Two quick movie reviews

Food, Inc. (2008)

Food, Inc. is actually a documentary that will tell you probably far more than you want to know about where our food comes from today. How food is grown today bears little resemblance to how our grandparents grew their food. In case you were not aware, the family farm is virtually gone and our food is grown by large cooperatives. Unlike a century ago, most of it here in the United States is corn. As we learn, corn is like money in that it is completely fungible. It can and is manufactured into almost anything you can imagine, including batteries. In addition, because our Congress can’t say no to farmers, we subsidize corn, which means it is surreally cheap. Yes, our tax dollars are going so we can eat food that will kill us at incredibly cheap prices.

So rather than have our cattle do what they did for generations and eat meadow grass, we confine them to feeding lots, fatten them up with endless supplies of cheap corn and slaughter them prematurely. The situation is hardly any better for our poultry, the vast majority of which also eat corn, live in stuffy Gulag-like chicken houses and never see the sun.

Because our meat comes from animals that are not eating what they should, and they live in close quarters, and because we give them plenty of antibiotics, there are lots of unhealthy and unintended consequences. If like me you knew most of this, Food, Inc. is still worth seeing because, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. What you learn about the Monsanto Corporation may also disturb you. The evidence of all the unhealthy processed food we are eating is all around us and for many Americans, it is also on their waists.

Ignore this documentary at your peril. If you know you need to eat more whole and organic foods, this movie will give you the motivation you need. It should scare the hell out of all reasonable people and have you driving past the plentiful roadside temptations designed to fatten you up for premature death and heart disease. I’d like to say this documentary is timely, but really, it was needed a couple decades back. Make a note of April 21st because if you haven’t seen it, and even if you have, it will be broadcast on PBS in celebration of Earth Day.

21 (2008)

What were you doing at age 21? Most likely, you weren’t looking for $300,000 to pay your way through Harvard Medical School. Ben (Jim Sturgess) is 21, completing his bachelor’s degree at MIT, happens to be both brilliant and mathematically gifted, yet still cannot get his scholarship into Harvard Medical School. Fortunately (or unfortunately) one of his professors, Professor Rosa (Kevin Spacey) recognizes his mathematical brilliance. Rosa quickly includes Ben in a private little club consisting of mathematically gifted students who develop amazing skills counting cards. Working as a team, they spend their weekends in Las Vegas playing blackjack using legal means, but which entails certain bodily risks if the loss prevention folks at the casinos figure out what you are up to. Rosa is a former card shark himself who stays in the game via the proxy of his students.

For a gifted but shy student like Ben, this peculiar weekend gig has some great bonuses beyond the surreal quantities of cash he quickly earns. This is because the cool kids he hangs out with include Jill (Kate Bosworth), the hottest (and one of the smartest) women on the MIT campus. Ben’s feelings for Jill begin with a hormone rush, which quickly turns into a serious crush, but he suspects he is too nerdy to become her lover. One might say the odds turn in his favor. As long as they can strictly obey their rules in the casino, it looks like easy money for having a natural talent at basic math. Plus those limos and shopping sprees at upscale stores on The Strip are fun too.

Naturally, their luck will run out as they begin to get sloppy and start earning money. Ben’s friends back at MIT begin to feel estranged and wonder where he is on weekends. Living a dual life takes a toll on Ben, but after a while, he enjoys being a card shark far more than being a student. However, face recognition technology is catching up with their surreptitious behavior. Staying ahead of the casino security teams gets chancier with each visit.

21 is far more engaging than it would appear to be, even though we have a pretty good idea on how it will play out. Having been to Las Vegas a few times myself, it almost makes me wistful for the place again. Like Vegas, 21 is quite an entertaining movie. Moreover, it is hard not to feel the suspense as these young adults navigate through the weird world of big money Las Vegas. Along the way, Ben and his team members learn some major life lessons, but at least learn them early. 3.2 on my four-point scale.

Two flicks and a show

For your amusement, here are a few mini-reviews of movies and shows I have seen recently.

