would be considered heroes is never explained, indeed, the line seems more like an excuse to get to a favored song rather than anything related to the plot. And even though the writer breaks free from the lyrics of "Heroes" almost immediately, the lyrics he substitutes don’t make a lot of sense. Consider this exchange:
Christian: We could be heroes, just for one day.
Satine: You, you will be mean.
Christian: No I won’t!
Satine: And I, I’ll drink all the time.
Christian: We should be lovers.
Satine: We can’t do that.
Christian: We should be lovers, and that’s a fact.
Satine: Though nothing, will keep us together.
This exchange has little relation to Christian’s prior wooings or Satine’s prior resistance, and there is no hint anywhere else in the plot that Christian is “mean” or that Satine is a drinker. Indeed, this exchange comes across as entirely out of place when it is sung. And all of this causes a key moment in the film, the moment that establishes the love/chemistry between Christian and Satine, to fall flat.
Thus, while I highly recommend Moulin Rouge as an enjoyable and unique experience, its value is ultimately lessened by a writer who cluttered the film with unnecessary distractions and yet, failed to concentrate sufficiently on certain key parts.

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Saturday, July 4, 2009

Film Friday: Patriotic Films

Earlier in the week, I set about trying to find a good patriotic film to review in honor of Independence Day. What I found was interesting.

You Say You Want A Revolution. . .

I began by looking for good movies about our founding. There should be dozens of movies about that right? Wrong. Hollywood has made fewer than a dozen films that deal with the American Revolution? The most famous of these are Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), The Howards of Virginia (1940), 1776 (a musical) (1972), Sweet Liberty (a comedy) (1969), Revolution (1985), and The Patriot (2000). Hardly an inspiring lot.

And this isn’t just an issue of recent Hollywood cynicism. Even during Hollywood’s most patriotic era, between World War II and the early struggle against communism, few such films were made. Why?

Some say that audiences can’t sympathize with characters who wear powdered wigs and knee breeches, who use formal speech patterns and write with quills. But this hasn’t stunted the popularity of Shakespeare, or films about the British Kings and Queens, or even movies like Dangerous Liaisons or Sleepy Hollow. And surely civil war characters speak as formally and look as strangely.

Others say Americans aren’t interested in the topic. Good grief. These are some of the most popular topics on the History Channel and the recent mini-series about John Adams was extremely popular. Me thinks, dear Hollywood, the problem does not lie within the simplicity of the viewers, it lies with thee.

Everybody’s Got An Opinion. . .

Denied the chance to review a revolutionary picture, I stumbled upon something even better: a poll.

Blockbuster Video commissioned a poll a few years ago in which they asked Americans what they wanted in their patriot movies. Sixty-three percent wanted America or Americans portrayed as the underdogs. Forty percent felt that the President should be a main character. Thirty percent wanted the movie to involve a war hero.

Here are the top ten movies they chose as most patriotic:
1. Independence Day
2. Born on the Fourth of July
3. Yankee Doodle Dandy
4. Air Force One
5. Forrest Gump
6. Glory
7. Patton
8. Apollo 13
9. The American President
10. The Longest Day
But is this right? Are these really the best patriotic films? We at Commentarama think you can do a lot better.

A patriotic film should make viewers feel good about being American. It should highlight their country at its best. It should put forth a vision as to the meaning of the country, particularly one such as ours, which was formed intellectually rather than by historical accident. We exist as a nation because our founders thought about how we should live, not because we all fell out of the trees together 50,000 years ago.

So let’s go through the list and make some changes.

1. Independence Day

Independence Day fits our test. This is a story of American resourcefulness and determination, of a group of average Americans that answer the call of duty to defeat an all-powerful enemy. This film reminds us of the promise of our country, the goodness of our people, and the greatness we can achieve as a nation. This film reminds us that Americans rise to meet all challenges and it highlights the self-sacrifice so often repeated in our history.

And while this film is criticized because the President’s final speech is internationalist, don’t forget that he never subsumes America to the rest of the world, he asks them to step up and join us, as our Independence Day becomes their Independence Day.

2. Born of the Fourth of July How the West Was Won

This movie is a horrible choice. One wonders if people watched it, or just chose title. Born in the USA anyone?

Many people argue that a film can be patriotic if it rallies the country to a cause. Born on the 4th of July fits that category, as does All the President’s Men, which is also often named as a patriotic films.

But rallying people to a cause smacks of propaganda, not patriotism. It is one thing to highlight the best in our country and to take pride in our achievements, it is quite another to suggest that people must adopt a certain position to be patriotic.

So let us substitute How The West Was Won. This sprawling epic tells the tale of how America grew from a small nation of eastern states to became the America that we know today. This movie shows the hardships that were overcome, it shows the sacrifices that people made, and it does so without idealizing its characters. These people are quite real. Some are good, some are bad, some are heroic, some are cowardly or rotten. Mistakes are made, but successes are had. And in the end, we see the American spirit writ large in the drive of our ancestors to always seek the better America that lies just over the next hill.

