Capitalism: A Love Story (2009)

Running Time: 120 min.
Director: Michael Moore
Stars: Michael Moore and a cast of crooks

Michael Moore (and his films) are believed to be a “known commodity,” mostly by his enemies rather than his fans. In other words, people who don’t actually watch his movies think they know exactly what they’re going to get from all/any of them, so they don’t bother watching. Conservative circular logic at its finest. They use their favourite (and most effective) ploy of reducing him (or anyone they don’t like) to a caricature; they paint Moore as a fat narcissist liberal who hates everything conservative and particularly that very model of a modern capitalist general, General Motors.

But, you’ll notice, they rarely take on his ideas directly. The reason for this is because although Moore may rub you the wrong way, in point of fact, he’s turned out to be right — and nothing infuriates a conservative more than having to confront this.

So before we get into the movie, let’s address this directly. Yes, Moore is a pretty chunky guy — though since making Sicko two years ago, he’s dropped 70 pounds, and plans to lose another 70. Have you done that? No? Then STFU.

Narcissist? Maybe. He does feature a lot of himself in his films, and I once asked him specifically about that. To summarize his longer answer, he feels strongly that it’s important that he make these movies personal, particularly in the narration. As for the “stunts” as some call them, he prefers the term “citizen confrontation” and asserts that he is acting the part of the audience if they had a chance to speak truth to power. The fact that these events are not always effective or realistic doesn’t make them irrelevant; Moore wants to show that ordinary people can still make their feelings known through such actions, and indeed would be more effective than just him doing it. When he puts crime scene tape around Wall Street, he’s not just making a statement, he’s inviting you to do something similar — because Moore still sees himself as the average joe. Seriously.

Truthfully, it’s the media itself that has made Moore’s image narcissistic. They consistently prefer to focus their stories on him rather than any of the unsettling ideas actually in his films, because then they would have to tacitly acknowledge that he’s factually correct.

So, finally, we get to “liberal.” This term (like “conservative”) has rather different meanings depending on where you are (both physically and politically), but I personally have never thought of Moore as being nearly as “liberal” as his critics allege. He’s much more an angry (but not all that far from centrist) Democrat and pragmatist with honestly mixed feelings about a lot of things, such as guns and yes, capitalism. He actually comes very much from the type of background that usually breeds conservatives, the small-town midwestern, sleepily and happily middle-class and stay-at-home world — and in fact he pines for more Americans to have that sort of background again! He reminds me very much of a lapsed Catholic (though he isn’t one, as it turns out) in that he is very shaped by the middle-class, pretty conservative (small “c”) background he came from, but has seen the ugly underbelly and wants it made right rather than swept under the rug. It’s the fault of the rich and their abusive policies towards the poor and union workers that has turned Moore into an alleged “super-liberal”; had the US maintained a respect for honest work and the middle class, Moore would probably have been at worst the local gadfly at the City Council meetings. Just by looking at him you can tell that he’d be no more comfortable at some Gay Pride-themed SoHo gallery opening than Newt Gingrich would.

So what about capitalism? Does Moore hate it?

I’d have to say “no, but he hates what it has become.” When describing his own upbringing and the world of good capitalism did for everyone back when it was in sync with and intermingled with the love of country and community that feeds and nurtures democracy, young Master Moore was probably capitalism’s biggest fan. It gave him a life and opportunities of incredibly high quality, better in fact than most people have available today — which is part of the point. Life really was pretty good for the majority of Americans, at least by comparison with now, in the late 50s and early 60s.

Along came the Reagan Administration in 1980, however, and they (specifically Don Regan, who was head of Goldman Sachs and then became Treasury Secretary, essentially handing the keys of the vault to Wall Street) allowed capitalism to become a very mean and heartless drunk, slurring his “I love you, maaaan” odes to the rich while ignoring his wife and kids (the middle class and poor, respectively) at home. Like a bad marriage, the family tried to ignore what was happening, tried to put on a brave face for the neighbours, and for a while that worked, but the façade began to crack, the abuse became difficult to hide, but it careened almost always out of control for far longer than you’d have expected and then eventually he drove himself into a ditch. Capitalism divorced itself from both the middle class and reality, gave up its egalitarian ideals and became a meth whore to the rich and powerful, ignoring everything else and letting the house it built (America) crumble.

Twenty years ago, Moore was just a schlub outraged by the poor treatment of workers vs. shareholders at General Motors, and identified the root problem: a de-humanisation of the employees and customers in favour of making the rich richer in the belief that they — the rich — would take care of the little people (this idea is often expressed as “trickle down economics”) by providing them jobs (but nothing else really).

At the time Roger & Me came out, Moore thought GM was some kind of rogue corporation, bending government to their will and putting their endless need for profit ahead of the people’s need for basic survival; 20 years on, Moore has discovered that pretty much all corporations have abandoned the democratic and moral principles of supporting the communities they profit from, and rushed headlong into a feeding frenzy for money that never gets sated, powered by a foolish Congress that gave them not just rights on par with actual people, but rights and access that superseded that of ordinary citizens.

It’s irony at its very finest that the very groups of people who profess to be skeptical of Darwin’s evolutionary theories are largely the same ones who turned capitalism into a pure Darwinian exercise, replacing democracy and patriotism with the worship of profit and a “survival of the fittest richest” mantra.

