erik lundegaard

Monday November 24, 2014

Movie Review: Citizenfour (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

As the world was learning about Edward Snowden, Edward Snowden was trying to fix his hair.

It’s early June 2013 and he’s in his Hong Kong hotel room, where he’s been holed up for days giving information to both Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill of The Guardian, who then slowly report that information to the world. The story has gone from the NSA getting metadata from Verizon, to the NSA getting metadata from ISPs, to, yeah, there must be a whistleblower out there. And here he is.

But while the world talks about Snowden, Snowden tries to fix his hair. First he puts too much gel in it. Then he wipes some of it off with a towel. Does he wipe off too much? Is he simply frustrated? Is he trying to distract himself from the fact that his life has irrevocably changed? He thought he knew what he was getting into, but now he’s in it, and it’s irreversible, and he’s having doubts.

Up to this point, he’s been pretty straightforward. He’s got chin stubble, an embarrassed, almost pained Seth Rogen smile, an air of an Andrew Garfield character—which it to say, a brave, sometimes failed attempt to stay within himself: to be doing the thing for the thing and not the perception of the thing. CitizenfourHe’s coming forward, he says, because it’s no longer the elected and the electorate in America; it’s the ruler and the ruled. We’re the latter, and the former is lying about what they’re doing. The U.S. Patriot Act lowered the threshold for domestic surveillance without court order, but a threshold existed; and the NSA, under both Bush and Obama, obliterated that threshold. They’re spying on all of us.

Snowden wants the story to be about the story (what the NSA is doing) and not about him (the whistleblower), but he knows the media, playing to our need for personality, will make it about him. At the same time, he doesn’t want to appear afraid to come forward. Fuck skulking, he basically says. He wants it out there. On June 9, they finally reveal his name. And the world goes crazy.

Once the world begins to close in, once The Wall Street Journal is metaphorically banging on his door, a look comes into his eyes. Not fear, exactly. More like dread. Documentarian Laura Poitras notices and asks how he feels. He shrugs. “What happens, happens,” he says. “If I get arrested, I get arrested.” Almost everything he says is repetitive in this manner. His language turns back on itself, as if trapped. The look of dread in his eyes doesn’t go away.

White Knight
When I remember “Citizenfour” I’ll remember the silence of it—the background almost thrums with silence—and the whiteness.

Snowden, who’s tech-geek white, and whose name itself implies whiteness, is first filmed wearing a white T-shirt and sitting on a bed with white sheets and leaning against a white cushiony headboard. Poitras says she initially hated all the white but now feels it works. George Packer compares Snowden here to “a figure in some obscure ritual, being readied for sacrifice.” Me, I was just hoping it wasn’t some precious arty thing: that he starts out wearing white and gradually gets dark. Which is kinda what happens.

The white T-shirt is his uniform for the first few days of interviews. Then, as stories break, we see him in a gray T-shirt, then a grayer dress shirt. By the time he leaves the hotel room, a hunted man, he’s wearing a black shirt and a black jacket.

Intentional? God, I hope not.

I know. Snowden didn’t want this to be about personality and here I am talking hair gel and T-shirts. I’m part of the problem.

I was part of the problem earlier, since I was somewhat dismissive of Snowden’s revelations. The NSA is gathering data on all of us? So safety in numbers, right? Right. Unless, of course, the federal government decides to target you and glean what info they can from that metadata. According to Glenn Greenwald, who has a new NSA whistleblower, 1.2 million (Americans or anyone?) are on the NSA’s watchlist.

For all the good this doc does, we’re still not getting the post-9/11 discussion we need. What I wrote at the end of my review of Jeremy Scahill’s “Dirty Wars” is still relevant. It’s freedom vs. safety, or, in the language here, privacy vs. security, and the post-9/11 argument is that we can’t have both. The deeper argument is: Are we giving up one (privacy) for only the illusion of the other (security)? Or this: Are we simply giving up someone else’s privacy (the 1.2 million) for the sake of our own security—real or imagined?

To me, the discussion begins here; I don’t know where it ends.

White Russian
Snowden, whose code name is “Citizenfour,” picked both Greenwald and Poitras as his contacts because both are on the watchlist. We get maybe 10 minutes leading up to the June 2013 interviews, and then nearly an hour in that claustrophobic hotel room. Then Greenwald drops away—shadowed everywhere by the media—and he’s replaced by an international human rights lawyer, who spirits Snowden away. Poitras films him leaving the room, and that’s it. Then he’s gone. Off to ... where was it again? Brazil? But stuck in Moscow.

