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Crips and Bloods: Made in America

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Crips and Bloods: Made in America is a documentary about gang violence in Los Angeles.  The title makes it sound flashy, like a hard-hitting analysis of the hopelessness of the situation.  It's not.  It's a film that makes sweeping statements about the sources of the conflict, fails to back them up, interviews current gang members to no real end, and then comes to a wishy-washy conclusion. 

Well-researched or not, it did bring a few points up that I thought were noteworthy.  It makes the assertion that urban gangs sprung up to fill the vacuum of black urban organizations like the Black Panthers.  (According to the movie, the dissolution of these organizations is blamed on J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, which may or may not be true, but is poorly justified.)  This cause-and-effect relationship was one I had never considered.  It's a seductive claim.  After all, the Panthers and the corresponding Black Power movement were major cultural forces and it makes sense that a void could be created when it receded into the background.  But I can't really see the link between that and the rise of African American gangs.  Why would the splintering of a party focused on high-level and political activism result in a highly self-destructive pattern of violence?  The idea seems to be "Well, fighting the man didn't work, so now I'm going to resort to crime against my neighbors."  No, it's not that simple. 

Instead, I think it is part of a larger pattern that we experienced in the 80s.  Our culture experienced a rubber-band effect in Reagan's 1980s America that threw away idealism for greedy individualism across our entire culture, across economic and social boundaries.  The fall of an idealistic movement like Black Power and the rise of drugs and violence were both symptoms of that greater cultural shift, not a simplistic cause-effect dynamic.  After all, we saw the same increase of drugs and violence along the same timeline in other cities across the nation that didn't have the same racial profile.  Miami is the most glaring example, where an even more dramatic uptick in violence and drug trade occurred, and little of that violence was black-on-black.

The other point that the movie made that I found worthy of thought was the economic timeline of African Americans in Los Angeles.  Put briefly, the post-war economic boom saw a lot of manufacturing jobs open up in Los Angeles, which caused many black GIs returning from the war to move to LA.  Due to a prejudiced culture, enforced through racist home-selling policies and police brutality, these citizens clustered in a few small neighborhoods.  When the manufacturing jobs started to dry up as our country transferred to an information- and service-oriented economy, these neighborhoods were hit much harder.  These neighborhoods experienced disproportionate unemployment, which led to higher crime.  This explanation makes much more sense to me.  It doesn't rely on the 'violent culture' crutch, instead making solid economic arguments for the increase in crime.  I have heard similar arguments in the past, but to hear it all laid out in a clear example was enlightening.

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The People vs. Larry Flynt

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If Larry Flynt is half as compelling as this movie makes him out to be, then he is a fascinating person.  I knew of his position as the head honcho of Hustler, and also that he had stood for many examples of free speech, but I had no idea that, personally, he was such a bona fide crazy visionary.

Woody Harrelson acts out a very compelling character, from Flynt's conversion from atheism to revivalist christian and back again, to his constant wars with various courts, and to his complex relationship with Courtney Love's character, his wife.  You can't help but feel Flynt is an asshole.  You also can't help but think that he's right most of the time.  He's arrogant, brash, and capricious, but he's also driven, visionary, and charming.  That makes for one heck of a biopic.

Interestingly, the most sympathetic character in the movie is Flynt's lawyer, Alan Isaacman, played by a very young Edward Norton in one of his earliest roles.  Isaacman goes through all the ups and downs with Flynt, but brings a much more levelheaded apprach to things.  Flynt is a compelling character, true, but he's just too far out for us to sympathize with, so we are given the lawyer instead.  In some ways, Isaacman is the Greek chorus of the film, calling out Flynt for his antics in the film, warning him when he's taking a poor action, and then summarily ignored as if Flynt simply can't hear him.

Flynt is a man of conviction.  A complicated man of conviction, who has just enough buffoonery to get away with the outlandish.  Even if you hate him at the beginning of the movie, you will love him by the end.

