Category Archives: Politics

Same as it ever was: Capital in the Twenty-First Century (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted at Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 9, 2020)

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“There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today. What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state, Karl Marx? They get out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories, Minimax solutions, and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments, just like we do. We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime.”

― from Network, screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky

And thus spoke “Arthur Jensen”, CEO of fictional media conglomerate “CCA” in what is for me the most defining scene in director Sidney Lumet’s prescient 1976 satire. Jensen (wonderfully played by Ned Beatty) is calling “mad prophet of the airwaves” Howard Beale (Peter Finch) on the carpet for publicly exposing a potential buyout of CCA by shadowy Arab investors. Cognizant that Beale is crazy as a loon, yet a cash cow for the network, Jensen hands him a new set of stone tablets from which he is to preach (the corporate cosmology of Arthur Jensen). It is screenwriter Chayefsky’s finest monologue.

Recently, we’ve witnessed a President of the United States who is Tweeting and making public statements in TV interviews and press conferences (in a very “mad prophet of the airwaves” manner) that suggest he feels it’s more important right now in the midst of a still-raging pandemic to get everyone back to work than to save their lives. Because the economy. And per usual, Wall Street watches, waits and yawns while it gets a manicure.

You would almost think “someone” has handed the President a set of stone tablets from which he is to preach (akin to the corporate cosmology of Arthur Jensen). Or, at the very least-he opines from the perspective of someone borne of privilege and inherited wealth?

So how did the world become “…a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business”? And come hell, high water, or killer virus, why is it that “Thou shalt rally the unwashed masses to selflessly do their part to protect the interests of the Too Big to Fail” (whether it’s corporations, the dynastic heirs of the 1% or the wealth management industry that feeds off of them) remains the most “immutable bylaw” of all?

It’s not like “the people” haven’t tried through history to level the playing field between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. Take, for example the French Revolution, which ultimately did not change the status quo, despite the initial “victory” of the citizenry over the power-hoarding aristocracy. As pointed out in Justin Pemberton’s documentary Capital in the Twenty-First Century, while there was initial optimism in the wake of the revolution that French society would default to an egalitarian model, it never really took.

Why? Because the architects of the revolution overlooked what is really needed to establish and maintain true equality: strong political institutions, an education system, health care (*sigh*), a transport system, and a tax system that targets the highest incomes.

Same as it ever was.

That, and financial inequality in general are the central themes in Pemberton’s ever-so-timely film, which is based on the eponymous best-seller by economist Thomas Piketty.

Cleverly interweaving pop culture references with insightful observations by Piketty and other economic experts, the film illustrates (in easy-to-digest terms) the cyclical nature of feudalism throughout history. Focusing mostly on the last 200 years or so, it connects the dots between significant events like the aforementioned French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution (which greatly expanded the boundaries of “capital” while driving an even deeper wedge between workers and factory owners), New World expansion (which spawned the slave trade), and the labor movements of the late 19th-to-early 20th Centuries.

While a lot of the historical review is disheartening, it is not all gloom and doom and “the system is rigged”. The film reminds us that there have been periods where egalitarian ideals have taken hold (the Roaring Twenties, FDR’s New Deal, the post-war rise of the middle-class). That said-1% of the world’s population still owns 70% of the land in 2020.

Will there ever come a time when economic equality “takes” for good? Maybe when an asteroid strikes the Earth and puts us all back on equal footing? My personal cynicism aside, Piketty and his fellow commentators do toss out possible scenarios that give you some hope; but frankly they all seem to be predicated on a wee bit of magical thinking.

Naturally, I was being facetious in the previous paragraph when I mentioned an asteroid striking the Earth. But history does indicate it takes some form of Great Equalizer to precipitate a shakeup in the status quo. As pointed out in the film, war is one example (WW 1 begat the Roaring Twenties, WW 2 begat the rise of the middle class, etc.). What about this pandemic? A killer virus doesn’t care whether you’re wearing a Bud-stained T-shirt or a Brioni suit; it’s just looking for the nearest warm body to attach itself to.

As the film was produced before Covid-19 shut down much of the world’s economy, it does not delve into the possibilities of a post-pandemic restructuring. As luck would have it though, a fitting postscript for my review presented itself the day after I screened the film when Thomas Piketty popped up as a guest on The Daily Social Distancing Show with Trevor Noah. Curiously, he was not there to promote the documentary, but did share some interesting thoughts on possible post-pandemic shifts in current economic models:

[Piketty] I think this is one of these crises we see that can really change people’s views about the world and how we should organize the economy. What we see at this stage is a big increase in inequality. […]

With this crisis right now, I think people are going to be asking for proof that we can also use this power of money creation and the Federal Reserve in order to invest in people; investing in hospitals, in public infrastructure, increasing wages for unskilled workers…all the low-wage and middle-wage people which we see today are necessary for our existence and our society.

In the longer run, of course we cannot just pay for everything with public debt and money creation…so we have to re-balance our tax system. […]

In the past three decades in America, we’ve seen a lot more billionaires; but we’ve seen a lot less growth. So in the end, the idea that you get prosperity out of inequality just didn’t work out. […]

[Noah] What do you think about the “worst case scenario”, then…if you live in a world where the inequality just keeps growing; the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, what do we inevitably get to?

[Piketty] Well to me the worst scenario is that some skilled politicians like Donald Trump, or [President of the National Front Party] Marie Le Pen in my country in France will use the frustration coming from wage and income stagnation and rising inequality in order to point out some foreign workers or “some people” [are] to blame. […] And this is what really worries me-that if we don’t change our discourses, if we don’t come up with another economic model that is more equitable, more sustainable…then, in effect we re-open the door for all this nationalist discourse.

