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Money is power, and all things flow from that.  So it would seem in the world today, or at least in Jack Abramhoff’s world, the subject of this documentary from the director of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Taxi to the Dark Side (Oscar nominated and Oscar winning, respectively).  I don’t see this movie being in the same league as the previous two (I will have to watch them to be sure), but it is very informative about the nature of humankind in the world and the greed inherent within.

Lobbying is nothing new in Washington.  Special interests usually dominate over other matters, and if you pull for a specific special interest, then you’ll be rewarded come election time.  The system works like that (however fixed or broken it may be).  Abramhoff was the best at it though.  He was a smooth talker, he was smart, and he had a lot of allies, many of which he bought with money.  He knew the loopholes to get things done, and he knew how to get things killed too if they didn’t appease him.  His back story placed him in the conservative movement around the time of Reagan, where no government was best and everyone loved him.  Abramhoff was part of the College Republicans, a group of college-aged Republicans who made the Republican Party and conservatism cool for young people (the old adage always went: Democrats (progressives, leftists (I refuse to use liberal because the term is often misused)) thought with their heart, Republicans thought with their heads).  They lived by the law of the jungle, as they say.  They supported revolutionary groups against communism, often traveling to Afghanistan, Central America, and Central and Southern Africa in support of these groups, though they were often quite shady indeed (which isn’t new: support the person who’ll support you, yet turn a blind eye to the human rights issue caused by their actions).

Abramhoff didn’t get his full influence going though until Republicans took over Congress in 1994.  It was then that he really flexed his muscles (quite literally, he was a very imposing figure, having been a champion weight lifter in high school or college).  It’s hard to describe in summarizing detail what he did, as the documentary is full of details, but he had a variety of ventures both in America and around the world: the Mariana Islands (and in its capital, Saipan), Native American reservations (this would get him in the biggest trouble) and their casinos, and a floating casino, amongst others.  He supported people that supported his cause of deregulation, and got it in Senate Majority leader Tom DeLay.  Towards the end of his run as a lobbyist in Washington, Abramhoff had dealings with at least twenty Senate and House Congressman, those who supported him and he supported.

What got him into the biggest trouble was a kick back scheme hatched with a former representative’s staff member.  They would take large sums of money (six and seven figures) and split it between themselves, with most of this money coming from reservations.  They often acted in getting these casinos shut down, then would pit the casino owners against each other in either keeping one open or preventing others from getting closed.  Again, the amount of detail is staggering, and no summarizing would do this justice, but Abramhoff did a lot, reap a lot, and paid the price.

If I have one main criticism of this film, it’s that the filmmakers didn’t (or couldn’t) interview Abramhoff himself.  Given his non-committal answers during the Senate hearings, it would have been interesting to hear why Abramhoff did what he did.  Granted, he probably would have been barred from saying anything given that he may be still assisting the government in figuring out who he helped (both Republicans and Democrats alike), but if this were made after his prison sentence (which is ending at some point soon, right?  Four years, convicted in 2006, I think the math adds up), it would have been interesting to see him in a one-on-one interview.  The profile created by the film with the news clippings and filmed instances of him talking helps, but nothing works better than the direct source.

The film also creates, in some way, an interesting juxtaposition between regulation and deregulation.  It does attack deregulation a lot, especially in light of the housing market crash and the banking failure in 2008.  Deregulation works to an extent, until people start getting greedy.  It’s inherent in all people: I want this, and I want more, and I won’t stop until I get it.  Banks made tons of money off of people who couldn’t afford houses, and everything imploded (the blame falls on the banks, yes, but also on the people who thought they could live beyond their means).  Regulation works to a certain extent as well, until too much regulation strangles people and causes anti-government backlash (kind of like what’s happening right now).  In short, the happy ongoing battle between capitalism and socialism, both equally flawed systems.

Still, this is a good documentary.  Do pay attention though, if you can.  This is a long documentary (at two hours, one of the longest, if not the longest I’ve seen yet), and there is a whole lot going on.  The filmmakers do a great job of laying everything out and connecting the pieces though, even if you’re not getting it the first time.

B+

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I haven’t researched the true story that this movie is based off of (yet), though I’ve had plenty of time to do so (not really). It’s an interesting dilemma concerning race relations and the melting pot that occurs not just in France, but in other countries around the world. France is of particular note (this is a French film): the large Muslim minority coupled with the increasingly disgruntled youth and the lack of job opportunities available makes things incredibly tense indeed.

