Volume 4, Number 48
This Week's Reviews: Biggie and Tupac, The Trials of Henry Kissinger, Bowling for Columbine.
This Week's Omissions: Roger Dodger, The Grey Zone, Extreme Ops, Eight Crazy Nights, Treasure Planet, They.
Capsule Reviews: Friday After Next, Tuck Everlasting.
|Biggie and Tupac
BY: DAVID PERRY
One of my favorite moments in documentary filmmaking in the past decade was when Heidi Fleiss and some local news reporter began to make fun of filmmaker Nick Broomfield because his boom mike, unlike the other reporter's, lacks a number on it. Broomfield, who is usually working for the BBC, finds it incredulous: in America, only those with a stupid channel number on their microphone get respect.
The film he was working on was the infamous Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, the second Broomfield film to get a major release in America (following Fetishes) and the only one to really make a mark with critics and art house audiences. It was also manipulative, deceiving, and ranting -- all of which turns it into one of the most entertaining documentaries to come out in years.
His last two major efforts come from deaths, meaning that they should not bring the same level of enjoyment. Nevertheless, Broomfield's charm keeps making these movies -- which have him in front of the camera more than the subjects -- as instantly humorous as Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam.
Heidi Fleiss came from the same mold of Broomfield's previous films: simple roving camera documentaries that try to understand the oddities in people's lives or the lives of odd people. Heidi Fleiss (and later Margaret Thatcher) made for a perfect subject. These later two films take a different form, a type of muckraking encapsulation of '90s celebrity and tabloid journalism. It's seems fitting that Broomfield bares a slight resemblance to Oliver Stone.
The first of these two was Kurt and Courtney, an underrated gem that attempted (unconvincingly) to show that Courtney Love might have had Kurt Cobain murdered. While most of the people Broomfield's interviews seems to have been found under some rock (especially the unforgettable Il Duce), there is a constant among them in Broomfield. He serves as the Puck of these stories, standing alongside trying to find sense in all the commotion surrounding him.
Biggie and Tupac is similar in that it follows conspiracy theories surrounding a famous musical death. In this case, it is the 13 September 1996 killing of Tupac Shakur in Las Vegas and the 9 March 1997 killing of Christopher "The Notorious B.I.G." Smalls in Los Angeles. Since 1996, it has been rumored that Smalls had something to do with Shakur's death and that his own death was in retaliation for his paid hit. A 6 September 2002 L.A. Times article went along with this idea, arguing that Smalls paid Compton Crips gang member Orlando Anderson (who, himself, was shot and killed in 1998) to kill Shakur.
All this falls into place similarly in Broomfield's film, even if he comes up with a different answer. Instead, relying on the theories of former L.A.P.D. cop Russell Poole, Broomfield believes that Marion "Suge" Knight, impresario of Death Row Records and landlord of the Shakur discography, killed Shakur when the rapper decided to leave Death Row Records due to mounting payment failures by Knight. Smalls was then killed by Knight to make it seem that there was some West Coast (embodied by Knight and Shakur) and East Coast (embodied by Smalls and Bad Boy Records owner Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs) rivalry at work.
None of this ever becomes immensely convincing, but it all remains interesting. Broomfield becomes entranced by the so-called revelations he's privy to that it becomes more fun to watch him rally around the interviewees like they are giving vital information even if it seems like pure lies and embellishments.
Amidst all this, the most surprising moments of the film do not come in any of Broomfield's great interviews with Poole or Knight, but in learning facts like Smalls' upper-middle-class upbringing, even attending private school. His mother (who comes as a reminder of the upright peripheral characters touched by the crimes in the violent hip-hop community) remembers her embarrassment when her son did a song about not having enough to eat for dinner and living in a cramped house. She understands that this is a persona that he needed to use to sell records, but it still hurts to hear her son comment on having the upbringing she worked to keep him from living.