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Brian's Song

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This made for TV movie is often brought up as one of the best sports movies ever, about the friendship between future hall of famer Gale Sayers and his fellow rookie running back and roommate Brian Piccolo.  They make an excellent duo in the backfield, until Piccolo's production suddenly suffers.  He is sent back to Chicago, and it's discovered that he has lung cancer.

Brian's Song is certainly predictable, though the director and writer acknowledge this.  The beginning of the movie has the narrator saying "Ernest Hemingway once said 'Every true story ends in death.' Well, this is a true story."  The movie isn't trying to build suspense, however, it is trying to paint a portrait of a friendship, and so doesn't suffer from giving away the ending.

No, what really should set apart a friendship drama is genuine feeling.  Somewhere in this, Brian's Song misses.  James Caan delivers a surprisingly one-dimensional performance as the garrulous Brian.  It smells a little bit of TV movie dumbing down, in order to make the movie more palatable and simplistic for a TV audience.  The chemistry is there between Billie Dee Williams (as Sayers) and Caan, but it's also often grounded in banter that rings false.  I think it may be because there's not enough back and forth dialogue.  Instead, much of the dialogue follows standard timing of 1) set-up, 2) response, 3) punch-line, which is the way people talk on sitcoms, but not the way that I've ever had a real-life conversation.

Sometimes the movie manages to overcome its script.  The race between Piccolo and Sayers is a great scene of fraternity.  The splicing of real football footage is really fascinating, as you get to see just how dominating Sayers can be.  And Jack Warden as George Halas delivers a strong performance.  But in the end, Brian's Song just has too many eye-rolling moments to really be good.

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Breaker Morant: Apparently court martial dramas really do it for me

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Breaker Morant is a movie I added to my Netflix queue in a rash of war movies when I came across a community-generated list of the greatest war movies of all time.  I had heard very little about it beforehand, which I can only assume is due to the fact that it's an Australian movie.  It was nominated for an Oscar back in 1980, for best writing in an adapted screenplay, so it apparently is not completely under the radar here in the US.

The title character, Breaker Morant, is a Lieutenant in the Bushveldt Carbineers in the Boer War, which was a conflict fought around the turn of the 20th century in South Africa between the British and Dutch empires.  The opening shot sets the scene: Morant and two of his subordinates are summoned to a court martial for the execution of several prisoners of war, where Morant stiffly protests that he was acting under orders.  The rest of the movie deals with the unraveling the sticky particulars.

The film is a powerful example of what a military courtroom drama can do well.  This is the second such drama that I've seen in six months, joining A Few Good Men.  Like A Few Good Men, I appreciated this one immensely.  I'm not sure if that means that I really love the genre, or if I simply like the themes shared by both, where the common soldier is caught following unwritten orders and is unjustly court-martialed when it becomes convenient to deny that those orders ever occurred.

We the audience are clearly supposed to sympathize with Morant and the defendants, as we are privy to a conversation between Lord Kitchener (yes, the same Lord Kitchener who would later be used on WWI recruiting posters) and his subordinate, where Kitchener makes it clear that he needs a court martial of those soldiers in order to bring the Dutch to the peace talks table.  Kitchener has no qualms with breaking a few eggs to make his omelet.  Morant happens to be an easy target, as he is a "colonial" Australian in the predominantly English army, and Kitchener's order to execute prisoners of war was never written for Morant, only communicated orally through a (since killed) intermediary officer.

The format of the movie is its strongest point.  The movie is told through flashbacks at the court testimonials, as told by the witnesses at the trial.  We never actually hear Morant tell his story, which means we never have conclusive proof that he's innocent.  All of our evidence for Morant's innocence, like the evidence for conviction, is circumstantial.  The laconic storytelling is an ingenious film device that keeps just enough doubt in the viewer's mind, and further intensifies the themes of duty and following dubious orders.  It leaves the story more open to interpretation, and compels the viewer to pay more attention, hoping for the conclusive proof that the movie never provides.  The movie is all the stronger as a result.

