A Vice-Presidential Primary?

There was an interesting hypothetical on a political forum: What if nominees for Vice President were selected in primaries the way many states select candidates for Lieutenant Governor?

It highlights the problems with the method many states have of selecting Lieutenant Governors. Those should be replaced by a system where a candidate for Governor chooses a running mate after securing the nomination, so that the pool of potential nominees can include people who lost primaries for other prestigious posts, rather than limiting to those who initially see Lt. Governor as their best shot. It could very well be that an also-ran for Governor, Senate, US House, or Attorney General has greater political talent than those who pick this one particular office.

There is a bit of a distinction that Lieutenant Governors have specific responsibilities, like presiding over the State Senate, whereas a Vice President’s power can be determined by the strength of their relationship with the president. So it may make more sense to have these primaries, although this rarely comes up in the campaigns.

There are additional issues with applying a primary system to Vice Presidents, which would prevent some recent nominees from being selected. The VP would be someone who has been campaigning for the post for at least an year before the election, which excludes presidential primary also-rans (Ronald Reagan picked George HW Bush, John Kerry picked John Edwards, Barack Obama picked Joe Biden), retired statesmen who might be talked into campaigning for a few months (Jack Kemp, Dick Cheney) but not longer, and statewide officeholders/ prominent cabinet-congressional members who might be uncomfortable spending over an year running for non-presidential national office, or for promising to serve with any presidential candidate their party selects. Mike Pence and Tim Kaine probably would have been willing to do it, though, so it might not have changed too much in 2016.

The constitutional restriction against electors voting for people from the same state also complicates matters. How would it be coordinated that two California Democrats or two New York Democrats or two Texas Republicans don’t win both spots on the ticket, resulting in a potentially difficult situation with electors who are legally not allowed to vote for candidates for President and Vice President from their state?

One further problem is that the VP candidate might end up being a poor match for the top of the ticket. In 2012, John Huntsman could have been a good fit for Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich or Tim Pawlenty, but not Mitt Romney, a fellow Mormon businessman. There could be weirdness if the same ethnic or religious minorities were on both the top and bottom of the ticket, without either candidate wanting that outcome. You might also have two candidates for different offices trying to sabotage one another during the primary process, which isn’t conducive to party unity.

Electing an Attorney General makes more sense, though.

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Oscar Ratings And Popular Films

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The ratings for the most recent Academy Awards were the lowest-ever by a large margin. This leads to some questions about why that is.

Is there too much focus on material that isn’t commercial? Is Hollywood liberalism turning off moderate and conservative viewers? Are the decisions made by powerful white men turning off viewers?

One major issue is that the Academy makes certain decisions that aren’t based on merit, and this diminished the award. There’s some focus on the private lives of nominees, but a related problem is that the Academy isn’t nominating the most popular films. That’s an understandable decision when the films are bad, but not as much when the films are well-reviewed. There are certain types of films that will get nominated if they’re good enough (the likes of The Post) and I could understand why viewers wouldn’t be interested in the awards if they felt that a superior film that they liked wasn’t nominated.

In the last decade, there have been opportunities to nominate good films that haven’t been taken. I do have a general rule when criticizing Oscar nominations that someone has to be willing to mention what shouldn’t be nominated when promoting someone else, so I’ll look at that as well.

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In 2008, the decision to not nominate The Dark Knight is seen as responsible for the Academy expanding the best picture nominations to ten. It was probably a worthier choice for Best Picture/ Best Director than any of the nominated films, as something that was excellent at the time and remains relevant today. Downey Jr’s Tony Stark had a bigger effect than Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, so that would have been a better lead actor nomination. A quick issue is that suggesting a film should’t be nominating isn’t the equivalent of saying its bad, just not in the top one percent of its category. There’s a bit of a problem in Hollywood that quite a few films are made under the assumption of Oscar nominations as part of the marketing, which really should never be the case, because no one would know in advance if a supporting performance will be the fourth best of the year, which means it should be nominated, or the seventh, which means it should not.

2009 included Best Picture nominations for Avatar and Up, so there isn’t much of a complaint in that category. I do suspect more people will fondly remember Up than than The Hurt Locker, so there’s an argument that it should have been the one to win Best Picture.

In 2010, Toy Story 3 was nominated as was Inception. Neither was nominated for Best Director, even if their work was better received than David O’Russell for The Fighter.

2011 was a bit of a rebuilding year for blockbusters. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 was good, but not the top ten films of the year good. A nomination would have been popular, although largely based on the strength of the rest of the series. The rest of the Top five was pretty weak, with a Twilight sequel, a Transformers sequel, a Hangover sequel, and the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean.

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In 2012, Jennifer Lawrence probably didn’t get a nomination for Hunger Games, because she’s only limited to one per category, and she had Silver Linings Playbook. Skyfall was an acclaimed hit, so it would’be been better had it been nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (over David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook, or” Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild), Best Actor (over Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook), and Best Supporting Actor (over Alan Arkin in Argo, although it was a strong year in the category.)

2013 honored Gravity, which did win Best Director. I do think Frozen should’ve been a Best Picture nominee, as it’s had more staying power than Philomena (a perfectly good film).

In 2014, American Sniper was the movie of the year, and got multiple nominations. Captain America: Winter Soldier is one of the contenders for best MCU film, so it should have been nominated for Picture (over The Theory of Everything), Director (over Morten Tydum), and Screenplay (over The Theory of Everything).

In 2015, The Revenant was a hit and The Martian was nominated in major categories. To be fair, the best picture winner Spotlight wasn’t a box office smash, but it was really good. In terms of ratings and cultural impact of the Oscars, it might have been better to nominate the Force Awakens, although its staying power is a bit questionable, due to the later realization that it rehashed old territory.

In 2016, Captain America: Civil War should have been nominated for Best Picture (over Hacksaw Ridge), Best Director (over Mel Gibson), and probably Best Supporting Actor (Robert Downey Jr- although I’ll be honest I’ve got to catch up on Lion, Manchester By the Sea, Nocturnal Animals, and Hell or High Water before making a definitive declaration here.)

