Get Me Roger Stone


Roger Stone is about as conservative as it gets.

(2017) Documentary (Netflix) Roger Stone, Donald J. Trump, Paul Manafort, Tucker Carlson, Jeffrey Toobin, Alex Jones, Jane Mayer, Wayne Barrett, Henry Siegel, Matt Labash, Nydia Stone, Michael Caputo, Charlie Black, Ryan Fournier, Mike Murphy, Steve Malzberg, Kathy Tur, Timothy Stanley, Ann Stone, Danielle Stevens, Adria Stone. Directed by Dylan Bank, Daniel DiMauro and Morgan Pehme

 

When looking at modern American politics, specifically on the Republican side, it’s hard not to wonder how a party that at one time was the bastion of thinkers like William F. Buckley, populists like Dwight Eisenhower and gentlemen like Everett Dirksen has become the party of trash politics, of misinformation and exclusion, of divisiveness and corruption. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce Roger Stone.

Or more to the point allow this Netflix documentary to introduce him. Described by New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin as “the sinister Forrest Gump of American politics,” Stone has been at the center of much of the most important political changes of the last 30 years. At 19 he was the youngest person to be called to testify before a Watergate committee; he was also one of the innovators of PACs and Super PACs that transformed campaign finance. He was a disciple of Roy Cohn, the pit bull of a lawyer who was Joseph McCarthy’s attack dog and one of the most amoral political figures to ever walk the face of the Earth. He co-founded (with Paul Manafort and Charles Black a firm that became known as the “torturer’s lobbyists” for all the third-world dictators they represented.

Perhaps worst of all, he saw political potential in a real estate mogul named Donald J. Trump. Stone groomed him over more than 30 years, pestering him to run for President (but never pushing). He is given credit for getting Trump aboard the Birther train that essentially established him as a political figure. As a campaign advisor, Stone helped shape the vicious tenor of the campaign, often seen wearing a t-shirt of former President Bill Clinton (husband to the Democratic nominee) with the word “Rape” below in a snarky parody of the Obama “Hope” poster. Stone made sure the country thought of the former President as a rapist as prodigious as Bill Cosby, conveniently ignoring the fact that his own candidate had been accused of sexual assaults himself.

Stone is an affable fellow in person, a respectable raconteur that at first glance you might not mind having a drink or two with. However, it wouldn’t take long before you notice that mostly what Stone talks about in an underhanded way is himself. He has a tremendous ego and a need to be the center of attention; it is no surprise to anyone that the Trump campaign couldn’t handle more than one ego like that That’s likely the reason why Stone was removed from the campaign itself, although he continued to offer advice when asked and support Trump on his own.

The film is divided into sections headlined by what Stone calls “Stone’s rules,” a series of aphorisms that he uses to guide his political philosophy. Some of them are meaningless; “Business is business,” for example. What the hell else would it be? There are others like “Hate is a greater motivator than Love” which is cynical in the extreme but frustrating because he’s largely right in that case.

Stone is a master of dirty political tricks and feels no remorse for anything. His guiding principle is that winning is the ONLY thing. Stone would probably tell you that you can’t implement a political philosophy if you lose; only winners get to determine the course this country and indeed the globe takes. As far as Stone is concerned, nothing is out of bounds so long as it doesn’t violate campaign laws. If the truth is stretched and people misdirected, that’s all right. If people are gullible enough to believe the big lie, then they deserve the leadership they get. It is something of a page out of the Hitler playbook.

Yes, if you haven’t noticed by now I’m a leftie that Stone would be somewhat amused by. I don’t think he hates liberals; he just wants to beat them. The fact that he’s so good at doing so tends to frustrate the hell out of the left. It allows Stone to gloat and he does so with a smug expression on his face.

