Posts Tagged ‘politics’

 

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As Labor Day comes to a close, I thought I’d recommend a movie that’s been one of my favorites for quite some time that deals with the highly appropriate themes of worker’s rights, unions, and freedom of expression. I’m talking cradle boxabout 1999’s Cradle Will Rock. Written, directed, and produced by Tim Robbins, Cradle Will Rock is set during the Great Depression, spanning the inception of the eponymous musical to its unorthodox opening performance after budget cuts to the Federal Theater Project (FTP), a branch of President Roosevelt’s Works Projects Administration (WPA), shut down all new productions. Surrounding the main story of the musical’s highs and lows are several interconnecting storylines that flesh out life in the Depression-Era America, including several well-known cultural icons and figures of note.

The movie itself is a semi-fictionalized account of The Cradle Will Rock‘s (Robbins dropped the The) original production and what blows my mind about this movie is the truth embedded in every point of connection. The Cradle Will Rock was a real musical, produced by Orson Welles and John Houseman, that was originally performed by the main cast from the audience of the theater when the show’s writer and composer, Marc Blitzstein, provided 00348w9gnarration and musical accompaniment on stage to sidestep union rules that forbid the actors to participate. Clearly it was a play that the cast and crew believed in, one that was unabashedly pro-union in a time when labor unions were the bane of industrialists looking to capitalize on cheap and disposable labor.

Circling The Cradle Will Rock are a number of stories containing their own measures of truth and fiction. These stories include the notorious Diego Rivera painting, Man at the Crossroads, commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller for the lobby of the Rockefeller Center (recently featured in the Netflix series Sense8), the House Committee on Un-American Activities’ investigation into the FTP, and the complicity of American industrialists in providing funds to dictators like Hitler and Mussolini. All of it is tied together through the common themes of censorship in and of the arts, labor issues, immigration, and the disparity between the wealthy and the poor that does more to fully realize life in America than a typical event-based movie. Though Tim Robbins took some liberties with the various stories, the political and philosophical underpinnings of the script are fully justified by the characters and their actions.

The cast is a veritable who’s-who of character actors who, by now, are most well-known actors in their own right. At the time, though, many members of the cast were still operating below Hollywood’s radar. The cast includes Hank Azaria as Marc Blitzstein, Emily Watson as The Cradle Will Rock actress and singer Olive Stanton, John Cusack as cradle will rockNelson Rockefeller, Angus Macfadyen as Orson Welles, Cary Elwes as John Houseman, Ruben Blades as Diego Rivera, John Turturro as fictional actor Aldo Silvano, and Cherry Jones as FTP producer, director, and playwright Hallie Flanagan. Filling out the cast are Billy Murray, Joan Cusack, Vanessa Redgrave, Paul Giamatti, Jack Black, Kyle Gass, Susan Sarandon, and Philip Baker Hall. Robbins also rounded out the cast with veteran Broadway performers for much of the musical scenes as well as minor roles for still-living members of The Cradle Will Rock‘s original cast. With such a massive ensemble it’s amazing that no single member of the company is given an elevated status that might signal them as the main character. Robbins as a writer and director is generous yet fair with the amount of time each character has to shine, assuring us that there are no favorites and that the story is properly served.

If you have the time and have an interest in this time in America’s history, or you’re looking for a good discussion about art and politics, Cradle Will Rock will most definitely give you something to talk about by the film’s end. And you get some pretty sweet Broadway songs to tap your feet to.

Sixteen years never felt so short, but it’s with a heavy heart that we say so long and farewell to Jon Stewart as he sits behind the desk as The Daily Show‘s host one last time on Thursday August 6th, 2015. It’s bittersweet, for many reasons, chief among them the notion that though Stewart will no doubt go forth and create something of substance we’ll flock back to, but the familiarity and seeming ubiquitousness of The Daily Show with Jon at the helm will be sorely missed. Even when Jon took personal time jon stewartaway from the program, whether it was vacation or to direct a film (go see Rosewater!), and one of the correspondents took over hosting duties there was still this “gentleman’s agreement” between the audience and the show that Jon was coming back. We got to see the proto-hosting abilities of Stephen Colbert and John Oliver emerge but there was always this sense that The Daily Show wasn’t really The Daily Show until Jon returned.

