Category Archives: Political

#325 Network

(1976, Sidney Lumet)

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!”

Network appears to be a film with some degree of minor cult success. You don’t usually hear about it listed in typical Best Films Ever lists, but it does turn up once or twice on some individuals’ lists. It’s a movie that I have been quite intrigued by, so today I’ll be taking a look at it.

Network is the story of the UBS Evening News, and its anchor, Howard Beale (Peter Finch). After poor ratings, Beale is informed that he is to be taken off the air, which leads him to announce his suicide on-air. His boss, Max Schumacher (William Holden), urges the network to give him a second chance…and Beale immediately goes on air to denounce everything as “bullshit”. However, far from causing an upset, his rant becomes a ratings hit, and the corporate interests at the network take note. This includes programming director Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), who seeks out anything that can get the network the best ratings, regardless of any moral concerns.

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#314 Serpico

(1973, Sidney Lumet)

“The reality is that we do not wash our own laundry – it just gets dirtier”

Corruption in the police isn’t a novel concept in film, and despite the 1001 Movies book asserting that it was new at the time of this film’s making, it really wasn’t (film noir was already a thing, and covered this ground several times). But the fact that this is a true story exposing real corruption, that’s something that Serpico has going for it. As a result, I was very excited to see this. Did it live up to my expectations?

Al Pacino plays Frank Serpico, a police officer with good morals and ideals, with the desire to help people and achieve justice through his position. After excelling in uniform, Serpico is eventually raised through the ranks to plainclothes, and then it all goes wrong from there, as it slowly becomes apparent that his colleagues aren’t as honest as he is. And so begins an attempt to expose the corruption and improve standards in the force, at the expense of his own happiness and success.

Serpico opens dramatically, with the titular cop bleeding after being shot in the face and being rushed to hospital as various people are informed about the incident and there’s a general sense of foreboding and action and shouting down phones and it’s all very exciting.

Imagine my disappointment that this is about as interesting as the film gets for much of its running time. After this, the movie flashes back to his days in uniform, and begins to steadily take us through his career. The problem is, the movie seems unsure of how to shove several years into the space of an hour, so does do by rushing through what it feels to be key points. The problem is, it’s not always clear that scenes have gaps of months and even years between them, and sometimes it struggles to stay focused on things that are important to the central plot.

The point where I realised things were rushing and playing wildly with timeframes was a scene where Serpico is informed that he’ll get to work in plainclothes, and the very next scene having a character say to him, “you’ve been with us two years now” and making me wonder what the hell just happened.

As for the extraneous things that don’t help, there is a lot of focus on Serpico’s personal life, as he goes on dates with women. From what I can tell, these scenes were supposed to flesh out his character and make us aware of how much he identified with the 1960s counterculture, which helped fuel the conflict in his life, but generally, everything felt rushed and poorly constructed, leaving the viewer feeling like these scenes were a distraction. In fact, I only found out that Frank Serpico identified with the counterculture movement through independent research for this review, and only then realised that’s what the film was going for.

When the movie remembers what it’s about and maintains a focus on his drive to expose corruption, there’s quite a bit to like here, but it’s so bogged down in external stuff that sometimes it made me wonder why I was bothering watching. It felt like there was ambition to tell a story about Serpico, but it wasn’t sure what to focus on.

It also didn’t help that often the corrupt cops were more of a faceless mass as opposed to individual characters, presented as Serpico and Those Other Guys. This made it harder to connect with Serpico’s plight. This made it harder to understand the corruption. We know the cops are on the take, we know they’re using impounded drugs, but the extent of all of this feels vague and almost imagined in Serpico’s eyes. The other cops felt like pantomime villains, not real people, and this is where I had a problem.

In addition, while Al Pacino did a generally good job of portraying the lead character, there were times when he veered far too much into silliness, especially as he got angrier, and as the movie progressed, while I recognised his goals as noble, I could no longer connect with him as a character.

Basically, all of this can be summed up by me stating that Serpico was a massive disappointment. I expected more. I wanted an exciting cop drama. I wanted a tense thriller. I did not want a lumbering, confused mess of a movie that consistently forgot what it was trying to do.

Starring Al Pacino
Written by Peter Maas (book) and Waldo Salt & Norman Wexler
Produced by Dino De Laurentiis, Roger M. Rothstein & Martin Bregman
Music by Mikis Theodorakis & Giacomo Puccini
Cinematography by Arthur J. Ornitz
Edited by Dede Allen, Richard Marks, Ronald Roose & Angelo Corrao

Favourite Scene: Any time the movie actually got on with what it was supposed to be doing.
Scene That Bugged Me: Al Pacino slams a chair against the floor repeatedly in a rage. This was silly and unnecessary.