In 2017, Star Wars: the Last Jedi should’ve been nominated for Director (over Phantom Thread), Picture (over The Post), Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Mark Hamill over Woody Harrelson), Adapted Screenplay (over The Disaster Artist) and Supporting Actress (Carrie Fischer over Octavia Spencer.) Wonder Woman should have gotten a nomination for Best Actress since we’ll remember Gal Gadot’s performance for some time, probably more than Margot Robbie in I, Tonya.

Nominating good popular films is a key way to go in order to increase the relevance of the Oscars, although this is a bit incomplete. How do you change the habits of Hollywood insiders? Lifetime bans on anyone who hints that anything other than quality matters would be controversial. This was an issue during the #metoo movement when there’s a push against douchebags nominated in key categories. And they can’t really just kick out people with bad taste. They could try to nudge voters in a particular way, but this could backfire.

If there was a way to put a thumb on the scale to get popular nominations, that might engender a backlash or a push for further manipulation. This was a suggestion to offset the Oscars So White backlash, allowing for extra nominations that fit some quota. Once you do it one way (well-received blockbusters), there’ll be pressure to do it in another (representation, political messages, etc).

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There has been a push for new categories limited to effects heavy films, such as best live-action performance. One idea might be a category for characters that aren’t the result of one actor. This could be animated characters, stop motion performances, and even trained animals (which opens it up to films like The Artist). It would fill the Academy’s goal of educating the public, in a way that I’d imagine people would enjoy.

A fair counterpoint to the view that the Academy should consider popular films more, is that they have another more significant bias against foreign film (it is ridiculous to suggest that Amour is the only foreign language film in the last decade to be one of the best of the year) but there’s no real push against this because there’s no financial interest in nominating people from films that make even less money in the US than the typical Oscarbait films.

Writing in the New York Times, Ross Douthat suggests that one issue is the lack of middlebrow films with broad appeal. The problem isn’t that Hollywood is nominating the wrong films, but that it isn’t making enough of them in the first place.

The ideal Oscar nominee is a kind of high-middlebrow work, a mix of star power and strong writing and gripping storytelling that at its best achieves great artistry (as happened often in the 1970s, less often in other eras) but even if it falls short maintains a certain level of quality joined to broad, dare-one-say populist appeal. The classic Hollywood genres, from gangland movies to historical epics to literary adaptations to Westerns and war movies and musicals, were all calibrated for this zone, and when the calibration was successful, the Oscar nominators had a lot of material to work with that was at once popular and pretty-good.

To pick a representative year from my adolescence, in 1996 the academy nominated five movies for Best Picture — a classic-novel adaptation and romantic comedy in “Sense and Sensibility”; a historical epic-war movie in “Braveheart”; a work of can-do Americana in “Apollo 13”; and then an ingenious children’s movie in “Babe” and a foreign film in “The Postman” (“Il Postino”). The foreign movie made “only” about $21 million in domestic United States box office (still a large haul for a subtitled movie); the other four made about $354 million combined, with “Apollo 13” the easy leader. Adjusted for today’s ticket prices, that works out to well over $700 million in contemporary dollars between them …

… which is more than the total earned by the nine movies nominated for Best Picture in 2018. The winner, “The Shape of Water,” is the most popular trophy-getter in five years — and its current box office take is just $58 million.

What has happened in the intervening years is well known to everyone. The combination of a global audience (which doesn’t necessarily relate to a lot of old-Hollywood genres and tropes), the ease of substituting special-effects work for storytelling, the ascent of geek culture and the lure of online life and the flight of talent and viewers to the ever-expanding realm of prestige TV have turned Hollywood into a comic-book blockbuster industry with an Oscar-bait subsidiary.

The result is a cinematic common culture increasingly reduced to Marvel sequels and other genre remakes and reboots and spinoffs. Half the Top 10 highest-grossing movies in 2017 were superhero movies; you have to go 13 spots down the list, to Pixar’s “Coco,” to find a movie that isn’t based on a “presold” pop culture property. This is the landscape from which the academy has to pick its nominees, and it basically offers them a choice between mass-market mediocrity and the more rarefied fare that now dominates the Oscars.

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One issue with his response is that it is largely based on subjective opinions (he thinks Star Wars: The Last Jedi isn’t worth nominating for Best Picture, but Blade Runner 2049 is when the latter doesn’t make sense from the point of view of honoring blockbusters) which any would-be pundit is vulnerable to. In these analyses, it helps to look at metrics developed by other people, like imdb ratings or rotten tomatoes scores. I’m a bit curious as to how someone would objectively measure why Spotlight (a Best Picture winner with a domestic gross under $50,000,000) isn’t a middlebrow mix of star power and strong writing.

A final factor in declining ratings, and the nominations of films with low box office is the nicheification of culture, as people fall into smaller and smaller subgroups with increasingly limited common ground. One result of this may be the way movies from the early 90s (Schindler’s List, Pulp Fiction, Shawshank Redemption, Forrest Gump, Silence of the Lambs, Unforigven) regularly pop up on Best of lists, but films from later years don’t do so in the same frequency. There’s less of a consensus on what’s the best of that era, which could diminish the perceived significance of markers of consensus like academy awards.

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The Firing of Kevin Williamson

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The Atlantic made a really bad decision recently in firing Kevin Williamson for expressing a controversial opinion on abortion, weeks after hiring him because he is able to articulate controversial opinions.

Some of the people pushing for his removal predicted a spate of hot takes defending him, although this isn’t really a hot take matter, since there are sincere good-faith opinions on multiple sides (people who disagree with Williamson on most issues and think he was a poor fit for the Atlantic, people who agree with Williamson on most issues and think he’s good fit for the Atlantic, people who disagree with Williamson on most issues and think he’s a good fit for the Atlantic.) Hot takes are done in bad faith, and most of the discussion doesn’t fall in that category.

The underlying question is more about what ideas should be considered so beyond the pale that there must be professional repercussions to voicing them, and whether the belief that abortion should be treated as a serious crime with what this implies in terms of criminal penalties falls into category. Personally, I don’t think obtaining an abortion should be treated as a serious crime. My view on the controversy is that the belief that abortion should be a serious crime should not be considered to be so outrageous as to be a cause for denying employment, especially when the specific goal was to get a diverse array of opinions.

