Saturday, September 14, 2013

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Year 5, Day 257 - 9/14/13 - Movie #1,539

BEFORE: Well, I said I'd get back to narratives - but I never said there wouldn't be another connection to 9/11.  This is just how my mind works - one film's events (hopefully) leading naturally into another.  I've got another crossroads coming in couple days - do I stick with the Mideast theme and watch "Argo" and "Zero Dark Thirty", or save those for my war-related chain in two months?  I think, once again, I'll let the actor linking decide for me.

THE PLOT:  A nine-year-old boy searches New York City for the lock that matches a mysterious key left behind by his father, who died in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

AFTER:  And then, Hollywood screwed up 9/11.  Congratulations, someone found a way to both exploit AND trivialize the 9/11 attacks at the same time.   I know this is based on a book, and I haven't read that, so I can't really comment on it, but if that book is any good, then something appears to have gone horribly wrong in the adaptation.

Let me preface my comments by talking about "Let's Make a Deal", which is an old TV game-show that is now back on the air – the old version used to be hosted by a man named Monty Hall, and he has now lent his name to a math problem than spun out from the show.

Imagine you are a contestant on the program, and the host presents you with three doors.  Behind one is a fabulous prize, and behind the others are less-than-fab joke prizes, called "zonks".  You get to choose a door, let's say door #1, and then Monty reveals one of the zonks behind door #2 or door #3.  Now, you're given the chance to either keep the door you chose first, or switch to the remaining door.  Should you switch?

Some might think it's a 50-50 proposition – stand or switch.  But if you work out the probabilities, you actually have a 66% chance of winning the top prize if you switch.  I resisted this line of thinking for a while, but eventually ran all possible scenarios on paper and determined that the 66% odds are correct.  The reason this occurs is that the host is never going to reveal the jackpot location, and in fact by opening a door, he's trying to make the contestant believe that a new game has started, one with 50-50 odds, and in fact the old game is still being played. Door #1 had a 33% chance of concealing the jackpot when the initial choice was made, and those odds still apply, since none of the parameters have been changed.  Door #1 had a 66% chance of NOT concealing the jackpot, and those odds are later applied to the sole non-picked door.

To further prove this, you can expand the number of doors to 4, 10, or any number, really.  If you go up to 100 doors – in that scenario, the contestant has a 1% chance of initially picking the jackpot, and as doors get opened, and the total number of doors gets smaller, those odds remain at 1%.  Meanwhile, the 99% odds get re-distributed among the non-picked doors.  If there were, for example, 3 non-picked doors left, each would have a 33% chance of holding the jackpot, while the contestant's pick would still have a 1% chance. 

If offered the chance to switch doors at this point, it seems like a no-brainer.  But still, there would still be that 1-in-100 chance that the original pick was good.  Meaning, if you ran the scenario 100 times with 100 contestants, you might expect that only one of them would win the jackpot by holding on to their original pick.  (ah, but which one?) 

The reason I bring this up tonight – besides the fact that my wife and I played a mock version with three cups and proved the 66% winning ratio – is that this film does its own version of a shell game with its plot.  We're presented with a puzzle, a mystery, a quest, and it just doesn't pay off.  It's like the audience was forced to switch doors and ended up with a zonk for a prize.  I love puzzles, and to say I'm disappointed with the puzzle's answer in this film is an understatement.

So, the kid whose father used to send him on manufactured quests around the city (because THAT's safe...) tries to reconnect with him by sending HIMSELF on a wild-goose chase around the city.  Here's where the film broke down for me, because in thinking about the probability - there are over 8 million New Yorkers, and he essentially goes around knocking on random doors, asking people if they knew his father.  The odds of getting any result by doing this would be WAY less than 1%, but then again, Hollywood.

NITPICK POINT #1: This quest is set off by a word, which appears on a key envelope, which leads him to meet EVERY New Yorker with that word as a last name.  But that word is also a word, and a color - there's ZERO indication that the word is a name.  So, I'm forced to call "shenanigans". 

NITPICK POINT #2: Walking from Manhattan to places like Fort Greene, Brooklyn?  Glendale, Queens?  On kid-sized legs?  OK, not impossible, but again, highly highly improbable.  It would have taken him most of the day just to GET there, assuming he had the fortitude.  And then by the time he got there, it would be past the time where he'd need to turn around and walk back.  More shenanigans.

On top of that, the main character is both incredibly annoying and unbelievably precocious.  I doubt that combination of traits even exists in today's kids.  I get that his father died, and that has screwed up him up somewhat, but I think he was a bit funny to begin with.  Now, presumably as a result of 9/11 he's afraid of planes, bridges, subways, loud things, meat-eaters, plus he appears to have OCD, ADD, possibly Asbergers - at what point does someone decide that maybe this kid should be on medication, or be sent to a therapist?  No, just leave him alone, I'm sure he'll be fine.