There are a few missed opportunities here. I laughed out loud at footage of Piers Morgan grilling a federal official about the awfulness of intruding upon privacy—as if he’d never been an editor for News of the World. Who isn’t spying on us? If it’s not governments, it’s the media; if not the media, corporations. We’re being spied on by algorithms. Search for a book on one site and it’ll pop up as an ad on another. Maybe the notion of privacy itself will become an outmoded concept in the digital age.

Then there’s the ending. We visit Snowden briefly in Moscow, where he’s now living with his girlfriend. Glenn Greenwald brings him up to date on all he’s learned, but writes down, rather than speaks, the most relevant material, since they all assume he’s being bugged. By Moscow? By us? By Murdoch? But the questions I’d like to ask Edward Snowden aren’t asked. What’s it like being so plugged in—as he was at the NSA—and then being completely unplugged, as he is now? Did he think the reaction of the world was commensurate with the problem as he saw it? I’d ask “The Insider” questions: Was it worth it? If he could go back, would he still come forward? Would he still blow the whistle?

Are we worth it?

These are some of the thoughts I had as I left the theater. Also this: the terrorists won. 

Posted at 06:58 AM on Nov 24, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Sunday November 23, 2014

'Hunger Games: Mockingjay' Opens at $123 Million, Disappoints

Katniss in "the Hunger Games: Mockingay—Part I"

Katniss returns, fewer people show up.

When is a $123 million weekend, the biggest opener of the year, a disappointment? When its predecessors opened at $152 million and $158 million, respectively.

That’s “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1.” And if Hollywood in general and Lionsgate specifically are wondering and worrying over that total, they might want to look to the movie’s tri-part title:

  1. The franchise name
  2. The chapter within that franchise
  3. OK, just the first part of that chapter within that franchise

I don’t know if we’re all getting franchise fatigue, if that’s what this year of downward box office has been about (and if so, good), but breaking up final chapters into two parts, as with “Twilight” and “Harry Potter,” or three parts as with “The Hobbit,” is just being greedy. Cut to the chase, Hollywood. Just tell us the fucking story.

The first two “Hunger Games” movies grossed over $400 million each domestically. “THGMP1” will need good word-of-mouth to do that. The more immediate question is whether it can unseat “Guardians of the Galaxy,” at $331 million, as the year’s biggest hit. Domestic. Worldwide, it’s that crummy “Transformers IV” movie, which grossed $1.08 billion despite massive deflation in the U.S.

Among the runner-ups this weekend, “Big Hero 6” finished second ($20m for the weekend, $135 domestic total), “Interstellar” third ($15 and $120) and “Dumb and Dumber To” fourth ($14 and $57). “DADT” gained 34 theaters in its second weekend but still feel nearly 62%. So we’re dumb but we’re not dumber.

“Gone Girl” is still in fifth place ($2.8 and $156), “Beyond the Lights” in sixth ($2.6 and $10), and then “St. Vincent,” which earned another $2.3 million (including $10 from me) and has now quietly grossed $36 mil, despite mediocre reviews.

After that, a flurry of potential Oscar candidates:

  • 8. “Fury” ($1.9, $79)
  • 9. “Birdman” ($1.8, $14)
  • 10. “The Theory of Everything” ($1.5 and $2)
  • 11. “Nightcrawler” ($1.2 and $27)

I’d recommend any of these last ones. Use your brains and all. 

Posted at 12:08 PM on Nov 23, 2014 in category Movies - Box Office
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Lancelot Links

