Our Brand is Crisis

Posted on October 29, 2015 at 5:38 pm

Copyright Warner Brothers 2015
Copyright Warner Brothers 2015

As we gear up for one of the most improbable and even outlandish Presidential campaigns in US history, we get a movie based on a real-life Presidential campaign in Bolivia, with imported American political consultants transplanting the media-savvy, scorched-earth, mud-slinging “expertise” that won elections in the US. What could go wrong?

The name of the film is “Our Brand is Crisis,” also the name of the 2006 documentary about what happened when James Carville, an architect of the Clinton campaign, went to Bolivia with his group of consultants and strategists to help elect the Bolivian-born, American-raised Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. Actually they went to help re-elect him. He had served as President from 1993-97. He was trying to regain the Presidency, and who better to help than the team who helped the young governor of Arkansas beat a sitting President, George H.W. Bush?

Sandra Bullock, taking a part based on Carville and originally written for George Clooney, plays a consultant known as “Calamity” Jane. She is burned out and living in a remote rural area when she gets a visit from two former colleagues.

Nell (Ann Dowd) and Ben (Anthony Mackie) want her for two reasons. First, she is good at what she does. Second, she is “disposable, expendable, and deniable.” If their candidate (named Castillo in this film and played by Joaquim de Almeida) wins, they get the glory. If he loses, they can blame “Calamity” Jane. Win win, and a good introduction to the small-p politics of the world of strategists and consultants who work on campaigns.

Jane is not interested, even though she needs the money, until she learns that Castillo’s opponent is being advised by her arch rival, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), a man who has been on the other side “three or four times” and beaten her “three or four times.” Much more interested in trouncing anyone Candy is advising than in any of the issues or the quality of the candidates, she agrees to fly to Bolivia, where she spends the first few days breathing oxygen from a tank and throwing up due to the altitude.

Finally she begins to wake up and her fiercely competitive spirit takes over. She brings in a secret weapon, a young woman with crackerjack online research skills known only as LeBlanc (Zoe Kazan), a sort of Lisbeth Salander who looks like a sophomore at Yale. And she starts barking orders, telling her candidate to take off his jacket and roll up his sleeves and to turn toward the camera if he feels a tear in his eye. “We are the syringe that injects the people’s voice into your campaign,” she barks. He is so far behind in the polls that he has no alternative.

Jane’s short-term goal: to humanize her candidate, who is seen by the electorate as imperious and out of touch. Her medium term goal: to persuade the electorate that there is a crisis and only his experienced hand can guide them through. Her ultimate goal: complete annihilation of Pat Candy, with a side order of public humiliation.

The political sophistication of the screenplay is below the level of an AP history class, with a lot of scorched earth posturing and the inevitable idealistic youngster to provide contrast to all the superficial cynics. A reference to Adam Smith’s theory of the invisible hand is there for a gloss of political sophistication, but the aphorisms are tired (“If you fight with monsters for too long, you become a monster”) and the film is almost as cynical as its characters. The reason to see it is Bullock, who gives one of the best performances of the year, as complex, nuanced, savvy, and honest as the film would like to be. She’s got my vote.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong and crude language, vulgar sexual references, smoking, drinking, and some violence including riots, tear gas, and guns.

Family discussion: Why did Jane take the job? What will she do next?

If you like this, try: the documentary of the same name that inspired this film and “No,” starring Gael Garcia Bernal, based on the 1988 election in Chile

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Based on a true story Drama Politics


Posted on October 29, 2015 at 5:30 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some intense violence, thematic elements, brief strong language and partial nudity
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Some intense violence including bombs, police brutality, domestic violence, and sexual abuse, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 30, 2015
Date Released to DVD: February 1, 2016
Amazon.com ASIN: B017Y01GOM
Copyright 2015 Focus Features
Copyright 2015 Focus Features

How do you persuade politicians to give you the vote when you do not have the capacity to vote them out if they deny it? That was the problem faced by women in later 19th and early 20th century Great Britain and the US. While Abigail Adams urged her husband to “remember the ladies” in setting up the US government, the Constitution did not give them the right to vote. Nor did the 15th amendment to the Constitution adopted after the Civil War to give the vote to all men, regardless of race. Efforts to give “universal suffrage” in the UK led to reforms over the 19th century, but none of them granted any voting rights to women.

As this film begins, women in the UK had been fighting for the right to vote for 30 years. They concluded that they had exhausted all peaceful means of sending their message and were resorting to what today we might consider terrorism, throwing rocks at store windows and planting bombs in mailboxes. They were careful to destroy property only. No one was hurt through their protests, except for the protesters themselves, who were subjected to extreme brutality from the police, including torturous forced feeding for those who participated in hunger strikes when they were imprisoned.

Those who have studied the history of women’s suffrage may be familiar with the names of the leaders, like Emmeline Pankhurst (played in this film by Meryl Streep). But as so often happens with history, the stories of the everyday women who played a vital role in the movement are not well known, and this film wisely focuses on them. Pankhurst is on screen for less than ten minutes. The movie’s main character is a composite who is representative of the working women who became a part of the cause. Maud (Carey Mulligan) works in a laundry as does her husband (Ben Wishaw) and as did her mother, until she was killed in an industrial accident. She began working there as a child and will work there as long as she can, though she knows that the likelihood of injury or illness caused by the working conditions is very high. That is not the only problem. As her friend’s young daughter comes to work in the laundry, we can see from Maud’s reaction to the sexual assaults by a predatory boss are something she recognizes from her own experience.

