November 04, 2007
The Real Frank Lucas
American Gangster is a good film, though probably not a great one. The New York magazine article detailing the life and times of Frank Lucas is, however, pretty remarkable:
Of the dozens of smuggling operations he ran from Asia, Frank still rates "the Henry Kissinger deal" as an all-time favorite. To hear Frank tell it, he and Ike were desperate to get 125 keys out of town, but there weren't any "friendly" planes scheduled leaving. "All we had was Kissinger. He was on a mercy mission on account of big cyclones in Bangladesh. We knew a cook on the plane and gave $100,000 to some general to look the other way. I mean, who the fuck is gonna search fucking Henry Kissinger's plane?
". . . Henry Kissinger! Wonder what he'd say if knew he helped smuggle all that dope into the country? . . . Hoo hahz poot zum dope in my aero-plan? Ha ha ha . . ."
And I wonder if Tyler Cowen has seen this bit showing how mega-retailers eke out efficiencies by being too big for gangsters too coerce:
A couple of days later, eating at a T.G.I. Friday's, Lucas scowled through glareproof glass to the suburban strip beyond. "Look at this shit," he said. A giant Home Depot down the road especially bugged him. Bumpy Johnson himself couldn't have collected protection from a damn Home Depot, he said with disgust. "What would Bumpy do? Go in and ask to see the assistant manager? Place is so big, you get lost past the bathroom sinks. But that's the way it is now. You can't find the heart of anything to stick the knife into."
Without offering any spoilers, at the film's start, this comment is repurposed as Bumpy Johnson lamenting the end of a certain era in Harlem -- now the stores aren't part of the community, and the people don't know you. Lucas, who actually said it, gives it a rather more sinister spin.
August 18, 2007
The Great S&M Amusement Corp.
By Kathy G.
Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder, 1951)
Today Digby writes about the disgraceful way the media has kowtowed to Bob Murray, the owner of the mine that collapsed in Utah. Sadly, the media (the teevee media at least) have by and large let Murray set the agenda and have failed to ask hard questions about dubious safety practices in this and other mines he owns. In addition, they have all but ignored the way the right in general and the Bush administration in particular have done their best to destroy unions and gut the enforcement of workplace safety regulations, two enormously important contributing factors to this disaster.
Next week I’ll have more to say about the policy issues implicated in this tragedy. But for now I want to heartily second Digby's recommendation that you check out Billy Wilder’s film, Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival). This film, when it was originally released, was a box office and critical disaster. It was out of circulation for many years, but lately it’s been showing up on Turner Classic Movies with some frequency (it will be broadcast there again on August 26th), and recently it (finally) was released on DVD.
The reason Digby brings up Ace in the Hole in the context of the Utah mine disaster is that the film’s plot revolves around a somewhat similar media circus. It concerns a man trapped in a mine collapse. A reporter (Kirk Douglas) gets wind of the story, but rather than helping to rescue him, he conspires with local officials to keep him trapped there as long as possible. The reason? The longer he’s there the better it is for Douglas’s career, because it’s a great story that sells newspapers. The local officials and business people also have their own self-interested reasons for not going to the man’s aid.
Given that Ace in the Hole has a mixed reputation at best, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But in general I’m a big fan of Wilder’s work so when it screened on TCM earlier this year I decided to check it out. I watched it with three of my best cinephile friends. None of us had ever seen it. I remember at a certain point, we all looked at one another, and my friend Kyle pronounced, “This is a totally fucking awesome movie!”
Which it is. It is certainly one of Wilder’s strongest films, and I think a lot of people are now realizing this for the first time.
But Jesus Christ, this is one cynical film! It’s cynical even for Wilder, who, let’s not forget, is the dude who made films like Double Indemnity and Sunset Blvd., which are about as dark as Hollywood gets. Yet Ace in the Hole outdoes them both in its sour view of human nature. Watching it is like a full-body immersion in an acid bath. I mean, up until that time, was there ever a character in a Hollywood film consumed with as much self-loathing as Kirk Douglas is here?