As far as getting to know the real Roger Stone, don’t bet on it. Stone is a master at creating images – anyone who can characterize a real estate billionaire as a man of the people has to be admired to an extent. Although the filmmakers are also liberal (which Stone jokingly warns his friends of) in many ways Stone controls the narrative here. Although the filmmakers turn the documentary into almost a black comedy that is as cynical as can be, it is Stone having the last laugh.

This is tailor made for those conservatives who take great satisfaction in twisting the knife into bleeding hearts. Liberals may have a hard time watching this, particularly towards the end. It’s hard to watch the soul of your country being corrupted by someone who doesn’t care what the effects of this amorality has on the psyche of a nation. I’m sure Roger Stone has no issue with the Vince Lombardi quote “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” but even Lombardi knew that there were some costs that were too high to make winning worth it.

What Stone doesn’t understand – could never understand – that when you corrupt the soul of something, it ceases being what you admired about it in the first place. Making America great again has nothing to do with the rhetoric spewed by Trump, Stone and their ilk – it’s in fulfilling the dreams of the founders and those that followed them, being the place that embraced the American dream rather than trying to cut it off from the masses so that only those who have already achieved it can benefit from it. That is the real tragedy of Roger Stone – in winning he has lost everything he was fighting for, and he doesn’t even know it.

REASONS TO GO: This is in a lot of ways a black comedy; the fact that it’s true is depressing.
REASONS TO STAY: The lack of ethics is very hard to watch at times.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stone’s political ideology was largely shaped by reading Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative at a young age.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: You’ve Been Trumped
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Ashes

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The 101-Year-Old Man Who Skipped Out on His Bill and Disappeared (Hundraettåringen som smet från notan och försvann)


101-year-old men stand out in any crowd.

(2016) Comedy (Netflix) Robert Gustafsson, Daniel Steiner, Caroline Boulton, Jens Hultén, David Wilberg, Shima Niavarani, Jay Simpson, Ralph Carlsson, Iwar Wiklander, Georg NIkoloff, Guhn Andersson, David Shackleton, Erni Mangold, Svetlana Rodina Ljungkvist, Eric Stern, Colin McFarlane, Cory Peterson, Shin-Fei Chen, Crystal the Monkey. Directed by Felix Herngren and Måns Herngren

 

Back in 2013, a Swedish cinematic adaptation of a bestselling novel The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared became a massive hit in Sweden, enough so that it was brought to America a couple of years later (and played the Florida Film Festival to boot). It was one of my favorite films from 2015 and is still one I watch periodically.

Now comes a sequel which while not getting a theatrical release here in the States is available on Netflix. The streaming giant hasn’t really promoted the film much, so much so that almost no major publication has reviewed it and it has gotten almost no advertising. Is it worth checking out?

The movie takes place a year after the first one; it’s Alan Karlsson’s (Gustafsson) 101st birthday. He is celebrating with his pals Julius (Wiklander) and Benny (Hultén). As they celebrate they drink a Soviet soft drink that puts a little more pep in their step. Realizing that there are no bottles left of the confection and that the formula could make them a mint, they go on an extended road trip to rediscover the formula. On the way they are chased by the CIA, Karlsson gets a job as a soft drink company executive and a monkey makes their lives miserable. Also the biker gang from the first film continues to chase them for the missing money.

While director Felix Herngren returns as does much of the cast, the sequel doesn’t hold a candle to the original. There continue to be Gump-like flashbacks to Karlsson’s colorful past (including meetings with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger) and Bennie continues to be the world’s most indecisive man – a shtick which is getting old at this point – but to the bad the make-up on Gustafsson is strangely less convincing than it was in the first film. Also the humor is a lot more pedestrian; it’s like the writers were trying to play it much safer than the first one. Maybe because this one is an original script rather than based on an existing property there’s a little less cohesion to the story.

For those looking for a good comedy to stream, standing on its own this isn’t bad entertainment. Fans of the first film however are going to be sorely disappointed.

