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Under Appreciated Supporting Actors III

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What qualifies an actor as underrated? I hope this explains it—Paul Giamatti. There was a time, at around Almost Famous, when he was underrated, but now he is considered one of the best character actors ever, right? So that’s not underrated! And he went from being a supporting actor to a leading actor in 2004 with American Splendor. So he ditched both qualifications of being an under appreciated supporting actor.1

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Kelly Macdonald as Mary Maceachran, stuck in the rain outside of Lady Constance Trentham’s car in Gosford Park, © 2001 Universal Studios.

Sometimes an actor or actress comes along who the world knows will be great. In The Princess Bride they “introduc[ed]” Robin Wright, and they were right to have done so. The same came be said for Kelly Macdonald. She gets the “introducing” credit in Trainspotting. The way she played what in American slang is known as “jailbait” was riveting. You could not blame Ewan McGregor’s Renton for being overpowered by her young alpha female Diane. She immediately showed acting range by then portraying–four years later–Mary, the best maid Dame Maggie Smith ever had—no offense, Downton denizens. Macdonald’s great Scottish accent continued to come in handy, particularly when voicing Princess Merida in BraveBut she can do a fine American accent too, just watch her play Josh Brolin’s wife in the Academy Award winning No Country for Old Men. Her amazing credits continue from Anna Karenina, Harry Potter2, through Tristram Shandy, Finding Neverland, Elizabeth and the BBC’s State of Play. But this is not intended as an essay solely about how wonderful Macdonald is.

Captain Dudley's men in L.A. Confidential (Michael McCleery & Arana), © 1997 Warner Bros.

Captain Dudley’s men in L.A. Confidential (Michael McCleery & Arana), © 1997 Warner Bros.

Macdonald had a wonderfully expressive, yet subtle face. Our next actor, Tomas Arana, has mostly been called upon to express stoicism throughout his roles. Under that stoicism burns something. It can be indignation, fear, or hatred. He has probably been cast so many times, that when you spot him, you know his character is a man who will do whatever it takes to get the job done. He elicits fear that his slender 6′ frame should not generate. Yet he has stood up to a Roman Emperor (Quintus, Chief Praetorian – Gladiator), sabotaged a nuclear submarine in a suicide mission (cook’s assistant/KGB agent Loginov – The Hunt for Red October), tried to reason with the mad, violent Ronan the Accuser (Kree Ambassador – Guardians of the Galaxy), fought the Nazis (Ben Zion Gulkowitz – Defiance), tried to have Jason Bourne captured (Deputy Director Marshall – Bourne Supremacy), fought against good acting (the JVCD Derailed, not the Jennifer Aniston one), enforced corrupt LA police plans (Det. Bruening – LA Confidential), tried to kill Wyatt Earp (Frank Stillwell – Tombstone), valiantly tried to save a later season episode of Miami Vice as a hitman, and firstly rose from the dead as Lazarus in The Last Temptation of Christ.

Seaman Jones (Courtney B. Vance) and his captain, Bart Mancuso (Scott Glenn) on board the US Dallas, The Hunt For Red October, © 1990 Paramount.

Seaman Jones (Courtney B. Vance) and his captain, Bart Mancuso (Scott Glenn) on board the US Dallas, The Hunt For Red October, © 1990 Paramount.

Keeping in the realm of cool supporting performances in The Hunt for Red October, Scott Glenn’s Captain Bart Mancuso has to do everything, fortunately, he is Scott Glenn. He plays the serious submarine captain, he plays the annoyed you made us stop following the target you want us to find to come pick you up type, he gets in a few deadpan jokes, and he eventually learns to trust his lifelong foes. His most recent role was appearing as “Stick” on “Daredevil.” I recognized him by his hands and his voice…and he was speaking a Chinese language at the time! That said, his worst performance/roll was in the underseen and underappreciated Sucker Punch. He shows up to spout fortune cookie wisdom in the fantasy sequences, and again as the bus driver who takes Baby Doll to freedom. If he could not make those lines sound good, then no one could have, not even Irrfan Khan, not even Benedict Cumberbatch. For a good movie in which he is given a good role, check out Training Day. As Roger, he has an easy rapport with Denzel Washington, and manages to have dignity as he tries to weasel his way out of a death he is mostly incredulous of.

