Alien: Covenant Review

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I hate Prometheus and I don’t say that lightly. Part of this resentment towards Ridley Scott’s 2012 sci-fi opus is that it was sold as an Alien prequel. I fed into that promise and gleefully went to a midnight showing (actually 1:30 am because all screenings earlier were sold out) at Arclight even though I had to be up at 6 am for work. Needless to say, I was more than disappointed when I was delivered this black goo, giant space engineers bullshit and one lousy pseudo xenomorph in the finale as a consolation prize after enduring two hours of unanswered questions. I left the theater tired and pissed. Even if the effects were astounding and Charlize Theron was a bad ass, that couldn’t excuse that this was a movie of all setup, no payoff, and horrid Guy Pierce old man make up. Would I see the sequel to this lie? Of course! With the outrage that befell Prometheus on its release meant that the successor would have to ACTUALLY be the Alien prequel we demanded. Dropping the P name, Alien: Covenant aims to regain the fanbase being more action packed and aligned with the structural style of the original series.

The spaceship Covenant is on track to a newly found habitable planet to start a colony with the 2,000 hyper-sleeping passengers on board. After an unforeseen accident that forces the crew awake and burning up the captain in his hibernation pod, the reeling crew takes an abrupt side mission to an unknown planet they receive a cryptic signal from. This opening act in space is a lot of Scott flexing his muscles showing us the breathtaking recreation of space as if he didn’t get enough of that in The Martian. It’s also an opportunity to learn about the team, only half being of interest, that includes freshly appointed leader Oram (Billy Crudup), his second in command and the girlfriend of the burned up corpse Dany (Catherine Waterston), synthetic Walter who is more stilted and robotic than Prometheus’ David (both Michael Fassbender) and Danny McBride in a cowboy hat. We follow the expedition unit onto the lush green landscape that has some hostile beings that we’re quite familiar with. The chaos that catapults the team in motion is by the Prometheus introduced slimy xenomorph-adjacent and leads to more than just brutal attacks and body bursting. Without giving too much away, Covenant bridges the 2012 film or at least the remaining bits of it with the beloved Alien mythos.

What I want to get out there is that I think this is an ok movie, a serviceable Alien prequel and light years better than Prometheus, at the same time this movie can’t exist without it. It makes Prometheus the vegetables you had to eat first before you got to the steak that is Covenant, or more appropriately the quality of a turkey burger. The new film amps up the action and the energy that the previous film lacks because it’s a solemn mood piece. Covenant is delivering quiet horror followed by monumental fight sequences in the style of the original Alien. It’s more of the violence and gore that I wanted but at the same time incorporates the philosophical subject matters spearheading Prometheus. A major overarching theme of the entire series is the idea of playing God especially when it comes to this strange extraterrestrial species. With Alien and Aliens, it was Weyland Industries wanting to harvest the xenomorph for testing and bio-weaponry at the expense of the company casualties then in Alien: Resurrection its cruel genetically modified Sigourney Weaver-xenomorph hybrids. While Covenant’s goal is to deliver the familiarity you have with the series it does get to dig deeper into the God complex that the founder of Weyland Industries passed onto his prized possession, David. Corrupted with power and egomania, David becomes an uneasy figure to survivors which I liked as an alternative threat to the usual double mouthed creature.

Because there’s such a strong focus on this storyline when we actually get to the xenomorph it filled me with elation because it’s the cherry on top of this heavy tenuous enclosed horror of being trapped with an android. While I’m glad they don’t overuse the xenomorph, the turn into the third act doesn’t really know what to do with David. The narrative closure of this film is muddled in its intentions of what is meant to surprise you and I never need to be an hour ahead of a twist. In general, the film is filled with very little surprise because this franchise is so played out. This new millennium diverging series has trapped itself in a corner of being tied with Alien. It seems like Riddley Scott is trying to expand the universe, explore this future of uncharted galaxies and questioning human’s place in the cosmos but if it’s connected to Alien we demand xenomorphs and then it’s the same movie over and over again. You can’t win. Hell, I find AVP is a better side project because it’s a different space to play in, it’s ridiculous and at least the tagline is upfront with the fact that we all lose. With Scott signed on for two additional sequels and considering the cliffhanger the film ends on, theoretically, there is a story there but it sounds pretty similar to Aliens and I’d prefer to have no one touching a remake of that.

