W. – A Movie Review By Kush

The following is a movie review of W. by my friend Kush. He wrote it a while ago, recently reviewed it and told me that I was welcome to share it with you. Please feel free to leave your thoughts and comments at the bottom. And, of course, thanks to Kush!

The prospect of a film that would illustrate the inner workings of the Bush Administration, presidency, and perhaps even mind of George Walker Bush, seemed compelling. Furthermore, Oliver Stone’s illustration of all of the above in the context of JFK (199X) and Nixon (199X), with a Josh Brolin performance to boot, made W look like a required trip to the box office.

What the moviegoer got was not, however, the colorful, biting account of Bush or his presidency, that was expected. Instead, we got Josh Brolin impersonating Bush, rather than playing him, a story that focused more on Bush’s life between Yale and the White House than his presidency, and a slew of bad performances doing little more than paying lip service to some of the most critical members and events of the Bush Administration.

On the bright side, Stone’s account of Bush gave us something that more liberal viewers did not have going in:  a picture of Bush as a man, a son, and a Christian. The appropriately named W. features George W. Bush less as a protagonist than as the focal point through which the world is viewed. In this manner, we see Bush come to terms with the meaning of his family name, defiantly enter politics both because of and despite his father’s influence, defeat alcohol addiction, and be born-again into the Christian faith.

The only thing missing is a struggle.

Often times, it felt as though whenever W. decided to do something, it happened, less through sheer will than through the selfish maneuvering of the people around him – that and his father’s ability to pull strings whenever possible. This sense of “happening” may be due in part to the fact that the story itself is uncompelling, or perhaps because we all know the ending, but even at times when the story was new to most viewers, the plot came out flat.

Another problem with the movie is that almost the entire cast c0mes across as either lousy versions of the people they were cast to play, or below-the-belt charicatures of the real members of the Bush Administration. The actors cast to play Karl Rove and Condoleeza Rice, for example, seem built as assaults on the true versions of these people. They look and talk oddly, and don’t seem to resemble the already distinctly rich characters that we know from the news. On the other hand, Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) and Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) played such terrible versions of the true characters that I spent more time focusing on how incredibly bad their characterizations were rather than the content of their delivery. George Bush Senior also came off as whiney, weak, and tired: a seemingly inaccurate characterization of a president that waged America’s last successful war.

Not only where the character portrayals poorly done, the movie focused so infrequently on the events leading up to the Iraq war that almost all scenes involving discussion of this pivotal issue took place in a windowless war room. Surely there was more to the decision to invade Iraq than three afternoon meetings in the White House Situation Room. This is the only view of “America” we see outside of the myopic Bush lens through which the movie is shot – save a short sequence of out-of-place anti-war footage, shots of the UN meeting where Colin Powell presented the case against Iraq against his will, and Bush’s address to Congress to invade Iraq.

Overall, the movie disappoints not because of the poor character renderings but because the story itself ultimately lacked conflict and drama. Stone portrays a man too preoccupied by his father’s opinion of him to really appreciate the fact that he was elected to the highest office in the most powerful country on earth. Because he never wanted to be president for the sake of being the president, he ultimately judged the decisions he made through a different lens than those who respect the office for what it really is.

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Featured Guest, Kush Tavakoli, Talks about The Zen of South Park

Today’s guest blogger is Kush Tavakoli, a friend of mine from college. After we graduated his job happened to be in my home town of Atlanta so whenever I came home, it was great to always have him there. What’s more is that he’s become an integral part of the writing process for The Zen of South Park. He’s going to talk here about his thoughts regarding the book and his experiences working on it. Feel free to leave comments and questions for him or send him an email at kush@thezenofsouthpark.com. Without further ado, here he is:

It is difficult for a work of non-fiction to have an emotional pinball machine effect on the reader.  Religion is an old subject; Christianity, in particular, pervades every aspect of Western Civilization, and even texts that are pointedly anti-religious seem to necessitate religion as a foil to create their own meaning.  The complexity of the issue of religion is such that many, upon reading the book, will have their own preconceived notions on the subject.

In a sense, every person is a potential reader for a book on religion, because every person has beliefs that shape the way that he or she perceives and interacts with the world.  I was a potential reader.  As I read and edited the text, I felt the jerking about of my own proclivities (as Solomon calls them) in response to the messages he elucidates and expounds upon.  Given the fact that we have such preconceived notions, why do we have this pinball feeling upon reading a book that we might think can have little effect on an outlook on life, whatever outlook that is for us, that we have spent so much time considering, testing and revising, and ultimately believing in?

Part of this reaction is Solomon’s use of South Park as the medium for this discussion.  In our long conversations on the subject matter, his use of South Park as the driving force for the book was not just because of its outrageous use of religious subjects, imagery, and topics; it was because South Park actually deals with religion in a much more subtle, sensitive manner than we might discern on our own, because he had a genuine appreciation for their viewpoints, and because it provided a manner for him to explore and convey his own opinions through the underlying points made throughout the book.