REASONS TO GO: The characters are all nicely developed from the first film. Gustafsson is a gem.
REASONS TO STAY: This isn’t nearly as good as the first film. The humor is pedestrian and the monkey is annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, brief nudity and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The films that Crystal the Monkey has appeared in have a combined worldwide gross of more than $2.5 billion; this is her first Swedish-language film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/14/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Man Called Ove
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Goodbye Christopher Robin

13th


Outside the windows conditions remain murky.

Outside the windows conditions remain murky.

(2016) Documentary (Netflix) Angela Davis, Cory Booker, Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist, Ed Koch, Dolores Canales, Khalid Muhammad, Charles B. Rangel, Jelani Cobb, Kyung-Jee Kate Rhee, Nicholas Turner, James Kilgore, Bryan Stevenson, Kevin Gannon, Michael Hough, Ken Thompson, Marc Maurer, Michelle Alexander, Deborah Small, Marie Gottschalk. Directed by Ava DuVernay

 

The 13th Amendment was supposed to have abolished involuntary servitude (i.e. slavery) but it left a very deliberate loophole; convicted criminals could be sentenced to hard labor without remuneration. That has led to the exploitation of African-American males essentially since the Civil War ended.

Ava (Selma) DuVernay’s Netflix documentary is up for an Oscar for Best Documentary feature and it’s easy to see why. This serves as an important historical document on the history of racism right up to present day. Images from the D.W. Griffith master-race-piece Birth of a Nation are cheek by jowl with images of civil rights marchers being beaten and firehosed in the Sixties.

There are a lot of talking heads and oddly DuVernay identifies most but not all of them. Some of them are fairly well known – there’s no mistaking Rep. Charlie Rangel and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and those who watch Real Time with Bill Maher ought to recognize Grover Norquist but some of the speakers here aren’t as well known visually and some information on who is talking and why their opinion should matter would be welcome. I must say it was great seeing Angela Davis, who is currently a professor at UC Santa Cruz. She looks terrific and minus her trademark Afro she looks a lot different but the fire is certainly still there and the intelligence as well. She is one of the most engaging speakers in the film.

The movie shows how the prison system has moved from using convicts for hard labor, helping to rebuild the post Civil War south to the War on Drugs which filled prisons with largely African American males in for minor offenses to help Nixon and his appeal to hard line conservative “Law and Order” voters to today when prisons have been privatized and the despicable ALEC organization which includes several corporate incarceration facility entities among its members has written laws to help increase prison sentences and has led to a prison population that was just under 350,000 in 1970 to the 2.3 million prisoners the United States has behind bars today. As a percentage of our total population, we have more people in prison than almost any nation on Earth by sheer number of the incarcerated I believe we have the greatest number of prisoners of any nation. We’re number one!

The narrative sometimes gets strident and overly dramatic and I can understand the former but a little bit of restraint might have gotten the point across more effectively than the cinematic hysterics DuVernay sometimes indulges in. When you’re preaching to the converted, a little drama doesn’t make a difference but when you’re trying to win hearts and minds it can make things a little more difficult than it needs to be.

Still, even with all that this is a powerful and moving documentary that richly deserves the nomination that it received. I also found it impressive that DuVernay includes the conservative side of things as well which some left-leaning documentarians often fail to do. However, she never loses sight of the fact that she’s giving a voice to a segment of society that hasn’t traditionally had, or at least one that was being heard. If it is occasionally uncomfortable and strident it is forgivable. The point is that we are watching legal, institutionalized slavery going on under our very noses and unless we decide to do something about it as a people it will continue to go on for as long as the powers that be can get away with it.

REASONS TO GO: An important document on the history of racism. An impressive amount of conservative commentary is included. A voice is given to those who generally have to scream in order to be heard.
REASONS TO STAY: The film can be strident and occasionally veers into the overly dramatic. The graphic flashing of the word “criminal” every time the word is mentioned is irksome.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of foul language and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The title comes from the 13th Amendment which prohibits slavery – except in the case of convicted criminals.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/31/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Am Not Your Negro
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Underworld: Blood Wars

The Brainwashing of My Dad


The assault of the information age.