All the while, it is the perseverance of Nick Broomfield
that turns Biggie and Tupac into much more than an America Undercover
special. He comes in and out of the stories he follows with gumption and confidence. In
many occasions, he's putting his life on the line (he seems to run every red light in
L.A., as well as received 10 to 15 death threats each day while making this film) but
keeps pushing harder into the violent stories he has become obsessed with. At one point,
he's thrown out of an office and just stubbornly keeps standing there and discouragedly
watches as his cameraman starts to leave the place; in the film's climactic trip to Suge
Knight's prison, his cameraman is replaced because she dropped out for "self
preservation." All the while, that impish little Brit with the headphones and boom
mike still stands there in front of the camera.
|The Trials of Henry
BY: DAVID PERRY
While little more than a muckraking diatribe, The Trials of Henry Kissinger has the disingenuous documentation to "prove" that Kissinger was a Machiavellian war criminal. Set around the arrests of Augusto Pinochet and Slobodan Milosevic, the film sets forth as much damning information as it can stuff into an 80-minute feature. In the end, though, the entire thing seems so one-sided that it's impossible to believe it for all its sanctimony.
Kissinger was partly responsible for American military action in Vietnam, Cambodia, and East Timor, war locales that saw millions of civilian deaths with calls that could have come from the Kissinger's State Department. Author Christopher Hitchins, who wrote the two Harper's columns (and later book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger) that the film takes its information from, comes across as simply an obsessed little man, trying to piece together any evidence that might make it seem like Kissinger pulled the trigger against Cambodian citizens.
Director Eugene Jarecki seems too willing to accept all the anti-Kissinger remarks without any equal time. The only true Kissinger supporter to appear in the film is Alexander Haig, who is shown as little more than a senile old man (at one point saying that Hitchins "sucks the sewer pipe" -- it's doubtful that his more expressive moments were those used by Jarecki). William Safire -- the god of The New York Times op-ed section -- does have kind things to say about Kissinger, but still remains perturbed at the fact that Kissinger once had Safire's phones tapped.
The film does come at a good time in the historical advance of Henry Kissinger's career. Today he is seen as one of the greatest elder statesmen from the Cold War. His time in the Nixon and Ford administrations has been considered to be important to the end of the Soviet war of attrition that filled much of the last half-century. It was only a couple weeks ago that President George W. Bush named Kissinger as chair of a panel to investigate what happened on 11 September 2001. Hitchins has been a regular face on cable news since then -- effectively trying to make a talking head addendum to his book so he feels like he has spoken for all of the inappropriate lionizations that have followed Kissinger since he left the State Department in 1977.
Ultimately, the film leaves a boggling commentary on Western leaders and the American exceptionalism. Who's next to be vilified? Abraham Lincoln for Atlanta? Franklin Roosevelt for Dresden? Harry Truman for Hiroshima? Ronald Reagan for Nicaragua? Bill Clinton for Kosovo? George W. Bush for Afghanistan?
I do respect the film in trying to form some indictment for abhorrent moments in U.S. foreign policy (even if the abhorrence is in the eyes of the beholder), but it's so heavy-handed and sloppily organized that it feels like little more than C-grade attempts of someone desperately wanted to be Woodward and Bernstein but lacking the potential of a Watergate scandal.
This is the type of film that thinks it is unveiling the most astonishing information ever by unraveling the plot to Chilean President Allende's assassination and -- egad -- reminding the audience that it happened on 11 September 1973. Anyone with any love for history knows this date and the conspiracy theories that place Kissinger in direct responsibility for the plot (which brought the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet).
With this especially discouraging moment of muckraking, it becomes clear who this film is made for: those who spend little time reading about the Cold War history and the timeline of coups in Central and South American proxy wars. The Trials of Henry Kissinger wants to be believed so badly that it settles for the least read (and, thus, least disagreeable) audience.
Probably the best statement of Kissinger's modern
identity in politics is not from Hitchins or this film, but instead in a 700-word Times
op-ed article by Safire. Defending Bush's decision to give Kissinger the chairmanship
(while still remarking on Kissinger's unseemly past), Safire concludes "Just as
F.D.R. appointed Joseph P. Kennedy as first chairman of the S.E.C. because that predator
knew all the manipulative tricks, Bush chose Kissinger because the old operator can see
through the secret obfuscations he mastered long ago."
|Bowling for Columbine
BY: DAVID PERRY
When I decided to add Michael Moore's Roger & Me to my top ten list for 1989, it was not a tough decision. At that point in time, it was refreshing to see a film take someone like Roger Smith to task for what has happened to cities (most importantly Moore's hometown Flint, Michigan) and workers associated to GM. In the years since, I have found the occasional moments of agreement with Moore (yes, it is discouraging that CEOs now make a disproportional amount compared to their employees), but his self-righteous style has become tedious.
