erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2013 posts

Saturday June 15, 2013

Movie Review: Man of Steel (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

How do you begin?

That’s what I wondered as I sat in my seat at the Cinerama in downtown Seattle and the lights dimmed. I already knew something of the story from the numerous trailers and TV spots that had been released, teased out, particularly in the last six months. I also obviously knew the story of Superman. We all do. So where do you begin? With Jor-El arguing before the Kryptonian Council, as it’s traditionally done? In Smallville, with the rocket ship approaching and about to change everything, as “Smallville” did it? With Clark on the road, bearded and alone, and the rest of the story coming via flashbacks and a holographic Jor-El explaining the Kryptonian past?

Then I heard a cry and saw a face, Lara (Ayelet Zurer), in the midst of childbirth, the first natural childbirth on Krypton in hundreds of years, and had my answer.

They began as he begins.

People would freak
I liked “Man of Steel.” I’ll say that up front.  But a lot of what I liked I knew going in.

I knew, for example, that Superman (Henry Cavill) would be greeted, not with cheers (as he was in 1978 during the helicopter rescue), but with shock and horror. He’d be handcuffed by the U.S. Army and led into interrogation rooms. Man of Steel, starring Henry CavillThat’s smart. If such a superpowered being did appear, particularly in a post-9/11 world, people would freak and weapons would be trained on him. Thank God the interrogation rooms we sent him to weren’t enhanced. He might’ve changed his mind about us.

I knew Clark wouldn’t be a journalist with The Daily Planet. We see him hitchhiking on the road. We see him on a fishing boat. We  see him doing good deeds, costumeless, bare-chested. That’s smart, too. A mild-mannered reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper? Do such things exist anymore? Might as well make him a photographer at the Chicago Sun-Times. Might as well get him a summer job at Borders Books.

I also figured Lois Lane (Amy Adams) would figure out his secret identity, since, in one trailer, we see her greeting Martha Kent (Diane Lane) at the family farm. And since Clark isn’t at the Planet … This is good, too. In a traditional Superman story, Lois is a bit of a sap. She ignores the man who loves her (Clark) to pursue the man she loves (Superman), without realizing they’re the same man. Hell, Superman was concocted in the first place by a Clark Kent (Jerry Siegel) to stick it to the Lois Lanes of the world. That’s part of its DNA. But here Lois knows his identity before most people know he exists. She’s a true reporter. She tracks down the stories of a superpowered good samaritan all the way to Smallville and the Kent family farm. She gets her story and then doesn’t print it.

I liked all of these elements in theory and in practice. I wanted more of them, to be honest. I wanted more of Clark on the road. I wanted more of Lois’ detective work.

What surprised me, in fact, was how many familiar Superman story elements are still in the movie:

  • Kal-El is sent to Earth because Krypton explodes. (Yep, I was wrong about that.)
  • Zod and his associates are sent to the Phantom Zone before Krypton explodes. (Although the order is reversed: Kal-El leaves before Zod is imprisoned.)
  • Clark grows up on the Kent family farm, perplexed by why he is different, until his father, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), shows him the rocket in a silo in the family barn when he’s 12.
  • While Jonathan cautions against using his powers (because people will freak), he says, in almost the exact same words Pa Kent (Glenn Ford) used in 1978, “I have to believe that you … were sent here for a reason.”
  • After his father’s death, Clark heads north to search for that reason and to discover who he is.
  • He finds out who he is via a holographic image of his Kryptonian father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), who tells him the story.

Then aliens invade. Which is also the answer to how you get the mass of humanity to trust such a superpowered being. You present, at the same time, his opposite: those who wish to destroy humanity rather than save it.

The New Adventures of Jor-El
A few things about Krypton.

First, H.R. Giger should sue. Krypton may be alien, but that doesn’t give anyone the right to steal the look of “Alien” as much as this movie does.

Second, we spend way too much time there. The first half hour could be titled “The Adventures of Jor-El, Free-Thinking Scientist of Krypton.” Not only do we get Jor-El warning the Kryptonian Council about the planet’s core and going mano-a-mano with Gen. Zod (Michael Shannon), who stages a coup, but we also get him: 1) under arrest; 2) escaping arrest on the back of a giant dragonfly; 3) buzzing all over Krypton; 4) diving into the baby incubation chamber and stealing the “codex,” onto which the Kryptonian genetic code is imprinted. This last bit is way too dull and science-fictiony for me. It’s introduced, I suppose, as the reason Zod needs to pursue Kal-El across the galaxy. Zod is the keeper of the code and Jor-El hides that code aboard the spaceship sent to Earth and yadda yadda. But I’m not a fan.

I’m not a fan of the whole natural childbirth thing. Krypton is a programmed society, where everyone knows, at birth, what they are meant to do. Zod is programmed to be a warrior, Jor-El is programmed to be a scientist, etc. So why did this one couple, Jor-El and Lara, break free from these constraints to have a natural baby? I do like Zod’s reaction, though, when Jor-El explains all this to him. He screws up his face in moral disgust, as only Michael Shannon can, and shouts, “Heresy!”

