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April Reviews (2007) May 8, 2007

Posted by Tim in Reviews.

The Colbert Report

Stephen Colbert
Stephen Colbert is the king. Of parody, of comedy; of the Colbert Nation. We don’t get it here, but The Colbert Report, where he plays a rabidly conservative buffoon, is now one show I can’t do without.

In his maiden episode Colbert gave us the word “truthiness” – later selected as Word of the Year by Merriam Webster and the American Dialect Society. It’s a word that describes the sentiments of many people today perfectly: A claim to know the truth by “feeling” it, without the need for proof.

Pak Lah of course subscribes to this philosophy. When he visited Sudan recently – a region which has seen hundreds of thousands killed in Darfur because of religious and ethnic violence, and whose government is being criticized for their role in it – he told us the situation there was “not as bad as the western media portrays”. To quote him:

“I did not see it that way when I visited the place because I am told food supply was sufficient.

“But I did see their houses are in terrible condition,” said Badawi to reporters who are accompanying him on his official visit here.

Thanks to Colbert, we know the correct term for quotes like this: truthiness. Colbert also shot to fame when he gave an in-character speech at the 2006 White House Correspondent’s Dinner, lampooning the President who was sitting barely ten feet away from him.

…I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message: that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound — with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.

The Colbert Report pokes fun at the absurdities in current events, as well as news shows. In a recent segment:

A tip o’ the hat to Shrek, who has teamed up with the US department of Health and Human Services for a PSA promoting more exercise for kids.

[Cue for clip of advert with Shrek saying “Get up and play an hour a day” ]

Bravo, Shrek; for encouraging our kids to do more than sit around the house all day watching Shrek DVDs.

But in their infinite wisdom, the Department is pulling the ad during the run of Shrek III because they are, quote: “Not in the business of promoting movies”.

That’s why Shrek gets an additional tip of my hat for finding alternate ways to spread his message of health – through joint ventures with Snickers, Pop Tarts, Skittles, Cheetos, McDonald’s, Pez, M&Ms, Eggo Waffles, Frosted Flakes, Sierra Mist, ELFudge Double Stomps, and Berry Berry Banana Yogo Bits!

My favourite part is “The Word”, where Colbert talks indignantly about an issue of choice while sarcastic and often contradictory bullet points appear next to him. The interviews which end every episode are also usually hilarious, starting with Colbert enthusiatically accepting applause from the audience, the camera panning to the guest only at the last minute. He then employs fallacious arguments or loaded questions to “corner” his interviewee if they don’t agree on a point (“Is Bush a great President, or is he the greatest President?”).

I recall a discussion on his Wikipedia entry where it was asked why there was no critcism about Colbert on the page. The reply was “there is no criticism because there’s nothing to criticize”. So true.

Super Size Me

Super Size Me
The most memorable scene in this semi-documentary is one where several kids, about 6-7 years old, are asked to identify pictures of famous figures. None of them know who George Washington is, nor do they recognize a portrait of Jesus. But when they are shown a picture of Ronald McDonald, all their faces lighted up immediately.

There’s also a scene where a group of people near the White House are asked to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and couldn’t. But asked to recite the recipe for the Big Mac (which turned into an advertising jingle) – they did it perfectly.

Super Size Me was inspired by a recent case in the US where two obese girls sued McDonald’s for its role in making them overweight. At first glance one could simply shrug this off as another case of people out to make a quick buck, but after watching the documentary, you just might rethink your views.

Morgan Spurlock decided to go on a 30-day diet comprising nothing but food from McDonald’s. The film documents his progress from a healthy 185-pound vegan to an overweight 210 lbs guy with a craving for sugar and lessened sex-drive. The title itself comes from Super Sizing, a trademarked term and marketing tactic used by McDonald’s to encourage customers to increase the size of their meals.

I don’t agree completely with his methodology – he insisted on eating only items on the McDonald’s menu for that month, and gave up physical activity in order to “be like the average American”. However, the flood of imitators who went on the diet to try and prove his results wrong miss the point.

What the documentary succeeded in conveying was just how much the fast-food industry is a part of Americana, and the industry’s practices. Their mascots are instantly recognizable (as the example above showed). Grade school cafeterias are packed with chips, cookies, and fries – one little girl even told him that fries were her “vegetables” for that meal. Soda has replaced water; some think drinking a gallon a day is completely normal. Portion sizes of fast food meals have increased over time. No one knows what a calorie is.

An argument the fast food industry has been using is that customers have a choice. A segment from the movie shows a school health official insisting the same thing – that the children can make their own informed choices. But as the movie also showed – merely having a choice isn’t enough, especially when you are bombarded by advertising (the fast food giants spend billions on it every year) and when schools don’t prevent children from getting hooked on junk food. When you catch them early, you’ve got them for life.

Does it cost that much money to put more tomatoes and lettuces on their burgers, or offer salads, fruit and plain water? After Super Size Me gained acclaim, McDonald’s did start offering salads – but not in international markets, at least not in Malaysia.

Granted, the recent suggestion by the Malaysian government to ban all fast-food advertising may be a little overboard, but (for once) I can understand where they are coming from. For us though, it may apply more to hawker food…

In the Mood for Love

I have to say up front that I can see why the In the Mood for Love has been well-received. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung conveyed the emotions of their moody, lovelorn characters perfectly (and have also mastered the art of standing around looking pensive). I also like the way the film “fast forwards” time and repetitive actions by setting up multiple shots of the actors doing the same things in the same scene, but in different outfits.

Both their spouses are cheating on them, which leaves them plenty of time to meet up. They insist on being “not like them”, and rehearse scenes where their spouses confess to them. To prevent anyone from suspecting an affair (although there isn’t one, technically), they leave taxis seperately, and at one point when their neighbours suddenly start an all-night mahjong session, she stays the night with him rather than let herself be seen leaving his room. Did I mention they fall in love?

I like subtlety but the film might have brought it too far. You’re expecting some emotional climax in the movie but there isn’t any. Maybe I’ll find it in 2046? It could be that after being used to watching Hollywoord-style dramas – even documentaries are dramatic nowadays – you’re no longer able to get in the mood, to relate to characters who don’t rely on sarcasm or melodrama, to sense the frustrations in not always having that happy ending.



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