Seeing the Ghost

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The original Ghost in the Shell manga came out in 1989 and it’s debut anime feature in 1995. A lot in terms of sci-fi has been made since then. Because I know so little about anime, I can’t say how much this source material influenced future filmmakers. Seeing this new live action adaptation that has such bold and gorgeous art direction I can’t help but notice it feels like an amalgamation of other films in the genre. The Fifth Element comes to mind with the hyper active metropolis with flashy interactive billboards, neon color pallet and a near nude bodysuit wearing female protagonist but also The Matrix with the plug in culture and the more grimy underbelly of the advanced society. While I question which came first, the chicken or the egg, there are much more complicated goings on with this remake.

Even entering into this movie a blank slate, the title details the thematic drive that defines this neo noir. Major (Scarlett Johansson) is part of a government assembled anti-terrorism unit but is a key asset to her colleagues as she is a human mind in a synthetic body. Her creation is said to be one of a kind but this is a future where cyber enhancements are the norm and few have their original body parts. Still, she has superhuman capabilities like invisibility and is impervious to bodily harm. The story is the most uninspiring aspect of this eye candy production. After the first opening set piece which is a big shoot out involving diplomats and robot spider geishas, the team is informed that someone sinister orchestrated the attack and while the shady character is proposed to be the villain, from moment one you know this is a grand conspiracy kind of narrative and sure enough, there’s something fishy about the genesis of Major. The genericness of the plot occasionally took me out of it, reminding me that I’m watching a soulless studio product but then the stunning visual effects pulls me back with more spider based monsters and colorful yet seedy locations.

Aside from pretty things to stare at (enhanced considering I saw this in 3D) like any good science fiction, Ghost is delving into some philosophical ideas, I assume originated in the book and not prompted by Paramount. What the title invokes and has such specific language used again and again in the dialogue is that with her brain is tied her ghost or a more western way of putting it, spirit, that makes her human even though she inhabits an inanimate body. The movie is about her search for identity because while she is human she lacks memories of what happened before the accident that put her in this shell and past experiences are often what inform our personalities. Johansson is a convincing robot, utilizing physicality and a dry vocal delivery but that coldness also services as a lost soul. The people around her be it friends or superiors treat her different depending on if they see her as more of a person or a robot. Her journey is trying to connect to the society she feels so removed from.

Within this conversation of humanity, free will and identity, the unexpected reveals itself and in the most surprising turn of the movie, Ghost confronts its own whitewashing. The film received a lot of backlash when first announced because a white woman was cast as the lead in a traditional Japanese anime. Now in the past when American studios remake a Japanese property, say The Ring, it’s set in the States and given a white cast. What makes this instance particularly troubling is that the movie is set in a specifically Japanese-esque city and then giving Johansson Asian features. All this left a bad taste in the public’s mouth and is speculated to have contributed to the poor box office returns but the funny thing is that the narrative is self-aware of what its makers have done. As the conspiracy unfolds we learn that the fragmented past Major can recount is a fabrication and in reality, she was a local runaway named Motoko. She and fellow runaway turned failed experiment Hideo (played by Michael Pitt) are literal products of whitewashing. Sadly the film does little to explore further than condemning that these innocent Japanese youths were harvested for robotic experimentation. I would have loved to have seen a scathing commentary of the status placed on whiteness, but this is an action movie at heart unwilling to brace such resistance. It does allow a bit of leeway to like the movie now despite its controversy, but not much.

With that missed opportunity so goes the movie. I left the theater having enjoyed my time but it’s ultimately forgettable. It’s Avatar syndrome where a film believes it can survive on spectacle alone and while James Cameron’s work made a billion times more profit, viewers are quick to critique the unoriginal story. If it had more creative freedom with the writing than just the graphics it could be something I could recommend even while entrenched with its problematic casting. Maybe Ghost in the Shell walks away as a learning experience, a concrete example of viewers pushing back on whitewashing. A small victory during a time when we need such triumph. Though does this make me part of the problem because I went to go see it? Damnit, we’re all screwed.

