Sunday, August 27, 2017

Film Reviews: Nobody Speak & Get Me Roger Stone

"Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press"
*** (out of ****)

The media. Are they "the enemy"? Do they report "fake news" (God I hate this "fake" term)? Do they hate America as Chancellor Trump says? Do they want to bring down Trump and the government?

"Nobody Speak", a Netflix documentary, currently streaming, takes a look at the state of journalism and allegations that the first amendment right of a press free is under attack from multi-million and billionaires that not only want to avoid bad press but want to control the media.

I don't think we would really have a documentary made like this if we weren't living in the age of Trump. Donald Trump, as most dictators do, has created an environment of "us" versus "them". "Them" is anyone that doesn't support "their cause". Trump has repeatedly attacked the media because of their coverage of him, never mind Trump benefited greatly from a media that gave him over exposure. He has called the media the enemy, has indicated the media is full of dishonest people, has popularized the term "fake news", denied access to various organizations (the New York Times and CNN) and stated he believes the media doesn't want America to succeed.

By doing this, Trump has created a hostile situation where his minions (supporters) have repeated his idiotic ravings, supporting his belief that the media is the enemy. His supporters only watch Fox News (talk about "fake news") and live in a bubble where they only hear praise for Trump. He can do no wrong and if he doesn't succeed it is all a conspiracy. It is because the "establishment", "the Liberal Elite" didn't allow him to succeed.

"Nobody Speak" comments on the these issues and the threat of Trump however the movie is really divided into two halves. The first half revolves around former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan (whose real name is Terry Bollea) suing the "news" website Gawker, for posting a sex tape between Hogan and the wife of radio personality Bubba the Love Sponge.

Gawker founder Nick Denton, along with various Gawker writers, comment on how the lawsuit may serve as the beginning of an ugly trend of the rich and powerful threatening to silence our free press. They all speak to how Gawker was an anti-establishment website. A website that reported on the important stories the "traditional" media wasn't.

This would all make more sense if it wasn't a sex tape that eventually brought down the website. A celebrity sex tape is "news"? Intellectually I understand the broader "First Amendment" argument Gawker and director Brian Knappenberger are making. Any attack on a free press is a dangerous attack. We can't pick and choose what the media should be able to publish, it is all protected. But emotionally I have a difficult time siding with Denton and his Gawker writers.

Gawker wants to claim it provided news and was an alternative source of information reporting on issues not being covered but it appears to be more of a trashy, gossip website and "click bait" headlines. Maybe if Gawker was reporting on how corporations control the media and set the agenda or discuss corporate fraud, social injustice..ect I could buy into the grandiose image Denton has of his website.

This leads into the second half of "Nobody Speak", which is far more interesting. As the Gawker lawsuit continues it is revealed Hogan had a rich backer, Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal (and Trump supporter) who funded Hogan's legal team in the hopes of bankrupting Gawker, a site that had posted negative articles on Thiel, including outing him as a gay man.

It is the second half of the documentary that comments on how rich men; Thiel, Sheldon Adelson (owner of the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas) and Trump want to control the media. Adelson for example buys the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the largest newspaper in Nevada, all because of negative articles written about him by the paper. He and his company can now set the tone for what is "news" and what is reported in the paper. Not unlike the Murdock family and Fox, who are not mentioned in the documentary.

Here I can sympathize more with the traditional media. The media is not perfect and definitely can be improved upon but I see more value in what they do than Gawker. When they speak of the First Amendment being under attack by Trump and business people who want to open libel laws in order to sue journalist and dictate the news people get to hear, the scope of what is at stake, hits you.

"Nobody Speak" could have been a much better documentary without the Hogan stuff, focusing on the agenda of wealthy individuals that want to control the media to push their personal agenda and how people like Trump are a vessel for them to reach their goal. As it stands now, this is an entertaining but slightly uneven documentary that spends too much time following the wrong story, trying to make a greater connection. The media is under attack. Trump is leading the attack to a dangerous end game. The public should know this already but "Nobody Speak" packages it in an effective, compelling way.

"Get Me Roger Stone"  *** (out of ****)

"Get Me Roger Stone" (2017) is another Netflix documentary currently streaming.

Who is Roger Stone? To know who Roger Stone is, is to know everything that is wrong with American politics for the last 40 years. To know Roger Stone is to know who is the mastermind of the Donald Trump experiment.

