Movies or What? November 2006

by Mark Butterworth (Nov. 2006)

The Last King of Scotland

The Departed

Flags of our Fathers

Running with Scissors

Infamous

Catch a Fire

Deliver us from Evil

Employee of the Month

Marie Antoinette

Flicka

Borat

October was a good month for movies in many folks’ eyes given that three Oscar contenders popped up and pleased elite audiences. But if you’re a part of the hoi polloi, there wasn’t much to cheer about.

The Last King of Scotland

The best movie of the bunch is The Last King of Scotland, a fictionalized account of the mad, murderous Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin. It’s a film which shows us the world as it is in its harshest aspects which can be highly instructive, greatly sobering, but completely undesired at large. It reminds the prosperous and protected that this world is ruled by the aggressive use of force.

The film is dreadful in the original sense. It fills one full of dread for humanity and for one’s own people since it reminds that the rule of law is never really as strong as the will to power over time as governments and civilizations break down or are conquered by barbarians. Civilization is a fragile thing.

The star of the movie is Whitaker’s performance as Amin who swings back and forth from crazed paranoiac, vengeful brute to a charming dictator of generous ebullience . The sweaty faced and volatile Amin is captured with stunning believability by the actor and everyone is calling it an Oscar worthy piece of work.

In one of the last scenes where it appears that the young Scot, Garrigan, whom the dictator befriended will pay for his betrayal, Amin tells him, “You are in Africa. You think because you are white that nothing real can happen to you. But let me tell you, this room is real. I am real. Africa is real. And the only real thing you will probably feel for the first time in your whole life will be your death.”

It’s a powerful movie and few will see it because the movie is serious about illustrating the world as it is, and few are serious about seeing the world as it is.

There is vulgarity, graphic violence and gruesome images. These are instructive and not exploitive in their context. But the nudity and sex scenes are, unfortunately.

The Departed

A total piece of garbage masquerading as an exercise of idiotic, cinematic nihilism. Needless to say, most critics loved it.

The film starts out promising enough with strength and a tone of seriousness in which Scorsese sets the stage with speed and aplomb in fleshing out the characters and conflict to come.

Jack Nicholson plays the Boston Irish mobster, Frank Costello. We first see him in action as a hoodlum when he befriends Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), a boy who will become his mole in the state police.

It’s been remarked that this is a movie where the real star is the plot which was taken from an Asian movie, Infernal Affairs.

The State Police manage to infiltrate Costello’s gang with one of their own (Leo DeCaprio). Both sides learn they’ve been compromised and the game is on to see who finds who finds first.

The dialog is extremely vulgar throughout the movie and blood is freely spattered. So much so that one could say it’s up to it elbows in blood. Literally, since in one scene Costello is drenched, hands and arms, in it, but the movie bogs down to a snail’s pace and loses all the energy it had begun with while maintaining some of the plot tension. Scorsese also defecates on religion and the Church as much as he can in passing.

There are so many crosses, double crosses, triple crosses that cat and mouse turns into a litter of kittens and a rat pack. What is Scorsese doing? The movie begins strongly enough and degenerates into a Grand Guignol and abattoir of killing. The utter nihilism of this is deeply depressing. It has no reason for having been made at all other than to drench an audience in meaninglessness and blood.

Nothing in this movie attempts to make any sense of life as we know it. It simply piles absurd contrivance on contrivance for two and half hours, doesn’t end when we expect it finally should, and then, like a Roman tragedy, splatters the audience in successive bloodbaths.

Sure there are good performances. Nicholson is riveting at first, and DeCaprio and Damon in their roles hold up their ends. The camera work is fine, we even get steaming streets again a la Taxi Driver along with the cute device of a telescoping fade in and out a few times. The soundtrack is impressive. We get the primal screaming of John Lennon (like we‘ve missed hearing that for all these years).

Scorsese is sixty-three years old. Shakespeare had written The Tempest by the time he was forty-seven. Can’t we expect something more from an old man who’s lived awhile? Is there nothing good for him to say about life which has been extraordinarily kind to him? But here we have a movie entirely bankrupt of ideas, good intention, and value; a complete waste of talent and time.

