Sunday, June 5, 2016

Satires about fake wars and the like

There's a genre or subgenre I don't really like all that much that I happen to have seen two of this weekend.

It's the satire about a fake war, or a real war concocted for fake reasons. There are not a huge number of these films relative to the total number of films out there (an obvious statement you could probably say about any niche corner of the cinematic universe), but I've now got two more of them under my belt.

The first I found randomly on Friday night, after my wife and I had finished our evening's allotment of television. I was really too tired to start Michael Moore's Canadian Bacon at nearly 10 o'clock, but I found it on Stan and started it anyway. I made it through 50 minutes before sleep overtook me, and I finished up the next morning.

We got an earlier start the next night as Ricky Gervais' Special Correspondents, a Netflix original, was our compromise out of a lot of bad options. Newly committed to considering Netflix movies as valid entries into my year-end list -- the ones it distributes if not the ones it commissions, necessarily (sorry Adam Sandler) -- I researched the origins of Special Correspondents and determined they had nothing to do with Netflix itself. So we queued this one up not long after 8 -- but I finished it by myself at nearly midnight, which should tell you something about its quality. (I'll tell you more if you stay tuned.)

One is about an artificial orchestration of hostilities between the U.S. and Canada in order to increase the approval rating of an American president who has no war to his credit and no natural enemies at this juncture. The other is about a pair of radio news correspondents who are supposed to be covering a military coup in Ecuador, but lose their passwords on the way to the airport and pretend they are actually in Ecuador while sending dispatches from the apartment across the street from the office.

I quite liked the one I didn't expect to like, and hated the other.

I'd been led to believe over the years that Moore's one foray into fiction filmmaking was an unmitigated disaster, a blemish on a "clean" record of liberal documentary rabble-rousing. Well, I beg to differ. It's not a comic masterpiece, but it's so much better and so much funnier than I was led to believe. It's got all of Moore's trademark satirical considerations and it certainly captures the spirit of an obvious source of inspiration, Dr. Strangelove. (Rip Torn as the aggressive general is practically channeling George C. Scott from that film.) Also, the characterization of laid back Canadians is wickedly funny, with the special standouts being Steven Wright as an excessively polite mountie and the elderly couple in rocking chairs who are charged with the night shift on the national power grid.

And I'd been led to believe that Special Correspondents was good. And by that I mean my wife said she heard someone had said it was good. But Special Correspondents is awful, a total failure of writing, directing, cinematography, editing and acting. Eric Bana's character is aggressively unlikable and never actually redeems those traits. Gervais is self-indulgently schlubby. Vera Farmiga is really slumming it as a woman who capitalizes on a hostage crisis by becoming a celebrity with her own recording contract and perfume line. And the wonderful Kelly MacDonald is left with literally nothing to do. The script is so belabored with painful exposition, most of it delivered by a wooden Kevin Pollak, and the film is just excessively mean-spirited. Avoid it.

If Canadian Bacon is indebted to Dr. Strangelove, I suppose Special Correspondents is more dubiously indebted to Wag the Dog in terms of its tone and general level of absurdity (though it is nowhere near Barry Levinson's film from a technical standpoint). Wag the Dog is the movie I think of when I think of not liking movies like this. There's a self-satisfied tinge to the satire in that movie that just leaves me cold. The absurdism on display there is too cynical, relying too much on people being total idiots in order to believe the fake war that gets concocted (for very similar approval rating reasons to Canadian Bacon, though Wag the Dog actually came two years after Moore's film). I guess I prefer the public to be dumb in kind of sweet ways, like they are in Canadian Bacon.

The other movies listed on AllMovie as similar to Wag the Dog kind of divide me. While I tend to really like movies like Ace in the Hole, Bulworth and Argo -- love in the case of Ace -- movies like In the Loop and American Dreamz do nothing for me. However, other movies on the list that I think are a little less like the movies I'm discussing in this post -- Birdman, Primary Colors, The Ides of March, The War Room, The Contender, Thank You For Smoking and Bob Roberts -- are movies I also like. So maybe I like this type of movie more than I think I do.

Better not see many more like Special Correspondents, though, or it will tip the scales in the other direction for good.

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