Movie Review – The Great McGinty

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The Great McGinty (1940)
Written & Directed by Preston Sturges

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We begin at a bar in a banana republic where a forlorn and suicidal American banker is stopped from ending things by the bartender. The bartender is also an American, Dan McGinty, who tells his patron that he was once governor of a state in the U.S. From there we flashback to the story of McGinty’s rise and fall to power. During the Great Depression, he’s another jobless schmoe who is coerced into a voting fraud scheme for two bucks. He ends up showing an impressive level of moxie, and a local mob boss decides to use McGinty in his plans. He starts out as an alderman before moving to mayor and eventually governor of an unnamed state. But, as the film’s opening prologue tells us, one moment of good will topple McGinty back to the bottom.

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Movie Review – Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Written by Sidney Buchman, Lewis R. Foster, and Myles Connolly
Directed by Frank Capra

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A senator from an unnamed state in the Western U.S. dies, and the governor is forced to name an honorary replacement until the next election can be held. He receives from pressure from his state’s other senator Joseph Paine. Paine is cahoots with corrupt political boss Jim Taylor to get a stooge onboard to help them pass a land purchase bill. The bill will sell the government land they own under false names, enriching them and leaving America with the debt. Encouraged by his children to pick a new local hero and scout leader, the governor names Jefferson Smith as the honorary replacement. Smith is naive and overwhelmed by the patriotism stirred in him once he arrives in Washington. His deceased father has a past with Joseph Paine from when they fought for labor rights in the past. As Smith learns about the working of America’s capital he discovers the ugly truth about the nation he loves.

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Hypothetical Film Festival: Election Season

In a matter of days, the next President of the United States will be decided. During this tumultuous time, it can be fun and educating to look at how films have portrayed candidates, elections, media, and the government. Here’s a line-up that spans the spectrum between serious social drama to goofball satire.

The Candidate (1972, dir. Michael Ritchie)

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While based on a 1970s election campaign, the ideas and political machinations present in The Candidate still feel very fresh. Peter Boyle plays an election strategist who is tasked with finding a Democratic candidate to go up against a seemingly unbeatable Republican senator in California. He find the candidate in Bill McKay (Robert Redford) a community activist who is the son of a former California governor. McKay is reticent to run but is eventually convinced that he can help his causes better in a position as senator. What follows is a tug of war between idealism and the cold machine of politics. Director Michael Ritchie handles the content with a very adult, intelligent eye and produces an excellent film about American politics.

Bob Roberts (1992, dir. Tim Robbins)

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On the total opposite end of the spectrum when comes to tone is Bob Roberts, Tim Robbin’s passion project mockumentary about conservative Republican folk singer who becomes a populist success on his campaign to become a senator. Supporting Robbins as the titular Roberts are Gore Vidal, Giancarlo Esposito, Alan Rickman, and many more familiar faces that pop for a cameo. The film operates as both a political version of This Is Spinal Tap and genuinely (and these days realistically) terrifying examination of the campaigning machine.

Anytown, USA (2005, dir. Kristian Fraga)

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The scene is Bogota, New Jersey, and the conflict is over who will be the mayor. Three candidates are clashing over the position: Republican Steve Lonegan, Democrat Fred Pesce, and independent Dave Musikant. The impetus of the dirty campaign is the cutting of funds to high school football team. The lengthy public fights and arguments are full of the story of fascinating and unexpected twists you find in great small town stories: both the Republican and Democratic candidates are legally blind, the independent candidate hires the former campaign manager of Jesse Ventura, Pesce becomes violently ill near the end of the campaign. The documentary operates as both the quirky story of a small town election and a dissection of the way modern politics divides neighbors.

The Times of Harvey Milk (1984, dir. Rob Epstein)

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I first saw this documentary during a rough time in my life. Out of college, unemployed, sleeping on a friend’s couch. I flipped through the channels and came to the Sundance Channel and was pulled deep into the story of Harvey Milk. The first openly gay elected official in California, Milk was one of the last great McGovern era idealist politicians. I learned about how his public face helped push for the acceptance of LGBT Americans in all walks of life. And when the doc reached the inevitable moments of the end of Milk’s life it is heartbreaking. The interviews with the activists and co-workers who Milk meant so much to made me cry so hard that afternoon. He is one of our modern American heroes.

In the Loop (2009, dir. Armando Iannucci)

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Most Americans likely know Iannucci’s work in the biting and fantastic comedy Veep. However, he started taking apart the inner workings of government and politics on the BBC’s The Thick of It. In the Loop serves as a film spin-off of that series. It features the current Doctor Who star Peter Capaldi as the foul-mouth Director of Communications for the Prime Minister. Almost, but not quite, stealing the show from Capaldi is Tom Hollander as the completely inept Minister for International Development who almost sets off an international incident when speaking off the cuff during a television interview. In the Loop is one of those comedies with jokes whizzing by so fast you’ll discover a deep vein of humor with every viewing.