When you think about who this kid is and what he's been through, is it appropriate to allow him to run all over the city, at (apparently) all hours of the day and night?  When does he go to school?  I guess he doesn't - again, he'll probably be fine.  What about "stranger danger" - killers, rapists, pedophiles, or worse?   Nope, he's got some stuff to work out, so all those concerns are immaterial.  What a crock.  You can't have it both ways, pointing out his fears and then also negating them at the same time.  

I'm leaving a bit out here, because I don't want to give it all away.  My mother gave away a key point of the plot to me, and I hate when she does that.  (The only time she declares "Spoiler Alert" is when she's checking the leftovers in the fridge.)  But that plot point also strained the bounds of credulity, and defied the odds of probability.  And on top of all that, the boy had a strained relationship with his mother, and as his quest started pulling them apart, in a fantastically unbelievable way, ended up drawing them closer together.  That should NOT have been possible.  What a crock.

Then we come to the shell-game of an ending.  To the film's credit, the quest does not succeed in the way the boy had hoped - because that would have bothered me more, I think.  There is some manner of unexpected success, but again it's mired in morose sentiment.  But celebrating the fact that this kid who was afraid to talk to people ended up making so many new friends along the way - this is like getting to the end of "Lord of the Rings", and having Frodo and Sam fail in their quest to destroy the ring, but they say, "Well, it's not a loss, since we got to meet Aragorn and Legolas along the way."  Sometimes it is all about the destination, and not the journey - at least, it should be.

Honestly, I would rather watch a film like "Rebirth" with real people talk about their experiences, than something with this level of manufactured sentimentality.  At what point does this become manipulation, an exploitation of the national tragedy?   Plus, it just doesn't make a lick of sense.

Starring Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks (last heard in "Toy Story 3"), Sandra Bullock (last seen in "Speed 2: Cruise Control"), Max Von Sydow (last seen in "Robin Hood"), John Goodman (last seen in "Trouble With the Curve"), Viola Davis (last seen in "It's Kind of a Funny Story"), Jeffrey Wright (last seen in "Quantum of Solace"), Zoe Caldwell.

RATING: 4 out of 10 oxymorons

Friday, September 13, 2013


Year 5, Day 256 - 9/13/13 - Movie #1,538

BEFORE: Sticking with the 9/11 documentary theme - will try to get back to narrative films tomorrow.

THE PLOT:  Filmed over the ensuing years after the attack on New York's World Trade Center, this documentary takes a look a the physical and emotional healing process involved in the aftermath

AFTER:  This is another powerful film relating to the 9/11 attacks, but details 9 years in the lives of 5 people who were directly affected - one woman who was badly burned, and 4 others who lost loved ones.  I did some background reading about the film, I think there were initially nine subjects but this got trimmed down to five, I'm guessing the strongest five.  And there were 900 hours of footage that got edited down to the final film, so again I'm guessing this was an exercise in focusing on the strongest material.

The director, Jim Whitaker, actually started by setting up time-lapse cameras at Ground Zero, in order to track the progress of the clean-up efforts, and later the rebuilding.  That footage is downright amazing, it's reminiscent of the time-lapse work that appears in the movie "Koyaanisqatsi", and this is further reinforced by the use of Philip Glass music in both films.  But at some point the project shifted, and the filmmaker apparently realized he was missing the human element, so the interviews began.

Not appearing in the film is footage from the attack on the Towers, or the collapse of the buildings, or the surrounding chaos.  There are some audio tracks from the day - really, that's all that's needed.  There are still shots of the destruction, and since they're set against people's recollections of the day, a powerful analogy starts to develop - the people are in some way as damaged as the skyline.

Annual interviews with the subjects are then mixed with footage of the PATH station being rebuilt, 7 World Trade Center being built, and then the construction of the memorial and the beginnings of the then-named Freedom Tower.  This is brilliant, because the construction becomes a symbol of the people's healing process, and vice versa.  After any personal tragedy, someone may go through a period of darkness, inactivity and confusion, but at some point they hopefully find a way to pick up the pieces of their life and rebuild something new in the place of the old.

It's a case where "inspiring" is an understatement - for someone to lose their fiancé, their mother, their brother or best friend and to just not know when they'll be able to love again, or even laugh.  It happens to everyone at some point, but this is a case where it happened to thousands of people at the same time, which is mind-boggling.  You might not be able to even imagine the loss of 3,000 people, so this film smartly narrows the focus to THESE 5 people and their losses, and they become a microcosm for the entire tragedy.

No one ever fully recovers from a tragic loss like this, so the best they can really hope for is that eventually the pain becomes manageable and/or infrequent, so they can move on - and that's universal as well as intensely personal.  The people all eventually learn to strike a balance between living for the memory of their loved ones, and striking out in new personal directions. This was at times very tough to watch, but it's still very important stuff.

RATING: 6 out of 10 skin grafts

Thursday, September 12, 2013

United 93

Year 5, Day 255 - 9/12/13 - Movie #1,537

BEFORE: I don't think there's any standard way to mark the 9/11 anniversary now, some people attend ceremonies where the names of the victims are read aloud, some people probably spend the day in quiet reverence, and I think I saw quite a few people who just wanted to go about their business this year.  I'm not sure if that was a conscious choice, or perhaps people just forgot.

