Monday, October 27, 2008

Countdown to Election '08 - Advise and Consent

As we begin this last full week of what Jon Stewart has called the "Long, Flat Seemingly Endless Bataan Death March to the White House," we're going to look today at a film that was made 46 years ago, but which feels very familiar in our current political climate. Advise and Consent is possibly the best political movie ever made, in that it deals specifically with the monster of politics and not just characters who happen to live in that world.

Advise and Consent

We start with the fictional President announcing his choice for a new Secretary of State, Robert Leffingwell (played by Henry Fonda). This simple act prompts an immediate chain reaction of phone calls and personal visits amongst members of the Senate as they get to work on the politics of the confirmation of this choice. Leading the campaign to help get the President's choice confirmed is Senate Majority Leader Bob Munson (Walter Pidgeon). Leading the opposition to the confirmation is the senior Senator from South Carolina, Seab Cooley (Charles Laughton, in his final film role), who might have been a prototype for the likes of Jesse Helms. Though he affiliates with the same political party as the President, Cooley is nursing a grudge against him, and he is determined to thwart the confirmation, though he also has genuine philosophical reasons for doing so.

A sub-committee must be assembled to handle the confirmation, and Munson knows that they can't make it look too obviously friendly for Leffingwell. Despite the machinations of an ambitious, pro-Leffingwell junior Senator named Fred Van Ackerman (George Grizzard) who desperately wants to head up the committee, Munson chooses instead an idealistic but tough young Senator from Utah, Brig Anderson (Don Murray), who Munson is sure can handle Cooley. Cooley dredges up someone from Leffingwell's past, who claims that many years ago, Leffingwell was a member of a Communist cell. Leffingwell discredits the witness, but has to lie to do it, and despite telling the President about this lie and asking to have his name withdrawn (since withdrawing himself would be basically an admission of guilt), the President is determined to have him confirmed.

Cooley sniffs out the truth and word gets to the head of the sub-committee, Anderson. Anderson is pressured by the President and by mysterious phone calls to push the vote through immediately, but he stands his ground. For a time, that is. When Van Ackerman leads a nasty series of threats to expose a homosexual relationship in Anderson's past, Anderson turns out to be not as tough as he needed to be or far tougher, depending on how you look at it. He is found dead, from what is deemed a suicide, in his Senate office.

"Advice and Consent" are pretty words from the Constitution, but this film is about the ugliness behind them. They're a heightened reality, to be sure, and I don't know if I like the lurid implications of the "gay" angle (especially considering that the character of Brig is clearly a Mormon, though that is never stated in the film), but much of it is pretty much how I imagine it works. And I'm not sure if that's a good thing. :)

Fun stuff: LOADS of fun stuff, given current political items. This may well be the only Hollywood film that clearly defines and demonstrates the role of the Vice President with regard to the Senate. I'd send a copy of this to Sarah Palin, but 1)it might be considered rude, and 2)well, I'm hoping against hope she won't need it. A couple of women explain the VP's role in the Senate to an ambassador's wife, and it would seem like superfluous exposition, except that we need to know this information for the last scene.


There's quite a bit of discussion on "appeasement" during Leffingwell's confirmation. I kept waiting for Chris Matthews to show up and ask everyone what Neville Chamberlain did to appease Germany at Munich. :D


The title sequence was done by Saul Bass. As in Rankin-Bass (the guys who brought us the claymation Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and other childhood favorites). He did several other notable title sequences, including Psycho, North By Northwest and The Man With the Golden Arm.

No YouTube clips, I'm afraid, except the aforementioned title sequence, and nothing that's embeddable. Here is the only scene I could find online that gives the best idea of what the movie is about.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Countdown to Election '08 - Good Night and Good Luck

I've typed the first half of the title of today's post several times now, but today it made me smile, because "Countdown" - Keith Olbermann's nightly MSNBC news and commentary show is a direct descendent of the subject of today's movie, the great television newsman Edward R. Murrow.

Good Night and Good Luck

This was the film where George Clooney proved he was more than a pretty face and salt-and-pepper coiffe. Yes, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was remarkable, but it didn't put him on the directorial map like this film did. I understand that Network is one of his favorite films (if not his absolute favorite), and you can really see that film's influence on Good Night and Good Luck. I was very tempted, in fact, to include Network in this list, but ultimately dropped it. If you're looking for a good double feature about the impact of television, though (and let's face it, who isn't?), these two films would go quite well together.

Good Night and Good Luck follows Murrow at the height of his conflict with Senator Joseph McCarthy, starting with his defense of Milo Radulovich and ending shortly after the start of the Army-McCarthy hearings. One of the great, largely unsung heroes of acting, David Strathairn, gives a stupendous turn as Murrow, exuding more grace and apparent calmness under pressure than one man ought to have. Clooney is a supporting player, playing Murrow's producer, Fred Friendly. Other supporting characters are Robert Downey, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson as a secretly married couple (at the time, CBS apparently had a rule forbidding two staff members to be married). And Ray Wise (who has been in just about every television show ever) is truly heartbreaking as Don Hollenbeck, a colleague of Murrow's who is repeatedly attacked by a reporter who supports McCarthy.

Just as All the President's Men shows us the importance of the press, Good Night and Good Luck shows us the power of television and the role played by the people we let into our homes through it. This isn't an underdog story, like Woodward and Bernstein's. Murrow is already a much beloved newsman. This is about the responsibility of people who have the ear of the world to stand up when they see injustice and abuse. George Clooney was not even born yet when all this was going on, but his father was a journalist and an anchorman and probably had some stories to tell about those days. The film doesn't have an air of suspense so much as dread - the fear that someone can create a trumped up charge against you for being anti-American - and ruin your life over it. Yes, Michelle Bachmann, I am looking at you.

Which brings me to the closest thing (though not really that close) we have to Murrow today - the aforementioned Keith Olbermann, who ends his nightly show with Murrow's old sign off ("good night and good luck"). There's plenty you can say about Keith, and not all of it is good. He's brash, impulsive, bombastic, occasionally sexist, and he's kind of an ass (and maybe not even kind of). He's far, far less cool and collected than Murrow, he almost only brings people on his show that will agree with him, and he's about as balanced (though slightly more fair, in my opinion) than the network he often ridicules and calls "Fixed News." But he's smart, he's great with words, he's funny, and he seems to genuinely care about America more than his own ego or his own "side." He knows what Murrow states in Clooney's film - that sometimes you can't be neutral, because both sides of an issue are not always equally right. Granted, he tends to take the one side approach more often than may be warranted, but he has never pretended to be neutral, and I rather respect that. And while I also respect the efforts of more respected television journalists to be fair and balanced, there's got to be at least a few of those people privileged with big microphones who are willing to shake America by the shoulders and ask them "Doesn't this make you crazy?!"

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Countdown to Election '08 - Election

Taking a break from American politics today to talk about a politics of a much more vicious and painful nature...

High school politics.


Alexander Payne's brilliant and biting Election is the perfect portrait of a school election as microcosm of American politics. Reese Witherspoon plays Tracy Flick, the epitome of overachieving A-personality. Always the first to raise her hand in class. Like Hermione, only not, because Hermione actually has a soul and a heart. Tracy is not squeaky clean - she had an affair with a teacher, who lost his job while she got out of the situation without anyone knowing she was involved. The teacher's best friend, Mr. McAllister, is played by Matthew Broderick, and he has been placed in charge of the student elections. Aside from not wanting to work with Tracy, who is set to run for president unopposed, McAllister wants to teach Tracy a lesson. He sees her as someone who is so singleminded about succeeding and her own personal entitlement - even though student government is little more than dressage for her college application - that she hasn't allowed herself to be a young person, and really doesn't have a life or friends. McAllister convinces jock Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to run against her, and Paul's sister - angry because her girlfriend left her for Paul - runs as a third candidate, to stick it to her brother.

There are so many familiar themes and moments. The candidates give their speeches to the school. Tracy's speech is formulaic and rather insincere. Paul, despite his popularity, is kind of a wonk, speech-wise. And his sister Tammy's speech is anarchy at it's finest ("Don't vote for me!"), and of course gets the most enthusiastic response from the student body. Tracy is the cutthroat, win-at-all-costs frontrunner; Paul is the sincere guy who would probably be the better leader, but lacks the ambition and contempt for his opponents that it seems is needed for a successful political career; and Tammy is in the game for revenge and to shake things up.

