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Movie of the Day: Jupiter Ascending (2015)

JupiterAscending

Whatever faults the Wachowski siblings may have as filmmakers, lack of ambition is not one of them. Even when they’re not at the top of their game their films are always brimming with big ideas and a lot of visual splendor. This has earned them a well-deserved cult following, even when their films don’t completely satisfy. The Matrix, V for Vendetta, Cloud Atlas and even Speed Racer all have their defenders, yet with their new film Jupiter Ascending, it’s hard to imagine anyone who will look at this film and find anything but frustration. It’s a maddeningly overstuffed and convoluted science fiction soap opera that doesn’t work story-wise but contains enough ideas for five movies. If I had to guess, I’d say they were attempting the feeling of those old pulp science fiction novels with a Boris Vallejo-style cover that oozes with promises of sex and violence. Jupiter Ascending has little of the first, a lot of the second, and bits along with pieces of everything else. The plot is a crazy house of half-baked ideas and elements from every movie you’ve probably ever seen.

I am forced now into explaining the plot, but in doing so I will attempt to remain for more lucid and straightforward than the script. Here goes: Unknown to the habitants of Earth, our planet and thousands like it were the subject of a harvesting program eons ago by the families of an alien royal ancestry. They created all the planets and let them grow until harvest time when the inhabitants would be captured and mushed up into a serum that would keep the aliens in a state of perpetual youth. The matriarch of the royal family dies and the two heirs, Balem (Eddie Redmayne) and Titus (Douglas Booth) begin squabbling over who will inherit the Earth. What they soon discover is that a third heir is living in Chicago, having been kidnapped at the moment of her birth and raised as a human being without any knowledge of the alien royal families. Her name is Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) and she lives a simple life as a cleaning lady (she’s gorgeous and always dolled-up, but she’s cleaning toilets *head shaking*). Balem puts a bounty on Jupiter’s head, but she is rescued by a genetically engineered warrior named Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) who wants to return her back to her people so she can claim her birthright. Got all that? Good, because I think I explained this plot better than the movie did.

Caine heads down to Earth and battles the bounty hunters in a chase and shootout that rips up half of the Chicago skyline. Not to worry though, in a Men in Black-style twist, the buildings are immediately repaired and no one has any knowledge that a blitzkrieg has taken place over their fair city (no one accounts for the dead, but never mind). What comes next is really hard to describe without turning this review into a wordy essay. Let’s just say that Jupiter learns about her heritage but never really seems to have much interest in following up on it. She’s spends a lot of time asking questions. Kunis has a lovely face and a wonderful screen presence, but Jupiter is a character who is required only to look confused in the quiet moments and be rescued in the noisy ones. Did I mention rescued? Yes, rescued. She spends 90% of this movie either running from bad guys or falling off things only to be rescued by Caine, making her the clumsiest heir to the throne that I’ve ever had the displeasure to witness. Kunis deserves better. When are filmmakers going to figure out that fitting and refitting her into the role of the love interest is wasting her potential? Watch her great supporting performance in Black Swan and you’ll see that she does indeed have range.

She’s only the beginning of this movie’s problems. The Wachowskis apparently want to make Jupiter Ascending all things to all people. It tries to be a tender love story but doesn’t draw characters that you care enough about. It tries to be a daffy space comedy like The Fifth Element (with a really funny DMV-style montage that drops into the movie out of nowhere) but the sparse comedic bits throw the movie off balance. It tries to be a Matrix-style alter-reality story but drops in elements (like bees that can identify royalty) that have no purpose. It tries to be Thor with its story of siblings squabbling over territory and power, but the villains are so ridiculous that they become boring – especially Eddie Redmayne who’s villainous Belam whispers his dialogue most of the time and screams it the rest. It tries to be Flash Gordon with its forced wedding subplot, but it’s not goofy enough to make it entertaining. There’s every element of every size and shape here but it never really comes together. The Wachowski siblings, who wrote and directed this movie, seem to hope that Jupiter Ascending will skate by on ambition alone that if they shovel in enough varying elements that what will come out the other end is a potential cult classic. I don’t see that happening. This is just too much movie for its own good.