THE PLOT:  A real time account of the events on United Flight 93, one of the planes hijacked on 9/11 that crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania when passengers foiled the terrorist plot.

AFTER: Well, I guess I'm forced to re-live the events of 9/11.  When the planes hit the WTC in this film, even though I knew it was coming, I still got that same sinking feeling I had 12 years ago. 

Other than that, I don't have a lot to say tonight.  It seems like the filmmakers were striving for accuracy, which was probably a challenge involving a lot of guesswork as to what took place on that plane.  The conversations between air traffic controllers and military personnel were no doubt easier to replicate.

They also tried to cast actors who hadn't been in too many movies, I think, which went a long way towards making them seem like regular people.  I recognized a few minor sitcom stars, and one from the CSI franchise, but I didn't spend a lot of time thinking, "Hey, it's THAT guy!", which is good because it didn't distract from the content.

Usually my rating reflects how enjoyable a film is, but I don't think this one can be described in terms of enjoyment, however I think it can still be regarded as an important film.  I have to amend my advice from last night about how doing nothing can often be the best course of action, because this film depicts a situation where regular people felt the need to do something, and it was the right call, even if it cost them their lives.  They were quite probably thinking of the lives they were saving by preventing their plane from crashing into a building, which I think was later determined to be the U.S. Capitol building. 

Starring Christian Clemenson, David Alan Basche, Cheyenne Jackson, Khalid Abdalla, Olivia Thirlby, David Rasche.

RATING: 5 out of 10 radar screens

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Fahrenheit 9/11

Year 5, Day 254 - 9/11/13 - Movie #1,536

BEFORE: Had drinks last night with two friends from college, who I have not seen in about 10 and 20 years, respectively.  As a point of catching up, of course 9/11/01 was something of a focal point - "Where were YOU on that day?" is a common enough question in such a situation...

Michael Moore carries over from "Bowling For Columbine" -

THE PLOT:  Michael Moore's view on what happened to the United States after September 11; and how the Bush Administration allegedly used the tragic event to push forward its agenda for unjust wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

AFTER: I feel the need to point out that when reviewing such a documentary, my rating is intended not as a commentary on the content (the items and actions depicted, assuming they're factual) but instead on the form (how said actions are presented, such as through editing or interpretation).  Just as with the documentary about George Harrison, I could enjoy Mr. Harrison's music and life ethos very much, but I shouldn't let that impact how I feel about the film.  Conversely, if I happened to hate Beatles music or George Harrison's lifestyle, I shouldn't let that color how I feel about the way in which it's presented to me.  With all narrative films, my rating is intended as a snapshot of how much enjoyment I felt upon the conclusion of the film, and I don't think such a system will be applicable tonight.

With that said, I think the structure of this film was assembled much better than "Bowling For Columbine", which just went off on way too many tangents for my taste.  This seemed much more focused, probably because Moore had such a deep hatred for the Cheney/Bush administration that it kept him on track.  For the most part - near the end he drifted once again into his old bad habits, sandbagging Senators while they walked to work, asking them if they would sign up their own kids to serve in Iraq (duh, what did you expect they'd say?)  Also, once again he sees everything in terms of how it affects Flint, Michigan - comparing the bombed buildings in the Middle East to the dilapidated homes in struggling Michigan seemed like a real stretch.  However, profiling the family of a dead soldier from Flint worked fine - he could have come from anywhere, so why not Flint?  But it's still worth pointing out to Michael Moore - it's not always about YOU, Mike.

This film also has the same problem, in my opinion, as "Bowling For Columbine" - which cast the blame for the Columbine shootings on everyone EXCEPT the two kids who pulled the trigger.  There's plenty of blame to go around for 9/11 too, but Moore chooses to focus on Bush, Cheney, faulty intelligence, lazy senators - pretty much everyone EXCEPT the hijackers and Osama Bin Laden.  Which seems like a strange omission, until you realize how focused Moore is on attacking Bush.  I hated Bush as president too and didn't approve of most of "his" (Cheney's) policies, but Bush is Moore's white whale, so to speak.  Bush is to Michael Moore what Saddam Hussein was to Bush - and that's really ironic. 

Some of the information provided tonight I had prior knowledge of, namely the fact that Bin Laden's relatives were flown out of the U.S. at a time when all other planes had been grounded, the fact that Bush ignored the intelligence report from August 2001 about Bin Laden's plan to hijack planes, and of course the shell game that was played between getting attacked by one country and then retaliating against another.  How Bush and Cheney avoided getting prosecuted for war crimes is beyond me. 

There was also information about 9/11 and the Iraq/Afghanistan war that I didn't already know - Haliburton's proposed pipeline through Afghanistan, Bush's refusal to appoint an independent panel to investigate the 9/11 attacks, the fact that nobody really read the Patriot Act before signing it, and a confirmation that the color-coded terror alerts were a bunch of B.S. (I KNEW IT!) - this sort of reinforces that "climate of fear" argument that Moore started to talk about in last night's film.