Perhaps nothing encapsulates the nature of the two students running (Tammy is eventually removed from the race by way of transfer to another school) than their respective prayers to God the night before the election:

Tracy Flick: Dear Lord Jesus, I do not often speak with you and ask for things, but now, I really must insist that you help me win the election tomorrow because I deserve it and Paul Metzler doesn't, as you well know. I realize that it was your divine hand that disqualified Tammy Metzler and now I'm asking that you go that one last mile and make sure to put me in office where I belong so that I may carry out your will on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.


Paul Metzler: Dear God, than you for all your blessings. You've given me so many things, like good health, nice parents, a nice truck, and what I'm told is a large penis, and I'm very grateful, but I sure am worried about Tammy. In my heart, I still can't believe she tore down my posters, but sometimes, she does get so weird and angry. Please help her be a happier person because she's so smart and sensitive and I love her so much. Also, I'm nervous about the election tomorrow and I guess I want to win and all, but I know that's totally up to you. You'll decide who the best person is and I'll accept it. And forgive me for my sins, whatever they may be. Amen.

Despite the fact that Tracy does, in fact, win - not just the election, but the perceived high ground against Mr. McAllister - the real winner of the movie is Mr. McAllister. Because, though he isn't what a lot of people would consider a success and compromises his own moral standards in his efforts to defeat Tracy, he's nonetheless an ultimately happier character than Tracy will ever be.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Countdown to Election '08 - W.

I have to say that, between this film and the Oliver Stone films of the last two days, this is probably my favorite. It's probably not as great an achievement as a piece of film, but as a character study and a compelling narrative, it has a lot to offer. And since the events depicted are mostly things I lived through and watched on the news, I felt like I had a much better hold on the story.


W. is essentially the story of a life unexamined. It cuts back and forth between President Bush's first term and a series of flashbacks, starting with his fraternity initiation at Yale. We see something there that sets up a big part of why he was such a successful political figure. Capable Commander-in-Chief he may not have been, but he knew about people. He was good with people, with networking. He could make people feel like he knew them, and that's very important to a lot of people. I heard a story a few months ago (from Chris Matthews, I believe) about when FDR died and his body was being carried on the train from Washington to New York so that he could be buried at Springwood. People lined up alongside the train tracks and as the train passed, a man started to cry. The guy next to him asked "Did you know him?" His response - "No, but he knew me." That is something that even his own family "misunderestimated" about the eldest Bush son. He wasn't the smartest or the most capable (that, bizarrely enough, seemed to be Jeb), but he had a real instinct for people skills.

We see a few of "Junior"s failed attempts at business and even an averted shotgun marriage. And this is where I say my piece about Oliver Stone's reputation for extrapolating stories from history. W. is, in my judgment, far less inventive that either JFK or Nixon, but it has been my observation that Stone doesn't "make up" stories about the historical figures he depicts. Conversations, yes, which is understandable because the kinds of private conversations that occur in his films are not the kind that are recorded for posterity. But something like the young George Bush getting a girl pregnant and having to "take care of it" is the kind of thing the Stone doesn't put in his movies unless he can back it up. Sometimes the source is questionable - I believe Larry Flynt was the one to break this particular story - but he's not just pulling it out of his rectum.

Another key characteristic we see in Stone's portrayal of Bush is his competitiveness and hatred of losing. Unlike Stone's Nixon, who would pout after a loss, Bush's losses make him more resolute to never let it happen again. He runs for the House of Representatives and gets beaten, and it makes him steaming mad, swearing that he will never be "out-Texan"ed and "out-Christian"ed again. This bleeds over into his relationship with his father as well, his frustration that "Poppy" didn't go after Saddam Hussein when he had the chance, and his anger at the 1992 defeat by Clinton.

This is an unusual Oliver Stone film to me, because for once the most interesting and compelling parts of the story are not the things we know. For example, if I have one complaint about the movie, it's the use of "Bush-isms." None of them are used in the contexts in which we saw them. They're just random bits of dialogue in private scenes. For the most part, Stone stays away from some of the juicier stuff that we know about the current president. We see Bush's alcohol abuse, but not cocaine use. We see the influence of Karl Rove (played by Toby Jones) and Bush putting together the infamous Willie Horton ad for his father's 1988 campaign (there is nothing concrete on this, but it it quite probable, given his job in the campaign - the ad was, of course released by a group outside the campaign). But we get no hint of the smear tactics he used against John McCain in the 2000 primaries. The movie is rather surprisingly fair, and seeks not to beat up the current president but to understand him and understand how we could have elected him.

It's always a fun game to see what kind of impressions Stone's actors do of the real-life people they are playing. The performances this time do seem much more like impressions, for the most part, though many of them have great character moments. Thandie Newton is probably the most scarily accurate, in voice and mannerisms, but she's not given a lot of good character stuff. Richard Dreyfuss doesn't look a lot like Dick Cheney ... until he does that weird side smirk that Cheney does. But that doesn't matter that much, because he gets some great stuff to do. Lots of people will probably point to his monologue in the situation room, where he lays the case for going into Iran. But for my money, it's the scene where he's having lunch with the President, and as he leaves, President Bush says "But don't forget, I'm the decider," marking his tree with urine and declaring who's boss. Dreyfuss gives a little half bow and says "Yes, Mr. President." Darth Vader indeed.

Jeffrey Wright is amazing in everything he does, but his Colin Powell is really the conscience of this movie. He's always the one in the room who wants to think before acting, to ask questions and then (if necessary) shoot. Watching Colin Powell on Meet the Press this morning, I was struck with how well Wright captured Powell's steadiness and intellectualism about the issues, even though he didn't really look or sound like the person he was impersonating. Elisabeth Banks also does quite a good character study (rather than impersonation) of Laura Bush. The impression I get from her is of a woman who loves her husband very much, and who is going to be happy when all this is over in January and they can go back to Texas and have a life.

But the real star here, of course, is Josh Brolin as Bush 43. I read that he was nervous about taking on this role, because there were other actors who did a better job, he thought, of impersonating the president (he notes Will Ferrell). But of course these actors would have done impressions of Bush, which would have been okay if he were an ancillary character, but not when the movie is about him. George Bush, as Oliver Stone said the other day, is not a complex or complicated man at all - his favorite "play" is Cats for crying out loud. However, those kinds of people tend to be the hardest to play well, I think. And yet, despite his fears that he wouldn't do a good impression of Bush, I'll be darned if he hasn't done the best job of any actor I've ever seen at getting the mannerisms and speech and (my goodness) the facial expressions. There are seriously moments in the film where he looks EXACTLY like George W. Bush. And on top of that, he gives a genuine, emotional performance.

I'm not sure what the historical significance of this film will be, nor am I sure exactly who it's trying to reach. Stone claims that he wants this film to make people think about who they're voting for for President, not just this November, but in the elections to come. I get that, but I'm not sure this film accomplishes that. It is, however, a very interesting study of our current political culture and the context in which we elected a "lemon," so to speak.

An observation about Oliver Stone, before we leave him. Looking at his films, you can see how the events of his time shaped his views and the things he wanted to make movies about. He was 17 when Kennedy was shot and in his mid-to-late twenties during Nixon's presidency. Think about that for a second. What an impressionable age range to have experienced those seminal moments in American history. No wonder he was so consumed by the conspiracy theories and the Nixon scandals. Looking at W. - here is a film about things that happened when Stone was in his fifties. He saw those events through the eyes of a more mature human being, and I think that shows in his most recent film.

Fun stuff: Marley Shelton plays the girl Bush dates early in the film. This isn't her first time in an Oliver Stone film. She also appears in Nixon as the President's daughter, Tricia. But what kind of struck me funny is that this is also not the first time she's been romantically involved with Josh Brolin onscreen. In one of my favorite films of last year, Grindhouse, she played Josh Brolin's wife. Though that relationship didn't end too well either. I just kind of chuckled when I saw them together, thinking "I'm gonna eat your brains and gain your knowledge." :P

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Countdown to Election '08 - Nixon

Not nearly as successful as JFK, but still quite compelling. Richard Nixon was arguably the most controversial president we ever had, and he was a very complex man who had to deal with a very complex time. I think out of all of Oliver Stone's films, this is the hardest one for me to follow. It would have been difficult anyway, given that I wasn't alive for any of the events, but the events themselves are such a complex web that I hardly even know how to give a synopsis.