Trevor had to go there with the “worst case scenario”. But that does not mean that is where we must end up. I am not an economic expert, nor pretend to have the answers to such questions. However, one quote from the film stuck with me: “This logic of one dollar, one vote is completely opposed to the democratic logic of one person, one vote.” I am not taking that one to the bank; I’ll be taking that one to the polls with me on November 3rd-with fingers crossed.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is streaming through May 14 via Seattle’s Grand Illusion Cinema website . Proceeds are split to help support the theater during its current closure.

 

Breaking Point: After Parkland (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 8, 2020)

https://i2.wp.com/images.squarespace-cdn.com/content/v1/51b89491e4b03168d3436df5/1560270420964-VLR7KWY5WZMCL7KO3NXM/ke17ZwdGBToddI8pDm48kFTEgwhRQcX9r3XtU0e50sUUqsxRUqqbr1mOJYKfIPR7LoDQ9mXPOjoJoqy81S2I8N_N4V1vUb5AoIIIbLZhVYxCRW4BPu10St3TBAUQYVKcW7uEhC96WQdj-SwE5EpM0lAopPba9ZX3O0oeNTVSRxdHAmtcci_6bmVLoSDQq_pb/after+parkland+1.jpg?w=474&ssl=1The above Tweets were posted in the wake of President Trump’s State of the Union address last Tuesday. The gentleman who posted them was Fred Guttenberg, who was commenting on the incident that got him handcuffed and escorted out of the chamber.

Mr. Guttenberg is an outspoken gun reform activist. His daughter Jamie was one of the students who was killed in a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida in 2018.

From The Washington Post:

Clad in his trademark orange tie and ribbon, the guest of honor had reached his breaking point.

Fred Guttenberg, the father of slain Parkland student Jaime Guttenberg, simmered with anger during President Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday. Trump discussed immigrants who committed crimes and declared that “human life is a sacred gift from God.”

Guttenberg thought something was missing. What about people killed by gun violence like his daughter, killed in a massacre at her high school in Florida? He leaned over to a fellow guest of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and said he was on the verge of losing it.

And when Trump said gun rights were “under siege all across our country,” Guttenberg did lose it, he said, and shouted about victims like Jamie.

“My emotions were stewing,” Guttenberg, 54, told The Washington Post on Wednesday, hours after he says he was handcuffed and detained by Capitol Police. “I was so upset.”

He roared at the tail end of an applause line from Trump, who said, “So long as I am president, I will always protect your Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.”

In a 2018 post that I wrote in the wake of the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, I opened with this excerpt from a previous 2016 post that I had written in the wake of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida:

But there is something about [Orlando] that screams “Last call for sane discourse and positive action!” on multiple fronts. This incident is akin to a perfect Hollywood pitch, writ large by fate and circumstance; incorporating nearly every sociopolitical causality that has been quantified and/or debated over by criminologists, psychologists, legal analysts, legislators, anti-gun activists, pro-gun activists, left-wingers, right-wingers, centrists, clerics, journalists and pundits in the wake of every such incident since Charles Whitman perched atop the clock tower at the University of Texas and picked off nearly 50 victims (14 dead and 32 wounded) over a 90-minute period. That incident occurred in 1966; 50 years ago, this August. Not an auspicious golden anniversary for our country. 50 years of this madness. And it’s still not the appropriate time to discuss? What…too soon?

All I can say is, if this “worst mass shooting in U.S. history” (which is saying a lot) isn’t the perfect catalyst for prompting meaningful public dialogue and positive action steps once and for all regarding homophobia, Islamophobia, domestic violence, the proliferation of hate crimes, legal assault weapons, universal background checks, mental health care (did I leave anything out?), then WTF will it take?

It was déjà vu all over again. Further down in the piece, I wrote:

You know what “they” say-we all have a breaking point. When it comes to this particular topic, I have to say, I think that I may have finally reached mine. I’ve written about this so many times, in the wake of so many horrible mass shootings, that I’ve lost count. I’m out of words. There are no Scrabble tiles left in the bag, and I’m stuck with a “Q” and a “Z”. Game over. Oh waiter-check, please. The end. Finis. I have no mouth, and I must scream.

So where are we at today, in the two years since a gunman opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle at Stoneman Douglas High, killing 17 people and wounding 17 others in just 6 minutes? According to a 2019 AP story, a report issued in February of last year by a student journalism project “…concluded that  1,149 children and teenagers died from a shooting in the year since the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,” citing that the stats cover “school shootings, domestic violence cases, drug homicides and by stray bullets”. Mind you, nearly another year has passed since that report was released.

And that’s just children and teenagers. The mass shootings and other incidents involving gun violence occur with such frequency in the U.S. that it’s no wonder the “adults” who make the laws and run the country can’t seem to block out the time to actually “do” anything about it, what with all the “thoughts and prayers” that must be attended to first.

Perhaps that explains why it’s “the children” (for whom legislators always claim they’re “doing this for”) who have taken the lead, like Parkland survivors-turned activists Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg. Hogg and fellow survivor-activist Samuel Zeif are among those profiled in the new documentary After Parkland (on Hulu beginning February 19).

Directed by Emily Taguchi and Jake Lefferman, the film also spotlights activist parents of Parkland victims, like Manuel Oliver (who lost his son Joaquin) and Andrew Pollack (who lost his daughter Meadow). The parents may not be in lockstep on legislative priorities (e.g. Pollack has become a “go-to” guest on Fox due to his more reactionary take on the mass shooting epidemic) but share an anguish no parent should have to suffer.

Politics take a back seat; this could be a deal-breaker for some on either “side” who may go in with expectations of polemical reinforcement. Instead, Taguchi and Lefferman (who filmed in the spring, summer and fall of 2018) have aimed for a candid yet still mindfully respectful portrait of how each family navigates all the inevitable stages of grief, culminating in the impassioned activism that we’ve all seen in the media coverage.

While After Parkland succeeds in conveying the emotional fallout left in the aftermath of tragedy, it becomes a bit repetitious; I think the directors’ decision to remain apolitical ultimately neuters the impact.

