Wednesday, February 07, 2007

"Penn and Teller's Bullshit!", "Soylent Green", "Last King of Scotland", "The Hunting of the President", and "Babel". Your Wednesday Motherlode

I'm trying to be good about blogging this week, so here's your Wednesday dose. Yes, I know. Lucky you. How's about some movie and DVD reviews? Yaaay! Opinions!

1.) Penn and Teller's Bullshit! I watched the first disc of the first season of this Showtime show (which I believe is in its fourth season these days), and I liked it. Starting out they don't really get into the more controversial Libertarian-oriented viewpoints that I'm told they delve into in later episodes, so thus far I'm with them. This round they lay into TV mediums (at the time they made the episodes John Edward's Crossing Over show was still a big deal on syndicated TV), UFO enthusiasts, products designed to make your babies smarter (a la Baby Genius), and quacky holistic medicine like healing therapies involving magnets and something to do with the feet called reflexology. Nothing too objectionable so far. These people are almost indisputably selling crap to gullible types. Straw men are easy to knock down, and they do so with great joy and it's not bad as TV. The only complaint I had was that Penn and Teller went out of their way to make fools out of regular folks, who seemed like hapless and entirely sympathetic targets. I hope they tone this down in future episodes. Discs two and three came in the mail today, so I'm hoping I'll see something I can call bullshit on Penn and Teller for. We'll see.

2.) Soylent Green. Why? I don't know. I just got a hankering to see this movie. I knew the punchline to the movie -- "Soylent Green is people!" -- but it didn't have any resonance for me because I'd never seen the movie. Well, now I have. Just as goofy as you'd want. Set in 2022 in New York City, whose population has ballooned to 40 million residents (overpopulation was a real fear back then), Charlton Heston's working on a case that will eventually lead him to the truth behind a popular foodstuff fed to the masses called Soylent Green. If you know the ending (and now you do), there is almost zero reason to see this thing. Though if you want to see Chuck Heston run around with an inexplicable and very fey bandanna tied around his neck (could Heston have been trying to disguise a developing wattle even back then?), check it out. Weird trivia: this was, I believe, Edward G. Robinson's last movie. Also: Joseph Cotten of "Citizen Kane" fame plays a brief role in this.

3.) Last King of Scotland. This was well done, and a pleasant surprise. Often with these high-minded movies that come out in the final months of the year, specifically the ones touting a very strong lead performance, you can be forgiven for expecting little more than one hammy actor acting it up for the Academy, often to the detriment of the film. This was a complete film, though, and though Forrest Whitaker's brilliant in it, the scenes that don't happen to feature him are never dull. Definitely worth seeing, particularly as Whitaker seems an early lock for Best Actor. Also: the penultimate scene in the duty-free shop will make you think back to the dinner scene in "Hannibal" as a model of taste and restraint. Good stuff.

4.) The Hunting of the President. As documentaries go, this one was not at all good. Though I agreed with its central premise, namely that the impeachment of Bill Clinton was the end result of a large-scale and well-financed Republican effort to bring him down, aided in part by a complicit media hungry for sex scandals, the filmmakers (which include Clinton friend and TV producer Harry Thomason) have no gift for linear non-fiction storytelling. What should have been a compelling and galling expose on a dark chapter in American history was just a tired rehashing and summarizing of stuff folks already knew. The absence of any dissenting voices, or any assenting voices from the other side of the aisle, was conspicuous and made the film less persuasive. Ken Starr comes off as a real honest-to-God sonofabitch though, (not that we didn't already know that), but what I didn't know was how Susan MacDougal was treated after she refused to testify for Starr. For the crime of failing to cooperate with the Independent Counsel's office, she was fitted with a red dress in prison. In her particular prison, inmates wearing red dresses were mothers who'd killed their children. The other inmates hated these prisoners, and Susan got the same treatment as the child killers. That'll teach you not to make up stuff for Ken Starr! In transfers from one prison to another, she was put into a cage in the center of the bus, women in the front half and men in the back half. While she was in that prison bus-cage, all manner of abuse was thrown her way. I won't say here what the worst of it was (in case some of you are eating), but I will say this: think Multiple Miggs. Yeah. Gross. Best part of the DVD was the half hour clip of Clinton himself speaking after the film's premiere. Remember smart presidents? Anyway.