The film jumps around quite a bit. If the story has a narrative center, I'd say it's the last few days Nixon was in the White House. It's a film of reflection, and as such most of it is told in flashbacks and even flashbacks within flashbacks. We see Nixon's childhood in Whittier, CA, and a bit of his teen years - his admiration for his older brother and the guilt he feels at the opportunity to go to college, which is only his because the older brother has died. We see a brief glimpse of him as a senator, during the Alger Hiss trial that made him famous. We see Nixon's unsuccessful presidential bid against Kennedy in 1960, his unsuccessful bid for governor, and his eventual election to the presidency in 1968. Through all of that campaigning, we see a man who is deeply vain, who depends far too much on the love of the people, and who takes losing very personally. He believes the 1960 election was stolen from him, and his concession speeches are the passive-aggressive rantings of a grown manchild.

His rise to power is an inevitability, though, and it's a bit frightening to see him hobnobbing with the people who have the power to put him in the White House. Like JFK before it, this film occasionally goes too far, in my opinion. I don't really like the implication that Nixon was involved - however tangentially - with the Kennedy assassination, or even that he knew it would happen beforehand. And if it's true, I don't want to know, for the sake of what remains of my faith in humanity. The things we know for a fact are complicated enough. The lies on top of lies and cover-ups on top of cover-ups make my head spin, and I have no idea how Nixon's administration got anything done when they had their hands so full with hiding what was going on from the public.

My hands-down favorite moment is the one pictured above, where Nixon is looking at the portrait of Kennedy. He says "When they look at you, they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are." In a lot of ways, JFK is an interesting companion film to Nixon. The film's version of Nixon repeatedly compares himself to Kennedy, and you can see how much he hates the fact that Kennedy was so beloved and he is so reviled. I don't mean this at all to be a political attack, but I can't help seeing a little of that in John McCain, who seems to not want Obama to be president more than he himself wants to be president. And his White House ambitions seem very much linked to a sense of entitlement - that he's been around for all these years and got rogered but good in 2000, so he's earned it. There's no reason this should be a disqualification for him being elected, and goodness knows I have no intention of comparing him substantively with Richard Nixon (Sarah Palin, on the other hand...). It's just an observation about his personality. He really, really seems to dislike and resent his young upstart opponent.

Fun stuff: Everyone in the world is in this movie! Stone has a knack for casting, and even the small roles were played by pretty big names. One of my faves is Madeline Kahn as the wife of then Attorney General John Mitchell. This movie also marks the start of my crush on James Woods. Sexy-ugly? You betcha!

I leave you with two clips. One from the actual movie, and another Seinfeld clip - this time of Morty's Nixonian departure from his Florida community.

Skip to 6:55.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Countdown to Election '08 - JFK

As many of you probably know, there is a new Oliver Stone movie out today. Another Stone movie named after a U.S. President, this time the one who currently occupies the White House (for another 94 days and some change, at least). I've just seen it, and I intend to include it in this series, but first I’d like to take a look at what Mr. Stone has had to say about two other Presidents.


Right off the bat, there’s a caveat with today’s movie. The title JFK is a bit of a misnomer. This film isn’t really about the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts. It is about the country by which he was survived. A country that loved him, and a country that hated him. And, most significantly to this film’s premise, a country that was lied to about his death.

Because at it’s heart, JFK is an old-fashioned detective story. A classic whodunit with somewhat higher stakes. This isn't a fictional work about a fictional wrongful death; this is a version of history. And as much as he's trying to tell a story, Stone - like his protagonist, Jim Garrison - is trying to make a case to the moviegoing audience.

This movie came out when I was a junior in high school and taking A.P. American History. My teacher would not. stop. talking about this film in the weeks before and after its release, and lambasted it to Glory and back before he ever even saw it. Lots of historians did that, as I recall. I remember thinking at the time, Why don’t they just SEE it before deciding how bad it is? Of course, the history buffs who did see it occasionally blasted it even more ferociously. There are all kinds of articles and websites devoted to the historical inaccuracies of the film. This one lists 100 of the “most egregious errors” in the film, and presumably there are many more, according to historians.

Of course, the trouble with history is that it is written by human beings who are just as capable of error, misjudgment, and plain old bias as Oliver Stone might be. But make as many lists as you like about how much of it is or isn't factual. Even if Stone's version, or Garrison's for that matter, isn't 100% legit, they both make a rather compelling argument. There is no way that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

This movie crystallizes a time in our nation's history when innocence was lost. From the assassination of President Kennedy to the allegations of conspiracy to the King assassination and finally the assassination of Robert Kennedy - the latter two tragedies happening within a mere few months of one another - were part of a turning point for our country, and the decade to come would be marked with a profound cynicism about not just politics but the world at large and the big, important words that we tend to capitalize, like Truth, Justice, and the American Way Honor.

The centerpiece of this film, of course, is the shooting itself. We see the shooting several times, and each time we see it, we observe it in a different way, with a little more insight each time. Until we finally see the shooting for the last time, in one of the more staggering examples of editing-room genius that I have ever seen, where Stone uses the Zapruder film and cuts into it with all kinds of archival footage, as well as Stone's own shots of his actors in the key roles. This is a few minutes of the film's running time, but it takes the previous three hours to get us ready for that. And if, indeed, there was a conspiracy, it was a brilliant one, because it's nigh impossible to put all the elements together and figure out exactly what happened. We may never know how many people might have been involved in the events of that day.

I think it's pretty awesome that the popularity of this film actually led to a legislative act (The President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992) and the formation of the U.S. Assassination Records Review Board. The government also decided to make some of the classified documents related to the assassination open to the public and moved up the date when the public will have access to everything else the government has on the assassination - from 2029 to 2017. Talk about the power of film - Garrison would have been proud. Sadly, he died five days before Congress passed the legislation.

Fun stuff: Kevin Costner, who starred in this film as Jim Garrison, was in another movie four years previously called Bull Durham, where his character, Crash Davis, takes a position on the JFK shooting that is as opposite as can be from Jim Garrison's. Anyone remember? It's in that awesome speech near the beginning (the "long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses" one). Right between Susan Sontag and the designated hitter, he says "I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone." Okay, well, I find it funny. :P

I leave you with movie!Garrison's explanation of the Magic Bullet theory.

BONUS: Just for kicks and giggles, here's a GENIUS parody of the above scene, courtesy of Seinfeld. How awesome is it that Wayne Knight is in both scenes - IN THE SAME POSITION!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Countdown to Election '08 - Truman

After two fictional presidents, it's time to talk about some real ones. I'm hoping to get to three more this week - all of them featured in films with a common director. *hint, hint* And all of those three (or at least two of them - I haven't seen the third yet, so I can't say with certainty) have a somewhat bleak and cynical view of our government. But today's movie is a slightly more straightforward biography of a man who wasn't well-liked in Washington or in the press, and who wasn't terribly ambitious about high office, but who turned out to be one of the more influential men to occupy the White House.


The film is based on David McCullough's book about Harry S. Truman, our thirty-third President, and it follows him from his military service in World War 1 through his administration in the White House. Much of the film is told in flashbacks, while Truman is writing to his wife, Bess.

We first meet Truman on the campaign trail in 1948, when he was not favored to be reelected. His own party wanted to nominate Eisenhower, and he was polling well behind Republican candidate Thomas Dewey. Of course, we've all seen the famous photographs of Truman triumphantly holding up the "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN" headline, but it's interesting to start months before then, when the outlook was bleak and Truman was going to have to shake every hand in America to be reelected.

There's no special agenda in this film, except to show us this fairly plain and simple man who never really sought greatness, but had it thrust upon him. There's not a whiff of obnoxious ambition about him. In fact, one of the most striking moments in the film - which is apparently something that really happened - is when he's brought to the White House after Roosevelt has died. Just before taking the oath of office, he passes Eleanor Roosevelt, and without thinking, stops to take her hands and ask her if there's anything he can do for her. Her response - "Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now."

One of my favorite scenes, though, is when Harry and Bess take their first steps in the White House and remark that this is their first house. I wanted to reach through the screen and hug them. We often forget that our leaders are human beings, too, and I think - no matter what your opinion of Truman - you can't really help rooting for him when he's presented not as a President or a President's legacy, but as a real, honest-to-goodness person.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Countdown to Election '08 - Dave

I first saw this movie the night of my senior prom. Coincidentally, my date's name was also David. :P


Before Aaron Sorkin cornered the market on heart-tugging political sentiment (wow, that sounded harsh, except that I don't see anything wrong with political sentiment, especially Sorkin's), Gary Ross wrote a screenplay called Dave. The protagonist is Dave Kovic (Kevin Kline), a man who runs a temp agency. He also bears a remarkable physical resemblance to the President of the United States (also Kevin Kline) and occasionally does appearances for extra cash. Nothing fancy, just car dealerships, that kind of thing. He captures the attention of the some Secret Service agents, who are looking for someone to double for the President (so that he can have a rendezvous at a hotel without drawing attention).