Of course that wasn’t always the case.

While we see The Daily Show as a satirical powerhouse, the original concept of the show was much more in line with Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update – news with punchlines – combined with a Tonight Show celebrity interview segment. Even when Jon took over hosting duties from Craig Kilborn in 1999, The Daily Show didn’t carve out its place as cable’s most trusted news show until the clusterfuck that was the 2000 Presidential Election. The insane yet hilarious coverage and commentary provided by Jon and his team of correspondents featuring Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Vance DeGeneres, Nancy Walls, and Mo Rocca set the new tone for the show and propelled it into the politically-apathetic hearts and mind of a new generation of high school and college students in need of their own Walter Cronkite.

jon stephen star warsThat’s not me being hyperbolic, by the way. Jon Stewart is to my generation what Walter Cronkite was to my parents’ generation. It would have been so easy for Jon to treat the hosting gig as just that and keep it in line with most comedy shows, but whether through his own desires or the demands of an audience in need of an iota of honesty, he and the show’s writers and producers turned it into something more. As the political and media landscape turned dark and ugly, Jon was there to offer a comedic palate cleanser that didn’t resort to condescension or fear-mongering to manipulate the audience. Jon did something news channels like CNN, FOX, and MSNBC didn’t – he treated us like we were intelligent, he respected the viewers as people and respected his position as the jester poking fun at royalty.

I was in high school when Jon started hosting The Daily Show and I can say without any hesitation that, to this day, he’s still my most trusted source for objective discussion of the news and media. Yes, he has his own agenda and his own biases but what I’ve always respected about Jon is his desire for discourse. Some news outlets bring people on their shows to yell at them and attempt to dominate the conversation; Jon Stewart brought people on to talk to them. For him it was about looking at both sides and finding common ground or, at the very least, understand where the other side was coming from. His friendly olive branch, dailyshow_middlehowever, didn’t stop him from turning it into a sharpened spear when certain guests underestimated his intellect and his ability to work the room in his favor.

The three most notorious cases were his appearance on the how defunct Crossfire and guests of The Daily Show Jim Cramer, host of the also defunct Mad Money, and Betsy “Death Panels” McCaughey. In the case of Crossfire and Mad Money, both shows took huge dives in ratings after Jon conversed with their respective hosts. And by “converse” I mean “ran circles around them intellectually”, though it became very obvious by the end of his “discussion” with Cramer that Jon was taking very little joy in using clips from the man’s show against him to make his point. Towards the end, Cramer physically sighs after yet another order from Jon to show footage. Betsy McCaughey’s appearance was one of those rare moments in television, other than watching audition tapes for American Idol, where I started to feel sorry for the guest. Brought on the show to talk about the language in the early draft of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act that supposedly mentioned “death panels”, McCaughey brought a large binder containing the bill, but neglected to mark where the language could be found. As she attempted to find it, Jon talked with her but McCaughey tried to ham it up for the audience by diminishing the importance of appearing on a comedy show to talk about an issue concerning the federal government. The audience wasn’t buying it, but Jon showed patience as she continued to thumb through the bill. Eventually, he had to go to commercial and when they returned, McCaughey still hadn’t found the statement that justified her coining the term. Instead, the two talked around the bill as if she’d come on the show prepared for a real discussion.

jon wavingIn all three example, Jon Stewart was underestimated by the “other side” and in all three examples he showed just how much he shouldn’t be underestimated. Yes, he still maintains that his job is about putting comedy first, and there are certainly plenty of moments that prove him right, but the audience is in on the joke. We know where his passion is because he’s not particularly good at hiding his emotions when it comes to certain topics and people. It’s because of Jon Stewart that we’ve been introduced to so many amazing comedic voices. It’s because of Jon Stewart that more veterans have access to medical care. It’s because of Jon Stewart that Jason Jones went to Tehran to talk to the real people of Iran, not just the religious fundamentalists most news outlets were showing as the only representation of the country. It’s because of Jon Stewart that we had at least one place to go where we trusted someone not to lie and manipulate us for the sake of ratings.