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Miracle: Disney gets patriotic

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I needed to see this movie because I am a glutton for punishment.  Specifically, the punishment on which I glut myself is sports movies.  I feel obligated to see sports movies, even though a good sports movie is an oxymoron.  I have a few sentimental favorites (I'm looking at you, Field of Dreams) and a few that I like as historical curiosities (61*, anybody?), but even those fall into the class of "Well, I like this movie, but..."

Miracle is emotional pandering to white middle-class America.  It's a paper-thin sports drama that goes back to one of our proudest moments as a nation and preaches to us about the values of unity, toughness, and hard work.  And, because Disney made it, it's all covered in a saccharine glaze of sweeping orchestral music and a smidge of family drama.

That said, parts of Miracle are good.  The scenes on the ice were compelling to my uneducated eye.  It sticks to a tried-and-true formula of "team of unknowns suffers through hardship together, gains cohesion, triumphs against all odds," which is probably good if you like the other films of this nature, like Hoosiers, Bad News Bears, or The Longest Yard.  The speech that Russell gives at the end, if you go for corny motivational speeches, is well-written and well-delivered.

But the thing that is most insulting, that is most unforgivable, is that this movie was released when it was and how it was.  It came out in Christmas of 2004, when the War on Terror was in full swing, and Bush had just gotten reelected on a platform of warmongering and misplaced nationalistic fervor.  This movie came out wrapped in red, white and blue, and trumpeting the United States' greatest triumph against a great foreign ideological bogeyman.  Such an obvious parallel is a blatant farce.  The Cold War, at least, was won through diplomatic maneuver and classic American soft power.  This current conflict that STILL isn't over five years later should not be propped up by such jingoistic marketing.  Yeah, I'm bitter.

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Ken Burns' The Civil War - Entry the second

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Finished The Civil War over this long memorial day weekend.  Turns out I was wrong when I wrote that I was halfway through in the last entry, I was actually only three episodes from the end.  The last episodes were just as strong as the first.  It's hard to believe that I have absorbed about 15 hours of Civil War history in such a short period.

One thing that has stuck out to me is how much the war is contextualized.  Ken Burns' style of interspersing eyewitness journal accounts into the overall narration really champions the thought of the average Joe.  The war doesn't seem like a thing of dusty history, it is brought home that these were real events lived by real people.  This seems obvious in hindsight, but too frequently major efforts to capture events of the past rely on the omniscient narrator, which is good to make the account authoritative, but also serves to hide the humanity of the events.  This wasn't always history, this was real, and the outcome was sometimes very much in doubt.  It's easy to forget that we have the benefit of hindsight in putting together our reconstructions.

I simply cannot recommend this series enough.  If you have not seen it, you absolutely should.  If you have seen it, it may be worth checking it out again.  I've now enjoyed it thoroughly during two entirely different times of my life.  Few other TV and film works can claim the same.

Time to piss all over some more Confederate ideas about the war.  What the heck makes Robert E. Lee so hot?  Seems that every time people (at least Americans) talk about great generals throughout history, Robert E. Lee gets mentioned.  Sure, he had some early successes, but so did tons of confederate generals.  This seems normal as the majority of the West Point-trained officers sided with the Confederacy, and because the obligation was on the Union to attack.  Nobody throughout the entire Civil War seemed to understand the sheer idiocy of charging masses of infantry over open ground against entrenched positions; it would take the world the superhuman deadly idiocy that was World War I to learn that lesson. 

Lee seems like a classic "Right place, right time" guy, where he happened to be in command of the Confederate army during some of the Union's greatest follies, and thus gets credit for more than he deserves.  If you take away the battles he won over the shrinking violet George McClellan, and take away the battles where the Union won the battle for him by wasting thousands of men in foolish frontal assaults, then what's left?  He is left with two very successful battles at Second Bull Run and Chancellorsville, but two battles is not enough to justify his position in lore.  What's more, his position is further eroded in that when he had to go on the offensive, he failed, and failed spectacularly.  In fact, he oversaw the turning point of the war at Gettysburg, and is responsible for the single most iconic military blunder of the war.  Pickett's charge should be called Lee's charge.  Pickett may have led it, but it was Lee's idea, and was never anything other than a foolish waste of lives the South couldn't afford.  This is the man who's mentioned in the same breath as Alexander and Napoleon?


