Religulous

To be objective in a documentary is very hard, especially when you are well-known for one side of an issue you are exploring. But the mark of a good documentarian is to stay as objective as possible and present the facts how at least you see them. Maybe these facts reinforce your ideas and beliefs, but maybe they also challenge them and cause you and therefore your audience to question their ideas and beliefs. A mark of a bad documentary then would be the exact opposite of this principle. The documentarian is very sure of his ideas and thoughts on a particular subject and seeks out only interview subjects and facts that enforce his views. It is boring to watch and makes you want to punch the man (or woman) in the face for wasting your time. Religulous was definitely one of the latter films.

Bill Maher makes it very clear from the outset that he hates religion. He thinks anyone who is religious is stupid and he seeks out stupid people or people who believe a certain thing to a manic degree and makes them even worse. He interviews the person who made the Creation Museum, a Jew for Jesus, a cannabis minister (I have t admit that I found that interview funny because the minister was just an insanely stoned dude who could only say yes or no and laugh…), the man who plays Jesus at an amusement park, Muslim doctors, and an ex-gay Christian. However interview is a very strong word. Mostly he would ask leading questions and interrupt the answers with a shaking of a head, a goofy smile or some snide comment about the ridiculousness of it all. This  may prove how funny Bill Maher is (and mostly he is not) but it doesn’t actually make me learn anything about the stereotype each interviewee represented. I think that the ex-gay Christian may have been able to say some interesting things if he was given a chance. (I am not pro those groups, I am just saying that I would like to hear his point of view) But he doesn’t give anyone a chance to speak a completed sentence on their beliefs. Instead he is clowning around saying am I not cool, am I not in the right about everything? It is frustrating.

I am sure from the second paragraph, you might think that I am personally religious. I am in fact not. I am an ex-Catholic who does not believe that there is a god. My personal conclusion involved years of doubt and research that I am still working on. So in theory I would be Bill Maher’s target audience for this piece of crap. I should go ahead and laugh at these dim wits and their stupid conclusions about life, but I end up just feeling sorry for them and getting mad at Bill Maher for making these people go through his abuse. It makes me mad that someone would have given Bill any amount of money to make this and then have my liberal friends recommend it to me as a valid discussion piece. It is nothing more than an exercise of stretching Maher’s ego interspersed with media footage of Jesus Christ and John Smith.

I was pretty disappointed by this film if you could not tell from the previous paragraphs. The rousing call at the end of the film for people who are anti religion to rise up and take the reins had the opposite effect for me. I would rather hide in a deep dark hole than have Bill Maher be my spokesperson. He is an angry old man who doesn’t care about the people around him. Who would want that to represent them? It is just as bad as a pedophile priest or Osama Bin Laden standing full a large body of religious folks. I do not want to be judged badly because Bill Maher and I believe the same thing. It is as simple as that.

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The Great Dictator

“He’s the madman, I’m the comic. But it could have been the other way around.” – Charlie Chaplin

When I was younger, I always confused pictures of Charlie Chaplin with Hitler. I was not fortunate to grow up in a family that loved film history, but I did grow up with a father who loved World War II so when he would watch those five-hour long documentaries on Hitler on the History Channel (oh how you have fallen Mr. History Channel… American Pickers and aliens doesn’t really educate anyone does it?), I thought anyone with that weird mustache was Hitler. As I grew older, I learned that the man with the wobbly stick was in fact not Hitler but a great physical comic from the silent era. When I did research for this film I found out that I was kind of justified in my assumption that they were the same guy. They kind of are. Hitler and Charlie Chaplin were more similar than just the coal-black hair, distinct mustache and similar frame. They were born four days apart, shared tendencies that would seem tyrannical to an outsider, and wanted everything to be perfect but were convinced they never were. Maybe that is why Charlie thought to do such a hard-hitting satire on the Führer, he saw too much of himself in the dictator.

The film starts out in a general direction that is similar to his silents. He takes his famous character, the Tramp, and places him into yet another poor and desperate situation. Instead of the depression or a factory, this time the Tramp is a Jewish barber forced to live in ghetto after being in a coma for twenty years. He is not aware of the proper ways to act and therefore gets in trouble again and again with the forces that patrol his area. He also falls in love with a poor servant girl and they dream together about a time and a place where they can be free to live their lives.

