Saturday, November 20, 2004

Christmas in My Soul

I love my country
As it dies
In war and pain
Before my eyes
I walk the streets
Where disrespect has been
The sin of politics
The politics of sin
The heartlessness that darkens my soul on Christmas.
-- "Christmas in My Soul" words & music by Laura Nyro

As most of us have learned, after Thanksgiving the days tend to pass quickly (unlike when we were children). With more people ordering gifts online each year, consider this post and the last post a heads up. It's also hoped that by getting this done with, the focus can go on other issues instead of attempting to address this in the days after Thanksgiving.

As before, please add to the discussion on both what you would put on the list and also on what holiday you'll be celebrating. Here are ten suggestions of DVD gifts. Unlike the book list, these are in the order of rank that our panel of five voted.

1) Orwell Rolls In His Grave.

This documentary is one of the two best on the media that I've seen this year. (The other, Danny Schechter's WMD, was one I saw at a film festival but will soon be going into general release. If it comes to a theater near you, please attempt to see it.) Robert Kane Pappas takes a hard look at the news media today. This film makes for great after viewing conversations.

It's only available via buzzflash and for a minimum donation of thirty dollars at In addition, buzzflash has two interviews with the director and The interviews should give you an idea of whether the film is one you'd like.

2) The Dreamers.

Bernardo Bertolucci focuses on three young people in Paris as the tensions of the time (1968) explode. More a look at romance than politics on the surface, undercurrents of the same initial desires do surface in the political dance that shadows the romantic one. The soundtrack is strong and film buffs will enjoy the allusions to film classics. (All three of the leads are film buffs.) The film is rated NC-17 and contains nudity.

3) Dick.

The sky is falling, the sky has fallen. The prospect of four more years of Bush has damped the spirits of many. Dick might be just the thing to get them laughing.

Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst are high schoolers in 1972, another dark time in our history. Having just mailed a letter to a teen magazine (for a win-a-date-with-Bobby-Sherman contest), Dunst & Williams re-enter the Watergate building Williams lives in just in time to bump into G. Gordon Liddy. Chance and a school trip to the White House bring them back into the orbit of the Nixon gang. As Official White House Dog Walkers, they see the dark underbelly of the administration and work to expose it.

This Andrew Fleming film also features Dave Folely, Will Ferrell, Bruce McCulloch, Ana Gasteyer, Jim Bruer and Harry Shearer. It's a funny movie for anyone but even funnier if you know the basics of Watergate. And the message here is "four more years" are far from certain. Or as Michelle Phillips whispers near the middle of the Mamas & the Papas "Dedicated to the One I Love": "the darkest hour is just before dawn."

3) Hearts & Minds.

This film by Peter Davis won the Oscar for best documentary film of 1974. Via interviews and location shoots, it traces the Vietnam conflict. This is a Criterion Collection which means sharply restored and plenty of special features. As with the others on the list, this film really requires time after for discussion.

4) Unconstitutional.

Robert Greenwald and company are back with this follow up in their documentary series. (The three others are Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election, Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War, and Outfoxed.) With Unconstitutional: The War on Our Civil Liberties, they're walking you through the damage to civil liberties post-9/11. Of the four documentaries Greenwald's produced on our current political climate, I'd argue this is the best and the most alarming.

5) The Company.

For Robert Altman fans this is not only a brilliant film but a further utilization of time and space to convey the distances between us. The basic plot regards Neve Campbell's effort to become the prinicpal dancer for a ballet troupe. This is an Altman film where the main story is less important than the subtext. And, as with most of Altman's films, the camera itself becomes a character and commentator. (Special features include a commentary track with Altman and Campbell.)

6) Coming Home.

Jane Fonda won her second best lead acting Oscar and Jon Voight won his first for this film. (Nancy Dowd, Waldo Salt and Robert C. Jones also won Oscars for writing the film.) The late Hal Ashby (director of Being There, Shampoo, The Last Detail, Harold & Maude and The Landlord) directs the film. As some film critics have noted, Platoon gave you a look at Vietnam, Coming Home gave you a look at the domestic scene in the same period but where was the film (non-documentary) that explained how we got to Vietnam in the first place? A question still worth asking.