The assault of the information age.

(2015) Documentary (Gravitas) Matthew Modine (voice), Jen Senko, Claire Conner, David Brock, Craig Unger, Gabriel Sherman, Roger Ailes, Reese Schonfeld, Rick Perlstein, George Lakoff, Noam Chomsky, Thom Hartmann, Jeff Cohen, Thomas Medvetz, Steve Rendell, Edward S. Herman, Carol Wallin. Directed by Jen Senko

The phenomenon of right-wing media isn’t a new one, but in many ways it is at an apex currently. With Fox News being the dominant news channel in the United States, with Rush Limbaugh being one of the most popular radio personalities in the U.S. it’s a wonder that any liberals get elected at all.

Jen Senko noticed that her dad Frank, a World War II veteran and as a young man a Kennedy Democrat, was changing. He was getting more irritable and less tolerant of the opinions of other. He often sent profanity-laced messages to his wife when she’d disagree with his opinions online; he often denigrated the opinions of his own family and grew increasingly more xenophobic. What changed?

Senko, being a documentary filmmaker, thought the question was worth putting on celluloid. She places the blame squarely on Limbaugh, whose radio program her father began to listen to on his long commute from work, and on Fox News, which he often stayed up all night to watch. She feels very strongly that the messages sent out by FNC and right wing conservative talk radio actually changed the way her father thought.

She looks back at the history of mass media in this country and at one critical event; the dismantling of the Fairness Doctrine during the Reagan Administration, for example. The Fairness Doctrine required that holders of broadcast licenses present issues of public importance in a fair and balanced manner, and that an opposing viewpoint was given the opportunity to air. Under the guise that this violated the constitutional right to free speech, doctrine was abolished in 1987.

She also looks at Ailes, a media consultant under the Nixon Administration, and his determination to establish a right-wing presence in the media, which was perceived as being left-leaning. Under his direction, corporations and wealthy private citizens were encouraged to promote right wing agendas and influence institutions like the courts, higher education and media outlets. Ailes would go on to be hired by Rupert Murdoch to run his fledgling Fox News Channel, a position Ailes holds to this day.

Senko interviews a number of philosophers, media experts, linguists and grassroots activists who are out to stop the flow of misinformation and distortion they see flowing out of the right-wing media. Some of the information coming from these sources is eye-opening and thought-provoking. The more affecting moments in the film, however, come from family members who have similar stories to Senko about mainly fathers (and sometimes mothers) whose personalities changed after watching Fox News and listening to conservative talk radio, often parroting the intolerant views of Limbaugh and his ilk. These family members became suspicious and hostile towards anything non-white, non-Christian and of course, non-conservative.

Senko is an intelligent filmmaker who shows the progression of right wing media from its infancy to its current clout, and shows how the entire progression was orchestrated deliberately. Certainly it is impressive how well the architects of the current conservative media completed their mission not only to bring a right-wing voice to the media but to essentially drown out the left-wing voice.

Certainly there is a great deal of intelligence and thought behind this film and some of the conclusions that are reached are downright scary. However, I’m not 100% convinced that the change in the political landscape that we have seen is entirely due to “brainwashing.” While I would tend to agree that what is coming from Fox News, and other right wing commentators is essentially propaganda (and to be fair, left wingers are guilty of that as well), I can’t entirely agree that the process is brainwashing to the degree that the filmmakers claim. Some of the anger, the fear and the xenophobia that the right wing has played upon in its run to political dominance had to have been present all along, and that’s not really addressed. You can’t prey upon people’s fears if they aren’t already afraid.

Certainly this will be dismissed by those already leaning towards the red state of affairs; those who are diehard blue-staters will have their worst fears confirmed. The filmmakers make some very cogent points and I admire the way they break things down but I’m not entirely sure that they did all their homework. After all, there are no dissenting points of view here and isn’t that what the filmmakers are railing against?