Kovic does the job, though he gets a little overexcited and does something he's not supposed to. All he's supposed to do is wave and walk down a hall, but it's a long walk with adoring constituents on either side. This is a cool little character moment for Dave, because as he makes that walk the combination of Kline's performance and the musical score make you feel the patriotism rising in Dave's chest and by the time he reaches the end of the rope line he just can't contain it anymore and turns back to the crowd and shouts "God bless you! God bless America!" Such a great everyman moment, because my gosh, can't you imagine yourself getting intoxicated like that?

The plot thickens when the President has a stroke. Just when the White House communications director, Alan Reed (Kevin Dunn) is getting ready to phone the Vice President and do what he's constitutionally supposed to do, the Chief of Staff, Bob Alexander (Frank Langella) catches a whiff of opportunity and stops him. See, Bob has ambitions of his own, and needs the Vice President out of the way. Dave is brought in, and Bob and Alan tell him that he did such a good job they'd like to ... "extend things" a little. So Dave will play the role of the President and do whatever he's told, while unbeknownst to him Bob positions himself to become the next President.

It's interesting to watch this in a post-West Wing world. I think we know more now, through that show and of course through the 24-hour news cycle, about how things work, meaning some of the things in this movie don't quite ring true. But it's still a very cool film. A lot of the comedy comes from how choreographed and staffed out everything is surrounding the President. And there are the obligatory "instruction" scenes, where Dave has to learn people's names and how government works. There's a pretty hilarious scene where Bob and Alan are showing Dave this chart with the branches of government on it, and I'm thinking, For someone as patriotic as Dave is, he's shockingly unschooled in basic, eight-grade civics.

Probably my favorite thing about this movie is the theme of patriotic duty. Dave feels this very strongly, as does Alan. He is reluctant to sub for the President long-term, because it would be breaking all kinds of laws, but accepts eventually because he is persuaded that it's for the good of the country. Over the course of the movie, he shakes off the puppet strings and starts to do some real good. And in the end, he is happy to give the President all the credit for that, because ultimately the presidency is about much more than one man. This is in sharp contrast to Bob, whose sense of personal political entitlement is rather amazing.

One of the more memorable sequences is when Dave tries to cut the federal budget so that he can keep a Works Bill that includes funding for a shelter for homeless children (child poverty would, of course, become one of Jed Bartlett's pet political issues in Aaron Sorkin's work). He calls his best friend, an accountant named Murray (Charles Grodin), to help him. He then proceeds to address the Cabinet and negotiate the cuts that Murray suggests, cutting through the politics with common sense.

Some fun stuff ... Part of Bob's scheme is to link the Vice President (Ben Kingsley) to a scandal. Not just any scandal, though - a Savings and Loan scandal. This movie came out in 1993, which means it must have been written in 1991 or 1992, not long after the very real Keating Five incident. I also love all the cameos in the film. Lots of films use Leno and Letterman, but Dave makes use of loads of political pundits, and even some actual political figures. Examples include Bob Novak, Tip O'Neill, Chris Matthews (who is definitely the most in-character of all the McLaughlin Group pundits), and Chris Dodd. Oliver Stone also makes a cameo, presenting his conspiracy theory to Larry King about how the guy who appears to be the President is really a decoy. Again, the time period is key here - Oliver Stone became synonymous with conspiracy theories with his 1991 film JFK.

This is a cool movie with a great cast. Bonnie Hunt has a small role in this, as a White House tour guide. ("We're walking ... we're walking ... and we're stopping.") And despite a rather absurd premise, it's an effective patriotic movie.

Favorite scene: Dave is being coached on how to speak to the press. He seems to be more knowledgeable about the President's mannerisms than Alan and Bob, noting that when he's giving a speech, his hands are always planted on either side of the podium. He then starts quoting a little of a speech the President gave at the Democratic Convention, saying how much he loves it. Alan remarks with quiet pride that he wrote that speech, and Dave starts to recite some more of it. The rhetoric is fairly generic, but the words aren't what's important here. The purpose of this scene is to show Dave winning Alan over, and to show how different Alan is from the scheming Bob.

Sadly, there are not many clips of this movie online at all, so I'll leave you with the trailer.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Countdown to Election '08 - Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Holy Filibuster! Today we savor the Capra-esque. :D Nearly seventy years later and it's still relevant. If you've gotten a sour taste in your mouth from all the nastiness of the presidential campaign nonsense (excuse my French :P), pop this in your DVD player or VCR or head over to Netflix and watch it online. You can't not love America after watching it.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

The ultimate classic movie about politics. For all the criticism of the idealism in Frank Capra's ouevre, if you take anything more than just a cursory glance at any of his films, they can be quite dark indeed, for all their optimism. I think Capra saw something fundamental about America, and indeed about the world at large. That truly great things and great accomplishments never come without great cost. The fact that we even have a country at all is not just because some great men with great minds put some great ideas on paper, but because thousands of ordinary men bled and died for those ideas. And so it's only fitting that the hero of Capra's film, Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), has to endure trials to accomplish something in the U.S. Senate.

Smith comes to town full of awe for his responsibility and is quickly intoxicated by the sights of Washington. He's not off the train five minutes before he wanders away from his entourage for a wide-eyed look around town. And who could blame him? I get choked up myself looking at all that history. But it doesn't take long for the shine to wear off. His first initiation into the cruelty of Washington is by way of the press corps. After the papers brand him a bumpkin, he proceeds to punch out everyone he sees who he thinks might be laughing at him. He is finally held down by several members of the press corps, including Diz, played by Thomas Mitchell, and they indoctrinate him into the merciless nature of DC press. [Side note: 1939 was a REALLY remarkable year for Thomas Mitchell. He was in five movies that year, all of them huge classics, including this film, Stagecoach, AND Gone With the Wind!]

Smith's patriotism and belief in the idealism of Washington is repeatedly beaten down, each time more cruelly than before, until he finds himself on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in tears. His assistant, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), finds him and talks him out of quitting. You know, everyone loves the filibuster scene, and we've all seen the clips where Stewart - greasy hair dangling in his face, sweat pouring, eyes glazed over - wades through the damning telegrams with his arms like a drowning man. But this quiet scene between Stewart and Arthur is my absolute favorite moment of the film. Click below to see it for yourself.

And then there's the famous filibuster sequence. That moment on the steps of the memorial is not the low point for our hero. Oh no. Even after he starts his filibuster, he's got a devastating blow coming. But Capra doesn't lead us into a valley to leave us there. His belief in the power of one person to do good won't allow that. And what we're left with is one of the great celluloid love songs ever written to this country.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Countdown to Election '08 - A Man for All Seasons

Senators McCain and Obama can only wish to be as virtuous and firm in their principles as Robert Bolt's version of Sir Thomas More. Sadly, there is not a politician alive in this country (or I suspect any other) who is worthy of the comparison. A true target of perfection (albeit fictional perfection) at which we all shoot in vain.

"More is a man of an angel's wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow.
For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability?
And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes,
and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons."
- Robert Whittington, 1520

Historians have argued about the accuracy of Bolt's portrayal of More (played in the film and on stage by Paul Scofield), but let's leave that aside for the moment. A Man for All Seasons is a version of history that has something to say about politics, in a general sense. Yes, the specifics are about the English monarchy, but the principles are timeless, I think.

The story centers itself on More's refusal to take an oath declaring King Henry VIII to be the Supreme Head of the Church of England. This is, of course, an action the King takes in order to replace his wife Catherine of Aragon with a new wife, Anne Boleyn. The purpose of this replacement, he reasons, is because Catherine cannot provide him with a son. More has refused to support the marriage, but has said so only to the King. Knowing full well that his words to anyone else could be used against him, he remains silent to all others, even those who hold power over him and threaten to (and eventually do) imprison him.

More is a brilliant man who knows his rights, trusts them, and asserts them. He reasons that his silence is the best means of remaining safe without abandoning his principles and his conscience. He's an exceedingly good man, and a wise one, but he's not at all a politician in the sense that I think we all are familiar with that term. He is fiercely loyal to king and country, but he knows what monsters the court and politics makes of men. More is definitely not a politician, and though that deficiency costs him his life, he leaves that life with the knowledge that he did what was right.