Crowe & Zurer as Superman's birth parents in Warner Bros. Man of Steel, © 2013.

Crowe & Zurer as Superman’s birth parents in Warner Bros. Man of Steel, © 2013.

Glenn only has one appearance so far on “Daredevil”, whereas our next actress, Ayelet Zurer, has nine. Does that mean she is nine times the actor that Scott Glenn is? I do not think so, but she has certainly kept a lower profile than Glenn has—in my view at least. I was surprised to recognize her while rewatching Man of Steel as Jor-El’s (Russell Crowe’s) wife Lara Lor-Van. She has a nobility in that role, a nobility that also appears in Vanessa on “Daredevil”. As an Israeli she did an excellent job of seeming like an Israeli in Munich, as Eric Bana’s wife. Her realism lent credibility to his. Munich is a great movie, while Angels and Demons is not, however, she did every bit as good of a job as Audrey Tautou did in the female lead next to Robert Landgon–Tom Hanks–in this European mystery adventure role.

Lindsay Duncan as Servilia on Rome.

Lindsay Duncan as Servilia on Rome.

Angels and Demons took place in Vatican City, inside Rome. Another work set in Rome was HBO’s appropriately named show “Rome”. On “Rome” Lindsay Duncan’s Servilia manages to make you, at times, pity her, loathe her, be wary of her3, and fearful for her. She has several career highlights on TV, “Rome” being just one of them. She was on an episode of “Sherlock” where she solicits Sherlock’s aid in the return of compromising documents. She gets to be fun, and light, and potentially a murderer on “Poirot” with the “Murder on the Blue Train”. Her husband is 20 years her junior, but they seem evenly matched because of her vitality. In a much more dour role, she plays Lady Elizabeth Longford on the excellent made for TV movie Longford. If you long to see her in something on the big screen she certainly provides gold in Birdman as The Critic. She pours all of her bitterness and bile into one character—an imperfectly conceived straw man who gets Michael Keaton’s and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s fury unleashed upon her. If her performance had been only fractionally less excellent then the most important scene falls flat. González Iñárritu receives at least one fewer Oscar. Or maybe he receives none at all. All of that resting on the shoulders of the eighth billed actor!

It was so hard to find a shot of her from the movie. The Internet pretty much failed me.

Inara Serra (Baccarin) in Serenity, © 2005 Universal.

As infrequently as I have thought of the above two actresses, I have frequently thought of Morena Baccarin. She was enchanting as Inara on “Firefly”, and wonderful again reprising that role in the film adaptation, Serenity. I felt bad not watching shows like “V” when she played a short-haired alien leader. In the trifecta of Spy, Deadpool, and “Homeland”, she plays the wife of a traitorous soldier, the girlfriend of an assassin, and a traitorous CIA Agent. Someone get this woman a role playing a nice woman who spends time with nice people!

Bill Murray & Stephen Tobolowsky as Ned Ryerson, in Groundhog Day, © 1993 Sony Pics.

Bill Murray & Stephen Tobolowsky as Ned Ryerson, in Groundhog Day, © 1993 Sony Pics.

Stephen Tobolowsky has had a 40 year career without ever getting a leading role. He has 243 acting credits on IMDb! To pick and choose from that long of a career is challenging, so instead I will list his performances that instantly come to mind: Groundhog Day, “Deadwood”, and Sneakers. He uses his eyeglasses in a way that makes it seem impossible for anyone else to have tackled these parts. Every time he touches them out of frustration, fear, arousal, etc…he conveys so much about who his character is, even when given only a scene or two in a movie.

Eater's of the Dead is my favorite Michael Crichton book.

Olga (Maria Bonnevie) tends to Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan (Antonio Banderas), in The 13th Warrior, © 1999 Touchstone.