You read that right, by the way: democracy has been replaced by corporatocracy, and most of us never even noticed. A cynical few will yawn and act unsurprised, but the joke is on them: a “plutonomy,” as Citibank itself described it, will eventually make life very unpleasant for anyone not in the top one or two percent of earners. That means you.

The 2006 Citibank memo that calmly and horrifically describes — to its wealthy clients, until it was leaked to Moore — a system of government that is now solely defined by its ability to produce economic benefit to the wealthy, and even questions how much longer the rich will let the concept of “one man, one vote” stand — is at best a treatise of treason, at worst a victory speech of the triumph over democracy, a war that was won through marketing, convincing people that having an XBox and a plasma TV equaled a higher standard of living.

This is just one of the jaw-dropping revelations that will even shock and surprise lefties who consider themselves well-informed. Have you heard of a “Dead Peasant Policy”? You will in Moore’s film, and you may literally want to grab a torch and head for the mansions when you find out what it is.

Or consider Capt. Ted “Sully” Sullenberger, the hero of the Hudson. He went to Congress to testify about the working conditions of the nation’s pilots. Don’t remember that? That’s because the networks refused to air what he said. When Moore shows you the (stolen) footage of his testimony, and then backs it up with interviews of working pilots, you may never want to set foot on an airplane again (which is not Moore’s intent; he wants you to help him do something about it, not stick your head in the sand).

In addition to these revelations, made up mostly of “liberated” news footage that has been actively suppressed by corporate-owned media, Moore injects a surprising new voice beyond his own, or those of the victims of rampant corporate greed; the Catholic Church. As a practicing Catholic, Moore’s discontent with capitalism as a substitute for democracy has its roots in the Bible, and so he interviews a number of Catholic priests and bishops, who all enthusiastically agree that capitalism runs directly contrary to the teachings of Jesus and the words of God, and is a force of evil in the world (which even Moore is not ready to fully embrace). If this film does nothing else beyond Moore’s usual level of box office, I would love to see this film spark a real dialogue in the mainstream media featuring the religious view of where the West is headed these days, and how its model is something Jesus would run screaming from.

Some critics have said that Moore’s ability to deliver such a huge indictment results in him being less focused, less “entertaining” and less cohesive in this film than in some of his previous ones where the subject was more narrow. With this I must agree, Capitalism as a piece of filmmaking is not Moore’s best work. But it is as important a documentary as anything he’s done, because it shows not only the growth of the corporatocracy, but also how the truths he uncovered in Flint, Michigan 20 years ago have now been exported to every corner of the US, from “condo vultures” in Miami to partying Wall Street executives, from bankrupt California (which is, by the way, one-seventh of the US economy) to the corporate infil-traitors in Washington DC.

One does wish, especially in the early portion of the film, that Moore would zero in on his thesis and not throw everything and the kitchen sink up there; he cuts dizzingly between crying remnants of the working poor and the eviscerated middle class struggling and failing to keep even their dignity as they lose everything they’ve worked for, to his now-old-hat “stunts” to the shocking footage that either never aired or didn’t make it past the right-wing noise machine, to images from his typical American upbringing to the wasteland that is Flint (and a thousand small towns like it) today, to priests calmly telling us that our very way of life is intrinsically evil and ungodly. If Moore were a lawyer, I’m sure he’d get a hung jury every time, and his “citizen confrontations” have lost most of their novelty and effectiveness and now only serve to give his critics something to distract their audiences from the actual points raised in the film.


But his winning, earnest, honest personality (which is precisely what he has, his defamers be damned) does eventually bring the disparate points together, not so much calling for the destruction of everything we know as its reformation; a return to the sensible, community-driven democracy that kept corporations and governments in their place (as servants to the greater good of the public) as it did for a while in the post-Depression America middle 20th century. The film strikes a cautiously optimistic tone regarding the election of Obama as a force for change and good, but doesn’t shy away from noting that Larry Summers and Tim Geithner are part of the same crooked crowd that overdid the champagne during the wealthy’s victory dance and thus wrecked the economy in the first place. Only time will tell if they’ve had a “come to Jesus” moment and are working for the taxpayers now, or if Obama and any noble intentions he once had will ultimately be eaten by the money and power of the corporate dragons he seeks to tame.

Finally, after taking us back to Roman times in the film’s opening and his own childhood in the middle, he ends the film with yet another piece from a simpler time, which is also another piece of previously-suppressed footage: a sickly Franklin Roosevelt, in a never-before aired bit of newsreel footage, calling for and outlining his plan for a “Second Bill of Rights.” The truths and values Roosevelt lays out are simply stunning to modern audiences, and a powerful reminder that America once had truly great leaders who fought hard for the little guy, who considered the dispossessed and the disenfranchised when making their decisions, who weighted the benefit of the many ahead of the benefit of the few when spending their political capital. It’s clear that Moore hopes Obama will be another Roosevelt, but as he sternly warns us at the end, if we don’t get off the couch and reward good behaviour from our leaders, he — and those of us who fight for justice, peace and equality — will likely throw in the towel and let the forces of evil prevail. Why lead the charge if nobody is willing to take a break from playing WoW long enough to write their congressperson?

I will allow that Moore does seriously need to refresh his schtick, if for no other reason to confound his enemies and re-energise his fans. But as a truth-teller, an investigative journalist and a thorn in the side of the corporatists, Moore is still the Elvis of documentarians and we should try to follow his example of looking more at the message and less at the real or imagined faults of the messenger.