Being There (1981, dir. Hal Ashby)

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Based on the slim novel by Jerzy Kosinski and directed by Hal Ashby, Being There feels like a mix of Wes Anderson and Armando Iannucci’s irreverent political comedy. The jokes are mostly subtle but build to one majorly stunning ending. Chance the Gardener (Peter Sellers) is possibly the bastard son of a reclusive D.C. millionaire and he’s never left the walls of the property in the heart of the city. The owner dies and Chance is tossed out onto the street where, after a case of mistaken identity, he’s believed to be a political mastermind. Even the President seeks out Chance’s advice. There is a less than covert taking down of government and organized religion going on, which is made very apparent by the final shot. One of the best films about politics and Mr. Sellers’ final work.

A Face in the Crowd (1957, dir. Elia Kazan)

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If you only know Andy Griffith from his early 1960s sitcom then you are in for a huge shock. Griffith plays Lonesome Rhodes, who starts out as a drifter and criminal but also possess an ability to coerce and convince others. A radio producer discovers Rhodes and decides to use his charisma to gather a large populist following through political broadcasts. Rhodes quickly becomes drunk on the power and gains a dangerous level of national influence. He ends up as a tool for corporate peddling, tying their economic interests to the fears of his listeners. This might be the single most prescient film about media and politics ever made. If you ever wanted to learn what goes on inside the minds of men like Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones, here you go. The film also features the criminally underrated actress, Patricia Neal who plays the love interest and adversary to Lonesome.

Comic Book Review – The Sheriff of Babylon Volume 1

The Sheriff of Babylon Volume 1: Bang, Bang, Bang
By Tom King and Mitch Gerads
Purchase the book here!

2015-12-03-sheriffofbabylonFlorida cop Christopher Henry has a new job training the law enforcement forces in Baghdad. It’s 2003, and he is in the heart of the Iraq War. There is the standard level of chaos and violence in the city but things get personal when one of Henry’s Iraqi trainees is found murdered. Henry teams up with Nassir, an ex-cop still hanging on in the city. In the background is Sofia, an Iraqi-American who has come back to the city to help with the rebuilding process while attempting to take control of the organized criminal underbelly. This is the tv series HBO wishes it had the budget to make.

The Iraqi Occupation has been the topic of numerous films and documentaries, but Sheriff of Babylon is clever in its genre-mashing, bringing the detective noir into play. And it works better than you might expect. The instability in Iraq has blurred the lines of authority and no one can be trusted, not even if they do wear a nice shiny uniform. Between the various sub-groups with the American military, privately contracted forces, insurgents, politicians jockeying for power, and a myriad of other factions Baghdad is an incredibly confusing and scary place.
If you are a regular reader of this blog then you know I love Tom King’s work. I’ve previously read his run on DC Comics’ Omega Men and am still enjoying his work on Marvel’s The Vision. This was the first work I’ve read of his that wasn’t within in the superhero genre, though those previously mentioned titles aren’t superhero stories in the traditional sense. King was an intern under writer Chris Claremont for many years before joining up with the CIA in the wake of 9/11. He worked for seven years in counterterrorism which is very apparent in the detailed storytelling present in Sheriff. The series is written with a level of knowledgeability that doesn’t get too jargon-filled and is still comprehensible to a civilian. The story perfectly hits the notes a good noir should, especially on the protagonists increasing confusion as he navigates the labyrinth. There’s also great moments where we see the effort towards good turned to a pretty hopeless defbabylon02eat, as all noir needs to have.

The artwork is exceptionally well done. It’s very photo-realistic with human expression and faces, but with a gritty abstraction in the right moments. In an interview, artist Mitch Gerads explained that a fan who is also a veteran of the war said the book captured the feel of the environment in its colors. Everything is colored in earth tones and primary colors only appear when something needs to pop out of the landscape around it. The uniformity of color also perpetuates a sense of confusion because military people purposefully become hard to differentiate.

The Sheriff of Babylon is a 12 issues mini-series so this volume is just the first half of the story. I enjoyed it quite a bit and reminds me of a really quality cable drama. No character is ever a stereotype and layers are revealed over time and at key moments in the plot. If you’re seeking out a modern war comic, something dealing with the more complex and gray areas, this series has a lot to offer.