Going Ape For Kong

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Maybe it was just me but I wasn’t completely psyched for a new Kong movie. Large CGI mammals whether they are singing jazz in Jungle Book or surviving ship wrecks in Life of Pi look either too fake or too cheesy. I’m always hyper aware that they’re not real and I’d prefer filmmakers to use an actual tiger. Now there’s no 100-foot ape Warner Brothers could have pulled as a practical Kong but the key phrase in the title Kong:Skull Island would be the latter half. While Kong is the center piece of this lost island in the South Pacific, there’s so much more there than the titular ape. The military and science expedition that arrive may have been welcomed by a fierce swipe of Kong’s hand wiping out most of the team but there are far worse species lurking in the jungle that they must worry about and that’s where the fun begins.

It’s hard not to notice the huge push to distance this adaptation from Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong. Jackson’s goal was to remake the film from his childhood and make it a rightful epic. It’s truthful to the 30’s setting but has the edition of all creatures on the island namely dinosaurs as Kong’s adversary at least until man proves to be the real foe. There’s the odd woman/ape romance with the blonde heroine which elongates the plot into this 3 hour plus narrative. Skull Island first move is to scrap the time period that character is so entrenched in. It’s 1974 and Vietnam is wrapping up. It’s blatant that the filmmakers are going full Apocalypse Now with the visual imagery of the rising sun, helicopters dropping bombs and Samuel L Jackson’s war hungry Colonel Packard is a clear Kurtz parallel. Besides being the breath of fresh air by including the new decade that has funky ties and classic rock, Kong is a perfect allegory for Vietnam as this expedition, well intentioned or not is ill-prepared and unable to stop the force of the ape. This is also a movie that moves at a clip. They deliver a tight 2-hour action movie that wastes no time, giving you visual confirmation of Kong in the first five minutes. It’s a welcomed decision in my opinion because I don’t need a drawn out story. It’s an island with monsters, most of these people won’t make it out alive and I’m here to see their fight for survival. The downside of cramming in all these set pieces as well as characters (if you’ve seen the amount of actors’ names they fit on the poster you know), any emotional growth is thrown to the wayside or when attempted, doesn’t work. The few times to breathe and allow these character moments between the hired tracker Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and anti-war photographer Weaver (Brie Larson) comes off as pointless. The ones who come out best are the biggest swaths of performance like Jackson or John Goodman who plays the crackpot scientist Randa who initiates this mission.

I may be saying the writing is a bit hollow but that’s not why you go see a blockbuster such as this. You’re there for the spectacle and Skull Island definitely delivers. With DP Larry Fong who is the real star here, creates breathtaking 360 battle sequences like Kong taking down helicopters, giant bamboo spiders that squash unsuspecting soldiers and the Skullcrawler attack in the elephant graveyard. The pristine special effects make the action such an immersive experience, something I can’t wait to see again and oggle. I, of course, am drawn to all the bizarre creatures designed to inhabit the island. While I can take or leave a mammal, I love me a CGI reptile because dinosaurs are forever. Moving away from the traditional T-Rex look Jackson went for, here it’s a Cloverfield, skeletal beast that charges at people on its two legs. Weird as hell but fascinating to behold. Even when not in the trenches the neon lighting choices of Vietnam, accentuating the cool British ruggedness of Hiddleston are much appreciated. From costumes to production design to special effects, all beautifully recreates both a specific time as well as a whole new place that time forgot. I’d hope you’d get something this good with such a massive budget.

This is a studio movie through and through. It moves and sounds like one with its protest rock soundtrack and obvious build up to a sequel/Marvel-esque world building. It has the pitfalls of film by comity, lacking a distinctive directorial drive but goddamnit if it isn’t a hell of a lot of fun to watch. We got the auteur Kong already and while you can feel the ambition, it’s still a slog. I’ll sacrifice a romantic storyline for well-shot explosions and beast battles. The anti-war, pro-environmental message come through naturally without the grand statements. The setting and scenario are strong even if there are too many characters to rightfully establish a lead. The movie knows how to have a good time. It’s comedic, it’s dark and it promises me more Godzilla in my future which is all I’m asking from any movie. I could care less about superheroes, this is the cinematic universe I’ve been asking for.