  • #Pointergate update: Earlier this month, KSTP-TV ran a story that Mayor Betsy Hodges, as part of GOTV efforts, had a picture taken with a “known felon” flashing “gang signs.” The rest of the world pointed out that they were just pointing at each other. But despite the backlash, KSTP's Stanley Hubbard stands by the story. And according to him? Some of his best viewers are black. So there.
  • Anson “Potsie” Williams on how Robin Williams turned the worst “Happy Days” script into the best. Well, “best.” I mean, it was still about an alien (and his finger) battling Fonzie (and his thumb) for the soul of Richie Cunningham. Or something. But at least it was goofy. And no sharks were jumped. 
  • Rare, behind-the-scenes photos from the original “Star Wars”? Again? Yeah, but I didn't know about Lane Loneozner, Camie, and Biggs Darklighter
  • MLB.com has 10 finalists for its 2014 defensive play of the year. Always fun to watch. I was torn between Puig and Kiermaier, and went with Puig. 
  • Not fun to watch? Kirk Cameron's “Saving Christmas” movie. But it was fun to read Christy Lemire's review about why it was not fun to watch. 
  • The headline says it all: ESPN suspends Keith Law for defending evolution. At first you think, “OK, but what are the extenuating circumstances?” Here they are: Law was refuting anti-evolution tweets from ESPN's Curt Schilling, who's a bigger name and a bigger doofus. So Schilling fought the Law and the Law lost. World without end.
  • Yesterday morning, Nathaniel over at FilmExperience.net alerted me (well, all of his Twitter followers) to the live streaming of the 2014 Golden Horse Awards in Taipei, Taiwan. (Their Oscars.) I watched a bit of it, understood a few words, caught Chen Shiang-Chyi winning best actress for “Exit.” Interestingly, the other actresses in the audience, particularly Tang Wei, didn't quite have the brave face that Hollywood nominees put up during someone else's acceptance speech. They looked a trifle miffed. Best feature was“Blind Massage.” Wouldn't mind checking it out someday. Taiwan used to be my home. 
  • A Colorado rapper writes an open letter to U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet on the Keystone Pipeline. He also includes 10 Questions for Sen. Bennet. And for you and me. 
  • Finally, the long read of the week: Ben McGrath in The New Yorker tells us about the rise of the professional cyber athlete via the Korean-dominated real-time strategy game StarCraft II, and the Canadian girl (Scarlett) who challenged them all. It's amazing the miniworlds out there. It's amazing how nasty people can be in them, too. 

The 2014 Golden Horse Awards, Taipei, Taiwan

The 2014 Golden Horse Awards: I like the huge shot of the actress (Chen Shiang-Chyi) in character (in “Exit”).

Posted at 07:51 AM on Nov 23, 2014 in category Lancelot Links
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Saturday November 22, 2014

Quote of the Day

“I’m slipping away. I’ve decided to make friends with it.”

-- Writer/director/comedian Mike Nichols during his last lunch with John Lahr in September, as recounted by Lahr in The New Yorker. One of my favorite Mike Nichols stories is here. Nichols died earlier this week.

Posted at 10:46 AM on Nov 22, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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At the Birth of the 'Special Rights' Argument

After the death of John Doar, I was looking over my old copy of Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963,” and came across this story about James Meredith trying to register at the University of Mississippi in 1962, and being prevented from doing so by Gov. H. Ross Barnett. It’s a well-known story.

But it brought to mind the way modern conservatives and reactionaries and racists use the term “special rights.” And it sheds light on what the term means.

It’s 1962. Meredith is trying to become the first black man to register at Ole Miss. Gov. Barnett, looking for votes, prevents him from doing so. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals then threatens both the registrar and the university trustees with contempt, and secures a promise that they will in fact register Meredith. On Sept. 25, U.S. Marshall James McShane and civil rights attorney John Doar accompany Meredith to the Federal Building in downtown Jackson to register him. But no one’s there. Gov. Barnett has called them to the legislature to “testify” about the situation.

That evening, after various other machinations, the three men, with the help of U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy in D.C.,  attempt to register Meredith on campus, but once again Barnett “interposes,” makes some jokes at Meredith’s expense, and denies the admission. “A Rebel yell went up from the crowds gathered ...” Branch writes. “They hooted the Meredith trio along its path of retreat ...”

Then a call to Barnet from RFK, and this conversation:

RFK: He is going to show up for classes tomorrow.
HRB: At Ole Miss? How can you do that without registering?
RFK: I think they arranged it. It’s all understood.
HRB: They’re going to give him special treatment?

I love that. Special treatment. Special rights.

What are Meredith’s special rights? Well, a racist state has done everything in its power to prevent an entire people from the normal course of events. Then, for a period, they focus on one man. The most powerful people in the state do everything they can to prevent this one individual from the normal course of events—the simple act of registering for college. And when the federal government says, “You can’t do that,” they cry “Special treatment! Special rights!”

Then they spend decades undermining the federal government. But that’s another story. 

H. Ross Barnett and Ole Miss

“They're going to give him special treatment???”

Posted at 06:11 AM on Nov 22, 2014 in category U.S. History
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Friday November 21, 2014

Quote of the Day

“I want to reform our crazy legal system because as a nation we must sue each other less and care for each other more. It has gone too far when these crazy lawsuits keep people from coaching Little League, doctors from delivering babies, or whatever it is. We must put a cap on these outrageous lawsuits, and we've got to stand up to the special interests in Congress who are keeping us from doing just exactly that. Clean House!”