Roger Stone is a Republican consultant who way back in 1988 wanted Donald Trump to run for president. Roger Stone first gained national attention working for Richard Nixon's re-election campaign in 1972. Roger Stone is credited with creating negative political ads as we know them. Roger Stone is credited with creating one of the first PACs (Political Action Committees). Roger Stone is a man who learned the value of disinformation and understands, in his words, hate is a stronger motivator than love.

He worked for Trump during his recent presidential campaign and was either fired or quit, depending on who you ask. He is cited as being the man who influenced Donald Trump's worldview. Even though he stopped working for the campaign in an official capacity, his fingerprints were on the campaign throughout, even getting his old business partner Paul Manafort a job as Trump's campaign manager.

Stone says he is a provocateur and relishes all the negative attacks aimed at him. To his way of thinking, it means he is doing his job. Stone of course symbolizes everything that is wrong with politics. Stone is among the many that really don't care about this country but enter politics because it means money and power for them. Greed is what motivates them not love of country. They throw money into the sytems in the hopes of buying politicians to advance their agenda. Stone even created a Super PAC for Trump (who spoke against such PACs during the campaign). A "man" like Stone wouldn't care about such attacks. Not because he likes them but because he sees no wrong in what he does. He defends his actions and says he has done nothing illegal. Winning at all cost is what is most important. And that's the problem.

"Get Me Roger Stone" is a one sided documentary but that only seems because there is one side to Stone. The guy changed politics for the worst. Even the talking heads shown here that like Stone say that. Donald Trump is interviewed and speaks of how tough Stone is. "Tough" is political code for ruthless. The majority of it covers his relationship with Trump but does go into his prior years working for various campaigns.

Here is a documentary that shows us how the people behind the curtain play the public for suckers. They know how to manipulate the public's emotions. They know dirty politics works. The know the majority of the voting public are low information voters. It may sound ugly, it may sound mean, but that's politics. "Get Me Roger Stone" is an eye opener of a documentary showing us the puppet-masters that make politics what it is today. Too bad the Trump supporters don't realize the fools they were played for.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Film Review: Fahrenheit 9/11

"Fahrenheit 9/11"
**** (out of ****)

A businessman turned politician. A rigged election. A president with foreign ties and business transactions. No, I'm not talking about Chancellor Trump, I'm talking about George W. Bush.

In the immediate days following the 2016 presidential election, I kept thinking to myself, there are a lot of similarities between Donald Trump and George W. Bush. I predict Trump, like Bush, will be viewed by history as a failure.

Besides the previous mentioned connections both Trump and Bush are men that value loyalty. Both like to talk tough. Bush was a cowboy and Trump a street-wise New Yorker. Trump, like Bush, may gin up a war to create public support.

When I first saw Michael Moore's documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11" (2004), the country was in the midst of an election. "The most important election of our lifetime" they told us. Moore's intention was to influence the election results and make George W. Bush a one term president. The public was going to find out the truth about Bush's background and connections. It caused quite a controversy. At the time of its release, "Fahrenheit 9/11" stirred me. It made me angry. I called it one of the best films of the year.

After the election of 2004, I didn't watch Moore's documentary again until recently. The next two times I saw it, I felt distant. "Fahrenheit 9/11" seemed to be a time capsule. It was a documentary truly of its time. With more than a decade passed, "Fahrenheit 9/11" didn't effect me as strongly as it did when I sat in the movie theatre on opening day. But, having rewatched it a third time, my blood started to boil. The anger returned mostly because I see history repeating itself.

In "Fahrenheit 9/11" Michael Moore presents George W. Bush as a privileged man. A man who came from a wealthy family and used that to his advantage. He lacked a good business head and leadership skills. He remembered those that helped him and rewarded them once he was in a position of power. In Moore's view, Bush, his cabinet and the Republican party, played the American public for suckers, advancing an agenda long in the making, exploiting tragedy for their profit.

The thrust of Moore's documentary deals with the aftermath of the September 11th attacks and the way the Bush administration dealt with it; the passage of the Patriotic Act, color coded threat levels, creating a high level of fear in the country, and the lead-up to the Iraq War, which in Moore's view, was a war built on lies, deliberate lies. Moore also draws a connection between the Bush family and Saudi Arabia, claiming as president, Bush always considered what would be best for the Saudi's, due to the massive amount of money they have invested in America and because of both of their ties to oil.

