Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Film Review: Happy Go Lucky (2008)

Far be it from me, the owner of several volumes each of The Family Guy, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and even Jackass, to criticize those who seek pure escapist entertainment from their movies. There's no shame in The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill; there's no shame in Defending Your Life; there's no shame in Used Cars. They're all escapist pieces designed not to stimulate one's intellect or morals as much as to salve the throbbing abrasions to intellect and morals that life seems so often to deliver outside of the theater. Wanting to escape inside such a movie is nothing to hang one's head about, shy from admitting, or seek consciously to overcome. The trouble begins when there isn't quite a movie into which to escape.

Such is the case with Mike Leigh's Happy Go Lucky, starring Sally Hawkins and Eddie Marsan. Mind you, I wish that it weren't: With such unimpeachable past successes as Secrets & Lies, Topsy Turvy, and above all Vera Drake, Mike Leigh has earned his chops as a writer/director for whom I want only the best of success, and from whom I've come to expect rather a lot. Too bad for both of us, then, that Happy Go Lucky falls several crucial elements short of being an actual motion picture, by even the most broad and permissive standards of the term. The premise is encouraging enough on paper--"Poppy" is a youngish and terminally optimistic London city girl in a dead-end job and no relationship beyond the unflagging support of a friend and a sister, when she decides to snap out of her doldrums by taking-up driving lessons from "Scott," a contract instructor whose cranky disposition, repressed upbringing and near-fanatical religious beliefs have alienated him from the prospect of true happiness. So far, so good.

Trouble is, Mr. Leigh would seem to have found himself bored by the somewhat formulaic corner into which he'd written himself with those beginnings, and as such the film he created veers inexplicably and without justification into a series of vignettes that are neither funny nor interrelated to even the tiniest possible degree. We see Poppy exercising on a trampoline and hurting her back, visiting the chiropractor for an adjustment, taking flamenco lessons from a volatile and possibly demented Spaniard, visiting the seaside with her mates, and any number of profoundly discursive moments that might in other movies have helped us to understand her character--except that in those other movies there'd be rather a lot more to understand, and besides which the vignettes themselves would contribute something, anything, to the advancement of the plot. Even if we didn't find out what that something was until later. Instead we get things like, "Do penguins emigrate?" "What, you mean like, do they spend their winters on the Costa Del Sol?"

The driving scenes themselves are, in far more typical Mike Leigh fashion, pitch-perfect: Poppy belittling Scott's insistence on taking himself and his profession way too seriously; Scott desperately straining to keep his composure in the presence of a pupil who has no intention of taking his expertise to heart. "If you do not listen to me," Scott says, in an illustrative moment while the two of them are parked by the side of a quiet residential street, "you will get into a terrible crash, and you will burn up, and you will die." Too bad for the rest of us, then, that a film about an optimistic woman taking driving lessons from a cranky teacher doesn't have the good sense to accept itself for what it is and stay in the bleeping car.

Instead Leigh makes time to "weave" a b-story about one of Poppy's elementary-school students finding himself at the mercy of an abusive stepfather--a thread that seems destined to culminate with Poppy striking out through an edgy neighborhood at night to investigate the boy's home life. Ah, the potential! Will she land in over her head at the stepfather's flat, and desperately in need of a coincidentally passing-by driving instructor to burst in and save the day? Will she find herself cornered and mildly assaulted by that bizarre homeless man with whom she's just become entangled in strange anti-conversation? Er... No, actually. Instead all that happens is that she natters away in increasingly saccharine platitudes to the shifty vagrant, who (like the rest of us) eventually gives up on her and walks away muttering. Turns out she wasn't even walking through the night for reasons having anything to do with the boy in her class--or if she was, we are left none the wiser: The instant the homeless man leaves her, there's a sharp cutaway to a daylight scene with no apparent explanation of what she was doing in such an awkward and potentially dangerous situation. For all we know she could've been out for milk.

