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Review: “2016: Obama’s America”

Last evening I was invited to a private screening of “2016: Obama’s America”, which is based on two books by conservative author Dinesh D’Souza.  As a conservative myself and someone who appreciates a good story, well-told, I found there was much to appreciate about this film.  Unfortunately, I came away from it wondering who the intended audience of the film was, and whether the movie strayed into moral and logical paradoxes which make it impossible for me to recommend.  This review will probably not win me any friends on either side of the aisle, but there you are, so let’s dive in.

Despite its title, this film is not really about what America will be like 2016 if Mr. Obama wins a second term this November.  Instead, it is an exploration into the question of who our 44th President is, deep down.  While D’Souza does include some discussion about what might happen at the end of a second Obama Administration, the bulk of the film is spent establishing some of the possible motivating factors which brought Mr. Obama to where he is today, pointing to some of the aspects of his views that may have their roots in Mr. Obama’s family background. D’Souza then allows us to draw our own conclusions about what an Obama second term would be, based on these background observations.

For one thing Mr. Obama was lied to in the early part of his life about his father, as becomes very clear in this film, even though the imaginary father he created for himself was something he sought in his future relationships. His family and later he himself associated with people whose political views would horrify most of us, and these people left an indelible impact on how Mr. Obama sees the world around him. The portrait that emerges from D’Souza’s film is of someone who has a massive chip on his shoulder, with something to prove to himself and to others, i.e. that he was more than just the illegitimate son of a Kenyan leftist Lothario who never amounted to much of anything. If you are at all uncertain as to the question of whether Mr. Obama grew up surrounded by some very deeply disturbing political ideas, this film will put that question to rest.

Yet to what extent has that influence shaped Mr. Obama’s views on domestic and foreign policy? This never becomes entirely clear, since D’Souza understandably finds Mr. Obama’s family somewhat more interesting than Mr. Obama himself.  In one of the more fascinating parts of the film for example, D’Souza sits down for an interview with one of Mr. Obama’s half-brothers, George Obama, a man who somewhat eerily has many of the same expressions and gestures of the President.  Unlike Mr. Obama, his younger brother seems more of a practitioner of realpolitik, pointing out that Kenya was economically and politically more advanced than South Korea when it achieved independence, but had subsequently slipped into being a third world country.  George Obama, however, does not believe his older brother owes him anything, for since the President is off running the world, he sees himself as benefiting by extension, as a citizen of the world, from what Mr. Obama does.

Of course the problem is that Mr. Obama has not done very much to improve the world over the past four years, despite his by-default mandate to do so.  There must be something terribly difficult for Mr. Obama to have been fighting or looking down his nose at the establishment all his life, and to suddenly wake up one day and realize that now, he IS the establishment – for if we are talking about being at the top of the secular pecking order on this planet, POTUS is as high as you can go.  One of the problems faced by those who are both opportunists and idealists, as Mr. Obama unquestionably is, is that once you get to the position of power and influence that you hoped you would, people will expect you to actually do something.  The problem faced by this country is one of economic downturn and geo-political uncertainty, but the battles – or as D’Souza puts it, “the “dreams” – of Mr. Obama have more to do with righting perceived wrongs outside of the state he governs, for in his mind that state created or exacerbated these problems.

That being said, there are a number of problems with this film which, while they might be lost on a general audience, caused me some concern.  There is for example an oft-repeated scene of a youth – presumably meant to represent Mr. Obama himself – kneeling down in front of the actual tomb of Mr. Obama’s father.  The actor picks up a handful of dirt, and strews it across the top of Barack Senior’s grave, presumably recreating something Barack Junior did or might have done.  Whatever you think of Mr. Obama, I find it morally difficult to justify filming such a scene.  Imagine if the grave were that of your own father, and you can understand what I mean.

Another issue has to do something which D’Souza takes great pains to establish in his narrative: Mr. Obama comes from somewhere that is not America.  D’Souza is not a conspiracy theorist, so those who believe that Obama was not born in the United States, or hold that 9/11 was a plot by the Bush Administration, or run a tinfoil millinery business will be very disappointed.  Yet what D’Souza does in the film is to show Indonesia and Kenya, where Mr. Obama grew up and where his father’s family hails from, respectively, as places not unlike D’Souza’s native India, with scenes of people picking through gigantic mountains of garbage, and with filth, poverty, and anti-Western viewpoints everywhere.