There is a key distinction here that might not matter for many. My understanding of Williamson’s comments was that it was about a policy going forward, with the understanding that this would be unlikely to actually be put into law, rather than an explicit endorsement of ex post facto or extralegal punishment. I don’t know how much this matters to anyone, whether there’s someone else who thinks the idea that in the future abortion can have the maximum criminal penalty possible is acceptable to discuss, but advocacy of prosecuting anyone for things they did in the past when these were legally and fully protected by the law is going too far.

There are two further problems with the Atlantic’s decision.

I think people should be honest about the implications of their views, and the decision encourages an intellectual cowardice in which people are unwilling to say what they believe, or to openly consider the implications of their own views. Late-term abortion is a rather icky procedure, and people who advocate for it should be honest about what they want, rather than sanitizing it. People who want police officers to change their procedures and use force less often should be willing to discuss the downside of what they want (greater risk for police officers which does mean more dead cops) in addition to the upsides (other people get to live; probably resulting in a net gain in terms of lives saved.) There’s a potential counterpoint to that one in that there will be people who believe that there will be no effect on police safety if they are trained to wait longer before opening fire, although that suggests the pundit would be willing to abandon the earlier position should any new information come to light.

The second problem with what the Atlantic did is that the belief that abortion should be treated as a serious crime is one that is held by a non-trivial percentage of Americans. It’s not going to go away if there’s a refusal to engage it, and when people who hold these positions are marginalized or realize that they should keep quiet, the main result is that the public and the media are less informed, and don’t realize the popularity of a position until a state legislature passes a bill on it. Buck Sexton notes how a smaller range of acceptable ideas creates more ideological polarization, a further issue.

Selfishly, I’m happy that this mess probably means the continuation of the Mad Dogs and Englishmen podcast.

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Movies Watched in 2018 Part 2

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I’m continuing the series of observations on films I’ve seen this year, setting a challenge of watching ten films per decade (counting the silent era from 1915-1929 as one decade) in the calendar year, and allowing for special attention to recent films with additional goals of ten films from 2016, seventeen from 2017, and eighteen from 2018.

For this entry, I also set sub-challenges of five films in a foreign language (French), five films from the same genre (went with two: science fiction and period fantasy) and ten Criterion films, while trying to make sure that I had seen at least two films in each time period. I thought about doing a five films with the same actor subchallenge with Casey Affleck, since he’s been in some acclaimed films I haven’t seen, but with the last entry, I did focus a lot on newer stuff thanks to all the Oscarbait in theaters, so it makes sense to stick with subchallengers that fit older material.

The films I saw were…

Movie #31/ New Movie #21/ 2000s Movie #5/ Documentary #2: Tall: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan
For whatever reason, this has been playing at the Metrograph, an independent movie theater for over a month, with no signs of stopping. My mom’s an architect, and my dad’s a history buff with an interesting in urban planning, so this documentary about an architectural rivalry seemed like something worth checking out. It leaves a slightly better impression a month later than when I first saw it, since the divisions covered are illuminating, even if there are flaws in the storytelling.
6/10

Movie #32/ 1960s Movie #1/ Criterion Edition #2/ French Film #1: Band of Outsiders
Like The Graduate, this is probably one of the definitive films about early adulthood. It’s a very striking film about aimless wannabe criminals who aren’t all that competent, or nice, but do seem believable. It remains entertaining as all hell.
10/10

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Movie #33/ 1940s Movie #1/ Criterion Edition #3: Sullivan’s Travels
A witty comedy about a wealthy artist trying to understand the simple everyday man with a star turn by Veronica Lake as a struggling actress who offers a dose of reality to the lead. The third act features a great twist, and resolution, which is a big part of why the film succeeds so much today.
9/10

Movie #34/ New Movie #22/ 1930s Movie #1/ Russian Movie #1: Earth
This guy thinks it’s one of the best movies ever made. I would not go that far. It has some striking visuals and storytelling although it is a bit difficult to divorce the film from its initial purpose of propaganda for one of the worst causes in human history (the Soviet collectivization of farms which led to the Ukrainian famine.)
7/10

Movie #35/ 2010s Movie #9/ Science Fiction Film #1: Avengers: Age of Ultron
It’s a slightly arbitrary distinction that I’m counting a film with an evil robot AI as sci-fi and Captain America: Civil War as not, even with the overlap in characters. The sequel that was so difficult that it chased Joss Whedon away from Marvel has plenty to recommend it, with some interesting team dynamics and questions about culpability and human potential, as well as seeds for future films (divisions between the Avengers heading into Civil War, prophecies about Thanos, early references to Wakanda).
8/10

Movie #36/ New Movie #23/ 2017 Movie #11/ Tom Cruise Film #6 : American Made
A solid fun film about a hard-partying American (with a perhaps slightly more intense than usual lead performance by Tom Cruise) who gets involved in a messy international conflict on behalf of the US, and later gets betrayed by them.
8/10

Movie #37/ 2000s Movie #6/ Criterion Edition #4/ Period Fantasy #1: Pan’s Labyrinth
A beautiful film that works on multiple levels, as a fantasy involving the reincarnation of a lost princess, and as a story about a girl caught between rebels and family in Franco’s Spain. Probably still Del Toro’s best (not a slight on his other work).
10/10

Annihilation

Movie #38/ New Movie #22/ 2018 Movie #2/ Science Fiction Film #2: Annihilation
Alex Garland’s Ex Machina follow-up is pretty accessible as far as sci-fi mindfuck films go, as a team of female scientists go into a zone where things get weird in interesting ways, although there are some lost opportunities (upon arriving in the zone the next thing they know it’s several days later, a point that has implications that aren’t explored.)
8/10

Movie #39/ 1960s Movie #2/ Criterion Edition #5/ French Film #2: Breathless
Godard’s debut has a film-obsessed minor criminal haphazardly flee authorities and hang out with a girlfriend. Simultaneously enjoyable, and worth examination in terms of technical daring and overall significance.
9/10

Movie #40/ New Movie #23/ Silent Movie #1: The Haunted Castle
An early Murnau silent mystery demonstrates how essential sound is to drawing room mysteries. There are some nice sets and camerawork, but the work is largely primitive, with performances that are often over the top, although there are some satisfying twists at the end.
7/10

Movie #41/ 1930s Movie #2/ Criterion Edition #6: Pygmalion
Smart script by George Bernard Shaw that very faithfully adapts his play with intense performances by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard.
10/10