 
 

Movie of the Day: The Ides of March (2011)

IdesofMarch

George Clooney’s The Ides of March is a well-made, beautifully acted and very entertaining political drama that presents cold, heartbreaking facts about the American political campaign that probably seemed new in about 1960. Is it surprising anymore after the Monica Lewinsky scandal that a political candidate would sleep with his interns? Is it surprising anymore that a candidate would be revealed as a two-faced hypocrite, saying one thing into the cameras and something else in private? Is it surprising anymore that the people working behind the scenes on the campaign are willing to bury their colleagues to get ahead? Is it surprising that the outcome of our elections are so carefully choreographed and telegraphed that the votes cast by the electorate are more or less an afterthought? Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t make The Ides of March a bad movie, it just doesn’t make it a surprising one. The strength of the movie doesn’t lie in the story it tells but in the actors who tell it.

Based on the 2008 play “Farragut North” by Beau Willimon – which was loosely based on the 2004 Presidential campaign of Howard Dean – The Ides of March centers on Steven Meyers (Ryan Gosling) 30 year-old press secretary for Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney), a idealistic Democrat whose chances to win the Ohio primary election are not exactly in the bag. Steven believes in Morris who is a crafty politician, good-looking, charming, intelligent and confidently making the promise to his voters that there will be no combustible engines on the road in ten years. Uh-huh.

I don’t recall a candidate who speaks as well or looks as quietly confident as Mike Morris, I guess I would have to go back to Kennedy. At any rate, Steven believes in the Governor. He too is an idealist. We can see that he is old enough to know better but there is a feeling that he still wants to believe in his candidate. Around him are cynics most especially Morris’ campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour-Hoffman), a hard-nosed realist who has been working on politics so long that he seems to have developed ice-water in his veins. Meyer hates Zara partly because of his ethics and partly because he can see the reality of this political life that will soon engulf him in the same way. Also on hand is a crafty journalist named Ida (Marisa Tomei) who gathers information from Steven and seems like a friend, but when the chips are down reveals herself to be looking out for number one.

Meyer finds solace from the cynicism in the person of a 20 year-old, naive young intern named Molly (Evan Rachel-Wood) who is smart and open-minded and quickly finds herself jumping into Steven’s bed. This relationship doesn’t fall into romance, but into a brief kinship that collapses under the revelation that a situation has already put her in too deep with the Governor. This revelation sets the drama in motion and the second-half of The Ides of March deals mostly with the breakdown of Steven’s soul into the machinations of those who are trying to destroy him for their own personal interest. Even though we can mostly guess where the movie is going, it is interesting watching the personal and professional chess match as Steven uncovers a web of personal vendettas and merciless backstabbing.

The story is well-told but the acting makes the movie work. Ryan Gosling proves again and again that he is one of the best actors of his generation. He has a quiet confidence, but his face sometimes brims with uncertainty. He expresses a lot just by sitting still and thinking – not a lot of actor his age have the patience to do that. In a quiet way, he reminds me a little of Paul Newman. Evan Rachel-Wood is good too as a young woman who is too young and too naive to be playing in the big leagues just yet. Paul Giamatti, one of my favorite modern actors, has a wonderful role as the campaign manager for the other side. He has a great scene toward the end of the film when he reveals his true nature that is played to perfection. He holds the screen simply with his eyes and his voice in a way this is oddly mesmerizing.

Yet, I still return to the story. As I said, it isn’t exactly surprising. The inside story of what goes on behind-the-scenes in American politics is well-know and has been told before in much more focused pictures like Mike Nichols great Primary Colors. That film dealt with the machinations within the campaigns just as the Ides of March does, but the earlier film does it in a fresh way. This one seems more like a thriller. Even with the limitations aside, I was glad I saw The Ides of March. George Clooney has now directed four films and what I can see is that he has confidence in his material. Here he makes a small film, very spare that lets the actors do all the work, and that’s just right because they are the ones who make it work. I just wish he could have found a way to make it more contemporary and tell us something that we don’t already know.

 
 

Movie of the Day: Mr. Death, The Rise and Fall of Fred Leuchter Jr. (1999)

MrDeath

I’ve gone over and over through my vocabulary (and my thesaurus) trying to find just the right qualifying word to accurately describe the feeling of what Fred Leuchter Jr. does for a living. He designs implements of execution: electric chairs, lethal injection machines etc. I find myself falling pathetically on the word “ghoulish.”

The documentary Mr. Death gives consideration to something I never really thought about. When a person goes to be executed by the state, where does the execution machine come from? I admit that I never imagined anyone sitting over a drafting table working out the blueprints for such a device.