The issue with the student then disappears entirely from the consciousness of both Poppy and the audience, while the former takes a holiday in Brighton and the latter begin air-conditioning the theater with the collective gesture of flicking their wrists to see how much of this palaver is actually left to sit through. Only at the end of the movie, when Poppy meets (and abruptly sleeps with) an external counselor brought in to help the boy, does the B-story resurface with so much as a mention. And pardon me, but if this character is so worthy of our admiration, isn't it a bit odd that, in the face of a possible child-abuse case happening right under her nose, she could fuck-off down to Brighton for twenty minutes of the picture and not utter a single syllable of gloominess about the poor lad's predicament? Is she terminally optimistic in a way we're supposed to imagine for ourselves, in the end--or is she just profoundly self-absorbed and vapid? Or is Mike Leigh trying to suggest that this is what we should imagine for ourselves?

At least Mr. Leigh has the good sense to retrieve the formula he should've embraced throughout when the critical moment comes: a climactic confrontation between the still-innocent Poppy and her suddenly jilted-feeling and (we've just learned) stalker of a driving instructor. As only Mike Leigh can have such things, it's a long, difficult scene without a whiff of flinch in it anywhere, and for those six-and-a-half minutes at least, he holds every seat in the theater as if by a puppet string. People stop chewing popcorn; they stop whispering to the person next to them. They hold their breath.

And if the message of the film is that sunny people must work so much harder than the rest of us to protect themselves from the infectious influence of other people's envy-soaked gloom, then surely Leigh has accomplished the delivery of that message with this, the scene that makes the balance of this disaggregated mess worth the ticket price. And yet even here, at what should have been the redemptive moment in which Mike Leigh proves that he is still Mike Leigh, the film treats us instead to a sharp cutaway to a rowboat, in which Poppy is speaking to one of her chums as if essentially nothing has just happened. It is almost as if Leigh was intentionally setting-out to make a picture so feel-good that it was incoherent, and only reminded himself of this objective after lapsing for a few minutes into far more typical greatness.

I have a confession to make: It's been several weeks since I saw this film in the theater. I'd been planning to write a review that said something of the, "when you're in a mood not to work quite so hard for your entertainment" variety--suggesting that the picture is harmless enough and shouldn't actually offend even the most purist and committed movie snobs among us. Then I'd planned to draw an analogy between the typical rental customer and Poppy, on the one hand, and between myself and Scott, on the other: We could stay chipper and enjoy the ride, as Poppy would have it, or we could sit grimly cross-armed and fervant and self-alienating and miss all the fun like Scott. But you know something? There are far too many other choices of "feel-good" movie out there, choices that actually work, for me to pull that device out of the hat, now. A feel-good movie that doesn't hurt anyone doesn't also have to fail to make sense. And I for one am surprised that Mr. Leigh, of all people, would have failed so spectacularly to figure that out.

The Key Grip gives this picture two bald heads. If someone else has rented it, you won't lose any time off the back of your life to watch it with them. Otherwise, give it a miss.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florid
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Monday, January 12, 2009

Today's vocabulary term is: game theory

Speaking as someone who received a modicum of academic training as an economist, let me be the first person to concede that most of the professional writing by the current generation of economists is... well... bullshit. But a certain branch of the discipline has occupied my thoughts over the past few days for its apparently versatile applicability to the current crop of news stories, and that branch is called game theory. The idea behind game theory is that a system with a limited number of actors is less suited to graphical, "supply-and-demand" analyses than more densely populated ones, because the starting conditions faced by any one actor are influenced by whatever decisions the others have already made.

If, for example, Delta Air Lines slashes its fares, the subsequent pricing decisions made by Northwest Airlines will have to take this action into account, raising the prospect of a multi-stage sequence of strategic actions that don't fit neatly into slice-in-time pictures with intersecting curves revealing some magic point of equilibrium. Instead the various strategies that will be adopted by the various actors must be mapped out, one move at a time, to best inform our prediction of what another actor will do in response, and the "equilibrium" in such cases won't be a temporal answer, but rather a description of the considerations that will produce the most stable set of strategies, regardless of whether those strategies are in the actors' best interests. And the thing about that process is, we can apply it to the situation in Gaza; we can apply it to the wave of republican retirements in the Senate; we can apply it to Barack Obama's approach to engineering an economic recovery; we can apply it to the state of the Minnesota recount.