Much of what Moore presents in the documentary was well known to the public prior to the election. Moore comments on the amount of vacation time Bush had taken. During the first eight months of his presidency, Bush was on vacation 42% of the time, like Trump on his weekend vacations on hotels with his name on them. Moore comments on Bush's connections with Florida, the deciding state in the election. And how Bush did not hold briefings on terrorism, much like how Trump doesn't have daily briefings, since he doesn't like (or maybe know how) to read.

But there is some shocking stuff in "Fahrenheit 9/11". It was Moore that obtained footage of Bush in the Florida classroom when New York was under attack and how Bush sat in the classroom for seven minutes after learning what happened. That became a major discussion during the time, with some believing any other person would have left the room. Moore also gets one congressmen to admit many do not read the bills they pass into law, like the Patriot Act. We saw this played out again when Republicans admitted they didn't read the repeal and replace legislation of the Affordable Care Act earlier this year.

With George W. Bush out of office, I find "Fahrenheit 9/11" to also be a commentary on our political system and the men (and women) that run for president. They all seem to have a self-interest in running. They aren't running for the "good of the country" but because there is money to be made for them, not to mention the attraction of being powerful. The Bush family had a long history of Saudi ties. There are financial connections. But, was Bush so different than other people that have run for president? Wasn't Trump's financial ties to other countries discussed and how Trump's brand could benefit from him being in the White House? Can the public be so blindly naive as to believe that never crossed Trump's mind or Bush's?

It is true, as Moore's critics like to point out, he does engage in a lot of antics and manipulation. In one scene, Moore decides to rent an ice cream truck and drives around the Capitol as he reads the Patriot Act through a megaphone, since no one knows what they voted on. In another scene he tries to get some in Congress to enlist their children in the Iraq War. If they voted for the war, they should share some of the burden and have their children fight.

But what Moore's humorless Republican critics can never seem to understand is that Moore is a filmmaker. If Moore is emotionally manipulating his audience, it is only because that's what movies do. If Moore exaggerates a premise for laugh, it is only because that's what comedy is, an exaggeration of the truth. If Michael Moore has an agenda and uses the medium of film to push forward that agenda, it is only because that is what documentaries do. They have a point of view. The documentarian had a purpose in making their documentary.

Is "Fahrenheit 9/11" anti-Bush? Yes! Is it fair to Bush and presents both sides of he argument? No. Michael Moore was not a Bush supporter but that doesn't mean the documentary doesn't present a lot of useful information. The way it is edited and packaged, it creates a damning portrait of Bush. It presents Bush's agenda and then exposes the real motivation behind it. Are the conclusions Moore jumps to accurate? Unfortunately that depends on your politics however Moore's conclusions are probably more accurate than what the White House told us at the time. Since when are politicians known to be honest?

When it was released "Fahrenheit 9/11" became the highest grossing documentary of all-time. I believe its success gave birth to the flood of documentaries released. Documentaries never received much public attention prior to Moore's movies. And not all documentaries were political. That changed after the release of this. Politics have taken over the documentary. Documentaries have become political tools.

Michael Moore has announced he plans to release a "sequel" to this called "Fahrenheit 11/9" about Donald Trump and the 2016 election. The 11/9 reference the date the election was held. Knowing what Moore did to Bush, it will definitely be interesting to see what Moore reveals about Trump.

"Fahrenheit 9/11" may not have stopped Bush from winning re-election but it is a great documentary. I believe it is Moore's best. Moore has rarely been as sharp and critical as he is here. Not to mention he finds plenty of opportunities for humor. Although it focuses on George W. Bush, there is still a lot that is relevant in today's world.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Film Reviews: A Story of Floating Weeds & Floating Weeds

"A Story of Floating Weeds"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

The mother. She sits and waits patiently. She never complains. She smiles when she sees the man. She eagerly serves him sake. It isn't much but it makes her happy.

Oddly enough she is not the focal character in Yasujiro Ozu's classic silent film, "A Story of Floating Weeds" (1934) yet there she sits, stealing our attention, gaining our sympathy.

The movie is about the man, an actor who leads a traveling theatre troupe. His name is Kihachi (Takeshi Sakamoto). He returns to a small quiet town, after a four year absence. If things go well and his play is a hit, he plans to stay for about a year. Kihachi has other motives for wanting to stay in the town. For here is where an old lover lives, Otsune (Chouko Iida) and her son, Shinkichi (Hideo Mitsui). Unknown to the son, Kichachi is the boy's father, but, out of shame of his profession, he has never told Shinkichi, in the hopes he would go to school and make something of himself. Instead Kihachi is presented as the carefree uncle.

