Category Archives: Politics

The fierce urgency of now: 10 films for MLK Day

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 19, 2019)

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In honor of Martin Luther King Day, I’ve combed my review archives and curated 10 films that reflect on race relations in America; some that look back at where we’ve been, some that give us a reality check on where we’re at now and maybe even one or two that offer hope for the future. We still may not have quite reached that “promised land” of colorblind equality, but each of us doing whatever we can in our own small way to help keep Dr. King’s legacy alive will surely help light the way-especially in these dark times.

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Black KkKlansman (2018)So what do you get if you cross Cyrano de Bergerac with Blazing Saddles? You might get Spike Lee’s Black KkKlansman. That is not to say that Lee’s film is a knee-slapping comedy; far from it. Lee takes the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an African-American undercover cop who managed to infiltrate the KKK in Colorado in the early 70s and runs with it, in his inimitable fashion.

I think this is Lee’s most affecting and hard-hitting film since Do the Right Thing (1989). The screenplay (adapted by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Lee from Stallworth’s eponymous memoir) is equal parts biopic, docudrama, police procedural and social commentary, finding a nice balance of drama, humor and suspense. (Full review)

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The Black Power Mixtape (2011)–The Black Power movement of the mid-60s to mid-70s has historically been somewhat misrepresented, due to an emphasis on its more sensationalist elements. The time is ripe to re-examine the movement, which despite its failures and flaws, still emerges as one of the last truly progressive grass roots political awakenings that we’ve had in this country (if you’re expecting bandolier-wearing, pistol-waving interviewees spouting fiery Marxist-tinged rhetoric-dispense with that hoary stereotype now).

Director Goran Olsson was given access to a treasure trove of pristine, unedited 16mm footage from the era. The footage, recently discovered tucked away in the basement of Swedish Television, represents nearly a decade of candid interviews with key movement leaders, as well as meticulous documentation of Black Panther Party activities and African-American inner city life. Olsson presents the clips in a historically chronological timeline, with minimal present-day commentary. While not perfect, it is an important historical document, and one of the more eye-opening films I have seen on this subject. (Full review)

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The Boys of Baraka (2005) – Co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have fashioned a fresh and inspiring take on a well-worn cause celebre: the sad, shameful state of America’s inner-city school system. Eschewing the usual hand-wringing about the underfunded, over-crowded, glorified daycare centers that many of these institutions have become for poor, disenfranchised urban youth, the filmmakers chose to showcase one program that strove to make a real difference.

The story follows a group of 12-year-old boys from Baltimore who attended a boarding school in Kenya, staffed by American teachers and social workers. In addition to more personalized tutoring, there was emphasis on conflict resolution through communication, tempered by a “tough love” approach. The events that unfold from this bold social experiment (filmed over a three year period) are alternately inspiring and heartbreaking. (Full review)

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The Force (2017) – Peter Nicks’ documentary examines the rocky relationship between Oakland’s police department and its communities of color. The force has been under federal oversight since 2002, due to myriad misconduct cases. Nicks utilizes the same cinema verite techniques that made his film The Waiting Room so compelling. It’s like a real-life Joseph Wambaugh novel (The Choirboys comes to mind). The film offers no easy answers-but delivers an intimate, insightful glimpse at both sides. (Full review)

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The Girls in the Band (2011)– Contextual to a curiously overlooked component within the annals of American jazz music, it’s tempting to extrapolate on Dr. King’s dream. Wouldn’t it be great to live in a nation where one is not only primarily judged by content of character, but can also be judged on the merits of creativity, or the pure aesthetics of artistic expression, as opposed to being judged solely by the color of one’s skin…or perhaps gender? At the end of the day, what is a “black”, or a “female” jazz musician? Why is it that a Dave Brubeck is never referred to as a “white” or “male” jazz musician?

In her film, director Judy Chaikin chronicles the largely unsung contributions that female jazz musicians (a large portion of them African-American) have made (and continue to make) to this highly influential American art form. Utilizing rare archival footage and interviews with veteran and contemporary players, Chaikin has assembled an absorbing, poignant, and celebratory piece. (Full review)

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I Am Not Your Negro (2016)– The late writer and social observer James Baldwin once said that “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” Sadly, thanks to the emboldening of certain elements within American society that have been drawn from the shadows by the openly racist rhetoric spouting from our nation’s current leader, truer words have never been spoken. Indeed, anyone who watches Raoul Peck’s documentary will recognize not only the beauty of Baldwin’s prose, but the prescience of such observations.