In Gaza, the Israelis face a set of strategic decisions that are such classic examples of game theory modeling that they may one day be incorporated into textbooks on the subject as a shining example: If the Israeli government pursues every last militant in Gaza, regardless of the collateral bloodshed that results, the sub-community of nations that has already registered its outrage will howl even louder, but the Israeli military will surely get its men (as it nearly always does). If, on the other hand, Israel ceases its operations in Gaza before it is satisfied that it has rooted out everyone with whom it finds disfavor, it runs the risk of leaving some of these people intact to commit future acts of violence against Israel but--and here's the rub--it gains nothing in the eyes of all those disapproving nations. They'll disapprove of the institution of the operations in the first place. They'll disapprove of the military imbalance. Most of them will disapprove of Israel, period. At the very least, it seems reasonable to presume that no government on earth is going to normalize its relations if the Israeli military stops, now.

What does game theory predict? It predicts that continuing the operation is a so-called "dominant strategy"--one by which the actor in question loses nothing but gains more than nothing, and which will therefore be adopted with near certainty, assuming that the actor in question is smart enough to have figured all of this out for itself. Moreover, this awareness also raises the prospect of an obvious course of action for the United States in the matter, too: Unless the "milk" of this particular military intrigue can be "soured" by Israel's principal benefactor, both militarily and diplomatically, the intrigue itself will be seen in the eyes of the persons who ordered it as an action without downside consequences--thus raising the prospect of even more unilateral bloodshed in the future.

Back at home, the country is in the grip of a wave of Republican senatorial resignations, the likes of which hasn't been seen since the early days of the Roosevelt Administration. Here the game theoretician looks not so much at the resignations themselves, but at the likely pattern of floor-votes presaged by the senate's current makeup. A filibuster-proof majority for the Democrats, as it happens, isn't nearly as important as most outsiders (including journalists) seem to think it is: The moderate Republicans can, and presumably will, vote against certain filibusters because they quietly support whatever legislation is being considered, then vote against the legislation itself if they feel they need to appease the RSCC and general party leadership. Conservative Democrats, meanwhile, can vote against the filibuster and against the bill, too, since their votes are more crucial in securing the first outcome than the second--thus fortifying their chances of reelection by conservative constituencies.

All of this means a high likelihood of significant legislation being passed by the next congress, and with it a game-theoretician's dream scenario for predicting large-scale strategic behavior on the part of the minority party. If a Republican senator opposes these legislative efforts hammer-and-tong, especially if they represent a purple state, their opposition is far more likely to redound to their own detriment than under normal (say, 1993-era) circumstances--since the country is in so big a mess already that few persuadable voters are likely to believe that any Democratic policy initiatives are likely to make matters any worse. If instead the Republican senator in question chooses to ascent to whatever is being proposed, he ends up either supporting something he disagrees with, facing a primary fight for his own reelection, or both. And since very few stupid people make it as far as the United States Senate (though in fairness it does occasionally happen), the writing on the wall for Republicans facing difficult reelection campaigns in purple states is that now might be a good time to announce retirement, as a dominant strategy permitting a far more flexible and centrist stance on any number of genuinely beneficial initiatives likely to come from thew new Administration, without actually lowering the chances of breezy reelection, because they were already zero.

President-elect Obama, of course, knows all of the same strategic maneuvers and their likely outcomes--not least because he hails most recently from the United States Senate himself. Accordingly, his own approach to engineering economic recovery has been surprisingly centrist, some might even say conservative (though presumably with a small "c" and not a capital one), since he knows full-well that any spending he submits to congress is far, far more likely to get bigger than it is to get smaller, by the time it comes back to him. By choosing the dominant strategy of shilling a relatively unambitious package of new initiatives, featuring relatively targeted and quotidian solutions to our nation's ills, he spares himself the bulk of an otherwise messy fight with the few remaining Mitch McConnell's of the world, while at the same time not really limiting the depth or breadth of the remedy.