This 1978 film features strong performances (including Bruce Dern and Penelope Milford who were both earned Oscar nominations in the supporting categories) and some powerful cinematography by Haskell Wexler. In addition, it utilized songs from the period to capture and underscore the unrest. (And would become one of the first films to use soundtracks in the way we know them today. Pauline Kael, among other critics, complained in her real time review about the music: "It's disconcerting to hear words like 'strawberry fields forever' when you're trying to listen to what people are saying to each other.")

A strong portrait of a turbulent time, the V.A. hospital scenes are a must see. As is the scene where hospital volunteer Sally (Fonda) and combat veteran, paraplegic Luke (Voight) speak of the perceptions of others.

Luke: I'm still the same person. It's funny, when people look at me they see something
else, but they don't see what I am, you know?

Sally: I think people have a real hard time seeing who other people really are. People don't
see me like I really am. People look at me, I think, and they see "Cheery Sally, the
captain's wife. . . . Sometimes I feel like I'm becoming what people see.

Special features include audio commentary by Jon Voight, Bruce Dern & Haskell Wexler; a featurette on the movie and one on the director Hal Asbhy; and the original theatrical trailer.

7) The Royal Tenenbaums.

Yeah, yeah, you've seen Wes Anderson's masterpiece, but that doesn' t mean everyone has. And with Anderson's latest film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, about to come out, why not take a moment to share this classic comedy? Strong performances from Gene Hackman, Angelica Huston, Danny Glover, Bill Murray, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller and Luke & Owen Wilson, this two disc set (Criterion Collection) features far too many special features to list.

8) Searching for Debra Winger.

Rosanna Arquette's documentary on art and the sacrifices entailed. In the course of addressing the pressures on actresses, Arquette gets insight from many (including Alfre Woodard, Robin Wright Penn, Gwyneth Paltrow, Meg Ryan, Salma Hayek, Diane Lane, Vanessa Redgrave, Whoopi Goldberg, Frances McDormand, Emmanuelle Béart, Teri Garr, Theresa Russell, Holly Hunter and Jane Fonda) before finally sitting down with Debra Winger.

9) Blow Up.

Michelangelo Antonioni's classic sixties film Blow Up was reissued with special features this year.
(Special features include original trailers for Blow Up and commentary by Peter Brunette who wrote The Films of Michelangelo Antonioni.)

The basic plot is fashion photographer takes a photo without realizing what was in it. Complications ensue. (That's almost a TV Guide slug!) Vanessa Redgrave, David Hemmings and Sarah Miles star in this British classic.

10) Thorougly Modern Millie.

The sixties look of Hollywood films seemed sometimes to be a bad attempt at aping Roger Vadim's color sense. But when it works best, it adds a vibrancy to the screen as it does here.

The film itself works best for me as Throroughly Modern Cheney. Picture Cheney as Millie and substitute "neocon" for "modern" and you're off and running. Colin Powell fills in for Mary Tyler Moore's Miss Dorothy. Watching on that level (and substituting) you can really enjoy when Dorothy/Colin gasps at Millie/Cheney, "You're a modern!" (neocon).

Donald Rumsfeld fills the spot of Jimmy (and the actor James Fox, in those glasses any way, even looks a little like Rumsfeld) . Mrs. Meers would, of course, be Condi which adds to the enjoyment of Mrs. Meers/Condi's attempts to knock Dorothy/Colin out of the loop. Here, arguments break out over whether Bush would be Trevor Graydon (Millie/Cheney's boss) or Muzzy. I argue Bush is Muzzy and that Tony Blair is Trevor. (Hence Trevor's attraction to Dorothy/Colin.)

A great gift for those who say "It's laugh or cry." And a lot of fun to watch as a group while "casting" the roles with the current administration.

With the book lists (twelve), I went with my gut. For the DVD suggestions, five of us voted in a group effort. Some argued their choice based on current events making a film more relevant and some argued on sheer entertainment. Whether or not they fit or spoke to the "mood" of the country, we'll leave for others to debate.

Michael Moore's classic Fahrenheit 9/11 was eliminated early in the voting rounds with the reasoning that it will make every other blog list. Kill Bill Vols. 1 & 2 were eliminated because, as one person argued, "You're supposed to like the person you buy a gift for." Meaning? The DVDs are useless and will be reissued with all the special features they're now missing (such as a commentary track from Tarantino) in a matter of months. Are you going to turn around and regift then? No? So you've given a gift that will be useless and out of date fairly quickly.