And herein lies a problem with D’Souza’s argument, or at least his presentation of it.  The filmmaker points out how much he and Mr. Obama are alike, from the year of their birth, the childhood they experienced, their academic careers, and so on. However D’Souza later draws the conclusion that Mr. Obama’s America cannot be what most Americans think of as America, because Mr. Obama’s background is nothing like that of ordinary Americans.  Yet arguably by that logic, if Mr. Obama cannot understand America because, according to D’Souza, his experience and understanding is so foreign to the average American, then neither can D’Souza understand America, since he, too, grew up in an environment nothing like that which most Americans experience.

Finally, there is the question that one cannot help but ask oneself when leaving the cinema at the conclusion of this film. Who is the intended audience for this piece: is this meant for the masses, or is this a party piece for the elites? Whatever impression the posters and trailers for the film may give, “2016″ is not a populist propaganda documentary, a la Michael Moore, so there is little in the way of red meat.  For the average viewer who has made a limited study of history and political theory surrounding topics such as imperialism, distributism, and so on,  I wonder whether the film will come off as too elitist for mainstream consumption. This itself is a problematic conclusion, for leftist elites will not change their allegiance to Mr. Obama, and conservative elites already disdain him, thus leaving the film with nowhere to go.

Of course the reader will have to make up his own mind if and when he chooses to see the film. As a storyteller, D’Souza does a brilliant job of weaving together the threads of his narrative, in a way which anyone who appreciates a complex script or novel will appreciate: you have to stick with it until the end, but then everything gets wrapped up nice and neat, with a bow on top. There is no doubt that Mr. Obama’s background is a strange and, at times, rather disturbing tale indeed.  Yet at the same time I found this to be perhaps too specialist a film, with a few too many questionable judgments made by the filmmaker, for me to unreservedly recommend.


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Review: New Territory

It is not often that I engage in a bit of nepotism on this blog, so I hope that the reader will indulge me in allowing me to say how much I enjoyed watching my youngest brother’s new short firm, “New Territory” this weekend. It was shown on the big screen at the historic Allen Theatre near my home town, and has been submitted for consideration to a number of film festivals around the country. If you have the opportunity to see it, I believe you will find as I did that its combination of nostalgic introspection and stark realism is compelling, beautiful to look at, and thought-provoking.

My brother’s film was based on a short story by our father, and features costume design by our sister, and thus is a real family affair. Shot in the pastoral Southern Pennsylvania countryside where we grew up, the film captures the experiences of three young children playing in the fields and woods of this bucolic part of the world. As part of their play, a violent event occurs which I will not describe in this review, but which has a dramatic impact on all three of the characters. The viewer comes away realizing that this is a watershed moment, in the type of coming-of-age experience which marks the beginning of the transition from childhood to adulthood, which will have an impact on each of them as individuals, and also in their relationships with one another.

It is always a bit difficult to look at the work of someone you love with a critical eye, for you cannot help but have a deeper understanding of and sympathy for what that person is trying to do. That being said, in all of his films my brother has exhibited a very palpable sense of both place and light that makes viewing his work an engrossing experience. For example, in one scene in “New Territory” he captures pools of light breaking through an overhead canopy of branches and creating illuminated patches on a forest floor, juxtaposing this with the flow of water over pebbles in a stream, which reflect and shine in much the same way. His attention to detail and craftsmanship succeeds in making the viewer feel the heat of the sun out in the pasture, or the coolness of dirt being dug under the trees.

As he mentioned before the movie was screened, my brother broke several of the cardinal rules of cinema in making this film. He worked with child actors for a start, who had a bit of acting experience in commercials or local theatre, and yet were still somewhat raw, unaffected performers; he also, as it happens, worked with animals. The use of the just-starting-out actors in particular, none of whom give off that cloyingly saccharine “show kids” vibe one gets on programs like “Toddlers and Tiaras” or “American Idol”, brings an authenticity to the film which more experienced actors would have been unable to evoke. It adds to the realism of the piece, even as the camera lingers over details of the landscape in a dreamy way.