The most powerful moments are in the beginning, which contains a collage of real-time cell phone audio of the Parkland incident. The chilling sounds of automatic gunfire and students screaming in pain and terror made me think of the Martin Luther King quote ” Wait has always meant Never ”. If every lawmaker was locked in chambers and forced to listen to that audio on a continuous loop until they passed sensible gun reform, perhaps they would all finally reach their breaking point.

# # # #

Special note: On February 12th, there will be hosted screenings of “After Parkland” in over 100 cities in the U.S. to commemorate the 2nd anniversary of the Parkland shootings. The screenings are part of a nationwide “Day of Conversation” about gun reform, sponsored by organizations like March for Our Lives, Moms Demand Action, and The League of Women Voters. To locate a February 12th screening near you, or to learn more about the Demand Film project and how you can organize screenings in your city, click here. DH

 

Wild, Wild East: Citizen K (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 18, 2020)

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“In Russia, laws are kind of an iffy question. The strictness of Russian laws is compensated for the lack of obligation to follow them.”

 – Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Citizen K

Early on in Citizen K, Alex Gibney’s documentary about the rise, fall and (questionable) redemption of exiled Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an associate of his observes “He had already decided for himself that he wouldn’t be going anywhere, and if he were arrested, he’d do his time. He’s strange that way.” If the film is any indication, Khodorkovsky is “strange” in more ways than one …at the very least, a hard nut to crack.

Khodorkovsky, the first (only?) of the “Big 7” Russian oligarchs to ever publicly bring into question the ways and means of President Vladimir Putin’s consolidation of absolute power, did in fact end up doing “his time”. Arrested in 2003 and accused of fraud and tax evasion, Khodorkovsky was convicted and spent 10 years in a Siberian prison (when you consider the fate of many of Putin’s critics, Khodorkovsky is one of the “luckier” ones).

Not that Khodorkovsky was a social justice warrior-or anything of the sort. In an archival Russian television interview from the 1990s, he is asked if he is “a greedy person”. Wearing a bit of a smirk, Khodorkovsky replies “Definitely, definitely, definitely. I used to be less greedy, now I’m greedier. It’s a professional trait.” This “professional trait” was shared by a number of successful practitioners of the “gangster capitalism” that flourished in the wake of the collapse of the former Soviet Union during the “Wild 90s”.

The newly democratic country’s shaky plunge into capitalism created a “free for all” market, making it a textbook study in chaos theory through the Boris Yeltsin years (he was President from 1991 to 1999). This is the most engrossing portion of Gibney’s film, which is a recap of how the “Big 7” oligarchs ended up controlling 50% of the economy.

It was during the aforementioned period that Khodorkovsky amassed his wealth, initially seeding it with financial schemes and culminating with his highly profitable oil company, Yukos. As the present-day Khodorkovsky recounts with false modesty, “I found a book: ‘Commercial Banks of Capitalist Countries’ […] I said, ‘Hey, I like this!’” See? Simple!

Khodorkovsky’s fortunes began to turn, however once Vladimir Putin became President in 2000. It’s no secret that Putin owed much of his initial political success to strong backing by the oligarchs, who as one interviewee in the film observes “…were looking for a successor [to Yeltsin] who would guarantee their safety and guarantee their wealth.”

That said, Putin cannily gleaned that if he wanted to consolidate his power, this beautiful friendship could only continue to flourish if one strict caveat was adhered to: the oligarchs must stay in their lane and leave all the politics to him. In other words, feel free to party on in your luxury yachts, but don’t rock the boat. Khodorkovsky rocked the boat.

While the other oligarchs toed the line, Khodorkovsky and Putin were at loggerheads from day one. When he took office, Putin felt threatened by reports that Khodorkovsky had half of the state Duma (the Russian assembly) in his pocket to protect his oil interests. “Did this require MPs?” Khodorkovsky cagily responds to Gibney when he asks if this was true, adding, “It was exactly as it happens in the United States Congress; ‘Will you support our campaign in the next election?’” Khodorkovsky does have a point.

Mixing excised footage from a nationally broadcast pre-taped TV special that featured President Putin, Khodorkovsky and other prominent businessmen discussing the state of the Russian economy with present-day play-by-play commentary by Khodorkovsky, Gibney cleverly reconstructs the precise “last straw” moment for a visibly angry Putin, after Khodorkovsky openly (and very boldly…considering) calls Putin out on his bullshit.

Next stop? Siberia. Well, prefacing Siberia was a series of show trials; Gibney also covers Khodorkovsky’s 10-year imprisonment and eventual 2013 pardon by Putin (prompted by public sentiment turning to Khodorkovsky’s favor) The final third of the film deals with Khodorkovsky’s current exile in London, where he has re-invented himself as a political dissident and outspoken Putin critic. This is where it gets a bit gray.

“I am far from an ideal person, but I’m a person who has ideals,” Khodorkovsky offers, undoubtedly self-aware of some healthy skepticism regarding an oligarch-turned-champion of the people. Gibney himself seems uncertain how to position the enigmatic Khodorkovsky-is he a sinner, or saint? Or is Khodorkovsky playing Gibney like a violin?

To his credit Gibney does ask him directly about one of those “gray areas”, which involves Khodorkovsky’s alleged involvement (never proven) in the 1998 assassination of Vladimir Petukhov, the mayor of Nefteyugansk (in 2015 a Russian court issued an international arrest warrant for Khodorkovsky, officially charging him with ordering the hit). Nefteyugansk was the Siberian town where Khodorkovsky’s oil company was headquartered at the time. Khodorkovsky has yet to respond to the summons. However he is aware that living in London doesn’t guarantee he is out of Putin’s reach; a number of exiled Putin critics have suffered untimely and rather suspicious deaths in recent years.