Now I am going off the board with an actress whom I have never recognized, but who has impressed me in the three things I have seen her in. This past year I went to Seattle’s International Film Festival (SIFF) and the first movie I saw was A Second Chance. Therein Maria Bonnevie stole the show as a mother whose baby dies one night, and whose detective husband replaces said baby. There is something off about her and I could not take my eyes off her in any scene. Also, back in her twenties she had two good performances in 13th Warrior, and Insomnia.4

The Nihilists in The Big Lebowski (Torsten Voges, Stormare & Flea). © Universal Studios, 1998.

The Nihilists in The Big Lebowski (Torsten Voges, Stormare & Flea). © Universal Studios, 1998.

As I mention below, Bonnevie’s films have been unfairly criticized. On the other hand, Peter Stormare’s films have been criticized on an amazingly accurate level. Think about his crappy films: Bad Boys II, Armageddon, and Mercury Rising. All correctly mocked. Now think about his okay films: Minority Report, The Last Stand, The Brothers Grimm, and The Lost World: Jurassic Park. They elicit mixed feelings, yet each has at least one undeniably positive attribute. And lastly think about his great films: The Big Lebowski and Fargo. Those two are justifiably ranked in the pantheon of great films. I have mentioned before how I doubted that I had ever heard Stormare’s actual accent since every five people who read this probably conjure him using a different accent. Today I hear his Russian accent from on the Mir5 space station in Armageddon.

This lost to Braveheart? Come on!

Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite) threatened by McManus (Stephen Baldwin) & Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) in The Usual Suspects, 1995.

Another supporting actor with a variety of accents who was in The Lost World is Pete Postlethwaite. He is our last actor in this installment of Under Appreciated Supporting Actors. His passing shortly after the release of The Town made our loss the more poignant for having seen that he still had his acting chops. It is impressive how many films of his I had forgotten him from: Inception, The Constant Gardener, Amistad, Romeo + Juliet, and Dragonheart. As the only Englishman on this list he has done his nation justice by upholding the tradition of the versatile English character actor. Our collective corpus of communal culture would be less colorful if it lacked the corps of classically trained English actors, like Pete Postlethwaite.6

I hope you have enjoyed my most recent list and give one/some/all of these actors a chance. And try keep an eye on the supporting actors who may lack Daniel Craig’s stare and stature, but are crucial to their Bonds nonetheless.

 

1 According to me.
2 She plays the Grey Lady. Seriously, I had to look this up.
3 I tried to find an appropriate verb for parallel sentence structure, but failed. If you have one, let me know, so I can edit this post to make glorious benefit (to paraphrase Borat).
4 Since she is Swedish she was in the 1997 Swedish original version of Insomnia. It appears that A Second Chance and 13th Warrior are victims of unfairly harsh criticism. Regardless, she is great.
5 Mir, or Мир in cyrillic, means “world” and “peace”, which is a wonderful dual meaning, much better than Aloha/Shalom.
6 I’m sorry, but once it started I couldn’t stop myself.

Beyond the Mat

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***

You have to be a prick in this business. If you don’t, the wrestlers will run all over you. Their egos are such and-and-and their characters are such that they will just walk all over you. So if you think you can be a nice guy and be a successful promoter in professional wrestling, you better get out of this business right now.

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Roland Alexander, (unfairly) presented as a villain in Beyond the Mat, © 1999, source – wrestlingdvdnetwork.com

This film was much more important than it was good. The level of access this schlub, Barry W. Blaustein–The Ringer, obtained from WWF (now WWE), amazes me today. It amazed me in 1999 when I first saw this too. This was less than a decade from when Vince McMahon outed the business as a work, and not a genuine contest. Contrast that with today where former and current wrestlers have some of the most downloaded podcasts in the world and talk about every aspect of the industry. Maybe this flawed and biased movie helped pro wrestling go in that direction.