Which only leaves the question of whether he have the votes of fifty-eight senators or fifty-nine, with the answer dependent, of course, on the eventual outcome of outgoing Senator Norm Coleman's faint-flickering gambit to have the result of Minnesota's closely contested recount overturned in civil court. The fact that courts almost never overturn certified election results apparently hasn't fazed Mr. Coleman all that much, as he seems as intent as ever to prove that any number of curiously one-sided incidents and judgment calls have robbed him of his election-night lead. In what has been dubbed by some people as a "kitchen sink" brief, Coleman is alleging that he has been unilaterally injured by double-counting, under-counting, wrongful inclusion of absentee ballots, wrongful exclusion of absentee ballots, and, to top it all off, a long litany of individual decisions by the canvassing board that seem in his mind curiously to have no offsetting counterparts on the Franken side of the ledger. Most mainstream columnists, to say nothing of a sizable plurality of Minnesotans, believe the challenge to be rubbish and want Coleman to give it up. But what would a game theoretician say?

A game theoretician would predict that Coleman would continue to pursue the court challenge for as long as he deems the benefit to outweigh the costs, and then (and only then) give it up. But there's a wrinkle here: Ordinarily, the costs of such an obviously whiny and unwarranted suit would be measured in decreased future electability, but in this case we're talking about a guy who lost one statewide race to a wrestler, won one against a dead man, and now appears to have lost to a comedian. The dominant strategy for Mr. Coleman, in other words, arises from the fact that he is completely and utterly washed up, regardless of whether he chooses now to bow-out gracefully or to fight to the ultimate, bitter end. He has nothing to lose. Accordingly, he's playing this precisely as someone who has nothing to lose--filing every possible objection and not bothering too much to justify the apparent contradictions that those various objections represent. To a game theoretician this is a perfectly rational course of action for him (provided the money holds out). If there is a 0.1% chance that he will still prevail, that's still 0.1% higher than his chances of ever holding statewide office in the future.

Oh and there's one other thing worth mentioning under the general heading of game theory as it applies to political realities at home and abroad: If dominant strategies continue to play as big and resurgent a role as they have over the past few weeks in shaping our national and international destiny, only good things can come of it. After all, the dominant strategy for a Republican Administration facing the need to choose a hurricane response wouldn't have been to let people drown, and a dominant strategy after September 11th would most assuredly NOT have been to invade Iraq.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida

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Saturday, January 3, 2009

After fifth-pile, Franken +225

UPDATE: 11:02PM Sunday, Jan. 4: CNN is reporting that the Minnesota State Canvassing Board will certify Al Franken the winner of the 2008 statewide election to United States Senate, defeating incumbent Norm Coleman. Mr. Coleman is widely expected to formally challenge the result in court, about which much more below:


Norm Coleman and his campaign lawyers are nothing if not doggedly persistent. Over the past two weeks, ever since Al Franken took the lead in the recount for Minnesota's 2008 Senate race,t they've tried floating a specious story about Franken votes being found in somebody's trunk, they've tried claiming that 110 or so ballots were actually counted twice, they've tried objecting to the counting of 1,350 absentee ballots that the county election officials felt had been improperly rejected the first time around, and, finally, they tried to have those 1,350 ballots supplemented with nearly 700 additional absentee ballots that a grand-total of nobody else on earth thought should be included. The bad news is that these antics are par for the course with Republicans; the good news is that they haven't gotten away with it.