Movie #42/ New Movie #24/ 2018 Movie #3: The Death of Stalin
Interesting mix of Veep style absurdity (by the former showrunner) in a totalitarian dictatorship, where people get killed for stupid reasons. It blends several genres well, especially as it shifts from the ridiculousness of people who don’t know what to do after Stalin’s death, to a violent coup. Simon Russel Beale’s Beria is a nasty villain, going from comically opportunistic to so grotesque that you end up rooting for Buscemi’s Khrushchev in the later power struggle.
8/10

Movie #43/ 1930s Movie #3/ Criterion Edition #7/ French Film #3: The Rules of the Game
The reputation of the film might be slightly exaggerated, as it’s regularly considered one of the five best films ever made, though it is quite well-made and interesting, and suggests potential greater rewards the next time I watch it. At the very least, it’s an excellent country house farce with a cast of unique personalities, all of whom seem to have lives outside the film.
10/10

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Movie #44/ New Movie #25/ 2017 Movie #12/ Estonian Film #2/ Period Fantasy #2: November
This might have the lowest box office of any film I’ve seen in an American theater (at least that went into mainstream release) which is a bit disappointing as it is rather decent. The cinematography is gorgeous, and they capture the milieu quite well of 19th Century peasants who live in a world in which magic is real and kinda nasty, starting with a Day of the Dead celebration in which deceased relatives pop up.
8/10

Movie #45/ 2016 Movie #1: Captain America: Civil War
As a comic book geek, I’m probably going to enjoy this more than most, just due to how well the Russo brothers balance characters from at least seven film series in a conflict that features superheroes fighting one another as part of a believable mix of differing motives, manipulation and tragic misunderstandings. It’s not the most accessible MCU film, but it may be my favorite.
10/10

Movie #46/ New Movie #26/ 1990s Movie #4/ Science Fiction Film #3: Total Recall
This is an interesting 90s sci-fi film with great effects and set designs, and a fun narrative that works on two levels, with all of the experiences of Schwarzenegger’s seemingly brainwashed lead, as well as the alternate explanation.
7/10

Movie #47/ New Movie #27/ 2017 Movie #13: Jumanji- Welcome to the Jungle
One of the biggest hits of the last year is simply a lot of fun. The idea of teens inhabiting video game characters played by Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillen and Dwayne Johnson gives the stars a chance to give a very different type of performance. The villain’s not that great, although they set up the rules and well, and the team dynamics are decent.
7/10

Movie #48/ New Movie #28/ Silent Movie #2/ Criterion Film #8: Häxan/ The Witch
In terms of genre, it’s weird to categorize, perhaps because this was made at a time before these things were defined. It could be plausibly described as a documentary, or horror, or anthology of historical pieces, but it’s a satisfying exploration of the myths of witchcraft and the effects, with some impressive early set designs.
8/10

Movie #49/ 1950s Movie #1/ Criterion Edition #9/ Swedish Film #1/ Period Fantasy #4: The Seventh Seal
It’s weird to think that Bergman made this at the same time as Wild Strawberries, a decent but quite different type of film. He captures the medieval era well, with the memorable death fantasy sequences raising interesting questions about man’s search for meaning. The ensemble is distinctive and memorable, with Bibi Anderson and Max Von Sydow demonstrating why they’d go to international stardom.
10/10

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Movie #50/ New Movie #29/ 1960s Movie #3/ Period Fantasy #5: The Masque of Red Death
This Corman Poe adaptation generally has impressive production values (they were able to use sets from other British prestige pictures) and a villain (a Satanic Italian prince) that fits Vincent Price’s scene-chewing persona, with memorable visuals and a good mix of characters.
7/10

Movie #51/ New Movie #30/ 2010s Movie #10/ Documentary #2/ Estonian Film #3: Disco and Atomic War
I close out my first challenge (10 films from 2010-2015) with the one Estonian film on Fandor: a documentary about the efforts of Estonians to access Finnish television when they were part of the Soviet Union. The stories about this are satisfying, with terrific examples of human ingenuity and the local results of various international policies, while there are larger questions about free expression and the use of soft power, even if the film is quite pro with both.
8/10

Movie #52/ New Movie #31/ 2016 Movie #2/ Animated Film #4: Moana
Another reminder why Pixar continues to be so dominant. The film succeeds on pretty much every level, with a well-realized world (inspired by Polynesian mythology, which isn’t that well-represented in film), excellent songs and a strong central narrative of a stubborn princess trying to explore the world and a flawed demigod forced to take big risks. It does seem quite similar to Pixar’s Coco (which they had to be working on at the same time) in terms of the conflict between the lead and their parents, although they go in different enough directions that both can remain quite satisfying.
9/10

Movie #53/ 1940s Movie #2: The Magnificent Ambersons
Welles’ Citizen Kane follow-up has some excellent storytelling, and is surprisingly sympathetic to the lead: a spoiled brat from a rich family struggling with the pace of change. The film captures the power of memories quite well.
9/10

Movie #54/ 1950s Movie #2/ Criterion Edition #10/ French Film #4: Rififi
A combination of elements makes this one of the best crime films ever. The 30 minute silent robbery sequence is exceptional, the payoff to careful planning that seems believable enough that career criminals have used it as a reference guide. But it goes in some interesting turns after that, as the original crew is drawn organically into a new conflict.
10/10

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Movie #55/ 1990s Movie #5: Bowfinger
This was at the Metrograph theater as part of a retrospective on Terrence Stamp, who pops up as the leader of a scientology style cult. It’s a very funny satire of Hollywood with a hapless film crew trying to make a sci-fi film with the world’s biggest star without letting him know he’s actually in it.
8/10

Movie #56/ New Movie #32/ 2018 Movie #4/ Science Fiction Film #4: Ready Player One
Spielberg’s a great director, although on a meta level, an odd choice to direct a film about people influenced by his generation. The storytelling is generally pretty good (not a shocker with arguably the best director ever) in the high stakes hunt for easter eggs in a VR world.
7/10

Movie #57/ 1970s Movie #3/ Estonian Film #4/ Science Fiction Film #5: The Dead Alpinist’s Hotel
I watched the Estonian sci-fi film again on youtube, now that I know where the mystery was going. There are two distinct parts in the film. The first hour has a good sense of atmosphere and mystery as a detective tries to piece together a conspiracy in a secluded mountain hotel. It takes a sci-fi turn, and explores interesting questions of duty and morality, leading to a satisfying conclusion.
8/10