However, Moore can't seem to decide whether George Bush was an evil mastermind, or an incompetent gadfly, or just some kind of corporate shill for Saudi oil interests.  He seems to be whichever bugaboo Moore needs him to be at the time to make a point.  But I don't see how he can be all three - this film would have been stronger if he could have just picked one of these and really emphasized that. 

When you start to examine the "Bush doctrine", which I think just contained the line "It must be Iraq's fault" - and if you take as a given that we were attacked by Al Qaeda and not Iraq, that means that we invaded a sovereign nation for no good reason.  Well, except to destroy the WMDs, which everyone was able to find on satellite images, but not when they arrived on site.  So again, we invaded a country and killed people for no good reason.  I know we've done it before, and we'll probably do it again.  That doesn't make it right, and it doesn't make us any better than our enemies, in fact it kind of drags us down to their level.

I remember the weeks after the 9/11 attacks - there was uncertainty, sure, about what the U.S. response would and should be.  And I remember thinking, "Wouldn't the best response be to not respond at all?"  I kept silent, though, which I regret - because the prevailing wisdom seemed to be, "Well, we've got to do SOMEthing!"  No, that's not entirely correct.  I often find that doing nothing is the best, easiest or wisest course of action.  In this case it would also have been the hardest - but don't all of these politicians claim to be good Christians, and aren't good Christians supposed to "turn the other cheek"?

"Well, we had to remove Saddam Hussein from power!"  Did we?  Did we really?  Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but can anyone prove that invading Iraq was the BEST course of action?  There seemed to be no way to do that without bomb strikes that killed innocent civilians, and again that makes us no better than the terrorists, and it makes more people hate the U.S., which leads to more potentially bad consequences down the road.

"Well, we had to destroy Al Qaeda for what they did!"  Again, did we?  This seems more of an focused response, but it's also revenge, and "an eye for an eye" often leaves both parties blind.  What was the cost, financially and in human lives, of using the 9/11 attacks to justify two ongoing, decade-long wars?  What happened to the U.S. economy, to relations with other countries, to our own consciences?  As Moore pointed out, if politicians lied to drag us into a war, how can U.S. citizens ever trust them again?

I know the argument for the war - over 3,000 civilians dead in the attacks on U.S. soil.  But nothing's going to change that.  Sending troops to war and killing 100,000 Iraqis, losing 4,000 U.S. troops in the process, didn't that just compound the problem?  Are we better off or safer than we were in 2001?  Not really, and a lot more people are dead.

Or if you demand something, imagine if we could have skipped ahead to the endgame - put our intelligence to work for a few months, and then sent in Seal Team 6 for a surgical strike - how cool would THAT have been?  How many lives could have been saved?  Let's be honest, how hard was bombing the crap out of Iraq from planes?  How much of an attempt, if any, was made to insure that civilians were kept safe and only "bad people" died?  I'm guessing none.

We're right on the heels of something happening in Syria, and I don't mean to belittle the suffering that has taken place there, but here comes that old argument again - "We have to do SOMEthing!" And once again I think, "No, that's not entirely correct."  We COULD do nothing if we determine that doing something would have short-term benefits but long-term consequences.  Admittedly I'm not an expert on the MidEast, and I don't consider myself a pacifist either, but I think wars (including limited wars, or drone strikes, or whatever) should only happen once EVERY other possible solution has been tried.  I maintain that there were other possible responses to 9/11 besides war, ones that weren't even considered, including doing nothing.  

RATING: 4 out of 10 recruitment brochures

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Bowling for Columbine

Year 5, Day 253 - 9/10/13 - Movie #1,535

BEFORE:  It's Primary Day here in NY, what better time to tackle a hot-button issue like gun control? I'm going out with friends tonight, so I probably won't be voting.  Which might be better for everyone, because if I were to vote, it would probably be for Anthony Weiner.  I know, I know, it sounds crazy, but here are my thoughts on the matter:

I liked the guy before the scandal hit, and to the best of my knowledge, his positions on the issues have not changed.  Unlike some people, I'm able to mentally separate a politician's record from his personal life.  Sure, he's a horndog - but who isn't?  Let he who has never sent an incriminating racy e-mail cast the first stone.  Plus: Thomas Jefferson, JFK, Eisenhower, FDR, Bill Clinton - need I go on?  Forget mayoral, Señor Carlos Danger seems downright presidential to me.  Show me the Chief Executive who wasn't getting a little bit of strange on the side - and Weiner hasn't even cheated, he only texted about it.  Which is the greater sin?  Don't you think JFK would be sexting right now if he were alive?

Also, none of the other candidates have managed to stand out from the pack.  There's the Bloomberg clone (to the extent that a lesbian woman can be a Bloomberg clone) and the guy who's trotted out his bi-racial family and ex-lesbian wife when appropriate, but I don't know where any of them stand on the issues.  I could research their positions, but that's starting to sound like a lot of work.

