Friday, March 22, 2019

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World of Good Animated Sequels

© Dreamworks

I wasn’t originally planning to write about How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, the obligatory third part to the crown jewel and prime money-maker of DreamWorks Animation. Then I remembered that this series has been butting its head into the Files since the beginnings of both, and so the completionist in me feels obligated to assess the final one, not only for the benefit of DreamWorks, who have 90% of critics telling them they can do no wrong, but also for my own as a maturing writer and critic.

As with many threequels that are too eager to placate fans with inflated expectations, Dragon 3 talks about twice as often as the original and communicates nary half as much. More than just a disappointing cash grab, it stands as a microcosmic case study of all the forces that have been degrading Hollywood entertainment over the last decade, one that retroactively augmented my esteem for the flawed second film.

The plot of the film resembles a shambling re-animation of two long-deceased kiddie movie frameworks, viz. the forced migration from a no longer habitable home (Dinosaur, The Land Before Time, Ice Age 2, et al.) and the conniving dog napper, here re-purposed into a comically gaunt and Nordic hunter whose raison ’d’être is to exterminate all of dragonkind. When Hiccup rightly impugns his bad guy principles by pointing out that Nosferatu himself commands an army of “Deathgripper” dragons—the better to chase our heroes and create spectacle, my dear—the villain laughs the accusation off, asserting that those aren’t “real dragons” because he drugs them into obedience with their own venom. Checkmate, YouTube critics. No inconsistencies or plot holes to see here. This still doesn’t make Max Von Pseudow an interesting or empathetic figure, certainly not with an affected Transylvanian voice supplied by F. Murray Abraham, the Oscar-winning Salieri of Amadeus.

As I recall How to Train Your Dragon 2, the overarching writing credo of that film was to take the message and characters of Dragon and flip them inside out. Whereas the first movie reveres Hiccup for defying the will of Chief Stoick and acting brashly in defense of what he believes to be right, the second movie reprimands him for his filial impiety and air-headed millennial hubris. In 2014, I didn’t take fondly to this twist because it seemed to come at the contrived expense of Hiccup, a young man who’d demonstrated a certain composure and critical outlook. Having now seen the full trajectory of the series, I can commend the second installment for having the gumption to do anything with the main character—integrity be damned.

Hiccup’s principal motive in Dragon was to effect peace between the Vikings and the dragons, while in Dragon 2 it was to avert an imminent war between Berk and a barbaric chieftain, whom he mistakenly believes will be privy to negotiation. Both of these drives speak to a deeper value in his character and are ripe for both personal and political exploration. In Dragon 3, Hiccup is moved to find a new home for the dragons because Berk has simply gotten too crowded. Along this journey, he tries to set Toothless up with a female night fury by pure coincidence and at no discernible cost to himself, while other thankless characters like his mother urge him to join the unconditionally supportive Astrid in marriage, a union he doesn’t protest at any point. These threads make for a stunningly inert narrative wherein neither Hiccup, nor his mannequin of a girlfriend, nor the unrelatable paleface antagonist undergo any development or have to make hard decisions.

Remember how Disney shills insecure in their admiration of a children’s movie played up the angle that Toy Story 3 was intended more for adults than the kiddos: that Pixar was deliberately catering to college students who grew up with the VHS tapes or Gen X dads moved to tears by dredged-up childhood memories? DreamWorks landed themselves in a similarly opportune moment with this franchise, which has charted such familiar domains of adolescent development as first crushes, death in the family, and assuming responsibility for people besides oneself. The Hidden World should have been the chapter where Hiccup and Astrid, if not consummate their love on a fur pelt in a vivid anime interpolation, at least have a stern, mature conversation about his roommate Toothless and whether it’s time for the best friends to separate and start their own families. Instead of advancing the nuanced human relationships that arguably pushed Dragon to the top of the DreamWorks pyramid, writer-director Dean DeBlois took the easy route and focused on a nonverbal mating game between two adorable, wide-eyed fairy tale creatures. It appears the easy route might have reaped the greatest spoils, as trailers emphasizing the meet-cute of Toothless and the girl dragon helped Dragon 3 capture the best opening weekend of the trilogy.

