Thursday, September 29, 2016

STARVING THE BEAST: To Fund Or Not To Fund Higher Education

Opening Friday exclusively in the triangle area at the Rialto Theater in Raleigh:

STARVING THE BEAST (Dir. Steve Mims, 2016)

The full title of Austin,Texas-based filmmaker Steve Mims’ new documentary is STARVING THE BEAST: THE BATTLE TO DISRUPT AND REFORM AMERICA’S PUBLIC UNIVERSITIES, which is quite a mouthful.

But it’s perhaps an apt one because there’s a lot to take in info and opinion-wise with this doc about the arguments over funding or defunding in the U.S. higher education system.

For those who don’t know, the phrase “starving the beast” means a political strategy employed by American conservatives in order to limit government spending (thanks, Wikipedia!), so Mims’ film focuses on what narrator Brian Ramos describes as “one of the nation’s most important and least understood fights; a struggle between powerful forces that will shape every aspect of public higher education for generations to come.”

The film largely sets its eyes on the debate in his home state of Texas at the University of Texas and Texas A&M, but it also explores the conflicts that the University of Wisconsin (UW), University of Virginia (UV), University of North Carolina (UNC), and Louisiana State University (LSU) have had (and still have) with the issue.

Democratic guru James Carville sets the tone of the doc as it opens on his commencement address at his alma mater, LSU, in May of 2015, in which he heatedly denounces political advocate Grover Norquist and then Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal for their attempts to commoditize education: “You can charge for it, you can raise tuition; it’s just another thing out there - it’s a barrel of oil, it’s an ounce of gold, it’s a stock, it’s anything.”

Carville appears throughout the film offering his matter-of-fact wisdom as one of the good guys in this debate – who the film is obviously on the side of, that is. Other folks on the good side providing insights include University of Georgia Professor Siva Vaidhyanathan, UNC Law Professor Gene Nichol, Peter Flawn, Ph.D. (President Emeritus, University of Texas at Austin), and former UT President Billy Powers.

The bad guys are led by teacher/author Jeff Sandefer, whose “Seven Breakthrough Solutions for Higher Education” proposal involving a market-driven approach to reforming college education had a fan in Governor Rick Perry. Unlike many of his comrades on the side of eliminating tenure, cutting arts programs, and running colleges more like businesses, Sandefer allowed himself to be interviewed for the film.

Sandefer is joined on the dark side by Wallace Hall, Regent of the University of Texas, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, the aforementional Norquist and Jindal, and the beyond evil Koch Brothers, who are, of course, pulling the strings behind the Republican party (there’s a great clip of Bernie Sanders eviscerating them at some hearing).

Professor Siva Vaidhyanathan maybe makes the clearest argument when he says “these reformers decided that universities were the problem, and so they got the problem exactly upside down. As a result they’ve started a pretty fervent political campaign to defund universities to shift the burden of the cost of universities to the students themselves, under this mistaken guise that students are consumers rather than students and future citizens, that the value of that student’s education belongs entirely to that student and to the society in general, not to the state, not to the nation, not to the world.”

This argument is compelling, but it gets a bit repetitive as variations of it keep coming. Producer Bill Banowsky said that the film is balanced and doesn’t show that it’s “the Jeff Sandefers and Wallace Halls are completely wrong and that James Carville is completely right,” but the sinister music that plays when certain people are giving their views says different.

Not that I'm knocking that device here because it worked for me!

Now, the idea of seeing an doc about the subject of education funding full of wall-to-wall talk on top of statistics, TV news footage, newspaper headlines, scanned over internet articles, and even YouTube clips of interviews may sound boring, and may not be as appealing at some of your other movie choices out there, but STARVING THE BEAST packs a lot of info, viewpoints, and insights into its 95 minutes and for the most part sorts them out entertainingly.

It will help to have a modicum of interest in the subject of what’s wrong with the idealogy behind higher education these days. Otherwise it’ll just be a smorgasbord of facts and theories to those who never paid attention in school to begin with.

* UNC Law Professor Gene Nichol will lead a Q & A after the Rialto Theater's 7pm screening of the new documentary STARVING THE BEAST on Friday, September 30th.

More later...

Saturday, September 24, 2016

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN: Not The Most Magnificent Remake But A Purty Good Time

Now playing at a multiplex near everyone:


(Dir. Antoine Fuqua, 2016)

How much of a remake exactly is Antoine Fuqua’s new familliarly titled western?

