David’s Movie Journal 2/26/11
As I’ve settled into the new year, my new movie-watching has suffered. I’ve started a new job, I’ve been trying to attend more press screenings (those movies, of course, won’t appear in my journal entries) and the television season has geared back up again. Also, I don’t include movies I’m rewatching in these. So even though I’ve spent time revisiting favorites like Shaun of the Dead recently and I’ve purchased and devoured the amazing Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence bluray from Criterion, I’ll be keeping my thoughts on those to myself, thank you very much. Also, I occasionally see films as a part of the aforementioned job but I won’t write those up out of professionalism.
So, here they are, the five movies I’ve seen since the last one of these entries that actually qualify to be written about.
This mostly forgotten comedy from 1988 holds a lot of nostalgic value for my girlfriend so, after repeated mentions of it, I decided we were going to watch it together. She was half excited to revisit it and half-scared I’d hate it. The latter was not an unreasonable fear, after the Troop Beverly Hills incident.
However, this movie was directed by Jim Abrahams, of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker and, at least to a good extent, it shows. Big Business doesn’t possess anywhere near the free-wheeling and anarchic confidence of Airplane!, but the endearing, almost quaint sensibility of a person who thinks of a movie as a place to play and have fun persist.
The premise – two sets of twins born at the same time accidentally mixed and then separated – is the stuff of a pretty middle-of-the-road farce. But Abrahams redeems it by playing into the corniness and making that the movie’s charm. Thinking too much about this film means you’re not watching it the right way.
Big Business takes place in a New York state that would only be recognizable to someone in the 1930’s. Or, more accurately, to someone who only watched movies from the 1930’s. Both the city and the small town life are cartoonish, as are the performances. Only the cars have been updated, really.
It’s not an entirely successful movie and there are far too many stretches without laughs to even be considered a successful comedy. But as a side project to the ZAZ legacy, it’s an enjoyable exercise in throwback-ness.
There are very intelligent and well-reasoned opinions on both sides of the war in Afghanistan. I had friends who traveled to D.C. to protest. Personally, I felt that dismantling the Taliban was the best and most appropriate use for the righteous anger we gained as a nation after September 11, 2001.
Of course, the truth of the matter is that there are always more than two sides to any issue. My initial support of the war has flagged in the ensuing years, due to the way it’s been executed and the fact that it was nearly forgotten by the George W. Bush administration in favor of the far less supportable and, likely, far more illegal war in Iraq. A part of me, though, still believes we can do good in Afghanistan and that there are plenty of people there who could use our help.
The Tillman Story, a documentary about a soldier who was killed in that war, is a deft and respectably clear-eyed thesis on what I spent the above two paragraphs exploring. Namely, that people and the thoughts and beliefs that make them up are complex.
Complexity was never the strong suit of President Bush’s administration. He actively courted the votes of those who would be frustrated by anything that took too long to explain. He and his advisers and staffers and campaigners liked for things to fit into nutshells. In his defense, if the country really did work like that, he would’ve been the right guy to run it.
Pat Tillman, the dead soldier in question, was more than just a soldier to a lot of Americans. He was a professional football player who gave up a multi-million dollar contract to join the army after our country was attacked. That’s a hell of a good start to a narrative right there and the military wanted the story to finish their way. Their story was that of an unquestioning patriot, a person who felt more than a person who thought. In a nutshell, a person whose death would convince more “like him” to follow in his footsteps.
To The Tillman Story’s credit, it doesn’t try to convince you too feel any way at all about the war itself. It is only interested in the truth about Pat Tillman and the illustration of the fact that the truth about a person is pretty damn hard to get your whole head around at once.
Another documentary, one the absolutely does want to persuade you and is undeniably successful is Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job. I mentioned the idea of righteous anger above and there have, in the history of our nation been but a handful of incidents as worthy of fury as what a very small, very rich group of people did to the rest of us that resulted in the economic crash of 2008.
While the film does a commendable job of breaking down the factors that led to the collapse in a way that is understandable and never boring, its real reason for existence is to illustrate how separate this band of oligarchs is from the rest of us and just how little we mean to them. That Ferguson can do this for two hours and not lose his mind with anger, nor quite allow us to, is a breathtaking feat.
There is a turn near the end, though, when Ferguson begins to question his interviewees more personally about their role in the downfall and the ways they might be helping it to happen again. An almost unbelievable thing happens at that point: they start to get angry. They feel offended. They feel as if they have no right to be talked to that way. And when the credits roll, the viewer is left with a devastating thought. “Oh, my God. They don’t even realize how much we hate them.”
It feels a little untoward to write about a movie directed by someone who’s been a guest on the podcast. Not to mention that Scott Nye already wrote an excellent review of it here on the blog. So I’ll try to keep this brief.
I had a professor in film school who was fond of saying that there’s nothing you can say in a film that you can’t say in a genre film.
The tropes of a pre-existing form of story can be a crutch to the lazy or the hackneyed or they can be a foundation or a backbone to those who want to build something exciting. Cold Weather is definitely the latter. That is, once it actually turns into a genre story it is. For almost half of its running time, it’s hardly a story at all. It’s a look at a person starting over in his mid-20’s and pondering whether or not he even should be, all the while trying to reconnect with his family.
Specifically, it is the relationship with his sister, Gail, that he spends the most time on. He learns to see himself and even maybe to like himself again through her eyes and through the rediscovery of the childhood that his life is founded upon.
Once the mystery element kicks in, the physical stakes may be slightly lower than we’d see in one of the Sherlock Holmes books our protagonist Doug reads but the emotional stakes move into focus, as the detective work allows him and Gail to regress, relating to each other the way they did as children, because despite the seedy elements of dirty money and pornography, they’re really just playing a game.
Which is not to say that the genre elements are wholly in the background. Aaron Katz, both as screenwriter and as director, proves himself to be surprisingly and more than welcomingly deft at the plotting and execution of a mystery yarn. Someone get this guy a bigger budget and let’s really see what he can do with more room to play.
More so than The Tillman Story, more so even than Inside Job, Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for “Superman” is an “issue” film. It’s well-constructed, convincing and even inspiring but it’s essentially a filmed version of a pamphlet documenting its cause and asking for your help.
Not that that’s a bad thing. With an institution as deeply broken and therefore destructive to the state of the nation as American public education, I would say this is a film that actually had to be made. But that’s not gonna put it on my top ten list.
By all means, watch Waiting for ”Superman” and be moved to help, in any way you can, fix the future of this country. A pamphlet is meant to be timely but ultimately disposable when it’s no longer needed. Hopefully we can all do our best to make this movie irrelevant and outdated as quickly as possible.