Yet, having heard Fred Leuchter Jr. (pronounced “Look-Ter”) describe his job, I can say that if anyone must to build such a device, it might as well be him. He seems to know what he’s talking about. His name is sort of legendary (I would guess so . . . do you know of another person who does this?) When the State of New Jersey contacted him to be a consultant on the proposal of the design of a lethal injection machine, he agreed but admitted that he didn’t have the first idea how to design one. The doctor’s presentation to the deputy commissioner of the prison wasn’t going well, until the doctor mentioned that Leuchter designed the cap for the prison’s electric chair. The commissioner’s eyes lit up and he was sold on the idea without another word. Most of us could only wish to have a reputation that solid.

Leuchter looks a little peculiar but you wouldn’t expect someone who holds such a position to look anything but out of place. He’s short, with a round face, big glasses and a thick New England accent. He resembles a very dowdy cousin of Elton John. Even if you have no objection to his work, you have to admit that there is an heir about him that wouldn’t make you eager to invite him to tea. He is a man, however, that you want to listen to. He has odd stories and anecdotes that either intrigue or repulse depending on your personal taste. I can only speculate that his circle of close friends is a bit small, especially when you consider that one of his bits of knowledge involves the ins and outs of how dangerous it is to be in the death chamber electrocuting someone with urine on the floor from the previous execution. With that nugget of information and his habit of drinking 40 cups of coffee a day and smoking 6 packs of cigarettes, I would imagine that he isn’t exactly a fun date. Based on that addictions, I wasn’t too surprised to learn that he eventually married a waitress.

Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. not only examines Leuchter’s work, but also the turning point that cost him his job and his reputation. That came with his association with Ernst Zundel, a neo-Nazi who went on trial for public slander after he published a report stating that the holocaust was a myth. In 1988, the two traveled to Auschwitz to collect concrete samples from the remains of the gas chamber to prove that no traces of Zychlon B (the lethal gas that was used to kill Jews in the gas chambers) was present. Those samples were going to be used in Zundel’s case to prove that he was right about his claims. The science was flawed and the jury was biased. What happened to Leuchter’s reputation was a full-frontal assault on very the idea of free speech. His views and his mere association in the Zundel case cost him everything. He became a pariah, a lamb to the slaughter just for speaking his newly acquired views against the holocaust. Whether he meant it or was just saying it to impress some new friends hardly matters. The fact that he said them was damning enough.

Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr comes from one of the most creative minds to ever to work in the arena of documentaries. Erroll Morris never plays it safe. His films are never about ordinary people doing ordinary things. He loves the circus freaks among us, people who do and are obsessed with odd things. He made: Gates of Heaven, about the owners of a pet cemetery in Southern California; Vernon, Florida about various weirdos in the title town including a man who lives, breaths, eats and sleeps and dreams turkey hunting; The Thin Blue Line a film about a murder in a small town that was so persuasive that it sparked a reopening of the case; A Brief History of Time about the life and theories of Stephen Hawking who discusses his understanding of the vastness of the universe while suffering from a condition that renders him almost completely unable to move.

Here again, Morris chooses someone out of the ordinary. Fred Leuchter Jr. is an odd little man with a ghoulish job, who takes up with the wrong side of the holocaust and doesn’t resend it in order to save his reputation. Why? What happens to Leuchter’s reputation once he takes the side of the Neo-Nazis is, I think, criminal. He chose the wrong friends, said the wrong things and made people believe what he was saying simply by saying it. Was he a Neo-Nazi? Who knows? Who cares? Leuchter is a product of our times, times in which verbal intolerance is put on the shelf with mass murder, when people are so outraged by the act of being offended that they commit a character assassination of a man just for publicly stating his opinion. What happened to him was a pitiful revelation that words and kill just has inhumanely as a botched electric chair.

 
 

Movie of the Day: The Ballad of Rambling Jack (2000)

BalladofRamblinJack

Rambling Jack Elliott could not have earned himself a more fitting nickname. Lord, he was born a rambling man, but a man who rambles too much is a man that you can’t pin down. He was a folk singer, a man whose soul could whip up the most heartfelt music you ever heard, yet he never seems to have had a commitment to anything.

The documentary “The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack” is very much about what kept his career from taking off. Directed and narrated by his daughter Aiyana – from his fourth marriage – the film is a personal essay mostly from her point of view about what it was like growing up the child of a man who never seemed to have an organized thought in mind. In his music, as in life he rambled and rambled and rambled.