While Khodorkovsky remains a shadowy figure, Gibney’s film does succeed in shedding light on how the “interesting” relationship between Putin and the oligarchy developed and how it continues to inform Russia’s ongoing experiment with “democracy”. And considering the “interesting” relationship that has developed between Putin and Trump, Citizen K may very well prove to be less of a cautionary tale …and more of a bellwether.

Blu-ray reissue: 1984 (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 14, 2019)

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1984 – The Criterion Collection

Nobody said a good film couldn’t be a total downer. Case in point: Michael Radford’s distressingly convincing vision of a bleak dystopia. Released (appropriately enough) in 1984, the film is a faithful adaptation of George Orwell’s cautionary 1948 novel.

John Hurt is excellent as downtrodden Everyman Winston Smith, who risks what little he’s got to be happy about by seeking a little happiness with his defiantly anti-authoritarian lover, Julia (Suzanna Hamilton). In a totalitarian society where any form of passion outside blind devotion to the state is considered an unpardonable crime against conformity, it’s only a matter of time before Big Brother summons them to answer for their sins. The film also stars an oddly inert Richard Burton.

Criterion’s new 4K restoration showcases DP Roger Deakins’ purposely de-saturated cinematography, which (quite literally) helps sets the bleak tone of the film (Deakins supervised the transfer). You have a choice of two music scores-one by The Eurythmics and the other by composer Dominic Muldowney. Extras include new interviews with director Radford, DP Deakins, and David Ryan (the author of George Orwell on Screen).

On Winter Kills (***), conspiracy a-go-go and that day in Dallas

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 23, 2019)

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“Strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us. […]

 If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. […]

We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth […] But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

President John F. Kennedy, from his Robert Frost tribute address (October 23, 1963)

Why are uneven anniversaries the less popular rest stops along the time continuum? For example, “56th anniversary” is not as sexy as “50th anniversary…or “60th anniversary” (this could explain why “51st Anniversary” is one of Jimi Hendrix’s more obscure songs).

Regardless, time marches on, the Earth continues to revolve around the Sun, and then (with apologies to Pink Floyd) one day you find ten years have got behind you, and so on and so forth and eventually we’re just history and a highlight film, over and out, bye now.

Still, we seem to need anniversaries. Why? Well, according to The Awareness Centre:

It’s a chance to reflect on a relationship or a cultural identity, to come together to remember a person who’s died, or to celebrate a joyous event.

Whatever the anniversary, it gives us a chance to look back over the years since the event we’re marking and reflect on how it has shaped us. Remembering the past (but without letting it rule us) can be an important part of understanding who we are.

Obviously, the “us” can apply to the collective, as well as the personal. Being of “a certain age”, there is one “collective” anniversary that I never fail to note…November 22.

“Where were you when Kennedy got shot?” has been a meme for anyone old enough to remember what happened that day in Dallas on November 22, 1963…56 years ago this past Friday. I was but a wee military brat, attending my second-grade class at a public school in Columbus, Ohio (my dad was stationed at nearby Fort Hayes). Our class was herded into the main gym for an impromptu all-school assembly. Someone (probably the principal) gave a brief address. It gets fuzzy from there; but I think that we either sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” or recited the Pledge of Allegiance, then got sent home early.

My 7-year-old mind could not grasp the profound sociopolitical impact of this tragedy; but I have come to understand it in the fullness of time. From my 2016 review of Jackie:

Understandably, the question of “why now?” could arise, to which I would reply (paraphrasing JFK) …why not? To be sure, Jacqueline Kennedy’s story has been well-covered in a myriad of documentaries and feature films; like The Beatles, there are very few (if any) mysteries about her life and legacy to uncover at this point. And not to mention that horrible, horrible day in Dallas…do we really need to pay $15 just to see the nightmare reenacted for the umpteenth time? (Spoiler alert: the President dies at the end).

I think that “we” do need to see this film, even if we know going in that there was no “happy ever-aftering” in this Camelot. It reminds us of a “brief, shining moment” when all seemed possible, opportunities were limitless, and everything was going to be all right, because Jack was our king and Jackie was our queen. So what if it was all kabuki, as the film implies; merely a dream, invented by “a great, tragic actress” to unite us in our sadness. Then it was a good dream, and I think we’ll find our Camelot again…someday.

Sadly, anyone who follows the current news cycle knows we’re still looking for Camelot.

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They will run you dizzy. They will pile falsehood on top of falsehood, until you can’t tell a lie from the truth – and you won’t even want to. That’s how the powerful keep their power. Don’t you read the papers?

From Winter Kills (screenplay by William Richert)

The Kennedy assassination ultimately precipitated a cottage industry of independent studies, papers, magazine articles, non-fiction books, novels, documentaries and feature films that riff on the plethora of conspiracy theories that continue to flourish to this day.

This is despite the fact few stones remain unturned…and there was that Warren Commission report released in 1964; an 888-page summation concluding JFK’s alleged murderer Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. This “conclusive” statement, of course only fueled more speculation that our government was not being completely ah…forthcoming.

At any rate (and speaking of anniversaries) 2019 marks the 40th anniversary of one of the more oddball conspiracy thrillers based on the JFK assassination…Winter Kills, which has just been reissued on Blu-ray by Kino-Lorber. Director William Richert adapted his screenplay from Richard Condon’s book (it’s worth noting that Condon also wrote the conspiracy thriller The Manchurian Candidate, which was adapted for the screen twice).

Jeff Bridges stars as the (non-political) half-brother of an assassinated president. After witnessing the deathbed confession of a man claiming to be a “second gunman”, he reluctantly gets drawn into a new investigation of his brother’s murder nearly 20 years after the matter was allegedly put to rest by the findings of the “Pickering Commission”.

John Huston chews the scenery as Bridges’ father (a larger-than-life character said to be loosely based on Joseph Kennedy Sr.). The cast includes Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Sterling Hayden, Ralph Meeker, Toshiro Mifune, Richard Boone, and Elizabeth Taylor.