Zod himself is a more interesting character here. He’s been programmed to protect Krypton at all costs. That’s why he stages the coup in the first place—because the Kryptonian Council is full of dithering idiots. That’s why he searches for a planet the remaining Kryptonians, warriors all, can inhabit, and lands on Earth. If anything, he reminds me of Michael Corleone. He’s just trying to save the family. But in doing so he destroys it.

Unfortunately, they gave Ayelet Zurer the most thankless task any actress can perform: urging us away from the story we’ve all come to see. “I can’t do it,” she says, about sending Kal-El to Earth to become Superman. “Lara, Krypton is doomed,” Jor-El tells her. “It’s his only chance.” She makes arguments. She keeps stalling. In the audience, I’m less-than-sympathetic. “Let go of the baby, lady,” I thought. “We’re due on Earth already.”

But the cutaway is smart. Kal-El’s rocket zips into our solar system, past the moon, over Smallville … and we cut to Clark in his bearded drifter stage. He’s on a fishing boat, the Debbie Sue, and the first person we see being saved is him. Nice touch. But then an oil rigger goes up and we get a bearded, shirtless Clark saving everybody. Like Hercules, the original Superman.

His childhood we get in flashback.

I know, Captain, a thousand questions…
In a October 2010 post, reacting to an Atlantic magazine article on “Five Ways to Revive the Superman franchise,”  I wrote:

We're interested in him because he's all-powerful but being all-powerful is dramatically uninteresting. So we need to either push toward or pull away from his power: weaken him to create a feasible drama, or keep him as is and make his all-powerfulness the drama. I'm inclined toward the latter.

They did the latter. I knew this going in, too. One of the many good flashbacks involves Clark in school, suddenly hearing, and seeing through, everything. He looks around and sees skulls. He sees his teacher’s heart beating inside her body. He hears girls talking: “What a weirdo.” It’s up to his mom to get him to focus. “Think of my voice as an island,” she says. He does. It helps. But they don’t do enough with this. It becomes a plot point when he battles Zod, since Zod suffers the same thing—seeing and hearing everything—so it should’ve given Kal-El a tactical advantage. But he doesn’t take advantage. He just stands there and tells Zod (and us, I suppose) what’s going on.

Does Clark ever wonder why tragedy seems to follow him as Clark? A school bus he’s riding in at 12 goes off a bridge and into a deep river. A highway he’s riding on as a young man is the pathway for a tornado, which takes his father away. I’m 50 and nothing like this has ever happened to me. He gets both of these before he’s 20. Plus, since he grows up in Kansas, he becomes a fan of the Royals. We see him wearing their T-shirt. I nearly cheered. Then I did the math. If he’s 33 at the end, that means he landed in 1980 and probably became a fan around 1990, which means he’s been cheering for a sucky team his whole life. Is that why he’s champion of the oppressed? Imagine if he'd landed in New York and rooted for the Yankees. He might have chosen Zod’s side.

I like wondering about these things. That’s part of the fun. How did Clark land the gig with the U.S. Army in the Arctic outpost? With a falsified record? Way to background-check, guys. Why does the Army invite Lois Lane there? Isn’t that like inviting Seymour Hersch into Area 51? And did Clark know the thing they’d found in the ice, the 18,000-year-old alien spaceship, was related to him, or was it just a nice coincidence? You also wonder how Jor-El’s S-symbol zipdrive is still compatible with 18,000-year-old Kryptonian hardware. Microsoft doesn’t support 10-year old stuff but Krypton’s computers work through eons? And they’re the ones that died off?

Why the supersuit? Jor-El offering it makes more sense than Ma Kent sewing it together but … it still doesn’t make much sense.

Clark had never tried flying before? Man, Jonathan really held him back. That’s a poignant moment, by the way, when the tornado bears down on Jonathan and he shakes his head at Clark—no, don’t save me—and is swept away. At the same time, doesn’t it recall another poignant superhero moment? Just before this, the two are arguing in the car. “You’re not my dad,” Clark says, “you’re just some guy who found me in a field.” The superhero, in late adolescence, arguing with the father who’s not the father, just before the father dies. Where have we seen this?

Uncle Ben: I don’t mean to preach. And I know I’m not your father …
Peter Parker: Then stop pretending to be!

Why did Zod demand the presence of both Kal-El and Lois Lane? What did he hope to glean from the latter? Instead, she simply becomes the instrument of Superman’s escape.

I admit I sighed sadly when Zod first contacted everyone on Earth. I knew, for me, most of the fun stuff was over. I knew the rest would be roller-coaster ride. But I didn’t realize just how many buildings would be wrecked, either by the “world engine,” the Kryptonian device that would “terra-form” Earth into Krypton, or by Superman and Zod as they battled in Smallville and Metropolis. How many times did we need to see these two battling through CGI skyscrapers and parking garages? How much is enough for the dopey fanboys who get off on this stuff?