The Men Who Stare at Goats

If you put George Clooney, Ewan McGreggor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey in the same movie will it necessarily be funny? To me this was the existential question of The Men Who Stare at Goats. Funny is as funny does, and this movie does have its funny moments. However, this is no Borat or Brüno. Its humor is far subtler. Whether you will find it humorous or not depends in large part on whether you think its premise is humorous.

Its premise is that during the 1970s the U.S. military, afraid that the Soviet Union was winning the Cold War in the new psychic operations battlefield, decided to invest some time and money of its own to create a set of New Age psychic warriors. The movie does have some loose basis in fact. Jim Channon, a Lieutenant Colonel who served in Vietnam proposed a First Earth Battalion to the Pentagon. This new force would win the hearts and minds of the enemy by using tactics like positive vibrations and sparkly eyes. In real life, this did not get much beyond a Pentagon sponsored mailing list. In the movie, George Clooney plays Lyn Cassady, the most gifted of this allegedly defunct Special Forces unit. Among his talents is that he can stare at a goat with such intensity that it will keel over dead.

Ann Arbor Daily Telegram reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGreggor) runs into Cassady in the country of Jordon, who he soon associates with a crazy man he interviewed back in Michigan who told him about this Special Force. Before you know it, both he and Cassady are venturing into Iraq. Cassady apparently is on special assignment. Cassady uses his dubious psychological skills to outwit a few kidnappers, but they end up lost in the desert eventually, only to discover that a psychic corps is already out there. However, this group was contracted out, like much of our War in Iraq. The movie comes complete with lots of flashbacks where we meet the corps legendary founder Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), who is clearly playing Jim Channon.

The movie is strange but just plausible enough to suspend disbelief. It’s not a bad way to spend 94 minutes in a theater. It will keep your attention as well as keep you mildly amused. Ultimately, it tries too hard to make a movie out of a premise that has little humor in it. The main reason to see the movie is to see Clooney, McGreggor, Bridges and Spacey interact on screen and do their best with this thin material. I found myself chuckling at times but this is not one of those movies where you are on the floor laughing. It is probably worth renting but is nothing overly special. It is clearly aimed at the Catch-22 crowd. I give it a modest 2.8 points on my 4-point scale.

Paper Clips (2004)

I did not know what to expect of this documentary, but since it was on my sister’s Netflix list and she liked it, I added it to mine. Whitwell, Tennessee is the unlikely location for a story about understanding the Holocaust. Two teachers were looking for a project for students at the Whitwell middle school that would help them understand the magnitude of the Holocaust. Whitwell is one of these mostly lily white towns in the middle of Appalachia, and seemingly not fertile territory for empathizing with the plight of the Jews or learning about discrimination in general.

To help the students understand the magnitude of the Holocaust, the teachers start the students on a project to collect six million paperclips, one for every Jew killed in the Holocaust. The students start writing various people and organizations looking for donations of paperclips. At first, the paperclips trickle in, and then become a torrent. Each contribution is counted and meticulously cataloged. Soon, rooms are bulging with paperclips and the press is starting to pay attention.

The students make friends with actual Holocaust victims, who come to share their story. Over several years, succeeding classes of middle schoolers continue the project. Eventually the school receives an authentic boxcar that was used to transport Jews to concentration camps. It is turned into a memorial and filled, of course, with paperclips. You can visit the mini memorial today if life takes you through Whitwell, Tennessee.

The documentary succeeds in helping students insulated from the ugliness of much of the world understand the prejudice and discrimination inflicted on different people far removed from them. They open bridges into a wider world that they would otherwise not come in contact with. If the documentary has a flaw, it is that despite its premise it is not particularly engaging. It could have done with a lot less saccharine music. Still, it is an unusual story and worthy of capturing. If I were teaching in middle school it would be required viewing by my students

I’ll leave it unrated. If you feel you need a lesson in empathy, it is worth seeing.

The Music Man at The Kennedy Center

When you go to hear a musical in concert, particularly with a pops orchestra, you should not set your expectations too high. Last Friday, we took my father (age 83) to The Kennedy Center to hear the music from the musical The Music Man performed live by the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marvin Hamlisch. The Music Man is his favorite musical. Growing up we often heard the sound track to The Music Man during our languid Sunday mornings.