Granting this is a trivial cartoon made for children with no insight to proffer on the human condition, can The Hidden World get any credit for the dragons? The first movie achieved a fine balance of making the Vikings’ nemeses colorful and loveable but also nonhuman and dangerous. One could understand why the warriors dreaded the beasts even while rooting for Hiccup to show them the error of their ways. By the time we get to Dragon 3, commercial interests have swallowed any mythical grandeur, physicality, or distinctive traits left to the dragons, reducing them to a throng of loveable doglike pets ready to be peddled as plush toys and action figures. Toothless gets to keep some smidgeon of personality, but he himself suffers an anthropomorphic makeover, no longer believable as a legendary king among monsters.

A lot of people have lauded the animation work in Dragon 3, the lowest-budgeted entry, as the best in the series, in large part because Toothless draws a picture in a sand bank that looks exactly like real sand. If higher polygon counts or more realistic hair and grass are someone’s main metric of good animation, then I wouldn’t know how to convince such a person that Dragon’s animation has visibly soured over the years. When Incredibles 2 came out, some critics seized the occasion to note how far CGI has advanced since the comparatively rudimentary Incredibles; how long will it take popular consensus to grow disenchanted with the computer graphics in DreamWorks’ grand finale? Preoccupation with 3D animation “detail” or “realism” seems a uniquely American foible. Films like Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and Princess Mononoke look just as impressive today as they did in the ’90s, having put most of their chips in technology that isn’t aging rapidly. Even the first Dragon can lord its darker, more intricate lighting and shadows over The Hidden World, which continues to repaint the world with a sunny, candy-colored palette more reflective of competing cartoons.

Cuteness trumps narrative functionality or theme, and scenes that are primarily dramatic feel like a welcome reprieve from the “comic relief”. I said that Dragon 3 talks a lot more than the original, which has many scenes of intentionally sparse or absent dialogue where Hiccup gradually earns the trust of Toothless. Somewhere along the marketing research treadmill, DreamWorks or DeBlois got the message that audiences liked the hilarious interactions between Snotlout, Fishlegs, Ruffnut, and Tuffnut, who barely figured into the first film but I imagine have a sizeable role in the Netflix series. I would venture that these characters have twice as many lines collectively as they had in 2, not one of them being funny or instrumental to the film. In a rather characteristic scene, Tuffnut advises the peg-legged Hiccup to “lose the limp” because “no one’s going to marry that”. When Hiccup informs him that his gait stems from a physical disability, Tuffnut says something witty like, “And I’ve got a parasitic twin, but you don’t see me limping around about it!”

So goes the humor in the third part of a critically-acclaimed animated franchise. AFOD’s (adult fans of Dragon) used to be able to tune out these minor characters, as their idiocy was incidental to the plot. In Hidden World, their mishaps—a brother abandoning his sister in battle because they hate each other; said sister assuming the bad guy let her go with no intention of secretly following her—are actually integral to it.

Somewhere over the course of watching the movie and mentally drifting off from boredom, it occurred to me that there has never been a truly good animated sequel in the West, and DreamWorks’ series makes it blaringly apparent why. As a new IP that early adopters had no guarantee would satisfy them, How to Train Your Dragon had the luxury of being able to make risky choices concerning its characters, choices that endowed their actions with moral significance. In the DVD commentary track, the creators talk about the positive reaction at test screenings to Hiccup’s amputation at the end; one child appreciated that the protagonist “lost something, but he gained so much more”. The Hidden World doesn’t have the same benefit because the filmmakers have to skirt around inflicting terror upon children, who are conditioned by witless media outlets and a consumerist culture to “identify” with or “look up to” unattainable fantasy characters. How can a director like Deblois sleep knowing that he may have corrupted, maimed, or misrepresented a figure who brings joy to millions of people? It’s easier just to do nothing with him.