I leave you with one of my favorite moments from the film, in which More tries to talk a young man named Richard (played by John Hurt) out of a life at court.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Countdown to Election '08 - Schoolhouse Rock: America Rock

Man, it's getting ugly in politics already this week, and I can only imagine what the debate will have in store for us. So how about something on the lighter side of politics for today?

America Rock

Again, not technically a movie, but Schoolhouse Rock: America Rock shaped a lot of young American minds - including my own - and gave them a base of historical and political knowledge on which to build their ideas about how the country works. This is not really the strongest, musically, of the sets (in my opinion). It would be hard to beat Grammar Rocks for that title. But there are some cool songs in 'America Rocks' and fun animations that put the facts in our heads.

There's apparently a new "Election Collection" DVD out, containing almost all of the America Rocks songs (except for "Elbow Room"), plus "Energy Blues" (from Science Rock) and a few songs from Money Rock ("Walkin' On Wall Street", "Tax Man Max", and "Tyrannosaurus Debt" - the last of which is linked below). And they've added a new song ("Presidential Minute") to the mix. It's a cool idea, except that for a few dollars more you can just buy the whole SHR set.

ALL of the videos - each about three minutes long - are available on YouTube (links and sample lyrics under the cut). In addition to "Tyrannosaurus Debt," I've also added a parody cartoon that SNL did about ten years ago called "Conspiracy Theory Rock," which is hilarious (and was quite controversial). Also, "I'm Gonna Send Your Vote to College" was not in the original America Rock set, but ... how could I not include a song about the electoral college here?


No More Kings
We're gonna dump this tea
And turn this harbor into
The biggest cup of tea in history!

The Declaration of Independence (Oh yeah!)
In 1776 (Right on!)
The Continental Congress said that we were free (We're free!)
Said we had the right of life and liberty,
...And the pursuit of happiness!

(Side note: I always crack up that the "pursuit of happiness" is consistently represented by a man chasing a woman. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of some. :P)

The Shot Heard Round the World
Take your blanket, and take your son.
Report to General Washington.
We've got our rights and now it's time to prove.

The Preamble
We the people
In order to form a more perfect union,
Establish justice, insure domestic tranquility...

Elbow Room
The way was opened up for folks with bravery.
There were plenty of fights
To win land rights,
But the West was meant to be;
It was our Manifest Destiny!

(Side note: I don't think Manifest Destiny has ever sounded so folksy and cute. :D)

The Great American Melting Pot
Lovely Lady Liberty
With her book of recipes
And the finest one she's got
Is the great American melting pot.

(Side note: Kind of creepy to see people jumping into a pot like that - much like when Gargamel used to try to cook the Smurfs.)

Mother Necessity
Ring me on the Alexander Graham Bell.
Thank you Alexander for the phone.
I'd never get a date, I'd never get a job
Unless I had a telephone.

(Side note: A little Equus flashback with Samuel Morse and his, errr, horse.)

Sufferin' Til Sufferage
Those pilgrim women who...
who braved the boat
Could cook the turkey, but they...
they could not vote.
Even Betsy Ross who sewed the flag was left behind that first election day. (Right on! Right on!)

I'm Just a Bill
I'm just a bill.
Yes, I'm only a bill.
And I'm sitting here on Capitol Hill.
Well, it's a long, long journey
To the capital city.
It's a long, long wait
While I'm sitting in committee,
But I know I'll be a law some day
At least I hope and pray that I will
But today I am still just a bill.

(Side note: I giggle every time Jack Sheldon says "Oh yes!")

Three Ring Government
No one part can be
more powerful than any other is.
Each controls the other you see,
and that's what we call checks and balances.

(Side note: The innocent nature of today's post precludes me from saying what I want to say about the current state of checks and balances and certain politicians' efforts/hopes to circumvent them. *innocent smile*)

I'm Gonna Send Your Vote to College
And even if the vote is close,
And someone wins by just a little, tiny hair,
Electors give that person all their votes,
And it's considered fair and square!

BONUS: SNL's Conspiracy Theory Rock
(Aired in original episode, but cut for reruns. Lorne Michaels claimed it was because it didn't work comedically, but it's more likely he wanted to keep his job. :P)

Monday, October 06, 2008

Countdown to Election '08 - The Seduction of Joe Tynan

You may never have heard of this film before today. I certainly hadn't before I went seeking out films for this series. Oddly enough, just a day or two after I first read about this film and put it on the list of movies to possibly include here, Alan Alda (who wrote the screenplay and stars in it) appeared on the Today show to promote his new film (Flash of Genius) and this film came up.

The Seduction of Joe Tynan

Despite the title, this film is not as lurid as it might seem. Yes, the eponymous hero of the film engages in an extramarital affair, but his real mistress is Washington. And you can see the pull this mistress has on his life from the very first moments. Joe Tynan is a likeable, well-meaning senator who wants to do the right things. He gets a bill passed in the opening moments of the film, and later, when he's in bed with his wife (played by the incredible Barbara Harris), it's all he can talk about. Not that this is really a problem. The Tynan's have a fairly enviable, genuine relationship. They're still affectionate and sexual after nineteen years of marriage, which is more than a lot of married couples can say. They're pretty cool parents, caring and curious about their children's lives, but not interfering too much with them or the struggles between them. However, you can sense that there's a tension underneath the surface - nothing that's much of a problem, but something that could be one under the right circumstances.

Enter the right circumstances. The President is trying to appoint a new Supreme Court Justice - one that we gather is not someone Tynan would support. But one of his friends urges him not to make a big fuss or lead an opposition, because if the appointee is confirmed the friend will lose his major rival for reelection. Tynan tells his friend he won't oppose the appointment (though he probably won't vote for the appointee himself), but things soon change when a Louisiana lawyer (played by Meryl Streep) comes to him with compelling evidence that could be used against the appointee in the confirmation hearing. Tynan is reluctant to break his promise to his friend, but when he realizes that breaking it could make him a star of his party, he can't say no.

This isn't a flashy movie, but it's incredibly well-written and well-executed, and is a great example of a cautionary tale about how getting too involved in politics can suck the life and virtue out of even the best people.

Final Girl Film Club - Strait-Jacket


Recently, I read part of a movie review from Ain't It Cool News critic Drew McWeeny (a.k.a. Moriarty) that I absolutely loved. The gist of it was that it's sad when people can only put filmmakers into two categories - brilliant auteur or Sucky McHackington. It reminded me of how a friend of mine once described some readers' response to fictional characters - they're either perfect angels or Hitler-y baddies, with no room or allowance for middle ground.

But there's a LOT of room, I think, between the Uwe Bolls of the filmmaking world and the Orson Welleses. And in that middle ground, there's a lot of fun, in my opinion. Fun that I'm happy to spend my time and money on. Horror is chock full of this kind of fun, and in the 1950s and 60s, nobody did fun quite like William Castle. He made great, schticky pictures that had great gimmicks. He'd do things like make audience members sign a waiver, so that if they died of fright, the studio wouldn't be held responsible.

Strait Jacket doesn't have that kind of gimmick, but it doesn't need one, because it has Joan Crawford. She made this film after What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and there was actually kind of a fad at the time of what people used to call "hag pictures" - where women who had been movie stars in the 1930s and 40s and were starting to show their age would do horror films. Joan Crawford is no hag, though, and is every bit the star in Strait-Jacket.

The movie starts with a blood-curdling scream, a headline, and a little backstory. Frank Harbin (played by the uncredited Lee Majors, in his first ever film role) is messing around while his wife Lucy is out of town. He married Lucy for money, you see, and she was older than he was. He brings his trollop home, thinking (wrongly) that his daughter Carol is asleep. Little does he know that Lucy is coming home early. This is Lucy's second marriage - her first had been arranged by her parents, and when that ended, she picked a guy for herself and her own happiness. Poor gal.

We don't get much more set-up than this. Lucy just sees through the window her husband in bed with another woman and goes ass-crazy. She grabs a conveniently located axe from the yard and goes in all gangbusters, chopping off rubber replicas of their heads and hacking away at what we're meant to infer are their bodies lying just below frame. The daughter, who had not been asleep in the first place, obviously witnesses all this, and there's a pretty hilarious sequence where Lucy's axe-wielding is intercut with Carol's stupefied stare. The next thing we know, Lucy is being carted off to an asylum.