-- Pres. George H.W. Bush on the campaign trail in Oct. 1992. I reprint it, of course, because today the House GOP has filed a lawsuit against Pres. Obama for overstepping his executive authority with the Affordable Care Act. The kicker? The next line in Pres. Bush's above speech is this: “I want to use competition to cut the cost of health care and make it affordable for you and your families.” Read 'em and weep, America, at how crazy your country (or your GOP) has become. 

President George H.W. Bush in 1992

In favor of: affordable health care and fewer lawsuits. AKA RINO.

Posted at 02:57 PM on Nov 21, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Trailer: The Age of Adaline

This looks awful:

Jeff Wells is right: “Twilight Zone” ran a similar episode in 1960, “Long Live Walter Jameson,” that dealt with the darker aspects of immortality—how we keep making the same mistakes over and over; how we never learn. Basically, those who live through history are doomed to repeat it.

Adaline, played by Blake Lively, doesn't have the centuries of Walter Jameson but she does have a century—a rather monumental century. Born in 1908, she's rendered immortal during a magic-realism car accident in 1935. She's been on the run ever since. Apparently she runs into the arms of men and then away from them again; away from her kids, too. Then into the arms of men again. Modern day, it's a lanky, bearded Brit. I lost all interest in the movie at 1:48 when she drives off in a taxi, he cries, “Wait,” and then, worried, “How do we get in touch?” And this look from our 106-year-old:

Blake Lively Age of Adaline

It's the look of a fucking schoolgirl, not someone who's lived 100 years. There should be wisdom in her eyes. Sadness. Something.

Favorite moment? The actor playing the young Harrison Ford delivering his crooked smile:

Young Harrison Ford

How about Adaline as metaphor for the country? She stays perpetually young and learns nothing. She could help the world but it's all about her. 

Hope she's not a Cubs fan. That would be cruel. 

Posted at 12:56 PM on Nov 21, 2014 in category Trailers
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Movie Review: A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The central joke in “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is how the main character, Albert (writer-director Seth MacFarlane), is really a 21st-century man stuck in the American West of the 1800s. It’s not a time travel movie. Albert just reacts to everything around him as if he were, you know, Seth MacFarlane, born in 1973, raised in relative safety and security, allowed to get soft on TV and pop culture. He can’t shoot a gun, doesn’t have much courage, mopes around a lot. He doesn’t hate where he is so much as when he is.

His vernacular is 21st century but his surroundings are 19th. A big block of ice crushes a man transporting it. “Oh, that went South so fast!” he shouts. When he gets a song stuck in his head (the inspired “Moutache Song”), his friend, Anna (Charlize Theron), tells him to think of another. “How?” he says. “There’s only like three songs. And they’re all by Stephen Foster.”

At one point he says, “I’m not the hero. I’m the guy in the crowd making fun of the hero’s shirt.” Which is true. Basically he’s the moviegoer or the TV watcher. He’s us, suddenly stuck in the movie.

That’s the central conceit, the central joke.

A Million Ways to Die in the WestWhy doesn’t it quite work?

I laughed out loud a lot, sure, but then we’d get some scatalogical bit that would just make me wince. Or the plot would pick up unnecessarily and transport us to the obvious place.

The story has a classic, dull structure:

  • Boy loses girl (Amanda Seyfried) by chickening out of a gunfight.
  • Boy is nursed back to health and some semblance of courage by hotter girl (Charlize) and Native American mysticism.
  • Boy gets girl (Charlize) by winning gunfight.

The movie, in other words, still buys into the wish-fulfillment fantasy, and blah for that. Did Woody Allen, in his early films, have his character, his schlemiel, become “brave”? Did Woody’s movies begin as parodies of the genre only to buy into the tropes of the genre? When is Hollywood going to stop doing this? You’d think MacFarlane at least would know better.

At the same time, I still thought the movie would be popular. The trailer was funny, MacFarlane (“Family Guy”) has his rabid following, his first feature, “Ted,” grossed $218 million two years earlier. Instead, “West” was one of the summer’s biggest box-office bombs: More than 3,000 theaters, a Memorial Day weekend release, but only $42 million total.

Because?

Because the West, I assume. Because we don’t know Westerns anymore. Because we don’t care for them. The title is about the million ways to die in the West but its box office showed us the million-and-first.

Posted at 07:13 AM on Nov 21, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Thursday November 20, 2014

John Doar (1921-2014)

John Doar, Medal of Freedom, with Pres. Obama

John Doar being presented with the Medal of Freedom by Pres. Obama in 2012.

John Doar died on Veterans Day, Nov. 11. He was a pilot in the U.S. Air Force during World War II but history will remember him—or at least I do—for his service in another war: the war between the states, part II. Or X. Or XXIII. Called “the Civil Rights Movement.”