In the 50s and early 60s he came up alongside Woody Guthrie and a budding young singer named Robert Allen Zimmerman (who you know as Bob Dylan). He knew them both well, but somehow those two had a better plan in life and in their music. During a tribute concert for Guthrie following his death in 1967, Dylan was a headliner but Elliott was left off the program. As time went on, he would watch both men become legends, while he became a footnote, seen only as a meager thread between the end of Guthrie and the beginning of Dylan. Reading a review of his own career, Elliott – still alive at 82 – blows the paper a satisfied raspberry.

He was born in Brooklyn in 1931 as Elliott Charles Adnopoz, a doctor’s son who ran away from home at an early age to join up with the rodeo. He had a deep passion for the cowboy life and, despite his origins made his own image as the kind of folk singer whose music was the cry of the wounded. He rambled from one thing to the next and just kept right on rambling. That was the problem, the rambles kept him from finding a foothold in the industry. Late in the film, one of his managers laments that “I respected his talent, but he was too disorganized.” We can see that early on in a clip from his appearance on The Johnny Cash Show as Elliott befuddles his fellow players – and even Cash himself – as he can’t quite decide on which key to begin.

It’s hard to know where to stand with this documentary because you become so fixated on the fact that it was Elliott that killed his own career. He rambled on and rambled on, never finding a place for himself. By the end, you wonder if he liked frustrating those around him, or if his mind blew from one thing to the next just like his music.

 
 

The Persistence of Disney, Part 7: The Three Caballeros (1944)

Three Cabelleros

It can be supposed that somewhere, sometime, at some point we’ve all seen the entirety of The Three Caballeros even if we didn’t watch the movie from beginning to end.  This is the movie the Disney folks routinely chopped up into small bite-sized segments and slipped in between the shows on The Disney Channel or mixed in as shorts during The Mickey Mouse Club.  That is how I experienced it.  Truth be told, until the advent of home video, I didn’t even know it was a movie.  I had seen so many bits and pieces of it here and there that I assumed it was a TV show running on a channel that I didn’t get.  I remember as a kid scanning the TV Guide trying to find it.  It looked like so much fun that I thought I was missing out.

I have only recently come to watch The Three Caballeros in its entirety and while I found it fun, it also kind of wore me out.  It’s a party, a celebration of all things Latin America, at least within the parameters of a Hollywood musical.  It’s bright, colorful, the animation is second-to-none and there’s energy to spare.  My problem may be that there’s too much of it to enjoy, which is the exact opposite of the problem I had with its predecessor, Saludos Amigos.  Maybe I just can’t be satisfied?

The Three Caballeros is effectively a sequel to Saludos Amigos.  The earlier film was so successful that Disney decided to build on it and further the Goodwill project that he was given by The United States government.  During the Second World War, the studio was given subsidies by the government to go down to the ABC countries (Argentina, Buenos Aries and Chile) and make a picture that would promote the culture and educate American moviegoers about their neighbors to the south.  Politically, it was also a maneuver to end the so-called “Banana Wars” and to stave off the influence of expanding Nazi power.  For Disney it was a project of financial importance.  Pinocchio, Fantasia and Bambi had been disappointments at the box office so the studio needed money, plus the war had effectively cut off European distribution and a cash flow from Latin America would help.  On top of that, Walt was dealing with a lingering labor strike at his own studio.  Good will was hard to come by during the war so the task was given the Walt Disney to spread it.

The subsidies from the government would not cure what ailed Walt but it wouldn’t hurt him either.  Saludos Amigos had been a success so he decided to expand the idea to include not only South America but also a celebration of the culture of Mexico.  The earlier film had been only 42 minutes long (40 minutes is officially considered a feature) and there was a feeling of the work being a little restrained, so here he allowed his production team to go all out and, admittedly, they did.

Unlike Saludos Amigos, this film is a little more coherent and quite frankly, a lot better.  It has a framework for the segments so the purpose is a little more solid.  Donald Duck receives a package on his birthday (Friday the 13th, no less) from his friends in Latin America and the package contains three presents, each one is a presentation about some place or story dealing with Latin America.  Let’s look at them individually:

The first present contains a movie projector and when Donald sets up the film he discovers that it is a presentation of three shorts called Aves Raras or “Strange Birds.”  The first bird is “The Cold Hearted Penguin”, a cute story narrated by the invaluable Sterling Holloway who takes us waaaaay south, down to the South Pole in fact, and reminds us that it is land of two things: ice and penguins.  Our story concerns Pablo, a penguin living with a large population along the frozen coastline of Patagonia.  The other penguins seem happy with their surroundings but Pablo has a yearning to be elsewhere, specifically the warmer climates of places like Acapulco, Carrasco, and Viña del Mar.  So he decides to leave the frozen tundra and head out for Cape Horn accompanied by his best friend, a stove named Smokey Joe.  The second bird is “The Aracuan Bird” all about a crazy bird with a funny song who is never-the-less able to step off the movie screen and greet Donald and then off of our movie screen and greet us.  The last bird is “The Flying Gauchito,” the story of a Uruguayan boy whose best friend is a burro named Burrito whom he discovers can fly.  He enters the burro in a race only to be found out when the audience discovers that he’s been cheating.