When Jon Stewart steps down on Thursday, there’s no telling what the future of The Daily Show will be. We’ve been asked to give incoming host Trevor Noah a fair shot and I’m sure many of us will continue to tune in if only to see how well he fares. That doesn’t mean Jon’s shadow won’t linger. For nearly twenty years he was ours, so getting over his absence might take a while.

But here’s to you, Jon! Looking forward to the next adventure!

And now, your moment of Zen.

 

Sam is joined by JP for an amazing chat with Punisher: War Zone and Green Street Hooligans director Lexi Alexander!

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If you’re so inclined to pay attention to award season, then you probably know (or glanced at your various feeds on Facebook or Twitter) that the 87th Academy Awards happened and there were quite a few politically charged moments that will undoubtedly garner more attention and discussion than the actual show. This is hardly new territory for the Oscars. The ceremony may be an over-long self-congratulatory tribute to Hollywood, but as far asOscars ratings and viewership go, the Oscars, in one night, still reach more people than the average one-hour drama. It’s not Superbowl numbers by any means, but it still puts the award show in the advantageous position of political theater if one seizes the opportunity. And during the broadcast several award winners did their damnedest to do some carpe dieming.

Prior to the ceremony, the Oscars were already under fire for whitewashing the categories, snubbing critically acclaimed Selma director Ava Duvernay and star David Oyelowo but still nominating the film for Best Picture and Best Song. As noted by the Hollywood Reporter, this is the second time in two decades that the lineup of nominees was all-white, the timing of which couldn’t be worse in light of the racially insensitive emails leaked during the Sony hack and the Academy’s supposed promise to give diversity a greater focus. Is it any wonder that host Neil Patrick Harris’ opening joke – “Today we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest. Sorry…brightest.” – and his sharp response to the audience applauding David Oyelowo during an interstitial bit – “Oh, sure, now you like him.” – were met with nervous laughter and timid applause? The saving grace of the snub, however, was the stirring John Legend, Commonperformance of “Glory” by Common and John Legend that brought the audience to tears. Legend later used their Oscar win for the song to point out the parallels between Selma and current racial tensions in the United States.

Nina Simone said it’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live. We wrote this song for a film that was based on events that were 50 years ago, but we say that Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is right now. We know that the Voting Rights Act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised right now in this country today. We know that right now the struggle for freedom and justice is real. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850. When people are marching with our song, we want to tell you we are with you, we see you, we love you, and march on. God bless you. [Source: Democracy Now]

The Oscars also served as a platform for women to make their voices heard through any and all means. Before the ceremony even began the Oscars were at the center of a Twitter campaign spearheaded by Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls community and the Representation Project called #AskHerMore, which called upon correspondents covering the show to ask actresses more engaging questions about their work instead of asking about their clothes. Reese Witherspoon brought attention to the campaign on Instagram and on the red carpet, which Robin Roberts of ABC P-A-600utilized in her coverage, though it sloughed off towards the end. Luckily, Witherspoon and fellow actresses Julianne Moore and Lupita Nyong’o were keen to talk more than fashion.

Once the show was in full swing, it was Patricia Arquette who took the stage after receiving the Best Supporting Actress for Boyhood and stated plainly to Hollywood and the viewing audience:

To every woman who gave birth to every citizen and taxpayer of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America!

The rallying cry brought the house to its feet in applause and produced what will probably the greatest GIF ever of Meryl Streep.

