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Sunday, Nov 5, 2006


Ahh… politics. That creator of strange bedfellows. That seducer of the honest and the well intentioned. That corrupt bastion of bad policies, faulty execution, and spin doctored excuses for both. Every couple of years its seems the representative form of our government gets the grand idea that people actually believe that their vote counts, and so they set about pandering—sorry, CAMPAIGNING—to bring the citizenry to the issues that the lobbyists find most important. Outrage is amplified over insignificant social dicta while truth is tempered by ideological based perspective. It’s all in service of a sinister cabal in which power cannibalizes and feeds itself, a non-stop frenzy of false pride and implied dominance. In the end, the result is a malfeasant machine that manufactures its own magnitude and perpetually pleases only those who can provide its omnivorous fetid fuel.


But wait, you don’t believe that the entire electoral process is a lost cause? You think that a sincere and straightforward candidate can rise up out of the glad-handing quagmire that is the system and avoid the behind the scenes manipulation of his or her party’s protectorate to actually serve their constituency? Well, Mr. and Mrs. America, you need a quick lesson in the realities of the Republic, and there’s no better place to start than with the many movies made on the subject. Indeed, film has, over the decades, found many ways to highlight the hypocrisy and expose the evil boiling just below the surface of the scandal-plagued political process. No sour subject has avoided the cinematic vox populi, from nation altering atrocities like Watergate and the JFK assassination to the standard stratagem of dirty tricks and the always scandalizing subject of sex.


Perhaps the best example of such an anti-politico polemic is 1972’s Year of the Yahoo. What? What’s that you say? You’ve never heard of this film? Perhaps you were expecting All the President’s Men? Primary Colors? The Manchurian Candidate? Well, if you took a smattering of Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, mixed in a smidgen of standard exploitation, and sprinkled the entire enterprise with a heaping helping of hominy and hambone, you’d have Herschell Gordon Lewis’ long lost masterpiece of down home despotism and the media’s unpardonable ability to influence events. With a narrative fresh out of today’s headlines and a tone as cynical as a grad student’s weblog, Lewis lifts the lid off the muckraking ridiculousness that is our political process, and even provides a few toe-tapping musical PSAs along the way.


Our story begins when the incredibly liberal and virtually unbeatable Senator Burwell comes up for re-election. Angry over his left-leaning ideals, the sitting President of the United States wants Burwell defeated. He even handpicks his own rube for the job: strumming and grinning goober Hank Jackson, famous in both fields of music: country and western. Sending a triumvirate of trained pollsters and media men into the bumpkin’s backwoods barrio, the Corruptor in Chief hopes to help the honky-tonk hick win more than his fair share of the illiterate Appalachian vote. But the glad-handing Governor and his backside smooching sidekick think this corn pone crooner ain’t got a chance in Chattanooga of success. They fail to take his candidacy seriously, and spend most of their days giggling over the lopsided poll numbers.


It’s not long, however, before a sleazy, slick ad campaign and a constant play list of public pandering, philosophically fascist songs has Hank labeled a wholesome homeboy by the neo-conservative race baiters within his constituency. His TV appearances, complete with some finger snappin’, demographically accurate musical numbers, increase his image of earnestness and elect-ability. Indeed, it looks like Jackson will win the gerrymander, even when a rent strike divides his bluegrass bandwagon and unsettles his perfectly polished coalition. As Hank continues to tow the prejudiced party line, his hen pecker of a girlfriend sides with the agitators. It takes dozens of underhanded shenanigans, a sexual assault and a clear case of conscience—not to mention a lonesome ballad or two—to help Hank regain his integrity and to determine, once and for all, if it’s really The Year of the Yahoo.


Indeed, Yahoo is a real rarity amongst supposed skin and sin exploitation films, especially the one’s made by Mr. Blood Feast himself. Instead of some sleazy exposé in which naughtiness and nudity are the only salient selling points, what we have here is a really great movie with an incredibly well written script, a narrative that navigates the truths about government in a way most mainstream efforts would likely avoid. Existing outside the confines of an oppressive studio system, capable of saying anything and everything he wants, screenwriter Allen Kahn (which could just be a pen name for Lewis, by the way) creates an astute, perceptive dissection of the entire cynical candidacy process. It’s a plot that demonstrates how gaining elected office in the United States is not a matter of ethics or integrity but merely showmanship and selfless pandering to the public. Measuring up favorably against directorial heavyweights like Mike Nichols and Elia Kazan, Lewis’ political potboiler about a podunk country singer candidate being mass marketed to his population of peons feels as new and astute now as when it was made.


Unfortunately, a hundred image consultants doing soundbite surgery at a suicidal rate would have a hard time getting the registered voter hyped about Claude King. Yes, he can carry a tune, but he can’t carry a movie. His “wish I was George Jones” persona filled with ‘golly-gees’ and hair cream just can’t seem to slink beyond the initial line reading level. He’s like any other non-actor trying to put on the performance. His halting, half-baked believability leeches every available drop of drama out of his dilemma.  Still, his “h-yuck yuck” yokelism works wonderfully within the movie. He comes across as a complete innocent made a meaningful man of the people. Actually, about the worst thing you can say about this production is that its low budget, non-professional cast aspects tend to show through more than usual. Funny how good writing will do that. Still, if you never thought that you’d experience high-class social consciousness and shrewd political satire in a surreal pseudo-grindhouse goof, then step right up and cast your ballot for The Year of the Yahoo. It’s no more ridiculous than the arrogant stumping that’s passing itself off as self-determination this midterm election cycle.