Watch it if: You like rambling stories about cops
Avoid it if: You want a clear account of Frank Serpico’s life

#307 Fahrenheit 9/11

(2004, Michael Moore)

“George Orwell once wrote that, “It’s not a matter of whether the war is not real, or if it is, Victory is not possible. The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous.”

It’s September the 11th today, which means that it’s the anniversary of the terrorist actions on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington D.C. A tragic day for sure, but also one shrouded in conspiracy theories and some questionable exploitative actions by politicians. In reaction to this, today we’ll be taking a look at Michael Moore’s infamous documentary about former president George W. Bush’s actions on and around that day in 2001, Fahrenheit 9/11.

Fahrenheit 9/11 is the account of Bush’s political career up to the point of the film’s release, from his election to the invasion of Iraq. It follows events in chronological order and raises questions about Bush’s actions as well as those of those close to him. It’s a political documentary. What more do you want?

This is a difficult film to review because it’s a divisive political piece that you either agree with or you don’t. Reviewing it on an objective basis is difficult because those who were opposed to the War On Terror are likely to enjoy the movie, while those who were supportive of Bush are likely to view the film as terrible propaganda. There is literally no middle ground in this issue. However, while trying to look at it on a technical level is difficult, it is not impossible. Let’s take a look at what Moore has done right here.

The movie does have some great presentation throughout. The movie flows well and explains its points fairly well. It covers a surprisingly broad spectrum of topics surrounding 9/11 and the War On Terror, from stock footage of Bush speeches down to personal accounts of those closer to the events. The movie is paced properly, and never drags or feels rushed for the majority of its running time. And Moore has added plenty of humour to certain parts of the movie, especially when the topics he’s discussing are particularly absurd.

However, Fahrenheit 9/11 isn’t perfect. There is an inherent bias running throughout the movie that sometimes makes it hard to fully enjoy the movie. Some of his claims feel a little shaky and I would have liked to have seen more evidence backing them up (such as claims the Saudi embassy receives preferential treatment from the US government), while sometimes I felt that his snide remarks were going to do little to sway those with opposing views.

I also felt that Moore was guilty of emotional manipulation throughout the movie. When he reached the 9/11 attacks themselves, he seemed to linger on shots of the shocked crowd, along with the sound of screams and cries. Admittedly, at the time of the film’s release (ten years ago!), the wounds from the day were far from healed, but this felt somewhat exploitative.

I also wasn’t fond of the focus on one particular family who had lost a son in Iraq. While I have no objection to bringing a human face to the death tolls, I do have a problem in how it was approached. There is a scene where the soldier’s mother travels to D.C. to confront the government about her grievances, and there’s a long shot where she walks away from a heartless conservative woman in tears that almost seems to revel in her sadness, as it allowed Moore to prove his point.

However, the movie does do its job. While sometimes it is overly manipulative, there are points where I found myself getting angry, and not because of Moore’s filmmaking, but because of the points raised. As someone who failed to see the point of the Iraq invasion, being reminded of it wasn’t making me feel particularly pleased. Fortunately Moore avoided making much reference to the UK’s involvement in events, because I think the sight of Tony Blair would have made me want to throw my TV out of the window.

But it’s also not going to convince anyone who isn’t already convinced. Fahrenheit 9/11 is a competently made documentary with a lot going for it, but if you’re a pro-Republican, Iraq-war-supporting conservative, then you’re not going to be swayed.

Written by Michael Moore
Produced by Michael Moore, Jim Czarnecki, Kathleen Glynn, Monica Hampton, Harvey Weinstein & Bob Weinstein
Music by Jeff Gibbs
Edited by Kurt Engfehr, T. Woody Richman & Christopher Seward

Favourite Scene: I always loved seeing Bush screw up his speeches, so the “won’t get fooled again” speech was hilarious to me.
Scene That Bugged Me: The lingering shots of shock and the sounds of anguish that marked 9/11 itself felt far too emotionally manipulative for my taste.

Watch it if: You opposed the War On Terror
Avoid it if: You’re a staunch Republican who believed Bush could do no wrong

#286 Peking Opera Blues

(1986, Tsui Hark)
刀馬旦

A while ago, I reviewed Once Upon A Time In China, a movie which was frequently presented to me as a serious film about Chinese history, and then it turned out to be a chop-socky kung fu flick. Well, Peking Opera Blues, from the same director, appears to have the same issue. Presented as a serious drama surrounding Peking opera, it’s actually a slightly silly action film. But is it any good?