REASONS TO GO: Thought-provoking and at times chilling. Will likely energize left-wingers.
REASONS TO STAY: Presents information in essentially a typical documentary style. Conclusions may overreach the facts.
FAMILY VALUES: Some challenging thematic material, and occasional bursts of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The animated sequences were provided by Bill Plympton.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Weapons of Mass Deception
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Hello, My Name is Doris

X-Men: Days of Future Past


Smile and the world smiles with you.

Smile and the world smiles with you.

(2014) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Lawrence, Peter Dinklage, Halle Berry, Omar Sy, Nicholas Hoult, Shawn Ashmore, Ellen Page, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Daniel Cudmore, Bingbing Fan, Adan Canto, Booboo Stewart, Lucas Till, Evan Jonigkeit, Mark Camacho, Zabryna Guevara. Directed by Bryan Singer

In the modern era of Superhero films, each franchise faces a particular problem – each succeeding entry in the franchise needs to be bigger and better, the stakes higher in order for the audience to continue to flock to the multiplex to see them. That is why, in my opinion, studios choose to go the reboot route rather than continue on with existing casts.

Bryan Singer may not necessarily subscribe to that theorem. He took the cast members of the X-Men: First Class reboot of the popular mutant superhero series and blended it with the original X-Men cast of his era and created a time-travel epic that carries the torch for both series’ nicely.

In a dystopian future, mutants have been all but eradicated as well as a good chunk of the human race. The Sentinels, giant robots with organic elements and an artificial intelligence that allows them to adapt to the various powers of the different heroes they fight, have become so powerful that not even the X-Men of the future can best them. The only humans left are those who agree with the agenda that mutants must be wiped off the face of the planet, using those who remain as slave labor.

Making a last stand in a Chinese temple are the remaining X-Men: Professor X (Stewart), Magneto (McKellen), Storm (Berry), Wolverine (Jackman), Bishop (Sy), Colossus (Cudmore), Shadowcat a.k.a. Kitty Pryde (Page), Blink (Fan), Sunspot (Canto) and Warpath (Stewart). They know that it is inevitable that the battle will be lost. They have only survived because Pryde has developed a plan in which she sends one of their members consciousness back a day to warn the rest that an attack is imminent so they can be elsewhere when the attack comes.

Professor X proposes that they do something similar but long-range. He has pinpointed the problem back to an event in 1973 – one in which weapons scientist Bolivar Trask (Dinklage), an anti-mutant hater of epic proportions, is assassinated by Mystique (Lawrence), the shape-shifting chameleon who was once the close friend of Charles Xavier (McAvoy) and later became the ally of Eric Lensherr (Fassbender) a.k.a. Magneto. She was later captured and her DNA was used to make what was already hard-to-defeat giant robots into nearly unbeatable sentient machines. The assassination also turned public sentiment against the mutants.

Sending someone back forty years is nearly impossible however. Pryde points out that “the human mind can only stretch so far before it breaks.” However Wolverine with his mutant healing power is the only one who can survive the trip. So it is that Mr. Cheroot first and Ask Questions Later is sent back to the Disco age where he will be given the monumental task of convincing the younger Xavier to try and find Mystique and stop her from her appointment with Trask.

Wolverine knows full well that it will take both Xavier and Lensherr to talk the headstrong Mystique who is angry and wounded over the deaths of several friends in Trask’s experiments on living mutants to discover what makes them tick. However, this is no walk in the park assignment. Xavier is bitter and angry over being shot by his old friend. He was paralyzed in the incident but a serum that Hank McCoy a.k.a. Beast (Hoult) developed allows him to walk and numbs the pain but also blocks out his powers. Xavier is just fine with that and really doesn’t give much of a flying you-know-what for the future but at last his conscience kicks in and he agrees to help Wolverine.