South Park is outrageous.  The use of the word “sensitive” in the paragraph above did not refer to pillow talk sensitivity, but to the type of sensitivity one might have performing an autopsy.  What may look like violent mutilation of subjects as serious as pedophilia, crucifixion, global warming, homosexuality, and family, upon reading of The Zen of South Park, looks like careful removal and examination of critical organs of a living entity.  For a child to know that a heart is not shaped like a heart requires the picture of a heart; for an adult to sketch the heart requires the curiosity and discipline to extract and examine a heart for the first time.  For the viewer, witnessing  these gross surgical operations performed by a seemingly unsqueamish doctor results in knee-jerk reactions to the subject matter that more theological or purely rational examinations might not inspire.

It isn’t just that South Park is outrageous that results in these types of reactions.  The complexity of the operations performed by Trey Parker and Matt Stone are such that it is difficult, given the assumed attention span of the reader and the associated publisher’s requirements for the length of the book, to break them down, expose them technically, and convey their meaning – briefly.  Solomon is able to do this, but the speed with which the points are addressed is such that in a few sentences, the reader might react with vehemence to one point, only to find him or herself in staunch agreement later in the paragraph.

Even reading other nonfiction with the speed to point and outrageousness of subject provided by Solomon’s analysis of South Park, the reader might still not experience the feeling of being bandied about quite so forcefully if not for the gravity of the subject.  As mentioned before, every reader has thoughts and opinions on religion.  However consciously  pursued and actively coalesced, and with what degree of conviction, may vary from person to person, but we all have notions, ideologies, beliefs, religion; some framework for understanding the world around us, that this book will, to some degree, challenge.  This challenge provides that force.

When Solomon asked me to comment on his book in the context of my own thoughts on this subject, my first thought was on the specific experiences that have shaped my views on religion, but what I have realized is that the uniqueness of my experience is not as relevant as the fact that I have had an experience, and coming to this conclusion, I can only expect that we all have an experience.  South Park is a challenge, and in many ways, reading this book is an acceptance of a greater challenge: to explore these issues in such technical detail that we are fully exposed to our own spiritual anatomy.  Whether this challenge results in the rethinking of our beliefs, exposing notions hidden buried in consciousness, or a rough confirmation, the challenge is worth accepting.

Topical Tuesdays: Beta Readers and Why We Need Them (plus South Park)

This week’s Topical Tuesdays topic is beta readers, those friends and family who are the first people to lay their eyes on your script and tell you what they think. How many should you have? When should you use them? And how to know when to disregard their advice.

I have a rule when it comes to writing anything that I ever plan on letting anyone else see (note: this, funny enough, does not apply to my blog). That rule is that it must be seen by someone else’s eyes before I submit it in any official capacity. So I take one person who I can trust and who will be brutally honest with me (nine times out of ten it’s Kush) and I ask him (or her) to read it and give me feedback. It’s important, I contend, to ask very nicely. You’re not doing anyone any favors letting them see early editions of your work. You’re asking for a huge favor. Now, to me, these people are just editors, but apparently they have a special name: beta readers.

The answer, then, is yes: I think beta readers are incredibly important and absolutely necessary to great writing. As amazing as you could make something – and I have no doubt that some people out there can write some pretty incredible stuff on their own – an extra pair of eyes, an extra brain, whatever, is so necessary. Imagine working on a project. Yes, some people work better alone but there’s a reason companies organize in teams and great businesses are so often started by two people. Two brains work seven times as well as one alone. A beta reader can function in a similar way. No, you need not write together but to have a trusted secondary person read for you and give you honest feedback can expand, help and complement your book in some amazing ways.

For The Zen of South Park I have Kush read every chapter when I’m done editing it myself (which takes a while) and then after I do all that I think I should to it based on his comments I give it to (what I guess is) a gamma reader – another person I trust to read chapters at random. After fixing it at that point I give it to a professional in the subject matter that it’s about (remember my nonfiction book has chapters on each religion as well as other religious topics), and then I go back over it again after all that. Not until then can a chapter even begin to be done. I know it may sound excessive but these people are my team, my front lines, my editors and without them I couldn’t even begin to put together so quality a piece. I think editing is of the utmost importance.

There are no great writers. Only great editors.

What do you think? Do you use beta readers? Am I going overboard? Have you been an editor before? I do love editing other people’s work – I think it’s a great way to work on my own writing.

For more on this subject check out Chandler’s Fumbling with Fiction.

South Park tonight: The episode “Spooky Fish” will be on tonight. It is honestly a great and hilarious episode (how many aren’t?). This is the second season Halloween episode and tacitly deals with notions of the Occult and magic. The idea of vortexes and parallel universes and disrupted Indian souls – though they may seem purely silly – do indicate an acknowledgment on South Park‘s part of non-conventional elements of religion and they’re worth paying attention to…especially you Wicca fans out there.