Twenty years pass, and Carol is very calmly spilling all this to her boyfriend/fiance, Michael, with an almost indifferent "And now you know." She finds out that her mother is going to be released, and I'm left wondering how often it is that people who have committed brutal murders are actually released from medical custody.

As with all campy movies like this, there are moments of (perhaps) unintentional humor. I couldn't help giggling when Lucy first arrives and is about to see her daughter again and someone says to her "I know she's dying to see you." And it's almost like Carol went down a list, saying, "Hmmmm, let's see how many inappropriate things I can show and tell a person who's just spent 20 years in an asylum for axe murder." If it wasn't butchering chickens, it was slaughtering pigs. And then she shows Lucy this sculpture she made - of her mother's HEAD.

She also decides that a little trip down memory lane would be a good idea, and presents her mother with a photo album of everything she's lost over the last twenty years (GREAT idea) and some bracelets of hers that she saved. From the night of the murder. We recognize them because they are officially The World's Jangliest Bracelets. And then I have a moment of immense sympathy for Lucy - when she talks about doing some sculpting during her treatment and Carol flips out because she's unconsciously picked up the sculpting knife. I mean, I understand that it might be freaky to see your axe-murdering mother with a knife in her hand, but if she's really cured she's probably NOT going to murder you.

Soon it's dinner time, and everyone is still tiptoeing around Lucy. Carol manages to think of something her mother can do to help with dinner that can't possibly lead to homicide and lets her fill the water glasses. After seeing her daughter and Michael being affectionate with each other, Lucy abruptly exits the kitchen and leaves the water running into the pitcher, leaving us to wonder if she can handle ANYTHING in the real world.

In another display of staggering insensitivity, Carol takes her mother shopping and proceeds to get her dolled up to look almost exactly like she did the night she committed the murders. Right down to another pair of The World's Ka-Jangliest Bracelets. Methinks Mr. Castle saw Vertigo a few times, but Carol's rationalization is that she thinks looking younger will give Lucy confidence.

On their way out of the wig store - oh yes, they even got Lucy a wig to match her hairstyle from twenty years ago - Lucy hears her name. Children singing her name as part of a sort of nursery rhyme.

Lucy Harbin took an axe,
Gave her husband forty whacks,
When she saw what she had done,
She gave his girlfriend forty-one.

I'd have been creeped out, but honestly it didn't strike me as much scarier than the things we used to recite in elementary school for fun. Like:

Glory, glory, hallelujah,
Teacher hit me with a ruler.
Met her at the door with a loaded '44
And there ain't no teacher no more!

Something tells me kids don't sing that one anymore, though.

Now, I'm genuinely feeling sorry for Lucy here. Wherever she goes, she's confronted by reminders of her crime. She has nightmares about severed heads on her pillow, she runs into the farm hand taking an axe to a chicken ... and everywhere she goes, people are really guarded. Like if they say the wrong thing, she's going to go ka-razy and start killing people.

Eventually, we start to see a distinction between Lucy when she's wearing the wig and fancy dress and Lucy when she's gray-haired and plain. It's pretty clear that the dressing up and trying to look younger is part of the problem. And when people *do* start to die, we see the wig and we hear the Super-Jangly Bracelets. Robert Bloch (writer of the novel Psycho) wrote the script for this movie, and you definitely get a Norman Bates kind of feeling with Lucy. The dress and the wig seem to be part of a character she puts on that brings the crazy, and it's almost as if ... someone else is committing the murders.

This may be a B-movie, but Joan Crawford (if you'll excuse the pun) KILLS it with a really top-notch performance. She has a real vulnerability about her, and you can tell that she's drawing on some of her own extraordinary life. Her best scene by far is a scene near the end when she's talking to her daughter's future in-laws. She talks a little too much and finds out that the fiance's parents are not about to let the marriage happen. And this is when Crawford really steps up and gives us what we need to buy the last act. Because she's NOT crazy. She's a very strong woman who loves her daughter and is not about to stand by while her daughter gets cheated of happiness just like she herself was. This scene is a bowl full of awesomesauce with extra oregano, and Crawford acts the hell out of it, reminding us of why she's Joan effing Crawford.

The thing at the end is fairly easy to guess, but the moment of revelation is no less effective for it. I love the story about Crawford getting Castle to change the ending so that the emphasis would be on her. Once a star, always a star.

This is a great, fun, campy movie with a few genuine, good Hitchcockian scares. If you're looking for gut-wrenching gore ... well, you're in the wrong decade of film, for one thing. But Castle makes no effort to make the decapitations look real. It's just pure fun, right down to the headless Columbia Pictures statue after the final fadeout.

Good show, Castle. Good show.

Countdown to Election '08 - A Face in the Crowd

This whole country's just like my flock of sheep! Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers - everybody that's got to jump when someone else blows a whistle! They don't know it yet, but they're all gonna be Fighters for Fuller! They're mine! I own 'em! They think like I do! [laughs] Only they're even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for 'em.

A Face in the Crowd

One of the greatest movies of all time, in my opinion, and my favorite Elia Kazan movie, period. It may not seem like a political movie at first glance, but A Face in the Crowd could not be more relevant or profound in the context of politics, and especially an election. I first found out about this movie at the 1999 Oscars, when Elia Kazan was given an Honorary Oscar in 1999 and they ran a tribute to his films. What caught my eye was seeing a clip of Andy Griffith in a decidedly non-Mayberry role. In fact, this movie was made well before the Andy Taylor days, when he was a monologist and wasn't that well known.

Griffith appears as Lonesome Rhodes, who we first meet as an inmate in jail. Marcia Jeffries (played by Patricia Neal), runs a radio program called "A Face in the Crowd" and sees a definite Quality about Rhodes. Soon, Rhodes finds himself a radio star with a surprising amount of influence over public opinion. He sees things and says things about ordinary people that make them feel as if he really knows them and understands them. Watching him, you can't help but fall in love with him. He talks about housewives, and how hard they work doing things that nobody sees, like scrubbing apple juice from the bottom of the oven that's spilled over the edge of a pie pan. And he combines that soft wisdom with a genuine shrewdness about how to wield public opinion.

It doesn't take long at all for Rhodes to go from Piggott, Arkansas to local TV in Memphis to a nationally televised show with a New York City penthouse to a proposed position in the Cabinet. The more popular he becomes, the more corrupt he becomes. Marcia sees the growing corruption, but she can't help being mesmerized by him and running to him every time he calls her and tearfully pleads for her. I'd question her judgment, but then I remember how much I loved him myself in the first half hour of the film.

I know who Rhodes reminds me of in the current political cast of characters, but I leave you to your own conclusions, because certainly comparisons can be made to more than one of the entities that we've been watching this election.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Countdown to Election '08 - The American President

I wrote about this film a few years ago as part of my first series of movie posts, and I've always been reluctant to do repeats. But this movie, and especially the clip embedded below, has never been more poignant to me than it has become during this election cycle.

The American President

Essentially, this film is a romantic comedy - a great one - and one of the reasons it's great is that is has a secondary story that keeps it from getting bogged down in the mush. Politics makes for a great distraction, and shows us how hard and soul-destroying it can be to get legislation through Congress (which we all learned in a very real way just this week). Politics is entwined with the romance plot, too, as the President's private life is very much the focus of attention for the media, his staff, and his political rivals (especially that nasty Bob Rumson).

I'm intrigued by the idea of electing a President that doesn't have the traditional family background. We're told that Shepard's wife died before the election, so the opposition didn't feel they could launch a character attack on him. As much as we might like elections to be about the issues - especially when the issues are literally life and death, like they seem to be are this go-round - character does play an important role. I despise the idea of voting for someone or supporting them for high office because they're someone you feel you could have a beer with, but that doesn't mean that character is unimportant. Leaders should be intelligent and accomplished, to be sure, but they also need to be the kind of people you'd be willing to follow onto a battlefield.

A lot of people are fond of Shepard's final speech in the press room, and of course it's been brought up in the course of discussing a couple of Obama's recent speeches, because they have a couple of cadences in common - even if they're not quotes (which they absolutely are not). But I'm rather partial to the exchange between Shepard and his speechwriter (played by Michael J. Fox) about leadership and America's thirst for it. Video below, and transcript below that, in case you can't see it for some reason.