Moreover because the speaking roles in the film are of the somewhat taciturn variety, the camera does much of the work in telling the story, as it captures the expressions on the faces of the children as events unfold. We are thereby allowed to read what our own thoughts would be, if we were placed in the same set of circumstances as they are. We may find ourselves identifying with each of the three characters in turn, as we remember moments when we behaved or reacted in the same way as they do.

Suffice to say, I am very proud of my brother’s achievement in this piece, and I will be sure to inform my followers if it will be showing at a location near you in the coming weeks and months.

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Film Review: “Page Eight” (2011)

I had been looking forward to seeing “Page Eight”, the BBC film which garnered some good reviews earlier this summer in the British press when it premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival, and which aired last night on PBS’ “Masterpiece Contemporary”. With a cast of accomplished actors that includes Bill Nighy, Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Michael Gambon, and Judy Davis, and a plot that promised to pit the different branches of British intelligence against each other, the package sounded too good to resist. Unfortunately, after unwrapping all of said package’s eye-catching trappings, one is left with something so utterly muted and boring, that one wonders how one is perceived in the eyes of the giver.

The somewhat complicated plot involves a memo in which we Yanks have been doing some rather bad things, and Downing Street is seeking to cover this up as it moves toward replacing MI-5 and MI-6 with something more akin to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The film then revolves around who is doing this, and why, and efforts to either release or stifle this information. Normally this would be a recipe for something at least marginally interesting. Unfortunately, from the get-go the film never really “goes”.

As is inevitably the case in these sorts of films, there is a great deal more talking than action, which is not necessarily a bad thing when it is handled well. The “House of Cards” series, for example, involved complicated political intrigue and lots of conversation, and never dragged in the way that “Page Eight” does. The languid pacing of people standing around, speaking sotto voce about how tired they are simply makes the viewer – or at least this one, at 9pm on a Sunday – rather tired himself.

When you have a cast of the quality of that assembled for a project like this, who are capable of some extraordinary feats of acting, creating this kind of group, it is hoped, will lead to fireworks on screen. Yet most of the actors here seem to be searching about for some sort of direction as to who exactly they are supposed to be. Michael Gambon is killed off fairly early on, regrettably, while Ralph Fiennes does what he usually does post-”Schindler’s List” which is to stand about trying to seem menacing – while looking more like he is about 5 foot 8 instead of his actual 6 feet tall.

Bill Nighy was more interesting as a vampire in “Underworld” than in this film, which he has to carry as the lead. The normally-adept Judy Davis can’t seem to decide which sort of British accent she wants to emulate from scene to scene, and sometimes from line to line. There is however, a beautifully shot sequence between the two of them which begins with Davis striding down a dark, London street in a scarlet coat, to meet Nighy in a restaurant for an incredibly tense conversation. Unfortunately there is not enough of that to keep either the actors or the viewers particularly interested in what happens next.

And then there is the dialogue, which is a mixed bag at best. Sometimes, the back-and-forth about politics and espionage starts to approach the level of crackle that you would hope for in a production of this quality, but just when you think they are about to pull something interesting into the film, it seems to fall back into soap opera writing.I quite literally winced at one point, when Rachel Weisz’ character turns to Bill Nighy’s and says, “I thought I’d never learn to feel again.” I had to double-check the clicker and make sure I was not watching an episode of “EastEnders”.

One of the more unappealing aspects of the plot was the film’s use of America as a kind of moral bogeyman.. On this side of the pond of course, particularly when filming a costume drama, we are not loathe to make the British the “bad guys”, as it were, thanks to that little unpleasantness after 1776. Yet generally speaking we do not make the British our enemies in our contemporary espionage films, but rather our allies – or at the very least our colleagues.

