Shattered Politics #80: Bobby (dir by Emilio Estevez)


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A few years ago, I was on twitter when I came across someone who had just watched The Breakfast Club.  

“Whatever happened to Emilio Estevez?” she asked.

Being the know-it-all, obsessive film fan that I am, I tweeted back, “He’s a director.”

Of course, I could not leave well enough along.  I had to send another tweet, “He directed a movie called Bobby that got nominated for bunch of Golden Globes.”

“Was it any good?” she wrote back.

“Never seen it,” I wrote back, suddenly feeling very embarrassed because, if there’s anything I hate, it’s admitting that there’s a film that I haven’t seen.

However, Shattered Politics gave me an excuse to finally sit down and watch Bobby.  So now, I can now say that I have watched this 2006 film and … eh.

Listen, I have to admit that I really hate giving a film like Bobby a lukewarm review because it’s not like Bobby is a bad film.  It really isn’t.  As a director, Emilio Estevez is a bit heavy-handed but he’s not without talent.  He’s good with actors.  Bobby actually features good performances from both Lindsay Lohan and Shia LaBeouf!  So, give Estevez that.

And Bobby is a film that Estevez spent seven years making.  It’s a film that he largely made with his own money.  Bobby is obviously a passion project for Estevez and that passion does come through.  (That’s actually one of the reasons why the film often feels so heavy-handed.)

But, with all that in mind, Bobby never really develops a strong enough narrative to make Estevez’s passion dramatically compelling.  The film takes place on the day of the 1968 Democratic California Presidential Primary.  That’s the day that Robert F. Kennedy won the primary and was then shot by Sirhan Sirhan in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel.  However, it never seems to know what it wants to say about Kennedy or his death, beyond the fact that Estevez seems to like him.

(Incidentally, it’s always interesting, to me, that Dallas is still expected to apologize every day for the death of JFK but Los Angeles has never had to apologize for the death of his brother.)

Estevez follows an ensemble of 22 characters as they go about their day at and around the Ambassador Hotel.  As often happens with ensemble pieces, some of these characters are more interesting than others.

For instance, Anthony Hopkins plays a courtly and retired doorman who sits in the lobby and plays chess with his friend Nelson (Harry Belafonte).  It adds little to the film’s story but both Hopkins and Belafonte appear to enjoy acting opposite each other and so, they’re fun to watch.

Lindsay Lohan plays a woman who marries a recently enlisted soldier (Elijah Wood), the hope being that his marital status will keep him out of Vietnam.  The problem with this story is that it’s so compelling that it feels unfair that it has to share space with all the other stories.

Christian Slater plays Darrell, who runs the kitchen and who spends most of the movie talking down to the kitchen staff, the majority of whom are Hispanic.  Darrell is disliked by the hotel’s manager (William H. Macy) who is cheating on his wife (Sharon Stone).

And then, you’ve got two campaign aides (Shia LaBeouf and Brian Geraghty) who end up dropping acid with a drug dealer played by Ashton Kutcher.  Unfortunately, Estevez tries to visualize their trip and it brings the film’s action to a halt.

Estevez himself shows up, playing the husband of an alcoholic singer (Demi Moore).  And Estevez’s father, Martin Sheen, gets to play a wealthy supporter of Kennedy’s.  Sheen’s wife is played by Helen Hunt.  She gets to ask her husband whether she reminds him more of Jackie or of Ethel.

(Actually, Martin Sheen and Helen Hunt are cute together.  Much as with Lohan and Wood, you wish that more time had been devoted to them and their relationship.)

And there are other stories as well.  In fact, there’s far too many stories going on in Bobby.  It may seem strange for a girl who is trying to review 94 films in three weeks to say this but Emilio Estevez really tries to cram too much into Bobby.

At the same time, too much ambition is better none.  Bobby may have been a misfire but at least it’s a respectable misfire.