The New York Times has a good obit here, but the better tribute is Taylor Branch's civil rights tome, “Parting the Waters: American in the King Years: 1954-1963,” which I read in the spring of 1989. A lot of memorable characters in there: Bob Moses, John Lewis, Bayard Rustin ... and John Doar.

He was a kind of Gary Cooper-type hero. He didn't say much, he wasn't flashy, but he had courage and commitment. He called himself a Lincoln Republican. Branch introduced him on page 331 thus:

John Doar was lanky, taciturn, and plainspoken. In 1960, still building a general courthouse law pratice, he counted it as a small step of success that a client paid him to go all the way to California to work on a paternity suit. He was there when Harold Tyler, chief of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, tracked him down by telephone.

Attorney General William Rogers had hired Tyler for the express purpose of stepping up the enforcement of the 1957 and 1960 Civil Rights Acts. It was a sign of the times that not a single politically connected Republican, nor any friend of Tyler's, expressed interest in the high-ranking position of first assistant in the Civil Rights Division ... [So Doar got the nod.]

Doar arrived in Washington in July 1960 and plunged immediately into the two bureaucratic struggles that would mark his career. The first one pitted legal thinking against political calculations. ... [The second was] a sluggish FBI.

Throughout the early 1960s, Doar prosecuted voting rights cases in the deep South, was a witness to the brutal assault on the freedom riders, including John Lewis and Jim Zwerg, in Montgomery, Ala., in 1961, and was the escort to James Meredith as he tried to register at Ole Miss in 1962 but found his way barred by Gov. H. Ross Barnett. 

But the main reason I remember Doar is for an incident that occurred in Mississippi in the summer of 1963.

Medgar Evers was the field secretary there for the NAACP, and in the early morning of June 12, at the end of the Birmingham demonstrations and just hours after Pres. Kennedy's famous speech in favor of civil rights, Evers was shot and killed outside his home in Jackson. After the funeral, a small segment of the crowd, hundreds of mostly young people, began to take to the streets; they were met by policemen with shotguns. 

The temperature was 103 degrees. Some of the Negroes shouted, “We want the killer! We want the killer!” These were the young movement people ... Even on Flag Day, June 14, pairs of them had been arrested off the streets for carrying little American flags, as Jackson's white officials allowed Negroes no public display of any kind. The police ... brought up pumper trucks and dogs, and they charged when some of the young marchers began to throw rocks at them. They had clubbed several and arrested nearly 30 when, suddenly, the man who talked like Gary Cooper appeared in a showdown scene from one of his movies ...

Doar walked into the flashpoint of a riot, hands raised above his head “with bottles and bricks crashing around him.” Shouting his name, he told them this was not the way, and the very sight of him stilled the crowd so that he could be heard. ... “My name is John Doar!” he yelled. “D-O-A-R. I'm in the Justice Department in Washington. And anybody around here knows that I stand for what's right!” He walked forward, calling out the names of Dave Dennis and other movement leaders he knew and how many times they had been arrested, saying they too wanted the crowd to disperse. Miraculously, they did. 

Doar would go on to prosecute the federal case against the killers of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner in 1964, helped draft the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and was tangentially involved in the Selma march in 1965. He was also Chief Counsel for the United States House Committee on the Judiciary during the Watergate scandal. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Pres. Obama in 2012. 

Lincoln Republican? My kind of Republican.

John Doar, Jackson, Mississippi

Doar in Jackson, Miss., in the summer of 1963.

Posted at 05:42 PM on Nov 20, 2014 in category U.S. History
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Wednesday November 19, 2014

What's Wrong with the Peanuts Movie Trailer?

It's the laughter.

First, everyone laughs because Snoopy plugs Woodstock into a socket? And he keeps getting lit up? As if electrocuted?

Then everyone laughs because Charlie Brown dumps a bucket of popcorn on his head? In “Peanuts” of old, yes, everything went wrong for good ol' Charlie Brown; but when the other kids laughed at him, we didn't think it was funny; we didn't identify with the other kids; we identified with Charlie Brown.

Plus the titles are too spread apart. “NEVER STOP” comes at 0:19, “DREAMING BIG” at 0:30. By which point we're wondering, “Wait, what about dreaming big again?”

Christmas 2015, apparently. Directed by Steve Martino, who directed “Horton Hears a Who.”

Really, this just makes me sad. They're obviously try to revive the series with the same sounds for Snoopy and Woodstock, and with the Sopwith Camel, but they miss out on the most essential element.

Posted at 07:19 AM on Nov 19, 2014 in category Trailers
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