Taping my show with the terrific film reviewer Peter Rainer of the Christian Science Monitor and KPCC's "Film Week" - and author of a new collection helpfully titled Rainer on Film: Thirty Years of Film Writing in a Turbulent and Transformative Time - I was happily affirmed in my sense that good writing on the movies is often good writing about all kinds of other subjects too, including literature, place, sociology, politics, history and, yes, whatever strikes the thoughtful, literate reviewer by way of commentary. Not an original insight, friends, but Rainer is Exhibit A in the Department of Good Writing. Then, on the way up to my summer stint at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, I heard of the death of actor-activist James Galdofini. I never watched The Sopranos, but immediately recalled the amazing scene Galdolfini did with Code Pink militant and all-around truth-teller Mimi Kennedy.
It occurs, beautifully, painfully, hilariously in the British film In The Loop, from the makers of In the Thick, a BBC comedy satire about English government. Needless to say, it got big raves, won a couple of awards, and has mostly disappeared from conversations about film, films about the war, the war, and the war's major perp, a guy who used to be president. It's an amazing film, in which Gandolfini plays a Lieutenant General who explains troop counts and combat calculations to Mimi K, portraying an Assistan Secretary of State for Diplomacy in the child's bedroom of a millionaire type using a handy kid's toy. Later, David Rasche as the Secretary of State for Policy offers the killer line of the whole film, and of the debacle of Bush war-mongering as defense policy. Referring to the office he occupies, he scolds the British minister for swearing, saying with beautiful seamless irony, "This is a sacred place. Now you may not believe that and I may not believe that but by god it's a useful hypocrisy."
One of the best, and longest essays in Rainer's anthology, which includes more than only reviews, is a piece offering an analysis of the zeitgeist by way of film-making. It's great, and it inspired me this week to share my fun, depressing, smart (and incomplete) list of movies you'd want to watch if you wanted, or needed to be reminded of the Bush Years, now that W. is almost totally absent from what passes for a national dialogue about history or, god help us, cause and effect. Quoting the radical feminist scholar and former KPFK programmer Clare Spark might be cliche, but only if it were in fact an overused and meaningless quote. So I am unshy about offering it once again by way of our sad, impoverished national consciousness. Unconsciousness. "The long memory is the most radical idea" in America.
Here then, the "George W. Bush Film Festival," in honor of James Galdolfini, who was remembered on Friday's "Democracy Now!" as a guy who used his money and celebrity to support alternative media including documentaries about the fate of combat vets sent to the stupid wars. And, yes, in the dishonor of You Know Who and the horse he rode in on, In no particular order, and with short summaries courtesy of Netflix, where I think almost are currently available.
Bush's Brain: Karl Rove, President George W. Bush's closest advisor, has almost single-handedly shaped the policies of our nation. Feared and admired by Republicans and Democrats alike, Rove has raised a new and disturbing question for Americans: Who really runs the country? Based on the book by James C. Moore and Wayne Slater, this documentary explores Rove's remarkable political journey and the extraordinary role he's played in Bush's rise to the top.
Why We Fight: Filmed during the Iraq War, this documentary dissects America's military machine with a keen eye to answering the question: Why does America engage in war? Through personal stories of soldiers, government officials, scholars, journalists and innocent victims, the film examines the political and economic interests and ideological factors, past and present, behind American militarism. Winner of the 2005 Sundance Grand Jury Award.
War, Inc.: John Cusack heads the cast as professional ice man Brand Hauser, who's paid by a private corporation's brass to take out the competition -- a Middle East oil minister -- while masquerading as a trade-show director. But not all goes according to plan when fetching field reporter Natalie Hegalhuzen (Marisa Tomei) sidetracks the young assassin. Hilary Duff, Ben Kingsley and Joan Cusack also star in this outrageous satire. Ghosts of Abu Ghraib: Blending interviews with the perpetrators, witnesses and victims involved in the notorious Abu Ghraib scandal of 2003, director Rory Kennedy (daughter of slain U.S. politician Robert F. Kennedy) offers an inside look at what really went on inside the walls of the infamous Iraqi prison. This Emmy winner for Best Nonfiction Special seeks to tell the stories behind the now-iconic photos depicting hooded prisoners, soldiers and humiliating acts.
Rebel Without a Pause: MIT professor and respected political analyst Noam
Chomsky speaks his mind on sober issues including the U.S. war on terrorism, anti-American sentiment, media manipulation, the after-effects of 9/11, and social activism at high-profile gatherings. The film also features interviews with his wife, activists, fans and critics, and examines the truths and myths surrounding the anti-capitalist and longtime advocate of liberty and justice.