The real takeaway from the documentary is that wrestlers are deeply flawed people who have huge difficulties having families. That aging sucks. That they are like knights, living by their own code. I could talk about wrestling for hours, so instead I will point out why I called this movie flawed. It has a few points it wants to make and shoehorns its characters into telling those stories. Clearly Blaustein learned a ton about wrestling and identified some archetypes, but then, as a wrestling promoter is wont to do, presented his characters how he saw them, how he wanted us to see them, and not how they truly were. That said, the movie is still effective and the last 20 minutes are like a classic tragedy, with Mick Foley and his family leading up to his disastrous match with the Rock at the Royal Rumble 1999. It just happens to be a classic tragedy with lame voiceover and one I wish I could unsee.

The Beauty of Film: Daredevil

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Daredevil — Ericson Core (cinematographer) & Mark Steven Johnson (director).

Daredevil

Ant-Man

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I was super psyched for Ant-Man for two reasons. First, because Hank Pym is an interesting character and a founding member of the Avengers. His exclusion from Marvel’s The Avengers was bullshit since they decided to do the we-need-the-Hulk-to-stop-Loki story like in Avengers #1.1 Second, I love Edgar “Hot Fuzz” Wright and he was announced to direct! Well Hank Pym was not the star of this movie and Edgar “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” Wright quit. That left me with not the movie I wanted written by four people—generally a bad sign—and not directed by Edgar “Shaun of the Dead” Wright. So I waited.

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Not Hank Pym, but still an Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), © 2015 Marvel Cos.

***

Wait I didn’t steal anything! I was returning something I stole!

To be clear, I enjoyed this movie and I am glad I watched it. Paul Rudd has a charisma and charm that fit Scott Lang/Ant-Man perfectly. He took some weak jokes and made them mediocre, which shows genuine skill. I would say he probably gave some better performances left on the cutting room floor, but the movie seemed well edited, whatever that means. Michael Douglas was perfect as Hank Pym—the genius inventor of the Ant-Man suit2. The one benefit to having an older Hank Pym was that Michael Douglas–Wall Street–portrayed him excellently. The rest of the cast make up a fine collection of actors, whom I usually enjoy (Michael Peña, Evangeline Lilly, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer, Anthony Mackie and Corey Stoll).

So what keeps this from being a great movie? And whom do I blame? Well, with a great cast, if the performances are bad, I think of Garry Marshall3. Corey Stoll’s Darren Cross comes across as more whiny than threatening. His alleged genius seems ignored by the director—Peyton Reed, The Break Up. For Peña, he plays his ex-con cute. That works in scenes, but overall undermines the gravity of the situation, and thus the suspense. If Reed, and the writers, wanted to make the stakes of the film (Hank Pym’s shrinking technology remade by Cross as the laser wielding Yellowjacket suit) seem so dire and potentially earth shattering, and they did since they had Hydra4 as the purchasers of the tech, then they needed to strike a better balance. For a Marvel movie that does this well, check out  Guardians of the Galaxy.5 Evangeline Lilly—The Hobbit’s Tauriel—gets a potentially nuanced character, but she does not get to do nearly enough. At least she gets the Van Dyne last name of her mother. Judy Greer and Bobby Cannavale played vanilla people who act predictably as Scott Lang’s ex-wife and her new boyfriend. And Anthony Mackie’s performance is fine as Falcon. Well at least the post-credits part with him is pretty cool.

The result is a dish made from a familiar recipe with too many cooks trying to leave their signature flavor. It is like an okay pizza with inappropriate and non-harmonious toppings, that often work well in isolation or in some other combination. Ant-Man was that pizza. Even mediocre pizza is still pizza, and I love pizza. Having blamed Peyton Reed’s directing in the above paragraph, let us move on to the screenwriters: Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay & Paul Rudd. Wright and Cornish probably co-wrote the first draft. When conflicts arose with the production side, Wright bowed out as director and in came Adam McKay. McKay just won an academy award for co-writing/adapting The Big Short. But I note that most of his career has been spent providing Will Ferrell with vehicles with either terrible or formulaic plots (Anchorman (2), Talladega Nights, Step Brothers). That mold shows up here, but maybe it was already in place before he got the script. Or maybe he generic’d it. Lastly Paul Rudd has a writing credit and his Scott Lang really works, which I bet is no coincidence.

