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Pondering My Pet Goat: Bush in Fahrenheit 9/11.

Bushwhacked
By Shawn Stone

Fahrenheit 9/11
Directed by Michael Moore

Lefty bomb-thrower Michael Moore has reined in his usual self-promoting, bombastic instincts and made a very funny, often vicious and surprisingly thoughtful attack on George W. Bush, the Bush family, members of the Bush administration, Congress and numerous others who acquiesced to or profited from everything that’s happened since Sept. 11, 2001. Fahrenheit 9/11 is one-third in the manner of Noam Chomsky, and two-thirds in the manner of the famous attack on Grover Cleveland (for fathering an illegitimate kid): “Hey ma, where’s pa, gone to the White House haw haw haw!”

Moore leads us back through the last four years, and it’s a painful journey. From the stolen election through the salad days of the Bush presidency, it’s comedy tinged with anger. From Sept. 11 through the Iraq war, comedy becomes rage, which then gives way to something somber and—God help me—almost heartfelt. The fact that Michael Moore is responsible for this is amazing.

Our president, Bush the Younger, is presented throughout as a tongue-tied, unreflective moron. Some call this unfair. I disagree. Based on his public speeches and other appearances, it is perfectly valid as an arguing point: Even if he’s not really a moron, Bush rarely betrays the slightest hint of intellectual effort. Nothing distracts him: not the protesters who pelt his limo with eggs and nearly shut down the inaugural parade (“Forgot about that one, didn’t you?” Moore seems to be saying), nor the unwanted facts presented by his terrorism czar that point to Al Qaeda, not Iraq, as the force behind Sept. 11.

The issue, really, is indifference. By the time our president interacts with the rest of us, all his thinking is done. A deeply religious man, he’s talked everything over with God and Dick Cheney, and is certain of his course of action. He’s not going to debate anything, he’s just going to make a pronouncement. As Bush says, raising his golf club after a passionate exhortation against terrorism, “Now watch this drive!” (It’s one of the many funny but terrifying moments in the film.)

Michael Moore has to know all this, but is cagey enough to recognize that connecting the dots between Bush’s unwavering belief that God is blessing the war and his policies might offend some of those Moore is trying to persuade. Better to present the president as a mere simpleton, rather than a God-informed simpleton.

Moore brings the film to a powerful climax by highlighting certain unpleasant truths about war, class and race. Going back to his home town of Flint, Mich.—a place even more miserable now than it was at the time of Moore’s 1987 film Roger and Me—he shows us how the poor (white, black and brown), with few other options, sign up for the military. And, through the life of one multicultural family, how these same futureless kids die for the rest of us. Then he takes us to a “conference,” where rich and (mostly) white folks have a delicious menu of subcontracting options to choose from in the Iraq war. They piously praise the troops while drooling at the public teat. These blood-drenched greedheads can’t help themselves, and it’s not a pretty sight.

I was already in the anti-Bush camp, so Moore’s preaching went over well with me. There’s enough power and fact in his argument, however, that I can’t help but think that Fahrenheit 9/11 will make a few converts.

Jungle Love

Two Brothers
Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud

Most everyone who has seen The Bear remembers, in particular, one scene. The cub, threatened by a predator, rears up and gives a plaintive would-be roar. Amazingly, the predator skedaddles . . . at which time the camera pans back to show us the real reason for such easy surrender: the cub’s surrogate mamma bear, risen to full battle mode. Despite the warm-cuddly this scene gave filmgoers, however, it underscored a crucial problem with The Bear, that for all its respect of nature, it was a tad anthropomorphic.

With his newest take on the animal kingdom, Two Brothers, Annaud somehow avoids the cutesy, and delivers an amazingly rich, often complex tale of animal survival amid the encroachment of human civilization and the attentions—sometimes well-meaning, oftentimes not—of man. Tiger cubs Sangha and Kumal (they are actually named later on, but for reasons of plot description, I’ll refer to them as such right away) enjoy an idyllic existence with their parents in the jungles of Cambodia, until the desire for ancient relics drives big game hunter Aidan McRory (Guy Pearce) to their midst, a meeting that proves fatal for one family member and portentous for Kumal. Meanwhile, the French colonial administrator (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) arranges a staged safari for the effete Prince (Oanh Nguyen) who controls his political destiny, and in the process, son Raoul (Freddie Highmore) uncovers baby Sangha.

Over the next year, the fates of the two cubs are wildly uncertain, as Aidan is imprisoned, and Raoul’s parents give Sangha, after he understandably mauls their annoying little dog, to the Prince for keep in his “menagerie.” All manner of human cruelty is witnessed, most obviously by the circus keepers (Vincent Scarito and Moussa Maaskri), who aren’t above selling an animal’s hide for a quick buck, as well as by natives who happily sell out one party to the next, again, for monetary gain. It’s as if the tigers can’t get away from man’s innate greed, whether in the jungle or enclosed in a cage in a golden palace.