 

In contrast is the dictator. Also played by Charlie Chaplin, the dictator wants nothing more than to take over the world and populate it with only the right people. His scheme is clear when you witness the famous scene where he plays with a blown up globe balloon. Of course this scheme has its hiccups. His staff seems to be incompetent and he needs more allies. So he decides to invite the Italian dictator, Napaloni, to his state to discuss a truce. This is where the best gags come in. When Charlie Chaplin has someone to play off of he can be brilliant and Napaloni is a great character to contrast against the dictator.  The train scene in particular was a great piece of physical comedy.

 

 

The Tramp eventually gets into so much trouble that he gets sent to a concentration camp. However on his way there he is able to escape and dressed in an army outfit, he is mistaken for the dictator himself. He is brought to an assembly and told he was to make a speech. What ensues is the most famous scene out of the whole film. The Tramp pleads for mercy and love for each person living on Earth. Charlie Chaplin is never called subtle for a reason. This speech, though pretty well written, is as heavy-handed as it gets.

Chaplin decided to use comedy in order to advocate for more involvement from Britain and America in the strife happening in the Eastern part of Europe. He saw an injustice in the world and he sought to correct it. Comedy is most effective if it is saying something of the issues we surround ourselves with. I think Chaplin understood this and built a career around this concept. Everything he has ever done in silent and sound films could be considered political. Imagine if Hitler understood this concept as much as Chaplin did… I wonder what would have happened.

 

 

 

 

 

Melancholia

I have immense respect for a director like Lars von Treir. He doesn’t want to comprise his vision for people that think that it might too much. He makes pieces of art intended to shock the viewer into examining our misconceptions and revalutating them. Sometimes in the pursuit of this ideal, he can get lost but when he doesn’t he achieves something nobody else can.

Melancholia on the surface is about the end of the world and two sisters’ different reactions to the realization that they are going to die. But it is more than that. It is an exploration of manic depression, family, and repression. What do you do when you there is a good chance that the world around is going to be coming to an end within just a few weeks? Do you go on as normal pretending nothing is going to happen or do you freak out and fill your days crying? One sister played by Kristen Dunst decides to get married to a man she seems to love only to fall apart at the reception. Her depression rears its ugly head when she sees all of her estranged family gather and take everything out on each other. The other sister played by Charlotte Gainsbourg tries to keep her sister’s event on track and keep the facade of happiness intact. There are only murmurs of the planet called Melancholia that is on course for colliding into Earth, but nothing is said out right. The cloud is over everyone’s head and it manifests in different ways. Justine, Kristen Dunst, acts out on one of the most important nights of her life by escaping to take a bath, have rough sex with a stranger, and to tuck her nephew into bed. The whole time Claire, Charlotte Gainsbourgh, cleans her up, coaxes her out into public and gives her all the assurance she can muster. But it is never enough for Justine. She takes all she can from Claire and then declares it to be not enough. Claire’s husband witnesses all of these events and wants nothing more than for Justine to get out of their life. Of course he could never say that to Claire but it is painfully obvious. The obvious disfunction of the family is made painfully obvious by the horrible toast speeches, the locking of themselves in doors, the consumption of copious amounts of alcohol and snide remarks to each other. It kind of hurts to watch. This is where Lars von Trier excels.

Cut to a different point in time and Justine is brought home from a mental institution by her sister Claire. The planet moves closer and closer with each passing day. It is now on everyone’s mind and they cannot think or talk of anything else. Claire’s husband decides to keep the information that the planet will surely destroy all of us away from Claire and their son, but Justine knows almost intuitively. Claire finds out and she goes into a spiral that seems to consume her. She runs away desperately but nothing seems to be working anymore just like her life. All she can do is accept it and stay with her family until the bitter end.

The film exhibits no usual markers of an apocalypse film. You don’t see anyone outside of the mansion that Claire and her family live in. You never once hear the news reporting on the planet or them banding together to destroy the planet before it hits them. Once the inevitable begins to happen all you see out of the ordinary is nature. There seems to be millions of bugs flying everywhere and the horses act up. Everyone seems to have accepted their fate…

Accept your fate and dive into this film with an open mind. You will not be disappointed. I promise.

