Bowling for Columbine (2002)

★★★★

Bowling for Columbine PosterDirector: Michael Moore

Release Date: October 11th, 2002 (US limited); November 15th, 2002 (UK)

Genre: Documentary; History

Michael Moore’s 2002 documentary, somewhat pithily christened Bowling for Columbine, is undoubtedly a seminal piece. For Moore personally, it gained the director an Academy Award and the chance to extend some sentiments splashed throughout his film to a plush Hollywood crowd in LA’s Kodak Theatre. (Some booed, some cheered, Tommy Lee Jones probably sat stone-faced.) It also smashed international box office records in places such as the United Kingdom upon release, becoming the financial brass ring to which other documentaries aspired — ironically, Moore would go on to eclipse himself with Fahrenheit 9/11.

Though, carrying more importance than these aforementioned amenities, Bowling for Columbine debates unavoidable issues that are still firmly rooted in the bricks and mortar of society. And Moore frequently wins. His film is a bit of ego-trip, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, the chief’s unwavering histrionics often inject a tragically informative piece with a comedic edge. That being said, his manifesto is never relinquished in favour of entertainment. Notwithstanding the occasional needless tactic, Bowling for Columbine successfully eradicates the clouds that surround its thought-provoking themes. What’s presented, in turn, rains with disquieting reality.

Moore targets gun crime and, in doing so, uses the 1999 Columbine High School massacre as the seed from which each of his arguments grow. The film is a generally political, sporadically cultural and universally societal look at trigger-happy violence in America and its central question is: Why? Why did thirteen innocent people die at school? And why is America’s gun crime resoundingly higher than the rest of the world’s?

Each argument is an extension of the last, and his agents of remonstration spread fairly far. We begin down a bowling alley and conclude in the company of Charlton Heston. Moore strives to maintain a potent arc along his two hour discussion and more or less accomplishes this. He links each chapter well — the revolver road-trip stops off at a variety of places, from a rifle-offering bank to the house of a man whose participation in the Oklahoma City bombing was once in question — and, in doing so, implements a solid narrative structure. There are a few rocky detours that see some less-effective moments; an interview with a Lockheed Martin spokesperson is a bit flimsy. Moore disguises any unsatisfactory points though. He shrewdly converses with the right people as a means to substantiate his own agenda. Which is fine, it doesn’t negatively affect the arguments presented because an authentic base is already in place.

That base is Columbine. Although the film isn’t about the actual shooting — Moore’s decision not to stray down what would have been an easily rewarding path, in terms of emotional gravitas, is admirable — the tragedy is always lingering in the background. In fact, the director actually references the location of Columbine High School at one point, indicating that its direct centrality amongst discussion involving guns, bombs and violence isn’t simply metaphorical. Given the very real presence of the atrocity, notions of disgust and negativity towards gun culture are already firmly embedded in our minds. Moore’s numerous assertions against said culture, therefore, are instantly credible.

A particular sequence intended to give an overview of Columbine is inherently powerful, but not exploitative. There’s no argument-shilling at this point, only a picture of humankind at its most despicable. It’s so disgruntling that the subsequent scene might implore the viewer to detest one of cinema’s most iconic figures in a swift rifle-raising action and four contextually chilling words (“Over my dead body”) — just one example of Kurt Engfehr’s wholly astute editing that motions proceedings along at an engaging pace.

Music is also effectively enforced. The now infamous “What a Wonderful World” montage would be quite amusing if it weren’t steeped in such fraught subject matter. Indeed, Bowling for Columbine thrives on destitute comedy. One of the earliest examples sets the darkly humorous prerogative; Moore enters a bank and opens an account in order to obtain a free gun. After a few minutes where the staff aren’t paraded in a particularly flattering light, Moore exits, rifle aloft. The scene is too outrageous to fully comprehend — its authenticity has been disputed in one of many controversies since release — but the filmmaker doesn’t pass up an opportunity for funny. (“D’you think it’s a little dangerous handing out guns in a bank?”)

The climate of fear is a prominent thread throughout. Does Moore blame guns? Not entirely. It’s the gun culture. The media scaremongering. Even the US government’s foreign policy hailing a bomb as a solution, according to Moore. These collectively add up to the main source of gun-related disaster in America. Today, over a decade later, Moore still flaunts this strongly asserted claim: “Guns don’t kill people — Americans kill people.” One of the film’s most compelling parts is an interview with Marilyn Manson, whose well-formed explanation in regards to media exploitation is practical and persuasive. (We hear that crime is down by 20%, but television coverage is up by 600%.)

It’s all going swimmingly until a K-Mart segment towards the film’s conclusion. Shadowed by two victims of Columbine, Moore leads his verbal assault against the store. It almost comes around in the end, but by then Moore’s ego is edging towards the spotlight. Only, rather than positively affecting proceedings, this time his overly aggressive personality is distracting. However it should be noted that the stunt’s positive outcome absolutely justifies the slightly crass piece of filmmaking from which it spawns.

Overall, Moore completes a stellar job of informing and convincing. Despite sporadically venturing down peripheral avenues, the film holds together tightly and is even genuinely funny at times. Ultimately though, this is a damning indictment on not just America but society as a whole, exposing us at our very worst. If Bowling for Columbine was evidence in humanity’s trial, we’d be guilty as charged.