Today, as a blizzard loomed with ominously impeccable dramatic timing, the Secretary of State of Minnesota opened the 955 ballots that had survived a preposterous "everyone must agree" standard, out of the 1,350 that seem to have been improperly rejected, and at the end of that count Al Franken had widened his lead to 225 votes. As small as this margin is, the significance of the number cannot be over-stated, since it reduces to zero the possibility that Mr. Coleman could reverse his deficit if he prevailed on both court challenges pertaining to the supposed double-voting and the supposedly "found" ballots. It also reduces to very nearly zero the possibility that Senator Coleman could reverse the deficit with the inclusion of all 700 of the ballots that he preposterously claims for inclusion, since even those are sure to contain a significant tally for Franken. At this point, the only remaining path for Coleman is to challenge the election in court--but in the absence of a clear and substantial case of either negligence or malfeasance by the state canvassing board, the likelihood of a court overturn of this result is very, very small indeed.

What happens next is anyone's guess: Mr. Coleman is within his rights to challenge a significant number of the ballots that were informally tallied for Franken this afternoon, when they are formally added to the count at Monday's meeting of the canvassing board. He is within his right to make further "emergency" appeals on further, specific procedural grounds, to the Minnesota state supreme court. He is also within his right to challenge. Another possibility is that Mr. Coleman could concede the outcome, based on today's results (which were far more conclusively pro-Franken than even the most optimistic projections that had been reported before the absentee ballots were opened). It would seem that whether Coleman chooses to fight on or concede will come down to how today's events are relayed to him by his closest advisers. If they report the matter as a 90-10 proposition, knowing Mr. Coleman personally as I am unfortunate enough to do, it seems unlikely that he will choose to concede. If they report the current state of the matter as a 99-1 proposition, he may need another day.

If I learned one thing from a seven-and-a-half year stint in economic development in the state of Minnesota, it's that assuming Norm Coleman will show even the tiniest scrap of dignity or class is a sucker bet. But on the other hand, George Allen didn't show a lot of class when he called a reporter "macaca," either, and after an understandably protracted interval of self-reflection and personal anguish, he eventually emerged from his home in Virginia and did the right thing by conceding his 2006 senate contest to Jim Webb. If the pattern holds, Mr. Coleman has for himself the perfect opening to find that same shred of career-salvaging graciousness, both in today's result and in its timing: He can spend all day tomorrow very conspicuously saying nothing public to anyone, and then on Monday he can concede.

Stranger things have happened. Indeed, stranger things have happened in this election.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida
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Friday, January 2, 2009

Film Review: Milk (2008)

Sean Penn is an outstanding actor. Whatever else you think about him as a person--and by the way there hasn't been much reason to think poorly of him as a person in rather a long time--let no one who claims to be a lover of good movies call him anything other than one of Hollywood's elite performers. Is he as good as Philip Seymour Hoffman? Not on Penn's best day. Is he as good as Tom Hanks? No. Is he as good as Kevin Spacey or Ed Harris or George Clooney? Probably, yes: he is.

But like so many other actors before him, his very skill has become his fatal weakness--to become at what should be the height of his career a victim of the entrenched conservatism, some would say laziness, of the most under-estimated influence in film-making: the casting community. Like a more talented Paul Giamatti, a more consistently employed Sam Waterston, like a less funny Ben Affleck, Sean Penn, alas, is a "type." Only difference being, with Mr. Penn the type in question is anything shocking. Need a profoundly disabled character who fights tooth-and-nail for custody of his seven year-old daughter? Get me Sean Penn. Need a shamelessly violent, venom-spewing sociopath who may or may not be guilty of the specific crimes for which he's about to be executed? Get me Sean Penn. Controversial director Gus Van Sant needs someone to play the first openly gay elected official? A character who lives most of his adult life in the Castro district and eventually wins an election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, but who finds plenty of time in-between to make out in broad daylight with his boyfriend? Needs him naked for a scene with the boyfriend in a half-lit bedroom? Let the cry go forth from every rooftop, Get. Me. Sean. Penn.

