Friday, December 28, 2012

Vice: Africa's Monshine Epidemic

In this VICE documentary, host Thomas Morton travels to Uganda to investigate the culture of drinking particularly with regard to the local drink of choice Waregi or "war gin". I tried not to make any initial judgment calls about the host but something about his trendy plaid shirt, skinny jeans and thick rim glasses that had a certain imperialistic vibe.

Waregi is a very strong yet smooth moonshine make from distilled bananas or (in the case of industrialized zones) "factory-reject sugar cane". It was introduced by the British as something of a 'liquid courage' for the British-Ugandan forces. Eventually, the drink was enjoyed by resistance forces that fought against the British. The drink stuck and has become a common part of society. As the show notes, per capita Uganda is the heaviest drinking country in the world.

This show was only thirty-five minutes long, so I couldn't expect it to delve into the historical significance of Waregi and its societal impact but I would've liked it if Morton focused on one topic. He dabbles at Ugandan politics, village life, city life, how to make waregi and what results is a rather negative generalization of the country.

As I mention, Morton has an imperialistic vibe. I hesitate to call him "elitist", at least, an intentional elitist but there was definitely a sense of superiority that came from his commentary. For example, when leaving the small village, he describes that a normal day consists of "Everybody gets out of work. Everybody lets their worries wash away in a stream of waregi. Somebody kills a goat. Then the day is over and you start anew the next day." The goat part is where I have my beef.

I have never seen a goat slaughtered before my eyes, but I don't think the ideal response is to say, "Is this dinner? I see..." then to look at the camera and add, "Oh lord...kinda isn't a VICE party until something dies." It is this kind of tone that creates a sense of cultural hierarchy. It is just food. I'm sure that goat is treated better than the food Morton eats; it isn't like they are keeping it in a small cage for its life then killing it. If I had a nickel for every travel show which has the host petting the food before patting his/her full stomach, I'd be rich.

The focus moves away from examining this 'phenomena of waregi' to gawking at this drunken crude culture. Never mind the fact that these people use the alcohol to send their kids to school or the effect waregi has on the younger generation (they are drinking too, after all).

A similar sentiment comes when describing the red-light district of the nearby city, Morton says, "It's sort of like Britain's lasting legacy...instead of rum, sodomy and a lash, you have gin, no sodomy and hookers". This is his last line, his summary of his experience with an entire country. What results is a program that initially states the presence and cultural significance of waregi, we are not particularly shown this. What we are shown are images that denigrate Uganda with little help from the host.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Baytown Outlaws

Directed by Barry Battles. Written by Barry Battles and Griffin Hood. Starring Paul Wesley (Reese), Daniel Cudmore (Lincoln Oodie), Travis Fimmel (McQueen Oodie), Clayne Crawford (Brick Oodie), Andre Braugher (Sheriff Henry Millard)

Bottom line: Baytown Outlaws seems like it tried to be a fun, action packed romp but instead turned out to be a total, painful waste of time and energy. Pass on this movie.

Do you remember the last lines of No Country for Old Men or Fargo? In both movies, the lines were essentially the same and were something like “How could people do that? I just don’t understand anymore…” That’s what I thought after watching Baytown Outlaws.

Baytown Outlaws promises ‘a riot of slick and sick Tarantino-style escapism’. Alright, so that means ultra-violent and stylized. But you this is a red flag which I didn’t see until now. If the movie is telling you that this movie is ‘kinda in the same spirit as the great director’ you know something is up. This is such a terrible movie I don’t even think it is ethical to compare it to Tarantino. Now, before I get ahead of myself, let me set the stage a bit. I am not too worried about spoilers with this review; the movie is so stupid it doesn’t matter if you know what is going to happen. 

The movie opens with the three Oodie brothers graphically shooting their way through a house of drug dealers. They realize, when the dust settles, they went to the wrong address. So, yes, this movie is ultraviolent. People die for no particular reason other than getting in the way (that dozen drug dealers were killed by accident, after all). I don’t object to violence but there has to be some substance to it. In Baytown Outlaws, style and violence (and sex) are too disjoint; just combining “deep” music, lens flare and slow motion doesn’t make a striptease sophisticated.