Bowling for Columbine - Moore

Images credit: IMP Awards, WhatCulture

Images (©): United Artists

Philomena (2013)

★★★★

Director: Stephen Frears

Release Date: November 1st, 2013 (UK); November 27th, 2013 (US)

Genre: Drama

Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan

It’s not often you watch a drama about the culmination of a woman’s fifty year search for her long lost son, and end up spending a significant amount of time laughing in the wake of an odd comedy duo. Settle down at the mercy of Stephen Frears’ Philomena though, and that’s exactly what’ll happen. At its heartiest the film flows with a sense of uncertain determination embodied in diverging ways by the two lead characters, but in between these moments of bottled up emotion, at its most organic, Philomena charms in tone and entertains by way of a banterous dynamic. This incredible story pitched excellently is often funny, occasionally shocking and always peculiar in believability, even if it does lose some legitimacy at its conclusion.

Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) stares wholesomely into the eyes of a young gentleman pictured inside a piece of jewellery. It’s her son, Anthony, taken fifty years earlier and placed in the care of an American family. Philomena spent her younger years as part of an Irish Abbey, sent there by her disapproving father in a rebuttal to pregnancy. By chance, recently fired Labour government adviser Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is in attendance at a party where he is approached by Philomena’s daughter who pleas to have her mother’s tragic tale exposed to the world. It’s a “human interest story”, or for Martin, a way back into the positive glares of journalistic limelight, and so he embarks on a journey of discovery and hope with Philomena.

At the centre of the film is this weird dynamic shared between Philomena and Martin, one driven by religion and faith (or, in Martin’s case, the lack thereof). Having been forcibly separated from her child in an act of apparent punishment, Philomena retains a staunch belief in God and moreover, treats the present day nuns — of which still includes the prominent Sister Hildegard, who was instrumental in said previous events — with respect and without any incrimination. The horrendous actions undertaken in 1951 are presented in a unsavoury manner, as they should be, by both the film itself and just about every character, from tainted journalist to boisterous pub owner (“What about the evil nuns, what’s happening with them?”). Yet Philomena valiantly, admirably, stands by her beliefs and wholly practices the forgiving teachings, ensuring the narrative never plumbs over into anti-Catholic territory.

On the other hand, Martin embodies the typical cynical reporter. He spends half of the time answering his elderly associate’s questions about believing in God (“No”) and the other half truly puzzled by Philomena’s strong-willed demeanour. The journalist, who experiences a moral realignment himself as the film canters on, publicly denounces Philomena’s inbuilt faith having never sincerely lived it — although he was an alter boy once upon a time.

These quizzical debates between the pair provide the catalyst for the film’s good-humoured underbelly. That, in tow with the chuckle-worthy “little old Irish lady” and business-like, trying-to-reignite-him-career journalist, together in America, heralds a jesty atmosphere. The pair are outwardly mismatched, yet they share an intrinsic desire to reclaim a significant loss in their respective lives. For Philomena it’s her son, whereas for Martin it’s his dignity and journalistic aura, which is probably why he constantly contemplates writing a book about Russian history, a cultivated topic if there ever was. His initial detachment broods a condescending resonance towards Philomena, whose fickleness in the face of sarcasm offers a few comedic titbits. While Martin discusses how to approach divulging the story with his callous editor, Philomena amazes over the “the size of the portions!” in America, claiming she always worried about her son’s weight. While fully endorsing laughter, director Stephen Frears never marginalises his at times serious approach to the subject matter, without which the film would lose authenticity given the harrowing happenings occurred in real life, as part of Philomena Lee’s actual existence. A healthy balance is essential, and Frears achieves one.

Our two main protagonists are, in essence, conventional characters — a dour, disenfranchised reporter and an energetic-yet-inconstant wee Irish lady — but given the film is based on a true story, on genuine people, it is right that these characters should be conventional to a degree. That way they are recognisable and relatable, in turn evoking emotion from the audience. Judi Dench is wonderful as Philomena, humming the full dramatic spectrum in the process. She exhibits an ardent perseverance, the same kind that any mother would typify in a search for her child. However, at the same time she always carries that homely quality, a charming awkwardness in a world far bigger than and increasingly alien to her. As Martin Sixsmith, Steve Coogan is the perfect folly, boasting a very valid ‘been there, done that’ attitude. Unlike Dench whose character is a straight-shooter from the off, Coogan often has to reign in his thoughts (probably for fear of a skelp from his elder) as he gradually warms towards Philomena, instantaneously to the audience directing a growing fondness in the direction of Martin and his changing intentions.

Along with Jeff Pope, Steve Coogan brilliantly co-wrote the screenplay based on Martin Sixsmith’s book The Long Lost Child of Philomena Lee. The duo do an exemplary job in adapting book to the screen, a traverse that facilitates this witty, emotionally-tugging film. Nevertheless, there is a problem that arises near the very climax, one captured and dragged by the notion of dramatic licence. Dramatic licence, a function utilised by the industry’s best, creates tension where there may be none, or sprinkles a share of humour if it sorely lacks. In the case of Philomena, the dramatic licence becomes problematic because it goes beyond these constructed trivialities. There is a fabricated scene approaching the conclusion that is designed specifically to be a blow-off moment for Martin, but that resultantly, sadly, envisions a significant falsity. In a way the film takes an emotional liberty, the same kind that it spends ninety minutes preaching against. A disappointing blemish, but arguably the only one.

Martin Sixsmith, worried about his health, is told to run. This same deed is adhered to by Steve Coogan and Judi Dench, who collectively grab hold of Coogan’s delightful — if a tad tainted towards the end — script and run with it, creating waves of charm and seemingly incompatible comedy in the process. First and foremost though, this is a serious and harrowing story, and Frears ensures that it is treated as such. If you journey purely alongside the happenings on screen, not investigative of the climactic authenticity, Philomena might just tinge those emotions; the laughs and the cries.