As I mentioned before, contemporary critics mostly hated this film, even the more discerning ones. Pauline Kael said of the film, “Some people have tried to claim some sort of satirical brilliance for it, but it's really just nasty, in a sociologically pushy way.” Andrew Sarris said that the film “proved” that Wilder was “inadequate for the more serious demands of . . . social allegory.” That was before Sarris’s famous reversal on Wilder, whom he now considers to be among the pantheon of great directors. But still . . .
I think part of the reason critics like Sarris and Kael recoiled from the film is that they thought the portrayal of the media was completely over the top. Wilder’s depiction of the media’s utter heartlessness and craven devotion to nothing bigger than its own self-interest must have seemed grotesquely exaggerated. But you know what? In the post-Iraq, post-Judy Miller era, it’s not especially hard to accept the film’s premise, and Wilder’s pitch black view of the media. In 1951, though, people weren’t ready for this film. Ace in the Hole is a great example of a work of art that was misunderstood in its own time. But man, does it ever speak to our own.
Btw, the title of this post refers to one of my favorite Wilderian touches in the movie. The mine collapse has become a 24-7 media circus, drawing crowds so large that enterprising hucksters set up an actual carnival on the site. The name on the carnival trucks? “The Great S&M Amusement Corp.”
One last thing: I also join Digby and Jane Hamsher in urging that you check out the classic documentary Harlan County U.S.A., which also is now available on DVD. It’s often cited as one of the greatest documentaries ever made, which it totally is – politically galvanizing and emotionally heart-wrenching. Though it’s over 30 years old, I saw it earlier this year and it holds up beautifully.
July 02, 2007
Bureaucracy on Film
In the comments to my post on They Came Back, Ginger Yellow suggests that if it's government-in-action that I want to see, then I should check out Threads -- "nuclear apocalypse from the point of view of Sheffield City Council." I'm down, as I've long wondered how the Sheffield City Council would react to nuclear apocalypse. Sadly, I can't seem to find Threads in ye olde Netflix. But let's make the question larger: What are the best movies about government in general and bureaucrats in particular? I'm not looking for thrillers taking place in the halls of Congress, but love stories in the depths of the EPA and dramas tracking one deputy undersecretary of state's lonely crusade to popularize the metric system.
June 26, 2007
Evil Needs an Occam's Razor
Saw the new Stephen King/John Cusack horror flick this weekend, which was quite fun. But it suffered from the same problem a lot of these movies do: Why is evil so circuitous? Early in the film, we learn that the Evil Hotel Room has killed not just the 20-some folks whose grisly deaths were carried in the newspapers, but another couple dozen who died "naturally": Strokes, heart attacks, drowned in their soup. And yet, the Evil Hotel Room spends the next hour and change trying to convince Cusack to kill himself. It's bizarre. Just give the guy a stroke!
The movie does get props for trying to resolve the tension, as when Cusack asks the room why it doesn't just kill him, and the room archly deadpans that "All guests at the Dolphin hotel have complementary free will." And sure, heart attacks and strokes can be caused by the stress of facing down a haunted hotel room. But still: this should be simpler.
The better example of this oddity comes from Final Destination, wherein Death itself is trying to kill the main characters, and goes about it in absurdly complicated ways. As I remember, one accidentally pours a glass of vodka, which Death puts a small hole in, creating a trail of dripping alcohol from the kitchen to the computer. The character then sits at the computer, which sparks, setting the house on fire, driving the character back into the kitchen, where she falls down, tries to grab a towel which "happens" to be laid across a knife rack, and instead flips all the cutlery into her chest. Grisly, to be sure, but why didn't Death just pop her organs? It's silly.
Speaking of movies, for those who haven't seen it, the opener to Aqua Teen Hunger Force is more awesome than language can convey. Watch the whole thing.