The New Stepford: The Influences of Get Out

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Brainwashing, body snatching, experimental procedures, what have you, there’s a lot to fear from the power of affluent white people. That may sound crazy but science fiction ulterior motives are almost more comforting to believe in than a grand evil scheme concocted by white upper class than age-old racism and sexism. Get Out has made a huge splash as being one of the most woke horror movies ever made. It brings the subtext of oppression and otherness that past genre films have alluded to and made it literal text. The story of a black man Chris (Daniel Kaluyaa) going on a weekend vacation to visit his white girlfriend’s parents devolves into a conspiracy of modern day slavery and exaggerated cultural appropriation. Sure it is a heightened scenario of a white community luring black people to be used as body surrogates since they are superior physical, artistic and intellectual beings but there are many other smaller interactions that director Jordan Peele tackles of modern day racism such as a black man being followed by a car in the suburbs or the excessive need for the white people Chris meets in this upstate neighborhood to prove they’re not racist by stating how much they like Tiger Woods. Get Out couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for America where the conversation on race has come to the forefront. Now being a white person, I’m not the right person to talk about the importance of Get Out or the black experience in any way but Peele has expressed that his inspiration for the movie came from 1975’s The Stepford Wives, that premise being a similar affluent suburb of Connecticut has men turning their wives into subservient robots. The female experience being something I’m more familiar with, I decided to double feature the 70’s horror film as well as it’s 2004 comedy remake to see where Peele drew his influence and how I can tangentially talk about Get Out.

I’m first inclined to believe that Peele derived from both incarnations of Ira Levin’s novel. Obviously tonally he’s going for the thriller elements of the 1975 Wives which was also a slow burn build up as Joanna (Katharine Ross) and her husband Walter (Peter Masterson) move to the town of Stepford from the big city and during her four months stay, she notices the abnormal perfections that are the women of the prim and proper suburb. Yet Frank Oz’s Stepford Wives is a richer satire as well as being a broad comedy which has some time to shine in Get Out which supporting actor LilRel Howery brings in the third act. The thesis statement in those films is that the modern woman is becoming too independent and free-thinking so their boilerplate, vanilla husbands invent a way to replace their partners with identical looking fembots whose only desire is to please whether that be sexual or dedicating their time to a clean house and home cooked meals. This obviously derives from the 50’s idyllic homemaker which is more pronounced in the remake. Not subtly shown in the opening credits montage are vintage household appliance commercials being modeled by ecstatic women then once actually in the town, everyone is made up in the dresses and hair dos presented in the aforementioned ads. The real biting satire comes from the fact that all the transformed Stepford wives were career women, CEOs and novelists whose husbands were left inferior and therefore compelled to “upgrade” their women into big breasted cyborgs. The motivations in the ’75 version are much less warranted where our lead Joanna is not the creative director for a television network but a stay at home mom with a budding photography interesting. The fact that her schlub of a lawyer husband Walter feels the need to change her because they sometimes argue is way more disturbing.

Stepford Wives is examining the gender gap of “boys will be boys” and “women belong in the kitchen” stereotypes which in Get Out translates to the gap between the long-standing racial divide in America. Both have a storied history in these McMansion neighborhoods. Peele is examining how going back to slavery, blacks were viewed as either the help, seen at the Armitage estate with the housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and Walter (Marcus Henderson) or as sexual beings like former Brooklynite Andre (Keith Stanfield) standing as arm candy for a much older woman. Chris and Joanna are witnessing these reductive molds being forced on their peers and know that no one does this willingly. Just as Joanna sees her slobbish, eccentric friend Bobbie (Paula Prentiss and Bette Midler respectively) transform into trophy wives, Chris similarly sees the phony exterior of Andre and the haywire mechanism triggered by either a camera flash or slight trauma proves that their humanity is somehow vacant. All films are tales of humans using advanced technology to simplify one’s identity, the funniest instance is that of in ’75’s Wives it’s an ex-Disney Imagineer who is the proprietor of the Mr. Lincoln-esque fembots. It’s the paradox of no matter how far we improve in science and technology, there’s the need to hold on or revert to the past, in this situation the oppressive former ways of life.