Moon (2009)

Running Time: 97 min.

Director: Duncan Jones
Stars: Sam rockwell

If you’re like me, you’ve probably seen a fair few (if not all, repeatedly) of the Great Science Fiction Movies. I’m not talking about your capitalist fluff like Star Wars and Star Trek*, I’m talking about the serious SF movies.

Alien.


Brazil.


Metropolis.


2001.


Silent Running.


Blade Runner.

and most important of them all (at least for the purposes of this review), the now-forgotten classic Dark Star.

Duncan Jones, the son of a guy a who starred in another of the all-time great SF movies The Man Who Fell to Earth, has seen these films and many more. But I mention these particular classics not because they’re the first ones that came to mind, but because they have elements in common with each other. The first is isolation and loneliness. All of these films, the protagonist is a person isolated from the mainstream of society in one way or other, often by the vacuum of space.

The second theme is madness. The question of the sanity of either the protagonist or the antagonist is left open. In the case of Brazil or 2001, it’s left wide open.

Finally, we have a fight for one’s own (or humanity’s collective) soul. Now, to be fair, it should be said that a lot of movies have these three elements in varying degrees — but if you were to stick the aforementioned SF movies into a blender, garnish with some Space: 1999 and add a huge extra helping of Dark Star, I believe you would have something very akin to Moon, the film debut of writer/director Zowie Bowie (sorry, Joey Bowie. Sorry again, Duncan Jones).

This is not to say that Moon is unoriginal or a rip-off; I think Jones brings enough originality to the story to make it work, particularly for a generation not as deeply versed in some of the “classics” as maybe they ought to be. But if you’re like me, you will spend a lot of your time noticing little things, ideas consciously or unconsciously nicked from other films.

The main influences are clearly Dark Star, Blade Runner, 2001 and Space: 1999 (and before some wag puts it out there, I’ll add that the budget for this film was clearly inspired by mid-70s Doctor Who). You notice it even before we get to the friendly, calm-voiced computer named GERTY (which is well done by Kevin Spacey, but his voice is so recognisable that you notice it’s Kevin Spacey).

Sam Rockwell (in a much stronger performance than 2005’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) plays Sam Bell, the sole human inhabitant of a mining station on the far side of the moon. The work is mostly automated, but needs a caretaker — and Sam is itching to get home after have served his contract of three long years away from his wife and daughter.

The time has taken its toll on Sam, and one day while out in a rover doing inspections, he hallucinates and crashes, injuring himself badly.

This part of the film is clear. The rest of it is a little murky.

Some time later, Sam wakes up in the infirmary, informed by GERTY that he has suffered injuries and some memory loss. As he recovers he wishes more and more to get back to work, the only thing that gives him a sense of feeling. Finally tricking GERTY into letting him outside the base, Sam returns to the scene of the accident and makes an unsettling discovery — the injured Sam still alive inside the vehicle.

At no point are we as the audience absolutely certain that what we’re seeing is reality, and Jones’ strength here is to keep us focused on that mystery. Is this all a dream of the dying Sam #1? Is the presence of a second Sam an indication of madness? Further along in the film we get a “logical” explanation of how this situation came to be, and we eventually return to what we assume is the real timeline, but we cannot be certain, particularly early on. Watching the two Sams warily interact proves very entertaining and the story unfolds more-or-less logically from there. Eventually Sam(s) realise the truth of their situation, that they are being manipulated. But why exactly, and how can he (they) beat the odds?

I suspect that a lot of the raves given this film are due as much to its obvious borrowing (sorry, homage) to its influences, and due to it being a rare example of a slow-paced story in this genre. There are few explosions or action sequences; largely it is (apart from the first quarter and climax) a psychological play. Plot revelations are drawn out, actions are very constrained, the feel is deliberately claustrophobic, and the minor supporting roles are minimal. Hopefully it will find (and seems to have found) an audience mature enough to be able to deal with the Kubrick-esque pacing and really savour the performance and atmosphere. If Moon is a modest hit, it will be good news for low-budget and serious SF filmmakers everywhere. To be able to take your time and really get into a story will come as something of a revelation to the twitchy video-game generation, for whom “sci-fi” in movies has largely meant huge explosion, whizzy spaceships, thrilling headgear and odd-coloured alien women to romance.

Rockwell gives a fairly low-key performance (for him) as both Sams, doing a very effective job of showing us Sam at various stages of his experience on the moon, and interacting with “himself” quite effectively. The special effects are quite modest (very Gerry Anderson!) but they do the job, and the moonbase while obviously cheap removes us from our own world well enough to allow us to sink into the mind(s) of the characters. Throw in a modest twist to the “us versus them” countdown and you end up with a satisfying story (with kind of an open ending) that doesn’t try to keep you thrilled/amazed/scared/titillated the entire time. For me that’s kind of refreshing, for some leaving the theatre with me I got the impression they were surprised to be so thoughtful after a “sci-fi” movie. Some were just plain perplexed. A few seemed underwhelmed.

Points off for being so completely blatant in his borrowings, but overall Jones has made an effective, well-directed “little” SF film, something the world could probably use more of. The sparse soundtrack by Clint Mansell is as unobtrusive as a fine waiter, and Gary Shaw’s cinematography makes the most of the limited sets (also helping the “moon surface” shots be more convincing). If you’re the type who enjoys discussing movies over drinks after the screening, Moon will probably be the first in a long time to provide you with more than just “what’d you think?” to ponder.