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Falcon’s gun and an ant sized Ant-Man.

Now for the plot I derided above. How about the shoe-horned in appearance by Falcon? Ant-Man flies into the new S.H.I.E.L.D. facility because of old Ant-Man’s old intel. When he arrives he is greeted by Falcon, who can see him thanks to fancy goggles. The fight eventually goes better for Ant-Man than Falcon, but—as shown above—Falcon opens fire with an updated freaking Mac 10 or uzi on Ant-Man. Hello unarmed trespasser…I am going to kill you. This is in the film for the shot above, and because it looks cool, and to reinforce that it is part of the Marvel movie-verse, but what the hell?! Later Falcon is cool and wants to find Ant-Man, so we are supposed to be like, “It’s cool, I don’t remember you literally trying to kill him 45 minutes ago.”?? It is very lazy filmmaking and relies on the audience rooting for whomever they see the most, or have presented as coolest. The movie starts with two misdirection gags, one of which pays off. But the tone it presents is one of the Will Ferrell controlled absurdity variety. This first arises with Scott Lang punching a huge inmate in the face, and then getting punched harder. That is how they say goodbye at this prison! Eh? Get it? You thought this was a serious fight! It also gets used to set up Michael Peña as almost a “one punch machine gun” when Peña picks him up, which is important later when Peña takes men out with single punches. He should teach Daredevil to throw that punch! Then Lang cannot find a job except at Baskin-Robbins, where he gets lauded by his boss for secretly being a whistleblowing anti-corporate greed martyr…but then says, “of course you’re fired.” Still not very funny, but it sets up the repeated line “Baskin-Robbins always finds out,” which is indeed quite funny. I would go on, but even going through the plot for holes just bores me and tarnishes the overall average impression the movie left on me.

So I gave this movie *** and I believe it earned them. It was fun to watch and had a couple genuinely enjoyable performances from Rudd and Douglas. I cared about their characters. The end teaser was great and showed me that I did want to see more Ant-Man. I may have laughed fewer times than I had hoped, but I was still laughing.

1 As I noted in my Accuracy in post, along with the exclusion of the Wasp. They did have one woman on the team, so it is probably for the best they did not drive away the audience by having more than one. (People realize that is sarcasm, right? Should I use italics for sarcasm? Comment below!)

2 In the original Avengers Hank Pym was the genius and Tony Stark was still in the closet about being Iron Man.

3 That is where the expression “Garfy Marshall Level Bad” comes from. Having the ingredients for a sundae, and somehow giving you a bowl of mayonnaise covered in shit. For proof, read the cast list of Valentine’s Day and then do not watch the movie. Watching the movie would show how I am right, but you might break your tv, or try to escape from the plane you are watching it on.

4 Hydra has been the bent on world domination villain in Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”, and Avengers: Age of Ultron.

5 I gave Guardians 4 stars and put it at #8 of 2014’s top 10 (between Maleficent and Interstellar). Put another way, I thought it was overrated–it is currently ranked #234 on imdb’s top 250 (between Pirates of the Caribbean 1 and A Fistful of Dollars). Hmm, now that I read that, maybe I do not overrate it since those films are on the same level. It is the 7th ranked film on that scale. It turns out Interstellar is the one I underrated (#31 on the list!). I would delete this, but it is a footnote and footnotes are where the real learning happens.

The Review of and Accuracy in…Justice League: War

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I don’t see any buttons, so I’m guessing it works of concentration. And you weren’t concentrating…

**½

So this is the extremely accurate adaptation of Geoff Johns’ and Jim Lee’s Justice League story arc “Origin” from DC’s “The New 52” reboot from about five years ago. The best part about this is how the animation looks great. It has almost an anime style to it. Other than that, it is an okay story that was competently executed with the same old characters.