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Arquette’s speech was a definite response to the Sony emails between studio executives discussing the wage discrepancies between actresses and actors. And while we might roll our eyes at the idea of an actress getting paid more money, we still have to remember that it’s a job and, like any of us nine-to-fivers, if a woman’s skill set is the same as a man’s, then she should get paid the same amount. America’s workforce isn’t guided by gender roles anymore, but it is a country where single-income families are the norm and if a woman is the head-of-household, then what she isn’t being paid adds up. Arquette’s words similarly ring true for the state of Hollywood and its treatment of actresses. As indicated previously, beauty is often the topic of choice on the red carpet instead of the phenomenal work accomplished by women in the industry. The worst kept secret in Hollywood is the shelf life of an actress’ time in which she goes from sexy leading lady to fourth-billed, middle aged nag. By paying actresses less money, Hollywood reinforces this outdated attitude, valuing marketability over merit.

The night wasn’t just full of calls to action. Some speeches were poignant messages of understanding in the face of societal pressures and stigmas. After winning Best Adapted Screenplay for The Imitation Game, Graham Moore, bared his soul, saying:

Oscars Graham MooreAlan Turing never got to stand on a stage like this and look out at all of these disconcertingly attractive faces. And I do. And that’s the most unfair thing I think I’ve ever heard. In this brief time here, what I want to use it to do is to say this: When I was 16 years old, I tried to kill myself because I felt weird and I felt different and I felt like I did not belong. And now, I’m standing here and I would like for this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she’s weird or she’s different or she doesn’t fit in anywhere: Yes, you do. I promise you do. You do. Stay weird, stay different. And then, when it’s your turn and you are standing on this stage, please pass the same message to the next person who comes along.

Moore’s speech struck a chord, tapping into the cultural atmosphere of isolation and alienation towards anyone deemed “different”. Whether you’re gay, straight, queer, trans, or just left of center, the truth of Moore’s words can apply to just about anyone. It was especially moving given that earlier in the broadcast Dana Perry, producer of the winner for Best Short Subject Documentary, Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, dedicated the award to her son who’d committed suicide in 2005 and proclaimed that suicide needed to be talked about “out loud” before the orchestra played her off. After the speech, Perry told reporters:

We need to talk about suicide out loud to try to work against the stigma and silence around suicide because the best prevention for suicide is awareness and discussion and not trying sweep it under the rug. [Source: ABC News]

When I was studying archival science in college there was one particular lesson that remained prominent: if you’re not in the record, then you don’t exist. The same is true of media and if there’s really an overall message to take away from this year’s Oscars, it’s that visibility equals legitimacy. Those in charge of crafting the Oscars ceremony love to wax poetic about how film reveals things about human nature or how the movies are a oscarreflection of our society. So what does this year’s smattering of nominees say about our society now? Who are we? What do we value? Whose voice is coming through louder? Who has a voice? We need to see ourselves and we need to be challenged to experience the uncomfortable truths of our society. The movies can’t completely solve these issues, but it’s a familiar medium, a language we all speak, and those responsible for honoring the industry’s achievements might do well to realize that when they cast their ballots next year.

hunger_games_catching_fire_posterTrilogies are the equivalent of the three-act structure of any movie. The first movie is the set up, the second movie ups the stakes, and the third movie brings it all to a close. Of course there’s plenty of action, exposition, and world-building thrown in there at various points, but you get the idea. With this mind-set in tact, the second movie of a trilogy is usually the hardest to do since it’s the bridge between the almost simplistic set-up of the first movie and the, hopefully, more complex conclusion. It’s about keying up the protagonists for a cause they’re willing to fight for because there are stakes involved that have world-shattering and personal consequences.

In this case, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, directed by Francis Lawrence, benefits immensely from the missteps of the first movie to make a tightly packaged and mostly solid film. Everything’s bigger in this movie because the narrative demands it, which is why we get a greater production value, bigger sets, better special effects, and a stronger sense of who Katniss is and how her participation in the Hunger Games has affected her and affected Panem. To sum up the plot in a nutshell: After Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) defied the games and came out as dual winners, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) sees her as a threat to the power of The Capitol over the 12 Districts of Panem. While on a victory tour of the districts, Katniss and Peeta begin to see the results of their defiance as people from the various districts start to rise up and fight back against the power of The Capitol. Given an opportunity to squash the rebellious spirit she ignited, for the 75th Hunger Games, also called a Quarter Quell, Snow arranges for the game’s participants to be chosen from former winners. When Katniss and Peeta are chosen again, they need to figure out who to trust and how to survive even as their complicated relationship becomes more complicated.