Peele gleans a mix of small details (the heroes being photographers because they have the eye to see the truth) and the larger arcs (rich white people shouldn’t be trusted) to make a more relevant version of Ira Levin’s work but with the less often shown perspective. As a white person, even watching the 2004 Stepford Wives I couldn’t help but be taken aback at how upper class and removed that environment feels. It’s a prerecession America and all those husbands now are the 1% who have a hard-on for Paul Ryan and his tax cuts. The film doesn’t even address the lack of diversity, their chosen statement of inclusion is a gay couple and an obviously self-loathing one at that (Roger’s partner apparently hates his flamboyant nature). At least the 1975 version addresses the fact that the neighborhood has been strictly caucasian until the local busybody giddily informs Joanna and Bobbie that a black family is moving in and that Stepford is the “most liberal town around.” In Get Out whether you’re black or not you relate to the uncomfortableness of the opulent lifestyle. Millenials distrust of old money and those wealthy people that placed us in our current political and economical predicament informs the tension of the film, even if they say they would have voted for Obama a third term. They probably didn’t vote for Hilary! I digress, all this is to praise Peele for making a more identifiable movie for my generation. Just as Moonlight was the movie that needed to win Best Picture, Get Out is the horror movie needed to start off this year. When the world turns sour, in response, the best art is born.
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For brief reviews of Get Out, The Stepford Wives (1975) and The Stepford Wives (2004) here.

Where My Eels At?: A Cure For Wellness Review

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Gore Verbinski is one of the best kept secrets in Hollywood. He’s often underappreciated and rarely brought into the conversation when discussing visionary directors often because he’s become associated with adapting big budget properties. While the first Pirates of the Carribean blew audiences away in 2003, its sequels sullied the memory of Black Pearl and the inflated disaster of Lone Ranger didn’t help (even though I find that movie bizarrely entertaining). But with 2011’s Rango, he showed promised of what he’s capable of when given a blank check. The mental hospital thriller, A Cure For Wellness does not need to be a big budget feature but when you’ve got Verbinski and a studio that is still willing to entrust him with lots of money, you get a visually alluring piece with an original concept that goes all the wild places that Verbinski’s mind can take it.

This is a movie that never relaxes. From the Matrix green opening where you watch an unnamed man have a heart attack to being transported to a train winding through the Swiss Alps, the tone is constantly unnerving. Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is sent on a type of rescue mission as he’s sent to a high profile Wellness spa to retrieve a fellow stock broker who has lost his sanity. The young Dehaan who looks like a child pretending to be a businessman but as dickish as his superiors, is rightly skeptical of the secluded, Hogwart-esque center. We know something is not right and after a car accident lands Lockhart in the institution with a broken leg, we’re strapped in to piece together the mystery that lies beneath and within the castle. The film’s angst and unease work because it never toys with idea that maybe it’s all in Lockhart’s head which is a thriller red herring I despise. Starting with the warning of his chauffeur to the pristine and robotic front desk attendant, the characters, the setting and everything around Lockhart is questionable and you’re dying to know all the answers.

What makes me appreciate Cure For Wellness so much is its ambition and extreme choices. While Verbinski can make everything look pretty, there’s an ugliness in the narrative to go along with that. As I’m currently watching a fair amount of New French Extremity myself, Wellness is of the same ilk, pushing the boundaries of body horror and taboo subject matter. The dark and disgusting nature of certain scenes is quite unexpected from a primarily Disney director. I’m always happy to see a big budget film go for a hard R and it very much earns it as the third act goes heavily off the rails. An extended run time (2 hours and 25 minutes) allows a lot of story to unfold and any time it started to lose me with foreboding child drawings or uncomfortable gender politics, it pulled me back with its lambasted crazy agenda that I can’t believe Verbinski was allowed to make.

In the genre of “Hospital Horror” Wellness towers over other entries such as Shutter Island and Suckerpunch. Verbinski has a knack for tension, utilizing the immobility of Lockhart’s handicap and accentuating the creaking sound of his crutches is one of the many touches that heightens the anxiety which is the defining trait of this genre. While you can see the influences of B- monster movies and the cruelty of Marathon Man, this is a film all its own. Filled with unpredictability and constantly wanting to one ups its own bonkersness, I foresee this one staying with me to the end of 2017. Glad movies this good coming out at the start of the year, we could use some hope.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter: How Did We Let It Go On This Long?