The film vacillates between genuine conspiracy thriller and a broad satire of other byzantine conspiracy thrillersbut is eminently watchable, thanks to an interesting cast and a screenplay that, despite ominous undercurrents, delivers a great deal of dark humor.

I own the 2003 Anchor Bay DVD, so I can attest that Kino’s 4K transfer is a definite upgrade; accentuating cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s exemplary lens work. Unfortunately, there are no new extras; but all bonus materials from Anchor Bay’s DVD have been ported over, including an entertaining commentary track by director Richert (the story behind the film’s production is nearly as over-the-top as the finished product).

Is Winter Kills essential viewing? It depends. If you like quirky 60s and 70s cinema, it’s one of the last hurrahs in a film cycle of arch, lightly political and broadly satirical all-star psychedelic train wrecks like The Loved One, The President’s Analyst, Skidoo, Candy and The Magic Christian. For “conspiracy-a-go-go” completists, it is a must-see.

Here are 5 more films that either deal directly with or have a notable link with the JFK conspiracy cult. And while you’re watching, keep President Kennedy’s observation in the back of your mind: “In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

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Suddenly – Lewis Allen’s taut 1954 crime thriller/film noir stars a surprisingly effective Frank Sinatra as the cold-blooded leader of a three-man hit team who are hired to assassinate the (unnamed) President during a scheduled whistle-stop at a sleepy California town. They commandeer a family’s home that affords the hit team a clear shot.

The film is primarily played as a hostage drama. It should be noted that in this case, the shooter’s motives are financial, not political (“Don’t hand me that politics jazz-that’s not my bag!” Sinatra snarls after he’s accused of being “an enemy agent” by one of his hostages). Richard Sale’s script also drops in a perfunctory nod or two to the then-contemporaneous McCarthy era (one hostage speculates that the hit men are “commies”).

That said, some aspects of the story are quite eerily prescient of President Kennedy’s assassination 9 years later; Sinatra’s character is an ex-military sharpshooter, zeroes down on his target from a high window, and utilizes a rifle of a European make. Most significantly, there have been more than a few claims over the years in JFK conspiracy circles suggesting that Lee Harvey Oswald had watched this film with a keen interest.

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The Manchurian Candidate – There’s certainly more than just a perfunctory nod to Red hysteria in John Frankenheimer’s 1962 cold war paranoia fest, which was the last assassination thriller of note released prior to the zeitgeist-shattering horror of President Kennedy’s murder. Oddly enough, Frank Sinatra was involved in this project as well.

Sinatra plays a Korean War vet who reaches out to help a buddy he served with (Laurence Harvey). Harvey is on the verge of a meltdown, triggered by recurring war nightmares. Sinatra has been suffering the same malady (both men had been held as POWs by the North Koreans). Once it dawns on Sinatra that they both may have been brainwashed during their captivity for very sinister purposes, all hell breaks loose.

In this narrative (based on Richard Condon’s novel) the assassin is posited as an unwitting dupe of a decidedly “un-American” political ideology; a domestic terrorist programmed by his Communist puppet masters to kill on command. While many of the Cold War references have dated, the film remains a solid and suspenseful political thriller (Jonathan Demme’s 2004 version was an interesting take, but I much prefer the original).

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Executive Action – After the events of November 22, 1963, Hollywood took a decade-long hiatus from the genre; it seemed nobody wanted to “go there”. But after Americans had mulled a few years in the sociopolitical turbulence of the mid-to-late 1960s (including the double whammy of losing Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King to bullets in 1968), a new cycle of more cynical and byzantine conspiracy thrillers began to crop up (surely exacerbated even further by Watergate).

The most significant shift in the meme was to move away from the concept of the assassin as a dupe or an operative of a “foreign” (i.e., “anti-American”) ideology; some films postulated that shadowy cabals of businessmen and/or members of the government were capable of such machinations. The rise of the JFK conspiracy cult (and the cottage industry it created) was probably a factor as well.

One of the earliest examples was this 1973 film, directed by David Miller, and starring Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan. Dalton Trumbo (famously blacklisted back in the 50s) adapted the screenplay from a story by Donald Freed and Mark Lane.

A speculative thriller about the JFK assassination, it offers a scenario that a consortium comprised of hard right pols, powerful businessmen and disgruntled members of the clandestine community were responsible.  Frankly, the premise is ultimately more intriguing than the film itself (which is flat and talky), but the filmmakers at least deserve credit for being the first ones to “go there”. The film was a flop at the time, but has become a cult item; as such, it is more of a curio than a classic. Still, it’s worth a watch.

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The Parallax View – Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 thriller takes the concept of the dark corporate cabal one step further, positing political assassination as a sustainable capitalist venture, if you can perfect a discreet and reliable algorithm for screening and recruiting the right “employees”.

Warren Beatty gives an excellent performance as a maverick print journalist investigating a suspicious string of untimely demises that befall witnesses to a U.S. senator’s assassination in a restaurant atop Seattle’s Space Needle. The trail leads him to a clandestine recruiting agency called the Parallax Corporation.

The screenplay by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (based on the 1970 novel by Loren Singer, with an uncredited rewrite by Robert Towne) contains obvious allusions to the JFK assassination; e.g. it has the “assassin as patsy” scenario, and features a closing scene with a slow, ominous zoom out on a panel of men bearing a striking resemblance to the Warren Commission, sitting in a dark chamber solemnly reciting their “conclusive” findings on what has transpired (although we know better).

The supporting cast includes Hume Cronyn, William Daniels and Paula Prentiss. Nice work by cinematographer Gordon Willis (aka “the prince of darkness”), who sustains the foreboding, claustrophobic mood of the piece with his masterful use of light and shadow.

