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Friday, May 20, 2011

'Freakonomics'/'The Red Baron'

All's fair in economics-based documentaries and war


Darren Aronofsky, whose "Black Swan" is now showing here, debuted with the cult flick "Pi" (1997), about a slightly mad math whiz who was convinced there was a pattern in stock market fluctuations that could reveal the markets' movements. As the film's hero put it, "Mathematics is the language of nature; everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers. If you graph the numbers of any system, patterns emerge."

Freakonomics Rating: (3 out of 5)
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Freakonomics
Questionable heroes: "Freakonomics" © 2010 Freakonomics Movie, LLC

Directors: Morgan Spurlock, Alex Gibney, Eugene Jarecki, Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady, Seth Gordon
Running time: 93 minutes
Language: English
Opens May 28
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Along comes that film's real-life equivalent in economist Steven Levitt, who took those ideas to the bank with his best-selling book, "Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything." Co-authored with New York Times journalist Stephen Dubner, the book's sales currently top 4 million — the kind of numbers that these days pretty much demand a cinematic tie-in.

"Freakonomics" the movie has a kind of "A-Team" of hip American documentary directors, with Morgan Spurlock ("Super Size Me"), Seth Gordon ("The King of Kong"), the prolific Alex Gibney ("Gonzo") and Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady ("Jesus Camp") each tackling separate topics from the book, along with casual interviews with Levitt and Dubner.

Like the protagonist in "Pi," Levitt believes the answer to everything lies in the numbers — if you know what to look for when data-mining. The film touches on topics such as cheating in sumo bouts, the effects a child's name will have on his/her career prospects, and why real-estate agents don't have your best interests at heart.

While some of this stuff is entertaining — as in who knew that Unique had become a popular child's name among African-Americans, with 280 different spellings? — the film can't escape an anecdotal feel, a lot of cool factoids that don't really add up to a cohesive whole.

Levitt's main contribution is in encouraging people to think outside the box, and he's certainly not afraid of doing that — he controversially ties America's falling rate of violent crime to 1973's Roe vs. Wade (legalized abortion) leading to fewer unwanted children being born. A lot of the film's conclusions, though, are far from dramatic: Did we really need two Harvard professors to tell us that in America, "black and white cultures are separate." Hello?

Best of the bunch is Ewing and Grady's look at a University of Chicago program that tested the idea of paying students if they improved their grades.

No clear conclusion is reached, but it's a good mood piece looking at the state of modern America teendom, and the directors again show their sharp eye for revealing moments. One kid rises to the challenge, concluding "the main thing that was distracting me was trying to be cool." On the other hand is a little Eminem wannabe with his homemade tattoo, hoodie and skateboard, who can barely be distracted from his Xbox long enough to explain why he's not trying harder. "I don't think I would take any money to give up my social life," he drawls. Asked what he plans to do after high school, he replies: "Maybe the military ... go to Iraq or something like that. I have no clue."

The Red Baron Rating: (2 out of 5)
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The Red Baron
"The Red Baron." © 2008 NIAMA-FILM GMBH

Directors: Nikolai Mullerschon
Running time: 129 minutes
Language: English, German and French (subtitled in Japanese)
Opens May 21
[See Japan Times movie listing]

"The Red Baron" is in that most problematic of film genres, the German War Film. Whereas Americans have no problem with the "just cause" their movie soldiers kill for, Germans — with their history of Nazism — have found it hard to identify with the glory of war. Hitler's bunker movies of the Fuhrer's inglorious defeat, sure; but a German war hero? Who?

Director Nikolai Mullerschon finds a candidate in World War I flying ace Manfred von Richthofen, a chivalrous, handsome flyboy who was respected (and feared) by his opponents. The era of dueling Fokkers and Sopwith Camels had a certain romanticism about it (especially compared to the carnage in the trenches below), and it has inspired films from "Hell's Angels" and "The Dawn Patrol" (both 1930) through "The Blue Max" (1966) and Roger Corman's "Von Richthofen and Brown" (1971).

Actor Matthias Schweighofer looks the part and does a decent job of portraying a callow child of nobility who sees himself off on a great lark. The script is cliche-ridden, though, and the film skimps on the fighter duels — von Richthofen's famous victory over British ace Lanoe Hawker isn't even shown, while the film invents a bogus meeting in no-man's-land between the German ace and Canadian pilot Roy Brown, who is often cited (perhaps incorrectly) as the man who shot down the Red Baron.

"The Red Baron" bends over backward to make a war hero palatable to the German public, and the contortions show. There's a yarmulke-wearing Jewish airman supposed to show the pre-Hitler unity of all Germans. It also paints the Red Baron as gentleman to a fault, telling his soldiers to aim for the plane, not the pilot — when in reality he taught his junior pilots the opposite. It imagines, too, a love-interest French nurse (Lena Headey) who awakens Richthofen to the horrors of war. But considering that the Red Baron had a silver trophy made for himself for every one of his first 60 kills, it's hard to imagine he was wracked with guilt.


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