Movie #58/ 1960s Movie #4/ Criterion Edition #11/ French Film #5: Jules et Jim
The French New Wave film about a love triangle where the two men might love one another more than the girl is inventive with freewheeling techniques that maintain the emotional core. It starts with them as young Bohemians, but covers the effects of time, changing affections and the first world war (one of the men is French; the other Austrian.) I’m not sure any movie’s been better at depicting the ups and downs of a relationship.
10/10

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Movie #59/ 1980s Movie #3: Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Fun noir pastiche in a world in which cartoon characters are real, and trying to make a living like everybody else. The central story is satisfying, and it really excels in the little moments, as clever as the original cartoons.
9/10

Movie #60/ New Movie #33/ 1940s Movie #3: The Stranger
Welles’ most successful box office hit has impressive cinematography and suspense (You might watch it and think it’s Hitchcock, but it’s not bad Hitchcock) and a daring narrative, as his lead hero is an unrepentant Nazi about to get married to the daughter of a Supreme Court justice.
8/10

Best of the batch: Rififi

The best film I hadn’t seen before is Moana, I suppose.

My reviews have been pretty positive in these two entries (the majority are 8/10 or higher) so I should mention that. I suppose a key factor is selection bias. I’ll pick films that have good reputations, that have received or been nominated for major awards, which tends to weed out the amateurish and the ambitious failures. I watched a Roger Corman film, but it was one of the better-regarded.

I’d imagine a major difference for professional critics is they’ve got to see everything. The main films I saw that didn’t have fantastic reputations were The Greatest Showman (and I liked the soundtrack before I watched it so I was primed to enjoy it), Kingsmen- The Golden Circle (a sequel to a film I liked), Cruel Intentions, Get Me Roger Stone (a documentary on politics by people with impressive credentials), Tall: The Story of the American Skyscraper, and November. I have enjoyed some films with mixed reputations (The New World) which may also skew results a bit.

There’s material I’m not inclined to like (The 50 Shades Sequel, the Karl Marx biopic at 54 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, various poorly received Netflix projects, the Clint Eastwood film with amateur actors, the Helen Mirren ghost story at 15 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) that I haven’t bothered seeing.  It might be helpful for me to recalibrate with some crappy movies, or take more risks with material that might be terrible and might be fascinating or both, but there are too many alternatives available, with Moviepass, streaming services and reasonable cheap DVDs/ Blu-rays. Why watch a Nicholas Sparks pastiche (a type of film that isn’t for me) when there are MCU films I haven’t rewatched, an Indian crime epic has 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, the Kanopy streaming service has seven Fritz Lang films, I have a backlog of criterion blu-rays from various sales, and I can’t say whether Casey Affleck or Denzel Washington deserved the Best Actor Academy Award since I still haven’t seen Fences or Manchester By the Sea (which I should probably remedy in the next entry)?

 

 

 

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On Film and Diversity

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This is a response to some points raised by Film Critic Hulk in his piece “What We Talk About When We Talk About Female Filmmaking.”

He suggests that some of the standards by which we measure film are biased against women and films against women, using the cinematography of Lady Bird as an example.

But yeah, the real thing about Blade Runner 2049‘s cinematography is that it is tangibly impressive. But equally impressive in terms of cinematography, editing, and construction?

Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird.

It just happens to err on the side of naturalism, which makes sense given that it’s a realistic coming of age story about a high school senior trying to find her place in the world. Thus, it is trying to echo that realism and make us feel a sense of intimacy with it. It needs to feel like life, not a “movie movie.” But there is no less craft in achieving that. Believe me, naturalism is insanely difficult to achieve.

I like the examples of Lady Bird’s impressive cinematography. Interestingly enough, cinematographer Sam Levy is so unknown that he doesn’t even have a wikipedia page. However, I’m not sure the lack of appreciation for Lady Bird is so gendered. Greta Gerwig was nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. Sam Levy (not nominated/ rarely discussed) is a middle-aged white guy. I was wondering if the lack of nomination has something to do with the film not being a period/ sci-fi piece, although there have been recent nominations for Moonlight, La La Land, Birdman, and Nebraska, so it can’t just be that. A lot of it probably is because, as he pointed out, it is harder to note craft that is natural and subtle. However, I’m not sure if the female subject matter is the difference, since recent years have consistently seen cinematography nominations for films with female leads (Black Swan, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Anna Karenina, Gravity, Ida, Carol, Arrival, La La Land, Mudbound, The Shape of Water.) It’s not 50/50, but in an industry where it’s a gain for 29 percent of the top 100 films to have female leads, it is quite representative

He considers the critical backlash to A Wrinkle in Time as part of a larger segment of criticism against director Ava Duvernay.

I have not seen Ava Duvernay’s Wrinkle In Time yet, but it’s one of my favorite children’s books (and comic, if you’ve never read Hope Larson’s adaptation) and I plan to see it soon. But I actually think the following argument works better if I haven’t seen it and can just make some observations about the dialogue surrounding the film. Why is that?

Because there’s a lot of white film bros who hate Ava Duvernay.

Did you know this? Boy howdy do they hate on Ava. And they won’t stop popping up in my damn feed (and always creating new accounts! Which is always a sign of being a well-balanced individual) to make “logical” points about how everyone’s just treating her nice because we surely must be afraid of backlash! And by not tearing her apart and by “pulling punches,” we must be doing this because we’re afraid to upset the critical status quo and call the movie bad, etc… I’m not kidding.

I think he exaggerates the significance of people who were biased against Ava Duvernay. They weren’t able to have discernible impact on the critical acclaim of Selma or 13th, so why would it be different now? The biggest name among critics who hasn’t cared for her work is Kyle Smith, and it would be weird for him to suddenly be an influencer now. Film Critiic Hulk notes the significance of subject matter as part of the appeal of a film, but it could be that this is part of the poor response to A Wrinkle in Time. The key thing with subject matter is how people tell a story. The difference between Munich (Best Picture nominee) and 7 days in Entebbe (22% on Rotten Tomatoes) probably comes down to execution.

Finally, he expresses a preference for filmmakers who are truly representative, suggesting the problem is with the film industry.