Plus, I get most of my news from Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Dave Letterman.  A vote for NYC's #1 political sex freak would go toward guaranteeing 4 years of solid, solid comedy.  So I won't be voting, but the Movie Year hereby endorses Anthony Weiner for Mayor, and I'm wondering why the heck my favorite comedy news shows haven't done the same.

THE PLOT:  Filmmaker Michael Moore explores the roots of America's predilection for gun violence.

AFTER:  First off, I have to issue a "mea culpa", since it took me about 10 years to get around to watching this film.  In my defense, my usual response to human tragedy is to (at first, anyway) to ignore it, circle the wagons, and keep going about my business.  That's what we were told to do after 9/11, wasn't it?  Go on with our lives, so the terrorists don't win.  That a-hole shot up a movie theater in 2012, and it kept me from going to see "The Dark Knight Rises", I just found other films to watch.

Also, an apology to my BFF Andy, who discussed this film at length with me years ago, picking apart its flaws, and I wasn't ready to watch it at the time.  I needed a decade (appararently) to gain some distance, but then last year we had the Newtown shootings in CT, so really the issue doesn't seem to be going away.  I'm not going to resign myself to thinking that school shootings are part of life, or the price to live in a free society, but I'm also not naive enough to think that with enough effort we can completely prevent the occasional maniac from losing control.

Plus, at the time I was sort of hanging out with Michael Moore, I'd gone to see him introduce his film "The Big One" at a film festival, and then for a while we were going to the same parties in NYC. I kind of liked the way he was pointing out the hypocrisies of Corporate America.  He's been kind of quiet in recent years, and it seems like Morgan Spurlock has sort of taken up where he left off.  But Moore was a very divisive figure, noted for his "sandbagging" techniques - we all know there's a proper way to set up a meeting or an interview with a famous person for your film, but Moore always preferred to barge into a building lobby unannounced and then act SHOCKED when that executive won't take the time to appear on camera.  Well, why would he, if Moore couldn't take the time to call in advance and set up a proper meeting?  Making an edgy political film is no reason to throw manners out the window.

This is how I was taught to make a documentary: 1) point out a problem 2) examine and assign blame, and 3) suggest a solution.  The main problem with "Bowling for Columbine" is that all it does is assign blame for the school shooting in Colorado, and it's all over the freakin' place.  We're not any closer to a solution by the end of the film, and without proposing a fix, then what exactly was it trying to accomplish?  Would I prefer that fewer people get shot?  Of course.  Do I want to live in a world where there are no school shootings?  Of course, but how are we going to get there?

This is what I wanted out of this film - an examination of what went down in Columbine.  Maybe there were already a ton of TV shows and movies that discussed the details, but somehow none of them were more prominent than this one.  Tell me who did it, tell me how they did it, and most importantly, tell me WHY they did it.  Almost none of that is in this film.  First off, it seems like Moore got distracted by a second school shooting that took place in his hometown, where a 6-year-old boy brought a gun to school and shot and killed a 6-year-old girl. Focus, focus!

This is who gets blamed in this film for the shootings in Littleton, CO and Flint, MI:

1) The NRA and a blind guy.  The NRA, sure, easy target (pardon the pun).  Who else is fostering the proliferation of guns in America, and isn't that the problem, the U.S. gun culture?  Well, no, not exactly.  Honestly I'd be more worried about UNregistered guns in America, the ones people can get on the street.  I don't really like all of what the NRA stands for, and I think they interpret the Constitution the way they want to, but at least they seem like they might want to make gun owners into responsible gun owners.  And if a blind guy wants to take target practice and get a gun license, I'm not going to stop him, or suggest that his desire to defend himself caused a school shooting.

2) Bank managers.  Again, this is part of gun culture, a bank that gave out a free rifle for opening an account, instead of the usual toaster.  Clearly this was a gimmick, an attempt to appeal to a certain demographic.  Was it ill-advised?  Certainly.  But unless one of those actual guns was used by the Columbine shooters, this officially counts as going off on a tangent.

3) Lockheed Martin. Well, sure, they had a plant in Littleton, and the theory is that this contributed to the "death culture" around Columbine High.  And the plant manager chose not to see any connection between building missiles that we launch at our enemies and the bullets that kids shoot at their schoolmates - probably because there wasn't one.  There's the big and the little, and they're not always the same.  Besides, this is like saying that the Domino Sugar plant in Brooklyn is a direct cause of diabetes in New York City - proximity does not automatically connect the dots.  Other factors are probably at work.

4) The CIA and U.S. foreign policy (1953-2001).  OK, admittedly the U.S. doesn't have a great track record here, and this spirals out of the Lockheed Martin missile thing.  The U.S. is directly or indirectly responsible for countless dictators being installed into or removed from power, from Salvador Allende to the Shah of Iran to Noriega to Saddam Hussein to Osama Bin Laden.  And if that's your documentary, then make that documentary about the evils of CIA and the thousands of people who died as a result.  But I don't think any of this was on the minds of the Columbine shooters.  We're mixing apples and oranges here, and now it's starting to seem like Mr. Moore is getting his own political bugaboos into the mix.