Peking Opera Blues is set in 1913 Peking, centred on a rebellion against the government of the time. The story features three female leads who form an unlikely team: Tsao Wan (Brigitte Lin), a general’s daughter secretly plotting against her father, Bai Niu (Sally Yeh), the daughter of a Peking opera impresario, and Sheung Hung (Cherie Chung), a young musician searching for a box of stolen jewels.

Peking Opera Blues starts by throwing everything at us. Here’s a general’s daughter who likes to dress like a man! Here’s a musician trying to steal some jewels! Here’s some Peking opera! Here’s a huge rebellion! HERE ARE ALL THE THINGS!

The problem is, this initially leads to the viewer being horrendously overwhelmed by the sheer number of characters and plot points and general goings-on, and it isn’t really a good way to start. For probably the first half-hour of the movie, I was lost. Too much was happening and too little was being explained and I was all set to hate everything.

But then the movie started getting somewhat silly. Over-the-top action sequences exploded onto the screen and the movie started chucking jokes around constantly, and my opinion dramatically changed. These action sequences are consistently excellent, with excellent choreography blending with expert comic timing, and it made the movie a lot of fun to watch.

It’s all basically what you’d expect from a heavily choreographed Hong Kong movie. We get crazy martial arts mixing into traditional Peking opera performances, tons of wire-work and fist fights, and some dramatic escape sequences too. Of course, I still don’t know why the film is presented as a serious drama about opera, because it really isn’t.

Also around this time, the movie starts being clearer about who our protagonists are, especially when they form their alliances, and the plot starts falling into place. Even better, once the confusion clears up, it becomes apparent that all of the leads are charming and likeable.

What’s more, this enhances the action. As the movie progresses, we start caring more and more about our protagonists and we want them to succeed. As I watched them flail around and generally kick ass, I felt myself cheering them on, wanting everything to turn out well. Silly scenes mixed in with all this, such as a series of scenes where the trio get drunk and then try and hide from Bai Niu’s father in her bedroom, add to the fun immensely.

Of course, it isn’t perfect. There is a desire to tell a serious story in here, and sometimes things can be a bit jarring at times. As an example, after lots of silly over-the-top action sequences and buddy comedy jokes, there’s a genuinely gruesome torture scene that threw me completely. It felt so out of place in such a fun movie that I began to wonder if I was beginning to watch a completely different movie.

It also still never consistently explains its central plot. Sure, we care about our characters and we know that the generals are bad people and we should be rooting for the rebels, but…there’s no backstory. Stuff just happens and we’re expected to understand. It’s a little bit disappointing, really.

But overall, Peking Opera Blues isn’t a disappointment. It’s a blast to watch, and hilarious to boot. Definitely recommended for fans of Hong Kong cinema.

Starring Brigitte Lin, Cherie Chung, Sally Yeh, Paul Chun, Wu Ma & Kenneth Tsang
Written by Raymond To
Produced by Claudia Chung Jan & Hark Tsui
Music by James Wong
Cinematography by Hang-Sang Poon
Edited by David Wu

Favourite Scene: The drunken hang-out scene and the following bedroom scene with about four people hiding under a blanket.
Scene That Bugged Me: That torture scene really doesn’t fit at all.

Watch it if: You enjoy Hong Kong cinema
Avoid it if: You’re expecting a serious movie about the history of Peking opera

#266 Battleship Potemkin

(1925, Sergei Eisenstein)
Броненосец «Потёмкин»

With all eyes recently on Russia because of the Sochi Winter Olympics and the much-less positive anti-gay laws, and even less positive actions in Ukraine, it seems somewhat fitting that today we will be taking a look at one of the most successful Russian propaganda movies ever made, Battleship Potemkin.

Battleship Potemkin is a dramatic re-enactment of the 1905 mutiny on the real Potemkin, where sailors disobeyed their officers over their working conditions, and these actions ultimately led to the Russian Revolution of 1917. The movie, which celebrates the rebellion and the rise of communism, starts with sailors living in squalor and forced to eat maggot-infested meat, ultimately culminating in a battle, and gaining the sympathy of the people of Odessa.

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#262 JFK

(1991, Oliver Stone)
“Telling the truth can be a scary thing sometimes”

Let’s talk conspiracy theories. Did you know we’re all secretly ruled by lizard men who staged 9/11 using holograms and faked the moon landing so that Buzz Aldrin could have a toy named after him 30 years later? Don’t you know that we’re all the pawns of an ongoing war between the Templars and the Assassins and that Obama has a gun that shoots tornadoes because…profit? God, sheeple, open your eyes!

No, not really, unless you believe some of the crackpots in certain corners of the Internet. But while many of those conspiracy theories are pretty nutty, one conspiracy continues to fascinate and baffle many, 50 years on – the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the 35th President Of The United States.