It is so much more difficult for those who don’t fit the white dude movie lover mold. It’s downright systematic. You have to watch as female filmmakers from your classes slowly get railroaded into being producers, editors, and working in public relations instead or storytellers, all because “thats where they fit.” Just as you have no idea what it’s like to be a minority and get constantly used as a prop of collaboration and not get to be the engine of it. So you have to understand that something that has been so hard for you, has actually been 1000% harder for someone else. And sure, you can be sensitive to that idea all your want. You can say it’s unjust. You can say you want more female and minority filmmakers. But when you put forth the perfectly-sane and not -radical idea that “50% of studio films should be directed by women and 40% should be directed by minorities,” people lose their god damn minds.

The expectation of getting filmmakers who represent demographics perfectly seems unrealistic. Is there any profession that accurately represents the demographics of the country? There would be the initial factor that most people already in the industry are going to keep their jobs, so even if the new directors, cinematographers, sound mixers, etc. represent demographics perfectly, those who came in during earlier eras are going to stick around, skewing statistics for decades to come.

There are probably some institutional fixes if qualified women/ minorities are passed over for equally or less qualified white men, but some of the problem is going to be that white guys are more likely to get the jobs that lead to being in a position to get money to make films, so there would have to be reforms on the lower level. Even if there’s a fix in one area (American film production) the pipeline involves other areas. Looking at recent directors of Best Picture nominees, Jordan Peele came from television. Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro came from the television industry of Mexico. Morten Tyldum came from the Norwegian television industry. Lenny Abrahamson came from advertising. Martin McDonagh was an Irish playwright. Kenneth Lonergan’s first major work was an off-Broadway play. Paul Thomas Anderson used his college savings to make a short film. Even with reforms in all these industries, it doesn’t offset other potential problems that lead to less women and less people in color in a position to get the job that results in them getting the budgets to make major films.

 

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Why My Mom Hates International Women’s Day

8-march-1

My mom is rather pissed off about the celebration of International Women’s Day.

She thinks the idea to celebrate Women’s Day is good, but there’s a history behind March 8 that makes it particularly awkward for her as someone who grew up in Estonia when it was occupied by the Soviet Union.

March 8 was proposed a long time ago by communists Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, and Alexandra Kollontai, largely to honor women the role of the working women of St. Petersburg in the revolution. As noted on marxists.org

But this is not a special day for women alone. The 8th of March is a historic and memorable day for the workers and peasants, for all the Russian workers and for the workers of the whole world. In 1917, on this day, the great February revolution broke out.[2] It was the working women of Petersburg who began this revolution; it was they who first decided to raise the banner of opposition to the Tsar and his associates. And so, working women’s day is a double celebration for us.

But if this is a general holiday for all the proletariat, why do we call it “Women’s Day”? Why then do we hold special celebrations and meetings aimed above all at the women workers and the peasant women? Doesn’t this jeopardize the unity and solidarity of the working class? To answer these questions, we have to look back and see how Women’s Day came about and for what purpose it was organized.

Lenin was the first world leader to declare this as a national holiday in 1922 as International Working Women’s Day (there weren’t women who didn’t work in the Soviet Union). In Soviet occupied countries, it was not taken seriously, and much parodied.  It was also seen as a substitute for Mother’s Day.

Celebrating women’s day is a fine idea, but it should be done on a day that was not selected by communists. It won’t necessarily be an easy process, since there are a lot of considerations. It would make a lot of sense to honor a celebrated woman, although most political and religious figures would lack universal appeal. Hildegard of Bingen is honored mainly by Catholics, and honoring a feminist who was important to one country or area of the world (IE- Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Cady Stanton) is fraught. Murasaki Shikibu is considered one of the most important writers ever, but we have no idea what day she was born on. Marie Curie’s November 7 birthday might be too close to Veteran’s Day in the US.

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Movies Watched in 2018 Part 1

Molly

I’m trying again this year to keep track of the movies I watch with the annual goal of ten movies per decade (counting the silent era up until 1929 as one full decade. Since I might’ve overlooked films from the early 2010s, I’m also counting from 2016, 2017 and 2018 in different categories, with additional goals of ten films from 2016, seventeen from 2017, and eighteen from 2018. I set up a sub-goal for this entry of ten movies from 2017 (thanks to all the prestige pictures in films this time of year), five movies with the same writer (Aaron Sorkin), five films in the same language (French), five films with the same actress (Julianne Moore) and five films with the same actor (Tom Cruise). I didn’t end up touching French film.

When I describe a movie as new, it just means I haven’t seen it before.

Movie #1/ New Movie #2/  1970s Movie #1: Shampoo
I’ve had a bit of a The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon with this film, hearing about it in different ways: as a breakout for star Warren Beatty, as a comedy set during a presidential election, as a standout for director Hal Ashby, as a showcase for an Oscar winning performance by Lee Grant, and as the debut of Carrie Fisher. It’s a solid kinda dry comedy about a lunk who is irresistible to women, elevated by a hell of a supporting cast (Goldie Hawn and Julie Christie are two of his girlfriends; Jack Warden got an Oscar nomination as a philandering cuckold) which initially meanders around, but does have some payoff at the end as he faces a reckoning.
8/10

Movie #2/ New Movie #2/ 2017 Movie #1: I, Tonya
It’s a darkly funny film that looks at a typical triumphant sports biopic that gets derailed just as the flawed heroine is about to do her comeback. Margot Robbie and Alison Janney are sensational as the daughter and mother. I do like how the film acknowledges the unreliable narrators, and the media criticism. There are some striking omissions (a supporting character gets a job as a bodyguard for Harding in between scenes, she has four older half-siblings who are never mentioned, encounters with Nancy Kerrigan are referred to but never shown, etc.)
8/10

Movie #3/ New Movie #3/ 2017 Movie #2/ Aaron Sorkin Movie #1: Molly’s Game
It’s not a shocker that Sorkin’s directorial debut has a very witty script, as he tells a labyrinthine tale of a woman’s rise and fall in an unconventional business, building effectively to realizations about her past that have affected her behavior going forward. Strong central performance by Jessica Chastain.
9/10

Movie #4/ New Movie #4/ 1980s Movie #1: Working Girl
Decent comedy about a secretary who pretends to be someone at the top of her company, even if some of the Oscar nominations are undeserved (Joan Cusack is a good example of someone who is good in a film, but definitely not one of the five best of the year.)
8/10