Both are on full display throughout Peck’s timely treatise on race relations in America, in which he mixes archival news footage, movie clips, and excerpts from Baldwin’s TV appearances with narration by an uncharacteristically subdued Samuel L. Jackson, reading excerpts from Baldwin’s unfinished book, Remember This House. An excellent and enlightening film. (Full review)

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In the Heat of the Night (1967)– “They call me Mister Tibbs!” In this classic (which won 1967’s Best Picture Oscar) Sidney Poitier plays a cosmopolitan police detective from Philly who gets waylaid in a torpid Mississippi backwater, where he is reluctantly recruited into helping the bigoted sheriff (Rod Steiger) solve a local murder. Poitier nails his performance; you can feel Virgil Tibb’s pain as he tries to maintain his professional cool amidst a brace of surly rednecks, who throw up roadblocks at every turn.

While Steiger is outstanding as well, I find it ironic that he was the one who won “Best Actor in a leading role”, when Poitier was the star of the film (it seems Hollywood didn’t get the film’s message). Sterling Silliphant’s brilliant screenplay (another Oscar) works as a crime thriller and a “fish out of water” story. Director Norman Jewison was nominated but didn’t score a win. Future director Hal Ashby won for Best Editing. Quincy Jones composed the soundtrack, and Ray Charles sings the sultry theme. (Full review)

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The Landlord (1970)– The late great Hal Ashby only directed a relative handful of films, but most, especially his 70’s output, were built to last (Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Bound for Glory, Shampoo, Being There). In The Landlord, Beau Bridges is a spoiled rich kid who worries his parents with his “liberal views”, especially when he buys a run-down inner-city tenement, with intentions to renovate. His subsequent involvement with the various black tenants is played sometimes for laughs, other times for intense drama, but always for real. The social satire and observations about race relations are dead-on, but never preachy or condescending.

Top-notch ensemble work, featuring a young Lou Gossett (with hair!) giving a memorable turn. The lovely Susan Anspach is hilarious as Bridge’s perpetually stoned and bemused sister. A scene featuring Pearl Bailey and Lee Grant getting drunk and bonding over a bottle of “sparkling” wine is a minor classic all on its own. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore-honest, bold, uncompromising, socially and politically meaningful, yet (lest we forget) entertaining. (Full review)

Let the Fire Burn (2013)– While obscured in public memory by the (relatively) more “recent” 1993 Branch Davidian siege in Waco, the eerily similar demise of the Philadelphia-based MOVE organization 8 years earlier was no less tragic on a human level, nor any less disconcerting in its ominous sociopolitical implications.

In this compelling documentary, director Jason Osder has parsed a trove of archival “live-at-the-scene” TV reports, deposition videos, law enforcement surveillance footage, and other sundry “found” footage (much of it previously unseen by the general public) and created a tight narrative that plays like an edge-of-your-seat political thriller.         

Let the Fire Burn is not only an essential document of an American tragedy, but a cautionary tale and vital reminder of how far we have yet to go to completely purge the vestiges of institutional racism in this country. (Full review)

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The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013)– There have been a number of films documenting and dramatizing the extraordinary life of Muhammad Ali, but they all share a curious anomaly. Most have tended to gloss over Ali’s politically volatile “exile years” (1967-1970), during which the American sports icon was officially stripped of his heavyweight crown and essentially “banned” from professional boxing after his very public refusal to be inducted into the Army on the grounds of conscientious objection to the Vietnam War.

Director Bill Siegel (The Weather Underground) fills in those blanks in his documentary. As you watch the film, you begin to understand how Ali the sports icon transmogrified into an influential sociopolitical figure, even if he didn’t set out to become the latter. It was more an accident of history; Ali’s affiliation with the Nation of Islam and stance against the Vietnam War put him at the confluence of both the burgeoning Black Power and anti-war movements. How it all transpired makes an absorbing watch. (Full review)

Arriba, abajo: Roma (***)

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By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 5, 2019)

Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (currently available on Netflix) is one of those contemporary arthouse flicks that has “A Compendium of Classic World Cinema” tattooed on its forehead (either that, or “I’ve Seen Too Many Goddamned Movies” is tattooed on mine).