*Apart from “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” which is actually a great sci-fi movie.

My New Cinema BFF: CineCenta in Victoria BC

Whenever we talk about the things we miss from our lives in Florida, our first breath on the subject is always devoted to the great people there: not just family and the smaller circles of close friends, but the many, many fascinating/insane/beautiful folks we knew on one level or another. But after that, you’ll often hear us talk about the great places of the metro Orlando area. Right at the top of that list is a miraculous movie theatre called the Enzian.

If you haven’t been there, it’s not like any other cinema. Period, full stop. I’ve been to many great movie houses of yesteryear, like the insanely beautiful Fox Theatre in Atlanta. Enzian is nothing like them. I’ve been to many modern art-house cinemas. Again, no. I’ve been to my share of “Cinema Drafthouse” type places, and you’re getting warmer but still far off the mark. The Enzian is really quite individual in this world, and not even the many warm memories I have of the Rhodes Cinema in Atlanta or the Grove Cinema in Coconut Grove or the other film dives that came alive only when the lights went down and the movie came up can erase my love of the Enzian, it’s owners and staff, it’s festivals and events but of course it’s wholistic movie experience, which goes far beyond just the good stuff on the screen.

Having said all that, the Enzian has a rival. They don’t even know about it (till some of them read this post and I know they will!), but it too flirts for my affection. It is called CineCenta, a part of the University of Victoria, and it is different from the Enzian, but in a kind of “kid brother” way. I’ve been lazy in not finding it till recently, trying out the other cinemas in town both mainstream and off-beat; Victoria has a strong art-film sensibility and you can find foreign and highbrow works all over town, particularly during the Victoria Film Festival. I am ashamed to have avoided driving “all the way across town” (15 minutes) to the UVic campus for almost two years.

Like Enzian, the prices at CineCenta are insanely low. They offer memberships in the society, they frequently mix “revival” prints and other curiosities into the mix, they host mini-fests of their own and yes, Enzian — they put real butter on their popcorn.

Oh, there are differences, to be sure. CineCenta operates on a shoestring, their theatre is smaller (300 seats), their advertising is virtually non-existant off-campus and they don’t serve wine or beer.

What they do have, though, is an appealing “student” atmosphere, a frankly fantastic sound system that squeezes the sweetest highs and shakes the bottoming bass with astonishing clarity; the pre-screening jazz we heard was melting my brain with audiophile delight, and of course, a plethora of wildly diverse but mostly amazing movies.

As I write this, the 60th anniversary print of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (see my review here) has given way to Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae, which will be replaced this weekend by showings of Pixar’s Up and Duncan Jones’ Moon, with an almost obligatory screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show next week. And much, much more. Wow.

I’m now down to missing mostly Enzian’s rolling, reclining chairs and tables, their high-quality menu and their wonderful staff, because CineCenta is meeting my needs on most of the other fronts pretty nicely now.

I feel a bit like a cat who’s gone to live down the street, where they feed me more yum-yums. 🙂

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Running Time: 93 min.
Director: Vittorio Di Sica
Stars: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staidla

An old friend is apparently tromping around the art-house circuit in celebration of its 60th anniversary. Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (as I always knew it, but since corrected to its proper title) played here last night and I could not miss an opportunity to revisit it in a theatre for the first time since my first viewing of it at the Rhodes Cinema in Atlanta back in the late 70s (a film mecca I owe so much to, now sadly gone).

It was as good and moving as I remembered it. As a young man, the twin themes of injustice and male pressure/alienation rang out to me, and they are still there. Now, though, I have the luxury of watching the details more closely; the lay of post-war Italy, the religious statements, the flow of daily life. I notice the music and the cinematography, and marvel even more at De Sica’s brave decision to use non-actors. Just four years after it came out, it was judged by its peers in Sight & Sound’s magazine poll to have been the greatest film ever made, and it continues to list regularly in very high places among critics’ lists of the best movies ever (in the 2002 poll for that same magazine, 50 years later, it placed 45th – meaning that in all that intervening time, only 44 other films have been made that are considered better).

The story it tells is a simple one: Ricci, a poor man with a wife and two children to feed, is desperate for work. When the employment pool finally lands him an offer, he mentions that if he doesn’t get it he’ll be “waiting another two years.” The catch: the job requires him to have transportation, which at that time for people of his status, meant a bicycle. He lies and says he has one to get the job, but actually hocked his some time back. Upon learning the news, his wife sells their bedsheets to pay back the pawn of the bicycle (a wonderful scene that reminds me so much of a similar moment in 1952’s Scrooge). It is at this moment that we first realise we are watching a classic, even if one is seeing it for the first time; the gritty realism of working-class life really hits home here, the pressure ordinary people are under in society from so many different directions, not to mention the foreshadowing of Ricci’s possible future if things don’t go well; his wife has literally bet their marriage on it. If you’ve ever had to put everything you own, every cent in your bank account, on the line in the hope of future reward, this scene will touch a nerve.

