Happy Birthday, Bob Roberts

Twenty years, and, Tim Robbins’ political satire Bob Roberts, though not a classic film, hasn’t aged too badly. Even a classic ages, but it leaves an indelible mark by showing how, despite time and styles of dress, etc, some things never change.

It’s harder to find a political film that could be a classic because the majority of them don’t focus on our commonalities as voters, as people, but on what makes candidates different from us all. Typically, the filmmaker will make a broad stroke to attempt to connect the candidate to a humanity he’s sacrificed.

I’ve watched Bob Roberts no less than a dozen times and have  always been left with the same ambivalence about the film. There’s a nostalgia factor about the film to me now. Maybe it’s because Internet had yet to drastically infuse and radically redirect political discourse to the extent that it has now. For that matter, too, neither was there a FOX News or a Rush Limbaugh; the two were around  but had yet to become the extremist voices that they are recognized as being today.

Except for the character of John “Bugs” Raplin (played by Giancarlo Esposito), the film has no hero. Raplin is the lone moral voice, if you will, the 99 percenter up against the One Percenter Roberts, a wealthy man running for the Pennsylvania State Sentate, using subversive folk music in which greed becomes the heroic quality.

If Woodie Guthrie’s guitar said, “This machine kills fascists,” then Candidate Roberts’ would have said, “This machine guts retirement savings.” “Or communities.” “Or local economies.”

While it has its charms and the satire is at times very broad, particularly the SNL-inspired Cutting Edge scenes, the  news anchor characters – played by Susan Sarandon, Fred Ward and James Spader – have more resemblance to to FOX than to MSNBC. I doubt this was  prescience on Robbins’ part, but he was indicting the press as not being as diligent as a Raplin.

The remaining characters of the film don’t all have direct corelation, obviously, to the current round of candidates and politicos, but there are some similarities.

In the film, Roberts’ campaign manager, Lucas Hart III (Alan Rickman) is depicted as a mercenery who uses his anti-drugs charity Broken Dove as a front for arms shipments to Central America. At the time, this was a nod to Ollie North and the Iran-Contra Affair. Later, we got Vice President Cheney, who, even after he left Halliburton, made sure to throw major contracts to his former company. They succeeded in bilking the Pentagon, as well as putting in danger the civilians sent to Iraq on those contracts.

Then, let’s not overlook Mitt Romney’s Bain, which, as has been reported, have tentacles to the death squads of El Salvador in the ’80s.

Probaby the strongest comparison of Romney and Roberts is that the latter’s campaign bus serves as a rolling stock exchange. His campaign staff are making calls to Asian and European markets around the clock while en route to the next campaign pitstop for Roberts to pull out his guitar and sing songs like “Drugs Stink” while, ostensibly using the anti-drug charity as a front for the arms running.

Besides Raplin, there two other African American characters in the film, one of whom, Franklin (Harry Linnix) is on Roberts’ campaign staff. After leaving a Miss Pennsylvania contest, in which an African American woman won, the others on the bus make a racial joke; the camera catches the flash of pain, then resignation on Franklin’s face.

In an earlier scene, the late Lynn Thigpen, playing the host of a morning show, sits back aghast while Roberts broadly maligns the Civil Rights movement and then smears her character with a patriotic feint.

I think Bob Roberts spoke very specifically for its moment, but I don’t think Robbins made a film that will haunt today’s political watchers. If anything, Roberts might be considered a lightweight next to a candidate like Mitt Romney, who refuses to share his tax returns and about whom more unsavory stories surface to explain that refusal.

If only there were a Bugs Raplin to chase after him.


Margaret: A World of Inconveniences

Production poster from the Fox Searchlight film, MARGARET.

A young woman goes from looking for a hat to cradling a dying woman in her arms, all in one afternoon.

Mortality is an inconvenience that reminds us of its presence as quickly as a bus runs a red light.

In Margaret, Anna Paquin, who could have walked out of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest,  is quicksilver cynicism and flinty defenses. Looking for the hat, one to wear on a horseback riding vacation which she’s to take with her piano prodigy brother and their screenwriter dad, will make her happy.

No one’s really happy. It takes too much time. It’s something you plan on being later.

Even if later never materializes. You know it’s a possibility, like so many things in the big city. This one being New York City, a metropolis of busy people planning to be happy.

But, first trying to prove the bus fatality was caused by a driver (Mark Ruffalo) not paying attention, that takes precedence. It doesn’t bring anyone closer together, if that’s a definition of happiness.

It would if this were standard Hollywood film. Director Kenneth Lonergan didn’t have that intent. This wasn’t a film in which a key to a smallbox solves a mystery. If there’s a key in Margaret, it’s to missed opportunities, misplaced phone calls, bad decisions, flat dinner conversations, divorced dad guilt, school teachers trying to seed healthy debates but unwilling to let students open the political Pandora’s box when discussing 9/11.

And, let’s not forget high school teachers incapable of hiding their attraction to their teen charges. Though not in any way a conventional beauty, Paquin’s Lisa is unmistakably the most untimid mind in the room. Even when she’s chirping with teen awkwardness, it’s still while trying to make a connection that no one else seems to want to make.

That, sometimes, people say and do dishonest things because it’s inconvenient to be honest. And to ask the dishonest to atone is just asking to be told you’re a child.

There are moments that will make you cry and there are moments that will piss you off and there are moments you beg the characters to really pay attention to what the other character is saying.

They won’t, because this isn’t a movie to make all the pieces of a puzzle fit conveniently together at the end of 90 minutes.