For example, take the title, which recalls Fellini’s Roma (1972), his semi-autobiographical love letter to the city he lived in for years. Cuaron’s film is his semi-autobiographical love letter to the city he lived in for years; although in this case it refers not to Rome, Italy but to the eponymous neighborhood of Mexico City where he grew up.

The story centers on a young woman named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) who is employed as a maid for an upper middle-class family living in politically turbulent Mexico City during the early 1970s. There is another maid in the household named Adela (Nancy Garcia), but Cleo looks to be the de facto nanny, showing a close and loving bond with the 4 children.

The father (Fernando Grediaga) is a physician, who travels frequently due to his work. Or so it seems; when he takes an extended trip to Quebec on “business”, the worst fears of his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira) are confirmed when she learns he’s decided to play house for keeps with his mistress (World Cinema Rule #142…there’s always a mistress).

As Sofia struggles with how she is going to gently break the news to her kids that daddy has split town on them because he is a cheating bastard, the family dynamic is further complicated when Cleo finds herself struggling with how she’s going to gently break the news to her employer that she is with child by her short-term boyfriend Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) who splits town on her faster than you can say “I think I’m pregnant.”

If the narrative is beginning to sound not dissimilar to a tawdry telenovela, you are very perceptive. Cuaron’s cliché-ridden script is not the film’s strongest suit. That said, the man knows how to set up a shot, and his eye is keen (Cuaron pulled cinematography duty here as well). In fact, his B&W photography is stunning enough to forgive a flimsy story.

Where Curaon excels here is in giving the viewer an immersive sense of time and place. There are several memorable set-pieces; most notably a scene wherein the children’s grandmother helps a very pregnant Cleo shop for a crib. That everyday mundanity may not make for riveting cinema, but the situation percolating in the street right in front of the store, which suddenly escalates and engulfs the women in a horrifying manner…does.

I’ll admit being a little late to the party on this film, which has popped up on a surprising number of critics’ “10 best” lists for 2018. I say “surprising” because it has had limited theatrical engagements since late November and has only been streaming on Netflix since December 14th (I stumbled across it quite by accident while scrolling through the network’s maddeningly unsearchable programming menu).

It has also been nominated for 3 Golden Globes: Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, and Best Screenplay (as I have already discussed, I have to raise a Belushi eyebrow regarding that screenplay nom).

While many of my fellow critics have swooned mightily under its apparent spell, for me Roma is, alas, a mixed bag. Aparicio has a quietly charismatic screen presence and gives a fine, naturalistic performance as Cleo; although you wish she’d been given a little more to do with her substantial screen time beyond playing the quietly suffering, archetypal Noble Peasant.

Visually, it’s quite a beautiful film. And there is certainly nothing wrong with emulating and evoking the likes of Fellini, Kalatozov, Bertolucci, Antonioni, and other masters of world cinema. It’s just a bit of a disappointment from Curaon, who has given us some outstanding films like Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men, and Gravity.

Blu-ray reissue: Shampoo ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2018)

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Shampoo– Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Sex, politics, and the shallow SoCal lifestyle are mercilessly skewered in Hal Ashby’s classic 1975 satire. Warren Beatty (who co-scripted with Robert Towne) plays a restless, over-sexed hairdresser with commitment issues regarding the three major women in his life (excellent performances from Lee Grant, Goldie Hawn and Julie Christie).

Beatty allegedly based his character of “George” on his close friend, celebrity hairdresser Jay Sebring (one of the victims of the infamous 1969 Tate-LaBianca slayings).

This was one of the first films to satirize the 1960s zeitgeist with some degree of historical detachment. The late great cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs infuses the L.A. backdrop with a gauziness that appropriately mirrors the protagonist’s fuzzy way of dealing with adult responsibilities.

Criterion’s Blu-ray features a 4K restoration (previous DVDs have been less than stellar in picture and sound quality). Extras include a conversation between critics Mark Harris and Frank Rich and a 1998 TV interview with Warren Beatty from The South Bank Show.