Lewis: You have a deeper love of this country than any man I've ever known. And I want to know what it says to you that in the past seven weeks, 59% of Americans have begun to question your patriotism.
President: Look, if the people want to listen to--
Lewis: They don't have a choice! Bob Rumson is the only one doing the talking! People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they'll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They're so thirsty for it they'll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there's no water, they'll drink the sand.
President: Lewis, we've had presidents who were beloved, who couldn't find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don't drink the sand because they're thirsty. They drink the sand because they don't know the difference.

Please, please, America - know this difference this November.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Countdown to Election '08 - The Contender

In honor of tonight's Vice Presidential debate, as well as perhaps the last occasion in this election that most people think of either Biden or Palin as terribly important, I give you one of the few (very few) movies that center around a candidate for Vice President. (The only other one I can think of is the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate.) And this one is about a female candidate for Vice President. A female candidate for Vice President who is being thoroughly ripped apart by the old boy network of the opposing party. Life just keeps on imitating art, don't it?

The Contender

Film critic Bruce Fretts lambasted Lurie's screenplay at the time, because for one thing he thought it highly implausible that a President would wait so long (three weeks) to pick a replacement for his deceased Vice President, and then hastily pick a female candidate without thoroughly checking her background.

No comment.

Except to defend writer-director Rod Lurie, who would later go on to create the television series Commander in Chief, from the "wait so long" charge. Three weeks isn't that long, and the president (played by Jeff Bridges) has made a choice at that point, but has to go back on it because of an accident involving his first choice that brings unfortunate comparisons to Ted Kennedy's Chappaquiddick episode. Incidentally, though it seems like a tiny subplot that's over in the first few minutes, it comes up again in an unexpected and rather fabulous way.

Joan Allen was still somewhat a secondary player in films at this time, and she and Jeff Daniels both took second billing to Gary 'Rocks My Face Off' Oldman, who plays petulant Republican senator Shelly Runyon. Runyon leads the Congressional confirmation process, and also leads a series of attacks on her character. He's a very unpleasant and crusty conservative, and the temptation to reach through the screen and yank his badly balding head off is quite strong. Well played, Mr. Oldman. Well played, indeed.

The attacks get really nasty, and mostly revolve around some pictures that are supposedly of the candidate, Laine Hanson, engaged in a gang-bang. Her face is not visible (for reasons I won't list here), but there are witnesses who claim that it's her. The incident took place during Hanson's freshman year of college, and was said to be part of a sorority initiation. She refuses to answer the charges of immorality, even to defend herself, because it's beneath her dignity. Instead, she stands her ground remarkably well against the big bad bullies in Congress.

I may be treading in a minefield here, but as I refreshed my memory on this movie today, I couldn't help making comparisons between the events of the film and the events surrounding Sarah Palin in the past few weeks. No one - and I mean no one - feels the need to protect Laine Hanson from difficult questions or charges, either from Congress or from the press. Hanson understands that - questions about her sexual history aside - a vigorous vetting process is part of the deal, even though she's been a senator and on the national stage for several years already. Laine, like Palin, is also asked questions about how she would balance her job and motherhood - more pointedly, even, because she is specifically asked about how she would handle it if she were to become pregnant and have a child while in office.

I wouldn't ever say that Palin has not been a victim of sexism, because I do think there has been some, but there's nothing like fiction to put a little perspective on the real world. Joan Allen has a great scene at the end, where she fully explains what happened the night the photos were taken and her refusal to answer the sexual charges, and we're left wondering if her sexual proclivities in college would have even been issue if she were a man. She says that if she had answered the questions, that would have amounted to saying that it was okay to ask them in the first place.

One more thing. Despite some very impressive monologues in this film (such as Joan Allen's "chapel of democracy" speech (see below), which you can find on YouTube), the movie never really gets too precious about America and politics. There's a moment where you think it's going to go there, when a female FBI agent talks to the Chief of Staff about how important it is that a qualified woman be given a chance. And just when you think the schmaltz is coming ... Elliott metaphorically smacks the agent (and by extension, the audience). Nothing wrong with political schmaltz, in my opinion, but sometimes you need that smack on the cheek.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Countdown to Election '08

As the 2008 US Presidential (and Congressional) election draws nearer, I thought it would be fitting to take a look at how politics, especially American politics, has been portrayed on film. I'm going to try to do a post a day until Election Day, because there's more than enough to choose from, but that's not a promise. I hope this is something people will enjoy, no matter what their political persuasion.

And I'm going to start with something that's not even a movie, but I can't possibly do a series on politics without giving it a very special mention.

The West Wing

It wasn't the first television show with a political bent, but it was the first show that took us inside the White House and introduced us to the people who help the president run the country. It was a Democratic White House, but it wasn't a partisan show. There were lots of Republican characters on the show, and they were almost without exception incredibly smart and just as patriotic as the people on the other side of the aisle.

Aaron Sorkin was heavily involved in the writing of the show - either solely writing or co-writing every single episode - for the first four seasons. After Sorkin left, to spend more time with his remaining sanity, the show faltered but came back strong in my opinion in the seventh and final season. That season focused on a new election, this time for the successor to Martin Sheen's President Bartlett, and the two candidates were a young, non-caucasian Democratic senator and an older, mavericky Republican senator. Funny old world, innit? (Incidentally, writers for the show have said that the fictional Democratic candidate Santos really was based on Obama, and even consulted with Obama's then aide - now chief campaign strategist - David Axelrod for research.)

I can't even begin to scratch the surface of the awesome storylines, character moments, and wowza dialogue that made this show such a wonderful phenomenon to watch each week. I'm not even going to try. But I do want to talk about a single episode, the pilot, which I think was the mission statement for the show, particularly the last few minutes.

We start with White House Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborne (Rob Lowe), at a DC bar trying to fend off questions from a journalist and making eye contact with a lovely woman across the room (Lisa Edelstein, who most of you probably know as Cuddy from House). We then meet several other members of the White House senior staff as they are informed of the President having had a bicycle accident. Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (played by the late, great John Spencer), who is upset with the New York Times crossword for misspelling 'Khaddafi.' Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), who recently smarted off to an important member of the religious community and may lose his job over it ("Lady, the God you pray to is too busy being indicted for tax fraud!"). Communications Director Toby Ziegler, who tries to point out how silly the 'no cell phone' rule is for air travel. Press Secretary CJ Cregg, who is treadmilling and trying to flirt when she gets the news, and subsequently falls on her face.

We don't see the President for most of the episode. It's focused on the staffers and their responsibilities and relationships. Toby arranges a meeting with the offended religious personality and a couple of others to talk about how to appease them and thereby save Josh's job. Josh has lunch with an ex-girlfriend who is working for (and dating) a senator who may pull a Ted Kennedy and oppose the incumbent President in the next election. Sam, after spending the night with the lovely lady from the bar, accidentally takes her pager with him the next morning and discovers that she is an upscale call girl. He also gets stuck giving a tour of the White House - one of the few topics about which he cannot speak intelligently and with authority - and humiliates himself in front of Leo McGarry's lovely daughter and the third grade class she teaches. And on top of all that, several hundred Cubans have been spotted trying to escape from their homeland and seek refuge in the US.

In the final act, Toby, Josh, and CJ go to the meeting with the Very Important Religious People. And, because no description could match the awesomeness (excepting the bizzare ignorance of religious personalities as to what the First Commandment actually IS), here's the clip:

Sadly, that clip does not include the much more moving final couple of minutes, between the President and the senior staff, where he states what the show is really about. (The speech is in a separate clip, but without the context, so I'm not going to embed it.) They've received news that half of the Cubans who escaped from Havana in little more than fruit baskets have died and that the rest have arrived in Miami, seeking asylum. And here's the good part:

With the clothes on their back they came through a storm, and those who didn't die want a better life, and they want it here.

Then there's a wonderful moment, another mission statement of the show, I think. The President, who from a PR standpoint, should fire Josh for his nationally televised outburst. Instead, though, he's more of a father figure - somewhat jokingly chiding him for not being able to come up with something cleverer, but making sure he understands it can't happen again.

As great as the show was at inspiring people about what America could be, I think the human moments of the show were just as important, if not more so. These characters are not just serving their country and doing a job - they genuinely care about each other. Later that season, Josh and Sam would attempt something incredibly unethical and immoral to help Leo save face. When Josh considers bring a civil action against the KKK for contributing to the shooting that almost killed him, Leo and Toby (and Sam) offer to take a leave of absence from their very important jobs and help him sue the pants off them. President Bartlett had a very special relationship with his secretary and long-time friend, Mrs. Landingham. There were few more moving moments in the show than when he imagines seeing her ghost, echoing an earlier conversation they'd had and telling him that she can respect his decision not to run again if he doesn't think it's the right thing to do, but that if he doesn't want to because he thinks it'll be hard and that he might lose ... "then God, Jed, I don't even want to know you."