Even so, throughout all the battles, I was intrigued by one thing: How does one man, Superman, battle a dozen superpowered beings who are his equal? Who may be more powerful since they are trained warriors? What’s the secret to his ultimate success? How do screenwriter David S. Goyer and director Zack Snyder answer that?

Know what? I still don’t know the answer. The Kryptonian spaceship ultimately goes down because Dr. Emil Hamilton (Richard Schiff) turns the doohickey so the whatchamajig can absorb the idontknow … and boom. But why do the Kryptonians die? Aren’t they invulnerable? Or are they on the ship, which is like Krypton, where they can be killed? And how does Superman finally destroy the world engine and save the planet? He appears to just, you know, try really hard.

Is it that simple? Muscle over mind, Superman?

The ultimate question
I should add that everyone, from the Els to the Kents, are expertly cast. Among supporting roles, I particularly liked Schiff, who was always my favorite on “West Wing,” Christopher Meloni as Col. Nathan Hardy, who tackles head on what he doesn’t understand, and Larry Fishburne as Perry White, who, in a great moment, first forbids Lois to work on her “super alien” story because it’s absurd, and, on a dime, changes his mind because she gives up too quickly, and he knows that’s not Lois. I also liked the vulnerability in Dylan Sprayberry, 12-year-old Clark.

Both Shannon and Adams are good in everything, and, at the center of the story, Cavill exudes a lonely decency as Clark and a steely determination as Superman. My one caveat about casting? Lois is the love interest, which means we’re supposed to be attracted to her, and I’m not attracted to Adams. At all. Sorry. Maybe that’s just me.

Other caveats: “Man of Steel” raises interesting questions only to abandon them to spectacle. “You’re the answer, son,” Jonathan tells Clark when he’s 12. “You’re the answer to ‘Are we alone in the universe?’” This is similar to what Goyer has said: “If the world found out [Superman] existed, it would be the biggest thing that ever happened in human history.” As is, you know, the near destruction of human history.

But the movie cleans all this up quickly. Too quickly. Afterwards, everyone just goes about their business. They go back to work at the Planet, they try to take pretty girls to basketball games with ringside seats, and Perry White actually hires a new reporter, Clark Kent, who, I assume, doesn’t have a journalism degree. So why hire him? Because that’s what’s supposed to happen? And why does Clark want the job in the first place? I was hoping he wanted to be near Lois but it’s the same explanation he’s always given—so he can hear about emergencies as they happen—when, no, in the digital age there are other means. And the secret identity thing? With the glasses? Really? When half of Smallville already knows? It’s as if Goyer broke up elements of the Superman myth only to put them together neatly at the end.

But Goyer did this with “Batman Begins,” too, ending with the bat signal, etc., and then breaking it all up again, including the bat signal, in “The Dark Knight.” So maybe he’ll do the same in a Superman sequel. One can hope.

One can hope, in the next movie, it’s not business as usual in Metropolis, that there are people still freaked by what happened, and that, even as some view Superman as a god-like figure, others blame him for bringing near destruction to the planet, for bringing the Kryptonian warriors here in the first place, and search for ways to destroy him or control him. There should be a vocal element again him. The more decent he is, the more vocal they should become. He should be perplexed by this. He should always look at us and wonder whether we’re worth saving. Nothing, in the end, would make him more human.

Posted at 09:25 AM on Jun 15, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Sunday June 09, 2013

Movie Review: The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Bill Siegel’s “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” starts out with a helluva one-two punch.

The first image we see is archival footage of Ali in 1968 on a British talk show, speaking remotely from the U.S., and it’s all very polite and dull … until it isn’t. American talk show host and producer David Susskind, of whom I knew vaguely and tend to associate with intellectualism and left-wing causes (his was the first nationally broadcast show to feature Americans against the Vietnam War, for example), excoriates the dethroned heavyweight champion. He says he finds nothing interesting or tolerable about Ali at all. “He has been found guilty,” he says. “He is a simplistic fool and a pawn,” he says. He says nastier things about Muhammad Ali than I’ve said about anyone in my life. And Ali? He just sits there, looking uncomfortable. That’s the first punch.

Before Ali responds—if he responds—and how could the Louisville Lip not have responded?—Siegel cuts to November 2005, the White House, where Pres. George W. Bush presents the Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, to Ali, then lauds the Parkinson’s-debilitated, three-time heavyweight champion with words nicer than I’ve used about anyone in my life. That’s the second punch.

The Trials of Muhammad Ali by Bill SiegelThe obvious question is how Ali went from pariah in 1968 to hero in 2005.