I've seen him mug on everything from Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher (before it was unfortunately cancelled) and The O'Reilly Factor with Bill O'Reilly, skimmed his most recent book Stupid White Men, and seen the occasional episode of his latest television show The Awful Truth, and become discouraged by the fact that the man plays his populist role with either too much reverence or not enough.
In his latest film Bowling for Columbine, Moore plays one montage remembering various US foreign policy snafus (Chile, El Salvador, Iran) to Louis Anderson singing "What a Wonderful World;" moments later he is hugging Columbine survivors as if he will make everything better for them. His shtick is getting tiresome.
That said, Bowling for Columbine remains a fine work to portray the various reasons that Americans have such a strong (and violent) gun culture. There are so many occasions that merit inspection in this culture: the sell of automatic weapons at superstores like Wal-Mart and Kmart, the rise in school shootings, the huge difference between gun homicides in America compared to other developed countries. At the same time, Moore never takes the time to look at the other side: most importantly, the fact that gun deaths has dropped in the last couple of years. He does mention this, but only as a way to underline the fact that media coverage of violent crimes has gone up 600% (he tries to quickly move to the next subject to think that there might be some good tangential relationship here, not the bad one he's emphasizing).
At the film's worst, Moore grandstands worse that he ever has (I've only glazed a couple examples -- there's about 30 minutes worth of it in all). At the best, though, it raises issues that are not often covered by investigative reporters. For example, why is it that Canadians, with per capita gun ownership near America's, has a fractional gun death rate (something like 1 Canadian death to every 100 American deaths)? Why did the NRA have rallies in Denver just weeks after the Columbine shootings nearby? Why did they do the same in Flint after a 6-year-old shot another 6-year-old?
The amazing thing about Bowling for Columbine is not the fact that it raises these questions, but that it succeeds in raising them for moments without allowing Moore's persona to kill their resonance. There may be 30 minutes of mess filling up part of the film, but there's another 90 minutes of rich social commentary. Possibly the biggest surprise the film has to offer is that the two people who give the clearest and most intelligent views about American gun culture are rocker Marilyn Manson (who was blamed for the Columbine killings) and South Park co-creator Matt Stone (who grew up in Littleton, Colorado).
If Roger Smith got to be the villain of Roger & Me, it is Charlton Heston who gets the antagonist title for Bowling for Columbine. By using his lifetime membership in the NRA (he was a sharpshooter during his youth in Michigan, "a gun lover's paradise"), Moore is able to get an interview with Heston, which begins on a simple question of American gun culture compared to other countries and then turns into one of the most disturbing verbal gaffes made by a public figure in recent years. As if watching Heston walk away from camera was not enough, though, Moore feels the need to rub in his sociological superiority with a keepsake on Heston's carport.
Afterwards, Moore looks at the camera like he has
achieved the catharsis that every audience member has been waiting for. What he doesn't
understand is that the film hit its emotional summit an hour earlier, when it was not he
who left the indelible mark in the viewer's mind, but instead the Columbine killers caught
on school surveillance video.
|Friday After Next
(Dir: Marcus Raboy, Starring Ice Cube, Mike Epps, John Witherspoon, Don Curry, Anna Maria Horsford, Clifton Powell, K.D. Aubert, Bebe Drake, and Katt Williams)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Even after poorly trying to recreate the opening credits
to the Pink Panther films, Friday After Next comes to a halt by failing
in its attempt to recreate the first Friday film (the second film, Next
Friday, is so universally disliked that the filmmakers attempt to move the characters
to the same milieu they had in the first film). All the film really succeeds in doing is
remind the audience that there was a good Ice Cube film this year, Barbershop.
(Dir: Jay Russell, Starring Alexis Bledel, Jonathan Jackson, Sissy Spacek, William Hurt, Scott Bairstow, Ben Kinglsey, Amy Irving, and Victor Garber)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Tuck Everlasting could be among the most
incompetent family films I've seen in recent years. There's a moral to the story
(something about live life to its fullest while you're on this earth), but its all
inconsequential once you get past all the musings about springs and strangers and
immortality and motorcycles. Only some fans of the book in the Spacek and the Kingsley
family could explain why they are in this handsomely mounted but disturbingly realized
adaptation of the popular young adult novel.
|BUY THIS FILM'S
|BUY THIS FILM'S