Here come the nice: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 6, 2018)

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Oh, Mr. Rogers, you sly son-of-a-gun. As it turns out, you get to have the last laugh, even though you were not alive to defend yourself. From a 2007 Wall Street Journal piece:

Don Chance, a finance professor at Louisiana State University, says it dawned on him last spring. The semester was ending, and as usual, students were making a pilgrimage to his office, asking for the extra points needed to lift their grades to A’s.

“They felt so entitled,” he recalls, “and it just hit me. We can blame Mr. Rogers.”

Fred Rogers, the late TV icon, told several generations of children that they were “special” just for being whoever they were. He meant well, and he was a sterling role model in many ways. But what often got lost in his self-esteem-building patter was the idea that being special comes from working hard and having high expectations for yourself.

[…] Some are calling for a recalibration of the mind-sets and catch-phrases that have taken hold in recent decades. Among the expressions now being challenged:

“You’re special.” On the Yahoo Answers Web site, a discussion thread about Mr. Rogers begins with this posting: “Mr. Rogers spent years telling little creeps that he liked them just the way they were. He should have been telling them there was a lot of room for improvement. … Nice as he was, and as good as his intentions may have been, he did a disservice.”

Signs of narcissism among college students have been rising for 25 years, according to a recent study led by a San Diego State University psychologist. Obviously, Mr. Rogers alone can’t be blamed for this. But as Prof. Chance sees it, “he’s representative of a culture of excessive doting.”

And of course, it’s no secret that the Fox news crowd has been gleefully vilifying the beloved children’s television host for quite some time now; holding him accountable as a chief enabler of the “participation trophy” culture they so vociferously mock and despise.

But here’s the funny thing. Several of the more interesting tidbits I picked up about Fred Rogers in Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (currently available on PPV) were: (1) He was a lifelong registered Republican, (2) He studied to be a minister, and (3) He came from a well-moneyed family. I wonder if his fire-breathing conservative critics were aware this radical hippie commie cuck-creator was one of them!

In his affable portrait of this publicly sweet, gentle, compassionate man, Neville serves up a mélange of archival footage and present-day comments by friends, family, and colleagues to reveal (wait for it) a privately sweet, gentle, compassionate man. In other words, don’t expect revelations about drunken rages, aberrant behavior, or rap sheets (sorry to disappoint anyone who feels life’s greatest pleasure is speaking ill of the dead). That is not to deny that Rogers did have a few…eccentricities; some are mentioned, and others are implied. It goes without saying that he was an unusual and unique individual.

The bulk of the film focuses on the long-running PBS children’s show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which debuted in 1968. Neville demonstrates how Rogers sparked children’s imaginations with the pleasant escapism of “Neighborhood of Make-Believe”, while gently schooling them about some of life’s unfortunate realities. Right out of the gate, Rogers intuited how to address the most pervasive fears and uncertainties stoked by current events in a way that (literally) a child could understand and process (a clip showing how Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination was handled is poignant beyond words).

If anything lurked beneath Rogers’ genteel countenance, it was his surprisingly steely resolve when it came to certain matters-and you could file these under “eccentricities”. For example, there was the significance of “143” in Rogers’ personal numerology. He used that number as shorthand for “I love you” (“I” is 1 letter, “love” is 4 letters, and “you” is 3 letters). “143” was also the consistent weight he strove to maintain all his adult life; helped by diligently swimming the equivalent of 1 mile in the pool nearly every day.

That same resolve is evidenced in an extraordinary bit of footage I’d never previously seen. The Republican Nixon administration (not unlike the current one) devoted a good portion of its first year vindictively hamstringing various achievements by the previous Democratic president. Lyndon Johnson’s Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which created and earmarked funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, was an early target.

When Congressional hearings commenced in 1969 to address the White House’s requested 50% budget cuts for CPB, Rogers appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, to speak on behalf of Public Television. Armed with little more than a few notes, some song lyrics, and his unique brand of friendly persuasion, you watch in amazement as Rogers turns the (initially) comically gruff and hostile committee chairman into a puddle of mush in just under 7 minutes, prompting the senator to chuckle and quip “Looks like you’ve just earned 20 million dollars.” Straight out of a Frank Capra movie.

Granted, there is virtually nothing to shock or surprise most viewers, especially if you are one of Fred Rogers’ “kids” who spent your formative years riding Trolley Trolley (and you “entitled” so-and-sos know who you are). And yes, expect the waterworks, especially if you’re sentimental. That said, anybody with a heart should go in with a box of Kleenex on standby. I was 12 in 1968, so I was already too hip for the room back in the day…but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t peeling onions every 10 minutes or so while watching this film.