Flags of our Fathers

What’s with the plural -- flags? Only one flag matters in the film.

One of the great mistakes that Clint Eastwood, the director, makes in this movie is the often re-iterated modern statement that soldiers don’t fight for a cause, they fight for their buddies. He can’t bear to consider that men fight for the sake of honor, and that standing by their buddies is a matter of high honor. This movie, which has many similarities to Saving Private Ryan can’t seem to find it in its heart to assert that WW II is worth the suffering to win it.

America, on the home front once the “heroes” of Iwo Jima are on their tour to raise money by selling war bonds, is presented as an unreal place; the people hardly affected by the war and barely touched by the suffering going on across the oceans. They hardly seem worth defending or saving. Particularly since we have no idea who or what America is saving itself from.

War is presented as only tragedy and horror, an endeavor which is never worth it’s cost. War is terrible, of course, but this strain of pacifist rhetoric which now charges all war movies coming out of Hollywood is simply too much; especially when applied to WW II.

That war was once considered sacrosanct as the last truly good war fought by the “greatest generation”, but now directors are going after it, too, illustrating that since all war is bad, that war was bad, too, and not worth the suffering and sacrifice.

At the end, the movie states that, “heroes are something we create.” An egregious lie. Coming on the heels of the loss of so many firemen and police during 9/11. Coming after what a group of passengers did on flight United 93 that day. Coming after what our soldiers have done in Afghanistan and in Iraq and elsewhere around the world in the new war against an evil so great that few will even begin to reckon the truth about the head cutting, death loving minions of evil Islam -- we are supposed to shrink in horror at the hideous deaths and wounds suffered at Iwo Jima and cower in our skin at the idea of having to risk any precious lives and flesh ever again.

Movies like Flags of our Fathers make it seem like we had a choice about the war, and the one we made was bad. That’s what I object to. This movie should not have been made because it has nothing good to say about the sacrifices made in WW II. It’s a miserable movie and does no honor to the men and women who served and serve this nation, nor honors the costs paid by so many families, nor celebrates the freedom that was preserved.

Eastwood is seventy-six. What is the matter with these privileged people that they can never make a movie that ever says, thank you to America, to God, to life?

Simply as a movie, it’s weak. The war scenes are riveting and intense but we’d much rather follow the company and their situation on Iwo Jima (we want to see them win) than go back to hotel rooms, dining rooms, or baseball stadiums to watch the three men bicker and the “Chief”, Ira Hayes, throw up again. Then the last third of the movie is a long coda on what happened to them all later on and a son doing research for his book.

This movie subtly suggests that the American people aren’t honorable (they are sheep who buy war bonds based on lies), and that the government isn’t honorable because it is filled with mendacious manipulators of the people, and that soldiers have a little honor because they will fight for their buddies no matter how stupid the cause. The cause is always stupid because all war is stupid.

Running with Scissors

This is based on a fanciful autobiography and a difficult movie to appreciate. It is part post modern Dickens and part Dostoevsky on crack. It’s the story of Augusten Burrough’s adolescence when he was virtually abandoned by his mother when he was thirteen, ignored by his father, and left in the home of a crackpot psychiatrist who was a conniving swindler.

There are also quite a few doubts as to accuracy about the story, but I took it at face value when I watched it and was generally fascinated and alternately repelled.

The movie is rather comical. Situations are so bizarre as to provoke the laughter of disbelief and stupendous incongruity. But Augusten being left in a sick doctor’s personal loony bin with an assortment of other pathetic oddballs in varying degrees of dysfunction makes what was uncomfortably funny into downright horrifying. A sort of Fall of the House of Usher on acid.

Augusten adjusts as children try to do and becomes as depressed as everyone else around him while he confesses that he is gay.

For the audience, that becomes a turning point where sympathy begins to leak away for the main character. The movie assumes that the audience will find the homosexual revelation acceptable, approve of it’s matter of factness and all that will naturally result from it. When the junior high school aged Augusten is introduced to homosexual sex by a much older man, we are expected to find that normal and not all the consequential.