Actually, I might be mixing the wrong things together, but even then, both of these groups on their own doesn’t makes things easy. The film itself touches on both of these aspects, through the experience of a young lady who is just looking for attention. She is out of school and has no job, but also has no real ambition either, other than roller blading around Paris and riding the train. She lies a lot too, which gets her into trouble when she commits the biggest lie of all (I can spoil, since the trailer decides to do it for everyone).

The movie is split into two distinct arcs: Circumstances and Consequences. Circumstances introduces the players: Jeanne, the young woman, and her mother Loiuse; a young man, Franck, who is captivated by the young woman; a divorced couple, Alex and Judith, with a son, Nathan; and the son’s grandfather, Samuel Bleistein, who has a history with the young woman’s mother and is also a prominent Jewish lawyer. Consequences deal with, well, the consequences regarding all of the characters and how they react to the fake attack. There is a theme of renewal and alienation running throughout the film: Alex and Judith get back together (for reasons that were unclear to me) at the dismay of Nathan, and Louise and Samuel reconnect because of Jeanne. The youth are alienated, but are drawn together as a result of the alienation. Much like, well, youth everywhere that experiences events in life that confuse them and offer no real answers. France just happens to be the perfect setting for such a film.

The film isn’t perfect: like I said, the reasoning for the divorced couple remains unclear (they really do have a strong dislike for each other), but that acts to move Nathan forward. Also, the second arc moves rather quickly in comparison to the first, but then, it can because Jeanne’s story falls apart almost immediately. I’m only nitpicking though. This is a rather strong film, a character study acting as a speculation for why someone would cause a national stir over a fake crime. Enlightening and engaging.

B+

Let me start off by saying this: I’m a fan of King Arthur.

I know, I know, this is Robin Hood.  But I do mean King Arthur.  The one I’m referring to, more specifically, is the 2004 version, directed by Antoine Fuqua with Clive Owen as the title character.  I only saw it once, but I remember enjoying it because of the realism it brought to the Arthurian legend.  It wasn’t the most historically accurate, but it grounded the legend with an attempt to place him into a realistic setting.  That I enjoyed.

That’s the same idea, I presume, brought to Robin Hood, wherein the legend is placed within as close to a historically accurate setting as possible.  Granted, liberties are taken, but it’s nothing overwhelming to make one complain.  The same could be said for Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, where again some liberties were taken.

This is probably why we have the “historical fiction” genre of literature and film.

As for this film, Scott set it as a prequel to the outlaw Robin, when he robbed from the rich and gave to the poor.  This Robin Hood (using his given name Robin Longstride) fights in the English army for King Richard the Lionheart during the last of the crusades.  Robin is dismayed with the actions taken by King Richard (the film opens with them laying siege to a castle in France), and decides to leave the army with a few of his fellow commoners (Will Scarlet, Little John, and Allan A’Dayle).  King Richard is killed in battle, and his personal guard is ambushed by Godfrey, an English spy for the French.  Robin assumes the role of Robert Loxley (one of the king’s personal knights), heads off to Nottingham to return Robert’s sword to his father, and eventually courts Maid Marion, who was married to Robert.  Elsewhere, Richard’s brother John becomes king after his death and rules quite unjustly, Godfrey pillages England, in the name of the king, with the French assisting him, and other different plots ravel and spin around until the final battle on the southern coast of England.

Yes, there is a lot going on, but it all works.  I imagine that there will be the eventual director’s cut release (this movie clocked in at 150 minutes) that will expand on portions of the plot lines, making things a bit smoother (it definitely helped with Kingdom of Heaven).  The film is beautifully shot, both with the choreography and the battle sequences (of which there are several).  The acting was well done, though some of the characters were mere set pieces that didn’t get much; unfortunately, it was the early version of the Merry Men of Sherwood forest that didn’t get much characterizations, between the drunkards of Robin’s personal guard and the feral children that would eventually form part of the Merry Men.  The movie moves though with Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett as the leads.  They are both solid and very reliable.

Mark Strong, sadly, is now being typecast into every villain role imaginable.  Then again, he has the look of Evil Bastard That’s Up to No Good, so it does kind of work.  Four movies in six months as the villain though?  Someone cut this guy a break.

As for the realism, I actually did enjoy it.  I know the main portrayal of Robin Hood as always been of the “merry” sort, dressed in green, with the pointed feather cap and his band of men always up to no good (but, up for good, dependent on view point).  And, they have fun too.  The legend of Robin Hood is, I suppose, a happy one (just see Mel Brooks’ “Men in Tights”).  Scott’s Robin Hood isn’t, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be.  Given the setting (late 12th century England), it wasn’t necessarily a fun time – or a fun place for that matter – to live.  With the kings always asking for more money, people often live off of nothing: food, water, clothing, etc.  Frankly, it sucks.