Maud is in the wrong place at the wrong time and is assumed to be working with the protesters. Instead of denying it or, when she has the opportunity to help her situation by spying on them and reporting what she learns back to the police, she begins to think for the first time that there could be a chance to create a better life for herself and for the next generation, and she becomes involved, though she risks losing her job, her husband, and her child.

The movie, written by Abi Morgan and directed by Sarah Gavron, is somber in tone but it is effective at showing the harsh conditions of Maud’s life and the always-watchable Mulligan gives her character a developing ferocity that is more of a surprise to her than it is to us. It also is effective at showing us the class divisions and how women across class lines worked together. But 21st century audiences well-versed in the narratives of later protests like the civil rights, women’s equality, environmental and and anti-war movements may find it difficult to sympathize with the literally incendiary tactics of these women. There are so many characters in a very limited time period with very little progress that its good intentions are not enough to make it a strong narrative.

Text at the end of the film provides sobering statistics about how long it has taken — and is still taking — for women to get the right to vote. Here’s hoping it will not take explosives for these women to have a say in the laws that govern them.

Parents should know that this film features protest violence including destruction of property and explosives by activists and police brutality by law enforcement. Characters are injured and killed and there is domestic violence, sexual abuse, a parent permanently separated from a child, brief strong language, and non-sexual nudity.

Family discussion: If you were advising the activists on behalf of women’s right to vote, what would you suggest? How did later political movements learn from their example?

If you like this, try: the documentaries “One Woman, One Vote” and “Not For Ourselves Alone

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Based on a true story Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Epic/Historical Politics

Armor of Light

Posted on October 29, 2015 at 5:00 pm

Copyright Jeff Hutchens 2015
Copyright Jeff Hutchens 2015
What does it truly mean to be “pro-life?” For many who consider themselves conservatives, it means to be anti-abortion. For many who consider themselves liberals, it means to be against gun violence. One leading evangelical minister, a founder of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, begins to grapple with this dichotomy in “Armor of Light,” a new documentary from Abigail Disney. While she considers herself liberal, she specifically went in search of someone who would be willing to explore what it truly means to be “pro-life,” and that led her to Rob Schenck, of Faith and Action, which says: “Our purpose is to affect the hearts and minds of America’s public policy makers with Christ’s mandate in the two Greatest Commandments: Love the Lord Your God with All Your Heart, Soul, Strength, and Mind, and Love Your Neighbor as Yourself….ur mission—to challenge our nation’s leaders with biblical truth.”

Disney says: “I have found this to be true: if you approach people with respect and an open heart, they will almost always respond to you in the same way. So Rob and I formed the most unlikely of friendships and it was in that spirit that we went forward on this journey together, poking into the darkest of political corners, asking the hardest, most sensitive of questions and pushing back on some of the most dearly held American creeds.”

It was not until gun violence came literally almost to Schenck’s own doorstep that he felt he had to act. The second-deadliest shooting on a US Army base occurred in Washington DC’s Navy Yard, just steps from Schenck’s home. He knows that most of the people who provide financial support for his efforts and many of his friends and faith community are passionate advocates for the right to own guns in any quantity and of any kind. The movie shows him listening with great compassion and patience to some of his closest colleagues and friends. They explain that they see the Biblical imperative as protecting their families, and the only way to achieve that is through unlimited access to guns.

The movie also tells the story of Lucy McBath, whose teenage son’s tragic death is also the subject of another excellent documentary, “3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets.” McBath’s son Jordan stopped at a gas station with his friends the day after Thanksgiving 2012. Another customer, Michael Dunn, shot and killed him, and then tried to defend himself under the “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows the use of force if the shooter “perceives” a threat. He was later convicted and is serving a life sentence. McBath is now devoting her life to working with the faith community to combat gun violence.

Disney’s sympathetic camera allows both Schenck and McBath to tell their stories in a personal and compelling manner. She explores Schenck’s Jewish upbringing, and his finding in evangelical Christianity a faith that would help him make sense of the Holocaust genocide and a purpose in trying to protect life. And McBath is the daughter of a man who worked with Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement. She ties her passion for justice to his example. This is a powerful film, all the more so because it struggles with its subjects to find common cause and because it shows compassion and respect for the sincerity and good will of all.

Parents should know that violence is a theme of the film and there are references to tragic deaths and gun violence, as well as brief strong language.

Family discussion: What do you think “pro-life” means? What arguments are most persuasive on gun violence and why? The title of the film is taken from Romans 13:12 — what does it mean?

If you like this, try: “3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets” and “Guns, Culture, and Crime in the US” and read my interview with the director and subjects of the film

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Documentary Politics Spiritual films VOD and Streaming

A Possible Horror-Movie Museum in Colorado?

Posted on October 29, 2015 at 8:00 am

Would you go to a museum devoted to horror movies? That’s the idea behind an $11.5 million proposal to turn the location used for one of the most terrifying movies of all time into a museum, archive, and film production studio devoted to whatever scares you. The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, which inspired the Stephen King novel and provided the location for “The Shining” would become a horror movie resource for studying past films and creating new ones. Horror movie director George Romero and actor Elijah Wood are already signed up as board members.

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