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JFK – The obvious bookend to this cycle is Oliver Stone’s controversial 1991 film, in which Gary Oldman gives a suitably twitchy performance as Lee Harvey Oswald. However, within the context of Stone’s film, to say that we have a definitive portrait of JFK’s assassin (or “assassins”, plural) is difficult, because, not unlike Agatha Christie’s fictional detective Hercule Poirot, Stone suspects no one…and everyone.

The most misunderstood aspect of the film, I think, is that Stone is not favoring any prevalent narrative; and that it is by the director’s definition a “speculative” political thriller. Those who have criticized the approach seem to have missed that Stone himself has stated from the get-go that his goal was to provide a “counter myth” to the “official” conclusion of the Warren Commission (usually referred to as the “lone gunman theory”).

It is a testament to Stone’s skills as a consummate filmmaker that the narrative he presents appears so seamless and dynamic, when in fact he is simultaneously mashing up at least a dozen possible scenarios. The message is right there in the script, when Donald Sutherland’s “Mr. X” advises Kevin Costner (as New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison) “Oh, don’t take my word for it. Don’t believe me. Do your own work…your own thinking.”

 

It can’t happen here: The Edge of Democracy (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 16, 2019)

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“That’s my man right there…love this guy…the most popular politician on Earth.”

 – President Obama in 2009, upon meeting then-Brazilian president Lula da Silva

“They say he’s the Donald Trump of South America…Do you believe that? And he’s happy with that. If he wasn’t, I wouldn’t like the country so much. But I like him.”

– President Trump in 2019, commenting on current Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro

Politics ain’t beanbag (as the saying goes). It can be a nasty business. Latin American politics have a particular rep for volatility; historically an ever-simmering cauldron of violent coups, brutal dictatorships, revolving door regimes and social unrest. In my 2012 review of Lula: Son of Brazil, Fabio Barreto and Marcelo Santiago’s stirring yet frustrating biopic about the former president of Brazil Luis Inacio Lula da Silva I wrote:

[…] Luis Inacio Lula da Silva’s life journey from dirt-poor shoeshine boy to benevolent world leader (he served as president from 2003-2010) seems tailor-made for the screen, with the major players in his life plucked straight out of Central Casting […] You have the Strong Saintly Mother (Gloria Pires), the Drunken Abusive Father (Milhem Cortaz), and the Childhood Sweetheart (Clio Pires, pulling double duty as The Young Wife Who Dies Tragically). […]

 We watch Lula (played as an adult by Rui Ricardo Diaz) come of age; he graduates from a technical school, gets a factory job, loses a finger in a lathe mishap, and marries his childhood sweetheart. His first marriage ends tragically, after which he begins (at the encouragement of his brother and to the chagrin of his mother) to gravitate toward leftist politics. […]

 By the time he becomes a union official in the late 70s, he finds himself at loggerheads with the military-controlled government of the time. After officials identify him as one of the prime movers behind a series of major work strikes, he is arrested and jailed. After prison, the increasingly politicized Lula helps create Brazil’s progressive Worker’s Party in the early 80s, and then…and then…the film ends.

 Ay, there’s the rub, and the main reason why political junkies may find this slick, well-acted production inspiring on one hand, yet curiously unsatisfying on the other. […]

 I found myself  wondering “what happened next?!”, and asking questions like: What did he do to earn declaration as Brazil’s most beloved president, with an approval rating of 80.5% during the final months of his tenure? What inspired President Obama to greet him at the G20 summit with “That’s my man right there…love this guy…the most popular politician on Earth”? […]

The film left me hanging like a chad on a Florida ballot. But, as Fate would have it I was listening to Democracy Now while driving to work the other day (as progressive pinko NPR-listening Lefties often do) and lo and behold –I found out “what happened next”:

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show in Brazil, where former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was freed from prison Friday after 580 days behind bars. Lula’s surprise release came after the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled to end the mandatory imprisonment of people convicted of crimes who are still appealing their cases. Lula has vowed to challenge Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro in the 2022 elections. During a rally on Friday soon after his release, Lula warned about Bolsonaro’s ties to violent militias.

 LUIZ INÁCIO LULA DA SILVA: [translated] “Bolsonaro was democratically elected. We accept the result of the election. This guy has a mandate for four years. Now, he was elected to govern the Brazilian people, and not to govern the militia in Rio de Janeiro. … I want to build this country with the same happiness that we built it when we governed this country. My dream isn’t to solve my problems. Today I’m a guy that doesn’t have a job, a president without a pension, not even a television in my apartment. My life is totally blocked. The only thing I’m certain of is that I have more courage to fight than ever before.”

 AMY GOODMAN: Lula was serving a 12-year sentence over a disputed corruption and money laundering conviction handed down by conservative Judge Sérgio Moro, an ally of current far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. After that, he became the justice minister. Lula has long maintained his innocence. Earlier this year, The Intercept revealed Moro aided prosecutors in their sweeping corruption investigation, known as Operation Car Wash, in an attempt to prevent Lula from running in 2018 election. This cleared the path for Bolsonaro’s victory. At the time of his imprisonment in April 2018, Lula was leading the presidential polls.

 Wow. If Lula pulls it off in 2022, it would be the political comeback story of the century. But that chapter is yet to be written. The current political reality in Brazil is somewhat tenuous, precipitated in part by the ascension of the aforementioned President Bolsonaro.

President …who? Here’s a refresher from the New York Times, dated March 19, 2019:

President Trump hosted Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian president, at the White House on Tuesday, and it was something like looking in the mirror.

 Like other authoritarian leaders Mr. Trump has embraced since taking office, Mr. Bolsonaro is an echo of the American president: a brash nationalist whose populist appeal comes partly from his use of Twitter and his history of making crude statements about women, gay people and indigenous groups.

