As a movie critic for TCS Daily, I sometimes feel like a bicyclist at a Harley-Davidson convention: My presence is tolerated, people are friendly enough, but I'm not exactly necessary. I know that most TCSers want to get their brain-motors running, reading-wise, on heavy-metal issues of technology and society. And any techster today knows that movies are just a small part of the show -- a legacy medium, shrinking relative to the endlessly proliferating content to be found online. But some films are still worth pedaling over to see and enjoy.
Moreover, some films represent important new trends, such as the trend toward do-it-yourself -- or at least do-it-without-Hollywood -- moviemaking and distributing. One such samizdat film is a documentary, "Border War," produced by David Bossie, president of Citizens United, a DC-based activist group. Bossie, a veteran conservative activist, told me that about five years ago he decided to "do something different" to promote his beliefs. And so he traveled out to Hollywood, got turned on to documentaries, and started making them -- nobody told him he couldn't.
The best known of his documentaries so far is "Celsius 41.11: The Temperature at Which the Brain... Begins to Die," a response, of course, to Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 911." And while Bossie didn't win any Oscars, he did make a splash, even turning a profit for his group.
As for "Border War," it's going to appeal to conservative immigration hawks a lot more than libertarian immigration doves. So be it. Those with other points of view should be making their own movies, and it's never been easier.
Bossie's insight is the realization that today movie-making talent is widely distributed. All those high schools and colleges and garages are cranking out kids who know their way around a videocam -- and also know how to upload to Youtube. Moreover, not all these talented kids are liberals and left-wingers, not by a long shot; an up-and-coming cineaste doesn't need to pass through the ideological strainer of NYU or UCLA anymore. And it's rich beds of talent nationwide that make "alt.conservative" movies possible. That's why "Border War" is entertaining and fast-paced, because it attracted lots of non-traditional, right-leaning talent. The viewer is never bored over the 90-plus minutes, as we observe events from California to Arizona to Washington DC. Bossie's "Border" delivers a strong message, telling the stories of border patrol agents, the people they catch, and the politicians and activists who help and hinder the process. One clear star is Rep. J. D. Hayworth (R-Az.), who comes across as a forceful and articulate advocate for border-controlling, indeed, wall-building. The audience-friendly style is playing, at this moment, at a regular commercial theater here in Washington and in a half-dozen other cities.
So just as bloggers broke the ideological stranglehold of the MSM, so a crop of countercultural -- truly countercultural -- filmmakers have penetrated the movie biz. That's why one sees conservative films in the strangest places; it's not just Mel Gibson doing it his way in Hollywood, it's lots of different filmmakers, including the Clinton-bashers who made "The Path to 9-11" on ABC and Barry Goldwater's family, who were behind "Mr. Conservative" on HBO.
Bossie's next film, by the way, is a documentary on Hillary Rodham Clinton, starring Dick Morris. Something tells me already, months in advance of its premiere, that The New York Times is going to hate it -- but I can also foresee that Bossie is going to sell a lot of tickets, and a lot more DVDs.
By comparison, regular movies these days are mostly boring. That is, Hollywood takes its old methods -- a star, a script, a producer -- and whomps them into a package, hoping for a hit. So let's take a quick scan, as to what's really not worth pedaling over to see.
We'll start with "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby." This NASCAR comedy, starring Will Ferrell, is genuinely comedic in places, but on the blue-state/red-state continuum, it's unmistakably a movie by blue staters, for blue staters -- about red staters. Which is to say, it's deeply condescending, even at times insulting. If that's your cup of popcorn, have at it.
But if white Southerners aren't your thing, how about black Southerners? Try "Idlewild," set in Georgia during the Depression; it's an honorable failure of fusion, attempting to combine the authentic jitterbug musical style of the 30s with the hip-hop style of today. But the film's real success, if that's the right word, is at mainstreaming necrophiliac impulses. Think I'm kidding? Yup, beautifying corpses, and then singing to them, is a big part of this picture. If that piques your curiosity, go see "Idlewild" -- but be careful who you sit next to in the theater.
Skipping around the Sunbelt, we come to "Quincen~ara," which, come to think of it, is actually a pretty good movie. Set in today's Los Angeles, it's a coming-of-age story, touching on issues ranging from urban gentrification to teen pregnancy to gay promiscuity. And don't worry that this is some sort of politically correct flick -- just the opposite, in fact. It's as real and close to the bone as its low budget would indicate and necessitate.