In How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup’s courage and commitment to Berk cost him a limb. In Dragon 2, his arrogance cost him his father, even if Stoick’s death didn’t loom over the film to a great extent. In Dragon 3, Hiccup tries to sacrifice his own life to save Toothless, but ten seconds later the movie saves them both miraculously anyway, Last Jedi-style. Some days later, Hiccup marries Astrid and says a final goodbye to Toothless, himself involved in a serious relationship with the girl dragon. Here the movie could have ended on a beautiful callback to the first film’s training scene, signifying that our friendships irrevocably change and bless us even when our friends must journey elsewhere, never to see us again.

The Hidden World, however, is too coy to end on such a poetic note, or to suggest that the hero’s best friend could actually be his wife. Instead we get a manipulative, happy-go-lucky epilogue in which a bearded Hiccup and his offspring reunite with Toothless and his offspring and they all go flying together above the clouds while John Powell’s theme music swells. Nothing ventured, nothing, for me at least, gained.

The CGI was good, though, so I’ll give it an A-, slightly below what I gave Captain Marvel, which is also decent and entertaining despite its slight deficiencies in comedy, drama, romance, action, suspense, acting, writing, editing, cinematography, makeup, and shot composition. Please support these films.

Friday, October 5, 2018

"A Private War" Movie Review – Indie Movie Round-up #2

War as Chore

A Private War is the kind of sadistic movie to spoil its ending within the very first shot and continue spoiling it doggedly only to stretch out its climax forever when it finally gets to that point. The camera glides up and away from a debilitated courtyard to reveal a Syrian city blanketed in a haze of dust, as Rosamund Pike speaks some voiceover that may or may not prove important later on. The rest of the movie hopscotches from one Middle-eastern conflict to another, each location change accompanied by a title card that suspiciously notes how many years remain until Homs, Syria. This basic editing syntax enables even those unfamiliar with the real journalist Marie Colvin to deduce that she will absolutely die in Syria, which wouldn’t be such a problem if the movie didn’t take nearly two excruciating hours to get there.

Anyone who had qualms with the pacing of Adrift, The Impossible, or Lone Survivor is bound to suffer at A Private War, to an even more grueling degree; whereas those true stories carried the implicit guarantee of survival and triumph by the fact that someone lived to write about them, this one relentlessly portends death and failure. It exemplifies a prestige picture cousin to lowbrow slasher films, except there is no final girl, and the sweet release of violent closure only comes with the requisite face reveals before the credits. In the final act, Colvin bunkers down in a chiseled, hardly intact building along with other news reporters and Syrian rebels. After she broadcasts footage of a dying child to Anderson Cooper in impeccable movie fashion (the roof above her threatens to collapse), her cameraman moves to evacuate, considering their mission accomplished, but Colvin wants to stay and “help” by taking more pictures of corpses and shrapnel victims. This difference of priorities induces a drawn-out sequence of running back and forth in a missile rainstorm, culminating in the effective suicide of a protagonist whose agenda and plan of action we cannot begin to comprehend.

A Private War holds such contempt for the time and intelligence of its audience that it basically demands outside homework to answer what its heroine hoped to achieve. Normally one of these biopics ravenous for awards would include a scene concisely establishing what compels the main character. American Sniper, Hacksaw Ridge, The Social Network, and even Spotlight all leap to mind as true-story films that summarily supply a motive for their subjects. Screenwriter Arash Amel, on the other hand, makes the avant-garde decision to start his script in media res and never work his way back to the chronological beginning. How does Colvin define the terms of her own success, and why does she choose to put her life on the line for the negligible gains of “gruesome photos” that sissified networks won’t air anyway? “I see it so you don’t have to,” she barks, in a pretty damning comment on mass media in 2018, when merely looking for a concrete chain of events in Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, etc. is sufficient grounds to label someone a purveyor of Hate Speech.