June 05, 2007
Abortions in Film
Dilan Esper made an interesting point in the thread on Knocked Up. "The problem isn't that "Knocked Up" doesn't present the "choice" well," he wrote. "It's that there's no movies out there-- at all-- in which a lead character has an abortion and that choice turns out to be absolutely right. And that's despite the fact that in real life, most abortions DO turn out to be the right choice, whereas many choices to have a child-- especially when said child is the product of a one-night stand with an iffy male-- turn out to be very tragic ones."
Hederman replies, "Not sure how anyone could overlook one of the seminal movies for Gen X. Fast Times, Say Anything, 16 candles, Fast Time at Ridgemont High. All staples of the Exers and Stacy's abortion was a huge plotpt in FTRH." Amanda mentions High Fidelity, where we learn that Laura had an abortion at some point in the past. Other examples?
Critiquing The Lives of Others
The Lives of Others was far and away my favorite movie of last year, so it was interesting to come across this review from Slavoj Zizek, arguing with the honestly of its portrayal of Communism:
Like so many other films depicting the harshness of Communist regimes, The Lives of Others misses their true horror. How so? First, what sets the film’s plot in motion is the corrupt minister of culture, who wants to get rid of the top German Democratic Republic (GDR) playwright, Georg Dreyman, so he can pursue unimpeded an affair with Dreyman’s partner, the actress Christa-Maria. In this way, the horror that was inscribed into the very structure of the East German system is relegated to a mere personal whim. What’s lost is that the system would be no less terrifying without the minister’s personal corruption, even if it were run by only dedicated and “honest” bureaucrats.
Fair point. On the other hand, aren't the failings and flaws of individuals a prime reason why Communism so routinely blurred into totalitarianism? It's not that a system run by dedicated and honest bureaucrats couldn't construct some sort of decent, if inefficient, society, but that there's no such thing as universally dedicated and honest bureaucrats, and so any system that imbues civil functionaries with too much authority will necessarily devolve as they begin using their position and power to pursue personal goals? Communism as run by computers may be fine (not my choice, to be sure, but not murderous), but as run by humans, it tends to be a mess.
This, too, seemed an interesting observation, though more focused on Goodbye, Lenin, which I haven't seen:
To put it quite brutally, while Ostalgie is widely practiced in today’s Germany without causing ethical problems, one (for the time being, at least) cannot imagine publicly practicing a Nazi nostalgia: “Good Bye Hitler” instead of “Good Bye Lenin.” Doesn’t this bear witness to the fact that we are still aware of the emancipatory potential in Communism, which, distorted and thwarted as it was, was thoroughly missing in Fascism?
June 04, 2007
That right there's a good movie. Possibly not as funny as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, but close, and almost certainly the better film. Where the-40-Year-Old Virgin took, in reality, male relationships as its subject, Knocked Up focuses on male maturation. The pregnancy, the friends, the shrewish sister and her oddly detached husband -- they're all vehicles to explore that odd transition from a life wherein your strongest attachments are with close friends, to one where your primary companions are your wife and family. Oh yeah, and it's really funny. A mushroom trip involving five different types of chairs and a dressdown from a surprisingly sensitive bouncer are particularly classic moments.
I also agree with much of Amanda's review. The early efforts of folks on both the Right and the Left to brand the movie pro-life were discomfiting. Some in my group seemed genuinely distressed that the main character didn't choose an abortion, and were ready to write off the film for that initial bit of betrayal. I found that baffling.
The flick is pro-choice in the most literal sense of the term. Katherine Heigl's character receives advice in both directions, and then makes a decision -- a decision the audience may very well conclude is the wrong one. But she has a choice; nothing is forced on her, and the most explicit scene on abortion features an eloquent speech by her mother advising her to end the pregnancy because, at this point, she's not ready, and these are not the right circumstances. Heigl, it turns out, disagrees, but that's a perfectly allowable, and indeed respectable, decision within the choice framework. I was, like Brian, disappointed in the movie for making things work out so perfectly (her pregnancy actually ends up aiding her job), but that was a minor sin, and one more attributable to the conventions of romantic comedies than any rightwing agenda. In any case, a good movie, and one that I'd happily see a second time. It's far more fun than the substantive commentary here would suggest.