The fact that “Page Eight” paints Americans as being immoral, or at best amoral, and their influence as a corrupting one on the British government, is nothing new, for it has cropped up in a number of British films which I have seen in recent years. Indeed, even on my beloved television series “MI-5″, as the BBC’s “Spooks” is known in America, “The Cousins”, as the Americans are referred to, are more often treated as a potential threat rather than a helpful partner. Perhaps this is because Britain’s influence in the world is not what it was, and so certain British filmmakers feel that this is the only way they have to combat what they perceive as being America’s bad influence on their own country. And perhaps because this was a film made for a British audience, rather than an American one, it would hardly be right for me, as a non-Brit, to complain about this plot device: but there it is, all the same.

The tricky part of doing an ensemble cast of highly-skilled actors in any film, it seems to me, is to make sure that they all balance each other out so that everyone gets to shine, rather than one or two eclipsing the others, or everyone going at it in a free-for-all trying to out-do one another. Unfortunately in this film, whether because of the sluggish plotline or the sometimes chuckle-worthy dialogue, this brilliant group of players seems wasted, lost in a kind of gray funk on screen from which they can never emerge. And while there may be the occasional flicker of interest or intrigue, by the end one simply does not care what happens to any of these people, which is why the piece fails.

Rachel Weisz and Bill Nighy in “Page Eight”

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The Courtier Reviews: “The Debt”

The British film “The Debt”, which opened here in the U.S. this weekend, is a remake of an Israeli film from a few years ago of the same name.  It deals with a great many themes, too many to address in a single blog post.  However if you are prepared, gentle reader, to challenge yourself and go see this film, you will not only find it entertaining – with plenty of Hitchcockian touches and John Le Carré thrills, punctuated by some superb acting – but you will also find it challenging, raising a number of issues for the thinking man to consider.  And one of the most fundamental of them, for this reviewer, was its frank look at the question of evil.

The film is a tale told in flashback, but not in a strictly linear fashion, meaning the viewer must actually pay attention to what is going on.  I have seen several reviewers complain about this fact but personally, I found it engaged, as Poirot would say, the little gray cells.  That the filmmaker expects his audience to use their brains seems rather refreshing in an entertainment era when the stimulation of one’s brain – let alone the assumption that the viewer has one – seems to have been abandoned in favor of using the cheap and obvious to stimulate other bodily regions.

The film begins with a book launch event, in which the daughter of Helen Mirren’s character Rachel tells a story that has had a profound impact on the main characters of the film. Stefan, David, and Rachel, three agents of the Mossad, Israel’s legendary intelligence agency, are sent to East Berlin in the 1960′s to capture Dr. Vogel, a man who is working as a gynecologist but who had previously performed human experimentation in a Nazi concentration camp.  What happens to him, and to each of them, is woven into a story that at times is very much like one of the “Bourne” series, and at times reminiscent of films such as “Munich” and “Death and the Maiden”.

At the core of “The Debt” is a sequence in which the young Israeli agents hold their man prisoner, feeding him and keeping him clean against his will, until he can be sent to Israel for trial.  The way in which each of the three reacts to the old Nazi is telling about their character.  Stefan, being older than the rest and the leader of the group, never lets the prisoner speak to him.  He has seen his like before, and says he views the doctor as an animal; he mocks and shows his contempt for Dr. Vogel and his ideology by playing and singing a kind of slag-rendition of “Deutschland, Deutschland” on the piano.

The exchanges between Dr. Vogel and Rachel, and Dr. Vogel and David, are very different from his interactions with Stefan, in part because they allow him to speak, but also because neither of them treats him as Stefan does.  And here we move into somewhat different cinematic territory from either a spy film or Holocaust film, for as I watched these sequences my mind kept going back to two reference points: “The Exorcist” and “The Third Man”.  Of course, director John Madden is not deliberately evoking either of these movies, but if the reader will indulge me, I believe he will see why I made these connections.

If you have not seen “The Exorcist” in some time, or dismiss it as mere Halloween fare, you are missing the point. Spinning heads and pea-soup vomit aside, what is truly terrifying about the film is not what takes place physically, but psychologically, in the tony Georgetown home of Regan, the possessed young girl.  The Devil *knows* things about those who are holding him prisoner, and uses his uncanny, infernal mixture of knowledge and twisted reason to try to affect the hearts and minds of his jailers.  By causing them grief or doubt, he hopes he can take advantage of their indecision.