With apologies to Howard Beale, I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everyone knows things are bad. There is so much vitriol, spitefulness, division, and ill will floating on the wind that it’s an achievement to make it to bedtime without having to ingest vast quantities of pills and powders just to get through this passion play (with apologies to Joni Mitchell). I think this documentary may be what the doctor ordered, just as a reminder people like Fred Rogers once strode the Earth (and hopefully still do). I wasn’t one of your kids, Mr. Rogers, but (pardon my French) we sure as shit could use you now.

 

Through the looking glass: Fahrenheit 11/9 (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 22, 2018)

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On occasion, like any self-respecting lefty cuck, I will “hate-watch” Fox or “hate-read” Breitbart. Today Breitbart has a post entitled “MICHAEL MOORE’S 11/9 TANKS AT BOX OFFICE” (barely 24 hours after the film opened wide…but whatevs). As I skimmed through, risking a bout of vertigo from eye-rolling, this bit caught my attention:

We go to the movies to see what we cannot see at home; so, what can Moore possibly offer in a world where a Jake Tapper is topping him daily, a world where Moore’s dishonest and shameless leftism runs wild 24/7… and is just a click away?

Dismissing the predictable tribalism, the OP raises a legit concern; one I admit consumed me yesterday, even as I forked over my hard-earned $13 (and an additional $7.50 for a goddam SMALL popcorn). Now I loves me some Michael Moore, and I feel duty-bound to cover this film, which could well be our final beacon of hope in these dark, dark times.

But I fear that Trump Fatigue threatens to overtake me. In my private despair (which I labored to hide beneath a brave face, for the sake of my fellow dedicated graying Seattle libs scattered throughout the sparsely attended 3pm matinee showing) I indeed pondered what insight Moore could possibly offer at this point, in a world where anybody who still gives two shits about our Democracy is on 24-hour Trump watch…and just a click away?

Was I in for 2 hours of Trump-bashing? I would nod in agreement, while thoughtfully stroking my chin. But to what end? The credits would come up, I’d go home, turn on the news, and…he’d still be in office. That’s the bad news (he’s still in office). The good news is that Moore’s film is not necessarily all about President Donald J. Trump himself.

It’s about us. According to Moore, we all had a hand in this (consciously or not).

In my 2011 review of the documentary Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today, I wrote:

“Crimes against humanity” are still perpetrated every day-so why haven’t we had any more Nurembergs? If it can’t be caught via cell phone camera and posted five minutes later on YouTube like Saddam Hussein’s execution, so we can take a quick peek, go “Yay! Justice is served!” and then get back to our busy schedule of eating stuffed-crust pizza and watching the Superbowl, I guess we just can’t be bothered. Besides, who wants to follow some boring 11-month long trial, anyway (unless, of course, an ex-football player is involved).

Or maybe it’s just that the perpetrators have become savvier since 1945; many of those who commit crimes against humanity these days wear nice suits and have corporate expense accounts, nu? Or maybe it’s too hard to tell who the (figurative) Nazis are today, because in the current political climate, everyone and anyone, at some point, is destined to be compared to one.

Let’s dispense with this first. Yes, Michael Moore goes “there” in his latest documentary Fahrenheit 11/9…at one point in the film, he deigns to compare Trump’s America to Nazi Germany. However, he’s not engaging in merit-less trolling. Rather (as Moore slyly implies), don’t take his word for it-listen to what one of his interviewees has to say here:

“Taking [immigrant] babies away from their mother [at the U.S. border] and locking up one or the other and separating them because they did no harm to anybody…they just didn’t comply with the stupid regulations…that’s a crime against humanity in my judgement.”

OK, so that’s one man’s opinion. You would be perfectly within your rights as a healthy skeptic to counter with “and what makes this guy such an expert on what constitutes a “crime against humanity”? Unless the gentleman in question happened to be the last surviving Nuremberg trials prosecutor…which he is. 99-year-old Ben Ferencz’s appearance recalls the scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen “just happens to have” Marshall McLuhan on hand to call out an insufferable blowhard waiting in a movie line.

