Friday, July 27, 2007

If It Bleeds.....I Don't Like It.

After a slow first couple of days, this week at work has become shockingly...and depressingly, violent.

Last night, some lunatic shot two people outside of a hotel in Southington apparently without any provocation. Then he shot himself. That's pretty upsetting, but it wouldn't have been as bad if it hadn't just come after the Cheshire murders.

Twenty minutes down the road from where I work, two guys broke into a home, killed a mother and two kids, and burnt the place to the ground. You would think we had stepped back into the Dark Ages. Something like that extends far beyond the community in which it happens. The mother was also a nurse at a prestigious private school in Cheshire which had several students in Southington. This gave me the agonizing task of talking to these kids who are still shell-shocked and trying to hold back tears.

The story I come up will be more about the fond memories these people had than about the gory details of the incident, but I learned vividly that other papers went about it very differently. The Hartford Courant is essentially the paper of record for our state, but their coverage utterly disgusted me. The writers delved into nauseating, unncessary detail and the whole thing reeked of sick sensationalism.

I seriously considered quitting this profession when I read those stories....but that said just as much about me as it did the Courant.

I've discovered that I prefer to write about good news...and of course, politics (I'll have a lot of fun with the local elections this year). I'm not the type of journalist who salivates at the thought of a grisly story breaking. It's the opposite really, I tend to get full of dread when I realize I have to cover something like that.

Guess I'll never work at the New York Post.

Saturday, July 14, 2007


Many of my peers would probably avoid trying to place Michael Bay's update of the classic 80s cartoon Transformers in any kind of scholarly context, but I'm not always known for toeing the film critic party lines. In a sea of massive blockbusters, this one stands out as one that will be discussed in future years when the history of big-budget spectacle is revisited.

In terms of special effects, it's on par with the original Jurassic Park in terms of sheer grandeur. This is some of the finest CGI ever put on film. The movie also seems to highlight the disconnect between professional film critics and more casual movie buffs, a divide growing ever more pronounced and visible thanks to the internet…but more on that later.

Michael Bay may be an action maestro (the last 45 minutes of the movie is a protracted and massive brawl), but he's no Steven Spielberg. This is evident from the opening scene, in which a suspicious helicopter lands at a U.S. military base in the Middle East and proceeds to turn into a giant robot and destroy everything in sight. This is the first glimpse of a Transformer and I really hoped the sequence would be filled with awe. Unfortunately, Bay doesn't seem to have time for that. There's a lot of stuff around that needs to be blown up.

After that, we meet the high-strung young hero, Sam Witwicky (the charismatic Shia LeBeouf), an all-American lad about to get his first car. The beat up Camaro he drives home from the dealers turns out to be a Transformer itself, and Sam gets drawn into a galactic conflict of epic proportions. Set on destroying the Earth are the evil Deceptions, who turn into fearsome machines like tanks and fighter jets. Pitted against them are the autobots, which turn into more benevolent vehicles.

The Autobots are led by Optimus Prime, who is voiced by the tremendous Peter Cullen, who has been playing the character since the 80s. Recruiting him is the movie's ace in the hole; nobody else is qualified to play Prime and it's refreshing that the studio had enough sense to realize that. Cullen's distinctive characterization of the robot, both intimidating and full of warmth, is even more appreciated in such a sleek production. Megatron, leader of the Decepticons, is voiced by Hugo Weaving, so everyone start your Matrix jokes. ("You lead two lives, Mr. Prime. In one life, you are a mack truck….")

I've read interviews with the producers who describe Transformers as really just the story of "a boy and his car." Sounds nice, but I'm not sure I buy it. Not when that plotline is just one of numerous subplots contributing to the film's bulky running time. There's the British NSA agent (Rachel Taylor) and her goofy hacker friend (Anthony Anderson, going through his usual "loud doofus" motions), Pentagon officials screaming at each other, Agent Simmons (John Turturro) of "Sector 7," on-hand to offer some fun twists about the movie's backstory, and a small squad of U.S. soldiers (led by Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson) who thought dealing with Iraqi insurgents was going to be the scariest thing they did out in the Middle East.