I could seriously go all day for many days about this show. It was such an incredible piece of patriotism, dealing with real and current issues that our country was facing and putting them with pretty faces that we loved to watch week after week. Every episode had a handkerchief-grabbing, hand-over-your-heart, humming-America-the Beautiful moment, and while I think the show itself ran its course and went out on a high note, I'm sad that there's nothing really out there that tugs at America's heartstrings like that.

Ah well. All seven seasons are on DVD.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Several people in Nashville, where I live, have been trying to grow a real cinema culture in our town for several years. There have been lots of unique screenings at our local art house theater, and today's was perhaps the most unusual film that I've ever seen in a theater in Nashville - a rare slice of Czechoslovakia's short-lived "new wave" called Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. The movie is based on a 1935 novel by Czech author Vítězslav Nezval, and it was supposedly inspired by the gothic romances of the 19th century (in other words, it would be right up Catherine Moreland's alley!). This film was part of a series of "staff picks," and the staffer who'd picked it talked to us a bit about it before the lights went down. The print we were seeing was actually part of a private collection, and the owner brought his own projector and showed the film himself.

The reason the Czech "new wave" was short-lived is because it started not too long before Prague Spring, and by 1970, when this movie was made, artistic freedom had essentially been bound and shackled by the new Russian regime. Some filmmakers, like Miloš Forman (Amadeus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) took refuge in America and had thriving careers in Hollywood. Others, like Valerie's director Jaromil Jireš, stayed and saw either their work shelved or their artistic endeavors strangled by a government that was suspicious of the allegorical and the experimental.

Many of you know my deep and profound love for a film called The Unbearable Lightness of Being, directed by Philip Kaufman, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, and Lena Olin, and based on the novel by Milan Kundera. Kundera was Czech himself, and based the novel on his own experiences surrounding Prague Spring. The film was made in 1988, just before the fall of the Soviet Union, and the government absolutely forbade this movie (or any other film that criticized the regime) filming in Prague. Several of the Czech actors and crew members involved with the film did so with full knowledge that their careers, their livelihoods, and perhaps even their lives would be in jeopardy for doing so.

With all of this in mind, then, I sat down to watch Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, probably the last film of its kind before the artistic and experimental impulses of Czech filmmakers was snuffed out for the next twenty or so years.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)

I'm not going to lie to you. This is one weird movie. There's no internal narrative logic, and everything that happens in the story seems to be more symbolic than literal. I suppose Jaromil Jireš could have just saved himself some time and energy and simply said "Sexual awakening is scary, yo! The End," but then we wouldn't have this beautiful and strange film. The whole film works very much like a dream (or nightmare, rather), and if you try too hard to make it make sense or figure out exactly what's going on, you're going to miss the film. So the only thing you can do is just sit there and let it seep into your brain cells.

The eponymous Valerie is 13, according to the story, and so is the lovely young actress who plays her. One of the first images we see is her walking through a field and suddenly getting her first menstrual period, making her "a child no more." It may seem gross or TMI, but there's something rather gorgeous and profound about the image of blood drops staining white daisies. Hardly subtle imagery, but powerful nonetheless.

It would be folly to try and explain the story, because there is no story. Even the characters are somewhat fluid. The vampire with the really bad teeth may be Valerie's father, and then again he may not. The grandmother seems to be the same person as the mother ... or maybe not. The boyfriend seems to be the same person as Valerie's brother. There was a highly significant and very symbolic pair of earrings. And I don't know WHAT was going on with Valerie the newlywed woman Hedvica. There are all kinds of blurred lines, and the film seems a perfect metaphor for how frightening and confusing a young girl's coming of age can be.

The movie was recently released on DVD and is available on Netflix. I'm pretty sure you can also watch it online somewhere (nudge, nudge, wink, wink). But if you don't feel like it's your thing, I'd at least recommend watching the trailer below (made, I presume, by the Belcourt Theater staffer who introduced it to us this afternoon), just to get a brief glimpse of how beautiful this film is.

I should also make mention here about the music used in the film (part of which you'll hear if you watch the trailer). There's a group of called "The Valerie Project," and they've made a mission out of screening this film and providing their own re-interpreted soundtrack. While I admire their efforts, though, I can't help thinking that it would be tragic to replace the original music (though I understand the print they have has a damaged soundtrack anyway). The music is incredibly haunting and, like the film itself, very dreamlike. I was very happy to learn that this is available on CD (there's a vinyl copy on eBay, which I would LOVE, but it's a bit pricey).

What a pleasant surprise of a film. Now I'm dying to see some of this director's other films, like The Joke, which was based on a novel by Milan Kundera.

Monday, March 24, 2008


Since Manitou turned out to be so bizarrely awesome, I was excited about this month's Final Girl film club movie, Scarecrows. There's lots of hit-and-miss with the scarecrow sub-genre - you've got great stuff like this movie and Dark Night of the Scarecrow and then you've got crap like ... well, pretty much everything that came out of the 1990s and later.

Okay, so five robbers have ripped off a military base. Or something. Actually, I can't remember very well, because I was too busy being creeped out by the opening credits that these facts were being spoken over. It starts with a wide shot of this thing:

The movie cuts back and forth between the credits and increasingly closer-upper shots of this Seriously Creepy Scarecrow Thing.  I found myself unable to even look at the screen because I'm expecting him to suddenly go "RWARRR!" and make me have to hit pause while I go change my pee-stained pants.  We find out about the robbery from a radio broadcast that's being played over the credits (it wasn't until after the movie that I realized where the radio noise was actually coming from, which is a whole 'nother level of creeps).

Anyway, five robbers have stolen about $3.5 million, or so we're told on the radio.  We don't see any of the robbery - the first we see of the robbers is that they're on a plane.  They have commandeered the plane and are holding the pilot and his daughter hostage.  One of the robbers betrays the others by bailing out and taking the money with him, along with the plane's only parachute.  He lands in a tree close to what looks like a farm.  It's hard to tell, though, because it's verrry dark.  Thank goodness for night-vision goggles or else we the viewers would hardly see a thing.  The other robbers force the pilot to land the plane and they go looking for the traitor in a game of cat-and-mouse.  They happen upon an old farmhouse, and that's when things start to go horribly wrong.

Because the farm is guarded by scarecrows.  Evil scarecrows.  Magic scarecrows that have awesomely scary powers.  And here's something I really liked about the movie.  We're never told any backstory about where these scarecrows came from.  At all.  We only know what the characters in the movie kind of surmise from their surroundings and what ultimately happens.  The best we can tell is that the three people who lived in the house were Satanists, and now they've become magic-demon-scarecrows.  And they've probably turned previous trespassers into magic-demon-scarecrows as well.  These guys have all sorts of powers.  They're super-stealthy, they can replicate the characters' voices, they can do things like make phones ring and doors close and decapitated heads talk.  And they use some of the classic scarecrow-movie tropes, like impaling people with pitchforks and lopping heads off with sickles.  So the decks are seriously stacked against our, for lack of a better word, protagonists.

The characters are killed off, one by one, until only the pilot's daughter and one of the robbers is left alive.  And then there's a somewhat spectacular escape sequence.  The closing credits are intercut with reverse footage of the shot that opened the movie - getting farther and farther away from the Seriously Creepy Scarecrow Thing pictured above - and another radio broadcast (presumably coming from the SCST itself) explaining about the robbers who are now missing.

This movie is downright awesome and genuinely scary.  I love that we don't get all this mythology about where the scarecrows came from.  That makes them scarier somehow.  Like the killer in Black Christmas that we never see.  Another thing that contributes to the chill factor is Terry Plumeri's musical score.  And then there are these shots of the scarecrows that are sprinkled throughout the movie, and once in a while, if you're looking hard enough, you can see them breathing.

The acting is ... not great.  And some of the lines are painful.  But the atmosphere, gore and overall creepiness of the movie more than makes up for it, I think.  Great 1980s supernatural slasher fun that may cost you a night's sleep.

Oh!  And I didn't even mention the movies TRULY awesome tagline: "Trespassers will be violated."  Indeed, Scarecrows.  Indeed.