Shattered Politics #69: Traffic (dir by Steven Soderbergh)


Traffic2000Poster

I have mixed feelings about Steven Soderbergh.  On the one hand, his talent cannot be denied and you have to respect the fact that he’s willing to take chances and make films like The Girlfriend Experience and The Informant.  On the other hand, he’s also the director who has been responsible for overrated messes like Contagion and utter pretentious disasters like Haywire.  And it doesn’t help that Soderbergh’s fanbase seems to be largely made up of the type of hipsters who end up leaving comments under the articles at The A.V. Club.  Some people mourned Soderbergh’s retirement.  Personally, I think he made the right decision.  He retired before his misfires ended up outnumbering all of his masterpieces.

The thing about Soderbergh is that his good films are so good that it makes it all the more frustrating to watch his failures.  If Soderbergh was just your typical bad director than a film like Contagion wouldn’t be as annoying.  But this is the man who also gave us Traffic!

And Traffic is a very good film.

First released in 2000, Traffic attempted to deal with the American war on drugs, a war that the film suggests might not even be worth fighting.  (Full disclosure: I support the legalization of drugs and, for that matter, just about everything else.  And yes, I am biased towards films that agree with me.  So is every other film critic out there.  The difference is that I’m willing to admit it.)  Traffic won four Oscars, including Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for Benicio Del Toro.  It was also nominated for best picture but lost to Gladiator.

Traffic tells three, barely connected stories.  Each story is given its own distinct look, feel, and color scheme.  And while it takes a few minutes to get used to film’s visual scheme, it ultimately works quite well.  Though all of the film’s characters share the same general existence, they live in different worlds.  The only thing linking them together is drugs.

Judge Andrew Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is a judge on the Ohio Supreme Court who has recently been named as the new drug czar.  However, while Judge Wakefield is going around the country and talking to politicians (Harry Reid shows up playing himself and is just as creepy as always), his daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) is dating Seth (Topher Grace) and getting addicted to cocaine and heroin.  When Caroline run away, Judge Wakefield recruits Seth and, using him as a guide, searches the ghetto for his daughter.

The Wakefield scenes are bathed in cold and somber blues.  They’re beautiful to look at but, in some ways, they’re also some of the weakest in the film.  The whole plotline of Caroline going from being an innocent honor’s student to being a prostitute who sells her body for heroin feels a lot like the notorious anti-drug film Go Ask Alice.  At the same time, it’s interesting and a little fun to see Topher Grace playing such a little jerk.  Grace gets some of the best lines in the film, especially when he attacks Wakefield’s feelings of smug superiority.

In the film’s second storyline, two DEA Agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) arrest drug trafficker Eddie Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer).  Eddie works for the Ayala syndicate and, once he’s arrested, he turns informant.  Drug lord Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer) is arrested.  While Carlos sits on trial, his pregnant wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and his sleazy business associate (Dennis Quaid) struggle to hold together the business and find a way to kill Ruiz before he can testify.

This storyline is filmed in bright and vibrant colors and why not?  The Ayalas are rich and, unlike the Wakefields, they don’t feel the need to hide their material wealth.  This is actually probably my favorite storyline, largely because it’s the best acted and the most entertaining.  Miguel Ferrer, in particular, steals every scene that he’s in.  The scene where he explains the economics of being a drug trafficker is fascinating to watch.

The Ayala storyline may be my favorite but the film’s most thought-provoking storyline is the third one.  Taking place in Mexico, it stars Benicio Del Toro as Javier Rodriguez, a casually corrupt police officer who gets recruited to work for General Salazar (Tomas Milian), who is heading up Mexico’s war on the cartels.  Following the orders of Salazar, Javier captures assassin Frankie Flowers (Clifton Collins, Jr.) who is then savagely tortured by Salazar until he turns informer.  Javier comes to realize that Salazar is actually working for one of Mexico’s cartels.  When he decides to inform on Salazar, he puts his own life at risk.

The Mexico storyline is also the harshest and visually, it reflects that fact.  The heat literally seems to be rising up from the desert and the streets of Tijuana.  It takes a few minutes to adjust to the look of the Mexico scenes but, once you do, they become enthralling.

And Traffic, as a film, is undeniably enthralling as well.  Soderbergh deftly juggles the multiple storylines and brings them together to create a portrait of a society that’s being destroyed by the efforts to save it.  Hopefully, if Soderbergh ever does come out of retirement, he’ll give us more films like Traffic and less films like Contagion.