Again, what is the narrative question at play in A Private War, and what are the stakes? Colvin has no personal connections, unlike in those aforementioned pictures, nor does director Matthew Heineman show any tangible policy impact of her work. Instead he makes sure we notice in virtually every scene that she’s a smoker and an alcoholic, and lest we fail to connect the dots ourselves, he even politely spells out the subtext of sorts. Towards the middle of the film, Pike prattles something like, “I am repelled by war zones, yet feel compelled to be there,” which causes her astute cameraman to share an epiphany: “It’s because you’re addicted to it!” I noted on my screener form that this dialogue, if anything, should have been stricken from the movie. Little did I know that Aviron Pictures had already cut together a trailer with the very same Eureka moment as its centerpiece. Why hold a test screening for marketing research if you’ve already committed to an ad campaign and set it in motion?

Taken as a cautionary tale about addiction, the worst possible outcome of this drama is that Colvin goes through metaphorical withdrawal from lack of death and suffering, while the best is that her story outrages some pundits on an irrelevant entertainment channel. Sensing that the movie could use a more viable emotional core beyond its Giver-esque delusions of grandeur—sparing peasants the pain of having to witness the troubles of the world—, Amel decided to insert a romantic partner in the form of Stanley Tucci. A Private War attempts to wring some personal loss out of this relationship, which would ring more truly if Colvin didn’t exhibit a progressive and morally apathetic posture towards sex, having intercourse with so many interchangeable men that she seems to attach little significance to the act. Tucci’s character is cinematic turkey stuffing, contributing nothing to the literal, internal, or workplace conflict of the film. It surprised me to see he made the final cut, especially in an era when female-led pictures, e.g. Frozen and Disney’s Star Wars, conspicuously avoid shoehorning in a male paramour for fear of being called misogynist.

Heineman stages action elegantly with gusto and grit, so it’s a shame there isn’t more of it. One particular shot tracking the actors from behind appears reminiscent of Full Metal Jacket, although it’s lopped off in the strangest of places, declining to show how the intrepid journalists escaped from a line of gunfire. Pretty much all the warfare scenes end prematurely, as the script would rather wallow in Colvin’s psychological ailments, injecting contrived scenarios in which characters discuss PTSD in the most Oscar-courting manner. Notwithstanding the child bleeding out in Homs and some other brief episodes, the film largely averts its eyes from the human toll of warfare, and by extension from whatever gave the protagonist a sense of purpose.

When it isn’t laboring overtime to show that smoking and drinking are bad for you, A Private War eventually collapses into self-important propaganda, painting a portrait of the Syrian civil war so monochromatic and simplistic that even interventionist Obama supporters may be tempted to roll their eyes at it. I would say it irked me by turning into a CNN ad at the end, but the feature had already squandered my goodwill by that point. Yes, the politics of Heineman’s film seem frozen in the 2012 presidential debates, but the bigger takeaway from it is that personal problems supersede political ones. I suppose that’s how they came up with the title.

The Not-P.T. Anderson Brothers

“It’s the journey, not the destination.” Such is the credo of Jacques Audiard’s new western The Sisters Brothers, which seems to posit that all you need for an interesting movie is several revered actors to trash-talk each other while camping in the great outdoors. Story is of secondary importance, as are witty dialogue and multi-dimensional characters, at least to a discriminating Toronto or Venice audience.

Look no further for a prime example of the whole amounting to less than the sum of its parts. The Sisters Brothers competently herds together all the expected ingredients of its post-Unforgiven genre, from grisly shoot-outs in untouched vales and plains to hardened, morally crooked heroes, and while that mix may sate the appetite of certain critics, I was let down by the scarcity of risks taken in its script. The story is split unevenly between two duos, one being the eponymous brothers involved in the hitman profession, the other being a Transcendentalist commie prospector and whoever Jake Gyllenhaal was supposed to be. John C. Reilly plays the older Eli Sisters, a kind and gentle man, at least as hired killers go anyway. Throughout the movie he bears the burden of compensating for the outbursts of Charlie Sisters, a temperamental and violent drunkard. I guess you could say he’s forced to be his Sisters brother’s keeper. From this premise and execution, one redeems another long-suffering, fraternal camaraderie story, written in the mode of Mean Streets, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, or As Tears Go By but nixing the romantic subplot and most of the melancholy comedy or craft.