De Sica wasn’t the first to do neo-realist “kitchen sink” drama, but in this one and his later Umberto D. he may have surpassed even the inventor of the form, Roberto Rosselini. Everything comes together so well here — the plain-faced working man (Lamberto Maggiorani, an actual factory worker) and his precocious son (Enzo Staiola) who struggles to live up to his tough but loving father; the cinematography of Carlo Montuori that gradually gets grayer and grayer as the moral nature of the story is revealed; the music by Alessandro Cicognini that blends beautifully into the street noises of Rome; the dialogue (in Italian, but Italian is a language that doesn’t depend on subtitles to get its meaning across) and of course the city itself, which demands co-star status just as it did in other films by both Italian and American filmmakers. Rome is more than a location, it is part and parcel of the story being told, whether it’s Ladri di biciclette or Roman Holiday, a Fellini film or an Audrey Hepburn vehicle.

When the precious bicycle is stolen, this simple act causes Ricci’s world to collapse, especially frustrating as he was so close to grabbing the best brass ring a man in his position could hope for; a simple honest job that paid well and where the work was steady. Losing the bike means that even this modest dream is slipping away, and leads Ricci to search throughout Rome, on foot, using what little money he has left, in a desperate attempt to retrieve the key to his happiness. At first he assumes the police will help, and like many law-abiding citizens is rather shocked to discover that they are rather indifferent to such a “minor” crime. We watch as Ricci goes through the stages of loss, and empathise with his plight as he leads us on an increasingly erratic travelogue through post-war, economically-depressed Rome.

By keeping the camera so commonly fixed on Maggiorani’s face, the lack of much in the way of “action” forces us to care about this character and the way the system continuously lets him down; from the police to the church — and ultimately to God and himself — nobody but nobody comes through for him, and the ratio of those who want to help versus those who simply don’t care forms a powerful commentary on the fragility and arbitrary nature of existence. Just today, by sheer coincidence, I happened to see a survey that said around 60% of workers live pretty much paycheque-to-paycheque. The more things change …

The rich tapestry of Italian life gives us a number of colourful supporting characters, from the friend who incompetently tries to help Ricci organise a search to the bike mechanic falsely accused, from his wife Maria to the psychic she trusts (mocked by Ricci at first, he eventually reaches the “bargaining” stage of grief and goes to see her himself, symbolising the end of his rational hopes), finally to the accused thief himself, and of course the young son who must tag along on this descent into hell, trying desperately for his father’s approval. Interestingly, I’ve never met a woman who’s seen the film who didn’t fixate on the boy’s perspective; just another example of the layers this seemingly simple tale contains. Fellini in particular was likely scribbling a lot of notes in the film’s many religiously-influenced scenes, as scenes of incredible similarity turned up in Nights of Caribia and other works.

Ultimately, the film does not lead you to any sort of neat ending, happy or unhappy. Having been rebuffed at his last, best hope for getting the bicycle back (which has now become his life, hopes and dreams), he sacrifices his own moral code and, under pressure and relentless temptation, tries to steal a bike to replace his loss, becoming the very thing he loathes and destroying the last shred of his character. His son rescues him from humiliation and possible jailing and leads the crying, broken man away to face an uncertain — but undoubtedly tragic — future. The impact of society’s failure and the relation of poverty, desperation and crime in the face of life’s inherent unfairness hits you like a one-two punch, and the indefinite ending leaves you reeling.

After 60 years, Bicycle Thieves still resonates, affects and engages its audience — this is what has earned it its classic status. If you can catch a screening of this 35mm anniversary print, do so; but if not, treat yourself and rent it. Watch it without distraction, in a dark room, so the effect of the visuals is not diminished; you may not fully see its greatness at first, perhaps, but this is one of those films that changes you, however subtly, and gives one yet another perspective on this world.

Trailer: Black Dynamite (2009, no not 1974)

Torchwood writer and Twitterpal James Moran turned me on to this righteous trailer that brings back that coffee-black blaxsploitation groove you know we were all hurtin’ for ever since The Man took it all away from us. Set in the early 70’s, if this thing is half as good as the trailer makes it look, we may be in serious need of some new Dolemite action in the not-too-distant future!

Even After All These Films …

I have seen, in my life so far, at least 1500 movies.

That’s not an idle boast: I have supporting documentation from the film festivals I’ve covered, the reviews I’ve written and other sources to confirm at least that number. On the AFI’s list of the 100 Greatest (American) Films (2007 Edition), I’ve seen 73 of them. I would guess that there are a handful of movies I’ve seen more than 50 times, dozens I’ve seen more than 20 times, and hundreds I’ve watched more than once

In short, I am a serious movie geek. And yet after all these years, and all those films, someone like me can still get excited and “hyped up” over a forthcoming movie.

Of course, I’m a trickier customer to please than your average schmoe who actually goes out to the cinema maybe six-to-eight times a year. I know these plotlines. I recognise storytelling techniques. I notice shortcuts, edit points, lighting, cinematography, the whole mix. And I can tell when a trailer is giving me a distorted view of what the film’s really about, or when it’s trying to salvage a turkey, or just trying to get by on quick cuts, explosions and a touch of T-n-A.

But certain trailers still get me excited, usually if they have a very distinct look to them, or communicate clearly that this is the sort of film that will only really work well if you watch it in a cinema, or make it obvious that everyone involved is very proud of how it turned out. A good example of these sorts of trailers would be the ones for Amalie, City of Lost Children, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, and Pan’s Labyrinth.

This trick doesn’t always work: the trailers for the recent remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Speed Racer and Star Trek actually served to lessen, not raise, my interest in these films. It takes more than just fantastic visuals to get me worked up, there has to be a promise of a story, of the creative vision and imagination necessary to really take me somewhere.