So how did we get here? It’s complicated. Following a brief (and painful to relive) recap of what “happened” on 11/9/16, Moore’s film accordingly speeds off in multiple directions As he has always managed to do in the past, he connects the dots and pulls it together by the end. In a nutshell, Moore’s central thesis is that Trump is a symptom, not the cause. And the “cause” here is complacency-which Moore equates with complicity.

Specific to 2016, it is the complacency of the nearly 42% of eligible American voters who sat out the election. But Moore does not lay the blame squarely on disenfranchised voters, many of whom have valid reasons to be disillusioned and fed up with politicians in general. He cites a number of examples, and he spares no one. In fact, he lays into a few sacred cows of the Left; the DNC, President Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama.

The most dangerous kind of complacency is what happened in Michigan, and enabled Governor Rick Snyder to essentially seize despotic control of the state under the guise of “emergency powers”. Moore traces the political machinations that led to the water crisis in his home town of Flint, and it’s chilling. Using comparisons with how a democratic, liberal Germany handed power to the Nazis in the 1930s, Moore envisions how easily Trump could take a page from Snyder’s playbook and implement it on a national scale.

If this is all beginning to sound dark and despairing…well, it is. However, this is Michael Moore. He knows exactly when to interject levity and hope into an otherwise sobering treatise (e.g. he drives a truck full of Flint water up to the gates of Governor Snyder’s mansion and proceeds to water his lawn with a high-pressure hose).

He reminds us that there is a grassroots movement afoot that hopefully continues to catch fire; from the nationwide teacher strikes that began in West Virginia to the blue wave of progressive candidates in this year’s midterm primaries. He spotlights the passion and determination of the student activist groups that organized in the wake of the Parkland school shootings.

If you’re a Michael Moore fan, you will not be disappointed. If you’re a Michael Moore hater, this film likely won’t change your opinion (although I am flattered that you’ve chosen this post as your daily “hate read”). The rest of you can play among yourselves; but do me (and the country, and our Democracy) one favor? Please, please vote this time.

Can’t buy me love: Dark Money (***½) & Generation Wealth (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 4, 2018)

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If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.

-Dorothy Parker

What is this “dark money” of which “they” speak these days? You know, “them”…all those smarty-pants news anchors and political pundits and conspiracy theorists on the internet, radio and TV who bandy the term about with worried tone and furrowed brows?

According to a new documentary by Kimbery Reed helpfully entitled Dark Money, that term should be bandied about with worried tone and furrowed brow. To paraphrase Jason Robards’ wry understatement in All the President’s Men: “Nothing’s riding on this except the First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press and maybe the future of the country.” Oh…there is also a little matter of the continuing integrity of our elections.

Before you panic, I should clarify that there is a “New Coke” (New Koch?) element here. The implementation of “dark money” is nothing new. The concept of “buying an election” is deeply embedded in the DNA of our republic… it’s as American as apple pie. It’s just that the semantics have evolved. Terms like “graft” and “influence peddling” have been part of our lexicon for a long time (“a rose by any other name”…and all that).

Even the Father of Our Country played a little footsie under the table (some 30 years prior to the Constitution, no less). From a 2014 Washington Post article by Jamie Fuller:

When George Washington lost an election to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1755, he decided to improve outreach. Two years later, he bought about $195 worth of punch and hard cider for friends and managed to win. However, the newly elected legislature quickly passed a law prohibiting candidates from giving voters “meat, drink, entertainment or provision or…any present, gift, reward, or entertainment etc. in order to be elected.”

How quaint. The point of course is that campaign finance reform has unquestionably been there all along, as well. However, the effectiveness of such legislation is perennially…questionable. One thing’s for sure…the Founding Fathers could never have envisioned the SCOTUS’s “Citizens United” decision of 2010. Also from Fuller’s piece:

2010-In Citizens United vs. FEC, the Supreme Court held that independent expenditures by corporations and labor unions were protected by the First Amendment, which struck down BCRA provisions—building on previous campaign finance laws—banning these types of expenditures.

A few months later, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals applied the decision in Citizens United to the case Speechnow.org v. FEC. The federal judges decided arguments that unlimited independent expenditures would lead to corruption were invalid. The chief judge noted that these arguments “plainly have no merit after Citizens United.” These two cases paved the way for the creation of super PACs and the growing power of 501(c) 4s.