Donald’s second birthday present is a giant pop-up book by his Argentinean friend Jose Carioca (who was introduced in Saludos Amigos) who takes him on a tour of Baia, capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia.  Here Donald and Jose spend time dancing with the locals (played by real people) while Donald falls in love with a beautiful Samba dancer played by Aurora Miranda (sister of Carmen).  The surprise here is the mixture of live action and animation.  Surprisingly this was the third time that the Disney studios had mixed live action and animation after Song of the South and The Reluctant Dragon.  Of course, it’s not seamless but it is quite good.

Donald’s last present is simply called “Mexico” and here Donald and Jose meet up with their third “Caballero”, Panchito Pistoles, a trigger-happy Mexican whose full name is Panchito Romero Miguel Junipero Francisco Quintero Gonzalez III (no political correctness here) as he takes them on a trip via a flying serape to places like Acapulco, Veracruz and Pátzcuaro.

The sites are breathtaking, but there is time for a break when Jose and Donald and Panchito settle in for a religious parable.  Living at a time now where religion in films is sectioned off to “religious films” for fear of offending anyone it was surprising to see it in a mainstream picture.  The story is “Las Posadas” and it features a group of Mexican schoolchildren who celebrate Christmas with a reenactment of the journey of Joseph and Mary as they search for an inn so the baby Jesus can be born.  The story ends with a celebration by Donald, Jose and the kids as take to the tradition of breaking a piñata.

The finale takes over the last half hour of the movie.  It is an overextended segment of music, dancing and animation in which Donald receives a kiss which sets him off into a surrealistic fantasy to the tune of “Love is a Drug.”  The animation here is wonderful, especially in the fact that it is mixed with live action.  It’s as strange and trippy as the Pink Elephants number in Dumbo especially when Jose and Donald try to break Panchito’s singing solo by (playfully) pelting him with firecrackers, but the whole segment goes on and on and on and on.   The animators are obviously trying to capture the spirit of being at a fiesta but it seems to go on forever and after a while it gets tiresome.

A major chunk of the movie’s third act, seriously, is Donald chasing beautiful women.  When he isn’t in raucous pursuit of the opposite sex, he settles in for a romantic interlude, leading to a bizarre bit called  “You Belong to My Heart” a trippy romantic interlude over the skies of Mexico as the duck pines for the affection of a woman who seems to be part of the celestial furniture.  That over, it’s back to girls, girls, girls.

What I focused on in the last segment is a trope that has always kind of fascinated me, the ravenous male pursuit of beautiful women.  It is an element that was common in cartoons of the time; a male encounters a beautiful woman and spins off into a libidinous whirlwind of exaggerated poses – his eyes pop out and he beats himself over the head with a mallet.  This was common in Disney cartoons, Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry, the shorts of Walter Lantz and especially Tex Avery.  Food and sex seem to be the two major appetites for male characters in cartoons of the 40s and 50s.  The pursuit of food was obvious but the pursuit of sex was always a bit tricky.  While the male character was always defined, the female was always somewhat vague, a stock character with curves and a pretty face yet no name, no personality, no appetites and no obvious pursuits of her own except to either be pursued or to repeatedly tell the antagonist to take a hike.  Very rarely was it the other way around.  If the woman pursued the male she was generally unattractive.

In The Three Caballeros, the function of women is simply to dance and look pretty and be pursued by a horny duck.  This is a curious positioning of women at the time.  The movie was released in 1944 while the United States was still at war.  The reality for women was much more intense than Hollywood might have allowed.  During the war, most American women were busy working in factories putting together ships, planes and tanks to help with the war effort, then pulling double duty by keeping the kids in line and the home fires burning.  On that, it is important to note that women working in Disney’s studio were given menial tasks in the Ink and Paint department and made far less than male employees.  Latino women at this time broke down their cultural barriers, moving away from the home to help with the war effort and venturing out on their own for the first time.  Bilingual skills were sought after and they found work as interpreters.  They serves in the WAACS and Marine reserves.

