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NOW on the News with Maria Hinojosa

Transcript: Elvis Mitchell on the Top Films of 2006

» More about this interview

MARIA HINOJOSA: Welcome to Now on the News. I'm Maria Hinojosa. And joining us this week to talk about all things film at the end of the year is Elvis Mitchell, host of Public Radio's The Treatment and film critic for NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday. Welcome Elvis.

ELVIS MITCHELL: Thank you, Maria. Now—I knew you when instead of now. I knew you when.

HINOJOSA: I knew you when, too. Which is why when I went to the movies, I thought of you. So, end of the year, lots of movies have been seen. And I'm sure that our audience—now is thinking, "What are the movies that we should see?" So, if you have to pick and choose, what would be a smart holiday movie that people should go see?

MITCHELL: This is that time of year because they've actually moved up the Oscar nominating from—rather, the Oscar itself, the Academy Awards, from March to February. There are a lot more movies that come out this time of year really, to try to capitalize that more than ever before, as a matter of fact.

But there's great stuff out there. One of my favorite movies of this year is this little film called Half Nelson which is about—a public school English teacher and this drug dealer fighting for the soul of this 14-year-old girl. It comes from a short that played Sundance a couple years ago. And the filmmaker, Ryan Fleck found a way to restage it. He raised more money. And it's a great film. And I think it's still playing around mostly at art houses. But I would so strongly recommend that people see it. Because it's a movie that—it's a constant surprise. You—even to the actors, you can see the actors being sort of taken by it. And—and the movie takes on its own emotional life and emotional weight. And I can't think of any film that's done it that well in a long time.

HINOJOSA: Now, Happy Feet came out in November. But it's, you know, there's still a lotta people who probably haven't seen it.

MITCHELL: If you're the grown person that goes to see an animated film, and I am a grown person who is sadly unmarried, and my family has lots of questions about me at this point, but you go, you kinda got that sorta stare from the moms who like, you know, move their kids down to the front, you know—I'm here to see a movie, lady.

And Happy Feet, for those adults who are afraid to go to get that moment, it's worth it. It's worth those stares you're gonna get as you walk to your car in a parking lot from leaving a kids' movie. Because it's really funny and it's really smart.

And it's actually a film that comes from a great director, George Miller, the Australian George Miller, the good—'cause there actually are two. The is the one who did Mad Max and the Mad Max films and The Witches of Eastwick and—and Lorenzo's Oil. And also for kids, he did—he produced Babe and directed Babe: A Pig in the City.

HINOJOSA: Some people have said—when Happy Feet first came out, "Oh, it was too political. It had too many messages. It was too violent." So, as an adult audience, what do you—what's your take?

MITCHELL: Too violent? The—did these people watch Saturday television? I mean, even watching Clifford, the Big Red Dog, I mean, even he's carrying a gun around these days. You know, violence? There's this thing—people seem to assume that kids need to be protected from everything. But remember Pinocchio? Or remember Bambi?

Or remember Dumbo? I mean, these are movies where, you know, there's all kinds of death. It was matricide in these themselves, you know. These are films where the characters lose parents and still have to pers—even The Lion King. These are films that Disney and—and other really true filmmakers understand that kids are a lot more resilient than we give them credit for.

And the way to sorta toughen them up is not to pretend that, you know, that there is no Law & Order: SVU on television, but to sorta say, "This is what goes on. This is how—this is how we prepare kids for what may happen to them in the future." We can also sorta safely sorta say it's—it's entertainment. And Happy Feet serves that purpose as well as anything else.

HINOJOSA: So, let's talk about politics in film right now. I mean, is there a sense right now that Hollywood—is ready to kind of deal with political issues or—or not?

MITCHELL: It's funny. Because—was a time when movies did that kinda thing. And then because it takes so long for a movie to get made, I mean, if you're lucky, you can get a movie out in two or three years after you first talk about the script, television supplanted film in terms of offering politics and—and getting into political issues.

And for a long time, I mean, if you wanted real sorta great, liberal, smart television, I mean—real, smart, liberal politics or a real conversation to be engaged, you turned literally to television to find that. Because its speed, it—its very velocity, sort of—took the place of film. And also, film would do things like not deal directly with Vietnam, but—and I thought about this a lot because of the recent death of Robert Altman.