A third punch, immediately following these two, doesn’t quite land. It’s Minister Louis Farrakhan, one of the doc’s talking heads, telling us about meeting Ali after the Medal of Freedom ceremony. When Farrakhan congratulates him, Ali leans in and says, “Still a nigger.” Farrakhan professes shock at this so Ali has to say it again: “Still a nigger.” Then Farrakhan asks the camera, “What did my brother mean?”

It doesn’t quite land because I don’t quite buy Farrakhan’s story. Not what Ali said but that it needed repeating to Farrakhan of all people. Besides, it’s a dull sentiment these days—Malcolm X was saying the same thing 50 years ago (What do you call a black man with a Ph.D.?)—and it raises an unasked question: still a nigger … to whom? Pres. Bush? The white establishment? All white people? There will always be people who view other groups reductively and pejoratively. So … what did Farrakhan’s brother mean?

But that first punch? That one buckles the knees.

Whither Yakub?
Full disclosure: Bill Siegel, a researcher on “Hoop Dreams,” and the co-director of the Academy-Award-nominated doc “The Weather Underground,” is a good friend of good friends. Ten years ago I gave a mixed-review to “Weather Underground” for The Seattle Times, and I’ve felt bad about it ever since. Some part of me thinks I was reacting to the content in the doc—the left’s radicalism that led to the ascendancy of the right, whose crappy world I was living in—rather than the doc itself. But during “Trials” I felt a similar sense of umbrage rising in me. It’s the umbrage of the partially told story.

Fuller disclosure: I’m not a fan of the Nation of Islam. Its origin myth, of the evil scientist Yakub, 6,600 years ago, bleaching the natural black races to create the white race, who was the devil on Earth, was a myth of hatred, but that myth itself has been bleached out of the Nation’s history. No one talks about it anymore. It’s not brought up here, for example. More, the Nation came to prominence in great part because of the eloquence of Malcolm X, who is generally lauded by the Nation … until he breaks with Elijah Muhammad in 1963, leaves the Nation behind, and is then assassinated by Nation members—even if, here and elsewhere, the U.S. government, often the FBI, gets the blame. I get the appeal of the group: clean, upstanding, bow ties. I just have no interest in an organization that has always viewed me, not to mention most of the people I love, as the devil.

At one point in “Trials,” we see an interviewer on ’60s television asking Ali about this:  does the champ see him, the interviewer, as the devil? Ali owns up to it. Then he makes owning up to it the point. He says he’s not going to pretend he believes something he doesn’t. He goes on and on about this, but it’s a classic case of misdirection. You want to say: It’s not that you believe or that you own up to believing it; it’s what you believe.

But Ali was good at such misdirection. I suppose a boxer has to be. Plus he was a showman—one of the best. It’s just hard sometimes to parse the showmanship—the bullshit—from the sincerely believed.

Ali, no doubt, believed in the Nation and in Islam. Siegel sheds light on the moment, in February 1964, after Ali beats Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship. “I shook up the world!” Ali says. Then he adds, and Siegel underlines the point but including subtitles, “I know the real God!” I’d never heard that part of it before. I’d heard “Shook up the world!” and “Eat your words!” to the press, but not “I know the real God!” One wonders how much this belief helped him win the title. Or whether winning the title helped him believe.

1-A
Unlike most docs about Ali, “Trials” focuses less on the ring and more on Ali’s relationship with the Nation and his refusal to serve in Vietnam.

As the Vietnam War escalated in the mid-1960s, draft standards were lowered, and Ali, heavyweight champion of the world, was reclassified 1-A. What had he been classified before? And why? We don’t find out. But his reaction is famous. “I ain’t got nothing against those Viet Cong,” he said.

The authorities circled. The previous generation’s famous black athletes—Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson—were trotted out to condemn him. Ali’s Louisville Sponsoring Group, the 11 white men who had bankrolled him since his gold medal in Rome, worked to get him into the National Guard; but to Ali’s credit he refused the Dan Quayle/George W. Bush route. As a result, the consortium dropped him. Again, to his credit, he called every member of the group to thank them for their help. But now he was isolated except for the Nation. He probably would’ve been eventually anyway. That’s the direction he was heading.

Siegel presents various moments from his years in the wilderness: speaking at college campuses; debating William F. Buckley on “Firing Line”; appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in beard and afro wig and singing a song from his starring role in the Broadway musical, “Buck White,” which he was only doing because he was not allowed to fight. “Your greatest trial,” he’s told, “isn’t in the ring but with the American people.”

I suppose the hatred Ali’s draft resistance caused, and which is apparent in Susskind’s reaction, is not really that hard to understand. Ali was a professional fighter and a braggart. His religion was considered a hate group. Yet he refused to join the Army because he was too peaceful? Who was he kidding?

Yet he won that trial with the American people and with the courts. “Once Ali took the stand [against the Vietnam War],” Siegel has said in interviews, “he didn’t waver. What changed was everything else.”