On the screen women of any culture were not likely to be seen as employed or even employable but rather as an image fitting for the Madonna/Whore complex.  They can be seen as sex objects or maternal figures.  Women were objects of beauty though not always of power.  There were exceptions, you could see the positives creeping around the corners but the story was more likely to end with the woman falling into the arms of the leading man.  This was the norm in the age of The Hays Code, that awful nanny state of the early 20s century that was set in place to keep movies clean and wholesome and to basically separate the viewer from reality.  They were tasked with changing words, characters, plots and anything even remotely objectionable.

In cartoons however, the rules weren’t quite as harsh although the ideas were often curtailed to keep the pursuer from attaining his goal.  The penance was often loneliness or some other gruesome fate.
There were dozens of cartoons that fit this trope, but the one that springs immediately to mind is Tex Avery’s “Red Hot Riding Hood,” a reconditioning of the Little Red Riding Hood story updated to the New York jazz scene of the 1940s with the wolf pursuing a busty showgirl.  At the end, he gets so roughed up trying to evade her sex-starved grandmother that he declares that he’d rather kill himself than lust after another woman.  Then Red Riding Hood appears again and he kills himself only to come back as a ghost and continue his lust-crazed ways.

Cartoons represent an exaggerated form of the world which is appropriate because they can leave the space we live in and stretch and squash the world into any form they want to take.  That’s what makes them work.  Yet, they are also representative of our hidden appetites.  Donald Duck can chase a group of beautiful women up and down a beach in Peru but if a human male did that he’d likely land himself in jail or a hospital.  Yet, what does this say about the film.  Donald spends the last third of the movie chasing women and in one case falling in love.  The women are seen as part of the scenery, and more of a smorgasbord than anything else.  At one point, the three title characters swoop down on a beach populated by bathing beauties and the women scatter like gazelles.  The lust-crazed trope is still in effect here.  However, given the context it is an element that I’m not sure I get.  The movie was employed as a good-will tactic so that Americans could get a better understanding of Latin American culture, but what does this trope suggest?  Go to Peru and chase women up and down a beach?  Is it comedy?  Is it suggestive?  I’m not sure that I get it, but I suppose that tourism of Latin American countries in this film could be exaggerated as well.  It is seen as a singing, dancing, non-stop party in which everyone is having a great time.

Disney pictures have always had a complicated relationship with women, even to this day.  Beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the image of woman in their animated films has always been a bit of a sticky subject.  It fluctuates back and forth between the helpless damsel and the evil wench.  It is a subject that gets more interesting and more complicated as time goes on.  We’ll get more into that as we approach the Fairy Tale era of the 1950s.

The Three Caballeros in the meantime is complicated as well.  It’s a fun movie for the most part and you can feel that it was put together with loving care.  The production team went a lot of effort to make the visual look of the film into something special, which is why I regret complaining about the length.  While it’s beautiful to look at, I eventually got tired of looking at the volley abstract images.  The movie wants to be a non-stop party but there are moments when I needed a break.

I said earlier that as a kid I didn’t know this was a movie because I had always seen the animated bits chopped up and attached to the beginning or ending of the features.  Having seen the entire movie, I’m not so sure that breaking it up into pieces wasn’t such a bad idea.  It is twice as long as Saludos Amigos and it is very similar.  The segments are fun as segments but when pulled all together it can be a struggle to sit through.  Is that fair and balance criticism?  I’m not really sure.

 

Movie of the Day: Prometheus (2012)

Prometheus

Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is a grand, visionary science fiction experience, but just as important, it is an affirmation that idealistic science fiction is not dead.  The best sci-fi is based on ideas, not laser guns and global domination.  With the recent death of Ray Bradbury, I felt a sense of melancholy that the grandness of thoughtful science fiction was passing with him.  Ridley Scott’s film gives me hope that there is still a film artist who sees the possibilities of the genre.  Yes, there are monsters and shoot-outs, but there’s something worthwhile in the screenplay to back it up.

Scott’s Prometheus does what science fiction is suppose to do, it takes us to a place we could only imagine and presents completely new ideas about the origins of the species.  It is officially a prequel to Scott’s landmark Alien, but doesn’t completely hitch its wagon to that film.  It leads into the events of that film through thoughtful logic.  We sense echoes of what is to come, but we don’t feel hammered by them.  This is a film that stands well enough on its own.  The screenplay by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof is written with patience and an intelligence that lets that events unfold as we experience them.  It doesn’t make everything clear at the beginning and then follow them down a predictable road.  The whole way through, we are just as surprised as the characters.