In terms of the protagonists, the movie is trying to keep them in a positive light. That is, even though they are murders, they are killing bad guys. That’s normally all fine and dandy; people (myself included) like those edgy protagonists. However, for me to sympathize with a character, I am going to need a little bit more than “he’s like Robin Hood”. Sure, Robin Hood “robbed from the rich and gave to the poor” but he did a lot more than that: he helped restore a just government, he fought against corruption and he wasn’t drawn to the lifestyle for power or money. When that line is taken out of context, as it is here, a character can supposedly get away with, well, murder. What do these characters do other than kill and sexually harass women? The movie tries to pull some heart-string shenanigans but I’m not buying it. The crux of the movies is outlined by Celeste (Longoria).

She approaches the trio to rescue her godson who was kidnapped by his step-father (her ex-husband), played by Billy Bob Thornton. The introduction of Celeste is just hint of the sexism you can expect from this movie. She approaches McQueen (Fimmel) to ask him to do the job but before she can, he eyes her up and calls ‘dibs’ (that is, he is the one who is going to sleep with her). He says they won’t do the job but she has nice legs. This interaction alone sends men and women back a decade and this is ten minutes in!

The next problem is the use of the boy, Rob (Brodie-Sangster). I have previously I mentioned my beef with the use of children in action movies. More often than not, kids are an easy way of “developing the story”. I mean, you know how this is going to play out; the hardened murders are going to learn the importance of family and brotherhood and responsibility as they protect this kid. But wait, it gets better! Just in case we were hesitant to buy into their new found charitable nature, Rob is mentally challenged. This is an unfair move; now I’ll feel like a jerk if I don’t mildly support the plot.

Billy Bob Thornton plays his role as the crude and mean drug dealer just like all of his other grimy roles. I don’t find his character endearing. But, that isn’t to suggest I find anything in this movie endearing.

I am wondering to what extent Baytown Outlaws is trying to mimic (or pay homage) to The Warriors. We have this primary white male gang and they are assaulted by waves of themes gangs. The first is a gang of female bikers. They are prostitutes who first seduce then kill their targets (“when they are most vulnerable”). Wonderful: another group of hyper-sexualized women. The worst part is that their role in the movie is so minimal. They are around long enough to try and seduce the men then die. It is preposterous to suggest that these women are active or strong female figures. Let me describe the start to their big scene. One of the brothers calls dibs and approaches one of the women. She puts on some music and asks if he wants to dance. ‘Clearly, she meant a lap dance’, thinks the brother. So he pulls out a chair. “No. Not that type of dance,” she says…before she proceeds to treat his body like a stripper pole. It is a painfully frustrating scene.

Now, I am not Native American but I feel like the Native American gang could be somewhat offensive. What do you think this gang’s shtick is? Bows and Arrows and they scalp their victims. I previously mentioned The Warriors, and they did a similar type of setup for the colorful gangs in the city; every gang had cohesive style and attitude. But, here, the “style” of the gangs is simply based on gender or race. It isn’t fun or funny it just feels like an offensive waste of time.

Baytown Outlaws, on occasion, tries to take itself seriously by making little political statements. The one that I most recall is about immigration. The illegal immigrant-nurse is patching up Brick’s gunshot wound and McQueen asks, “Why don’t you just become a citizen? You know, just go fill out the forms…you know English better than most people.” What is worse, the fact that this is the guy wearing a Confederate flag shirt or that English fluency is a requirement? It’s stuff like this that gets me confused about this movie. I mean, is this all a big parody? How much of this is serious? 

In terms of police, we have two characters: Sheriff Millard and Reese, some government agent from Chicago (that is, the north). I feel like Reese, being a skinny white kid not used to the South is supposed to be either a comic relief or something of a meddling villain. Whatever he was supposed to be, I found myself relating to him the most. He is just trying to do his job despite the interference of Millard. I found Millard to be just a bully instead of being funny. More than just a bully, he consistently made me angry; I just wanted to slap the smug smile off his face. I think that if we are supposed to enjoy the harshness of Thornton, then Millard is a lovely addition.  

I do not recommend this movie. At all. Ever. Life is too short to waste time on stuff like this. In terms of food, there are things like Deep Fried Oreos. They are terrible for you but they might be worth trying just for the experience. There are things like McDonald’s which is bad and bad for you but every once in a while, it hits the spot. Then there are things like a bad sandwich from a generic chain restaurant. It isn’t good for you, it isn’t tasty and it isn’t even worth the story of getting it. Baytown Outlaws falls in the last category.