It might sound like the type of movie that’s easy to groan and roll one’s eyes at—OK, I get it, man bad, animal good. But it’s never really that simple, even when faced with the fact that while more than 100,000 tigers roamed the Earth a century ago, now, because of man’s quest for “progress” and prizes, there are fewer than 5,000. Many of the human characters of Two Brothers are complex, as are their rationales for why they do what they do. McRory, in particular, has always believed that by hunting wild animals, he is protecting populations, while, of course, earning a lucrative living. His Vietnamese guide (Mai Anh Le) esteems the Buddhist relics that McRory plunders, but encourages him to go after the tigers that have harmed her people, including her legless brother. Even the Prince seems conflicted, revealing a hidden soft side that he feels he must overcompensate for, in order to be accepted as great a ruler as was his revered and feared father. As for the more sympathetic character, Raoul, his kindness and love to Sangha can be seen as a form of cruelty, in that he is preventing the tiger from learning to live on his own, in his natural habitat. Such complexities compel the viewer to engage in this movie in a way that is much different from, and far deeper than, say, Bambi.

And then there are Sangha and Kumal. Actually, 30 tigers were used in the course of filming, with a little computer generation thrown in, although where I happily can’t even begin to guess. (All of the close-ups are of the “real” Sangha and Kumal.) Annaud takes great time in developing the characters of these animals, without resorting to voice-overs or too-cute moments, but in simply allowing the camera to portray them for long moments, at rest, at play, asleep and in danger. The sheer beauty of these felines is magnificent enough, but to get this glimpse into their lives is nothing short of thrilling. At times while watching Two Brothers, I had the uneasy feeling that there was simply no way that a happy ending could be achieved. The odds were too daunting, the chances so grim, and I mentally tried to prepare a “Well, that’s what it’s like in a nature” speech to deliver my heartbroken kids when the movie ended. Without giving anything away, suffice it to say that the characters’ particular triumphs are remarkable, and rooted for, and yet cannot be cheered without the acknowledgement that it is only a matter of time before something, most likely man, gets to them.

—Laura Leon

One Tear Too Many

The Notebook
Directed by Nick Cassavetes

The Notebook, a love story set in both past and present, is adapted from the Nicholas Sparks novel, and like previous Sparks adaptations (Message in a Bottle, A Walk to Remember), the entire plot runs on sap. Nick Cassavetes, once an edgy auteur (She’s So Lovely) is true to Sparks’ soft-focus nostalgia and gushing sentiment, while his sincere direction tactfully ignores the simpering dialogue and thin-as-chiffon character development. What the film does have going for it is a prettified but unflinching long view of the “after” part of the happily-ever-after equation.

The notebook is a handwritten love story that Duke (James Garner) reads to his sweetheart (Gena Rowlands), who is losing her memory to Alzheimer’s. Duke has a worsening heart condition, and they reside in the same nursing home. The story is about Noah (indie darling Ryan Gosling) and Allie (starlet of the moment Rachel McAdams), who meet in the early 1940s. Allie’s family, a scion of Charleston society, is summering in the backwoods of North Carolina, where she meets Noah, a laborer in a lumber mill. Noah gets her attention by crashing her Ferris Wheel ride; he dangles by his hands from a wheel bar until she agrees to go out with him. After agreeing, she pulls down his pants. This proves that he is reckless and she is spirited. For their first date, Noah coaxes her into lying down on Main Street with him. This indicates that they are falling crazy in love, and also that there was once a time when cars were an infrequent sight in small towns.

But since The Notebook is largely about nostalgia, the cars are all mint-condition classics in fabulous colors. And the clothes are exquisitely fetching, from Allie’s checked bolero jacket to Noah’s rakish flat cap. The couple go to the pictures, swing on a rope over a swimming hole, and kiss on his front porch in a veritable parade of 1940s Life magazine photo spreads. In fact, the art direction creates its own longing, one that almost overpowers the longing of the two lovers, who’ve been distilled to the barest traits of personality. Excitable Allie squeals a lot; taciturn Noah shuffles during long silences a lot. With only sketchy and contrived material to work with, the two young leads have to rely on their own charisma to generate heat. For the radiantly cinematic McAdams it’s as easy as a summer breeze to convince the audience of her allure. Gosling, however, goes blank when he should be smoldering.

Allie’s snooty parents disapprove, of course, especially her prim, controlling mother (Joan Allen, a refreshingly tart presence amid the niceties). “They’re trash!” she imperiously opines to Allie, referring to Noah and his literate, middle-class father (Sam Shepard). Allie is duly packed off to Sarah Lawrence. Then World War II breaks out, seemingly for no other reason than so Noah can watch his best friend get killed and thus return home a changed man. Believing that Noah has forgotten her—apparently, only her mother picks up the mail—Allie becomes engaged to the dashing heir to a cotton fortune (James Marsden). In the film’s most unnecessary plop of saccharine, the droning narration informs us that Noah’s face flashed before her eyes at the very moment she said yes.

Will true love triumph over rarefied social distinctions and a million-dollar income gap? As is usually the case when inherited wealth gives one of the suitors an unfair advantage, the underdog rapidly closes the gap, and Noah is no exception. He renovates an old mansion to build furniture in, and though the film doesn’t stoop to showing him selling his furniture—preferring more picturesque montages such as his heartbroken rowboating on a lonely lake—we can assume that he’s making a bundle from his Pottery Barn-like home furnishings.

Meanwhile in the present, Duke’s sweetheart begins to recognize the story, and the audience is let in on the unsurprising fact that she is his wife, Allie. As Cassavetes delicately maneuvers for a three-hankie ending, Garner and Rowlands conduct themselves with becoming dignity. Garner, God bless him, even gives The Notebook what the greeting-card script and air-brushed cinematography fail to deliver: A show of genuine emotion.

—Ann Morrow


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