His movie MASH is essentially a tract against Vietnam. But—so if you look at it now, you can't tell when it's set. But when it came out in 1971—it dealt with blood in hospitals. It was a rebuke to Patton which is the same studio when we had written by Francis Coppola who is about the same age as Robert Altman. But—this is a guy who had said the way to get politics in the movies is—to not be direct about them. And so, that's what movies have been doing for a long time, is being indirect.

But I think that Babel is not a movie that comes from a studio. It's a filmmaker who has wisely decided he's not going to mortgage his soul by being a part of the studio system. He's going to work with his writer, in this case being Guillermo Arriaga, to make the kinda movies he wants to make, and go out and raise the money.

And because he happened to get a coupla movie stars, Brad Pitt who actually gives a performance in this which will send shockwaves alone through the world, and Cate Blanchett, he got them to be a part of this film, that relieved the people in the studios of a necessity of making a decision, 'cause there are movie stars in it. It must be good.

And if it fails, not my fault, there's movie stars in it. But it's a movie that people are going to and they're talking about it. And the great thing is, there's so much going on in Babel that you can't get it outta your system in that one conversation after the film is over. It—it's really a film finally about the need to communicate. The—these are wonderful scenes with a Japanese girl who's a deaf-mute who is just so hungry, so avid for contact, that that becomes a sexual impulse for her. I mean, it's really a movie about just getting through to somebody else.

HINOJOSA: There's a film that I'm sure in terms of holidays, a lotta people are thinking about it, The Nativity Story. Just what are your thoughts on—on this movie?

MITCHELL: Well, there's the girl who was in Whale Rider who's an amazing young actress who, at least it wasn't that one film that she made three years ago. And it's directed by the woman who did Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown, Catherine Hardwicke, who had been a production designer.

So I thought well, this might be interesting. It—it—it is not. Because, you know, how do you follow "Passion of the Christ?" I think the fear is that people feel like they may be converted. And that's kinda always the fear that people have in their minds about religious movies is that they're gonna be so messagey that you won't be, what's the phrase I'm looking for, entertained by them. And we have to say that Mel Gibson understands that people like to watch that suffering. Even think back to Lethal Weapon.

I mean, he's up on a cross being electrocuted with like, you know, the—the prison Jesus locks and stuff. This guy was thinking, "Maybe there's a Jesus movie in this somewhere in my future." And a scant, like, 18 years later, he made The Passion of the Christ.

HINOJOSA: Followed by Apocalypto, which is, you know, out in—

MITCHELL: Which is scaring people multiplexes everywhere.

HINOJOSA: Is it a movie that you think is worth, you know, worth the eight, ten, 12 bucks that it may cost? There's a lot of controversy around Mel Gibson. So is it a movie that has depth? Or is it just—

MITCHELL: I'm sorry.

HINOJOSA: You know.

MITCHELL: You said Mel Gibson and you said depth. Just waiting for the laugh. Take your time. I'll wait it out. Three, two, one. Is it a movie that has depth? Let me put it to you this way.

No. No, it is not. Is it a movie that seeks to relentlessly entertain made by a guy who understands how to entertain audiences by a guy who's been in movies since he was 19 years old and has a real curiosity, I think a real curiosity about audiences and how to work them and these things—these things play—their way out in fairly primitive ways in his movies? Because again, they're—they're movies about suffering, you know.

And there's something incredibly—and one hates to use this word, cinematic, about watching people suffer on screen, and triumph over that suffering. I mean, he understands the movies and he could be very goal-oriented, you know. He's gonna bring it down. This is about one guy suffering who gets his own back. And it's literally the case of Apocalypto. That title kinda tells you everything. And it's funny. Because The Passion of the Christ did not have subtitles. This movie does have subtitles but you don't need them. It's—it's—it's not a movie that's terribly difficult to understand.

HINOJOSA: But, you know, there are probably a lot of people who are thinking, "Do I want to go and pay any money to someone who's made, you know, these horrible statements, anti-Semitic statements?" You think that's gonna have an impact?