The doc reminds us he barely won it. He had, as a talking head says, one foot and three toes in prison. The U.S. Supreme Court was going to rule against him, 5-3 (Thurgood Marshall, recusing), in Clay v. United States, and that would be it. But Justice John Marshall Harlan, writing the majority opinion, began to waver. What’s fascinating—and worthy of its own doc—was the politicking behind what should have been a strictly legal decision. Was Ali sincere in his religious beliefs? Was there precedent? What would the result be if they ruled broadly in his favor? So the Court wound up ruling narrowly in his favor. He got off on a technicality: the state’s inconsistent argument regarding the sincerity of Ali’s beliefs.

Watching, one can’t help but wonder what Ali’s legacy would be if he had gone to prison for five years. How would he be regarded today? Would he be awarded the Medal of Freedom at the White House? Would docs like this be made? Or would Muhammad Ali, Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Century, be a mere footnote in history?

Light
“The Trials of Muhammad Ali” is a well-made doc, with, again, eye-opening archival footage. (Another example: Jerry Lewis hosting “The Tonight Show” before the Liston fight and telling the future champ to shut up. “I think you’re a big bag of wind,” Lewis says.)

Siegel also gathers an impressive group of talking heads from the period: Khalilah Camacho-Ali, Ali’s second wife, who, early on, tore up a “Cassius Clay” autograph in his face because that was his slave name; Gordon B. Davidson, the last surviving member of the Louisville group, who is still sharp and dignified; Robert Lipsyte, the great New York Times sports reporter; and various members of the Nation, including Captain Sam, the Miami minister who recruited Clay to the cause. Siegel allows each the space they need to shed what light they have.

At times it’s enough light to illuminate the past. At other times, it’s merely enough to feel our way toward further discussion.

Posted at 10:38 AM on Jun 09, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Sunday May 26, 2013

Movie Review: Dirty Wars (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The problem with “Dirty Wars” is the adjective.

The documentary, directed by Rick Rowley, about and starring investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, is concerned with shattering two illusions of the War on Terror: the illusion of cleanliness and the illusion of safety. What the U.S. government is doing in other countries is immoral and thus unclean. And while we may eliminate some enemies we create others. We finish one kill list only to be handed a longer one, which was created going through the first kill list. In this manner we trade short-term safety for long-term insecurity and a war without end.

The doc focuses on the first of these illusions: the illusion of cleanliness. You could feel it in the Q&A after a screening of the doc during the Seattle International Film Festival with guest Jeremy Scahill. The concern of the people who stood up to ask questions was basically, “How do I feel clean again?” but that’s a concern of the privileged. The more widespread human concern, the entire point of civilization you might say, is for safety. The whole point of terrorism, certainly, is to make people feel unsafe, and the whole point of a War on Terror is to give people the illusion of safety. Dirty Wars, Jerremy ScahillThe doc is mainly telling its viewers, certainly its American viewers, that the policies of its government are immoral, and thus unclean, but this requires a level of empathy that most people, certainly in a time of war, don’t have. The doc should have more forcefully told its viewers the more alarming fact that every day they are becoming less safe. They are in a bubble of safety. And one day that bubble will surely burst.

It may burst no matter what we do.

The American Taliban
“Dirty Wars” begins as an investigation by Scahill, the national security correspondent for The Nation, and author of “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army,” into an early-morning raid in Gardez, a remote village in Afghanistan, in which U.S. forces killed five people. The forces aren’t traditional U.S. forces. They’re bearded. The people there call them “the American Taliban.” We’re shown, by the family of the deceased, the patched bullet holes in the wall. We’re told two pregnant women were killed along with a local police commander and a local prosecutor. The family doesn’t understand why it happened. They’re angry. One relative says he wants to wear “a suicide jacket and blow myself up among Americans.” He says, “I want jihad against the Americans.” Scahill, in voiceover, tells us, “I believed the family but that wasn’t enough—for me or anyone else.”

At this point in the narrative, the proposition is we said/they said. But it quickly becomes they said. The U.S. owns up to the atrocity. It tries to pay off the victim’s family. We see a picture of a U.S. military officer, McRaven, in Gardez, offering the family a goat. Scahill wonders who McRaven is. He wonders who “the American Taliban” are. He investigates further and discovers there were 1700 raids similar to the Gardez raid in the three previous months. He just doesn’t tell us what year we’re in. 2009, it turns out.

Scahill keeps pulling on the Gardez thread that reveals the wider, titular war. The “American Taliban” is Joint Special Operations Command, JSOC, a special forces unit created in 1980 in the wake of Pres. Carter’s desert debacle, and now used indiscriminately at the behest of the president. Scahill interviews Matthew Hoh, a foreign service officer who resigns his commission in October 2009 over our failed policy in Afghanistan, and Cpt. Andrew Exum (Ret.), who talks about JSOC and the kill lists of Iraq. You’d start out with 50-200 guys on a list, he says. When you got through that list you’re handed a list of 3,000. How did that happen? Well, you created that second list by working through the first one.