Well, it shares the same name with John Sturges’ 1960 American classic, which was itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 Japanese classic SEVEN SAMURAI, and it has basically the same premise, but the names have been changed and one of the film’s principal leads, Chris Pratt, has said that “it’s probably a lot more ‘Wild Bunch’ than ‘Magnificent Seven.’

And there’s also that Washington, the film’s star in his third collaboration with the director, has said that he’s never seen the original.

So, after taking it in, I consider Fuqua’s film to be a re-imagining of an established title in the wake of more modernist takes on the western genre, like say Quentin Tarantino’s THE HATEFUL EIGHT, but despite its black lead, it’s a pretty old fashioned affair without a single N-word in ear range.

In its prologue, we are introduced to the villain, industrialist Bartholomew Bogue, perfectly played by Peter Sarsgaard at his most sinister, as he crashes a small town meeting in the fictional Rose Creek which is supposed to be in the desert of Texas, but we know it’s Louisiana with a bit of Arizona mixed in because you’ve got to have Monument Valley in every Western. Bogue’s goons kill people, including the protesting husband (Matt Bomer) of Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), the film’s only female lead.

Seeking revenge, Emma rounds up a posse made up of Washington as bounty hunter Sam Chisolm, Pratt as gambler Josh Farraday, Ethan Hawke as the grizzled sharp sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux, a delightfully drunk Vincent D'Onofrio as tracker Jack Horne, Byung-hun Lee as assassin Billy Rocks, Martin Sensmeier as Commanche warrior Red Harvest, and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Mexican outlaw Vasquez, to take down Bogue.

The crew outfits the town by digging trenches, rigging explosives, and equipping the townspeople with guns in a way that heavily recalls ¡THREE AMIGOS! more than its actual source material, for the movie’s massive shoot ‘em up climax.

That’s basically it plot-wise. It’s ultimately a Denzel Washington indestructible bad ass scenario crossed with a Chris Pratt action comedy under a commercial western banner. Not that there’s anything wrong with that as there are plenty of laughs and quickfire thrills on screen.

Fuqua and Washington have done good work previously in the 2001 cop drama TRAINING DAY, which also featured Hawke and won Washington a long deserved Osccar, and in the 2014 action thriller THE EQUALIZER (another remake!), and the third time definitely has its charms here, but don’t expect any awards season activity this time.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN ’16 is a good not great update * of one of the principles study subjects of Westerns 101. It’s a solid piece of pop entertainment, but it doesn’t go very deep – don’t go looking for fully fleshed out characters or new takes on time worn plot devices - nor does it justify political interpretations (don’t give me any the villain symbolizes Trump tripe). “I just wanted to see Denzel Washington on a horse” Fuqua has been quoted as saying in more than one interview.

Maybe more than anything else, this film succeeds as a forum for that sure to become iconic image, but the rest of it is a purty good time as well.

“Good not great update” is a registered trademark of Film Babble Blog (see the GHOST BUSTERS 16 review for one of many examples).

More later...

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Babblin’ ‘Bout BLAIR WITCH, SNOWDEN, & The Beatles

Clint Eastwood’s SULLY, starring Tom Hanks as that airline captain that water landed his plane in the Hudson river back in ’09, was the #1 movie at the box office this last weekend, beating out two sequels that opened last week: BLAIR WITCH and BRIDGET JONES’S BABY. I found the third BRIDGET JONES film to be a fine, just funny enough follow-up, but the third in the BLAIR WITCH franchise struck me as a bogus retread. 

Actually horror filmmaker Adam Wingard’s (YOU’RE NEXT, V/H/S) BLAIR WITCH is supposed to be seen as a direct sequel to the 1996 smash hit THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (the original filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez executive produce), and we’re supposed to forget about or not count what happened in Joe Berlinger’s much maligned 2000 follow-up BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2, which is easy for me as I’ve never seen it.

So this new entry is yet another reboot that’s also a remake (see: THE THING, ROBOCOP, INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE, every other movie from the last five years), which deals with another group of 20-year olds getting lost deep in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland on a quest to solve the mystery of what happened to the three people from the first movie. One of the characters, played by James Allen McCune, is the brother of the missing Heather Donahue who you may remember from this iconic image:

See? I knew you'd know that image!

McCune is joined by Callie Hernandez as his girlfriend, and another couple, Brandon Scott and Corbin Reid who all are equipped with headset cameras, GPS devices, walkie talkies, and an aerial camera drone on their hike inspired by an image on a videotape that was found in the forest by a couple of sketchy locals, played by Wes Robinson and Valore Curry.

