Thursday, May 01, 2008

The People from Hope: The War Room

In 1992, I hated Bill Clinton. Not just hated him, but haaaaaaaaaaaaaaated him.

Of course, this was largely because I had been told to because I came from a family of Republicans and he was the one who stopped the years and years of Republican rule. The more popular he became, the angrier we all got, and now that I look back on it, it all seems sort of silly.

The day of the presidential election of 1992, my best friend Drew asked me at lunch (all of us, really -- he was the only Democrat, again, because everyone in his family was) why we didn't like Clinton. He wasn't THAT bad after all. After I overcame the urge to slug him, I realized that I didn't REALLY hate him. I was just responding to the way I had been told to feel. It was probably the first moment I was cognizant of the fact that I could choose my own political identity when the time came. (But I still voted for George W. Bush in 2000. Don't stone me!)

Perhaps that's why D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus' excellent political documentary "The War Room" has always been one of my favorite movies about politics. The fly on the wall aspect the film captures has rarely been recreated (only Robert Drew's Primary -- which Pennebaker worked on -- even comes close), and the sense that YOU ARE THERE is really excellently maintained. Watching now, I realize just how little I knew about Clinton in 1992. I knew that he was somehow involved with women other than his wife, but I didn't really understand what that meant (I was 11; gimme a break). I knew that his wife wanted more of a voice at the table, but I didn't really understand why that was viewed as a bad thing either (I don't put this up to budding feminism or anything; I just didn't think about it that much; again, 11). But I didn't know about the draft-dodging accusations, the pro-Communism accusations and on and on and on.

Now, watched through the prism of ANOTHER campaign that Bill Clinton's involved in where I've been known to remark on how he's fallen in esteem in my eyes again (though I doubt I'll ever haaaaaaaaaaaaaaate him again), The War Room seems even more remarkable for how it casts the current Clinton campaign in the role of the incumbent campaign and the Obama campaign in the role of the insurgency. To watch it now is to realize eerie parallels and to feel a story about how you become the thing you hate suggesting itself in your head.

Another thing the documentary surprises with is just how young these people were and just how little they conformed to the stereotypes of them that have taken hold since. There's a moment in the middle where Al Gore gives a speech and he's the furthest thing from stentorian you've ever seen. Hillary Clinton seems surprisingly warm and open (especially given her current public iteration -- reportedly, she's much warmer in person, but, then, I've never met her). James Carville and George Stephanopoulos both have elements of the preening gasbags they would become, but they also seem really involved in the process, interested in pushing aside the old and beginning again with the new. Only Bill Clinton himself really seems like the person we still see today -- and that may be because he hovers around the periphery of the film. Even Chelsea Clinton, spotted briefly, is still just a gawky soon-to-be teen (I actually had a crush on her at the time, my distaste for her father aside, and I still sort of do). The War Room probably doesn't get you as deeply inside as it makes you think you do, but that feeling is enough to power it along.

Presidential elections have been the basis for surprisingly few dramatic works in American culture, despite the fact that many, many contests naturally suggest the sorts of sweeping, historical dramas that used to be Hollywood's bread and butter. That there hasn't been a film about the 1860 election or the 1912 election or the 1896 election is surprising. HBO is turning the aftermath of Bush vs. Gore into a (reportedly excellent) TV movie called Recount (with an all-star cast and the director of Austin Powers), and of course, there are numerous movies surrounding Kennedy the man and the myth. But actual election movies are mostly relegated to documentaries (weirdly, the novel that Alexander Payne's Election -- still my favorite of his films -- was based on is reportedly a twisted retelling of the 1992 election in a high school, with Tracey Flick as George H.W. Bush, I think). There's a documentary crew following the Obama campaign around; here's hoping they turn the crazy story of this primary into something riveting.