3. Yankee Doodle Dandy

Yankee Doodle Dandy is the James Cagney biography of George M. Cohan, who is most famous for writing the songs “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Over There.” It is a feel good story and it’s a little historical. It is an acceptable choice.

4. Air Force One National Treasure

Air Force One is a popular movie, but it’s not a very interesting movie. The President fights terrorists. Ok, cool. But patriotic? Hardly. Below the surface, this is just an action movie. Remove the President and this becomes Die Hard 2.1.

Let us substitute an equally unbelievable action movie, but one with much deeper patriotism: National Treasure. Sure, National Treasure is crawling with conspiracy theories and unbelievable secret societies and hidden puzzles and treasures, but that’s on the surface. Underneath, this movie reveres American history, our founders, and the words (and spirit) with which they founded our nation. And more importantly, the movie manages to pass that pride along to the audience.

5. Forrest Gump To Have And Have Not

Forrest Gump is not a patriotic movie, it is more of a historical drama. It is about a simple man who manages to interact with each of the significant historical events of the 1960s. This movie is often replaced by Rocky on lists of patriotic movies. Rocky is similarly the story of an under dog who overcomes long odds to gain a stunning victory. Both movies are good, but neither movie is particularly patriotic.

Thus, we substitute To Have And Have Not. To Have and Have Not finds Bogart living on the Vichy-French Island of Martinique. He is a symbol of America and Americans at the time. On the surface, he is neutral in the world, concerned primarily with his own business. But he is disturbed by what he sees around him. And beneath the surface, his strong moral code and deep-rooted patriotism, lead him to take a stand, at great personal risk, to do that which he knows to be right. This movie provides both an interesting view of how American attitudes and policy changed at the beginning of World War II, as Americans abandoned their isolationism and took a stand against tyranny, and it is a study in the classical view of American patriotism.

6. Glory Gettysburg

Glory was a good movie, but it was limited. A much better choice would be Gettysburg. Whereas Glory involved a small battle, Gettysburg involved the battle that transformed New Yorkers, Marylanders and Mainiacs into Americans. It also ensured that the Union would survive.

But even more than this, Gettysburg does something truly rare in film, it does a tremendous job of honoring both sides in the conflict by letting each side fairly explain their beliefs and by showing that both sides genuinely believed they were fighting for the good of their country. And in so doing, this movie makes us proud of both Northerners and Southerners, and it humbles us with what they endured for their beliefs.

7. Patton Sergeant York

Patton is a popular choice, but Sergeant York is better. Patton is the story of an American hero, but it tells us little about the American spirit. Patton always considered himself something more than just an American and it comes across in this movie, as he is portrayed as an arrogant man who cares more for his own glory than his country or his men.

Sergeant York, on the other hand, is a truly patriotic movie. York is a pacifist who is called to action. He is humble, heroic and likable. He is the idealized American every-man. He makes us proud, just as he makes the people at home proud. And even better, everyone around him is portrayed positively as well. His fellow soldiers are brave, competent and honest. His family and friends are decent. Even when he is brought to the “big city,” the people he meets are neither shallow nor cynical. This movie represents the best that America has to offer.

8. Apollo 13

Apollo 13 represents Americans coming together to do great things. It shows the courage of the men and women who ran the space race, and it shows how all Americans come together in times of crisis. This movie oozes civic pride, and it is a good choice.

9. The American President Mr. Smith Goes To Washington

No, no, no, no. A movie about an American President who takes a sharp left turn when he falls in love with a lobbyist? In the immortal words of Sergeant Carter, you have got to be kidding me Pyle!

How about Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. This story, about a naive and idealistic man appointed to the United States Senate, shows American government at its idealized best. As Smith discovers the shortcomings of the political process and fights his way through them, we are shown how good American government can be, when its participants act in good faith. It is a hopeful and patriotic film.

10. The Longest Day

Finally, we come to The Longest Day. This movie belongs on this list. The Longest Day shows the incredible determination and bravery of the men who overcame a seemingly invincible foe to free Europe from Nazi oppression. One by one, the great actors in this movie give us glimpses of the better parts of every aspect of American society. And best of all, this movie does not denigrate their achievement by making the Germans out at clowns or sadistic buffoons. As with Gettysburg, this movie honors the men who fought and died for this country.

After a little re-ranking from most patriotic to least, here is your Commentarama certified list:
1. Gettysburg
2. Sergeant York
3. The Longest Day
4. Independence Day
5. National Treasure
6. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington
7. How The West Was Won
8. To Have And Have Not
9. Apollo 13
10. Yankee Doodle Dandy

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