Distorted Morality?: Noam Chomsky offers an eye-opening critique of America's current "War on Terror" in this DVD featuring two of his lectures -- one at Harvard University and one at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Chomsky's been a professor for over 40 years. Arguing that it's a logical impossibility for such a war to be taking place, Chomsky presents his reasoning with astonishing clarity by drawing from a wealth of historical knowledge and analysis. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts: Spike Lee commemorates the people of New Orleans with a four-hour epic documentary that doesn't just recount the events of late August 2005 but asks why they unfolded the way they did in the first place. Weaving interviews with news footage and amateur video, Lee uses the film to give meaningful voice to the people who were left behind. With a detached unsentimental eye, he delivers a poignant account of a major moment in recent history.
Standard Operating Procedure: Through captivating interviews and dramatic reenactments, filmmaker Errol Morris documents the scandal that erupted in Abu Ghraib prison, where mistreatment of detainees at the hands of members of the U.S.military was captured on film. What was the psychological state of the soldiers? Why were the pictures taken? These questions and more are explored in detail in this engaging look at one of the Iraq War's most notorious episodes.
Red, White and Screwed: Airing his grievances about pop culture and current events, Grammy-nominated comedian Lewis Black delivers a biting social commentary marked by his trademark aversion to self-censorship. Hot-button topics in this solo stand-up special that was originally filmed for HBO range from the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina and the effectiveness of FEMA to President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and embarrassing hunting accidents.
The Peace!: Amid an escalating war in Iraq, rising terror levels and the threat of nuclear attack, a growing body of intellectuals, religious leaders and community organizers are getting tough with their questions about peace -- and that's no oxymoron. To shed light on the answers, filmmakers Gabriele Zamparini and Lorenzo Meccoli record a variety of speakers, including Noam Chomsky, Desmond Tutu, Scott Ritter, Pete Seeger, Howard Zinn and Gore Vidal.
I Know I'm Not Alone: Michael Franti -- a multifaceted artist known for fusing diverse sounds -- takes his camera and guitar to the war-torn Middle East in this thought-provoking film that captures the costs of global conflict. Experiencing the realities of war firsthand without the support or protection of outside help, Franti ventures on his own into chaotic neighborhoods in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories and documents what he finds.
The Education of Shelby Knox: In this documentary from Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt -- which uses footage shot over a three-year period -- the action unfolds almost effortlessly, revealing a stunning transformation. Small-town Texas teenager Shelby Knox becomes an advocate for sex education (and the local media's so-called "Sex Ed Girl") when she tries to improve the county's sky-high teen pregnancy rate by challenging her high school's policy of teaching abstinence.
Weapons of Mass Deception: Danny Schechter's documentary focuses on how the media shaped people's views of the Iraq War through their intense coverage from the war's inception through February 2004. Schechter's film examines provocative theories such as the Pentagon's involvement in media messages, how new methods such as satellites and embedded journalists affected media coverage, and the competition between media outlets.
Margaret Cho: Assassin: Known for her notoriously raunchy jokes and hilarious impersonations of her Korean mother, cheeky comedienne Margaret Cho performs her signature stand-up act in front of a live audience. Filmed during her 2005 "State of Emergency" tour, Cho covers a wide range of topics with her groundbreaking material,including politics, racism and -- yep, you guessed it -- sex.
Silver City: Down-home Dicky Pilager (Chris Cooper) can't put a coherent sentence together, but he's running for governor anyway,as a candidate for those looking for an approachable leader. But his campaign hits a snag when he hooks onto a corpse in the middle of a fishing photo op.Journalist Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss) smells a stink -- and a story -- so he hires a gumshoe (Danny Huston) to find out who the corpse is and its connection to the politico.
Saved!: When Mary (Jena Malone), a devout senior at a Christian high school, accidentally gets pregnant, she starts to see her peers and her faith in a whole new way. This dark comedy/coming-of-age story premiered at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and was produced by R.E.M. lead singer Michael Stipe. Mandy Moore, Macaulay Culkin and Mary-Louise co-star.
Outfoxed! Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism: Finally, a no-holds-barred documentary on Rupert Murdoch's Fox News, which has been criticized in some quarters as running a "race to the bottom" in television news. Offering an in-depth look at the dangers of burgeoning corporations that take control of the public's right to know, the film explores Murdoch's ever-expanding media empire and its impact on society. Media experts such as Jeff Cohen, Bob_McChesney are interviewed.
Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election: Filmmakers Joan Sekler and Richard Ray Perez rehash the dramatic events of the 2000 presidential election, exposing a chain of incidents they claim led up to the battle for the presidency in Florida and the undermining of democracy in America. Narrated by Peter Coyote, this revealing documentary examines an allegedly suspicious pattern of irregularities, injustices and voter purges -- all in a state governed by the winning candidate's brother.
Jesus Camp: This riveting Oscar-nominated documentary offers an unfiltered look at a revivalist subculture where devout Christian youngsters are being primed to deliver the fundamentalist community's religious and political messages. Building an evangelical army of tomorrow, the Kids on Fire summer camp in Devil's Lake, N.D., is dedicated to deepening the preteens' spirituality and sowing the seeds of political activism as they're exhorted to "take back America for Christ."
Unborn in the USA: Weaving together 70 exclusive interviews and rare archival footage, this exhaustive chronicle of the pro-life movement investigates the inner workings and deep pockets of the influential group. The filmmakers examine the movement's icons, fundraising machines and inroads among college students. Documentarians Stephen Fell and Will Thompson traveled across 35 states in one year to capture this controversial story.
Sicko: Michael Moore sets his sights on the plight of the uninsured in this eye-opening,Oscar-nominated documentary. In the world's richest country, 45 million people have no health insurance, while HMOs grow in size and wealth. Moore also explores the widespread use of antidepressants and their possible link to violent behavior. With his trademark humor and confrontational style, Moore asks the difficult questions to get to the truth behind today's health care.
Idiocracy: To test its top secret Human Hibernation Project, the Pentagon picks the most average Americans it can find -- an Army private (Luke Wilson) and a prostitute (Maya Rudolph) -- and sends them to the year 2505 after a series of freak events. But when they arrive, they find a civilization so dumbed-down that they're the smartest people around. Mike Judge and Etan Cohen ("Beavis and Butthead") reteamed for this futuristic farce.
War Made Easy: Based on Norman Solomon's revealing book and narrated by actor Sean Penn, War Made Easy exposes the government's and the media's purported history of deceiving the American people and leading us into war after war. Using archival footage of past presidents, including Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon and both Bushes, and media correspondents like Walter Cronkite, the documentary sheds light on propaganda pushing and draws parallels between the Vietnam and Iraq wars.
Friends of God: A Road Trip with Alexandra Pelosi: Filmmaker Pelosi takes a remarkable journey across the heartland to uncover the religious, cultural and political beliefs of evangelical Christians, including Jerry Falwell, Ted Haggard, and best-selling author Joel Osteen. Interviewing both leaders and rank-and-file believers and attending events such as a Christian wrestling match, Pelosi reveals a vibrant subculture whose convictions may surprise and possibly bewilder you.
Ralph Nader: An Unreasonable Man: The personal and professional
life of Nader, one of America's most controversial consumer advocates and political activists, is the subject of this biographical documentary. Nader's willingness to take on big industry earned him a reputation as both a working-class hero and a public pariah. Interviews and archival footage help illuminate this in-depth profile of one of the most influential political figures in modern history.
Moral Orel: Perpetually cheerful 11-year-old Orel Puppington -- who lives in
the city of Moralton -- couldn't be more enthusiastic about doing God's work. But he always manages to misinterpret his church's teachings, resulting in unfortunate exploits such as smoking crack and reanimating the bodies of dead neighbors. Created by Dino Stamatopoulos, this 15-minute stop-motion animated series is part of the Cartoon Network's edgy Adult Swim programming.
Al Franken: God Spoke: After making his mark as an acerbic comedian and writer on "Saturday Night Live" in the 1970s, Al Franken eventually became a loud-mouthed liberal spokesman, channeling his frustrations through humor. Join filmmaking duo Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob as their cameras follow Franken to book signings, campaign rallies and the launch of Air America Radio, documenting his transformation from irreverent funnyman to political pundit.
The Big Buy: How Tom DeLay Stole Congress: This compelling documentary, co-directed by sounds a wake-up call to every citizen in America to remain diligent and keep a watchful eye on our government. An in-depth examination of how one man's agenda to "completely redesign government" can involve drastic measures and corporate power grabs, this hard-hitting film probes Texas congressman Tom DeLay's unscrupulous efforts to bend democracy to his will.