I'm going to be gone to a relative's college graduation over the weekend. I'm hoping to get some posts up, including something on Thursday night's shows and a belated blog farewell to Matt Zoller Seitz, but if I can't, I've enclosed the entirety of The War Room (thanks, YouTube!) after the jump so you have something to do anyway. Check it out now and enjoy the time warp.

It's in 10 parts, which are below in order. If you like the movie, please buy it on DVD. It's way better that way than in the little box.

And here are some comments from the filmmakers.


Tuesday, April 29, 2008

"I've bought six automated litter boxes, and I don't even have a kid!": How I Met Your Mother

I hope that "The Goat" sent the various "Crazy theories about who the mother is" contingents into a tizzy out there. In fact, I hope that they've concluded Barney's the father and Lily's the mother. "The Goat" was an oddly mythology-heavy episode, and it ended with a surprisingly dramatic fight between Ted and Barney. It wasn't the best episode of the season, but it firmly cemented this post-strike streak of episodes for the show as a nice return to form.

What struck me the most in the episode was that final fight between Ted and Barney, which was surprisingly realistic and well-written. Usually, when a sitcom tries to do something dramatic like this, it feels incredibly forced, but here, the scene had enough amusing business in it that it felt organic and genuine, and it really did seem as if Ted had finally had enough. I also liked that neither Robin nor Barney had much interest in continuing their relationship, and that Barney immediately turned it around, celebrating with her as if he had just scored a major babe. I know there are a lot of Robin/Barney shippers out there, but I think the storyline will work better if the two of them only sleep together once a season or so.

The rest of the episode was fine and funny, even if it was just that old sitcom trope -- somebody's got a secret, and not everyone can keep it. You've seen this plot a million times before (I Love Lucy was doing it, and they probably got it from radio, and, actually, I'm pretty sure it's been around since the Greeks -- Oedipus Rex, anyone?), but there's something about it that's primally appealing, I guess, so that's why it was fun to see it with the usual HIMYM time jumps.

Anyway, just what WAS up with the Goat? That seriously messed with the episode's time flow, as the goat was pretty tied into the storyline, and then it turned out that the goat was around on Ted's NEXT birthday. But to accept that the whole story was told a year too early, you have to accept that it took a year for Ted to find out about Robin and Barney, which seems emphatically not true. Ah well.

At any rate, everything else with the goat was terrific, and that critter was terrific in closeup.

And now, back to playing Mario Kart and Grand Theft Auto. Your thoughts?


Monday, April 28, 2008

“Information: You are all going to die.”: Doctor Who

As any show grows in popularity, in acclaim and in budget, the greatest worry is always going to be self-indulgence. Sometimes a little self-indulgence is a good thing – so far Battlestar Galactica’s fourth season has made a shift from plot-driven to character-driven narratives which has resulted in a loss of urgency but far greater intimacy. Usually, though, self-indulgence is to be discouraged at all times. Too bad there was no-one there to discourage Russell T. Davies when he was writing Voyage of the Damned, a love letter to disaster movies such as The Poseidon Adventure which came off more as an extremely pale imitation of the genre’s worst conventions.

Following straight on from the end of last season’s finale, The Doctor boards the Titanic, which turns out to be a luxury spaceship hovering above Earth. In quick succession we meet a cross-section of passengers with whom we will proceed to spend our time. First of course is Astrid (Kylie Minogue) a wide-eyed waitress who dreams of travelling the stars. Then there’s Mr Copper (Clive Swift), a kindly old man who (quite amusingly) fakes a knowledge of Earth’s history, at one point declaring that humans worship the vengeful god Santa. And then there’s….erm, to be quite honest I can’t remember much about the other ones. I remember the vague stereotypes they all fulfilled – evil corporate bastard, friendly chubby couple, and your obligatory alien with a funny name (in this case, Bannakaffalatta – a UK review of this episode speculated that Davies invents these names by leaning on his keyboard), but that’s about it.