Getting Lensherr aboard is slightly more difficult. He is being kept in a metal-less prison hundreds of feet below the Pentagon – apparently he’s been blamed for the magic bullet that killed JFK – but Wolverine knows a guy. That guy is Peter Maximoff a.k.a. Quicksilver (Peters) who has superspeed and the attitude to match.

Of course, once they free Magneto he turns out to have an agenda all his own and now the clock is literally ticking – in the future, the Sentinels are approaching the temple where the remaining X-Men are holed up and Wolverine’s consciousness hangs in the balance.

This all sounds very convoluted and it is. I have deliberately left the individual powers of most of the different X-Men unexplained – it would just take too long. The issue I have with movies like this is that we get literally a dozen or more different characters most of whom are given short shrift or split screen time with a younger/older counterpart. When you have a cast that’s chock full of actors who’ve received Oscar consideration (there are eight of them), something’s got to give. Poor Halle Berry (who won Oscar gold) has almost no dialogue and only a couple of minutes of screen time although to be fair, Berry’s pregnancy prevented her from taking part in the movie as much as the producers would have liked. Anna Paquin (who also won an Oscar) gets no dialogue and less screen time than it takes to read this sentence and yet she gets star billing. Ah, the magic of Hollywood credits.

Despite this, the movie flows surprisingly well and those actors who do get more than a few moments of screen time make the most of it. McAvoy in particular does well with his self-medicating and self-loathing Professor a far cry from the suave and confident Professor X of his counterpart Patrick Stewart. We see the road that Xavier is taking towards the compassion and wisdom his character becomes known for and it’s rather fascinating. Jackman as well continues to make Wolverine his own and while it’s hard to make something new out of a character he’s played seven times, Jackman manages to accomplish that.

The supporting cast is pretty stellar and Dinklage is a superb villain. His Bolivar Trask doesn’t see himself as a villain but rather the facilitator who unites mankind against a common enemy. His enmity against the mutants is somewhat surprising considering that as a small person, Trask is himself an outsider within society. It’s a multi-layered role and a villain worthy of a broad canvas such as this.

As you’d expect the battle sequences are plentiful and well-done. The Sentinels are fearsome creatures that have expressionless faces that are all the more terrifying for their mechanical blankness. Lots of things get blown up real good, and there are plenty of fists, fur and energy beams flying through the ether, not to mention flames, ice and the occasional claw.

A warning to those unfamiliar with the X-Men comics; there is a lot that goes unstated in the film that may not make sense. For example, the Wolverine in the ’70s has bone claws and in the future, claws of metal. That’s because the metal infusion that changes the nature of his weapon doesn’t take place until later on in time. In fact, the man responsible, Stryker (Helman) makes an appearance as an ambitious Trask operative here – he’d be played by Brian Cox in X2.

What really saves this movie is the plot which is complex and intelligent. Some often snipe at comic books and the movies that are based on them for being dumb and loud, but this is certainly not the former (and only occasionally the latter). Some thought was given to the mechanics and ramifications of time travel. The movie also made a good effort in re-creating the time period. Just as First Class was something of a superhero Bond movie, this is a lot like a superhero conspiracy movie, complete with Tricky Dick, the military-industrial complex and lava lamps.

This is the kind of entertainment that is synonymous with summer and a perfect fit for a year which has been thus far an improvement over last summer. The X-Men have always been some of the most interesting of comic books with some of the most compelling themes in the art form. The apocalyptic vision of the future here however is nothing compared to what is to come in the next installment of the series which is teased in an extra scene following the credits.

REASONS TO GO: Some sensational action scenes. Riveting storyline.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many characters; may be hard for non-fans to keep up with all of them. May not make sense to those unfamiliar with the comic.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of comic book action and violence, some suggestive material, brief nudity and a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the comic storyline the movie is based on, it is Kitty Pryde who travels back in time, not Wolverine. The change was made for continuity reasons – in the 1970s Pryde wouldn’t have been born yet, whereas Logan is ageless and would appear exactly the same in both future and past.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Terminator 2: Judgment Day

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: A Million Ways to Die in the West

Forrest Gump


Forrest Gump

Life is like a box of chocolate.