Similarly, the famous “cuckoo clock” speech in “The Third Man”, when Orson Welles and Jospeh Cotten are on the ferris wheel, employs a kind of logic of justification for acts of evil.  Harry Lime (Welles), realizing that his old friend is no longer entirely loyal to him after having seen the evil that Harry has done, points out that during decades of strife under the Borgias and others, Italy gave rise to Michelangelo, Da Vinci, the Renaissance, and all that flowed from it, whereas under centuries of peace and harmony, the Swiss only managed to produce the cuckoo clock.  It is an over-simplification, obviously, but it raises an issue that Harry – in loco diaboli – wants his listener to consider, in an attempt to save and justify himself: is “evil” really such a bad thing?

So it is that in “The Debt”, Dr. Vogel preys on Rachel’s emotions, and on David’s doubts.   Like Father Damian Karras in “The Exorcist”, Rachel is subjected to mental torture about the fate of her mother, which causes her to lash out at the demonic doctor.  She has, in several superbly restrained scenes, literally put herself in Dr. Vogel’s hands, but even though now the tables are turned and he is in her power, he manipulates his knowledge of her in deliberately painful ways.  He wounds her even though he is physically restrained, just as was the case with Linda Blair’s character of the possessed child, Regan.

Far worse in scope is Dr. Vogel’s challenge to David, about how easy it was for the Nazis to succeed in exterminating the Jews, and whether the Jews ought not to look at their own role in how the Holocaust took place.  Earlier in the film we learnt that David lost every single member of his family in the Holocaust, and cannot open up to others about his sense of guilt as to why that happened, and why he survived and they did not. Like Harry Lime’s cuckoo clock speech, Dr. Vogel’s words to David form an infernal over-simplification of a complicated subject, and yet the words have a profound impact on David.  My Jewish readers in particular may find this exchange difficult to watch, and even as a Catholic European-American it made me squirm, mentally.  I do not know whether this bit of the script was taken from the original, Israeli version of the film, having not seen it, but it is a profoundly disturbing bit of evil to put on film.

It is of course usually the case that evil does not gain control over man through physical attack, but rather through the subtleties of the mind.  From Adam and Eve being tempted by the Serpent into committing sin, to the rotting away of human decency through our educational, cultural, and political institutions coming to embrace and celebrate selfishness over self-sacrifice, Satan does not have to actually show up, horns and all, to throw us into chaos: all he needs is to put an idea into someone’s mind, and then twist it.  As Shakespeare writes in “The Merchant of Venice”, Act I Scene iii,  “The Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”

There are many good reasons to see “The Debt” – terrific suspense moments; interesting young actors whom I was not familiar with; the always-superb Helen Mirren, whose performances are much beloved of thinking men and women in this country; and so on.  It is not a perfect film, though I did not find its flaws to detract from the impact of the work. For this reviewer, the best recommendation I can make is to say it is a superb cautionary tale, showing how easy it is to allow evil to walk in and start affecting your thinking – and subsequent behavior – if you are not careful.

Helen Mirren as Rachel Singer in “The Debt”

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Senility at the Cinema

Those who know me personally are very much aware of the fact that I rarely go to the movies, and it is extremely difficult to persuade me to see a film I have either not read about or have no interest in seeing.  This is not to say that I do not enjoy watching films – quite the contrary – but rather there is so much garbage foisted upon our screens, and so little in the way of accomplished art, that I prefer to wait until a film gathers a significant amount of well-written reviews, and then rent it so that I can enjoy and study it in the privacy of my own home.  And with my interest and extended family in Spain, the reader could be forgiven for thinking that I prefer films from that country.

Unfortunately, many of the Spanish films that have made it to these shores over the past few decades have been rubbish.  With a few notable exceptions, they mainly feature celebrations of moral relativism and depravity, or weave revisionist tales of the Spanish Civil War, where everyone on the left is some sort of martyr and everyone on the right – and particularly the Church – is evil incarnate.  Of course, how an atheist/relativist can make a logical determination as to what is good and what is evil is another question entirely, but we will leave that incongruity as it stands.