Robinson and Curry invite themselves along on much to the annoyance of the others, but after they awaken the next morning to find those classic stick figures twined together hanging from the trees surrounding their camp, the four friends suspect the couple to be pranking them and they kick them out of their group.

If you’ve seen the first you can guess the rest – the gang tries to head back to civilization but they get even more lost and circle back to their same campsite again (just like the river in the first one), one of them disappears, and the remaining kids wind up at the same spooky house from the original, and despite more action involving tunnels and the freaky naked witch that you can only see in quick flases of light, it ends pretty much the same way.

It’s a pretty tedious exercise full of jump scares and the shakiest of shaky camerawork in the entire found footage genre. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the first movie, and I only saw it once at the theatre (a multiplex in Greensboro if I remember correctly) but its imagery is burned into my brain as it was a fresh approach at the time. Despite all the new tech, BLAIR WITCH ‘16 doesn’t bring anything new to the table in terms of story or ideas, nor does it do anything to flesh out the series’ mythology.

We just get that there’s this supernatural, evil force that can uproot trees, change time and space, and can screw with your leg injuries (Reid sprains her ankle early on and the witch does what she can to make the wound worse just so there’s some gore) and these kids are stupid to think that they can solve any mystery about it, what happened to the previous party, and give us anything more than a bunch of jump scares. A found footage fail for sure.

I was also disappointed by Oliver Stone’s Edward Snowden biopic SNOWDEN, about the former CIA employee who in 2013 leaked tons of sensitive data about the scary extent of the United State’s mass surveillance, 
currently #4 at the box office. 

I’ve been a big fan of Stone’s work in the past (still think JFK is a masterpiece), and I love Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but their film falls way short of greatness. Pop culture critic extroadinaire Nathan Rabin once wrote that “there comes a moment in every cinephile’s intellectual and creative development when he or she comes to realize that Oliver Stone is full of shit.” And I laugh because, yeah, I remember when that happened for me (U-TURN).

But I wouldn’t say that SNOWDEN is full of shit, but just that it’s a by-the-numbers biopic that adds up to a preachy bore.

I’ll start with how takes too many liberties with its subject’s background. Stone dramatizes Snowden going through basic training as a candidate for Special Forces until he breaks his leg, but in real life he was only in the military briefly and had not undergone any training. Also Snowden’s role as a NSA security contractor is exaggerated, and the man most surely did not smuggle tons of classified CIA files on a SD card hidden inside one of the squares of his Rubik’s Cube. Actually that’s one of the better scenes in the movie but I still wasn’t buying it.

I also hear that Snowden’s relationship with his longtime girlfriend, Lindsay Mills played by Shailene Woodley, isn’t represented truthfully, but I was amused at how he becomes obsessed with the government spying on him, and everyone, through laptop webcams – one thing Stone does well is paranoia – but Woodley’s Lindsay doesn’t care and says things to him like “so what? I’ve got nothing to hide.”

By the time Gordon-Levitt morphs into the real Snowden (biopic rule #13: show the real person at the end) we’ve basically gone through all the ripped from the headlines motions and true story tropes Stone could squeeze out of the story. It does help that Stone has assembled a great cast – Gordon-Levitt is joined by the likes of Melissa Leo as filmmaker Laura Poitras, who made the Oscar-winning Snowden doc CITIZENFOUR, Zachary Quinto as journalist Glenn Greenwald, Tom Wilkinson as The Guardian writer Ewen MacAskill, and a bunch of fabricated characters or amalgams portrayed by Scott Eastwood, Logan Marshall-Green, Timothy Olyphant, Rhys Ifans and Nicolas Cage.

Stone’s SNOWDEN has noble intentions – to make a hero out of a man that exposed a great injustice – but it’s an underwhelming experience bereft of the epic angriness that gave his early work its “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore” fire.

Lastly, I’m happy to report that Ron Howard’s THE BEATLES: EIGHT DAYS A WEEK – THE TOURING YEARS has been such a success that its run has been extended for another week at my local indie film venue, the Rialto Theater in Raleigh (it’ll run through September 29th). 

The wonderful rock doc, which I raved about in my review last week, is also currently available on Hulu, but I highly recommend making the pilgrimage to see it at an art house near you because the scores of great archival footage deserves to be seen on the big screen, and the 30-minute bonus film “The Beatles Live at Shea Stadium,” which looks and sounds amazing owing to its recent digital restoration, is an in-theaters-only exclusive.

More later…