The performances are all fine and good, though it’s hard to err with the trifecta of Joaquin Phoenix, Reilly, and Gyllenhaal. Out of these three, the usually comedic actor gives the most natural and compelling performance precisely because he’s trying the least for an Oscar, whereas Phoenix’s volatile drunk routine seemed more credible in Walk the Line and Gyllenhaal’s accent screams awards season fakery, albeit dedicated fakery. Going back to Magnolia, Reilly has always been a mite underrated in an industry that prizes the big and bold and transformative, the Streeps and the Depps and the Dicaprios. He provides the emotional center of this largely hallow adventure, briefly selling us on the tragic background of the Sisters family in one illuminating scene that falls too close to the end.

The ever dependable Alexandre Desplat composes another decent score, though deferring from any instantly memorable theme such as he made in Isle of Dogs or Shape of Water. The meticulous sound mixing does the utmost to immerse viewers in the wilderness, though not enough to make up for the shallow and intimate cinematography. Leave it to a Frenchman to conceive and direct a western visualized for the most part in handheld close-ups. The credits list the acclaimed Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne as producers, and if not for the English dialogue, period setting, and general uncouthness of the characters, one could be forgiven for mistaking it as one of their films. There’s hardly an interesting shot in the whole movie, though I can at least compliment the depiction of the gunfights, which are messy, disorienting, and often over quickly.

Audiard gracious avoids committing many of his peers’ more pervasive artistic sins, to an extent that I want to like The Sisters Brothers more than I actually do. In an era of filmmaking weaponized against the Trump regime and consequently against itself, when even the Jurassic Park franchise birthed by Michael Crichton has sold out for cheap political points, it was refreshing to see an indie film with no such pretensions. As I said, Riz Ahmed basically plays himself as the idealistic roamer who wants to start a Brook Farm-styled village in Dallas, a place where he hopes to eradicate violence along with the profit motive. The movie makes no statements on the feasibility of his dream, nor does this strand go anywhere in the grand scheme of things.

By all accounts except for its anachronistic modern vernacular, The Sisters Brothers feels like an old-fashioned, slow-paced western, and yet it doesn’t reach half of its full potential. Many such films juxtapose male and female characters placed in turmoil to get at the root of what distinguishes each sex—what makes a man a man and vice-versa. So ingrained is the topic of masculinity in the genre that indies dubbed “revisionist westerns” (usually by academics who also love to spam the “anti-war” label) have deliberately “subverted” the gender politics permeating older westerns. For a movie focusing exclusively on four male actors with distinct public personas, Sisters Brothers curiously contributes almost nothing to the ongoing definition of masculinity in entertainment. Reilly and Fargo’s Allison Tolman share one scene in a brothel, which shows him to be a woman-respecter and then waves the great, up-and-coming actress away as abruptly as she appeared.

Despite the paltry virtues of Audiard’s performers, The Sisters Brothers almost made me yearn to be watching a John Ford & Wayne collaboration instead, and that is really saying something.

Mandy Serves up Anti-Reagan Revenge Fantasies, Instagram-style
© Mandy Films, LTD.

Note: If you would rather listen to a review that covers most of the points below, my friend and I recorded a related podcast under the moniker of Two Monkeys. We generally differed on the merits of the film, so the podcast makes a good companion piece to my written thoughts.

In the time since I watched Mandy about three weeks ago, the metal-inspired revenge film starring Nicolas Cage has garnered high praise from Kyle Smith, Sonny Bunch, and the folks at Red Letter Media. This puts me at odds with roughly half of the professional critics whose insight I value, along with the hundreds whose opinions I don’t. Director Panos Cosmatos had formerly directed the small cult film Beyond the Black Rainbow, which I described as “an extremely soothing, soporific product, bound to crush even the most rigid insomnia”. Despite a trailer that portended a more eventful and plot-driven trip, Mandy unfortunately offers more of the director’s plodding shtick, that is until it tilts over into a no-holds-barred, glorified revenge fantasy against (I think) demonic Christian cultists. I would be offended by the blasphemous connotations of its imagery and literally monstrous characterization of religious people if Cosmatos didn’t try so hard to bore me ahead of the slaughter.