Origins 2016 – Urban Shadows

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Urban Shadows (Designed by Andrew Medeiros and Mark Diaz-Truman) is another game from Magpie Games and another variation on the Powered by the Apocalypse system. Are you noticing a trend with me? Urban Shadows was actually the first Magpie game I went all in for. I heard of some of their previous work but didn’t know these games were all from the same publisher. Urban Shadows is also a system I’ve run about 30 times in a series of small interconnected campaigns. I always love playing with a new GM though, because I learn techniques on how to run the game or discover subtleties about it that had completely gone over my head.

Urban Shadows takes many of the elements of World of Darkness with a focus on the faction politics. The four factions of the game are Mortality (Aware humans, monster hunters), Night (vampires, werewolves, ghosts), Power (Wizards, Oracles, Immortals) and Wild (Fae, Humans tainted by demons). Players have two sets of stats: one related to their individual abilities and the second for their knowledge and connection to each Faction. There are Basic Moves but also Faction Moves that require rolling with the relevant Faction stat. You accumulate Debts on other players and NPCs and can spend those debts for favors or greater influence in negotiations. You “level up” or advance by interacting with the four Factions. On top of all of this, there is a Corruption track that is advanced by certain choices in the Basic Moves and by a Corruption condition specific to each playbook. You can pick up new Corruption moves but in the fiction this moves you closer to your character becoming an NPC threat in a later game or campaign.

Thursday evening we sat down at the table with Derrick Kapchinksy, a member of Magpie. This was our first time with him running a game so I was very interested to see how things went. There was also a complete newbie to the PBtA style of game and appropriately Derrick spent time going over the basic mechanics and making sure he was comfortable with the game. After the game, my wife and I talked about how perfectly Derrick described how the system worked, talking about it in the context of a conversation with some mechanics that come to the surface only when needed. Our novice player definitely seemed to take to the game quickly. The urban environs of our game was Albuquerque, New Mexico, a city Derrick is very familiar with. As with all Urban Shadows games it’s fairly important that the GM have a good understanding of the city so they can weave real world elements with a fictional supernatural underbelly.

I played Raul, a Tainted Iraq War vet. He sold his soul in the midst of a firefight to an Ifrit. The result was that he was the sole survivor of his unit and returned to the state haunted by the fiery demon. Now the Ifrit had turned its attention to Raul’s nephew as a potential new host. Raul’s own rage built as the influence of the demon increased causing him to becoming brutally violent with bystanders, he particularly focused on the homeless population knowing they wouldn’t have many people looking out for them. In the opening hour of the game we established that vampires had been wiped out by a fellow player’s Veteran hunter. The Fae filled in that power vacuum but now the vampires were returning to the city.

I was particularly impressed with Derrick’s Redcap enforcers. They appeared as teenage Native American young men in backwards red baseball caps for the Albuquerque Cannons (now the Isotopes). I love that clever blending of traditional folkloric beings with touches of modern life. It helps to create the atmosphere of the supernatural embedded among us. The game consisted in the players getting their characters deeper and deeper into trouble between the Vampires and Fae, culminating in a showdown at a vampire nightclub.

Urban Shadows is one of the best adaptations of the PBtA system. It has a lot of moving parts and thus can be daunting the first time you look over a character sheet. With a little reading up and given some time the fluidity of these elements comes to the surface. As long as you run and play the game with an emphasis on the political you’ll have a great time. This does involve a shift in the traditional tabletop mindset where players receive plot from the GM. Here the GM looks to the players to communicate what things they are interested in doing and see happen. When everyone is on the same page the system sings. If this type of dark, political, supernatural style of storytelling appeals to you then I say you need to buy this game. I know for me it’s provided hours and hours of great gaming sessions.

Urban Shadows – http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/153464/Urban-Shadows

You can also see Urban Shadows in play, run by the masterful Jay Brown here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NZ5Vuy-KoEM

Tomorrow: Monsterhearts & Bluebeard’s Bride

Film Review – Four Lions



Four Lions (2010, dir. Christopher Morris)

For fifteen years British satirist and comedian Christopher Morris skewered media culture and politics through a variety of radio and television programs. Most notably Brass Eye, a mock news magazine show that focused on the exploitative nature of news, and Nathan Barley, a series that followed a fictional web media hipster and looked at the buffoonish nature of a lot of tech people. It comes as no surprise that now Morris has taken on the current war on terrorism and Islamic extremism in our culture’s psyche. It sounds like an outlandish concept to make a slapstick comedy about Islamo-British terrorists, but Morris has the satiric chops to deliver it such a skilled way, and this kind of film demands a very subtle hand to make it work.