The homosexual element, although unavoidable and factual in terms of biography, creates a gulf. It brings in a powerful yuck factor to a heterosexual audience that then distances itself emotionally from the very real pathos the young Augusten endures; the terrible situation he has been thrown into. Homosexual or not, he is just a child having no control over his life and exposed to abuse, mistreatment, neglect, and misery on a very rare scale.

He’s a gay David Copperfield, but when he strikes out on his own for New York City at sixteen to escape the madness around him, we don’t have as much hope for him as the movie would like us to. Clearly he survived well enough that he could write a book about his childhood that got turned into a motion picture, but on the other hand, his wounds mated to a frequently self-destructive sexual deviancy do not bode well.

Infamous

Looks like they’re going to have to take away Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar and give it to Toby Jones, the actor portraying Truman Capote in Infamous, a movie that covers the identical ground that last year’s Capote did.

Jones makes Hoffman’s performance look like a good imitation of the diminutive, lisping, homosexual writer while Jones’ portrayal is letter perfect. He completely disappears into the character and you never see anyone but the character.

The movie, though, coming on the heels of one that is nearly the same suffers in comparison, and even more so due to the fact that both movies trivialize the murder victims that provoked the original story, In Cold Blood.

The focus is in both cases on a homosexual love story while Capote’s agony and ecstasy for art’s sake becomes way too precious the second time around. It makes you wonder what is the fascination for some people with this gay Harlequin romance where the “girl” wins the tough but also sensitive, muscle rippled, ultimate He-man, bad boy. Talk about your rough trade.

The perversion of wanting the audience to care more deeply about an egotistical, ambitious writer and a vicious murderer rather than the members of a brutally murdered family illustrates something profoundly sick about the people who are drawn to create these things.

It’s as if the murders only exist to launch this sordid, homosexual, epic fantasy. Of course, perversity has becomes Hollywood’s stock in trade for “serious” movies. Sympathy for evil and those who do it is the current fashion. The evil are simply people whose souls are a little more tortured than our own. You understand.

Catch a Fire

This is a difficult movie to review. If you don’t like it, there is the matter of offending political correctness since the movie illustrates some of the agonies of apartheid in South Africa in the 80’s. If you do like it, though, are you then submitting to a piece of tendentious communist agitprop?

There is no doubt that this is a Tim Robbins film. He has clearly defined Leftist beliefs and doesn’t mind making movies to advance his agenda. It is written by the son of (and dedicated to) Joe Slovo, a white, South African communist who was part of a communist movement originally for white workers against the government and blacks, and when that didn’t work became a movement for Natives and then blacks exclusively. Anything to subvert democracy and capitalism.

Nevertheless, the story is based on a true account of a black African, Patrick Chamusso (from Mozambique originally), who as a foreman at a power plant gets into trouble after a bombing at the plant when he is caught in a lie regarding his whereabouts that night (visiting a mistress and cheating on his wife which he had hoped to hide).

His mistreatment leads to radicalization and his joining a rebel group outside the country, and being trained to return and blow up the power plant.

The movie was more fairly balanced than I expected. The Afrikaners aren’t Nazi automatons as usually depicted, but a group of people who were trying to protect innocent lives and a State they had built which was prosperous and good for them.

The movie is dull plot-wise, but sophisticated in laying out its political cards.

While we are supposed to root for the underdog who takes up arms against a vicious oppressor, in this day and age of global terrorism and the murder of innocents, it is difficult to find much energy to sympathize with those who pick up the sword against a system which was doomed and soon to die.

This movie is supposed to be a rousing triumph of the people, a celebration of justice with stirring African singing and dancing, the solidarity of a people despite all the shortcomings of individuals, but I never caught its fire. There is no joy in reflecting that the end of apartheid signaled a beginning of another beknighted African nation more hopeless, less prosperous, more corrupt and crime ridden than what it replaced.