The Last Man on Earth

 

 

 

After an epic outbreak of disease, a man thinks that he is the last man on the planet. He has gone through so much to reach this point and yet he does not care why he is alive. All he wants to do is stay that way. If this premise sounds familiar to you, then you have probably seen I am Legend, a film that came out a couple of years ago and stars Will Smith. If you are super cool and are into seventies horror films, you have probably seen The Omega Man with Charlton Heston. But unless you know what you are looking for than you probably haven’t seen the original adaptation of the book that two previous films were based on. The Last Man On Earth stars Vincent Price as the only man alive that is still aware of his surroundings. The film was made on a shoe string budget in Italy in the early sixties and due to a couple of copyright issues can be found in those cheap dollar movie bins at Wal-Mart or streaming online. It has never gotten the lauded Criterion treatment or been included in a hidden treasure list of a film critics, but it still floats around waiting patiently to be watched and enjoyed by someone who knows what they are watching and what the limits of the film are.

 

 

The limits of this film are many. Vincent Price is the only character for most of the film and this leads to a lot of voiceover in order for the story to advance along. The voiceover can become tiring sometimes especially when it gives no more information than what we would have gotten had we just watched the images pass our eyeballs. The constant score beneath the voiceover can be even more grating because it never really seems to know what kind of film it is. Of course the only good actor in this film is Vincent Price and every other actor or actress looks like they are reading off of cue cards. His wife is only seen in flashback and then only for a few scenes, but by the time each scene reached its end I wanted to slap her. The ideals of the nuclear family are lauded so much I wanted to puke. But by the end of the film, I didn’t seem to care too much about those problems. I cared too much about Dr. Robert Morgan and the half human half vampire creatures trying to get him. His struggles are so mundane yet true to survival. He goes hunting for the vampire-zombie creatures by day, transports bodies to a smoking pit, replenished his reserve of garlic and wooden stakes, and constantly he is searching for a cure. Not that it means a whole lot any more. That is until he finds a woman who seems to still be alive and cognizant. This woman seems to be scared of him, but he rejoices in his discovery and seeks to protect her. But there is something wrong with her.

This film is more about the struggle to survive despite crushing loneliness than it is about the vampire-zombies that threaten to destroy him. He gets no happiness out of killing any of the walking dead or anything else he does. But the fact that he is still alive is all that counts. It is all that ever really counts. If you are alive than you have another chance to fix things. All he wants is to fix things. Then everything will be okay again.

 

 

 

 

Hopscotch

When I think of spy films, there are only two types I think of. One is the ultra sleek, ultra cool spy thriller made famous by the millions of James Bond films. The heroes smoke tons of cigarettes, wear snappy clothing and can figure out even the most cunning of villains’ plans. The other type is the spy satire such as Austin Powers or Pink Panther. These heroes bumble through their investigations often getting in situations that put their investigation into peril only by their own stupidity. These two types seem to be at the opposite side of the spectrum without anything balancing it out in the middle. But if you are in the mood to watch someone who is smart, confident at his (or her) job and still have a laugh you have little to choose from. That is until you watch this film.

Hopscotch is about an aging CIA agent who gets transferred out of field work and into a desk job when he pisses off his boss. In retaliation, he decides to write a memoir of everything that he has witnessed during his time in the field. He mails his chapters to several embassies around the world including the CIA and the Russian KGB. His memoirs include facts, observations and events that are damaging to both parties, so a cat and mouse chase ensues. The agent cleverly evades his colleagues in many ways that are clever, intuitive and never just lucky. He is always a man with a plan no matter what. This may seem like the first type of spy thriller I described above that is until you realize it is Walter Matthau. Walter Matthau is one of those men who can never be taken completely serious in any film he is in. So throughout his getaway and his writing, he cracks jokes, fakes accents, pulls tricks on his colleagues and makes kissy face at a retired double agent. The healthy sense of humor that Matthau brings to the character imbues him with a sense of reality. No one is a rock solid serious man all of the time in real life. Even CIA agents need a chance to relax.