As I sat in the cinema recently for the most recent Harry Potter movie, I noted with some alarm that out of six trailers for upcoming films, five of them were based on TV shows, comic books or toys of the 70s and 80s. Only one was for an original story. How depressing.

Happily, I just stumbled across an HD version of the one trailer I’ve seen in the last year that has me chomping at the bit to see it: the one for The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

I’ve been a fan of Terry Gilliam since about 1971 or so, when I got my first glimpse of him in “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” and have since discovered and enjoyed nearly everything he’s ever done before or since that point. He’s definitely one of my favourite directors, despite his ability to sometimes miss the mark. He’s had a dud or two, and indeed the last one starred Heath Ledger, as does Imaginarium.

I hope audiences will have long forgotten the similarly-named but pretty-bad Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium and that it being Heath Ledger’s final film will push mainstream filmgoers to give this a chance, even though the trailer just screams “This is weird! It will disturb you! It will challenge your comfortable notions!!” I would so love this to be widely seen, and having almost every popular male screen idol in the thing (Jude Law, Johnny Depp and Colin Farrell stepped in to finish the film in Ledger’s stead after his accidental death) might ironically not only salvage the film but make it a mainstream hit.

Have a look and see for yourself. I personally can’t wait.

The Longest Way


What follows is, rather unusually for this site, not a film review of a movie shown in cinemas, but a video on the inter-tubes. I don’t plan to make a habit of this, but this one is extraordinary enough on various levels to warrant the same kind of attention given to traditional movies.

You can find out more about the young man who made the video via his website (currently overloaded) if his story interests you, so I will only recap it very briefly here: Chris Rehage walked almost the entire width of China, from Beijing to Ürümqi over the course of a year. Rather than just “take pictures and/or video” as most of us would have done, he was inspired by the “picture per day” videos that have become a fashion on the net, but took it a definite notch up from there.

This is a brilliant fusion of photo-journal diary, time-lapse travelogue and music video, beautifully edited to a fabulously incongruous soundtrack. I think it really “raises the bar” on self-made travel videos and rises to the level of a genuine work of filmic art.

The first time you watch it, you will likely (and should) focus on Rehage’s own metamorphosis over a year’s time; as he says, “one year walk/beard growth time lapse.” But there’s a lot more going on there; you’re watching a man step into the unknown, and it doesn’t always go to plan. It’s part of the fascination of these sorts of self-portrait videos, looking directly into their eyes.

The second time you watch it, try to look past Rehage most of the time and notice his various surroundings; where he lingers, what goes by fleetingly, all the detail captured in the background. You may be surprised what (mostly) rural China has in store for you …

I also suggest a third, more frame-by-frame (or at least slowed-motion) view so you can catch captions and combined details of each photo (and often, photo-sequence) composition.

One of the best things about projects like this is that modern photography is very “high-def” and so while we are constrained by annoyances like “economical file size” and “bandwidth” in determining how “big” a picture we can see, the “original” in Rehage’s possession is entirely suitable for future, larger presentations. I look forward to seeing a real “HD” version of this again soon.

The Longest Way 1.0 – one year walk/beard grow time lapse from Christoph Rehage on Vimeo.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

Running Time: 153 min.
Director: David Yates
Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Jim Broadbent, Michael Gambon

It’s the beginning of the end for the Harry Potter franchise, and you can definitely feel it.

Before we get too far into this, I should caution readers that, unlike apparently 90% of the moviegoing audience, I don’t read the books. I know, I know — “blasphemer!” — but actually I think I’m much ahead of the game in this regard.

The reason for this is exactly the single biggest complaint I’ve had to listen to, over and over and over, whined incessantly about each of the films since at least the third one: “they left so much out!”

Well yes. It’s a film, not a book. Ask any Lord of the Rings fan about what was left out of the Peter Jackson trilogy, and plan to be occupied with the resulting details for at least as long as the running time of one of those movies.

In particular, Rowling’s penchant for including layers upon layers of detail and plot machinations (along with more than a few red herrings and going-nowhere sub-tales) gives the book exactly the sort of rich texture that readers love and moviemakers cannot possibly accommodate in anything short of a five-hour movie, which would be commercial suicide. Consequently, things get left out. As the hipsters say, “well duh.”

Compounding the problem is the fact that the audience want their magical cake, and to eat it too: they want loads of details (particularly the most important ones), which would normally force filmmakers to stretch out the franchise as they have opted to do with the finale; but they also want the kids to look at least something like the ages of the characters they are portraying. HP fans are seemingly unaware of how much effort and how long a special-effects-heavy epic like each of the HP films take to produce — the child actors are already considerably ahead of their characters’ ages. Harry was 11 years old in the first film, which means he should be 16 in The Half-Blood Prince. Daniel Radcliffe is as I write this about to turn 20 (he and I share a birthday, as it happens!), and the other leads are similarly aging well beyond their alter-egos. Had Warner Brothers opted to make two films each for each book beyond the third, it would have required re-casting the lead roles by the fifth book’s adaption.

So all the moaning about how much of this book is missing is falling on deaf ears with me, in part because (not having read it) I don’t know what I’m missing, and in part because I understand (apparently much better than HP fans) how films are made, and usually (but not always) trust the production team to have a good sense of what parts are the most “filmic” and what wasn’t, given their limitations. This can involve re-arranging events, jettisoning some storylines or even inventing new action to “bridge” between the remaining elements most efficiently. Peter Jackson in particular did a damn fine job of this balancing act in his LotR films, I thought (and yes, I had read the books beforehand for that one!), but Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince is hardly the first book adaptation to change dramatically (pardon the pun) from page to screen. Purists need to get over themselves a bit, methinks.