(1994) Drama (Paramount) Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinese, Mykelti Williamson, Sally Field, Michael Conner Humphreys, Margo Moorer, Haley Joel Osment, Siobhan J. Fallon, Hanna R. Hall, Marlena Smalls, Geoffrey Blake, Dick Cavett, Nora Dunfee. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

 

Every so often a movie comes along that simply connects on a nearly universal level. It becomes a cultural touchstone, referred to for years after its release and most people will understand the references to it.

Forrest Gump is such a movie. It won six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Hanks (his second Oscar in a row after Philadelphia). Catch phrases like “Stupid is as stupid does” and “Life is like a box of chocolates” made it into the lexicon, not to mention “Run, Forrest, Run!”

Forrest Gump (Hanks) was born in Greenbow, Alabama to a mama (Fields) who rented out rooms in her large house to boarders, one of whom would turn out to be Elvis Presley. In fact, Forrest would have encounters with a number of historic, political and cultural figures of the 20th century throughout his life but he only has eyes for Jenny (Wright). She, however, had the rotten luck to be born to an abusive father and spends most of her life running away in one form or another whether that be through drugs or through a succession of skeezy men.

Gump isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier – in fact, he might well be the dimmest – but he attends the University of Alabama on a football scholarship and ends up going to Vietnam after his college days are over. There he meets Bubba Blue (Williamson), a fellow soldier who like Forrest is a bit on the slow side but Bubba still has big dreams – running a shrimp boat of his own from his home in Bayou LeBatre, Louisiana. They are under the command of Lieutenant Dan (Sinese), whose family has a history of sacrifice in war.

Things being what they are, Gump gets wounded in Vietnam and while convalescing discovers ping pong and turns out to be rather good at it. He goes on a goodwill tour of China and upon his return home goes on the Dick Cavett show along with John Lennon and inadvertently supplies the former Beatle with the lyrics of his most iconic song.

He also follows through on his promise to Bubba, buying a shrimping boat and taking on Lieutenant Dan as a first mate, is blessed with the good fortune of being the only surviving boat in Bayou LeBatre after a hurricane decimates it’s shrimping fleet. This enables Forrest to buy more boats and with Lieutenant Dan’s business acumen leading the way, becomes wealthy.

But all his wealth, all his fame mean nothing to Forrest Gump. What matters is his Jenny, the love he’s carried his entire life but she is damaged goods. Can she ever love a man who isn’t very smart?

Zemeckis has in many ways created a movie that captured America during its most tumultuous phase, from the 60s through the 80s. It is a country in turmoil, rocked with anti-war protests and a wide racial divide. America is growing up on its way to 200 years old, going from the self-confident 50s to the troubled 70s, from JFK to Nixon and beyond. Most of the major events of the era are touched by Forrest Gump in some way, whether directly or indirectly.

Hanks gives a performance that is going to forever be one of his most strongly identified. Hanks will always be Forrest Gump to a certain degree and justifiably so – while Forrest Gump is intellectually challenged (slow is how they used to term it), he has a good heart. He is in many ways the ultimate American – not book smart maybe, but hard working and kind. These are for the most part attributes that Americans admire, particularly these days when education is regarded with suspicion in some quarters.

There are those who have analyzed the film and criticized it (and the Winston Groom book it is based on) as promoting an anti-intelligence mindset, which I think is a bit harsh. Many have called it an embrace of conservative values and an indictment of the failure of the counterculture and liberalism in general. Forrest, who embraces traditional American values, is successful. Jenny, who embraces the criticism of those values, becomes a drug addict and the victim of abuse throughout her life; she only finds peace and contentment when she is with Forrest. Conservative politicians have often cited the film as an affirmation of their political ideals.