You get the feeling some of this fat on the script by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman could have been trimmed, but at least the soldier subplot offers one of the movie's most thrilling battle sequences: a stunning clash between a small division of the military and a scorpion-like transformer amidst crumbling ruins in the desert.

What you make of all this depends greatly on expectations. Contrary to popular belief, only the most uptight critics are immune to simple pleasures. The movie is a heaping helping of fun. The action and effects are tremendous, and it's often very funny. However, there's plenty to pick apart as well. The script is messy and bogged down with subplots, there isn't quite enough pure wonder to go around, and character exposition is often incredibly forced.

The almost inevitable response to that is something to the effect of "Who cares? Stuff blows up!" The invective-filled internet communities filled with those who seem to look at a movie as nothing more than a two-hour distraction will point to the high grosses of critically eviscerated films like Norbit and Wild Hogs as evidence that film criticism is obsolete. Critics often react with the knee-jerk response that the success of those films only proves that American are all idiots, but that only plays into their hands.

I propose a compromise. I do recommend Transformers for those looking for a blast of old-fashioned movie-magic and fun. If we could appreciate that in itself without running around calling every new blockbuster the "best movie ever," I think we'll all get along better.

Monday, July 2, 2007


A few years ago, a woman told President Bush during a public hearing that she had to work three jobs to sustain her family. Bush smiled and replied, "Uniquely American, isn't it?" Maybe it is...but that's not something to be proud of.

That's one of only a few clips of Bush that appears in Sicko, his new documentary which has a much tighter focus than his last few films. He's taking on the health care system here in America, the costs and restrictions of which take a heavy toll on millions of Americans like that woman working three jobs.

Moore has already criticized Bush extensively (and before it was trendy, no less), and this time he lays the blame on just about everyone currently in Washington. He flashes back to the 90s, when Republicans and the Health Care lobby dismantled Hillary Clinton's proposal for Universal Health Care, and then turns around and blasts Hillary for the disgusting amount of contributions she has received from the same lobby in the years since.

However, the focus of Sicko is not really on polticians at all, but on average American folk. The opening minutes chronicle the struggles of a few people without any health insurance, like the man who lost two fingers but could only afford to get one replaced. Yet most of the stories come from people who do have health insurance and still can't get any treatment because the industry is entirely committed to making money instead of, you know, helping anyone.

There's the woman who drove into Canada because her insurance company refused to cover treatment for her cervical cancer. The widow of a man who was denied a bone-marrow transplant until it was too late. The old couple who lost their house to massive medical bills and had to move into their daughter's storage room. Moore wisely stays behind the camera during these sequences, only providing his signature sarcastic narration. In fact, he doesn't appear on screen until about 45 minutes in, when he's interviewing his own aunt and uncle.

The second half of the movie drags and is less strong. Moore goes to Canada and a few European countries and shows off their socalized health-care systems. It's not hard to make the point that most of the Western World has better health care than us, yet this section goes on for almost an hour. It's also hard to swallow that a world-famous filmmaker like him can still try and pass of the image of himself as a wandering, salt-of-the-earth John Q. Public.

The final sequence, in which Moore takes 9/11 rescue workers to Cuba for medical treatment because they couldn't afford it in the USA, has already drawn considerable controversy. It's vintage Moore, which both helps and hurts. His showboating is often hilarious, but it also gives his critics ammunition. They tend to be selective in their attacks, and will no doubt dissect the admittedly fairy-tale quality of this whole segment.

They won't talk about the testimonials, however. What can anyone even say? It's the power of these stories alone that makes Sicko one of the finest films released this year so far. The movie has come at the right time, when a looming presidential election is getting candidates to discuss what they would do to help those manhandled by the current health care system. Most politicians propose adding a few band-aids to try and fix the current one, but Moore is advocating the socialized system of the other countires he visited. It's quite audacious, given that there's still a scary and disproportinate fear of socialism left over from the McCarthy era. Maybe that's the solution, and maybe it isn't. I'll venture this, however: Nobody can walk away from Sicko and think that the system is just fine the way it is.