Similarities: These are too numerous for me to count. Most of the movie is verbatim from the comic book. This may be the most faithful adaptation I have ever seen. Somewhere Zack Snyder is jealous.

JLWar05

Flash, Diana aka Wonder Woman, Shazam, Cyborg and Green Lantern (Hal) discussing strategy. 2014’s Justice League: War.

Differences:

There is this little guy added into the movie. Billy Batson. I thought in the New 52 Captain Marvel takes several kids to transform into Captain Marvel at the mention of Shazam! Not here, it’s just little orphan Billy. Further down you see whom he replaced.

Cyborg’s look is different. How he meets the rest of the heroes also differs from the comic. Except at the very end press conference, then he looks normal. No explanation given, but who cares.

When and where the Flash shows up changes. Instead of helping Green Lantern and Batman stave off Superman, he goes to Star Labs where Cyborg has just been created. And Captain Marvel shows up.

Some differences for Wonder Woman are that she saves the president on Air Force One. And gets comments on her hotness and asked if she has a boyfriend—both by Captain Marvel—so it is more sexist than the comic.

There is no Aquaman! When the plan to blind Darkseid is hatched it’s premised on two sharp things, not just Wonder Woman’s sword. We need that trident. And they even push the battle onto the water taunting the viewer—although I think Batman calls it a river, despite it having no other shore. At least in the post-credits an Atlantean comes up to announce the king is dead, and Aquaman is Prince so you know what that means.

Superman kills Desaad. Yeah, Desaad is one of the worst characters in the DC universe, as a sort of sadistic, Alien Josef Mengele, but Superman just kills him out of anger. And then Superman tries to kill Batman.

Upon Superman’s return to Earth the battle with Darkseid takes a lot longer and a lot more work than in the comic. Particularly lacking is how Cyborg loses agency by instead of exerting his will to operate the mother box, he needs more energy to boost the strength of his router. Neither option is cool, but there you have it.

 

Yeah, but…The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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Jumping right into it! There is lots and lots more from the book. For someone who loved the book it was great to get almost the full Beorn scene. Getting more of Mirkwood makes the mishaps of Thorin’s Company all the more meaningful and effective. Getting more Lake Town shows a clearer culture. Even more of Dol Guldur means we get to see Gandalf’s encounter with Thrain although it comes chronologically differently from the book. Thrain–Antony Sher–is great. Especially when he delivers a warning against the Dwarves reentering Erebor.  As with An Unexpected Journey, the effect of the extended edition is a universal improvement. Especially before they get to Lake Town, once there the quality plateaus at the theatrical release level (****). Still, Desolation was a better movie than Unexpected Journey and their extended editions hold true to this trend. One benefit to having a smaller screen is that any CGI that was less than 100% convincing looks flawless now. The stunning views look less impressive, but as an equalizer I like it. What a visually arresting film.

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Thrain in Dol Guldur, 2013 WB, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

****½

It might be cheating to reference the special features, but they do a great job of making me realize just how much of the film my brain accepted as real. Even in shots where I identify things as impossible, there are artificial elements which fell into the “actually there” column in my brain. The same is true for scenes shot months apart and hundreds of miles distant.

While I touched on this in my original review, the special features explained why Peter Jackson strives for such ugliness in his villains. Well it does not address the problem, but based on what he says and his goals, I can deduce what was going on. Firstly, Peter Jackson likes “cool” things. This mindset comes from his favorite childhood memories and his desire to share those feelings with the world, especially with children. By itself that is a noble sentiment. Secondly, as a child he liked movies with dynamic camera movement and special effects. Those things seemed cool. Thus making movies seems cool so he makes movies and in making them he tries to include the aspects he liked. Thirdly, he started by making horror movies. In traditional cheap horror flicks it is cool to gross out the audience. Ugliness is one way that he can create that gross out. Fourth, he is a short Hobbit-ish man who acknowledges the beauty in elf types. Thus in The Hobbit Thorin Oakenshield and Kili look the least Dwarven. What this leaves us with is a world where the attractive people are all good and the grossest people are all bad. In his defense, not all good people are attractive—and not in the subversive way that a movie uses a less attractive friend merely to highlight how hot the lead is—so I do not think the dichotomy exists in Jackson’s mind. His goals and his method of “more is funnier/grosser” produce a world with the negative message that beautiful people are inherently superior, and that the ugly and deformed are inferior and evil. So I understand how he can create a Middle Earth where this negative message pervades, without meaning or knowing that it exists.