So I was rather surprised today to learn from an interview with the elderly, leftist Spanish film director Vicente Aranda that the reason contemporary Spanish cinema is so repulsively bad is because of Spanish conservatives. Yes, you read that correctly.  Despite the fact that virtually every major film coming out of Spain since the 1970′s has featured themes such as explicit sex and violence, mocking of the Church and traditional values, and the like, Aranda believes that  “the Spanish right refuses to see Spanish cinema”, that there are no Spanish intellectuals on the right, and therefore “the most important historical issue in the country, the Civil War, cannot be touched because the right thinks that a film about this issue is always leftist.”

Before we turn to these assertions, let us start with a bit of background on Aranda himself, who is what old-school conservative Catalans would call a “xarnego”. Despite living in Barcelona for most of his life, Aranda himself is not a Catalan, but a non-Catalan peasant from another part of Spain.  As you might expect, his family supported the left during the Spanish Civil War, and he briefly emigrated to Venezuela for several years due to the climate under the Franco regime that followed.

Aranda’s first film was, tellingly, about a young man from small-town Spain, who moves to Barcelona to try to enter the urban haute-bourgeoisie.  He ultimately fails, and moves to Paris, where supposedly he will be happier than with the stuck-up well-to-do in Barcelona. As my grandfather would say, “¿No quieres? No puedes.”

Although Aranda had a late start as a film director, he soon found his niche in the 1970′s as a purveyor of smut for the leftist intelligentsia, including “Clara es el Precio”, about a middle-class housewife who becomes a porn actress, “Cambio de Sexo”, about a boy who wants to have a sex change, and “La Muchacha de las Bragas de Oro”, about a right-wing writer who is seduced by his niece into committing incest.  He continued to gain in notoriety through the 1980′s and 90′s, but his more recent films, including 2007′s “Canciones de Amor en Lolita’s Club”, about twins having trysts with the same prostitute, and 2009′s “Luna Caliente”, about a man who rapes the daughter of his friend in the period of the late Franco regime, have been flops at the box office.

Aranda’s assertion that there are no intellectuals on the right in Spain is hardly worth consideration, for I doubt he could tell an intellectual from a dilettante if one bit him on the posterior.  What is truly laughable is his assertion that it is impossible to make films about the Spanish Civil War, because Spanish conservatives will not go see them.  No doubt they will not, but that is only because there is a complete lack of balance to treatment of the subject in contemporary Spanish cinema.

I am not sure what sort of cave Aranda lives in, but there have been many, many Spanish films about the Spanish Civil War made by Spanish directors in the post-Franco period, which I personally have seen over the past 20 years or so. And in every single example I have seen to date, the film in question has a leftist point of view, from “¡Ay Carmela!” and “Libertarias”, to “Las 13 Rosas” and “Los Girasoles Ciegos”. There is, in fact, a surfeit of films about what happened to Spain before, during, and after the Civil War, and all of them favor, either explicitly or implicitly, the left’s side of the story. Aranda’s assertion that it is impossible to make films about this period is ludicrous, and not borne out by the facts.

While Aranda is no doubt correct in stating that your average, conservative, church-going Spaniard does not want to see films such as the ones he himself tends to make, this is probably because such a person does not want to have to wash out their brain with bleach and a scrub brush after seeing the filth which Aranda typically puts on the screen. However, the fact that Aranda himself is increasingly proving to be a failure as a director cannot be laid at the feet of conservatives who do not want to see his films. If the new, moral relativist Spain, which Aranda and those of his ilk helped to bring about does not want to patronize his work, perhaps it is because, like most men of his age, Aranda has lost his powers.

Unlike many conservatives, I do not necessarily eschew seeing a film that has a point of view very different from my own. However, I do feel that I am perhaps a bit more intellectually prepared for what I am to be shown, even if I am still shocked by the depravity that often passes for art in the present climate. Yet what I absolutely cannot stand is the assertion that if such art is not attracting an audience, that the problem is the audience, rather than the artist himself. It seems to me that if Aranda is dissatisfied with the state of Spanish cinema, that he has only himself to blame for turning it into the unwatchable, sideshow freak of an art form that it is today – and perhaps it is high time for him to pack up and head off to the retirement home, where he belongs.

Interior of the historic Cinema Coliseum in Barcelona


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