Thursday, December 13, 2012


Written and directed by Rian Johnson. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Joe), Bruce Willis (Old Joe) and Emily Blunt (Sara).

Bottom line: Great action, funny little jokes, cool style and attitude make Looper a solid sci-fi movie.
The Gordon-Levitt voice over lays out the scene: criminals from the future send people back in time to be killed by hit men called loopers. We meet Joe (Gordon-Levitt). He is a looper and has a particular routine. He wakes up to do the hit late morning. He practices French, has lunch at a diner with coffee with milk, disposes of the body, exchanges his payment of silver for cash and then finds his way to a strip club with his looper friends to do some drugs. All this changes, as you may know from the trailer, when his target turns out to be himself from the future. We learn about why he is sent back and his plans shortly thereafter. I won’t go into much more detail so I don’t spoil anything, not that you necessarily go to Looper for the plot. It isn’t that it is terrible but the goodness comes from the overall package. The casting, to start with, is the strongest part of the film.

Bruce Willis is a perfect Old Joe. He is a violent, worldly, and determined man. When he is on a mission, he doesn’t mess around until the job is done. So, really, Bruce Willis is playing the same character as always but in this case he is a hit man instead of a detective. I am a big fan of him so it’s fine with me.

Gordon-Levitt is a tried and true punkie kid and he doesn’t fail in Looper. The nature of Joe is something I liked about this movie; he goes to a field at a certain time with his blunderbuss to shoot a bound and blind folded person. It isn’t like he is the best Looper ever or the first Looper, he was just some street urchin who they picked up. With the blunderbuss, for example, in the words of the Kid in Blue, “You can’t hit anything outside of fifteen yards and you can’t miss anything within that.”

His young-Bruce-Willis makeup is pretty good too. There is one scene in which Joe and a mobster are speaking. It seems to exist only to highlight Gordon-Levitt’s Bruce Willis impression; just make your eye little frown faces and purse your lips.

Sequences like that give the movie a really relaxed tone. When Joe and Old Joe meet for the first time, for example, Old Joe says, “Just shut up about the time travel stuff. We’ll start drawing up charts and diagrams and we’ll be here all day.” The movie has to take a lax stance on that and itself because, in part, there are too many issues to address. The protocol as previously mentioned: people sent alive to an empty field to be killed by one guy, at some point their target is their future self. That scenario right there is so full of holes it might as well have been shot by a blunderbuss. Couldn’t they kill the person first and then send the body back in time or transport them into a furnace or have them killed by several people? Time travel is a slippery slope, sure, but giving some thought to the scenario is the type of thing which distinguishes a corny action movie from a great, memorable sci-fi movie. That said; this is a corny action movie. It has a similar feel to The Rock (starring Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage). 

I believe I talked about this chill type of attitude in an earlier review. It is the type of situation where the movie is a little stupid but it’s ok because it is a movie, so it is allowed some leeway and it will take care of the loose ends. I like this type of situation as long as I know the movie is on board too. That is, I know that it isn’t trying to convince that it is cinematic gold. After all, there is a difference between going for a ride and being taken for a ride. Fortunately, Looper falls in the former category.
Another pleasant surprise is Sara (Emily Blunt) and her son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon). I usually hate kids in movies. I especially hate them action movies because too often they are a cop out in the suspense department. Throw a crying, innocent little kid to a situation and then it gets that much more intense, right? No way, not for me. I get frustrated for the protagonist. He or she already has enough on his or her plate without some crying little urchin. I was happy here because Cid is a creepily intelligent and capable kid (and it actually gets a little scary at one point). For example, Sara and Joe need to figure a way to communicate so Cid refurbishes one of his old toys to work as Morse code type of device. He holds reasonable conversations too. He is not used as a little suspense machine. I liked Sara too for similar reasons. She can take care of herself and her son and even Joe. She is a character far removed from the gratuitous nudity that is Suzie (Piper Perabo) (Joe’s girlfriend before he meets Sara).
The special effects were pleasant. Instead of an elaborate warping effect for time travel, it is a simple cut; one frame the person is not there, the next, the person is. Sometimes in sci-fi movies there is a preoccupation with the futuristic technologies and I was pleasantly surprised to see that Looper avoided such a plague. There is a hover bike but it doesn’t dominate the situation. At one point, Old Joe uses a keyboard-less computer and the camera hangs a little too long on the gadget but it is relatively brief. The fashion and art style are pleasantly ordinary: simple, sharp looking ties and suits.
Overall, I’d give this movie thumbs up and recommend it. It was a relaxed, fun, cool action sci-fi movie.