 “They say he’s the Donald Trump of South America,” Mr. Trump marveled during a speech to the Farm Bureau in January, noting that Mr. Bolsonaro had been called the “Trump of the tropics” since taking office this year. “Do you believe that? And he’s happy with that. If he wasn’t, I wouldn’t like the country so much. But I like him.”

“Something” changed in Brazil’s sociopolitical sphere in the 8 years that elapsed between 2010, when the progressive populist Lula left the presidency with an unprecedented 80.5% approval rating, and 2018, when far-right candidate Bolsonaro won the election.

In her extraordinarily intimate documentary, The Edge of Democracy (now available on Netflix) Brazilian actress and filmmaker Petra Costa suggests there is something much more insidious at play in her country than a cyclical left-to-right shift. Costa’s film delves into the circumstances that led to the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff (Lula’s hand-picked successor) and Lula’s imprisonment (which began in April of 2018).

Costa begins with a recap of the military dictatorship in Brazil that began with a 1964 coup and effectively ended in 1989 with the first election of a president via popular vote in 29 years, then moves on to cover Lula’s 8-year tenure (2003-2010), which brought a great deal of positive social change in the country through various progressive programs.

However, the honeymoon began to sour during the presidency of Lula’s successor Dilma Rousseff. Elected in 2011, Rousseff (a former member of a leftist guerilla group that fought against the military dictatorship-which led to a 2-year imprisonment from 1970-1972 during which she endured torture) largely upheld the ideals of her predecessor, but was impeached and removed from office in 2016 as a result of the “Car Wash” scandal.

What separates this film from an informative but dry episode of Frontline is Costa’s deeply personal perspective. The 36-year-old director points out that she is approximately the same age as Brazil’s hard-won democracy, and makes no bones about the fact that her parents were passionate left-wing activists who openly railed against the dictatorship.

But the real coup for Costa (no pun intended) is the amazing accessibility she was given to President Rousseff and ex-President Lula during times of particularly high drama in their lives. This lends urgency and adds a “fly on the wall” element to the palace intrigue.

There is something Shakespearean about the rise and fall of the two leaders, which gives the film the feel of a byzantine political thriller. There is also a Kafkaesque element. In one scene, a visibly scandal-weary Rousseff candidly alludes to the protagonist in “The Trial” with a heavy sigh. “Do you really feel like ‘Josef K’?” someone asks. “Yes,” she replies with a sardonic chuckle, “I feel just like Josef K…but Josef K with an attorney.”

The film’s most dramatic moments derive from the footage Costa was able to get while she was essentially holed up for 3 days with Lula at a trade union hall while he vacillated over turning himself in. When Lula announces he is ready to face the music, a crowd of his supporters tries to stop him from doing so, forming a human blockade between him and the police outside the hall waiting to arrest him.

As you watch Lula give an impassioned speech to his supporters (many of them in tears) to explain his decision and reassure them everything will be fine, you understand why people are so drawn to him.

This is the most powerful documentary about South American politics since Patricio Guzman’s The Battle of Chile. It is also a cautionary tale; we have more in common with Brazil than you might think. As Costa observed in an interview on Democracy Now:

“…Brazil has the third-largest incarcerated population in the world. It’s a huge crisis, similar to the United States. And we need an urgent judiciary — like, prison reform and judiciary reform that will make our judiciary system more efficient. I think the mistake that many people fall into is thinking that constitutional rights can be abused to have a more efficient system. The danger with that is that today Lula’s constitutional rights can be abused, tomorrow mine, tomorrow yours. And where do we stand as a democracy?”

Where do WE stand as a democracy? As politicians say, “that’s an excellent question…”

Trial and error: When They See Us (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 8, 2019)

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We all want justice, but you got to have the money to buy it
You’d have to be a fool to close your eyes and deny it
There’s a lot of poor people who are walking the streets of my town
Too blind to see that justice is used to do them right down

All life from beginning to end
You pay your monthly installments
Next to health is wealth
And only wealth will buy you justice

— Alan Price, “Justice” (from the soundtrack for the film O Lucky Man!)

ANTRON McCRAY: [played by Caleel Harris] I lied on you, too.

RAYMOND SANTANA JR.: [played by Marquis Rodriguez] Yeah. Me, too. I’m sorry, man.

YUSEF SALAAM: [played by Ethan Herisse] They made us lie. Right?

KEVIN RICHARDSON: [played by Asante Blackk] Why are they doing us like this?

RAYMOND SANTANA JR.: What other way they ever do us?

— From a scene in the Netflix miniseries When They See Us

The wheels of justice sometimes move in mysterious ways. Via NBC earlier this week:

Former Manhattan prosecutor Linda Fairstein resigned from Vassar College’s board of trustees Tuesday amid a new wave of backlash over her role in the infamous Central Park Five case.

Fairstein’s role in the wrongful conviction and imprisonment of five teenagers of color in 1990, after a white woman was attacked in Central Park, has come under new scrutiny after director Ava DuVernay released a Netflix miniseries about the case, “When They See Us.”

The so-called Central Park Five — Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam — were vindicated 13 years after the crime when a serial rapist confessed to the attack.

[Fairstein]…ran the district attorney’s sex crimes unit at the time of the case. The Netflix series prompted the #CancelLindaFairstein hashtag on social media and calls for her prior cases to be re-examined. […]

“The events of the last few days have underscored how the history of racial and ethnic tensions in this country continue to deeply influence us today, and in ways that change over time,” Bradley said.

Unfortunately for those five young men (ages from 14 to 16 when they were arrested and charged), the extant “social media” platforms throughout the course of their controversial high-profile trials back in 1990 were still relatively old school: phone calls, telegrams, post cards, letters to the editor, graffiti, flyers, rallies, demonstrations, etc.