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Movie #5/ New Movie #5/ 1970s Movie #2: A Touch of Class
This movie has the second of Glenda Jackson’s Academy Award winning performances (out of four nominations) and I hadn’t seen any of her work, which shows how much of a blind spot this cinematic period is for me (English film during the New Hollywood era.) It’s a decent comedy about two likable people who find an affair isn’t as simple as they assumed; first because of various complications, handled in hilarious fashion, and then because of what it means. Ebert suggested the ending wasn’t earned, but it was definitely set-up.
8/10

Movie #6/ 2010s Movie #1: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The first Captain America sequel might just be the best Marvel Cinematic Universe film and the top competitors are the others in the series. It’s a compelling spy drama, elevating supporting characters from earlier films, with new additions who have some tremendous staying power. Looking at it again, I really like the twists and turns with Robert Redford’s character (the casting being a nod to 1970s thrillers, which showcases the MCU’s strength) and the plan of the bad guys, which is a scarily logical way to rule the world.
10/10

Movie #7/ New Movie #6/ 2017 Movie #3/ Julianne Moore Movie #1: Kingsmen- The Golden Circle
This Kingmen sequel goes on a bit long, and kills off characters in ways that aren’t quite earned, although I do like the set-up to the Statesmen and the return of Colin Firth’s Galahad, which makes for some decent complications. It’s a step down from the original, but still fun.
6/10

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Movie #8/ 2000s Movie #1/ Julianne Moore Movie #2: Children of Men
This is a sci-fi film that has held up well, with excellent worldbuilding and cinematography, establishing a hopeless new world and then introducing something to shake it up. The two long takes are spectacular, and the script has some nice surprises.
10/10

Movie #9/ New Movie #7/ 2017 Movie #4: The Greatest Showman
It’s a flawed but decent musical. The songs are catchy, and often quite moving (the opening montage is a highlight, and “Never Enough” is powerful on several levels). It does sometimes feel like several different films put together (Hugh Jackman’s ambitious showman realizing the importance of family, an interracial love story pre-Civil War, “freaks” coming to acceptance) sometimes in a messy manner.
7/10

Movie #10/ 2010s Movie #2: Star Wars- The Force Awakens
Watching it again, I get a sense of just how well it combined excellent new characters with a very traditional Star Wars story, simultaneously showing what’s great about the series, and saying something new about the legacy, especially with the villain being a Darth Vader fanboy.
9/10

Movie #11/ New Movie #8/ 2017 Movie #5: Coco
In some ways, it hits familiar beats from Pixar movies, but it develops the Day of the Dead visual schema quite well, and builds very effectively to some big revelations about the young lead’s family. A particular standout is how they’re able to use several variations of the central song “Remember Me” with a reprise so moving it makes the first time seem like a parody in comparison.
9/10

Shape of Water

Movie #12/ New Movie #9/ 2017 Movie #6: The Shape of Water
Unconventional matter for a film with so many Academy Award nominations. It tells the fairy tale story pretty well, with some excellent period touches and key moments that are quite successful. It knows what it’s about and gets the message across quite well. The cast is quite good, especially Hawkins imbuing her mute lead with personality, Richard Jenkins’ frustrated artist realizing what matters, and Doug Jones providing a take on The Creature from the Black Lagoon as romantic lead.
9/10

Movie #13/ 1990s Movie #1/ Aaron Sorkin Movie #2/ Tom Cruise Movie #1: A Few Good Men
A smart legal drama that made Sorkin’s name. Cruise is perfect as a cocky young lawyer forced to take some risks, while Nicholson’s corrupt general is an imposing antagonist whose perspective and actions are given their due. The events leading to the cover-up are believable, as are the actions everyone takes after.
9/10

Movie #14/ 1990s Movie #2/ New Movie #10: Cruel Intentions
I largely ended up watching it due to a mash-up of a key scene, and a Trump speech. The world of the film is a moral vacuum, and almost irredeemably so. There’s wit, but not enough to make up for the ridiculousness.
6/10

Movie #15/ 2010s Movie #3/ Aaron Sorkin Movie #3: Moneyball
It’s a film about sports that might not be as interesting to people who care about sports, as a General Manager and a statistician work on getting a baseball team of undervalued players. It’s a smart clash between tradition and new methods.
9/10

Movie #16/ 2010s Movie #4 / Julianne Moore Film #3: Crazy Stupid Love
It’s interesting to watch a film that is essentially a spec for a hit show (This is Us.) It’s a witty script with an excellent cast that takes some interesting twists, especially in the second act finale when all the threads come together.
8/10

Movie #17/ 2010s Movie #5/ Aaron Sorkin Movie #4: The Social Network
This might remain my favorite movie of the current decade, perhaps because it hits so many sweet spots (young geniuses change the world under everyone else’s radar and then a lot of it falls apart.) The performances by Eisenberg, Timberlake, Garfield and Hammer as the men fighting for early Facebook, with different motives and shifting allegiances, are excellent. The script is well-structured and memorable; Trent Reznor’s score is brilliant. I’d be very eager to see a sequel dealing with its current Fake News crisis.
10/10

tangerines

Movie #18/ New Movie #11/ 2010s Movie #6/ Estonian Movie #1: Tangerines/ To Kill a Man
A few years back when I saw early reports about this film, I asked my mom (who is from Estonia) if she’s familiar with the actor Lembit Ulfsak. She got depressed, and asked if he had died. I said no; by all accounts, he had made his masterpiece. It’s probably the best anti-war film I’ve seen in the 21st Century, as an Estonian farmer in Georgia helps two soldiers from different sides of a conflict recover from the injuries, while also making sure they don’t kill one anothr.
9/10

Movie #19/ 2010s Movie #7/ Aaron Sorkin Movie #5: Steve Jobs
It’s a very interestingly structured film about Steve Jobs, and the people around him, built around three product launches, telling the story of a flawed genius, which doesn’t skimp in either category. We see the ways he unnecessarily alienates family and coworkers, and the big ideas: some of which may be wrong, and some of which have the potential to be world-changing. We see his volatilty. Excellent cast headed by Fassbender and Winslet.
9/10