This film will not answer tough questions or give you pause to think about the precarious situation we are in, but it will provide an hour and half of solid entertainment. Matthau as an actor is irresistable in his charm and finesse with every character he plays so it is quite enjoyable to watch him on-screen. He does small things that get me like scowling at the picture of his old boss while writing in his summer-house, casting his daughter as the pilot and then have her say that his character reminds her of her father or brushing off petty things like stealing a cop car or making his boss damage his own house. These moments make you think that this film could be revolutionary but it falls a little short. There were no real bad guys, just guys who Matthau were lovingly annoyed with. The threat of him getting taken out by his own side or them taking his double agent love is never given enough weight to truly believe that he was ever in any danger. This film was like a nice long hug. Sometimes you need nice long hugs in order to get through a day and push to complete other more difficult films.

The Rundown

I don’t usually talk about action films on this blog for a good reason: I don’t watch them. I don’t have a problem with someone watching a film with lots of explosions, tons of high kicks and naked women in it, it is usually just not for me. I feel like most action films rely on tropes and plot convenances in order to tell a testosterone filled story. Not every action film is like this, just most of them are. However I was bored and there was nothing better on (this happens a lot I figured out when you have cable) so I decided to give The Rundown a chance.

The Rundown looked appealing for me (as opposed to Pawn Stars, Tosh.O or Chopped) for one reason: Sean William Scott. Now most people spit their soda that they were currently drinking through their nose at the thought of someone like me watching a film based solely on an American Pie cast member, but I swear it is true. The reason is that I find him funny. Dumb funny sometimes (as in American Pie and Dude Where is my Car?) sure, but you only have to look at his role in Role Models to see that this guy could have a Matthew McConaughey like  (who knew? I thought Mr. McConaughey was destined to be a bland romantic interest for the rest of his life) turn around in the near future. And when the snobs tell the general public that they knew Mr. William Scott was a good actor despite his unfortunate choices, they will point to the previously mentioned film and The Rundown. In this film, he takes only a mildly interesting character and turns him into a character that shows up The Rock in the lead role. He is stupid, smart, witty, awkward and childish all at the same time while the Rock just manages to be able to hit shit really well. He even has his signature move that I find hilariously enduring.  The other reason that I wanted to watch this film was because of Christopher Walken. Good old Christopher Walken. He is one man who I will never get tired of watching on the screen. He really hams it up here, delivering speeches about tooth fairies as a comparison to Sean William Scott’s character taking a precious artifact off of his land. He so incredibly cool and funny that him just looking at the camera made me laugh. I wa so happy when I saw him on the screen for the first time in this film.

The plot doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that three rag-tag individuals are on a mission to find this artifact and Christopher Walken means to stop them. There are tons of explosions, martial arts fights and best friendship endings. This stuff is intirgal to enjoying the film but also secondary. That probably doesn’t make sense, but I stick by my thought. While it was cool to the Rock really fist pump someone, I forgot about it right after it happened. What stayed with me is the Jammie performances, the goofiness of the lines and Rosario Dawson perpetually being sweaty. (I don’t think that The Rock or Sean William Scott sweated near as much as she did and they were twice her size) If you just want a film to wash over you with its silliness than this is a good film for that. If you want to talk about your feelings pansy boy go see Garden State or something.

Favorite Period Dramas (Upper Crust Version)

I do not know what it is I love me some period dramas. Drawing room snarkiness, crazy ornate costumes that require the actors to take a breath between each word, silly British accents and outdated gender politics really make me want to wet my pants. Right now I am watching a British show from the seventies called Upstairs Downstairs and I am eating that shit up. It got me thinking about several shows and movies that I love just because it reflects a certain time where there was tea, fainting couches, and servants rushing around everywhere. So I decided that I would break out the rusty top five and showcase some things that you probably already know about but I want to say “yes. I like these things too.”

5. Downton Abbey

Who doesn’t love this show? I haven’t seen the most recent season but the first season knocked my pants off it was so great. I haven’t seen the nuances of politics at this particular time in Britain portrayed so vividly ever. The servant who is actually a radical, the gender politics started to stretch and tear at the seems as evidenced by the daughter, the wife and Dame Maggie Smith’s character (also holy shit I love the insults that character spits at everyone. Maggie Smith should be canonized, she is such a great actress!), and inevitable lead up to World War I where everyone can feel it coming but no one can stop it is absolutely fascinating to watch.