What we got was a greatly abbreviated version of The Music Man, partially staged in front of the orchestra. Shirley Jones, who played Marian the Librarian in the 1962 movie, was part of the cast. At 75, Ms. Jones is way too old to play Marian, and arguably way too old to play Mrs. Paroo, Marian’s mother. Actually, Rebecca Luker who sang and performed Marian’s part is also too old to play Marian, who is supposed to be 26. (Ms. Luker is 48.) It didn’t really matter though. Luker was terrific in the part, and made me wish I had seen her perform the full musical on Broadway back in 2000. Patrick Cassidy, the son of Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy, played Professor Harold Hill. He also directed the performance. Cassidy’s performance was not particularly noteworthy, but nothing for which he should feel ashamed.

The Washington Post found little to like about the concert except for Ms. Luker. The Post misses the point. The point of the concert was for us to hear Ms. Luker, enjoy an afternoon with the NSO Pops, check out Shirley Jones (who is aging very gracefully) and have a good time during a busy holiday weekend. I certainly had no expectations that I would be seeing anything of Broadway quality, which is why it was so nice to have Ms. Luker doing such an excellent job both singing and acting in the part. It was also nice to be four rows from both performers on a blustery November afternoon. After the performance, both Shirley Jones and Patrick Cassidy shared a few intimacies with the audience. Ms. Jones was pregnant with Patrick when The Music Man was being filmed. During the final intimate scene at the footbridge, Robert Preston felt Patrick kick and exclaimed, “What was that!” Twenty years later, Patrick related that he finally got a chance to meet Robert Preston. “Without missing a beat,” he said, “Mr. Preston said, ‘We already met.’”

The real treat for me was simply to see my father dabbing his eyes during the performance. It is hard to touch someone’s heart but on this one rare occasion, I fully succeeded. I am glad I was there to enjoy these moments with the best father a son could ever want.

Review: Fahrenheit 9/11

Michael Moore is a documentary filmmaker with an unapologetic liberal bias. He has created memorable and quirky documentary films including Roger and Me, which I’ve seen. That film explored the negative impact the auto industry had on his hometown of Flint, Michigan. (This happens to be where my wife grew up.) Moore has also tackled more controversial topics such as his movie Bowling for Columbine. That movie focused on the shootings by two students at Columbine High School in Colorado and how he believed it was precipitated by the easy availability of firearms in this country.

In Fahrenheit 9/11 Moore clearly goes for the jugular: the Bush Administration itself. The focus of the movie is Bush’s response to the attacks on 9/11 but it is a general indictment of Bush and everything associated with Bush. This movie is very controversial and there are right wing groups trying to keep it from even being shown. So I was surprised to find myself yesterday with a ticket (courtesy of my friend Renee) to the 7:40 PM show at the Cinema Arts Theater in Fairfax, Virginia. Needless to say all the tickets were sold out. Had not Renee bought them earlier in the week I likely wouldn’t have seen the film until much later.

There were two aspects to the movie. The first was the movie itself. The second was the controversy swirling around the movie. The owner of the theater put up a large sign next to the ticket booth justifying showing the film. The sign noted that the theater had also showed Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ despite objections from some on the left side of the spectrum at the time. The owner was more than a bit nervous about showing the film. Before the movie he went up and down the aisles asking questions from us. I doubt there was a Republican in the house. We were ready for the film and we were prepared to applaud.

But how was it as a movie? This is after all a movie that already won the Palme d’Or (best in show) award at France’s prestigious Cannes Film Festival just last month! Given such kudos my expectations were pretty high. I was somewhat disappointed but not too surprised that it did not live up to my expectations.

Yes, I had big problems with the movie. First of all let me assure you that I am no George W. Bush fan. I am actively working to get him out of office. And I subscribe to Michael Moore’s thesis, which is well articulated in the film, that the media in this country had a largely uncritical bias toward Bush and his war. Still Moore often plays fast and loose with the facts. He jumps to conclusions not necessarily warranted by the facts.