MITCHELL: I mean, I think that Mel Gibson is on—he's doing the apology tour. "I'm so sorry. And you think I'm bad, that Michael Richards, I feel bad for him." I mean, it's—he's a real showman. He knows how you go out and do this. I mean, he was contrite with—with Diane Sawyer for like what, the entire month of November? God. Was that sweeps month? Oh. I don't mean to sound cynical.

But it worked out well for her, and he promoted his movie for free. He may be—believes too deeply in the phrase, "There is no bad publicity."

HINOJOSA: So, movies with meaning. The new movie by Alfonso Cuaron that's gonna be coming out, something that—that works right now in terms of—I mean, it's very heavy, got a very strong message.

MITCHELL: Oh, God. It's so—yeah. Because his movie, Pan's Labyrinth, which is made by Guillermo Del Toro and Babel are all sort of about trying to figure out where you belong in the world, which I think if you are an immigrant, or if you come from another culture, and you're trying to bring your own artistic message into it, you're always wondering where you fit in, in the politics of that.

You know, Jean Luc-Godard who said, "Every edit is a political act." People of color, people who are not part of the mainstream, understand that there is no art without politics. And I think these filmmakers would all say indirectly that politics effuse their film. Pan's Labryinth is set during the Franco's—is a horror story set during Franco's Spain. And, you know, if that's not about personal freedom and the cost of surrendering personal freedom, I don't know what is. But that's not even the primary sorta statement of the film. It's a movie about a little girl dealing with a horrific future.

And the other side to that, you're talking about politics, would be Pedro Almodovar's Volver, which is about the life after Franco's Spain, but the influence of those years and years of repression and finding other way to say things that those movies had to do—the film that art in Spain had to do during the Franco era.

HINOJOSA: So, Blood Diamond. Is that one that you would say, "Mm, worth it, message," or—

MITCHELL: It's certainly a message. I think it's worth it. I think it's a pretty smart movie—directed by Edward Zwick who did Legends of the Fall and Glory. What he's doing in this movie, again, I wasn't so crazy about this—sorta the weird last white guy, The Last Samurai, his film before Blood Diamond. He's saying too that, you know, we have to ask questions about our mythologies. And it's about this sort of horrible mythology about the diamond and the cost of blood diamonds and what those are used to promote and what they're used—forget promote, what they're used to finance.

But it's set in the context of really sorta spectacular adventure story with great movie-star performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou and Jennifer Connelly.

HINOJOSA: So Borat, a big surprise hit, 2006, many people still may not have seen it.

MITCHELL: I think it's—it's fascinating. Because it's—we're here now—talking about—certainly about the angry urges in comedy. And I think it's sorta like writing Borat off and say it's just about anger, it's about a guy's specific—you know—a Jewish guy's specific sorta response to hate in the world. I—and what kinda bothers me about it is that he is a—he's a real actor—Sacha Baron Cohen. And this is a real performance. He never does the kinda thing that you often see in sorta like mockumentary type movies where he lets people know that this isn't him, that he's playing a character. And he takes real pleasure in the kind of aggressiveness of ignorance, I mean, and somebody's being wedded to that.

And you watch him. You think, "Wow. Is he Hannity or Colmes?" 'Cause there's that kinda thing where—somebody just can't believe that there's another point of view. But in his way, there's this bizarre curiosity about it. Now, that's a real piece of acting.

I think the movie's kind of a mess because it sorta rises and falls based on the situation that he's in, and because he's kind of an extended prank. For me, there's an exhaustion level that comes in because it's not shaped like a piece of entertainment. But the people who like it, and there are quite a few who do, and I guess I'm one of them in a lotta ways, you see it and go, "Okay. This is a guy who really committed." But, you know, what's the difference between that and maybe oh, I don't know, Jackass: Part Two, which is not that different and is about guys who are saying, "These are the limits of—the boundaries of—what people think are taste." I think that's as much a political statement as Borat. And I think it's just kinda finally as flawed as Borat is.