May 05, 2007
It's simply astonishing that professional writers had a hand in that dialogue. Maybe relentless treacle interspersed with musty tropes plays very well among those who actually go to movies, rather than those who come home and blog about movies, but yech. Some of that was astonishingly bad.
That said, the Ezra spin is that this flick is about as forthright an argument for universal health care as could possibly exist. Without spoiling anything of importance to the plot, Sandman wouldn't exist, Uncle Ben wouldn't have died, and things would have turned out rather better for Harry if Flint Marko's daughter hadn't been denied care, thus leaving Marko achingly, and disastrously, desperate for money. Spiderman is fun to watch, of course, but there'd be quite a bit less pain, death, and destruction if Marko could have just sought out some decent care for kid. Coverage, it turns out, is the real superhero (and imagine Spiderman and the Sandman uniting forces for a PSA!). So this joins Garden State as a film where a universal health care system, humming along efficiently in the background, would've made life quite a bit better. Glad that liberal hammerlock on Hollywood is finally paying off...
March 13, 2007
Oh boy. Here's what 300 didn't tell you:
We know little of King Leonidas, so creating a fictitious backstory for him is understandable. Spartan children were, indeed, taken from their mothers and given a martial education called the agoge. They were indeed toughened by beatings and dispatched into the countryside, forced to walk shoeless in winter and sleep uncovered on the ground. But future kings were exempt.
And had Leonidas undergone the agoge, he would have come of age not by slaying a wolf, but by murdering unarmed helots in a rite known as the Crypteia. These helots were the Greeks indigenous to Lakonia and Messenia, reduced to slavery by the tiny fraction of the population enjoying Spartan "freedom." By living off estates worked by helots, the Spartans could afford to be professional soldiers, although really they had no choice: securing a brutal apartheid state is a full-time job, to which end the Ephors were required to ritually declare war on the helots. [...]
300's Persians are ahistorical monsters and freaks. Xerxes is eight feet tall, clad chiefly in body piercings and garishly made up, but not disfigured. No need – it is strongly implied Xerxes is homosexual which, in the moral universe of 300, qualifies him for special freakhood. This is ironic given that pederasty was an obligatory part of a Spartan's education. This was a frequent target of Athenian comedy, wherein the verb "to Spartanize" meant "to bugger." In 300, Greek pederasty is, naturally, Athenian.
It gets worse, but remains fascinating, from there. Via Sanchez
February 20, 2007
I admit that The Last Kiss review below became a bit involved. For involved reviews of a more relevant kind, folks should check out The New Republic's new Oscar blog, which is filling its niche nicely. I never wanted to see Babel, so I'm feeling a bit lost, and I really, really don't think that "Twenty years from now, Borat will be a classic, perfectly capturing the zeitgeist, the way Easy Rider did in the 1960s or Wall Street did in the 1980s," but Ross's lament that middlebrow movies have largely vanished from the Best Picture category is one I share:
Sure, Driving Miss Daisy slugging it out with Dead Poets Society and Field of Dreams might not have been a matchup made in film school heaven, but it made for good award-show theater--as did 1991's Beauty and the Beast versus Silence of the Lambs battle royale, and Braveheart's 1995 competition with Babe, Apollo 13, and Sense and Sensibility, and 1999's Shakespeare in Love versus Saving Private Ryan, and a host of others.
Whereas today, the Academy is more likely to nominate movies that are highbrow and semi-artsy without being any good: Sometimes they're awful (Babel, Crash) and sometimes they're just overpraised (last year's Good Night and Good Luck, this year's Letters From Iwo Jima), but in either case they aren't any fun.
So I'm with him in rooting for The Departed, and I'll go a step farther and say that Jack Nicholson's campy performance didn't bother me at all.