Is there still love between Kihachi and Otsune? The movie doesn't explore that issue. The two appear as a comfortable couple. Time has not altered their relationship. The viewer senses the couple picks up where they left off. Otsune holds no bitterness towards Kihachi. She never complains that he abandoned her and their son. The deeper question is not are they still in love but are they happy in their individual lives? Kihachi says he is not lonely. He is dating an actress in the troupe, Otaka (Rieko Yagumo). But what about Otsune? Her feelings are never stated but her face says it all.

As seen in so many American movies, "A Story of Floating Weeds" is a story about the sacrifices parents make in order to give their children a better life. Because it was directed by Yasujiro Ozu is it also about family as a unit, tradition and changing values.

Although I haven't spent as much time as I should discussing the work of Ozu, he was one of the premier Japanese filmmakers in his day. I previously reviewed my favorite of his films, "Late Spring" (1949) but have neglected reviewing the rest of his work.

Unlike his contemporary, Akira Kurosawa, Ozu didn't enjoy cross over success with American audiences. Ozu's films weren't released in America until the 1960s. For Americans Ozu's films were considered "too Japanese". Keeping with his cultural, Ozu created the "tatami shot" due to his keeping the camera low, at the eye level of a person kneeling on a tatami mat. In this respect, Ozu is creating a theatrical experience, making his camera an objective observe, sitting watching a movie. Ozu was also known for not moving his camera, although you will see a tracking shot in this movie.

Initially Ozu directed silent comedies but gradually turned towards drama, showing the pleasures of every day life. Some film historians cite "A Story of Floating Weeds" as the beginning of Ozu's more mature direction.

For a filmmaker not considered "Western", "A Story of Floating Weeds" could have easily been an American film noir. Otaka finds out Kihachi secret and becomes jealous. She threatens to tell Shinkichi the truth about who his father is. She vows revenge against Kihachi and one way or another will get even with him. However, don't mistake this movie for a Raymond Chandler mystery. "A Story of Floating Weeds" moves at a slow, deliberate pace. The movie is interested in the characters and their relationships not creating suspense.

"Floating Weeds"  *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Ozu would revisit this material twenty plus years later and shorten the title to "Floating Weeds" (1959). It too is a wonderful film worthy of any movie lovers' attention.

This was not uncommon for Ozu, whose films often shared similar plots and similar sounding titles. His other films include "An Autumn Afternoon" (1962), "Early Summer" (1951) and "Late Spring". Each is about a father or both parents, trying to find a husband for their daughter. However, "Floating Weeds" is the only "official" remake Ozu directed.

Immediately the audience will notice obvious differences. The remake uses bright colors whereas the original was shot in black & white. The location has changed to a seaside village. There is more humor in this story. And, the running time is longer, 33 minutes to be exact.

There is still the woman, sitting, smiling, serving the man sake, but, perhaps because of the cinematography and bright colors, the story no longer seems as sad and dramatic. In fact, I had a nice warm feeling as I watched the movie. I felt happy.

At times "Floating Weeds" feels like a sequel, a continuation of "A Story of Floating Weeds". Having seen both movies back to back, I felt the remake was making references to the 34 version. The first time the aging theatre troupe act, now called Komajuro (Ganjiro Nakamura), visits Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura), she asks him how are his shoulders, that he had previously complained about the last time they saw each other. In the earlier version Kihachi talks about his shoulders. Also in the earlier version the actor and the boy go fishing. Here too they go fishing but refer to prior times going fishing.

In the fishing scene Ozu hits on the theme of changing times as the two discuss acting. Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), the son, criticizes Komajuro's acting as "old-fashion", to which the father takes offense. A younger public may not appreciate his acting style but Komajuro insist his audiences is older and understand his style. Indicating, some of us just can't let go of the past and adapt to modern changes.

This version of "Floating Weeds" was my introduction to the work of Ozu and turned me into a fan ever since. Now that I have seen the silent version, I must confess I find that to be the better version because of the more dramatic impact of the story.

In the end we are still watching drifters, like floating weeds, searching for permanence, adapting to their surroundings.