4. The Piano

The only entry on here that is not British, the film is too great not to be left off of any list ever. The film follows a woman who moves to New Zealand from Scotland with her daughter to join her new husband. What happens after is a complex examination of how incredibly hard it is to be a woman in a male dominated society, much less a mute one with a daughter from a previous marriage. I would suggest you seek this gem out for no other reason than to see a very young Anna Paquin and Harvey Keital take off his shirt. Oh Yeah. Good Stuff.

3. Pride and Prejudice

Before I go on, let me be very clear: The film Pride and Prejudice starring Kiera Knightley is shit. It is not faithful to the book at all, it is way too melodramatic and Kiera Knightley makes the worst Elizabeth Bennet I have ever seen. Hollywood do yourself a favor: stop putting this anorexic bland actress in stuff. She brings it down with her horse face. (sigh) Anyway, I am talking about the mid nineties mini series that catapulted Colin Firth into the international symbol for dashing gentleman. This series always makes me fall in love with Jane Austen all over again every time I watch it (which is a lot). The delivery of her witty lines, the small yet grand love story, and the unique characters really shine in this masterpiece. This is how Jane Austen should be treated. Not like some overly romanticized melodramatic piece of poop, but as a delicate exchange between the myriad of characters she crafted. I have said my peace.

2. Remains of the Day

I knew Anthony Hopkins exclusively from the Hannibal Lector series before watching this film. I was stunned to find out that he can be understated, sweet, and heartbreaking at the same time. This film involves a quiet love story between two servants who serve a Hitler apologist. Both Hopkins and Thompson are great in this film and their chemistry is undeniable. This film has a lot of small moments in it that make your heart-break from the sweetness of it all… I don’t want to give any away but there is one scene involving a book that Hopkins’ character is reading that is pure gold.

1. Gosford Park

This film is what got me into upper crusty drawing-room dramas. I watched this late one night on IFC and I fell in love. To be able to not only see what is going on in the mansion level, but to also see how the servants are affected by those events was a revelation at the time. (I had just started to get into films… give me a break) I have given Altman shit in the past on this blog for his politics and his knack for multiple story lines that lead to underdeveloped characters but I forgive him everything because of this film. It is beautiful in the most simplest of terms. Also Maggie Smith is in it and how can you ever go wrong with her (Seriously… canonization… Make it happen!)

I probably left off a lot of shows and films that I will be kicking myself later for, but you know it happens. Thanks for reading my post and if you have any suggestions for other films or television series let me know in the comments.

Interview with the Assassin

Conspiracy theories are fascinating to explore. Whether it is about Area 51, the New World Order, or the Kennedy assassination, each one instills a sense of drama and intrigue where there is probably none. Sometimes I can’t help but get wrapped up in coincidental events that led to a national tragedy or mystery. Given the sheer amount of documentaries and even fiction films that explore conspiracy theories from many different angles, I am not the only one.

The conspiracy in this film is the grassy knoll and the event is the Kennedy assassination. An older man after almost forty years of silence decides to tell an unemployed cameraman that he was in fact the second shooter and he shot the fatal shot to the head. The rest of the film involves this older man and the cameraman trying to prove it is true while being “chased” by larger forces that want to silence the older man once and for all.

The maybe assassin is played by a character actor, Raymond Barry. He has been in films for a long time, but he hasn’t really done anything that you would remember, that is until you see this film. Playing an ex-marine, he gives off an air of manic uprightness every time he is on-screen. At any moment he might crack. My grandfather was in the Navy around the same time that this character was and he acts just like my grandfather (you know except for the craziness. My grandfather may be a lot of things but I know that he has never point an assault rifle at someone for enjoyment). He is stern, minimal in his expressions and dress, and has a sick sense of humor. In contrast to that is the cameraman. He is just a regular man wanting to be remembered for something. He realizes what a respected journalist he would become if he was the one to break the story of an actual second shooter. His curiosity is fueled by fame. He is willing to pay for everything including expensive ballistics tests, guns, plane tickets, accommodations, fancy camera equipment and several other things in order to crack the story and prove its validity. Whether or not he believes this old man is beside the question. If he can prove it than he doesn’t have to believe him because he will be too famous to care. As I write this I think that I am painting this cameraman as exploitative of this man’s life story, but he is just doing what people who become cameramen do… film. All he wants is a worthy subject and that subject is this weird man asserting that he was in the grassy knoll on that fateful day.