This, sadly, is Milk's undoing. Make no mistake, a script intentionally crafted to convey an unflinching representation of what these individuals were really like and what they struggled against and (briefly) overcame is a laudable approach to the subject matter. Indeed there could have been no other, especially in these times when all the victories that Harvey Milk and his inner circle won for the civil liberties of every American are being so brazenly taken back in unconstitutional referenda from Florida to California and back again. Make no mistake, either, about the choice of Gus Van Sant, who is gay, to direct the film: With a work as profoundly affecting in its ability to normalize gut-wrenching tragedy as Elephant, with his previous explorations of homosexual alienation in My Own Private Idaho and elsewhere, there could hardly have been another choice to direct a film about Harvey Milk without begging the question of what, exactly, Mr. Van Sant had been so busy with at the same time that he couldn't be persuaded.

But somewhere along the white-hot arcs of Penn's and Van Sant's careers they have slipped from being comfortable with unflinching portrayals of taboo-stripping situations, into people who seem to revel in them -- and for this reason casting Mr. Penn as Harvey Milk was ultimately a tragic mistake. With all of that "unflinching-ness" piled so high in every corner of the room like so many bloated little elephants, by the time the film is over it feels less like an honest bio-pic and more like unflattering caricature. Indeed in places it skates perilously close to being offensive. Yes, we find ourselves muttering under our breaths, Harvey Milk kissed other men in public.
Yes, he once picked up a long-term partner on a subway platform in New York City and took him straight back to his apartment and had sex with him, for no better reason than it was his birthday. Yes, he slept with men in his apartment above the camera shop that would be his campaign headquarters in the Castro. Yes he had a boyfriend who killed himself and others who tried. We get it.

But in the end, of course, the very point of Harvey Milk's tragically shortened life is that gay people aren't different from anyone else -- and all of this "let's show Mr. Penn unafraid to kiss men on camera" nonsense has (well at least for me it had) the unintended effect of making it seem as if we were supposed to be continually reminded that they are. Instead of leaving the theater thinking, "Hey, you know what? Homosexuals are every bit as ordinary and banal--and deserving of the same ordinary and banal civil rights--as the rest of us" (as Mr. Milk himself would surely have intended it), I was forced to leave the theater thinking, "Gosh, he effected all of this constructive good in the world, and stood passively while a campaign operative stuck his hand down the pants of the pizza-delivery boy?"

Heaven only knows what the gay community would think of Milk--if it wasn't the closest thing to a sympathetic portrayal that they are ever likely to get. Which of course it is. In the meantime, I for one was keenly aware of Mr. Van Sant's and Mr. Penn's intent to celebrate themselves for all their lack of flinch, and that's exactly the opposite of how I would have wanted to leave the theater feeling about a film that was supposed to make me see homosexuals as just like you and me.

There is also the not inconsiderable problem of the painfully contrived and obvious plot device that needlessly prods us forward through the chronology of the story--namely, Mr. Milk, seated alone in the dark at his kitchen table, narrating the whole thing into a tape recorder "in the event that I am assassinated," which of course we already know that he will be. Mercifully there is almost no voice-over of the individual vignettes from Milk's past, but in a way that only exacerbates the glaring pointlessness of the cutaways to Penn holding that ridiculous microphone, muttering things into the cassette that we are all about to see with our own eyes, anyway. The individuals with whom I saw this movie were split 50-50 on whether the device was jarring enough to pull them completely out of the film, but I didn't hear a single word spoken by anyone on his or her way out of the building that defended those tape-recorder scenes as somehow indispensable to the delivery of the story.

In the end what rescues the film more than any other single aspect of Van Sant's direction or Penn's acting, is the story of Harvey Milk itself. Through its poignancy, through its touching moments of personal affection, through its triumphs and tragedies and, most of all, through its significance to all of us as a canary in the coal-mine of our collective civil liberties, Milk is an experience that will resonate with critics and audiences alike. It deserves to. It's just a shame that, with a few slightly different and carefully placed decisions--with a few strategic reminders to Mr. Van Sant and Mr. Penn, that they were supposed to be depicting someone we could all connect with as being just like us--it could have been so much better.

The Key Grip awards Milk four bald heads out of five. And will scream bloody murder if it wins Best Picture. Which it probably will.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida

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