The first part of this post can be found here.

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Before watching this movie, I knew three things about Thomas Becket.  

  1. He was English.
  2. He lived a long time ago
  3. He was not the King.

Now, after watching this movie and reading the Wikipedia article, I know a few more things.  He was the Archishop of Canterbury, and got in the way of King Henry II of England when Henry wanted to add another VI to his number and make the church subservient to the crown.  So, Becket got murdered.  Oh, I guess that was a spoiler.

Anyway, the film stars Richard Burton as Becket and Peter O'Toole as Henry II.  It's a decent film, although it definitely occasionally has some 'old movie overacting,' which is most aggravating toward the end as O'Toole's Henry II can't decide whether he loves or hates Becket.

The historical background is a complex one, and like all good political dramas, there's no perfect tidy solution to the problem at hand.  The script makes a significant effort to humanize Becket and the King, making a big deal of their close relationship with each other, before they eventually come to loggerheads over the idea of church autonomy within the state.  I wish that this historical drama had spent a little more time on the history part, and less on the drama, but I can understand that is a matter of taste that many other viewers wouldn't share.

I found what the film almost as interesting for what it didn't say as for what it did.  For instance, the atheistic cynic in me came out at the end of the movie and widely derided the canonization of Thomas as "Well, of COURSE the church is going to canonize some martyr who died protecting the power of the church against the state."  Sometimes the hierarchical church structure gets a free pass, while sometimes it is openly mocked.  Rome is portrayed as a power-hungry political entity, while Becket's politically-motivated defense of church authority is shown to the audience as spiritually and morally grounded.  I was left wondering whether the film was intending to criticize the church, defend it, or strike some kind of middle ground.  I suppose what it ultimately is trying to do is prop up the tired protestant thesis of "structured church bad, singleminded unbending devotion to imaginary man in the sky good."

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Ken Burns' Civil War

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I've been watching this series recently, which most of us probably remember from whatever history course we took that covered the Civil War.  I remember watching this quite some time ago outside of class, but I was probably 13 years old or so, and little of it has stuck with me.

Coming back to it, it's amazing, because it is better than I remember.  That's a rare thing for me, as usually something I watch again suffers when I realize either that my love for it stems from the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, or worse, that I no longer am in the right point in my life for it to hit me the same way.  But somehow, the intervening years have improved the Civil War series.  Even more shocking, corny as it seems, I find myself thinking how much it has affected our country.  When did this happen?  When did I start sounding, even thinking, like a history teacher? 

I think, perhaps, the reasons for this are twofold.  First, I have a little bit better understanding of some of the historical figures of the Civil War.  Sure, everybody knows Abe Lincoln and Robert E. Lee, but now I have a little more framework for the other players, like George McClellan or Jefferson Davis.  Somehow, this has given me enough to hang on to, and what seemed slow and confusing before is very, very easy to understand this time around. 

Second, and I know this makes me a Yankee through and through, but I have no sympathy with the South.  The apologists will say they were fighting for states' rights, but there is plenty of Confederate rhetoric of the time that makes it clear that they were fighting for their culture, and that an integral part of that culture was the furtherance of slavery.  Masking it by calling it something like states' rights is just historical justification.  Moreover, can you imagine the Confederacy as a modern nation?  I can't imagine them becoming a world power.  The South, with its focus on agrarian society and minimal vertical integration of social class, simply had to reinvent itself.  Losing a Civil War was probably not the most effective way to do so, but it got the South out of a rut it very much needed to escape.

I'm sure I'll be writing more on the series.  I'm currently halfway through, and I'll be sure to post when I finish.


For part 2 of this review, click here.

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