5) Pilgrims and cowboys.  Those bastard pilgrims, I knew it.  Those uptight pricks - the founders of our country were people who the BRITISH thought were too straight-laced.  They came to America and acted like scared little weasels - they had to kill all the Native Americans, then kill all the Mexicans, then they had to enslave Black people, all so they could feel safe.  But then they decided to spend generations living in fear of free minorities and created the KKK?  I doubt this was anyone's line of reasoning.  First off, people don't think over generations, they're selfish bastards who think only about themselves and what decisions will benefit them in the near future.  Did those decisions compound, decade after decade, to create the mess that we're in now?  I'm not so sure - plus this kind of discounts all of the good things about America, like clean water, improved lifespans and a capitalist system that rewards hard work.  It certainly doesn't seem like the Pilgrims had a direct influence on a school shooting.

6) The media and their "climate of fear".  Could your drinking water be killing you?  Could snakes be inside your home RIGHT NOW?  What are the hidden health risks from wearing sunglasses?  Look, I hate the methods that local and national news have to resort to in order to get viewers as much as the next guy - but saying this is even an indirect cause of school shootings is completely backwards.  It's blaming the messenger.  It's like blaming your doctor for telling you you're sick.  "Damn doctor, telling me I've got cancer, I wish I'd never gone to see him." So, you'd rather NOT know?  How will THAT fix the problem?  Yes, the media is a bunch of weasels, and I wish they didn't have to stoop so low to fill up a 24-hour news cycle.  But they showed up in Littleton AFTER the tragedy, not before.  Next...

7) KMart.  OK, we've got a potential winner here.  KMart apparently sold the ammunition used in the shooting.  The KMart managers and executives were able to sleep at night because they believed they were giving the public what they wanted, easy access to ammunition to shoot small game.  But this was legal according to Colorado laws - and if you condemn them, you condemn the whole capitalist system, which we're all part of.  After Moore sandbagged them by bringing Columbine victims to their corporate office to "return the bullets" (come on, did you think the execs were supposed to perform surgery and dig the bullets out of the back of a wheelchair-bound teen?) they held a press conference the next day to announce that they'd be phasing out the sale of ammo.  Sure, maybe they did it because it was the right PR move, not out of a noble desire to save lives, but a win is a win.

8) The teachers and guidance counselors at Columbine High.  Now, this is pretty low and also comes pretty darn close to blaming the victims.  Moore interviews "South Park" co-creator Matt Stone, who attended that very high school, and Stone points out that the teachers at Columbine tended to put pressure on kids to succeed by telling them that if they couldn't pass their exams, they'd never amount to anything and they'd end up old and poor.  This is a spin on the "it gets better" motivation, only in reverse.  BUT, this is not a direct line of reasoning either - even if a teacher said, "You're a loser now, you'll never amount to anything," the next thought in that reasoning is not "so you better grab a gun and shoot your schoolmates".  If anything that's an argument for teen suicide, not a mass shooting.  Fuzzy logic at best.

9) Workfare.  This seems like another one of Moore's personal hates.  The mother of the boy who brought a gun to school in Flint was forced to work at a mall far from home in order to earn the welfare benefits that enabled her to live just above the poverty level, so she wasn't there to supervise her son, who had to stay at his uncle's house, which is where he found the gun.  So really, the whole system is responsible for the death of the little girl, so I guess scrapping workfare will save lives, right?  Again, this is a complex problem with no simple solutions, so taking potshots at it won't really solve anything.

10) Dick Clark.  After all, he owned the restaurant chain where the mother was doing workfare, which meant that she couldn't supervise her son, who brought a gun to school.  And then Clark couldn't even be bothered to do a 5-minute interview when ambushed by Michael Moore and he had the NERVE to say he had somewhere else to be.  What a Dick.  Clark later had a stroke and passed away so I guess karma's a bitch - see, Michael Moore, I can draw false connections between things too.   But why stop there?  Why not blame the dinosaurs who died and fossilized and became the petroleum that got refined into gas and oil that fueled the bus that brought the woman to Dick Clark's Bandstand restaurant and kept her from supervising her son, who brought a gun to school?  Screw you, dinosaurs, I'm glad you died so humans could evolve and make a mess of things...

Surprisingly, here's who DOESN'T get blamed in this film for the Columbine shootings:

1) Eric Harris + Dylan Klebold.  After all, all they did was plan the school shooting, buy guns, bring them to school, and pull the triggers again and again.  Sure, we'll never know exactly WHY they shot their classmates - but they still shot their classmates.  Am I missing something here?  Why does this movie barely mention them?  And why focus on their membership in the bowling club, which has nothing to do with anything?  Just to make the point that it wasn't their love of violent video-games any more than it was their bowling prowess?  OK, but even if I accept these theories - it wasn't video-games, it wasn't bowling - Moore still kind of forgot to tell me what it WAS, then.