Movie #20/ New Movie #12/ 2017 Movie #8/ Documentary #1: Get Me Roger Stone
The filmmakers had the good fortune to capture their subject at a fascinating time, just as Roger Stone’s buddy was running for President. It’s a decent look at the moral code and history of a political fixer who has been active in politics since the Nixon administration, and a story about behind the scenes maneuvering during the 2000 Reform Party nomination might make the best case I’ve seen for Donald Trump as someone who has been an underappreciated political figure until he ran for President.
8/10

Movie #21/ New Movie #13/ 2017 Movie #8: Baby Driver
The music is pretty awesome, so those Oscar nominations (sound editing, sound mixing) are well deserved. This Edgar Wright vehicle about an unconventional getaway driver has a witty script, great sense of design, and some fantastic car chases, taking some interesting turns on the ethos of the career criminals involved.
8/10

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Movie #22/ 2017 Movie #9: Star Wars- The Last Jedi
Watching it again, I remain impressed at how well it works to give better adventures for some of the new cast introduced in Force Awakens (an underappreciated element in the success of this trilogy), while adding new characters who take some unpredictable turns, and providing Luke and Leia excellent character arcs. It makes some decisions that could piss off Star Wars fans, and I do understand that, even if I largely agree with those decisions, which result in some excellent twists that build nicely on what’s been established. It may also have the best visuals of any Star Wars film to date.
10/10

Movie #23/ New Movie #14/ 1980s Movie #2/  Tom Cruise Movie #2: Rain Man
The oddest thing about the film might be the things that would not apply to modern culture (educated characters with limited awareness of what autism means.) The road trip film features a satisfying transformation for Cruise’s Lamborghini dealer (nicely specific touch rather than making him a general car salesman), as he learns some family secrets (the highlight being his realization about an imaginary friend) and grows to appreciate a new brother. Hoffman gives a terrific performance as the autistic savant, as a man who can’t change to the same degree and can’t articulate what’s meaningful to him.
9/10

Movie #24/ New Movie #15/ 2010s Movie #8 / Julianne Moore Film #4: Game Change
This take on Palin’s stint as Republican Vice-Presidential nominee operated as a kind of disaster movie, where the disaster no one quite sees coming is her complete lack of policy understanding, as well as her failure to adapt to the campaign. It’s a decent film about political ideas, as well as the difficulties of the media environment, and the compromises that may be necessary, and the questions that will later be asked.
8/10

Movie #25/ New Movie #16/ 2017 Movie #10: Call Me By Your Name
It’s a tender beautifully shot film about a young man’s early love in an idyllic setting. It’s paced interestingly, taking time to get to the consummation. I’m sure there are some viewers (especially intellectual gay men who like Europe) for whom this film will speak as much as The Social Network (the other great Armie Hammer performance) spoke to me.
9/10

cruise magnolia

Movie #26/ New Movie #17/ 1990s Movie #3/ Tom Cruise Movie #3/ Julianne Moore Movie #5: Magnolia
It’s a well-made film about a variety of sad people in Los Angeles, interconnected in strange ways. I appreciate the storytelling, the way things keep getting propelled forward, and the crazed characters. There are some strange artistic choices, especially in the final deluge, and some of the stories do peter out a bit. But when it works (Cruise’s men’s rights activist giving a lecture twenty years early, Moore’s trophy wife falling apart) it’s really remarkable.
9/10

Movie #27/ 2000s Movie #2/ Tom Cruise Movie #4: Tropic Thunder
It’s a decent Hollywood satire, with a strong cast and a story that takes some interesting turns, while setting up the crucial misunderstanding pretty well. It’s a bit of an idiot plot, but that works because they’re idiots.
8/10

Movie #28/ New Movie #18/ 2018 Movie #1: Black Panther
Now this might be the best Marvel Cinematic Universe film ever, with the main competition being the Captain America trilogy. It may also be the biggest pop culture decades from now, as the defining example of Afrofuturism in film. Coogler and company give a sense of grappling with the subject matter for decades before adapting it in a way that introduces the concepts quite well, but also addresses some of the big questions about what’s suggested. The biggest flaw is that the lead might be the fourth most interesting person in the film, behind Michael B Jordan’s Kilmonger (easily one of the best comic book villains), and the main women who support T’Challa: Lupita Nyongo’o’s Nakia— Wakandan who has seen the outside world and wants to change it—and Letita Wright’s Shuri—combination of princess and mad scientist.
10/10

New World

Movie #29/ New Movie #19/ 2000s Movie #3/ Criterion Edition #1: The New World (Extended Edition)
This isn’t a shocker with Emmanuel Lubezki on cinematography, but this is a beautiful film. It’s probably my favorite of Malick’s, due to the beauty and the way that some of the ponderousness is earned, in a story about people who are changing world history. It captures the sense quite well of the story behind the myth, even if it ends up taking significant liberties as well. Excellent cast, with some unexpected turns.
10/10

Movie #30/ New Movie #20/ 2000s Movie #4/ Tom Cruise Movie #5: Collateral
Jamie Foxx’s best supporting actor nomination in category fraud, since he’s clearly the lead, although he is quite good as a cab driver keeping things bottled up who finds himself to keep up with Tom Cruise’s hitman.
9/10

Bonus Movie #1/ New Movie #11/ 2010s Movie #8A/ Documentary #1A/ Estonian Movie #1A: The Master Plan
I saw this documentary (a joint project by Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian arts councils) at an event, and it’s fascinating, but it’s less than an hour long, so I don’t want to count it. It looks at Russian propaganda efforts in the Baltics, with some rather scary examples (a Latvian elected official who is largely a shill for Russia on RT and other media outlets, BS organizations that are used to give credentials for Russian stooges to meet with elected officials and to opine in media appearances about what’s going on in the world.)
8/10

Best Movie of the Batch: The Social Network

With all the Oscarbait films, this list was heavily biased towards newer movies, especially when combined with the sub-challenges I picked for myself, it meant I had incentives to select actors and writers who have been productive recently.

I’m not sure the extent to which the films I saw in various categories are representaitve of anything, but 2017 was a decent year in film. Aaron Sorkin’s a hell of a writer who is pretty idea of tackling ideas and questions of morality and purpose, especially in a modern context. Tom Cruise is pretty good at playing assholes. Julianne Moore plays intense very well.

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