Scahill, in voiceover, chastises himself for missing the JSOC story when he was embedded in Iraq. Then he wonders aloud, “What was I missing today?”

Cut to: footage of Pres. Obama, in black-and-white, slowed down, made grainy, and backed by ominous music.

And that’s where I rolled my eyes.

Everyone’s got their kill list
This is a tough movie to watch as a supporter of Pres. Obama, but this bit, making the ordinary ominous, does a disservice to the subject. It’s something you’d expect from Sean Hannity. It made me doubt the rest of what I was watching.

Not that there’s much to doubt. That’s another problem with the doc. In 2009, 2010 and 2011, Scahill is slowly uncovering what, in 2013, we already know, thanks in large part to Scahill’s reporting. Drone strikes in Yemen? Really? JSOC? You mean the guys who killed Osama bin Laden? The U.S. government targeting U.S. citizens? We’ve been talking about that for months.

Where the doc is helpful is in detailing the extent of it. We’re engaged in secret wars in 70 countries? Scahill focuses on drone strikes in Yemen. He also visits a U.S.-backed warlord in Somalia. “America knows war,” this warlord, Gen. Adde, says approvingly. “They are war masters. … They are teachers, great teachers.”

Even so, my doubts remained. Scahill wants to put a human face on the victims but it often feels like a partial face. He’s shocked, for example, when he sees Anwar al-Awlaki’s name on a kill list, since he knows al-Awlaki is a U.S. citizen, and he can’t imagine America killing its own. Yet Al-Awlaki is also a radical cleric who called for jihad against the U.S. In 2010, he called for a fatwa against a Seattle Weekly cartoonist for declaring May 20 “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day,” and she had to change her address, name, life. Everyone’s got their kill list. But that’s not in the doc. Instead we see al-Awlaki, post-9/11, touted as the moderate imam who can bridge the gap between the U.S. and the Muslim world. But then something happened. We targeted him and turned him into something else. He was clean, and now he’s dirty, and now he’s dead— killed in a drone strike in south Yemen in September 2011. But I doubt he was ever clean. Who is?

The doc is horrified by the mere existence of JSOC, and certainly by the way it’s being run today—as a private army of POTUS— but I flashed back to March 2003 and remembered my arguments against the Iraq War. Invading a country and taking out its leader is fighting the last war, I argued, not this war. Terror groups like al Qaeda are hidden within a country. How do you fight a group hidden with a country? Or many countries? JSOC is one answer. It may not be the answer, or even an effective answer, but it’s a better answer than the one we had in March 2003. A low bar, admittedly.

What do you do?
A day after the doc, I keep turning over its images and ideas in my head. I have nothing but sympathy for the family in Gardez, and nothing but questions about the raid that killed five innocent people there. I question the effectiveness of JSOC. I do believe, as I believed in March 2003, that our actions against terrorists are creating more terrorists. It’s a Hydra head. Cut off one, two more grow.

But I also have sympathy for the movie’s purported villain, Pres. Obama, because I asked the question the doc doesn’t. You’re elected president of the United States. You enter office in the middle of two conventional wars and countless shadow wars against an enemy, or a group of enemies, who may strike us anywhere at any time. What do you do?

Pres. Obama’s answer has been to wind down the conventional wars and ramp up the shadow wars, and the doc focuses on the horror, the immorality, of these shadow wars, and ends there. But this, to my mind, is where the discussion begins. If the shadow wars aren't working, what do you do? What do we do? It’s a question that has no clean answers, no matter how much we may want them.

Posted at 09:39 AM on May 26, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Thursday May 23, 2013

Movie Review: Out of Print (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Out of Print” is a documentary about the shift from the printing press to this. It’s not a small shift. So many areas are involved—historical, cultural, sociological, economic, legal, neurophysiological—it would require a series of documentaries to do them right. “Out of Print” is 55 minutes long. It’s the CliffsNotes version of the topic.

Remember CliffsNotes? Dull synopses of great works of literature for students too lazy to read the book. Now students are too lazy to read CliffsNotes. Now they go to websites and cut-and-paste. Maybe they come here. Hey you. Stop that. Stop I said.

Cui bono?
From the birth of a written language, possibly in Mesopotamia, to scrolls in 3,000 BC, to codices around the time of Christ, to Gutenberg and mechanical movable type in the 15th century, to the creation of public libraries in the 17th century, to Alexander Carnegie’s gift of public libraries across the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century, the flow of information through a visual representation of language has gotten easier and easier. Now we’ve gone digital. Now we’re all here. Welcome.

As a writer, I’m interested in the economics of this shift. If anyone can write, anyone does. If it’s all out there for free, how does anyone get paid? By singing his didn’t? By dancing his did? (Confused? Visit your local library. Kidding. Google: e.e. cummings.)

