Bobby is an ensemble film about the disparate characters at the Los Angeles Ambassador Hotel during the events leading up to Robert Kennedy's assassination there in June, 1968. Directed by actor Emilio Estevez, the film portrays various racial and class conflicts among the characters. They include a retired doorman, a soldier to be and his fiancée, an aging alcoholic singer and her miserable musician husband, two campaign workers who drop acid with a hippie, a Czech reporter who tries to get an interview with Kennedy, only to be rebuffed by a campaign official, to name a few characters.

One story thread, in particular, focuses on disenchanted Mexican immigrant kitchen workers, who serve the wealthy Kennedy donors and supporters at the hotel. "We didn't cross the border, the border crossed us," says one of them (Jacob Vargas). In another storyline, the socialite wife (Helen Hunt) frets over her dress while her husband (Martin Sheen) reassures her that she is more important than her clothes. The liberal manager (William H. Macy) fires a supervisor (Christian Slater) for not letting his workers off work to vote. A black campaign supporter (Nick Cannon) sees the presidential candidate as the last hope for African-Americans after the Martin Luther King assassination.

Bobby certainly covers a lot of ground, but instead of getting deeper into the social political circumstances of the late 1960s, the film turns out to be a generically liberal hero worship consisting of vague reformist platitudes about racial, class, national and generational conflicts. Bobby holds Kennedy in a saintly light without reflecting much on the contradictory nature of his life and career. This was a man, after all, who inspired idealism among significant sectors of the population, who sought to reform social and economic conditions, but was also involved in McCarthyite red-baiting during the early part of his career. As Attorney General for his brother's administration, he approved of the FBI's surveillance on Martin Luther King despite being a "champion" of civil rights as a presidential candidate. Much of Kennedy's career was mostly directed towards safe "progress" while deflecting popular anger away from revolution. Unfortunately for the film, this isn't reflected through the characters, whose lives seem to revolve solely around Kennedy, rather than their own sociopolitical circumstances. This is likely a result of Estevez's lack of political perspective, choosing to uncritically extol the subject rather than seriously examining the Kennedy phenomenon and its historical context.

Notes on a Scandal

A treatise on the unraveling effects of alienation and bitterness, Notes on a Scandal (directed by Richard Eyre, adapted from a Zoe Heller novel) involves Barbara Covett (Judi Dench), a stern teacher at a London secondary school. She narrates her cynical observations of school life and her colleagues and students. Barbara is a misanthropic disciplinarian, dealing with children in an authoritarian school system. She becomes an enamored with a new art teacher named Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett). In contrast to Barbara, Sheba is a free-spirted bohemian, whose lifestyle Barbara sarcastically refers to as bourgeois. However, Sheba is not happy as it seems, confiding her boredom of her family life to Barbara, who sees as an opportunity to establish a more involved friendship with her. She later catches Sheba having a sexual tryst with a student and confronts her. Sheba has an emotional breakdown while Barbara exploits her vulnerability to her advantage, leading to a rather unhealthy relationship and catastrophic set of events that impacts the psyche of all involved.

Notes on a Scandal becomes problematic when it descends uncomfortably into black humor, as if it doesn't take the subject matter seriously. The film is at its best when it explores the isolation and boredom rooted in dreary and routine school and family life. It is ambiguous whether Barbara is a lesbian or someone who is desperately lonely. Whatever the case, she attempts to counter her sense of powerlessness through disciplining students, but finds more satisfaction in holding power of Sheba, whose lifestyle she both disdains and envies. It would have been better if the film didn't stop short of this analysis and descend into a somewhat dark parody of a school scandal. As it stands, Notes on a Scandal is a partial success.

My Country, My Country

Last month's DVD release of the documentary, My Country, My Country coincided with the fourth anniversary of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. So what has the Iraqi liberation brought? This is what filmmaker Laura Poitras explores in her documentary of the American occupation.

The focal point of the film is a Sunni doctor, Dr. Riyadh who runs as the candidate for the Iraq Islamic Party in the U.S. staged elections. Riyadh has illusions that the successful elections will help end the occupation. In the film's most revealing scene, he visits the notorious Abu Ghraib prison where he pleads helplessly with the prisoners, many of them poor and disenfranchised, who air their grievances to the comparatively well-off doctor. Other segments cover an Australian security contractor hired to limit the visibility of the U.S. role in the elections, under the guise of protecting the process from terrorists. A U.S. soldier is also featured, fulfilling the dual role as a protector who would "light up" anyone who approaches a checkpoint.

Poitras, as indicated in her production notes, is sincerely concerned with the war and occupation, and the constant threat of military and sectarian violence. Her documentary has been praised for avoiding polemics, without browbeating her military subjects and for her non-judgmental portrayal of Riyadh's participation in the stooge election. While it is vital to avoid crude representation of subjects while presenting a critical analysis of their circumstances, such an approach teeters on the verge of evasion of the greater issues of the Iraq catastrophe. Treating the subjects with kid gloves is no substitution for a genuine examination of their plight. My Country, My Country, as a result, is both revealing and elusive.