Review: We Need to Talk about Kevin


Tilda Swinton wears red only once in We Need to Talk About Kevin. At an office holiday party, Swinton as Eva, in a red dress, haltingly allows herself to smile as she watches the coworkers who normally ignore her drunkenly mashing each other in embraces they’ll have allowed each other to forget by Monday. One male coworker, donning a pair of Rudolph ears, saunters to her and offers her a dance. The still smiling Swinton demurs, then flinches when the man calls her a “stuck up bitch” who should take his offer because no one else will have her.

It’s a vicious take-down, quietly played as is every scene in this film, which opens with nothing but red. Tomato red. And a stew of people in a country’s celebration where the tomato is given its own pagan ritual. The event might not exist in real life, but the rapture on Swinton’s face in context with the reality to which she awakens makes a compelling and strangely comforting visual contrast for the washed-out environment in which we follow her character.

“I don’t care what you did,” says the crass woman who hires her to work in a small travel agency, “as long as you can type and file. The relief on Swinton’s face is heartbreaking, especially when we learn she once owned her own travel agency.

She also had a husband and family and lived in a McMansion. All she seems to have left, as the nonlinear script pieces together her life, are her memories and the clothes for a career that was important to her.

It’s arguable if the career was more important than her first-born, the Kevin of the title.

We Need to Talk About Kevin, cowritten by  Lynn Ramsay and Rory Kinnear  and directed by Lynn Ramsay, doesn’t solve a mystery, like why Swinton remains in a town where the people hate her and, on occasion, slap her; it does prove Swinton to be an actor of toughness whose facial expressions accomplish what dialogue can’t. Such as when she wordlessly takes in the sight of her house and car vandalized with red paint. Or, walks in on her teenage son masturbating and watching her watch him masturbating.

Eva  is never brought to the level of the cruelty, much of it incomprehensible, of those around her. The film consciously refuses to justify or to explain and doesn’t allow its characters to do so, either. Even when Swinton asks her son, “why” he admits he doesn’t know. Instead, we get one woman’s attempts to find stability even when she’s coping with loss so great it’s easy to believe she’s in a PTSD fugue. We’re almost grateful for her having windshield washer fluid to wash off all that red paint.

Hovering in the vacant expression of the actors who play Kevin at various ages is the suggestion some people are born evil. It’s not, though, a conversation one has with one’s husband –  the stalwart John C. Reilly as Franklin – about one’s son. The signs are there as we watch young Kevin turn on a sunny disposition at his father’s key in the door after having treated Swinton to antisocial behaviors that progress frighteningly as he reaches his teens.

For every transgression Kevin commits, it’s Franklin who defends Kevin. The script allows his ongoing – and tragic – ignorance of what Kevin really is. There’s no scene between Franklin and Kevin; I suspect  the filmmakers realized the impossibility of Franklin not recognizing a glint that might prove his wife’s gnawing and quiet insistence that something is wrong with their son.

Stylistically, too, the film makes precise choices, particularly in the songs that contradict the emotions of a scene. The aforementioned script flaw aside, the dialogue between mother and son and the acceleration toward the terrible acts Kevin commits is articulate, almost theatrical. It’s the dialogue of two intelligent people at war with each other. Albeit, a war that no one else ever sees.

Not a mother, I admit I found myself giving a guarded recommendation to a woman who was. That was, I believe, wrong. In a scene in which a young Kevin, sick, clings to his mother and excludes his father, the two parents exchange a look as though a long-awaited denouement has finally taken place. The film’s final hug between mother and son indicate that, whatever faults she had as a mother, Eva deserves that denouement.

A Night in Tunisia

It’s a Thursday afternoon and I’m procrastinating, so I’m briefly giving into my obsession with the Dizzy Gillespie composition, “A Night in Tunisia.” 

It didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t happen by my knowing whose song it actually was. The song first wrapped itself around my brain when I heard it on a Miles Davis compilation I bought a year ago.  I was – and still am – on a Davis kick, having been seduced by his soundtrack to Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows that I bought after seeing the film on DVD. And learning on an interview on the special features how Davis literally scored the film while watching the filming just made it that more intriguing to me.

When I made a Miles Davis Quintet station on my Jango app and got piano player Duke Jordan’s version of the song, I had an a ha moment to look for and listen to  every single version of this enticing song (not a few of which can be found onYoutube). Jordan, who died in 2006, has a beautiful version of the song that, unfortunately, I’ve not found yet, other than a remix by DJ Jazzy Jeff. Which is not the direction I wanted to take with listening to this song. This afternoon’s listening was comprised by a few of the 36 artists credited in the Wiki article with having a version of the 1942 composition by Dizzie Gillespie (I know I could and should be using the Jazz Standards site, which I now will since I’ve bookmarked it for my future jazz questions).

Gillespie’s original is obviously more in common with the bebop he helped create; it’s also kind of cool if a little polite to my ears with the xylophone in the background. Nothing against the xylophone, but it’s not a wild man’s instrument.

Then I jumped over to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ excellent 1960 version, which opens with a cacophony of drums. It’s also very controlled, but the percussion has a Mardi Gras vibe to it, making it seem like complete mayhem will occur at any moment. And that’s when the horns come in, but the trumpet is the sharpest and most incisive while the saxophone is jumping erratically. And the drums keep everyone in line.

I have to stop and calm myself down now, having listened to the Blakey version twice through and becoming excited beyond endurance.

So, I went to the Stan Getz version for some West Coast mellow. It’s five minutes shorter than the 11-odd Blakey drum-plosion, but Getz wasn’t being overly fussy with capturing more than the skeleton of Tunisia’s turns.

The Charlie Parker version here, from a 1953 Toronto concert, gets loose with the song even though that is Gillespie’s trumpet, which is, again, the sharpest point of the song. I’d like to know who contributed those whistles at the 6.28 mark; they sound like whippoorwills.

Birds have stopped chirping outside, if they were, and the promise of an afternoon is becoming the work of an evening. Which means I need to put aside Tunisia if I’m going to be productive at all.