But I see these movies and I think about the guy who probably was a real political filmmaker who made comedies about the disenfranchised who we've all forgotten about, and that's John Waters, who you can't help but see his influence on—on Borat and Jackass. And I think he were around—to enjoy us a little bit. Although I guess I'll see that next year when the feature film version, the second one, of Hairspray, comes along.

HINOJOSA: You gotta be kidding, right?

MITCHELL: You've not heard about this? Travolta is starring in a remake that he's—plays—will be playing the part—


MITCHELL: Divine played.

HINOJOSA: Isn't John Travolta also—oh, no, no, no. That's—I'm sorry—Sylvester Stallone is starring in another remake—that one I heard about, Rocky Balboa, who—

MITCHELL: That's not a remake. That's the same movie.


MITCHELL: It's just—

HINOJOSA: Number ten?

MITCHELL: Number ten, really? I thought we in the triple digits by now.


MITCHELL: I think Rocky's fighting Pluto. That's why Pluto's no longer a planet. He killed Pluto. It's through. He downsized it now. It's just a tropical storm. It's no longer a planet.

HINOJOSA: So, 2007, beginning of the year, are you looking forward to a couple of films?

MITCHELL: Well, what's gonna be happening around most of the country is that the films that are—like Dreamgirls, which is kind of an amazing film and is very much a film about politics, you talk about politics. And Dreamgirls deals with the riots in Detroit and others places in the '60s. It deals about, you know, what politics often is for art which is the cost of selling out.

It's the cost of maintaining one's own integrity, one's old—one's own soul, sort of—couched in the story of Motown and The Supremes. I think those are terrible songs in Dreamgirls. That aside, I mean, the Broadway versions of Motown songs. I'm sorry. Let me restate that. They're like Broadway versions of mediocre Motown songs. That's a hell that, you know, there must be some—that—that's like being stuck in the center square of the Hollywood Squares, you—

HINOJOSA: So, what's all this buzz about, you know


HINOJOSA: Oscar nominations?

MITCHELL: —it's a beautifully directed movie. Bill Condon, who wrote Chicago and wrote and directed Gods and Monsters has a real understanding of—of a spectacle.

And what he does with the movie is gives it a real sort of—sense of that time and a sense of ambition and what ambition means, and how corrupting an influence ambition can be, but also its positive attributes as well, and what that means in a black community. I think that way it's a really sort of audacious and courageous movie to put in a context of a musical.

HINOJOSA: So, what—what—well, so what are you excited about in terms of 2007?

MITCHELL: Well for me—Sundance, Sundance Film Festival is in January. And that gives me a chance to do something that I don't often get to do which is to go see movies I know nothing about and be surprised by them. I love film festivals. And one thing I would suggest to any and all of the audience is if there's a film festival in your town or someplace not far away, you can go and see a movie and not know from the trailer how it's going to end, and not know who's in it, and not know who's made it.

Go and avail yourself of that. Because it's what movies are supposed to be. Not every festival is Sundance. But it doesn't have to be. There's a great festival in Cleveland, one of the oldest in the country. There's a great festival in Dallas. There's a—a wonderful film festival in Chicago. Los Angeles has a great festival.

New York has the New York Film Festival and Tribeca. But I'm sure that somewhere near—Seattle has a festival that runs for three weeks. It's a wonderful festival. San Francisco has a terrific one too. If there's a festival near you, you can go. You can probably see movies for a lot cheaper than you see them at the movie theaters. You can see them with adults. And again, it's a—the—the pleasure of being surprised by something which we've been robbed of now in this culture, unfortunately.

HINOJOSA: So, three films must-see over the holiday season would be?

MITCHELL: I would say probably Pan's Labyrinth, Babel, and—Blood Diamond. But there's also—I mean, there's great stuff in Dreamgirls. There's a really interesting new movie by Steven Soderbergh with George Clooney and Tobey Maguire giving the performance of his career, and Cate Blanchett, called The Good German which is adapted from the novel. Imagine those movies of the '30s having modern sexual politics and complications in them? And that's what—The Good German has.

HINOJOSA: Elvis Mitchell, thank you so much for joining us on the Now on the News.

MITCHELL: My pleasure Maria. Thank you.

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