Man that is some byzantine postmodern influence peddling, in contrast to a couple jugs of hard cider and a set of wooden teeth. I am aware that most of Digby’s regular readers are much more politically astute than I. But for someone like me, who doesn’t know a “501(c) 4” from a petit four…you have to literally draw me a picture.

Thankfully, the “star” of Reed’s documentary, investigative journalist and founder of the online Montana Free Press John S. Adams, does just that at one point in the film. He summarizes thus: “[Backdoor corporate campaign financing via super PACs] is not the people controlling the government. It’s a government, controlled by a corporation, controlling the people.”

Reed has found two perfect framing devices for her treatise; firstly, Adams with his mission to expose the insidiousness of elections that are (“thanks” to the Citizens United ruling) bought and sold by untraceable corporate money, and secondly the state of Montana itself, posited as the “front line” in the fight to preserve fair elections nationwide.

Montana makes a fascinating case study on many levels, from its “citizen legislature” (a unique practice shared by a handful of states), to its history of campaign finance reform (e.g. the “Corrupt Practices Act of 1912”). Rich in resources, the state has a sad tradition of being exploited by special interest groups; every level of their political system is dominated by corporate interests (not unlike many Third World countries, n’est-ce pas?).

Reed takes a few side trips around the country as well, to illustrate the many tendrils of dark money interests. For example, she points to the 2010 election of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, whose victory was due in no small part to the Koch brothers-funded conservative political advocacy group Americans For Prosperity. Walker is also held up as an example of how crucial the control of state supreme courts is to dark money interests (pointing to his cronyism in appointing some of his major supporters as justices).

Admittedly, it’s all a bit of a downer. Still, Reed gives us glimmers of hope here and there. Case in point: Beginning in February 2019, right here where I live, in Seattle, the “Democracy Voucher” program will kick in. As explained on the Seattle.gov website:

In November 2015, Seattle voters passed a citizen-led initiative known as “Honest Elections Seattle” (I-122). I-122 enacted several campaign finance reforms that changed the way campaigns are typically financed for Seattle candidates.

One major reform allows the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission to distribute “Democracy Vouchers” to eligible Seattle residents. Other campaign reforms include campaign contribution limits for lobbyists and contractors.

Seattle is the first city in the nation to try this type of public campaign financing. The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission is committed to increasing transparency, accountability, and accessibility for how Seattle elections are financed.

It’s a start. But Seattle is only one city, and it’s a big country (and look who’s in charge).

If “dark money” is the antithesis of “democracy” to you, and gives you cause for concern, then this film is in your wheelhouse. Granted, if you are a political junkie Reed may be preaching to the choir, but her film is accessible enough to work for the casually engaged and/or wonky-curious voter as an easy-to-digest primer on a complex (and timely) issue.

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Greed is the lack of confidence in one’s own ability to create.

-Vanna Bonta

Here’s a stupid question: Who wants to be a millionaire? Yeah, pretty much everybody. But is a million enough? And if not, why not? Why is it always “more more more (how do you like it, how do you like it?)”. And why are people who have more than they could ever spend so goddam unhappy until they can figure out a new way to make even more?

In 2008, filmmaker and photo-journalist Lauren Greenfield set out to answer those questions. The culmination of her decade-long project is a “multi-platform” release including a museum exhibition, monograph book, and the documentary Generation Wealth. This is solely a review of the film portion of Greenfield’s triptych.

Spurred by the accelerating worldwide obsession with wealth and all that it implies, Greenfield literally goes all over the map (L.A., Monaco, Russia, China) in this sprawling study. She profiles a jarringly disparate cavalcade of subjects, from porn stars and plastic surgery addicts to convicted Wall Street swindlers; people who have gained and lost fortunes, people who live beyond their means to feed their narcissism, to people who got fucked up because they were born into wealth…pretty much the entire, erm, rich pageant.

It’s a great concept, and I understand what she was trying to do, but unfortunately, the project turns into a case of the dog finally catching the bus but not knowing what do next. Adding to the unfocused approach, and glorified reality show memes, Greenfield does a 180 and turns the camera on herself and her family.

In a tangential sense, this reminded me of one my favorite documentaries, Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March, which began as a project to retrace the Union general’s path of destruction through the South but ended up as rumination on the eternal human quest for love and validation, filtered through McElwee’s search for the perfect mate. Now, there’s one thing money can’t buy.