The movie opens with a long overheard shot of the woods set to Starless by King Crimson before cutting to a car radio playing Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire speech, which the driver irritably shuts off right as the president is condemning pornography and abortion. Cosmatos doesn’t earn either of these references, but the Reagan sound bite effectively announces his intentions: those of delicate constitutions and/or strong moral persuasions should run to guest services for their refund. The inciting incident doesn’t occur until about half an hour into the film, and once it does, we receive basically no explanation for who the villains are or what motivates them to murder the protagonist’s wife. In any case, the second half of Mandy shrugs off its über-artsy robes and morphs into a traditional slasher revenge flick—one that just happens to benefit from the presence of a typecast, unhinged, and debatably good Nic Cage.

Almost every aspect of Mandy can be regarded as a failure. The frames are doused in vivid strokes of pink and red that call to mind a J.M.W. Turner painting; while the art style occasions some scattered pretty images, it makes for an eyesore when applied to a two-hour film, over which the wary viewer will think less about the story than about the process of applying 50 different filters in editing to achieve a hallucinogenic look. The script was seemingly assembled from a smorgasbord of cryptic movie trailer lines, and the violence itself suffers from incoherent editing.

Going by U.S. release date, Mandy signifies the last cinematic contribution by the recently-deceased composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. The wistful, bass-heavy score doesn’t sound like anything he’d written before, and while it isn’t destined to replace Arrival or Sicario as my default night drive soundtrack, it does stand as a testament to the artist’s versatility. I only wish it came packaged with a better film.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Fahrenheit 11/9 – A Conservative Review

© Midwestern Films

Michael Moore’s latest documentary is more funny and engaging than half the movies I’ve seen all year, a rip-roaring typhoon of disruptive montages and risible proclamations. Barring some extended deviations from the red-capped elephant in the room, I was grinning and laughing constantly in the theater, but in a demure and tepid way befitting my station as the lone, out-of-place conservative in a very vocal audience of leftists.

Allow me to draw the scene. It was primetime on a Friday evening, and roughly 15% of the seats were taken, which sounds terrible in writing, but it’s rather standard performance for documentaries. This movie isn’t doing Dinesh D’Souza or Won’t You Be My Neighbor business, but we’re talking about an Orange County cineplex frequented mostly by Boomers, Hispanic families, and church groups going to the latest Pureflick, so I’ll cut it some slack. Anyway, I walked into the theater about 30 minutes late (I caught the first section earlier) and took a seat on the aisle, figuring I wouldn’t cause a disturbance to the two empty rows above me. The auditorium looked like one of those “packed” Hillary rallies you’d see in a news story, the type to be presented in obviously cropped photos. At this point in the film, Moore was reviving a sore loser’s respite that I thought was buried long ago, viz. that the electoral college is an outdated, unfair relic needing to be replaced. “You can’t call it a democracy if the person who gets the most votes doesn’t win,” he stated indignantly, which struck a chord with at least three people behind me, stirring a round of “Amen!” for gutting one of our oldest checks on mob rule. Nor was that the end of participation from the audience, who would guffaw and groan and “mmmm hmmm, that’s right!” wherever appropriate.

If not for my decision to leave the safe space of my home and assimilate with that pumped-up crowd, I doubt I would have reached this revelation: that Michael Moore is a kind of rock star to the left, for reasons not too difficult to grasp. This overweight, unkempt, unruly, and perpetually grimacing man knows how to string together a bunch of original and archived media to hold somebody’s attention for close to two hours, which is all that some critics need to dub somebody a great director. That he loudly and consistently espouses anti-capitalist ideals is just the icing on the cake. Even his ideological rivals can respect the momentum and smooth-talking fervor of his works; Moore bitterly, and perhaps a tad conceitedly, includes a reel of Jared Kushner, fellow filmmaker Steve Bannon, and even Donald Trump praising his cinematic sensibility. “I hope he never does on me,” jokes the current president in a Roseanne Show flashback that’s almost too good to be true. The provocateur’s response is jaded and laughably somber: “It seems I’ve gotten too close to the enemy.”