5.) Babel. A real disappointment for me. I tried to write a post about this movie the night I saw it, but I couldn't figure out how to write about it and make any kind of sense. It seems almost to defy criticism because it's made so well. Technically, the movie's top notch. Even aesthetically it's hard to take issue with. I feel a little bit like I've been to Japan and Morocco now, so vibrantly were those locales presented. But something about the film seemed to me ... wait for it... disingenuous. As soon as I saw the famous freeway sign (or the sign was pointed out to me -- I missed it when it appeared) that shows a family running across the freeway in which the word above the pictogram was changed from "WARNING" to "WANTED", I felt the filmmakers were less interested in telling a serious and realistic story than they were in pushing a specific agenda. Agendas are certainly fine in movies, especially (for me) liberal agendas, but I think the immigration situation in this country is bad enough without the director going out of his way to make stuff up. I thought torturing the tow-headed white children by having them nearly die of exposure in the desert so as to give the gringitos a taste of what it's like for Mexicans coming across the border was over the top and obvious. I thought Cate Blanchett's ultimate fate and that of the children didn't at all jibe with the overall tone of the film, and where they ended up at the end of the film felt unearned to me. The movie was sad and bleak and angry but not much else. A real slog.

All right, er'rybody. Enjoy your Wednesday evenings.


blankfist said...


There we go... I wanted to get out of the way of the overly long title. It's great to see you actually blogging again, Crane. Great stuff. I was a little worried when I saw Penn & Teller's Bullshit in the title, because I was expecting a real thrashing from you, but I'm glad you enjoyed it. Their fifth season starts MArch 22, so you have four wonderful seasons to NetFlix in order to catch up. Haha! Then, you need to rent Pink Floyd The Wall!

"The only complaint I had was that Penn and Teller went out of their way to make fools out of regular folks, who seemed like hapless and entirely sympathetic targets. I hope they tone this down in future episodes." Really? Which regular folks? The fake clairvoyants who are tricking people into thinking they're speaking to their dead loved ones? Come on... which "regular folks" are you talking about? If you think regular folks are agenda peddling Democrats or Republicans, then, yes, they will continue to knock them down.

As a side note, Crane, the John Edwards show was actually the reason they wanted to do Bullshit. Two weeks after 9/11, P&T said they assumed in about two more months or so that Edwards would publically announce he was going to contact people that had died in the WTC buildings, and being largely disgusted by that notion, they pitched the idea of the show to several networks. Their first was ABC, I believe (and of course, I'm sure the show wouldn't be named Bullshit), or whichever network was playing John Edwards at the time. P&T pitched it this way, they said to the Execs that in two months they were going to have egg on your face when Edwards starts chanelling the dead from 9/11. That was the pitch. Nice and simple. ABC declined (I think it was ABC), and sure enough, two months later Edwards starts chanelling the dead from 9/11, and ABC had egg on their face. P&T don't claim to have any cause in Edwards' show being cancelled, but shortly after that incident the show did slip into oblivion. Interesting huh?

JudgeHolden said...

No, I didn't mean the charlatans like the mediums. I was talking about the regular folks: for instance, in the alternative medicine episode, the lady in the mall whom the production staff duped into walking around the mall with a ridiculous hat with magnets hanging off of it. Or in the episode exposing all that baby crap that's supposed to make the kid smarter, the parents who undergo the fake baby-smartening therapy with the fake child-psychologist and do all manner of ridiculous and embarrassing stuff. I fast forwarded through it. I know they all sign releases after the fact (at least I think they do), but I just don't think those segments are entertaining because Penn and Teller are inviting we viewers, drunk on the smell of our own farts, to feel superior to the average American and laugh at them. Yes, I know people are gullible, but pointing it out in humiliating ways does nothing for me.

Interesting story about John Edward. I did not know that. What a douche that guy is. I got the sense from that Bullshit! episode that they think Edward truly believes he has powers, which is why he's convincing to so many people. That just makes him scarier.

blankfist said...

Well, P&T are quick and often with "Boy, we sure are assholes." And, I think to some degree they have to be to make a point, whether or not it tends to offend a few people here and again. Could you imagine them saying, "We sure bet if we offered a silly magnet hat as a froo-froo cure, people would wear it. Yep, I bet they would." People (like you skeptic and cycnical Crane) would fold their arms and snort, "No way! There's no way average people would fall for that nonsense." But, the show illustrates to an accurate degree how average people in fact do fall for pseudo-science. If the source of fact (even when fiction) appears credible, I think people nod their heads with eager anticipation to be in the know because it just feels so damn good and righteous and downright sexy to be in the know, doesn't it?