Omar is the head of a small unaffiliated terrorist cell in England. He and his friends are surprisingly sympathetic in how pathetic they are. All of them feel insignificant so when given the idea that to martyr themselves would make them heroes they jump on it. Sticking out like a sore thumb in the group is Barry, a man of British descent who is actually the most militant of them all. Omar and Barry clash when the former is invited to a training camp in Pakistan because his uncle is involved. The films jumps back and forth with an episodic nature, and will with out a doubt challenge you because its characters are incredibly endearing. Part of your brain roots for them because they are classic underdogs, but then the intellectual side steps in and says you can’t root for people who plan on blowing themselves and others up for an imaginary concept.

There are some great comedic moments in the film. I loved that to stay under the radar of British officials, the cell communicates via a Puffin Party webchat for children. The chat requires them to have multicolored puffin avatars. At one point, the car breaks down and Barry blames it on the Jews, at which point he is asked which part of the engine is Jewish, and a conversation ensues. Barry also demands they swallow the SIM cards from their cell phones, after which Omar reminds them the SIM cards can still be tracked inside them. Much comedy comes out of the training camp sequence, and I won’t ruin the big reveal of its largest gag but its a good one.

What shocked me was how, during the final sequence when the crew has assembled to perform the bombing during a cancer fun run in London, I felt incredibly sad for them all. Omar especially sees it as wrong to get Waj, the simpleton of the group, to blow himself up. The end credits are composed of fictional news reports about the events in the film, and they made the story feel even sadder. Instead of going the easy route and presenting terrorists as one dimensional monsters, Morris makes them painfully real and relatable. The result is that we still believe terrorism is wrong, but its because of the waste of life that is the result. Omar has a loving wife who is not an oppressed woman and a son who loves him unconditionally, so his sacrifice feels incredibly empty.

DocuMondays – Art and Copy



Art and Copy (2009, dir. Doug Pray)

It’s everywhere. You experience it almost every hour of the day, and it is usually while you are in a passive state. It persists and nags at your brain without you ever realizing it, but when you see it done exceptionally well you sit up and make note. Advertising is a modern psychological virus. The majority of it is terrible, which makes sense when you think about how much of it there is. As the film states, we experience 5,000 advertisements a day in multiple mediums. When it is done well, we slip out of passivity, sit up, and make note. What’s interesting is the best advertising either sets an atmosphere without every directly referencing the product, or is completely direct about the product and the emotion that goes along with it. This documentary interviews the pioneers of modern advertising from the mid-1960s to the 1980s.

The documentary is structured in a very clean way. Each section of the film is divided with a scene without dialogue and statistics on advertising placed over scenes of urban meditation. The first section of the film talks about the environment the featured advertisers came into. We’ve all seen ads from the 1950s which have an air of a false stereotypical salesman’s pitch. With the young turks that took over in the 1960s, they began to create provocative ads that didn’t necessarily give the viewer information on the product, but evoked curiosity and emotion in them. The Volkswagen Beetle ads of the late 60s were a major breakthrough in American advertising, where the quirkiness of the product was acknowledged. Very straightforward taglines were used instead of just making the logo swallow up the space.

It was the firm Doyle Dane Bernach that brought us the Beetle ads, and the shockingly harsh (for its time) American Tourister luggage ad, as well as the hyper arty Braniff airline campaign and finally the I (Heart) NY image. Mary Wells, the Peggy of her time, was an incredibly inventive and creative copy editor who took her background in theatrics and applied it to advertising. The sense of drama in commercials is something that sticks with us today (think Budweiser frogs, Taster’s Choice soap opera). At the time these ideas were presented, the good old boy network in charge were confounded and even the clients were often times frightened at the possibility of risking their brand on such ideas.

The documentary focuses a lot on the divide between the business side and the creative side, particularly how in the old paradigm, the accounts people were over creative. In the 1960s, this was subverted with the creative types either becoming more aggressive or striking out on their own. The East Coast was also the mecca of advertising so no one was noticing when the West Coast firms began rolling out revolutionary campaigns. It was one of these firms that got the Apple Computers contract and brought up the “1984” Superbowl ad, introducing the Mac to us through a Ridley Scott directed ad. You never see the Mac once. This firm still holds the Apple account and came up with “Think Different” in the 1990s and the current silhouette iPod campaign.

The final segment of the film deals with the ethical responsibilities of the advertiser, in specifics how it ties to politics. They feature the Morning in America Regan ads from 1984 that are unlike anything out today, and epitomize the way an incumbent can run and win again. Some of the interviewees agree that the ads works, but from an ethical perspective they find it misleading because of the facts it ignored. Hal Riney, the man behind the Morning in America ad confesses that his habit of going purely emotional in his ads goes back to a childhood where affection was held back from him. In the majority of his work images of the Rockwell America is evoked in a cleverly deceptive way. If you are at all interested in media and the way humanity’s decisions can be shifted by the creative this would be a very insightful film to digest.