As the ground is shifting beneath us, a few are making a mint (Google, Bezos) while the majority are struggling to survive (writers, photographers, libraries, bookstores). This gets a big ho-hum from most. It’s the way of the world, they say. A new technology comes in and wipes out the old professions. We’re all cutters now.

Johnny can’t analyze
But beyond economics, beyond copyright issues and pirating, beyond the digitizing of libraries and the fear of Google and Bezos and where will our libraries and bookstores be in 10 or 20 years (if they be), the biggest issue the doc raises, for me, is this: What is it doing to us? If books are the foundation of civilization, if Gutenberg led to the Renaissance, what is this leading us to?

Kids average 7.5 hours a day in front of screens? What does that mean?

They don’t go to the library to look things up anymore? They just Google it? No duh. But what does that mean? And what is lost? And what—since you can’t Google everything, since everything isn’t under the umbrella of Google yet—are they missing? What are we all missing?

If everything’s easy to find, where’s the joy in finding it? Watching this doc, I flashed back to articles I wrote in the 1990s, and the research I did at the various libraries at the University of Washington, and the nuggets I pulled out. For an article on David Horsey, the 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winner for editorial cartooning, I found his early editorial cartoons for The Daily, the University of Washington school newspaper, and it led to this paragraph in the final piece:

Horsey was so successful at the UW Daily that by 1972 they were printing “The Best of Horsey” in their pages; they also interviewed him in the in-bred fashion of college newspapers. Photographs show Horsey bedecked in tight turtleneck, love beads, and, one imagines, hopeless idealism. In a comment that causes the adult Horsey to roar with laughter, for example, his younger self opined, “I can’t see myself spending my life in an office. ... I don’t want to be working for a bunch of fat old men in an office all day long.”

The concern isn’t that Johnny can’t read but can’t analyze. He just extracts data. They all do. The documentary includes a story about a 7th-grade class reading a website about the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, and the different ways to save it, and everyone believed it. I was reminded of a recent incident in which a friend, in her 20s, told me that Justice Scalia was retiring. For a second, my hopes were raised. Then I went, “Wait, where did you get this? The New Yorker site? Andy Borowitz?” I shook my head.

On the other hand, I certainly know one kid who’s good with critical thinking. Is he an anomaly? Does it help that he reads big books all the way through?

Hunt and peck
That’s another of the pervasive fears in the doc. In the Internet age, we’re distracted and nibble at bits of information and move on. We visit Facebook and Twitter three times a day, five times, 10 times. We don’t meditate enough with one big, slow source of information: a book. We hunt and peck at the computer screen and come away hungrier than ever.

Unfortunately, that’s what “Out of Print” is like, too. It’s no slow meditation. It hunts and pecks after little bits of information and tosses them to us and we gobble them. But we come away hungry. Worse, it tries to end on a up-note (the children are our future), but, given everything that’s come before, it’s a false up-note. The director, Vivienne Roumani, is a former librarian who now does this. A testimonial might have been interesting.

Here’s my testimonial. For most of my adult life, whenever I found a writer I liked, I tried to read their entire oeuvre. I did this with many writers: Salinger, Irving, Vonnegut, Roth, Doctorow, Morrison, Tolstoy, Baldwin, Updike, Kundera, Mailer. I still think of myself as the kind of person who does this but my last such author was Tobias Wolff in 1997. Since then I’ve read fewer and fewer books, less and less fiction. Maybe I haven’t found the right author. Maybe they’re not publishing the right authors. Or maybe 1997 is the year I got my first dial-up account and went online.

Documentary: Out of Print

Posted at 06:22 AM on May 23, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Monday May 20, 2013

Movie Review: Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Various thoughts while watching “Star Trek Into Darkness”:

  • What’s the U.S.S. Enterprise doing underwater? And that was the plan?
  • Crap, they still have alarm clocks with annoying beeps in the 23rd century.
  • Cars, too. Even with transporter devices? Why not just beam to the grocery store? Why not just beam your groceries to you? Why not replicate them?
  • Seriously, are there no homely admiral’s daughters?
  • You can use a communicator across the galaxy? From Earth to Qo’noS? That seems a bit of a cheat.
  • God, Benedict Cumberbatch is good. Is he doomed to play superior beings from now on? Indubitably.
  • Wait, did he say Khan … or Kai?
  • So if the goal was to start a war with the Klingons, why relieve Kirk of command? Isn’t that who you want in charge? The reckless, think-with-his-gut captain?
  • OK, so it’s like “Star Trek: Wrath of Khan” but reversed. Where Kirk does what Spock did and Spock does what Kirk did.
  • I wonder how many takes “KHAAAAAAAN!” took? That’s like redoing “Stella!”
  • Right, the tribble. Thank God. I don’t think I could’ve taken “Star Trek III: The Search for Kirk.”

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)But my main thought was of the roller coaster. Seriously, how many Spielbergian, breathless, everything-going-wrong-and-has-to-go-right-at-the-last-second moments are we going to have?