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Sunday, Nov 5, 2006

Ain’t it interesting that the two hottest new media sites around are now looking to crack down on illegal content (some of which makes them so popular)?  Even weirder is that the process is going to help the places that the record industry and movie industry are fighting the hardest again in the digital world.


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Saturday, Nov 4, 2006


Country is the first in a long series of roles that Jessica Lange would become famous for: the farm-wife/mother. It also was, for those paying close attention, the first outspoken political statement Lange would utter. As time would go on to tell, it certainly would not be the last. Her cause in 1984 was the plight of American farmer and the unjust practices of corrupt government agencies that strong-armed them into submission. It is a somewhat straightforward story by cinematic means, but the subversive ideas are epic in scope.


Hot off the heels of her double whammy in 1982 (Frances and Tootsie), Lange was able to use her status to co-produce and star in this unfettered portrait of a family struggling to make everything work. She is Jewell, the matriarch of a small family that depends on their land for income, only to be plagued by bank foreclosures and violent twisters. Dutiful, tough and fired-up opposite real-life partner Sam Shepard (the second of several successful, heated on-screen collaborations), Lange is relaxed and cautious with her creation and her care shows most assuredly in a scene where the family is out in the field during a windstorm. Her son becomes trapped under a gigantic pile of corn and her fury as she digs him out is nearly as powerful as the gale. Then, the next morning, its back to serving up pancakes with rollers in her hair as if nothing happened. This detail is effective because it shows the versatility a woman who must be ready for anything if she is going to survive this kind of life. There isn’t much room to fuss over something that might have happened to her hard-working son the previous night when there are babies to be fed and chores to be done and records to be kept.


Country doesn’t really pull any punches when it comes to the negative effects of the hard knocks taken by the family. Jewell and Gil’s marriage begins to disintegrate when he starts drinking and stops fighting for the farm and starts fighting with their children, physically and verbally. The homespun film conveys a seemingly ancient sense of community strength and respect for tradition along with an un-ironic sense of earnestness. The characters depend on each other, neighbors, family, and all. In a scene where Jewel and Gil agree to do a simple favor for a friend who they know is about to be run off his land by creditors, the two principals take a “less-is-more” approach with an unfussy reverence for individual privacy. They merely help him without asking for too much information.  In the hands of lesser performers, these clichés would have come off inert, but in the hands of pros like Lange and Shepard the conventions are fresh.


Lange somehow makes this woman endearing and actually functional, rather than a weak stereotype. She even manages to endow the character (that might have been envisioned as a nervous wreck or a melodramatic sap) with a wry sense of humor even in the face of repossession and the farm being auctioned off. It is a master class in social crusading and self-sacrifice that upstarts like Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich and Charlize Theron (North Country) likely obsessed over as part of their preparation to play similarly heroic roles.


Even though Lange may play the naïve, small-town woman up against crushing odds often, she makes Jewell’s confusion convincingly build to a cool, controlled rage. It is clear that the actress puts a unique stamp on her characters every time. By the time the town unites to stop the crooked auctions, led in their rallying by the wiser and empowered Jewell, the outcome is electrifying: she begins a climactic chant of “no-sale” that is so powerful it actually works. Pride and loyalty are two important values implied in the code of conduct for farmers used to this way of life. It’s a refreshing reaction of trust and kindness that make for the best kind of epics: the small ones that matter the most.


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Saturday, Nov 4, 2006


Since my obsession with Swedish film star Liv Ullmann has begun to, shall we say, blossom (or fester, depending on how you look at it) over the years, one film in her cannon has painfully eluded me: Jan Troell’s epic cinematic interpretation of Vilhelm Moberg’s novels, 1972’s The Emigrants (which has only been available to US audiences in a crappy dubbed video version or on laserdisc)
   
Happy days are here thanks to some anonymous seller on EBay, who happened to be unloading some strange, unauthorized version of the film, unedited, in its three hour-plus running time and complete with English subtitles rather than the English dubbing. I have truly found at least once facet of the Swedish film industry’s numerous Holy Grails!


Troell’s story beings in Smaaland, a rural community in southern Sweden, where the land has been farmed to its limits and prospects are dying out rapidly. Max Von Sydow’s Karl-Oscar has dreams of uprooting his large family to somewhere better, where the soil is good. Wife Kristina, played, of course, by Ullmann (who begins the film constantly pregnant, naive and deeply religious), is at first skeptical and then through a series of tragic events, decides a change is for the best. Joining them is Karl-Oscar’s brother Robert, who works as a farm hand for an abusive employer and his pal, Arvid. Kristina’s Uncle Danjel, a righteous man himself, his wife and his followers (including a bitchy former hooker with the proverbial heart of gold and her illegitimate child) soon decide to go with them as well.