 

Found footage horror is kind of well-worn and tired genre these days. However in 2002 which is when this film was released (only a year after 9/11 and it features a scene where the maybe assassin brings a gun past security in the White House…) found footage was still a novel and interesting perspective. Everything is filmed through the cameraman’s lenses, whether it be his trusty camera, his security cameras, or his eyeglasses with a small camera chip in it. None of this is as intrusive as a Paranormal Activity or a Blair Witch Project where shaky cameras or odd placement of security cameras take you out of the film, but it does get frustrating when the story necessitates an action that would not involve him using a camera and yet there seems to be one awkwardly inserted into it. This is probably my biggest problem with the final confrontation scene. It seems weird to have a security camera in the living room of your own home, and yet in order for us to see the climatic moment there just has to be one there.

With the recent shootings in Aurora and several other national tragedies involving madmen with guns, I seem to find release and catharsis when watching dark films like these. It gives me an outlet to direct my rage, my sympathy and my wonder at how something like this might happen. I watch these films in order to realize that the shooter was just a man. Yes a deranged man who should have gotten help instead of reaching for a gun, but he is still a man, no better or worse than I am. That might seem controversial to say but I do think that and these types of films help me develop this thought process and not only feel for the victims but to feel for that sad angry young man.

 

The Dark Knight Rises

There are currently four hundred and twenty-five different reviews for The Dark Knight Rises on IMDb’s external reviews section. That does not include a myriad of sites that are too small or too snooty to have membership on IMDb. Message boards, comment sections, and fan websites are bogged down with comments on The Dark Knight Rises. To cement its place in history, there was even a famous shooting in Aurora, Colorado during the midnight showing of the Dark Knight Rises. So to say the least this film is a cultural phenomenon. So why should I lend my voice to the myriad of smart pithy critics yelling at the top of their lungs on the internet to assert whether the film is good or not? What do I have to say that is at all different and unique? I have been contemplating this for a week now and I have not come up with anything. But I am going to try anyway.

I just want to say before you go any further, please be aware that I cannot discuss this film without discussing spoilers. So proceed with caution you two people in the world who have yet to actually see The Dark Knight Rises.

The best moments in the Dark Knight Rises were when the film was commenting on the times we currently are living in. At one point in the film Bane addresses a football stadium full of people wanting nothing more than a distraction from their lives and challenges them to wake up. A new dawn is coming for the people of Gotham and hopefully for the rest of the world. The people who are the worst off, orphans of the financial system, are going to rise up and take what they want. The people who essentially have their thumb on these down and out people are going to suffer the consequences for their shady actions. Little pieces of Bane’s rhetoric in this speech and several others where he gathers the masses and pumps them up show their roots in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Miranda’s obsession with alternative fuels gives her excuse to explore the possibilities of advanced and dangerous future technology that Wayne Industries are exploring. Both of these characters stand for a liberal ideal, and yet they use these ideals to fuel their own selfish designs. They don’t want the world to be a better place. They just want the world to cease to exist. Why would Nolan decide to co-opt liberal ideals and place them not on the heroes but on the villains? I think that he is trying to say that anyone could follow so blindly an ideal that we get lost on what is practical and what isn’t. For instance the Westboro Baptist Church thinks what they are doing is right and just. It’s just like getting addicted to drugs. You get so consumed by an ideal that it overcomes you and you do things that you normally would think insane. But it isn’t just the villains that are handicapped by these motives and ideals. Bruce Wayne is constantly driven by a selfish need to save Gotham by himself. He forgets all the pain it has caused or the damage or anything else when he is blindly pursuing a villain as evil as Bane.

The Dark Knight Rises has problems and I think it won’t hold up upon repeated viewings like the Dark Knight has, but I also think that there is enough fertile subject matter in this film to have a fruitful discussion on the current state of humanity among the many cool action sequences and the reveals of who is actually who. By the way if Nolan does not make a film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robin I will hate him forever. Be prepared to incur the wrath of Maria Mr. Nolan. You are warned.