What Fahrenheit 9/11 really is is an emotional parry from this country’s left wing to the Bush Administration in general, and to the way they botched up our response to 9/11 and the Iraq War in particular. It tries very hard to succeed in connecting the dots between a close relationship between the Bush family and Saudi oil interests. And I actually did learn some new things I did not expect from the movie. This is very unusual for me because I am a political junkie. To find events in the movie that didn’t even get reported on DailyKos or Atrios is pretty amazing. I have to complement Moore for his research. Still in playing connect the dots in many cases instead of drawing straight lines between the dots, Moore is really drawing dotted lines. He spends a lot of time making inferences that are not really justified by the available facts.

The film itself tries to be organized but only partially succeeds. Like Moore it often rambles back and forth from point to point. One moment we are in Iraq, the next we are in Flint, Michigan. It’s unclear where the film is going and when it will end. It feels a bit long at about two hours. And most amazingly enough it leaves out large areas of the story that should be told to a general audience. In place of these crucial events we get disturbing but very effective close-ups of a mother who lost her son in Iraq, or of our troops conducting midnight raids on an Iraqi family’s house. What crucial events are missing? Well, for one the lack of connection between Saddam and al Qaeda, which is hinted at, is never explored in any depth.

Instead the film often rushes to be sophomoric where it could have been soared. We all know on some level that our leaders are human beings with human failings. Moore goes out of his way to make everyone in the Bush Administration look like jerks. In the process he really just lowers our opinion of him. We get lots of pictures of Bush prior to going on the air getting his hair retouched. We see many shots with Bush looking like a lost little lamb. We even see Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz licking a comb to retouch his hair and similar nauseating events. We also get a very grainy shot of a beheading in Saudi Arabia. We see war footage from Iraq including those horrible images of the charred bodies of our contractors dangling from bridges in Falluja. There are numerous pictures of victims of the war in pieces or with parts of their bodies missing. The R rating was I think well deserved. War is not a clean business.

The movie is perhaps a bit unfocused because it felt rushed to the screen. Incidents like the kidnapping of Thomas Hamill (not my brother!) are discussed. The film is also annoying because it integrates so much video footage with filmed interviews. Much of the film is consequently jerky and grainy.

Where the film succeeds though is on an emotional level. If you toss out its problems with connecting the dots and see it as a crass appeal to our emotions it succeeds quite well. Sometimes it does so brilliantly. The events of 9/11 themselves are largely heard, not seen. We hear sounds of the airliners crashing into the Twin Towers against a black screen. Eventually the black fades to the looks of horror in people’s eyes as they watch people fall to their death.

Thinking about it last night, this is the sort of movie Matt Drudge’s evil twin would make. Although I can appreciate Michael Moore and his style, he is hardly unbiased. He frequently substitutes innuendo and snide remarks for facts and logic. No person who calls himself or herself a liberal should accept this film uncritically. To do so in my mind puts them in the same category as those neo-conservatives who perpetrated Bush and his mistakes on this country.

Moore may be biased but the poignant moments scattered in the film are real enough. And you have to love those signature Michael Moore scenes. One happens when he is in an ice cream truck running around Capitol Hill. He is inside the truck on the loud speaker reciting the details of the Patriot Act to Congress, which had never bothered to read it. I also enjoyed his on the street interviews with congressmen he manages to accost. He gives them brochures for the armed forces so they will send their kids to fight in Iraq. (Only one member of congress has a son or daughter serving in Iraq.) During these parts of the movies you can’t help but laugh and forgive a lot of his other mistakes.

Is the movie worth seeing? Overall I’d say yes. Will it change minds? My guess is it probably won’t change many since the country is already very polarized. For weeks the crowds seeing it will be highly partisan. But perhaps it will be seen by more independents when it is released on DVD (hopefully long before the election). Then it might have impact that translates into votes. And while I am annoyed by Moore’s leaps of logic I find it hard to be too upset. There are plenty of beyond dispute facts in the movie that need all the publicity they can get.