Deliver us from Evil

If a child is raped by a priest does it make a sound in the Church? How about a nine month old baby?

But no sound is heard.

The documentary, Deliver Us From Evil, is an attempt to make a sound except that the filmmakers don’t realize what they’re up against.

This movie recounts through interviews the story of an Irish Priest, Fr. Oliver O’Grady, who came to California and began a long career of raping children, male and female, in the Fresno Diocese where he was aided by various bishops who kept moving him from parish to parish, even making him a full pastor. This story makes what happened in Boston look like chicken feed.

A number of Catholics object to the movie as simplistic Catholic bashing, but I am a Catholic and more than willing to state that the Church aided a great many monsters in their careers as molesters.

One of the most egregious offenders is Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles who continues today to do everything he can to obstruct justice.

He is featured in this movie through depositions he was forced to participate in as he carefully attempts to weasel his way out of any responsibility as a man who knew what O’Grady did, but kept him in business anyway.

The movie doesn’t understand that the Church has been doing this for nearly two thousand years. It has an agenda that does not reckon the value of its members, only the importance of its clergy and the perseverance of the institution.

And that works. The laity remains passive and cowardly while continuously offering up themselves and their children for sacrifice as if before Moloch rather than Christ. The Church set up an annuity for O’Grady so that he wouldn’t testify to Mahoney’s culpability.

This is a sad and infuriating movie, but in the end it makes not one whit of difference. The Church, the hierarchy, doesn’t care, has never cared, and will never care. It only cares about itself. Not even about Jesus. It has no shame or accountability in this world. (See Dante, The Inferno.)

Employee of the Month

Employee of the Month should be fired and orange ya glad I didn’t say that? Yeah, that’s about how funny this attempted comedy is.

A slacker employee at a big box bulk discount store, Super Club, hears that the hot new cashier likes to sleep with the employee of the month and so he cleans up his act and dusts off his ambition to earn the gold star against the idiotic, but go getting, regular, superstore superstar since faint heart never won fair lady, and it all comes down to a final contest to determine the winner and champion of all time.

Having fun yet? No, and neither did I. The only fun to be had in this was too stare at Jessica Simpson’s décolleté and wonder -- are they real or are they fake?

Marie Antoinette

Movie opens with beautiful costumes and luxurious settings.

Quelle surprise!

One hour later, nothing has happened. More gorgeous costumes, lavish food, and settings. What dialog there is, is banal and nasal sounding coming from Kirsten Dunst.

The occasional pop music lends a few scenes energy in an otherwise lifeless pictorial essay (there is no actual story being told here).

Another hour later. Nothing has happened, lots of sumptuous decadence but, oh yes, the king and queen are arrested. It’s America’s fault. We made them spend their money on our revolution rather than letting them feed their people. The end.

Flicka

The mush that Hollywood has been injecting into the culture reaches a new low with Flicka, a children’s film (ostensibly) where a role reversal is intended to signal the current sensibilities that authority (and dads) are bad, that girls are just like boys, only better, and that classic stories are meant to be irredeemably altered for fashion’s sake.

Flicka is an updating of the 1943, My Friend Flicka, starring Roddy McDowell based on the novel which is well regarded to this day. Where we once had a nine year old boy who did poorly in school, did poorly on the horse ranch, was a sickly child and a sensitive dreamer, we now get an older girl who is rebellious, defiant, rather stupid, and mopes around when she isn’t angry at her father.

The worst thing is that they took a boy’s story and turned it into a chick flicka. The fashion now is female empowerment always and ever, as girls are taught to be tough, insolent, courageous, and aggressive. Boys get to taught to be weak, goofy. sneaky, vulgar and dumb.

What was once a plausible story involving realistic situations is transformed into one absurd thing after another. Nor does the movie even begin to respect the power and danger of a wild horse which Katy, the daughter, attempts to tame and ride.

My Friend Flicka is a sweet story of a boy finding a young filly to devote all his attention to, and by persevering in making friends with the animal, makes friends with his father, and finds a way to overcome his weaknesses.