2) Whoever bullied them.  Somebody, somewhere, gave these kids a hard time.  I haven't looked into their back-stories enough to say who beat or mistreat them, but it was someone.  Why not focus on that angle?  This is what was missing from "Elephant" as well - somebody needs to get really into the social structure of high-school and start figuring out whose heads aren't screwed on right.  Is it the "mean girls", the jocks, the stoners or the dweebs?  In the giant fruit cocktail of personalities that make up the average high-school, which element needs to be focused on or removed from the mix? 

Also getting a pass - broken homes, racial turmoil, the excessive number of guns in America, rock music (Marilyn Manson specifically) and violent videogames.  And I LOVE playing "Grand Theft Auto", but even I think they could dial it back a bit.  Again, it's a complex social problem, and I'm not prepared to let any of these culprits off the hook, just because the U.K. has more divorces, Canada has more guns, but the U.S. has the most shootings.  It's all of the above, it's none of the above, it's everything and nothing.

But in a film where Michael Moore takes Charlton Heston to task for going to Littleton, CO and Flint, MI after gun tragedies in order to foster his own political agenda, Moore himself appears in Littleton, CO and Flint, MI a couple years later, in order to foster his own political agenda.  Yes, I noticed.  I'm not going to get into specific instances of documentary manipulation because they've been discussed at length elsewhere (e.g. Moore cajoled the bank managers to give him a gun at the bank, which is not their regular method of operation, and then took them to task for giving him a gun at the bank - what idiots!) but I feel the need to point out irony and hypocrisy and B.S. where I find it.

But now, since this is MY blog, it's MY turn to suggest solutions.  And they won't be easy to hear, and they may not make sense at first, and heck, they may not even be feasible at all - but this is how I see things.

First, how to stop bullying in America.  Let's say you're a teacher or principal, and you notice the jocks beating up on the nerds, or the "mean girls" trashing the dweeby girl.  What you need to do is call the bullies into your office and show them a picture of "Fred" (or whoever) and you tell them Fred was a bully in Littleton, Colorado, and he pushed the wrong kids too far, and now Fred is dead, and so are Fred's friends.  Nobody wants that, so let's all ease up on the nerdy kid / gay kid / weird kid before everyone regrets it.

And this goes out to you, nerdy kid / gay kid / weird kid - I'm not going to B.S. you and tell you "it gets better", because maybe it doesn't.  You are who you are, and the sooner you accept yourself and live proud, the better things will be for everyone.  But if you're being bullied, tell someone.  If your teachers and principal are ineffective, then call the cops, call the media, file a lawsuit.  If you feel like you're at the end of your rope, buying guns is not going to solve anything.  If anything, that ends with you standing over a cafeteria full of bodies, and facing either a lifetime of imprisonment and suffering, or taking yourself out.

And I'm NOT going to advocate teen suicide, though it may seem easy preferable to just skip the middle part where you shoot your classmates and just go straight to the endgame.  That's the coward's way out, just ask Ariel Castro (who just saved the taxpayers mucho dinero, but that's neither here nor there).  Nope, it's time to buck up, be a man (or woman) and get professional help.  It's the tougher road, sure, but it beats the alternatives in the long run.

RATING: 3 out of 10 background checks (and this is mainly for committing the cardinal documentary sin of being extremely unfocused, and not proposing valid, workable solutions)

Monday, September 9, 2013


Year 5, Day 252 - 9/9/13 - Movie #1,534

BEFORE: The 9/11 anniversary is coming up this week, and I'm finally going to watch a few films devoted to that topic.  After tonight it should be pretty obvious how I'm going to get there.  Linking is suspended for the purposes of screening documentaries, or when a film contains mostly non-professional actors, like last night's film, or this one.

THE PLOT: Several ordinary high school students go through their daily routine as two others prepare for something more malevolent.

AFTER: Again, as with "Catfish", it's somewhat unfortunate that I knew where this film was going to end up.  It would have been a different story if I had seen it at a film festival, and it were screened without any introduction or program notes - then it would probably call to mind Richard Linklater's film "Slacker", which followed ordinary teens through their ordinary lives on an ordinary day.

Similarly, this film opts for an "over the shoulder" technique, following teens on (excessively?) long walks through their high-school, doing ordinary things like changing out of gym clothes, or eating lunch, or participating in a "gay-straight" alliance discussion group.  It's only when we see two kids in camo gear carrying full duffels entering the school that we get our first hint that something is amiss.

Then there's a lot of time-jumping, and overlapping scenes - we're given certain prominent references, like a photographer asking a kid to pose for a picture in the hall, then talking about a concert that night, which we see again and again from different viewpoints, allowing us to start to piece together who's in what location, relative to who.  And the fact that such information is relevant starts to look like a bad, bad sign.

I get the point, that a day at high school is perfectly ordinary, until it isn't.  But the film seems to make a point of showing what a boring day it is - which is where some non-improvised lines of dialogue might have come in handy.  Otherwise teens just resort to talking about going to the mall, or mundane stuff like the Dewey Decimal System, and that's just not very engrossing, no matter what's looming on the horizon.