Beguilingly mondo: The Misandrists (**½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 30, 2018)

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If you were to stuff Clint Eastwood’s The Beguiled, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Third Generation, and John Waters’ Cecil B. Demented in a blender, the result would be along the lines of Bruce La Bruce’s “best seen through your fingers” sociopolitical satire.

Truth be told, a quick insert or two of genital surgery footage and hard-core gay porno clips aside (“Not that there is anything wrong with that!” to paraphrase Seinfeld), I was able to get though most of The Misandrists without having to watch through my fingers (I feel it my duty as a film critic to caution sensitive and/or squeamish viewers up front).

La Bruce’s film opens playfully enough (in the year 1999), with two young women amorously frolicking in a field. It’s all fun and games until they stumble upon a grievously wounded anti-corporatist leftist who is fleeing from the law. He begs for help. The young man’s unexpected appearance not only disrupts the couple’s rapturous state of Sapphic bliss but ignites hotly contentious debate over whether they should help him out.

Compassion wins out, and the pair surreptitiously squirrel the young man away in the cellar of their rambling, somewhat gothic girl’s school. This isn’t just any girl’s school; it is the “stronghold” of The Female Liberation Army, lorded over by a Strangelovian headmistress addressed as Big Mother. Big Mother has big plans-namely, to snip the “man” from “mankind” and establish a dominant female world order. She demands her girls stay focused and in peak shape and does not suffer “laggards” gladly (is she strict!).

Big Mother’s Doomsday Machine? A camera, some lights, and some hot girl-on-girl action. If all goes as planned, she and her girls will produce, direct and distribute lesbian porno movies that are so autonomously beautiful and liberating that the world will come to its senses and realize how superfluous men are, after all. But you know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and radical feminist terrorist cells. Obviously, the potential discovery of the young man convalescing in their midst is a ticking time bomb.

La Bruce’s mélange of retro radical chic, feminist revenge fantasy, broad political satire and in-your-face campiness has flashes of inspiration; however much of it seems ladled on purely for shock value, or as a patch-over for lazy screenwriting. Still, I would not necessarily discourage dedicated fans of outsider cinema, nor open-minded filmgoers seeking out a true alternative to standard summer blockbuster fare from giving it a peek.

SIFF 2018: A Good Day for Democracy ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted at Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 2, 2018)

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I don’t need to tell you that democracy is a messy business. But when working correctly, it’s a good kind of mess (Mussolini made the trains run on time, but at what price?). Cecilia Bjork’s purely observational peek at “Almedalen Week”, an annual event held on Sweden’s isle of Gotland that corrals politicians, lobbyists, and everyday citizens into a no holds-barred, all-access setting serves as a perfect (albeit messy) microcosm of true democracy in action.

SIFF 2018: My Name is Not Rueben Blades ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 26, 2018)

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Abner Benaim’s intimate portrait of polymath Rueben Blades is full of surprises. For example, you wouldn’t think an accomplished singer-songwriter-musician, actor, Harvard-educated lawyer, politician and social activist would find time to geek out over his sizable comic book and memorabilia collection. “You’re the first ones to film in here. I don’t let anyone in here,” he tells the filmmakers, leading them into this sanctum sanctorum within his Chelsea, NY apartment, wistfully adding, “You’re the first and the last.” Wistful, perhaps because he is now voluntarily closing a major chapter of his life (touring and performing) to focus his energy into running for President of Panama (as one does). An inspiring film.

SIFF 2018: Happy Birthday ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018)

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Remember that generation-gap comedy, The Impossible Years? The one where David Niven plays a Professor of Psychology who has to deal with with the embarrassment caused by his free-willed hippie daughter’s shenanigans? Writer-director Christos Georgiou’s family melodrama reminded me of that 1968 film…except here Niven is a Greek cop, and his teenage daughter is a wannabe anarchist. After Dad spots his daughter hurling projectiles at him and fellow officers during a demonstration, tension at home comes to full boil. Mom intervenes; insisting the pair take a time out for a weekend at the family’s country home-where they can hopefully reconcile. What ensues is a kind of family therapy session, which becomes analogous to the sociopolitical turmoil plaguing modern Greece. The film is slow to start, but it becomes quite affecting.