Not reading the books frees me considerably to enjoy (or not) each film as a film, and to be surprised or shocked or whatever Rowling (plus the film creators) intended. I’m also pleased to know that when (or if) I choose to read the books, a wealth of additional layering, detail and general imagination await me. Given the obvious emotional attachment the books engender in their readers (and the consequent strong mixed feelings this film more than the others is engendering in its audience), even if I’d read the books back when they came out I’d have made a strong effort to forget the finer points and just enjoy the ride of this film as a related but not necessarily faithful endeavour.

So, finally, to the point: given my particular perspective, did I think it was good? The answer is yes, quite emphatically. Indeed, I have to say I enjoyed this one more than at least the last three outings (which, as films, were mostly convoluted messes, particularly Order of the Phoenix). On most occasions beyond the first film, the makers chose to try and cram as much of the books as possible into an impossibly tight timeframe, resulting in half-developed plotlines, rapid-fire editing, intros and outros of myriad characters without any reason to pay attention or care about them, jibberish passing for plot exposition (usually relayed breathlessly) and good old confusion abounding.

That’s not to say there wasn’t plenty to like in the recent films; I enjoyed most of Goblet of Fire, only being annoyed by the introduction of a new, bland character who’s only (and obvious) job was to get killed off at the end (Cedric Diggory) and the poorly-edited and badly-rushed Quiddich World Cup sequence that starts off the movie, which prompts questions from non-readers like me such as “if they’ve had Floo Powder all along, why on earth are they using a train to get to Hogwart’s?” to which readers roll their eyes, sigh in an exasperated manner and attempt to relate all the additional detail in the book that smoothes over this obvious plot hole.

Likewise, Prisoner of Azkaban and Order of the Phoenix in particular are (in my opinion) almost unwatchable god-awful mish-mashes of incoherent plotting and superficial vehicles seemingly made primarily to trot out yet more dead-end characters and give employment to nearly every A-list British actor on Earth, despite usually good performances from the array of regular and guest stars and (at least since the fourth film) decent direction. In both movies, there is so much hinting at so much more going on, every line dripping with forced attempts to make it say all the dialogue that wasn’t there. The tantalizingly strong auxiliary characters (like Gilderoy Lockhart, Cornelius Fudge and “Mad-Eye” Moody among many others) and the bewildering locations and elements are often wasted in a hodge-podge of editing that tries desperately to keep the film together but fails for the most part, even loaded as each film is with beautiful sequences, good-looking casting and Rowling’s own (and very charming) sense of the ritual of growing up.

For The Half-Blood Prince, someone somewhere (presumably director David Yates) finally put their foot down and did the right thing: cut the book unmercifully in the name of making an actual, workable, coherent, enjoyable adventure film. From my perspective, they succeeded at last, and one can only hope that they will use the extra “breathing room” the stretched-out finale will give them to do more of the same: treat the novels as a guideline, not the script itself, and craft a meaningful film instead of a picture-postcard of the most visual moments from the story.

That’s not to say it was flawless: quite a number of characters seen in previous films get pretty short shrift in this one, some to the point where I have to wonder why they were included at all. Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) in particular serves no real function in the story, except to lose yet another pet (which, again from my perspective, is about all this guy ever does!) and provide a locale for Slughorn’s big moment (which really could have happened anywhere, and indeed the convoluted way Potter gets Slughorn to Hagrid’s hut is one of the only really off-key notes in the movie). Other characters so important in the plots of previous films are given barely-even-cameos in this one (for example, Neville Longbottom or Argus Filch and so on), reminding us that they’re still there, but leaving us wondering why nothing significant seems to happen to them anymore. Even most of the professors are reduced to a single line or two, even ones (like Maggie Smith’s Professor McGonnagal) who seem to be important to the plot of the book, but just seem like drop-ins in the film.

There’s not much point in recapping the plot here as most film reviews usually do; everyone reading this likely has a deeper understanding of the story than I do. But this time, I was easily able to follow the sequence of events without feeling like a girl outside the Boy’s Private Clubhouse, and very much enjoyed the more relaxed pace of the film. This allowed me to take note of the evolving acting of the three leads, the truth (very well) infused into the scenes of the kids coming to grips with getting older and raging hormones, and the general affection the characters have for each other as well as that the actors have for their alter-egos. I remember well my own growing-up years (where I looked and acted not all that unlike Ron Weasley) with much affection and it’s obvious JK does as well; her handling particularly of the complexities of teen girls is very on-the-mark, but she gets the male chemistry just right as well. It was smart to explore this more fully than the way similar feelings and depth got butchered in Goblet of Fire.

Jim Broadbent, without question one of Britain’s greatest actors ever, steals every scene he’s in as retired Professor Slughorn, called back into service by Dumbledore (who gets some much-needed fleshing-out in this one) as part of an elaborate scheme to undermine Lord Voldemort’s plans and prepare Harry for what is to come. Broadbent has to play his character in two time periods separated by 40-50 years time, and pulls it off not just convincingly but marvellously. Ironically, Broadbent’s performance is so high-calibre that it has the unintentional effect of making Alan Rickman’s Snape look utterly ridiculous in all but his most menacing moments. One line particularly well drolled-over by Snape got cascades of laughter from the audience, the opposite of what was seemingly intended.

Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy finally comes into his own in this film, which is as much about him as it is about Dumbledore. His climatic scene shows at last all the ability and complexity that Felton has had to keep well under wraps as the previously-cartoonish Malfoy. Likewise Evanna Lynch’s Luna Lovegood (happily returned from the previous film) gets to be a bit more than just a refugee from Twin Peaks as well. We also have time to see how Fred and George Weasley are getting on with their joke shop, something I would have thought would be cut for more “important” scenes, but give the film a nod of homage to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and generally add some much-needed levity to the increasingly-darker series. Kudos of the opposite kind must also go to Hero Fiennes-Tiffin, who plays his uncle Ralph Fiennes’ character Voldemort/Tom Riddle as a young boy straight out of The Shining. The resemblance works well and the kid is appropriately creepy.

Sadly, some characters go the opposite route, getting more cartoonish. Rickman’s Snape has already been mentioned, but Helena Bonham Carter is completely wasted in this film as a cackling, half-mad imbecile, and even all the members of the Order of the Phoenix descend into poor caricatures of themselves. Add to this the number of seemingly-gratuitous cameos of Hogwarts regulars and the shallow interpretations of red herrings like the Dean Thomas character (not to mention the forced-feeling injection of more minorities, albeit still in utterly inconsequential parts), and you get a small army of add-ons that actually detract from the good work done by the main cast. Whether this is a crime to lay at the feet of the writer, the director or the editor I can’t say, but even as someone who doesn’t know the deeper meaning/destiny/importance of these characters, I can see that they cry out to either be expanded upon or discarded.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is, I’m pleased to say, worth your money. It’s the first film in quite a while for this series to mostly work well on all levels, and I shouldn’t forget to mention the very strong cinematography, art direction and music which added greatly to my enjoyment. If possible, try to forget the book and give this movie a try on its own merits. You may not love it as much as the muggle devotees, but at least you’ll understand why it has such broad appeal — indeed, this “chapter” of the saga is best compared to The Empire Strikes Back in terms of where (and how) the story has developed (a connection I’m not sure most Potter fans are old enough to make!).

Inflation-Adjusted Box Office Totals

Now this is a clever idea, and really the way it should be done. BoxOfficeMojo.com has crunched the numbers and given us the real skinny: Gone With the Wind is still the all-time-so-far* box office champion.

*I really hate the use of the term “all time” without qualifiers, as though Time is officially coming to an end this Thursday and we can finally settle the score. Even worse, most of the time the use of the term “all time” is weighted incorrectly, as box office returns have been up until the publication of this list. You really can’t properly use the term “all time” on anything unless your name is Yahweh. It would really be much better if people put out definitive lists on those things that can actually be considered closed matters, like “best-selling books of the 1800s” and “most popular sandwiches of the 1990s.” These are things we can know. We can never know the best song, or top movie, or worst politician “of all time” because, as Sarah Palin showed us, just when you think you knew who the worst of all time was, another one comes along …

Anyway, the list holds several nice surprises, as well as vastly increases the diversity and timeline of the films that have ascended to the top. Not all of the top films are great classics, but many of them certainly struck a chord with their audiences and the ones at the top are, without exception, the kind of movies that people watch more than once, often routinely.

One of the biggest surprises in the list is that (when you adjust for inflation) the very top film, the aforementioned GWTW, “only” did $1.5B (all figures US$). This suggests that it might be possible for a film to top this someday (as the totals allow for re-releases), as the worldwide market continues to grow. You have to expect the Lord of the Rings films to move up the charts a bit when the inevitable re-release happens, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Harry Potter movies are re-released one more time just before the final film unspools.

I was disappointed to see that E.T. did as well as it did. It’s almost certainly just me, but I have never liked the film, thought it very schmaltzy and better-suited to TV at the time, and the re-release and re-edit/re-visionism was just … an abomination. Even worse than the “Han Shot First” revisionism of the Star Wars re-releases.

The fact that the totals allow for re-releases is the main reason why Disney movies are so well-represented here. Snow White has made many times more money in re-release than it ever did originally. The highest-grossing movie of which I cannot find reference to any sort of theatrical re-release was 1956’s The Ten Commandments, which scored the #5 slot.

I was quite shocked to see that The Rocky Horror Picture Show limped in at a mere #70, a rating that can only mean that midnight screenings don’t count with the compilers of this list as a “theatrical re-release,” because I assure you that film has made way more than (just under) $400M. Heck, I am myself alone probably responsible for 1% of that (I’ve seen that movie many times, though I’m now fairly retired from watching it).

I would be interested to see an adjusted-for-inflation version of the worldwide gross boxoffice chart, rather than just domestic US, but this is a good start that will hopefully inspire a few people to check out some “old” movies.

Speaking of old movies, I note with interest that the all-time-so-far top-grossing B&W movie is the 1945 Bing Crosby film The Bells of St. Mary’s (#49). Other B&W films that made the list are The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, #72) and Sergeant York (1941, #95). I was kinda hoping that 1974’s Young Frankenstein would have made the list, but no such luck.

O.M.F.G.

Hollywood plans to make a movie of the videogame “Asteroids.”I think that’s it, we can officially now say that they have hit bottom.

EDIT: I knew when I wrote that I’d be eating my words, but I didn’t think it would only take a day. A movie based on ViewMaster. Oy vey.

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