This Divided State: Michael Moore was invited to speak at Utah Valley State College in 2004, his reputation as a liberal firebrand took center stage, igniting an ideological clash between right-wing opponents and left-wing supporters -- and necessitating the appearance of Fox News personality Sean Hannity. This documentary of the real-life drama is the work of first-time filmmaker Steven Greenstreet, who dropped out of college to capture it on camera.
Shut Up & Sing: Directed by Barbara Kopple (of Harlan County, U.S.A. fame), this documentary centers on country music's Dixie Chicks and their nationwide vilification over critical statements they made about President Bush in 2003. Over a three-year period, the singers went from darlings of the industry to political targets, receiving constant death threats and being demonized by the national media and denounced by their fans.
Gay Republicans: Thisfascinating documentary scrutinizes a faction of the Republican Party that doesn't often get face time in the media: the gay members of Log Cabin Republicans (a reference to Abraham Lincoln, the nation's first Republican president). Faced with President George W. Bush's firm opposition to gay marriage in the 2004 presidential election, club members have to decide what's more important -- their politics or their sexual preference.
The War Profiteers: Private contractors are getting rich while everybody else is suffering: This is the point director Robert Greenwald makes -- passionately -- in this 2006 documentary. Using whistleblower testimony, firsthand accounts, financial records and classified documents, Greenwald levels charges of greed, corruption and incompetence against private contractors and shows the subsequent devastating effect on Americans and Iraqis.
An Inconvenient Truth: Director-producer Davis Guggenheim captures former Vice President Al Gore in the midst of waging a passionate campaign -- not for the White House, but for the environment. Laying out the facts of global warming without getting political, Gore makes a sobering impression in this Oscar-winning doc on the audiences who hear his message, urging them to act "boldly, quickly and wisely" ... before it's too late to act at all.
The Road to Guantanamo: Director Michael Winterbottom presents the true story of three British Muslim men, known as "the Tipton Three," who were unjustly arrested and held for more than two years in the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. By blending dramatic re-enactments, interviews with the surviving men and archive news footage, Winterbottom's Independent Spirit Award-winning docudrama delivers a chilling and shocking exposé of out-of-control security measures.
War Feels Like War: This film documents the lives of reporters and photographers who circumvent military media control to get access to the real Iraq War. As invading armies sweep into the country, several journalists in Kuwait decide to travel in their wake, risking their lives to discover the true impact of war on civilians. Their frustration, fear and horror are recorded along the way, as are the difficulties they experience returning to normal life back home.
Orwell Rolls in His Grave: Documentary filmmaker Robert Kane Pappas
presents a riveting argument for his theory that is under an Orwellian watch with the rise to prominence of the radical, right-wing Republican party, an ascent aided, unwittingly or not, by the mainstream media. Here, Pappas interviews an impressive roster, including Center for Public Integrity director Charles Lewis, Vincent Bugliosi and liberal filmmaker Michael Moore.
The Girl in the Café: A May-December romance blooms -- not without roadblocks -- in this Emmy winner for Best Made-for-TV Movie. Not long after meeting Gina (Kelly Macdonald) in an Emmy-winning role) in a café, lonely civil servant Lawrence (Bill Nighy) asks her to accompany him to the G8 Summit in Iceland. The shy outsiders hit it off, but their attraction to each other is tested when Gina's personal convictions contradict Lawrence's professional duties.
The Corporation: This documentary charts the spectacular rise of corporations as a dramatic, pervasive presence in our lives. Filmmakers Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott present a timely, entertaining critique of global conglomerates as they chronicle the origins of corporations, as well as their inner workings, controversial impacts and possible futures. The pros and cons are weighed via interviews with social critics such as Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore.
The Yes Men: This humorous documentary monitors the exploits of a group of jokester liberals who make names for themselves as they mimic members of the World Trade Organization at various venues across the globe. The absurd facade gets started when two members of The Yes Men create a web site that looks quite similar to the WTO site, resulting in the group being invited to high-level meetings and being mistaken for WTO officials.
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Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: Author of the pivotal A People's History of the United States, historian and activist Zinn has been at the forefront of progressive thought in America for decades. Through archival materials, interviews with Noam Chomsky, Marian Wright Edelman, Daniel Ellsberg, Tom_Hayden, Alice Walkerand commentary from Zinn himself, this documentary chronicles the influential thinker's inspiring commitment to social change. Matt Damon narrates.
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Rainer on Film: Thirty Years of Film Writing in a Turbulent and Transformative Time, Peter Rainer, Santa Monica Press, 576 pgs., $ 24.95
Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.