Thursday, December 6, 2012


Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Tony Kushner (screenplay), Doris Kearns Goodwin (book) (in part). Starring Daniel Day-Lewis (Abraham Lincoln) , Sally Field (Mary Todd Lincoln), David Strathairn (William Seward), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Robert Lincoln) and Tommy Lee jones (Thaddeus Stevens).

Bottom line: Lincoln is a wonderful movie. The acting is superb, the story is great, the cinematography is beautiful. I can’t think of a reason not to see this movie.

Going to see a Spielberg movie is a lot like going to a nice steak restaurant. You know exactly what you are going to get: a darn good steak dinner with a professional, clean, orderly decor. It will be fancy but not inaccessible. Sure, it may not be particularly innovative but in the realm of steak dinners, it is a solid choice. Some restaurants will try to be really posh but make terrible food and others will be really crude in appearance. Lincoln is a perfect example of a Spielberg-dinner-movie. Simply put, I can think of nothing wrong with this movie and it made going to the theaters a lot of fun.

Lincoln is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. It looks at the beginning of the President’s second term. It was a tumultuous time: the 13th amendment was being considered and the Civil War was coming to an end. Lincoln had been pushing the amendment on the grounds that it would be a critical move to end the war. People of the country supported this, at least, up to a certain point; the desire for peace was greater than the desire for slavery but, naturally, if they could have their cake and eat it too they would. At the same time, the war was about to conclude on its own. So, if he didn’t pass the amendment before the war ends, then he may never have had the chance. We all know that the amendment passes but it doesn’t spoil the suspense. The excitement comes out in how everything comes together at the end. We are also shown the effects of the presidency on the Lincoln family.

There are so many things on which a lesser movie could have focused at the expense of other qualities but Spielberg puts a meticulous finish on every aspect of Lincoln. I honestly wish I had a large vocabulary because I don’t want to keep using “great” “wonderful” “incredible” to describe Lincoln.  This movie reminded me in a lot of ways of Kings Speech (which I loved).

The costumes and sets create a wonderfully rich world complemented by Janusz Kaminski’s stunning cinematography. Light cascades through white curtains, cutting through cigar smoke to give everyone an aura. I hate to say it but, because the images are so memorizing, I was distracted from the dialog.

The acting in this film is incredible. Daniel Day Lewis, I’ve come to understand, is better than sliced bread. He is stoic and warming. He tells his stories with a wonderful gentleness but not at the expense of force. He has this particular tone to his voice when he yells. Recall that "drink your milkshake" scene from There Will Be Blood and you’ll understand what I mean. I love that yell and he yells like that here.

Tommy Lee Jones is the outspoken abolitionist, Thaddeus Stevens. Is it just me or does Jones just play himself? Space Cowboys, Men in Black, No Country for Old Men. In Lincoln, he plays Tommy Lee Jones in a wig. I don’t mean that negatively, mind you. I like him, but it took me a little bit of time to adjust to seeing him. He fits the role and plays it well.

I also didn’t expect to see Gordon-Levitt. He plays Abe Lincoln’s eldest son, Robert. He is studying to be an attorney but wants to join the Union army to play a more direct role in the war effort. The spirited youthful character is a positive addition to the movie. There is enough of him to get move the plot along but not enough to overshadow anyone else, which, now that I think about it, can be said of just about everything with the movie. There is a scene, for example, where Robert and his father argue. The emotion and scene lasts long enough to be powerful but ends before it becomes melodramatic. Similarly, the jokes sprinkled throughout are light and quick.

Sally Field does a great performance as Mary Todd Lincoln. Through her, we are able to see her pain and feelings of helplessness amidst a racist and sexist society. I would have liked to see more of the interactions between Mary Todd and Abe. Their scenes are of the most powerful in the movie.

The music is by John Williams so, if you know him, you know the quality. If you don’t know him, he was behind Jaws, Star Wars, Jurassic Park; the list goes on.

Overall, Lincoln is a really great movie; I had a lot of fun watching it and I look forward to seeing it again.