The girl on fireThat’s about as basic as I can get, but trust me when I say there’s so much more going on in Catching Fire and none of it feels out of place or unearned. Catching Fire is about the aftermath of a defiant act and its impact, but it’s also about positioning Katniss into the role of a willing revolutionary. The games don’t even factor into the movie until the midpoint because, really, the games aren’t as important to the narrative as they are a plot device to motivate Katniss. Before the games, she’s still trying to deal with the post-traumatic stress of “winning” the games. She can’t hunt without seeing hallucinations of the people she killed and she wakes up screaming from terrible nightmares. Her relationships with Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) are strained because of what she did during the games, and everything she’s done up to this point has been about keeping her mother and her sister Prim (Willow Shields) safe. A visit from President Snow before the victory tour, threatening her family and blackmailing her, only amps up the tension and the pressure Katniss is under. She doesn’t want to be a hero or an example, but because of the nature of The Capitol and its obsession with power and image, Katniss has become a reluctant symbol of revolution. When she doesn’t act, people get hurt, and when she does act, people get hurt. There’s no middle ground for her anymore, so she has to choose a side and by the end of the movie, when they cut away from her, we as an audience know exactly what Katniss has decided.

The cast is just amazing this time around. Jennifer Lawrence, once again, makes Katniss the coldest and most vulnerable character without forcing the emotions. Katniss is such an interesting protagonist because she doesn’t see anything she does as revolutionary or special. She does what she has to do to survive, reserving what little capacity she has to care for a spare amount of people. She can’t concern herself with the bigger picture because it doesn’t mean anything to her and Lawrence does a fantastic job of showing how reserved she is and the slow burn of her emotional state changing over time. Josh Hutcherson finally gets a fair shake in this as Peeta’s allowed to be more than just dead weight. He’s not just the lovesick puppy of the first movie, he understands the political and image-conscious side of the games more than Katniss and he tries to protect her as much as she protects him. The script also allows for a more nuanced exploration of their friendship/romance, making it easier to see why Katniss would really start to fall for him. Donald Sutherland’s President Snow is the only other major player in the movie and he’s suitably creepy while simultaneously displaying a charming facade. He’s so invested in what Katniss could become that he doesn’t see what he’s making her become until it’s too late and Sutherland does a wonderful job of maintaining that restrained menace.ID_D35_14123.dng

The supporting cast gives it their all even if their time is sparse. Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch has returned to his alcoholic, yet still knowledgeable and caring ways while Elizabeth Banks’ Effie Trinket finally comes around as more than just a typical representative of The Capitol. When she tries to express herself and breaks down at the thought of what Katniss and Peeta are being forced to do, she wins you over entirely. Lenny Kravitz returns as Cinna and Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, bringing the right amount of subdued cool and over-the-top excitement respectively. Added to the cast are Philip Seymour Hoffman as the new gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee, and Sam Clafin as Finnick Odair, a former winner of the games and possible ally. Hoffman is especially commendable for his performance. He’s unassuming in a way that makes you feel like you know who he is from the get-go right before he pulls a one-eighty and reveals his true colors. Filling out the cast are Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, and Jenna Malone as former winners out to help Katniss survive and fight back. If there’s one weak link, it’s probably Liam Hemsworth’s Gale. He doesn’t do much other than talk about fighting back and taking up space as the third member of a love triangle. Hopefully he’ll have more to do in the split Mockingjay movies.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is one of those rare instances where the sequel outshines its predecessor, but a lot of that has to do with the actual success of The Hunger Games. Thankfully, Catching Fire learned from what didn’t work before and made the proper improvements. There’s less shaky cam, the effects are almost seamless, and there are some genuinely exciting and heart-wrenching moments. The only big gripe I’d really have is with the final reveal at the end, but you can make a case for a lot of the reasons why things happened the way they did. It just seems a bit farfetched, but you’ll have to be the judge on that when you see it for yourself.