Yeah, but what about Bombur and Radgast!  They are unattractive and even a bit gross. Bombur has that monk’s balk spot and is super fat. He is always eating. But he is a good guy. And Radagast is one of the three (five whatever) wizards! But his face has caked on bird poop. And not just a little bit either. To that I say, but where is the handsome villain? Thranduil–Lee Pace–is quite handsome and he imprisons the dwarves, which is a bit villainous. But he is no spider or orc. No there may be progress in the unattractive heroes, but without a dashing Alan Rickman type, or Charlize Theron, the message still stinks.

 

 

Propaganda and Documentary Films

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Let’s get this out of the way—there was never a time when films had no message, no bias, and/or no agenda.  While people readily accept this about fictional films, it seems to bother them when documentaries do more than just document.  That kind of documentary—real time, no editing, no voiceover…that is what your family might have recorded in the backyard.  Even a recording of a wedding tries to fit into a narrative structure and to send a message.  That said, maybe there should be a distinction between an attempt at even-handed documentation and films that push an agenda.  Maybe Michael Moore’s films should be considered propaganda documentaries, or editorial documentaries, but in the end, they are still documentaries.

While it has been fashionable to deride Michael Moore or to question the authenticity of films like Exit Through the Gift Shop they still rely on filming reality.  But why do those films bother people?  I think it goes to a perceived lack of objectivity.  Yet, I do not know any people who are objective, so why should art be held to a standard that people cannot achieve?  Striving for objectivity can be a good thing, and in many of the best non-propaganda documentaries, that is their goal.  Yet even those films conform to our aesthetic norms.

As examples of a excellent, seemingly evenhanded documentaries I will cite to some films:

  • The Wolfpack – the father of the large family has allegations of abuse leveled against him, yet his presentation does not demonize him. Having a first time director probably helped because the film lacked much of the structure we expect from documentaries, and thus lacked the same unilateral message of most documentaries.
  • 9.79* – from ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, it tackled the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics and the doping allegations that cost Ben Johnson the world record and his gold medal.
  • One Day in September – Another Olympics, but a far more tragic one: 1972 Berlin Olympics. I believe this documentary led to Steven Spielberg’s even-handed Munich.

Speaking of Munich, or if you prefer Paul Greengrass to Spielberg, United 93, note how often reviewers comment on the authenticity, accuracy and realism in those films. Now try to think of a review of a documentary that noted how real the world of the film was. It does happen, often in the guise of putting the viewer into the world of the film, but it almost seems taken for granted.

If my point still does not make sense, consider the movie Borat. It was released as a fictional film, with a script and actors. But to tell its story, all but 4-5 people were not aware that their performances were part of a narrative tale. These accidental actors and mostly intentional interviewees could have had their words used in a traditional documentary. Borat’s message, people (especially Americans) need to consider how intolerant they can be, comes across clearly due to a competent framework and tons of material to work with. Once you acknowledge that all films have a message and that most of them try to convey that message–Terrence Malick’s work (e.g. Tree of Life) notwithstanding–clearly through revelation over about two hours. The similarities between most documentaries and fictional pieces align far more than they diverge.

With that in mind, I want to move onto the allegation of “propaganda”. That criticism comes hand in hand with being biased, with not being even-handed in presentation of (often) a documentary subject. But what is “propaganda”? First it is a word with negative connotations in 21st century Western Culture. The word is actually Latin and originally meant dissemination (propagation) of information with the intent to support Catholicism in its recipients.