And that’s what I probably liked most about this version of Robin Hood: it helps establish the legend by placing him in a very accurate setting (again, historical liberties aside) and actually showing just how difficult life was, and how one man with his (eventual) band of merry followers made all sorts of trouble for the king because of his unjust ways.

Kudos indeed.

B+

Note: Russell Crowe a few days ago spoke of an eventual sequel that goes into the legend of Robin Hood itself.  I’m not necessarily holding my breath on that: medieval movies don’t generally make a lot of money domestically, and with the budget being as high as it is (over $200 million), the movie needs to make a lot of money to break even, and probably even more to create a sequel.  I would gladly see one made, but the chances of that aren’t very good.  But, we shall see.

I think I was able to summarize Iron Man 2 easily on my Twitter page.  As follows:

“good, first one better, but still fun movie to watch – B”

Now, I won’t leave it at that.  I’ll try and write a bit, in case some of you haven’t seen it yet.

Tony Stark, as Iron Man, has successfully brought a near era of peace to the world.  The government want their own Iron Man suit (preferably his), but Stark won’t allow it.  Mainly, it’s the government trying to get contracts out to make power suits for the military (which explains Justin Hammer and the Hammer Corporation).  Ivan Vanko, dismayed over the betrayal of his father by Stark’s father, constructs his own arc reactor and powers his own suit.  Lt. Rhodes gets his own suit.  Pepper Potts is trying to figure out what’s going on with Stark, while also hiring a new secretary with an alter ego.  And stuff blows up.

Actually, I just dissected the trailer.  But it also contains enough of the plot to get you moving.

The movie itself is generally quite fun.  Robert Downey Jr. as Stark is just as comical as the first one (he and Paltrow have the best exchanges in the movie), but he’s also quite serious as times, especially when he finds out that… yeah, I’ll withhold that plot spoiler.  The cast is a little bit unwieldy at times: you have your basic characterizations to know who is good and who is bad, but no where in between.  Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow suffers the most from that, but she’s also rather secretive in that regard as well, probably because of her focus.  She certainly looks good.  Mickey Rourke as Ivan Vanko (Whiplash) is a suitable villain, being sinister and vicious (almost passive aggressive, in certain regards).  Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer probably suffers a bit as well, simply because we know he’s bad, and he isn’t given much to do except for trying to find ways to one up Stark.

Oh, and I started pondering the various plot holes in the movie as it blasted towards the end.

But I’m nitpicking.  The movie is quite fun when Stark is on the screen, even during the darker moments.  The selected action sequences (the Monaco racetrack, the suit fight during the middle, and the final fight) are all filmed quite well, though parts of the concluding fight seemed rushed.  But it’s also tight and controlled, which is a thankful thing indeed (compare this concluding fight to, say, Transformers 2, and you’ll understand the reasoning).  Favreau has an eye for action sequences, and he films them well.

So, all in all, a solid sequel to a particularly good franchise.  Not a strong step forward, but a good step indeed in establishing the character, and, more importantly, establishing a story arc for the Marvel movie franchise in general.

B

Note: I’d like to add that this had the best Stan Lee cameo thus far in a Marvel movie.  It’s a blink and you miss kind, but also hilarious if you catch it.  Also, once again, stay after the credits.

Third movie, and this one will be quick.

Trucker woman drives trucks for a living. Comes home one day with her son Peter being handed over to her: the father is dying of cancer. The two have no relationship at all (they call each other “Dude” and “Diane” respectively), but start spending time with each other and eventually break through their tough exteriors and accept each other.

Yes, very formulaic and predictable. Two reasons to consider it though: the performances and the deviancy from the norm. Michelle Monaghan, so bad in that action movie with Shia LeBouf (Eagle Eye, right?), is quite terrific as Diane. She’s tough, honest, but wants nothing to do with her son. She just wants to make a living, which is why she dumped her son with the father, played by Benjamin Bratt. The other great performance is from Nathan Fillion, who plays a friend and wishful lover to Diane. He has a quiet intensity that works well for the character.

The other reason, the deviance from the norm, comes in the interaction between mother and son. They don’t like each other, but they begrudgingly get along. What makes their relationship different is that they change only enough to satisfy each other. Diane is still a tough trucker, even if she’s changing some of her decisions regarding her travel life. The son is willing to try with her. He won’t call her mom though, and probably never will. What she did to him when he was born will never change, but he’ll give her a slight chance.

Those are probably the main reasons to see this movie. It works since it sticks close to the formula, but the performances and the nuances make it worthwhile enough.