If the first J.J. Abrams-led “Star Trek” reboot reminded me of “Star Wars,” this one reminds me of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Even the cold open gives us our hero, Capt. James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), carrying a kind of idol while running from natives with spears. Meanwhile, Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) is being lowered into a volcano to detonate a cold-fusion device, and winds up trapped there, as lava laps up all around him. Can Kirk and Spock be saved? Of course they can. Kirk gives up the idol (a kind of map?), which the natives bow before, and he and Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) jump off a cliff and swim to the U.S.S. Enterprise, which is hiding underwater, in salt water, against the express wishes of its chief engineer, Scotty (Simon Pegg). At which point, violating the Prime Directive, the Enterprise arises, to the amazed eyes of the indigenous people, which allows Kirk and company to use the transporter to beam Spock, whose protective suit is smoking, back to the Enterprise just in time. All good!

Not really. Even before Kirk is temporarily relieved of command for violating the Prime Directive (by revealing the Enterprise), and Spock temporarily reassigned to the U.S.S. Bradbury for doing same (by preventing the volcano from exploding), we have our own questions:

  • Why is Kirk hanging, disguised, among the natives?
  • Why did he take what he took? Even he doesn’t know.
  • Why is McCoy down there? In case someone needs a doctor?
  • Do they have no Prime Directive class at Star Fleet Academy? Did Kirk and Spock skip it? Does Spock not see the logic in it?
  • Biggest: Why hide the U.S.S. Enterprise underwater?????

It’s always a bad sign when one of the characters in a movie annunciates the absurdity of what is going on in the movie—as Scotty does here. “Do you have any idea,” he tells Kirk, “how ridiculous it is to leave a starship on the bottom of the ocean?” Preach it, Montgomery.

And that’s just the first, breathless, Spielbergian moment. Others include: 1) the chase from, and capture by, the Klingons; 2) shooting Kirk and Khan from one starship to the next through a field of debris while Scotty is being held at phaser-point; 3) Kirk running and climbing and battling radioactivity to get the ship’s engines online before the Enterprise burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere; 4) Spock chasing Khan all over San Francisco.

All of these scenes are well-done but they’re pointless. The point of the roller coaster is to not think about anything but the roller coaster, which is what most moviegoers want, but it isn’t what “Star Trek” fans want. They want to think. They want it to make sense, and have meaning, and maybe even some poignancy. They want Kirk and Spock to be friends, sure, but not deep friends, not best buddies, before they’ve barely had an adventure together. Episodic TV allows you to build on friendship in a way that movies, even with their interminable sequels, do not.

Sure, Abrams and Paramount toss “Trek” fans some bones (no pun intended). Simon Pegg, who’s quite good, isn’t doing Scottish; he’s doing James Doohan doing Scottish. Anton Yelchin is doing Walter Koenig doing Russian. Similarly Urban and McCoy. We even get a “Damnit, I’m a doctor …” line. No Shatner imitations yet, though. And no Star Fleet sideburns. Shame. If they’re good enough for Neil Degrasse Tyson, they’re good enough for Chris Pine.

The movie, too, is basically a critique of the Bush administration after 9/11. Because we were attacked by one group (al Qaeda), we started a war with another (Iraq). Because Earth was attacked by one group (futuristic Romulans), Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) wants to start a war with another (the Klingons). It’s up to Kirk, giving a speech before Star Fleet at the end, to warn everyone, mostly us, about the dangers inherent in revenge.

But the rest? Uhura (Zoe Saldana), despite the Klingon language skills, is wasted, spending most of her time bitching about Spock acting like Spock. And do we get any rationale for why Spock is doing what he’s doing? Why the relationship with Uhura, and why the anger at Khan, and why does he need Uhura to stop him from killing Khan? Is his half-human side that strong in this alternative universe? And is it because the planet Vulcan is no more? And what of that? How many members of the Vulcan species are left? Wouldn’t this small fact alter his trajectory a bit, get him off the Enterprise maybe, doing something else? Wouldn’t it give him a different girlfriend? (No offense, Zoe.) Doesn’t it make sense for Spock to want to propagate his species now that they’re nearly extinct? Or at least consider doing so? Or at least talk about it with someone?

What was it like for Kirk to die as long as he died? Spock, mind-melding with a dying Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), said he felt, from Pike, four things: anger, confusion, loneliness and fear. No calm? No moving toward the light? Can Kirk confirm? Isn’t that the “Darkness” in the title? Can someone talk about any of this in a meaningful way?

Of course not. That would slow down the roller coaster ride and we can’t have that. “Star Trek” fans, who want to think, are few, and popcorn crunchers, who just want the roller-coaster ride, are many. And as Mr. Spock told us here and in the original “Star Trek II,” and as J.J. Abrams and Paramount executives and all of the numbers-crunchers in Hollywood surely believe, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Posted at 08:13 AM on May 20, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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