JFK is a movie that presents the conspiracy as being true. Following Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), a district attorney who is suspicious of the official story that Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) killed JFK (John F. Kennedy, archive footage) and sets out to discover what really happened. In the process, he uncovers a conspiracy involving the CIA and the mob and various other organisations who wanted Kennedy dead, putting him in the line of fire and putting strain on Garrison’s marriage.

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#227 The Bridge On The River Kwai

(1957, David Lean)

“Do not speak to me of rules. This is war, not a game of cricket”

World War II movies continue to pour off the list, and while normally they like to focus on Hitler and the Holocaust, here’s one that’s different. The Bridge on The River Kwai is set during the Burma Campaign, where the British Commonwealth along with Chinese and American forces decided to give those Japanese fellows a right good thrashing.

Although it doesn’t really contain much thrashing. Instead, a troop of British soldiers led by Lt. Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) are captured and taken to a Japanese prison camp led by Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), where the soldiers are all ordered to work on a new Bridge On The River Kwai. Nicholson stands his ground and demands that the officers are not put to work, because this would violate the Geneva Convention. Meanwhile, an American soldier, Commander Shears (William Holden) plans to escape the camp, and later is recruited to destroy the bridge that the British are being told to make. There’s a lot going on here.

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#201 District 9

(2009, Neill Blomkamp)

A while back, I reviewed Monsters, an alien invasion movie that acted as a clear allegory for US immigration policy. Well, it wasn’t the first movie of its kind, because only a year before, District 9 was released, and this time an alien invasion acted as an allegory for apartheid in South Africa.

In 1982, a gigantic spaceship descended over Johannesburg and suddenly stopped. An investigation team was sent in, discovering a large group of sick and malnourished aliens, who were immediately detained in a government camp known as District 9. After numerous conflicts between the aliens, derisively known as “prawns”, and the human population, the South African government sends in a private military contractor, led by bureaucrat Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), to move the prawns to an internment camp.

However, a prawn named Christopher (mo-cap by Jason Cope) has been working on something by collecting fluid from the spaceship’s debris. When Wikus comes in contact with this fluid, it has adverse effects on him, and he begins to see things from the prawns’ perspective.

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#194 The Killing Fields

(1984, Roland Joffe)

“Here, only the silent survive”

The Cambodian Genocide is one of those major world events that rarely gets brought up much in movies, with the conflicts in neighbouring Vietnam typically getting a greater focus in the wider world of fiction. But it’s an event that should be talked about. Following a civil war in the 1970s, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime took over the country, and proceeded to reconstruct the entire country as they saw fit. Thousands were killed, including the educated and those associated with the previous government, all in the name of restarting the country from scratch, making those who remained into mindless slaves.

One man who helped bring all of this to the attention of the Western world was Sydney Schanberg, a journalist for the New York Times who was in Cambodia as a foreign correspondent for the Vietnam conflict next door, and he witnessed the Khmer Rouge takeover and reported it to the world. The Killing Fields is his story, and the story of his friend, Dith Pran.

It’s 1973, and Schanberg (Sam Waterston) is travelling to Cambodia to meet with Cambodian journalist and NYT interpreter Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor), who leaves because of a miscalculated American bombing run that has hit a Cambodian town instead of a Vietnamese target. During the course of the movie, the Khmer Rouge seize control and all foreign nationals are forced into the embassies, including Schanberg and fellow journalists Al Rockoff (John Malkovich) and Jon Swain (Julian Sands). The result is a chaotic drama which never lets up for one moment.

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#193 The Queen

(2006, Stephen Frears)

“Nowadays people want glamour and tears, the grand performance. I’ve never been good at that”

For the British, one of the most infamous events of the nineties was the death of Princess Diana. Diana was a popular figure, winning the hearts of many of the British public, resulting in a huge outpouring of emotion following her death. This is a movie about that time, told from the perspective of the titular royal figurehead, Queen Elizabeth, known as Lizzie to her friends or simply The Queen.

It’s 1997, and Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) has just been appointed prime minister, and the nation is celebrating, although Queen Liz (Helen Mirren) is sceptical of him. Then tragedy strikes when news comes in from France that Diana Spencer, ex-wife to Prince Charles, has been killed in a car crash. In line with tradition, the royals head up to their residence in Balmoral, Scotland for a period of private mourning, refusing to acknowledge Diana as an official royal and therefore feeling no need to make a statement on her death or hold a state funeral.

However, the princess’ popularity with the British public is putting Elizabeth under pressure to go against this, and demand for a public statement and a state funeral is high. Blair is using this to his advantage, attempting to maintain his public position as a popular PM (haha, nope, can’t take that sentence seriously…), which isn’t helping the royal position. It’s now up to Liz to try and decide whether to bow to public pressure or stick to royal protocol.

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