The movie opens with an odd scene that remains unexplained, but is never-the-less curious enough to inspire long discussions afterwards.  We spot a strange figure on the horizon of a grey planet.  The figure spots a floating object in the sky, drinks something from a cup and vomits before his body decays and falls into the river.  The substance reorganizes his DNA into something quite horrible that the characters for the rest of the film will have to deal with.

Cut forward several centuries to a trillion-dollar ship called “Prometheus” that is run by an even more curious being, a plastic robot named David (Michael Fassbinder) who tends to an extended mission from earth to a planet located in another solar system.  David is a curiosity, a four-limbed humanoid that reminds us of the HAL 9000 computer, not just in his function but in his thinking.  He knows his mission, but never gives the audience any reason to trust him because he puts his duties above human life.  What he’s doing is right, but his methods are questionable.

Asleep onboard are the ship’s crew, who have been placed in cryo-sleep for the length of the two year voyage and are awakened when the destination has been reached.  The ship itself is the product of The Weyland Corporation, a trillion dollar business that is funding a mission to a planet that, evidence suggests, may unlock the key to the very origins of man.  Representing the company is an ice-queen named Meredith (Charlize Theron) whose villainy isn’t a million years removed from her performance as the Queen in Snow White.  She wants the mission done with so everyone can get their findings back home.  A more idealistic voice comes from an archeologist named Elizabeth Shaw, played in a good, strong performance by Swedish actress Noomi Rapace (the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo).  She and her partner Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green) have discovered a series of star-maps that that have originated from several stone tablets from every age of man from the Byzantine Empire, to the Romans and even ancient Hawaiians.  They all connect and seem to point straight to this strange little moon.

What they find when they arrive on the moon is, in a word, astonishing – a strange mountain that contains a cavern that once housed an ancient alien culture.  The interiors of that cave are a breath-taking and brilliant exercise in production design by Ridley Scott regular Sonja Klaus (she deserves an Oscar).  The discovery of an immense stone-face and hundreds of small missile-shaped canisters leads the crew to believe that something dangerous might be afoot.  They’re right, but they first must discover what they have found.  Their discovery leads to the uncomfortable information of possibly that the human race was created for sinister purposes. There’s some discussion between Elizabeth and Charlie dealing with her strong faith in God. Knowing what she knows, she has every reason to cast off her religious beliefs and one of the great questions of the movie is whether or not her discoveries will force her to do that.

More of the story, I cannot discuss, except that the movie keeps raising the stakes.  Just as with the original Alien, the crew isn’t sure what they are up against nor what is killing them one by one.  The difference is that there are few straight-forward answers.  There are moments of astonishing discovery as when the away-team returns with a severed alien head that contains something that isn’t very appetizing.  This is a film full of great scenes especially a sabotage by David that leads Elizabeth to need surgery before the alien inside her bursts from her abdomen.  That leads to an astonishingly good scene in which she tries to remove the beast with the help of an automated surgery machine that has to be seen to be believed. That scene is a masterwork of suspense.

I could probably carp about Prometheus all day, finding faults in tiny details, but this is a film that extends itself into the realms of great science fiction.  I haven’t always been kind to Ridley Scott’s work, he makes film that always seem to have grand visuals with characters that leave something to be desired.  Here, however, is a movie that Scott has crafted with loving care.  His heart was in the material and he has managed to fuse together the wonderment of great science fiction with a sense of danger and horror of his original Alien.  The result is not for all tastes, but it rises above just a weekend entertainment. It us leaves us with curious questions about the origin of the species that Darwin probably never would have imagined.

 
 

Movie of the Day: 2016 – Obama’s America (2012)

Recently I went on an angry tare over Dinesh D’Souza’s horrifying work of fiction “Hillary’s America: The Secret History of The Democratic Party” but here is my far less angry review of his first film “2016 – Obama’s America” from 2012.  Note how calm I am here.  What a difference four years makes.
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There may be no other president in American history that has brought about more speculation or more contention of opinion than Barak Hussein Obama II.  When the final history is written, the Obama administration will be looked on and studied for generations to come, perhaps for different reasons than most.  Whether you believe that Obama was an effective leader or just a do-nothing figure-head; a game-changer or a starry-eyed dreamer, there is just something absent about our understanding of the 43rd man to occupy the highest office in the land.