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Way to go out on a whimper. You may be aware but I’ve been championing this franchise for years. I’m mindful of its stupidity and simplicity as a horror video game adaptation which means plots are mission based, characters are one dimensional and its full of gun play and roundhouse kicks. I’ve found their self-seriousness enjoyable for all these years as Milla Jovovich continually proves she’s a capable and charismatic action star as she carries the weight of the series on her shoulders. In each film, there’s always been a set piece to enjoy scored with intensity to make you feel like you’re watching something amazing. I uphold the belief that the films have improved with technology and increased budgets as Afterlife and Retribution are the most cohesive with Anderson back at the directing helm and visually stunning thanks to improved special effects. Yet Final Chapter crashes and burns as it retcons so much set up from the past five films making this nearly stand-alone installment that is also one of the most poorly directed and edited films I’ve ever experienced.

Where most Resident Evil films kick off with your old pal Alice recapping the loose arc of the previous movies including the zombie outbreak and the maniacal Umbrella corporation, Final Chapter adds this backstory to the Red Queen, the child hologram antagonist of the first film. Her lengthy setup plus random zombie attack on a snow mountain vacation leads us to present day Alice, alone, in the ruins of Washington DC. This was the first red flag as Retribution’s grand finale was a blockade of characters from the video games who’ve weaved themselves into the franchise (Claire Redfield, Albert Wesker, Ada Wong, Leon Kennedy) all about to have this epic last stand against a legion of zombies and flying dragon monsters. We are not privy to whatever occurred immediately after the credits rolled except for Alice’s passing mention that Wesker betrayed her in Washington. So first we’re robbed of the most exciting of cliff hangers. I had not yet closed the door that this movie could win me back. I had seen the trailer and at least knew there was a pay off on the aforementioned dragons but as Alice’s opening fight scene kicks off, it was all downhill.

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When Politics Seemed Quaint: Game Change Review

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“…you have got to stop saying things to the press that are blatantly untrue; that is NOT the kind of campaign that we are running here!”

Game Change and its portrayal of John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign comes off as a warning that we didn’t heed. The film explores the “maverick” and ill-advised choice of having unvetted first time govern Sarah Palin as the VP pick. The film tracks the landmark challenges strategist like Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) faced first with trying to train Palin into VP material but also the consequences of this authority and prominence going to her head. While she’s unmanageable by the team, her wild yet down-home rhetoric connects with the public. As exaggerated as Palin’s unintelligence and falsities seem, we’ve already lived through a candidate saying much worse so her inaccuracies seem cute by comparison.

There’s a strangeness to liberals depicting Republicans which this HBO film toes. As much as I hate the term “liberal media” the choice of a twangy country music soundtrack and the stupidity in which they show Palin (she’s ignorant to WWII?) at times can feel harsh. Julianne Moore who is seemingly playing Palin larger than life actually slips into normalcy because the woman is a caricature. The look, the accent, the mannerisms, I could easily be convinced she really was her. At the same time, this film gives me a new found respect for John McCain because at least he doesn’t have some of the more nut job conservative views.

Why this film feels so convincing besides fantastic performances from a stack casting (motherfuckin’ Sarah Paulson!) director Jay Roach weaves in so much archival footage of Obama, the debates, attack ads etc that give legitimacy to the narrative. Sometimes it’s overdone like the long clips of Saturday Night Live. I get that was an integral part of that presidential race but when playing full clips I start to prefer to just watch the entire sketch. Game Change wants to make itself a truthful snapshot of this risky campaign and unintentionally, its future effect on politics. The film ends on a scary note and once again I can’t believe this movie was made before the events of the 2016 race. Campaign Manager Rick Davis says

“I too wish that the American people would choose the future Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson, but unfortunately, that’s not the way it works anymore. Now it takes movie-star charisma to get elected President, and Obama and Palin, that’s what they are – they’re stars.”

Haunting. Can’t wait to see HBO’s take on the Trump campaign.