Those with the biggest bullhorns tended to have the biggest wallets (and the most dubious agendas). For example, if you had $85,000 handy you could place full-page ads in four NYC dailies:

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From the Guardian:

On the evening of 19 April [1989], as 28-year-old investment banker Trisha Meili, who was white, jogged across the northern, dilapidated section of Central Park, she was attacked – bludgeoned with a rock, gagged, tied and raped. She was left for dead but discovered hours later, unconscious and suffering from hypothermia and severe brain damage.

The New York police department believed they already had the culprits in custody. […]

[The five young men] would all later deny any involvement in criminality that night, but as they were rounded up and interrogated by the police at length, they said, they were forced into confessing to the rape. […]

Four of the boys signed confessions and appeared on video without a lawyer, each arguing that while they had not been the individual to commit the rape, they had witnessed one of the others do it, thereby implicating the entire group. […]

Just two weeks after the Central Park attack, before any of the boys had faced trial and while Meili remained critically ill in a coma, Donald Trump, whose office on Fifth Avenue commanded an exquisite view of the park’s opulent southern frontier, intervened.

He paid a reported $85,000 to take out advertising space in four of the city’s newspapers, including the New York Times. Under the headline “Bring Back The Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!” and above his signature, Trump wrote: “I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. They must serve as examples so that others will think long and hard before committing a crime or an act of violence.”

But I don’t want to make this about Donald Trump…even if he is an unavoidable part of the story. Fortunately, neither does director/co-writer Ava Duvernay. That said, Duvernay does not avoid him altogether in her 5-hour Netflix miniseries When They See Us, a dramatization of the events. Trump has several “cameos”, in the form of archival TV interview footage (no actor in a bad toupee is required; she wisely lets him hang himself).

In fact Duvernay and co-writers Julian Breece, Robin Swicord, Attica Locke, and Michael Starrbury forgo focusing on the racist demagoguery and media sensationalism that fueled the rush to judgement in the court of public opinion prior to the trials; opting to explore the deeply personal tribulations of the five accused young men and their families.

The result is a shattering, sobering look at the case and its aftermath; from the inside out, as it were. The story opens the night of the incident; you see how fate and circumstance swept Yusef (Ethan Hiresse and Chris Chalk), Kevin (Assante Blackk and Justin Cunningham), Anton (Caleel Harris and Jovan Adepo), Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez and Freddy Miyares) and Korey (Jharrel Jerome) into the wrong place at the wrong time.

The quintet’s Kafkaesque nightmare begins once the scene shifts to the police station. They’ve been singled out from 30-odd young males alleged to have been roaming Central Park en masse, harassing bikers, runners, and passers-by at random (only two of the five knew each other prior to that night).

They’re taken into separate interrogation rooms for questioning. Pressured by sex crimes unit D.A. Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) to squeeze out confessions ASAP (“Every black male who was in the park last night is a suspect” she declares), the detectives proceed to pull out every old dirty trick in the book.

It’s painful to watch the lopsided match of seasoned interrogators exploiting the boys’ fear and confusion in such a cold and calculated manner. Duvernay reveals every iota of the deepening panic and despair on the young actors’ faces by holding them in long, tight closeups. Inevitably, they all break under the pressure of verbal intimidation and strong-arm tactics.

As we follow the boys’ hellish trajectory through the system-interrogation, detention, trials, sentencing and incarceration, you not only get a palpable sense of what each of them was going through, but how their families suffered as well. You also get a sense of a criminal justice system that does not always follow its provisos-like that part regarding “equal justice under the law” (especially when it comes to people of color…needs work).

While the story of the Central Park 5 does have a “happy ending” (bittersweet), Duvernay does not pull any punches regarding that what befell these kids should never, ever have happened in the first place (especially in an allegedly “free society”).

It was a perfect storm of overzealous law enforcement, socioeconomic inequity, systemic racism, and media-fueled public hysteria that put those innocent young men behind bars. I should warn you-watching this miniseries will break your heart and make you mad. As it should.

SIFF 2019: Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 25, 2019)

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Janice Engel profiles the late, great political columnist and liberal icon Molly Ivins, who suffered no fools gladly on either side of the aisle. Engel digs beneath Ivins’ bigger-than-life public personae, revealing an individual who grew up in red state Texas as a shy outsider.

Self-conscious about her physicality (towering over her classmates at 6 feet by age 12), she learned how to neutralize the inevitable teasing with her fierce intelligence and wit (I find interesting parallels with Janis Joplin’s formative Texas years). Her political awakening also came early (to the chagrin of her conservative oilman father).

The archival clips of Ivins imparting her incomparable wit and wisdom are gold; although I was left wishing Engel had included more (and I am dying to know what Ivins would say about you-know-who).

SIFF 2019: I Am Cuba (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 1, 2019)

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There is a tendency to dismiss this 1964 film about the Cuban revolution as Communist propaganda. Granted, it was produced with the full blessing of Castro’s regime, who partnered with the Soviet government to provide the funding for director Mikhail Kalatozov’s sprawling epic. Despite the dubious backers, the director was given a surprising amount of creative freedom.

On the surface, Kalatozov’s film is in point of fact a propagandist polemic; the narrative is divided into a quartet of rhetoric-infused vignettes about exploited workers, dirt-poor farmers, student activists, and rebel guerrilla fighters.

However it is also happens to be a visually intoxicating masterpiece that, despite accolades from critics over the decades, remains relatively obscure. The real stars of the film are the director and his technical crew, who will leave you pondering how they produced some of those jaw-dropping set pieces and logic-defying tracking shots!

SIFF 2019: The Realm (*1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 1, 2019)

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In this conspiracy thriller, a low-level Spanish politician becomes an unwitting fall guy for the systemized corruption in his district. He decides to blow the whistle on his backstabbing colleagues before he is forced to resign his post. It’s a good premise and has a promising start, but the narrative becomes more and more preposterous, to the point of self-parody. I sensed the film makers were aiming for Three Days of the Condor…but unfortunately what they ended up with was this 2-hour turkey.