That absence of understanding is at the heart of 2016: Obama’s America, a documentary that tries to dig under the life and history of Barak Obama and uncover what brought him to the White House despite the fact that he had been in politics for only a decade.  The movie is very anti-Obama, but it isn’t all fire and brimstone.  Here is a film that asks tough questions about the president’s past and how it affects his agenda as the leader of the free world.  Narrated and hosted by political commentator and author Dinesh D’Souza, based on his book “The Roots of Obama’s Rage”, 2016: Obama’s America is not so much a case of blind rabble-rousing as it is D’Souza’s own intelligent, literate essay that speculates on who Obama is and what is plans are for the future.  The speculations aren’t just fear and doom, but are presented as reasonable assessments of the president’s personal history and what he has done in the White House over the last four years.  Whether the facts are straight or spotty is left to the viewer.  You can question his facts, but you can’t question D’Souza’s skill at making an effective argument in favor of voting for someone else.

D’Souza, an Indian born in Mumbai who came to America to attend Dartmouth College, spends most of the film tracing the origins of a president that he feels that Americans don’t really know.  He questions why Americans passed over two well-known politicians, John McCain and Hilary Clinton in order to elect a young, unseasoned politician who had served on the Illinois State Senate for seven years and then served in the U.S. Senate for only three.  Who was he?  What did we know about him?  What did he mean when he promised “Hope.”  Hope for what?  Were people nervous his Muslim background while we were still at war in the Middle East?  Was Obama elected based on the color of his skin?  These are question that he asks then goes out looking for answers.

In order to dig under those questions D’Souza spends the first half of the movie tracing Obama’s background.  Using as a template of information, the president’s 1995 memoir “Dreams From My Father,”  we see that Obama’s father Barak Obama Sr., a Kenyan economist, was absent for most of Barak Jr.’s life and this absence left a far-reaching drive to prove himself.  The bullet-point of young Barak’s ambition, D’Souza speculates, came from his father’s death in an automobile accident in 1982.  For most of his life, he was raised by his mother and Ann and his Indonesian stepfather Lolo Soetoro.

We are also introduced to some of Obama’s mentors that the Democrats attempted to sweep under the rug as Obama approached the White House, namely Frank Marshall Davis, a controversial figure who seemed to have had connections with The Communist Party.  Also Bill Ayers, a former anti-Vietnam protestor who had been a radical in the 60s and 70s and conducted bombings of public buildings.  Then, of course, Jeremiah Wright whose acid-tongued sermons about how America deserved 9/11 surfaced early in Obama’s administration.

The populist rabble-rousing is left for the film’s second half in which D’Souza speculates on how the president got elected and what he plans to do with the next four years.  While interviewing experts, he speculates that Obama’s mere image got him elected because he didn’t fit the mold of “the angry black man”.  Unlike previous office-seekers like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, Obama seemed less radical (or un-radical) and more appealing to young white Americans.  The problem was that no one seemed willing to question him.  D’Souza questions whether or not Americans were so blinded by their love for Obama that they simply didn’t want to hear anything negative.  Obama was clean-cut, young, seemingly idealistic, and so devoid of scandals and controversies (at least during his campaign) that people voted for him out of emotion.

The film ends with speculation of what the next four years will look like.  Having been through the first four years and needing to get re-elected, D’Souza speculates that Obama will take off the gloves.  There will be no holding back on his agenda to open up relations with the Middle East, thereby softening America’s strength that is keeping radical terrorists at bay.

Of course, all of this can be viewed as hearsay.  Whether you agree with D’Souza’s position is most likely a case of which side of the aisle on which you happen to stand.  This is a well-made film, but at its core is still pure propaganda.  D’Souza is smart to focus squarely on Obama and not to promote the other side because doing so would tip the film over into mud-slinging.

The movie isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind, but D’Souza’s approach is to be admired.  He tries to see the facts as Obama has spelled them out in his own book and also from his actions as commander-in-chief.  Unlike Michael Moore who operates on a bullying interview-style, D’Souza attempts to be more of a journalist.  Both Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 and D’Souza’s 2016: Obama’s America have the same agenda.  They want to sway you to keep from reelecting someone that they feel will do more harm than good.  The difference is that Moore’s film wanted to anger you, while D’Souza’s wants you to think before you vote.

 
 
 
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