The first 20 minutes or so are strong. After the principal players have been established, the Doctor takes a quick trip down to a deserted London. A newspaper man (Bernard Cribbins, sweetly funny) explains that after the calamities of the last two Christmases, everyone in London has abandoned the city for the day. I really love this idea, partly because it’s so off-the-wall, but mostly because it ties in past events in a way that feels gratifying to long-time viewers such as myself. After beaming back up to the ship, the Doctor barely has time to poke around before disaster strikes. Meteors strike the hull, killing most of the passengers and crippling the ship. The few survivors are naturally the folks we’ve already met. The Doctor quickly starts barking orders, and when evil corporate guy questions who he is to take charge, he establishes his dominance with possibly one of most ill-conceived pieces of dialogue of the series: “I’m the Doctor. I'm a Time Lord. I’m from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. I'm 903 years old and I’m the man who’s gonna save your lives and all 6 billion people on the planet below.” See what I meant about self-indulgence?

From this point onwards, everything else about ‘Voyage of the Damned’ is extremely forgettable. The survivors are picked off one by one in a manner so heartless it’s almost distasteful. As in so often the problem with disaster movies, Davies seems less interested in making you care about his characters than he does in dreaming up inventive ways to kill them. Even Astrid is thinly drawn, and while Kylie Minogue is kinda cute in the role, she shows disappointingly little emotional range. Her death is another instance of ridiculous self-indulgence. While the close-ups and slow motions leave us in no doubt about how beautiful the production staff find the moment, its excessiveness kills any trace of emotion I might have felt.

Disaster movies, especially those of the last decade or so, are generally concerned more with impressing their audience than emotionally engaging them. ‘Voyage of the Damned’ suffers from this to an almost ridiculous extent. Sure, it’s a visually spectacular episode, and the CGI is the best Who has yet pulled off. But when I start praising the technical people in my review, that’s when you know something’s very wrong. I have always liked Davies’ episodes for combining impressive spectacle with smaller emotional moments, but here the spectacle stifles the emotion and I was left feeling cold. Only the final scene between the Doctor and Mr Copper made me smile. A few more sweet, simple moments like that please, and a few less overwrought slo-mo death scenes.


The proper season four opener, ‘Partners in Crime’ is light-years aware from the theatrics of ‘Voyage of the Damned.’ Instead it’s a simple affair, the simplest Who has produced since its revival. There’s an alien corporation, a sinister businesswoman and cute little creatures called the Adipose. There’s no great twist or grand dénouement, but the lightness of the tale allows plenty of breathing room for Catherine Tate, returning as Donna Noble, to reintroduce herself to the audience.

Some have noted that the Donna of ‘Partners in Crime’ is toned-down from her first appearance in ‘The Runaway Bride,’ but I contest that. In ‘Bride’ Tate certainly had her shrill moments, but only as a reaction to the extremity of the situation. If you really look back at ‘Bride,’ specifically at the final scene, her real character is exactly as she is in season four. Regardless, Tate has surely silenced the doubters with ‘Partners in Crime.’ Her regret at having turned down the Doctor is instantly believable, especially in her touching conversation with her grandpa Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbins again), and her comedic delivery is naturally top notch.

‘Partners in Crime’ is essentially a comedic story, and Davies’ natural talent for humour comes through. I especially enjoyed the series of near-misses between the Doctor and Donna as they both investigated Adipose at the same time. If occasionally the episode was too light for its own good – the culmination of the Adipose plan, with the giant spaceship and the mass of creatures in the streets of London, was dull rather than exciting – mostly I loved it for making possible sequences like the Doctor and Donna’s silent reunion and hilarious miming.

Finally, and most excitedly, there is the return of Rose. Like every Who fan, I knew that Billie Piper was returning but had no idea she would show up this early. That moment of shock, when Rose turns around and the Doomsday music que kicked in, had me literally gobsmacked. Don’t you just love it when television does that to you? And I’m only guessing here, but I have a feeling season four will produce several more moments just like that one before it’s over. Anyone else as excited as me?