On the subject of things too good to be true, Briarcliff Entertainment has sold Moore’s latest picture under egregiously misleading advertising. Billed as a spiritual sequel to Fahrenheit 9/11, which I’ve heard described as a focused invective of George Bush and the War on Terror, Fahrenheit 11/9 would seem to promise a similar takedown of the Trump administration. “How the f___ did we get here, and how the f___ do we get out?” reads the synopsis. For about the first 30 minutes, the film delivers on this agenda, kinetically slashing and rehashing clips that audiences will probably remember from the mainstream media cycle.

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about Fahrenheit 11/9 is how resilient and unshaken Trump emerges from a movie designed primarily to impugn his character. He appears good-humored, authoritative, and more relatable than all the career politicians running against him, despite Moore desperately hurling almost every anti-Trump overture at the wall. Once he exhausts all the more rote objections to his presidency—the presence of racist individuals at certain rallies, Russian intervention, Trump’s act of “committing treason in front of the world” (ostensibly, by shaking hands with Vladimir Putin), his whole campaign being an ego trip, the “They’re rapists” meme, and various other charges—Moore reaches to the bottom of the barrel and pulls out the really amusing tidbits, most insipid among them the theory that Trump had sex with his daughter and knowingly supported a governor whom he accuses of “slow-motion ethnic cleansing”.

It’s not surprising that the Tweeter-in-chief has resisted the urge so long to denounce the movie officially. One gets the impression while watching Fahrenheit 11/9 that its creator doesn’t put much stock in half of the assertions he makes, and that lack of candor combined with his overly cinematic style makes it a struggle to conjure genuine outrage at any message he spins. Moore’s parlor tricks run the gamut of leftist manipulation, but mainly entail lies of omission, guilt by association, ambiguous definition of terms, and negligence to conducting proper research.

  • After pointedly (and admirably) demonstrating how voters felt a disconnect from the Democrat candidate, and how Trump “took one position after another to the left of Hillary”, Moore tries to discredit the president’s victory as an electoral college fluke, pointing to the results of 7 elections since 1988 wherein Democrats beat Republicans in the popular vote. Conveniently scrubbed from this chart is the fact that 3 of those “wins” were plurality victories, i.e. ones where the majority of voters rejected the Democrat politician.
  • Moore laments these electoral outcomes and Trump in general, arguing throughout the picture that they exemplify a perversion of “democracy”. Unless he’s just profoundly uneducated about American history, which is altogether possible, I’m inclined to call this willful dishonesty, maliciously fine-tuned for ignoramuses who will chirrup, “Amen!” to his every word. Surely Moore knows that American’s Founding Fathers sought to constrain the baser impulses of pure democracy and generally avoided the term in anything but a cautious tone? Then again, he does close the movie by admitting his revolutionary intent: “I want to save the America that we’ve never had.”
  • An aforementioned montage gawks at Donald’s affectionate body posture and statements regarding Ivanka Trump, yet turns a blind eye to more abundant and inappropriate behavior by VP Joe Biden, who habitually stroked, kissed, and fondled women and prepubescent girls unrelated to him and was recorded saying, among other things, “Do you wanna know how horny I am to have a 13-year-old girl standing right next to me?” But this is supposed to be a movie about Trump, so I’ll excuse Moore for overlooking the more extensive and repulsive affronts of his own people.
  • In a sequence compiling Trump’s “admitted racism”, Moore refers to comments the president made in 1989 calling for the execution of “five innocent black teenagers”. The film darts through this point too quickly for the audience to get its bearings, but the teenagers in question turn out to be the Central Park Five, who confessed to and were convicted of raping and assaulting a female jogger. The five youths were never acquitted or exonerated, i.e. declared “not guilty”, nor was any of the physical evidence invalidated that the jury used to reach their verdict. Moore doesn’t bother to acknowledge the complicated nature of the case; he’s got 25 scenes to shoot before the night is through, and rightly assumes his viewers won’t look past the “Trump is racist” explanation.
  • Segueing from his distaste for the electoral college, Moore loudly declares, “America is a leftist country,” lighting the key word up in all caps. As evidence for this claim, he cites such illuminating survey results as, “75% of Americans think immigration is a good thing,” “82% support equal pay for women,” and, “70% want a reduction in the military’s budget.” This line of reasoning is like the leftist equivalent of saying America is a “Christian nation” because the majority of poll respondents oppose legalizing abortion past the first trimester, because most people support allowing prayer in school, or because the Declaration of Independence acknowledges a deity four times.