Now we come to the incident in question - I'm going to try and be somewhat non-spoilery, in case you haven't heard what takes place in this film.  Also, tomorrow night's film could give me some insight into what takes place here.  Note that I'm not demanding a WHY, because I realize that often in these cases there is often no WHY available, there is just the tragedy that takes place.

The ending here is unresolved and unseen, even though our minds can probably guess that it's not good.  But there are endings, then there are unresolved endings, and then there are cases where it just looks like the project ran out of film.  The latter is what we're dealing with here, so to some degree there is no ending, or there is a non-ending - so I question WHY the film was made to stop where it did.   And something that's unresolved can easily be mistaken for something that never got around to making a salient point, and that's a problem.

I reserve the right to adjust tonight's rating if I gain further insight after viewing tomorrow's film...

Starring John Robinson, Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, Timothy Bottoms, Matt Malloy (last seen in "Changing Lanes").

RATING: 4 out of 10 library books

Sunday, September 8, 2013


Year 5, Day 251 - 9/8/13 - Movie #1,533

BEFORE: This is another party that I'm coming to late, because at this point the directors who made this film have a series on MTV and I've seen a few episodes, so I know what the deal is.  Also, in the last year the term "catfishing" has entered the vernacular, thanks to that college football player who had an online relationship with a young attractive woman who turned out to not be a real person. 

THE PLOT: Young filmmakers document their colleague's budding online friendship with a young woman and her family which leads to an unexpected series of discoveries.

AFTER: And because I've seen the TV show, as the film started detailing this wonderful online relationship developing over time, the one thing I knew in advance was that things would turn out to different from what they seemed - so it was like waiting for the other shoe to drop. 

There are apparently questions about how "real" this documentary is, but in essence the brother of a documentary filmmaker met a young girl online who was a painter, and he started forming a relationship with her older sister, Megan.  I suppose you could say the director started filming his brother on the off-chance that this would lead to a real relationship, and if that led to marriage, it might be nice to have a video record of their earliest conversations.  At the same time the young girl, Abby, started sending him paintings, and Megan started sending him songs she had recorded, presumably to use in the soundtrack of a film.

It makes sense that the filmmakers would check out the copyright of a song or demand a release from a songwriter before using it in a film, so it makes sense that this is where they started to notice inconsistencies in Megan's story (after finding extremely similar or identical songs performed by others on YouTube) - but ironically the filmmakers have also been sued by songwriters for NOT clearing songs that are in this film.

To weigh in on the validity of on-line profiles and my thoughts on the matter, I have to reveal a bit of what I do for a living.  Part of one of my jobs requires me to keep a database of creative personnel at all of the advertising agencies in the U.S., plus freelancers, and this now numbers over 17,000 people.  This is for the purpose of sending those people promotional e-mails, invitations to events, and being able to contact them to inquire about their animation needs.  In maintaining this database, I've had to become something of an online detective, using Facebook and LinkedIn to determine what companies people work for, what their exact jobs are, and when they've moved on to other positions.

Surprise, some people beef up their online resumés, which means that they're lying.  That "art director" is really just a designer, or maybe just an intern.  And Bob Smith, freelancer, lists himself as Creative Director and CEO of B.S. Industries - sure, everybody does it.  What I have to do is take the information I see online and process it, and if there is conflicting information, determine what is "true".  But if they really want to be identified as an art director or producer, they have to pay the price - this means they'll be getting promo mails from me, since conveniently nearly every company issues e-mails according to a particular formula, so once I see ONE e-mail address from a company, and learn that the formula is - well, now we can reach the other 200 employees as well.  Gotcha.

This film sort of got marketed all wrong - the filmmakers decide to fly to Chicago and drive up to Michigan to drop in on Abby and Megan and confront them about the inconsistencies in their story, and this is where the commercial made it look like they'd be entering some kind of serial killer's home, or perhaps the grounds of some cult where horrible things took place.  The truth of what they found in Michigan is tamer than that, but also quite a bit sadder.

As the "Catfish" TV show went on to reveal, different people have different reasons for creating phony online personas (or networks of personas, as the case may be).  Sometimes these people have self-esteem issues, sometimes gender confusion or orientation issues, and sometimes they just need a creative outlet, a chance to be someone besides themselves for a few hours each day.  This is the world we live in now, where someone you form a friendship on-line could be chatting with you to promote a product, or to (eventually) ask you for money, or even just to get revenge for something you did to them long ago. 

Someone can even download your stash of personal photos, I suppose if your life looks more interesting than their own, and Photoshop themselves into your photos, and lead a very interesting virtual life.  But it does cause me to wonder if their efforts would be better spent improving their own real-life situations than creating a more exciting virtual one.  Telling the truth is always easier than maintaining a complex web of lies, isn't it?

Starring Yaniv Schulman, Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost

RATING: 4 out of 10 postcards