The first part of the film, which details the brutal, infertile existence in Sweden is wrenching. The desperation, the hunger and the idea that only God can save them is depressing. When they decided to leave for America, I wanted to cheer. However, the decision was not without its consequences.


As the characters embark to what they believe will be a better life and world, the second half of the film takes off with a “can-do” spirit and optimism that is catchy despite the perilous journey that lay ahead for the poor, eager Swedes. They board a skiff bound for America and a treacherous, disease and famine-filled adventure begins. People drop from cholera and the plague. Food is contaminated. Oh, then comes the scurvy. It’s a bloody, barbaric trip to be sure. Several of the main characters come face to face with death. It’s amazing what people can survive and what they will actually endure to achieve what they desire – in this case, the freedom to farm on fertile land and the freedom to practice their religion unimpeded. You get the sense that this liberty is everything to them. The peril they put their families through is worth it though. It’s worth taking the chance to get to America. They have a purpose and will do everything and risk everything to fulfill it.


The third and final act of the film brings us to the US. Interestingly, part of this film was actually made here, shot on location in Wisconsin, Minnesota and in and around the Great Lakes. Once they get off the boat, the journey is still not complete. There are still trains to catch and more boats. When they finally reach the North, the viewer is given a sense that the Swedes have finally found a foothold toward their goal. Yet we also know that there is still much work that will have to be done.


The simplicity and straightforward storytelling makes the film seem very crisp and focused. I really got the feeling that this story was authentic, not embellished and cleaned-up. The characters fight with each other. They have some really ugly moments, but then they develop a wonderful sense of community and familiarity and there are some terrific, humane moments throughout. The photography of the film is just as direct: showing the natural elements of the journey (water, ice, earth, etc…) in their glory. The boat scenes show the water as being both menacing and gorgeous. The sets are quite minimal and this really highlights the acting and story.


Of course, the chemistry between Ullmann and Von Sydow is magical. Ullmann has that uncanny knack for building her characters from scratch. She begins as a sort of sheltered, fragile mother who isn’t strong enough to make it to the new world and she slowly weathers many terrible tragedies that make her stronger and wiser. She is supported wholeheartedly by her husband, giving the film a little romantic sheen.


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Friday, Nov 3, 2006


I am a man who loves a good costume drama. I said it, with no shame. Mary Queen of Scots, criminally unavailable on DVD, might not exactly be Merchant Ivory-material as far as the production values go but is a treat for fans of historical period films nonetheless.


Vanessa Redgrave received an Oscar nomination back at the start of the ‘70s for her portrayal of Queen Mary Stuart and it holds up as one of the actresses most unique achievements: it is a surprisingly inventive performance, deserving of its accolades. The story is really not innovative or well done for that matter, but the film is saved by the truly visionary work of Redgrave at the height of her powers.


In the late ‘60s she won two Best Actress awards at Cannes (and was Oscar-nominated as well) for Morgan! (1966) and Isadora (1968) and appeared in Michelangelo Antionini’s classic Blow Up. During this time she also became an outspoken political activist, an incendiary proposition for a performer to take back then. Bad press aside, the actress managed to carve a niche for herself in world cinema despite making a slew of enemies.


What essentially saved Ms. Redgrave’s ass was the fact that she was descended from acting royalty (father was Michael, sister is Lynn), as well as her genuine gift for putting a fresh, modern spin on classic characters such as Mary Stuart. Her character’s arc is quite dynamic: Mary starts out in France (Redgrave learned French phonetically for the part), a happy young queen in love who witnesses the death of her beloved husband. She is exiled to live in Scotland (photographed with an other-worldly opulence), where she is used as a pawn of the Catholic Church until finally she comes into her own realizations after many bloody, manipulated years on the throne.


It is curious that the actress would condescend to appear in such a seemingly straightforward historical romance, but she succeeds in seeing past the trite romantic clichés that riddle the script. The tawdry dime store love interludes of the film are its weakest points, but Redgrave manages to wring out some exactness in the mushiness. She is at her height in the more forceful scenes, showing no mercy to the husband and brother who have betrayed her, and accepting her fate as a religious martyr. The parallels between Redgrave and her character could be seen as laughable (Redgrave is obviously not a martyr) but she uses the hysteria directed at her real life to great effect. She was one actress who understood completely what it is like to be persecuted and vilified, like Mary.


Complicating matters is Mary’s cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (played brilliantly by two time Academy Award winner Glenda Jackson, who knows a thing or two about rowdy politics herself and who also played the Queen in a PBS mini-series that same year). Elizabeth is torn between letting Mary, who is a queen by birthright, rule without interference, be kept in exile, or be killed. It is this cat and mouse game between the two women that keeps the story floating briskly by. Although there is no actual historical meeting documented between the rivals, the film imagines two secret interactions between them, which provides some great dramatic sparks just as the film begins to lag. Jackson and Redgrave look as though they are having the time of their lives trying to out-bitch one another.


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