My background makes me think of the dominant reference being Soviet Propaganda, even though the US government utilized, and utilizes, propaganda whenever we are at war. There is nothing inherently false in propaganda, but by virtue of having a desired outcome—other than generic capitalist goals of getting us to buy tickets at Regal/AMC/et al… Cinemas—the material seems dishonest. Logically, if it were totally honest and evenhanded it would merely be a documentary, or a work of art. But the objective documentary is a fiction, so propaganda is distinguished by not being something that does not commercially exist.  Once that is clear, then two things become evident: first, documentaries fit on a scale, somewhere between pure objective truth and outright lies, and second, that pure propaganda may also not exist.

I think of the scale like degrees Kelvin, where absolute zero has never been obtained, but it still has a place on the scale. Unattainable goals have a place in art, and even in science.

So let us flip the perspective from the documentarian, to the propagandist. A pure propaganda would exhibit 100% bias. I do not know how we could tell if such a thing existed. Would everyone who saw it convert to religion X? Buy a Pepsi Max? Want to become an American Citizen? A Russian joke from the 1990s was that blue jeans, rock and roll, and Hollywood were more effective tools of propaganda than anything released by the US Government. If we believe that, then efficacy is the wrong measure of propaganda-ness. I do not think that pure propaganda is necessarily comprised of 100% lies. I think it conveys a non-artistic message without regard for truth or inherent artistic value. The most famous propaganda filmmaker of all-time is Leni Riefenstahl, whose Nazi propaganda films were both insidious and well constructed. I do not think that she is the epitome of propaganda, but if so, then artistic merit can support propaganda. Or perhaps this is just the appearance of art. That what is on display has the craftsmanship of art, but without the soul. Indeed that craftsmanship is crucial to the success of a propaganda film. Possibly the greatest director of all-time Sergei Eisenstein (Сергей Михайлович Эйзенштейн) directed several films that should be classified as propaganda. IMDb classifies October (Ten Days that Shook the World) (Октябрь) as “drama” and “history”, which should make all of us laugh. His representation of the 1917 revolution takes great liberties in the presentation of the events and the real life characters represented 11 years later. Still, Lincoln has both genres listed—plus war and biography. Today the concept of dramatized history seems natural and potentially honest, when it is actually antithetical to evenhanded presentation of facts. Dramatized means fictional. But I am not going to be overly harsh since such representations have existed since the Greek two genre format of tragedy and comedy. And I loved Lincoln. Just as I loved Munich and One Day in September before it. But my enjoyment or appreciation should have no bearing on the objective honesty of a film, documentary or fictional, nor on the artistry of it. Or perhaps it is my view that matters. Meaning that the viewer gives the film its value and its meaning—that the ideas of inherent honesty and art cannot even exist without an audience.

Earlier I mentioned Eisenstein. I suspect that the effectiveness of October is greatly lessened when the audience cannot read the Russian titles that comprise 100% of the dialogue in the film. Without that knowledge the film cannot convey its propaganda as effectively, so the question is, does the film become more honest by virtue of having an audience unable to comprehend it? Put in a more frequent situation, what happens when children watch animated films that go over their heads? How many articles have you read about the anti-government/pro-child labor messages in Lilo and Stitch? If even most adults fail to consciously receive the message then does that make it any less of propaganda? Or does it make it more like propaganda because its efficacy is greatly increased because an unwary audience is a susceptible audience.

Effect. Intent. Art. Craftsmanship. Audience. Format. They each play a part in judging documentaries and at least for me I think that is important. It is important to know what you are watching and to be wary of it. I enjoy reading Vladimir Nabokov’s works, but untrustworthiness in a narrator is most effective when it is realized. Always question who is telling you something and why they are doing so, be it in a voiceover discussing gun control, or be it John McClane (Bruce Willis) talking between bouts of blowing shit up in Live Free or Die Hard. Just do not dismiss something, particularly, a documentary, as mere propaganda, because there is a difference between having an unwelcome message and being outright wrong. Unless it is wrong, in which case, watch something with at least some truth in it.

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