But elsewhere in Los Angeles, we confront turkeys such as "Hollywoodland," which is best summed up in three words: "poor man's 'Chinatown.'" If Ben Affleck needs a comeback picture -- and boy, does he ever -- he should hook up with Matt Damon again. This murky film, about the life and death of George "Superman" Reeves, is a loving look at the cars and cigarettes of the 50s, but the story is weirdly inconclusive. 'Nuff said. And as for "Black Dahlia," it's worse. Please trust me on this: If you need some noir in your life, it's better to Netflix the real thing -- the 1974 classic "Chinatown," starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway.
Oh, and moving way to the east, to Vienna, we come, last and definitely least, to "The Illusionist," surely the most overrated movie of the year. A film about a magician has to deal with this basic question: Is the magic real, or not? If the magic being portrayed onstage is supposed to be mere trickery -- strings and wires and sleight of hand -- then it has to be shown to be an act; it can't be presented to the movie audience as truly magical. That is, we, the real people in the movie theater, have to have some sense that the act is an act.
Alternatively, if the magic shown in the movie is supposed to be truly magical -- as in, the magician genuinely has supernatural powers -- then the movie must riddle this question: "If the magician is endowed with such godlike powers, why is he simply doing tricks, such as instantaneously growing a genuinely juicy orange tree out of a hat? Why isn't such a wonder-worker instead turning lead into gold? Or turning old age into youth?"
But "The Illusionist" is so in love with itself -- and with its vision of a plebeian trickster playing the mighty Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary for a fool -- that it doesn't bother to answer such threshold questions. Indeed, the only effective spell cast by the movie has been on the critics; they've been so mesmerized by the Old Vienna mystique that they've been misdirected into not noticing its underlying nonsensicality.
OK, now to a real movie, "The Protector," which came all the way from Thailand to give us something fresh and interesting to watch. I can assert, without fear of contradiction, that it's the best martial-arts/animal-rights movie that's been released this year. This import reminds one that even the calculatedly kickass genre of martial arts can be juiced up by an added increment of talent, by additional creative thinking -- and, of course, by discovering new ways to twist and break the bad guy's arm or leg. "The Protector" illustrates why folks started making films in the first place -- to show us new things, to give us new ideas, to remind us of old values in a new light.
The star of "Protector" is one Tony Jaa, who is, I will say it, pretty cool. I won't assert that he's a great actor, but this ain't no Shakespeare -- although even the Immortal Bard loved a good fight scene and this film has about ten good fight scenes.
Like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan before him, Jaa demonstrates that the martial arts art form is just that -- an art form. He flies across the screen with the grace and bouncy aestheticism of a dancer, but also with the intensity and purposeful athleticism of a warrior. So fine art meets the berserker art; Terpischore the Muse meets Conan the Barbarian. And it's a wondrous admixture to behold.
But "The Protector" is more than just chopsocky. It could just as easily be entitled, "A Boy and His Elephant." The star, Jaa, was actually born, in real life, to a family of elephant herders in Thailand; he doesn't need to act to evince sincere pachyderm-philia. Indeed, "The Protector" offers a modest lesson on the central place that elephants hold in Thai culture and consciousness.
So when the film begins, Jaa, playing a character called Kham, is enjoying a rustic idyll with his elephant friends, especially a baby elephant called Kohrn. All of which should be enough to tell the bad guys, "Don't get in the way of Kham and Korhn!" But do the bad guys listen? No, the villains kill Kham's father and then grab Kohrn and another elephant, spiriting the quadrupeds to Sydney, Australia. Kham, of course, comes after them. And so the plot, such as it is, is set in motion.
But of course, it's not plot-motion that one expects to see in a martial arts movie. It's action; it's violence, albeit of a certain stylized kind. A few people get killed, but it's the orthopedic ward, not the morgue, that can expect the big increase in traffic—all those hundreds of villains limping in with broken arms and legs after their confrontation with the heroic elephant-protector.
Beyond the silly plot, the film has a non-silly message: Be nice to animals. And if you aren't nice, well, you'll have to deal with the Wrath of Jaa. To which I say, "Go, Tony!" Throughout history, heroes have always sought to vindicate the weak—so why not extend that circle of concern to our critters?
So that's "The Protector," the first pro-mammal martial-arts movie. I loved it. And if you love to see animals -- or if you love to see a good flying kick to the head -- you'll love it, too. It's one of those few movies that are worth pedaling over to see.
But for the most part, yes, it's a weak crop of commercial movies this late summer/early fall. That's why I am excited about the latest offering from Bossie Productions, and looking forward to the next picture, just in time for 2008.
Jim Pinkerton is TCS Daily's media critic.