I do believe that the movie was meant to be more apolitical than it is now believed to be. Regardless of whether you believe this to be anti-intellectual and/or anti-Liberal, I think we can all agree this is wonderful entertainment and a terrific movie. It is most certainly one of the best movies of the 90s, and one of Hanks’ most memorable performances ever – reasons enough to check it out if you are one of the few who hasn’t already.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the classic movies of the 90s.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Seems to celebrate heart over smarts.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some drugs, a little bit of sex, a touch of violence and a modicum of swearing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The legs of Gary Sinese were wrapped in a special blue fabric so that they could be digitally removed during the post-production process.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains a trivia track that covers most of the music (hosted by Rolling Stone contributor Ben Fong-Torres) and a Q&A session of Zemeckis, Hanks, Sinese and producer Joe Roth at the University of Southern California on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the movie’s release. There are also some audition tapes as well as a plethora of featurettes on the special effects and sound of the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $677.4M on a $55M production budget; the movie was as big a blockbuster as it gets.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zelig

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: The American Experience concludes

GasLand


GasLand

When the country is too polluted to live in, country music will have to change too.

(2010) Documentary (Rooftop) Josh Fox, Dick Cheney, Pete Seeger, Richard Nixon, Aubrey K. McClendon, Pat Fernelli, Ron Carter, Jean Carter, Norma Fiorentino, Debbie May, Mike Markham, Marsha Mendenhall, Dave Neslin, Jesse Ellsworth. Directed by Josh Fox

It all started with an offer. A natural gas company offered filmmaker and activist Josh Fox a hundred grand to lease property in Pennsylvania for the purpose of extracting natural gas using a method called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” in which a liquid is injected into underground rock formations, causing them to crack after which the gas is released. The land is bucolic, a stream winding its way through forested terrain. Fox, understandably, wants to know how this will affect his property.

Therefore he decides to see how hydraulic fracturing has affected other places that it has taken place in and the results are terrifying. Populations of small towns having medical problems. Contaminated water tables (in one particularly gripping sequence, the resident of a place where hydraulic fracturing is taking place lights a match by his water faucet and incredibly, the water goes ablaze.

The people whose lives have been affected so adversely have no recourse, thanks largely in part to the 2005 Energy Policy Act, written by then-Vice President Dick Cheney, which exempted natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Which, when you think about it, is absolutely astounding – there are exceptions to bills that protect our drinking water. Thank you Haliburton.

Fox builds his case persuasively, talking to EPA officials, showing how the process of hydraulic fracturing works and how adverse effects can take place. This is actually quite an informative documentary in that it explains how the process works in terms even a layman can understand.

He also takes a look at the large picture and shows how environmental regulations have been eroded over the years and how energy and mining corporate interests have skewed them in their favor. It’s a chilling picture at how greed and the prospect of wealth have trumped common sense and responsibility.

Natural gas has been touted as a responsible alternative to fossil fuels and the lobby that represents the companies that are responsible for hydraulic fracturing has pointed out several factual errors in the documentary (although the filmmakers with the help of environmental scientists have refuted most of those claims). However, the process of extracting that alternative may be in the long run more damaging to our environment which is somewhat ironic.

Fox has created a cautionary tale about how companies will use whatever means at their disposal to make the most profits possible. Are there alternatives to fracking? Undoubtedly, although the documentary doesn’t give much time to them. However, the fact remains that there are alternative energy sources that are safer to the environment – they’re just not as profitable to big corporate interests and that means we’re going to get screwed in the long run.

WHY RENT THIS: A look at a very important issue not many people know about. Thoroughly researched and thought out.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Those looking for a balanced presentation won’t see it here.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words here and there, and some fairly disturbing subject matter.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actress Debra Winger is one of the producers for the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $49,428 on an unreported production budget; at best the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Midnight in Paris