Flicka is a strained, over wrought and over elaborate tale where none of the conflicts are real, and the relationship between her and the horse is false. We never find any reason why the horse should accept Katy as a friend. She doesn’t do anything to earn it, and then the story devolves into the great contest of a wild horse race that will solve everything!

Over and over again in contemporary movies for children or adults, I see a crassness, an inability to tell a simple story simply. There is a constant fear that such stories need more dressing up, more conflicts, and ones that need to be heightened; a straining for emotional effect rather than letting good dialogue and characterizations do the work.

Borat

I passed up a chance to screen this movie. If you haven’t heard about this film, you will. It’s being hailed as stupendously funny. It’s by Sacha Baron Cohen, creator of Ali G., who creates Borat, a Kazakhstani who comes to America and begins a quest to find Pamela Anderson all the while duping innocent people into taking him seriously and then behaving in a manner so rude and idiotic that few can believe he has such nerve.

Lots of conservatives will go see this and laugh a great deal.

They will laugh because Borat is outrageous, violates decorum, common decency, and good manners with ease and boldness. If Borat had been scripted with actors instead of using innocent and deceived people, it wouldn’t be as funny. But that’s my problem with it.

I don’t believe anything is permitted in real life for the sake of a laugh. Cohen takes advantage of people’s good nature and their trust that they aren’t being set up and played with. And that is vile. Not funny.

It is not praiseworthy that there is a man (and more to follow, no doubt) who is committed to mean spirited deception of his fellow humans; so much so that there is little (how about nothing?) he won’t do to try to shock and surprise them in the course of their day. For what? A cheap and ugly laugh.

As funny as it may be in striking one’s humor as the height of incongruity and ridiculousness, these are unearned laughs; and is anyone really proud to have enjoyed them?

This is something I’ve noted in recent comedies like The 40 Year Old Virgin, and Wedding Crashers, where the level of vulgarity, crudeness, explicit references to sexual perversion are being ratcheted up.

We have entered the territory of Roman Mime where everything was fodder for ridicule, satire, and prurient display. It was a Cloaca Maxima of entertainment.

In Borat, I have read there is a scene where he’s in a hotel and he runs naked through the lobby. One critic explained how this was much funnier when we know it’s real and not a scene staged with other actors and extras. The piquancy of knowing, as we did in Candid Camera, that unsuspecting people are reacting naturally makes it that much more hilarious.

True. But the last time I looked, there are laws against deliberately exposing oneself in public. Shouldn’t Cohen have been arrested and prosecuted for that? Wouldn’t that have been funny, too? I think so. Wouldn’t you love to see the look on his face when he’s sentenced to thirty days in the county jail? That would have been priceless, along with that moment in lock up when he drops the soap!

Let’s think about where this style of comedy leads. For example, it would be very amusing on film if Borat just happened to randomly vomit on some person walking down the street minding his own business, or managing to rip the skirt off a passing young woman. You see where I’m going with this? Filming such things automatically creates distance and imparts a frame and a new context, and that context is the cruelty of a joke.

I suppose you can say this started with Alan Funt’s 1970, What Do You Say to a Naked Lady.

In the credits is one actress described thus: Girl who is not raped.

This implies that something akin to rape (simulation) or the possibility of rape occurred in some sequence. How nice.

Then there’s: Girl in Elevator.

I assume (since I can’t recall the actual scene) people encounter a woman who’s naked in a public elevator. Is that legal, too?

Of course, everyone likes a big, side splitting, snorting milk through the nose laugh and so the moralist killjoy is one character in books, TV, and movies that everyone loves to see get a comeuppance like the lawyer on the toilet in Jurassic Park. Such a wet blanket. So judgmental, cramped, uptight, narrow minded, repressed (he’s always sexually repressed and obsessed or impotent; that’s always the cause of his rage to eliminate other people’s fun).

But if the coarsening of our culture and morals is worth a belly laugh, who am I to stand in anyone’s way. That would be crass of me, offensive to others, and impolite. Go ahead and hop in that handbasket to Hell.

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