Movie: Film Movement is a company that provides a movie a month by subscription, most of which are later offered by traditional outlets sometime later. The idea of the company is to provide quality movies from around the world that otherwise would stick to the film festival circuit, limiting the exposure of some great movies by less known names. I've watched a lot of their stuff and found a great many movies worth getting so fans of offbeat movies might want to check them out. Today's movie, Anytown, USA, came out in the series late last year, detailing a political race for mayor in a small town that largely mirrored the national scene campaigns. The idea was to follow the candidates for three months and after three hundred hours of footage, director Kristian Fraga seemed to have struck gold in the New Jersey town of Bogota. Here's a look at the movie:
The movie is a documentary and the story was about a contentious race for office by three mayoral candidates. Bogota was a small town in crisis with rising costs causing a large number of residents to truly embrace the Republican ideal of cutting financial costs regardless of the social costs involved. The incumbent mayor, Steve Lonegan, is a conservative republican and legally blind (he can see but not very well). New Jersey has seen better economic times and the local school system has been costing the taxpayers more and more. Apparently, the town finances (or partially finances) the school system and the elected school board plays politics when cuts are made (cutting, or threatening to cut, the popular sports program for example instead of administrative costs when the city scales back funding). The open animosity between the elected mayor and the school board places the children in the crosshairs as playing pieces in a large game of sorts. This sets the stage for a mayoral election between Lonegan and a Democrat by the name of Fred Pesce, who had been a city councilman previously. As the race progresses, a third party candidate, another blind guy, Dave Musikant, joins in as a write in candidate after finding both the political party candidates wanting.
What makes the movie particularly interesting is that each of the three candidates plays their role so perfectly in terms of the stereotypes yet it's a documentary. The older folks in town like Lonegan's willingness to hold the line in terms of their taxes. The parents of the children in school hate him since he wants to regionalize the high school for financial reasons, a move the school board fights by any means possible (getting the kids to politic, for example, as they don't want to lose local control), with those directly involved stating their willingness to "pay a little more" against the tides of the times in this day and age of tax cutting. Pesce seems all too willing to mindlessly follow the his party's philosophy, not providing any clear ideas of his own, killing his chances until he starts to follow those around him but he comes across as wishy washy like many of his ilk, marginalizing himself over and over again. Musikant, for his part, is the goofy candidate that is best known as the high school star athlete from years ago, who has been fighting a brain tumor that took his sight.
Film Movement's website puts it like this: "All politics is local in this hilarious burlesque of a documentary following a tightly-run mayoral race in the small town of Bogota, New Jersey. When the much-reviled--and legally blind--Republican incumbent Steven Lonegan boldly announces he will run for re-election, the citizens of Bogota go on the offensive to unseat him. Enter Democrat Fred Pesce, coaxed from retirement to share the ticket. With his health in question, and his politics compared to those of Tony Soprano, the field is wide open for sight-challenged town booster and former local football hero Dave Musikant to step in as a long-shot write-in independent candidate--officially making it the only mayoral race in the nation where two of the three candidates are legally blind! Add to the mix the machinations of Jesse "The Body" Ventura`s campaign manager, and Anytown, USA resonates as an all-too-familiar look at the charade of partisan politics in our increasingly polarized nation."
The way the movie translates into a microcosm of the larger issues in politics (including the parallels to the 2004 presidential election as well as other races) from the way the candidates play their versions of the truth, show a willingness to do whatever is needed to get elected, and spend most of their time attacking their opponents to the manner in which the editing seems to lead the viewer to believe a surprise outcome will be taking place. I got the feeling that Fraga was gearing the audience to think certain things were taking place but not nearly to the extent Michael Moore does in his propaganda pieces disguised as documentaries. Some of the pieces came together a bit too cleanly but overall, I thought the time flew by during my viewings of the film.
If you'd like to see how all politics are local, how the process really works (not the textbook civics class version), and how well a documentary can be made without resorting to too much manipulation, you'll find this one well worth picking up for your collection. In that sense, I figured it was worth a rating of Recommended or better though I'll be the first to admit that such a movie is an acquired taste and many won't care if you believe the polls stating voter apathy as being at all time highs.
Picture: Anytown, USA was shot on video and presented in 1.33:1 ratio full frame color as directed by Kristian Fraga. It looked clear and crisp with the kind of occasionally jerky camera movement you'd expect of a documentary. There were a lot of talking head moments interspersed with the usual background material and interviews. Given the amount of footage shot for the movie, I'm sure that the editing was a pain in the rear but the picture provided a nice amount of tension thanks in large part to the editing. I still got the impression Fraga tried to manipulate the audience into thinking individual factors were influencing the electorate more than they did in reality but I forgave him since the quality of the overall show was so accurate in regards to a political race.
Sound: The audio was presented in a 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo with English as the only language offered. It was closed captioned for the hearing impaired but I'm not equipped for them so if that feature is important to you, check out the disc first. The audio was advertised on the Film Movement website as being in 5.1 Surround but this was simply a typographical error. This type of documentary doesn't really benefit by using the more expansive sound of a 5.1 set up so I'm okay with it as it was. Other than the music, the vocals seemed to be recorded in monaural and were clear with no problems noticed.
Extras: The Film Movement series always includes a short film as part of the package, typically something offbeat that you would have to see at a festival, and this DVD was no different. The 7 minute short this time came from director David Garrett and was called Clown Car. The story was about two circus clowns stranded in the desert after their car breaks down. The car itself is no ordinary car, it's a clown car that has infinite room in the trunk and that lends itself to some of the admittedly dry humor of the short. Amazingly though, the best extras this time were reserved for the main feature (not something typical in the series) with an extremely interesting director commentary with New York Press critic Matt Zoller Seitz joining Kristian Fraga to discuss the film on several levels, beyond the usual technical matters and delving into the politics of the movie. I strongly recommend listening to it even if there were times when I wanted them to move along with their discussion. There were also some deleted scenes, five in total, lasting about 30 seconds each. I didn't really notice much about them that added to my understanding of the movie's themes or the characters involved, making it easy to see why they were cut, since they amounted to short interviews by the three candidates in each case. There was also the standard trailer and biographies but an interview with the director lasting almost 6 minutes (his political leanings were more obvious here than in the flick) and a slightly shorter interview with the composer who spent some time discussing how the music was arranged for the show.
Final Thoughts: Anytown, USA was probably as revealing a commentary on why the Republican party has done so well in the last several years as anything I've seen or read. It showed the small town race as indicative of what takes place on a larger scale better than it should have been able to do and without a lot of juicing it up as other documentary makers would do. While tentatively set in Bogota, New Jersey; it could very well have been any small town in the country from how things worked. The technical matters were capably handled and I thought very highly of this selection in the Film Movement catalog as their "Year 3, Film 12" offering. Check it out if you're interested in politics but be prepared for the bleak ending that Fraga offered up as a side note.