I would be lying, though, if I suggested that all this Trump lampoonery isn’t somewhat invigorating. Since directing Roger & Me, Michael Moore has been surpassed by many internet-based creatives, e.g. Crowbcat, Red Letter Media, and EmpLemon, but he still deserves credit for popularizing this style of “edutainment” filmmaking. When the film stays on the topic established in the prologue, Fahrenheit 11/9 is a rollicking good time. Unfortunately, Moore runs out of dirt on Trump rather fast, and so he has to devise other, significantly less intriguing ways to fill up screen time.

The first of these digressions comes in the form of the Flint, Michigan water “crisis”, which Moore wants viewers to perceive as a criminal, racially-motivated capitalist conspiracy. In contrast to the more observational Trump scenes, this section of the film contains all of the hunched-over walking and confrontational antics that the director has made his signature, from trying to perform a citizen’s arrest on Governor Rick Snyder to pushing a cup of drinking water in a state worker’s face and daring him to taste it. If those pranks weren’t sufficient to turn viewers off, Moore inadvertently numbs anyone to the situation in Flint by his phony and contrived storytelling, indulging in numerous leering, exploitative shots of black children whom he insists could be retarded due to lead poisoning. It doesn’t take more than five minutes of reading to debunk most of the claims in a Michael Moore film, but his sensationalist rhetoric and white savior posturing defeat their own ends here, probably desensitizing even devout leftists to a public health risk that their own party engineered.

The third act of the film takes an even harder left turn, so to speak, effectively plummeting into an ad for Socialist-identifying Democrats and school shooting activists. The swooning optimism of this chapter yields some occasional cringe humor, but it’s mostly boring and unsatisfying for people who aren’t, like, totally enamored of, like, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the celebrity son of an FBI agent. In mid-March, Moore rolls back the curtain on Parkland student David Hogg’s brain lab, which looks like a thrifty war room in an underground bunker. He and his comrades animatedly celebrate a Republican dropping out of a senate race, right before Hogg admits that he and Emma Gonzales failed two Psych tests to work on their protesting, which almost reveals as much about the figureheads as any banned YouTube video. For the sake of this site’s continued existence, I won’t share my personal opinions about the Parkland shooting, although I did find something disconcerting and awry about Moore’s decision to pair anti-gun marches and speeches with upbeat alt rock music. These sequences feel like the product of a reptilian humanoid, who, having no comprehension of English, interpreted raw footage of such demonstrations as a positive display of communion and hope instead of a livid outcry responding to the cold-blooded murder of teenagers.

After a punishingly long detour that has nothing to do with his thesis, Moore gets back on track with the Trump bashing and interviews a handful of Experts, who compare the president’s populist ascension to Hitler’s. Fahrenheit 11/9 is the kind of left-wing movie to restlessly raise alarm bells against an imminent neo-Nazi takeover, then end with an earnest plea to strip citizens of firearms because an 18-year-old girl said we should. In short, it perfectly captures the cognitive dissonance of neo-liberals, sealing the author’s way of thinking in visual form for generations to come, which is really the point of most good documentaries. It also entertained me more than any film since the end of May, except for those stretches when it didn’t.

At one point in the movie, Moore joyously reprises the failed campaign of Jed Bush, ending with the punch line of, “Please clap.” I did not clap for Fahrenheit 11/9, but I would encourage fellow conservatives to check it out from Redbox or, better yet, the library, because why should truth be sold for profit? I’m sure Michael would agree that $10 rentals have no place in a democracy.