All posts by Dennis Hartley

Natural-born world shaker: R.I.P. Paul Newman

By Dennis Hartley

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I’m shocked and saddened by the news today about Paul Newman’s passing. Yes, he was 83 years old, and we all know he had been seriously ill for some time, but it was still one of those “Nooooo!!” moments for me. It was also a spooky moment for me, actually. As I was getting ready to go work out at my health club early this morning, I was flipping through the cable channels, and came across Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. (I hadn’t heard the news yet). It’s one of those personal favorites that I always get sucked into, no matter what scene I happen upon. In this case, I tuned in just as Butch, Sundance and Etta were disembarking at the train station in Bolivia. I love that scene (“Aw…he’ll feel a lot better after he’s robbed a couple of banks!”). So there I sat, giggling as if it wasn’t the 250th time I’d watched the film, for 15 minutes before I realized, “Oh yeah, I was just headed out the door.” I’m easily distracted. Anyway, it got my morning off to a great start; as I headed for my truck, I was still chuckling to myself. I switched on the radio, and the very first thing I heard was the NPR host’s solemn announcement. Fuck!

Paul Newman is not only to be admired for leaving behind an impressive array of iconic film roles that truly enriched the art of film acting, but for making so many genuine contributions to humanity in his off-hours. Earlier today on CNN, I caught a phone interview with an obviously choked-up staffer from one of Newman’s Hole in the Wall Camps (for terminally ill children) and it was a much more moving tribute than any collage of film clips could ever be. It’s also worth noting that the donated profits from the “Newman’s Own” food company have translated to over $250,000,000 for charitable organizations. You know-just another one of those typical Democratic Hollywood lefties.

Newman was one of those actors who made it all look so easy; you couldn’t detect the “method”, as it were. He “inhabited” his characters, and you never doubted that you were observing a real flesh-and-blood human being up on that screen. Even when he was playing larger than life characters, he always managed to keep it real and down-to-earth.

I think I’ll leave the final words of farewell to Cool Hand Luke’s best pal, “Dragline”.

“He was smiling… That’s right. You know, that, that Luke smile of his. He had it on his face right to the very end. Hell, if they didn’t know it ‘fore, they could tell right then that they weren’t a-gonna beat him. That old Luke smile. Oh, Luke. He was some boy. Cool Hand Luke. Hell, he’s a natural-born world-shaker.”

 We’ll keep “shakin’ that world” in your memory, Mr. Newman. I’m pretty sure somebody up there likes you.

My obsession with Ida Lupino: Moontide *** & Road House ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 13, 2008)

Hello, Dali.

This week, I wanted to spotlight a pair of lesser-known, underappreciated and previously hard-to-find films noirs from the 1940s that have finally seen the light of day on DVD. Moontide and Road House are two of the latest reissues in the ongoing Fox Film Noir Series, and both happen to feature the woman of my darkest dreams, Ida Lupino.

The British-born Lupino (who died in 1995 at age 81) was a staple of the classic American noir cycle from the early 40s through the late 50s. Although it wasn’t the only movie genre she worked in during her long career, it’s the one she was born to inhabit. She had a sexy, slinky, waif-like appearance that was intriguingly contrapuntal to her husky voice and tough-as-nails countenance.

Whether portraying a victim of fate or a femme fatale, Lupino imbued all of her characters with an authentic, “lived-in” quality that gave her a compelling screen presence. It’s also worth noting her fine work as a writer, director and producer, in an era of film making when few women wore those hats.

Back in 1941, director Archie Mayo (The Petrified Forest, Charley’s Aunt, A Night in Casablanca) faced the unenviable task of stepping in to rescue a 20th Century Fox film project called Moontide, which had been abandoned by the great Fritz Lang not too long after shooting had begun. As one of the pioneering German expressionists, Lang was a key developer of the visual style that eventually morphed into a defining noir “look” (some of his pre-1940s classics like M, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and Fury are generally considered seminal proto-noirs).

Moontide was also to be the American debut for Frenchman Jean Gabin, already a major star in Europe (Pepe le Moko, La Grande Illusion, La Bete humaine). Needless to say, the pressure was on for Mayo to deliver. And “deliver” he did, with this moody and highly stylistic sleeper, ripe for rediscovery.

Gabin stars as Bobo, an itinerate odd-jobber (the type of character Steve Martin might call a “ramblin’ guy”) who blows into a coastal California fishing community with a parasitic sidekick named Tiny (Thomas Mitchell) in tow. Adhering to time-honored longshoreman tradition, Bobo and Tiny make a wharf side pub crawl the first order of business when they hit port. It is quickly established that the handsome, likable and free-spirited Bobo loves to party, as we watch him go merrily careening into an all-night boning and grogging fest.

The next morning, Bobo appears to be suffering from a classic blackout, not quite sure why or how he ended up sacked out on an unfamiliar barge, wearing a hat that belongs to a man who has met a mysterious demise sometime during the previous evening.

Taking a stroll along the beach in an attempt to clear his head, he happens upon a distraught young woman named Anna (Lupino) who is attempting to drown herself in the surf. Anyone who has screened a noir or two knows what’s coming next. Before we know it, Bobo and Anna are playing house in a cozy love shack (well, bait shop, technically). Of course, there is still that certain unresolved matter of Did He Or Didn’t He, which provides the requisite dramatic tension for the rest of the narrative.

John O’Hara’s screenplay (adapted from Willard Robertson’s novel) borders on trite at times and could have done more damage to the film’s rep, if it had not been for Gabin and Lupino’s formidable charisma, as well as the beautifully atmospheric chiaroscuro photography (by Charles G. Clarke and Lucien Ballard) and assured direction from Mayo.

There are several brilliant directorial flourishes; the montage depicting Bobo’s fateful night of revelry is a particular standout. The surreal touches in that sequence were “inspired” by some original sketches submitted on spec by Salvatore Dali, who was slated to contribute art direction, but ended up dropping out for one reason or another.

Great supporting performances abound, particularly from a nearly unrecognizable Claude Rains as a paternal waterfront philosopher who could have easily strolled off the pages of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. Moontide would make an interesting double bill with Clash by Night, another character-driven “cannery noir” set in a California fishing town milieu.

And now we come to a particularly delicious sleaze-noir from 1948 called Road House (not to be confused with the trashy 1989 Patrick Swayze mullet fest that shares the same title). This was the fourth and final genre pic from director Jean Nugulesco, who had previously helmed The Mask of Dimitrios, Nobody Lives Forever and Johnny Belinda.

Noir icon Richard Widmark stars as the mercurial Jefty Robbins, who owns a road house called (wait for it…) “Jefty’s”. He has hired his longtime pal Pete Morgan (noir beefcake Cornel Wilde) to help with day-to-day management. The fussy, protective Pete feels that his main function is to be the voice of reason and steer the frequently impulsive Jefty away from making potentially reckless business decisions.

When Pete is dispatched to the train station to pick up Jefty’s “new equipment” Lily Stevens (Lupino), a hardened chanteuse who starts cracking wise from the moment they meet, he becomes convinced that this is one of Jefty’s potentially reckless business decisions. The tough, self-assured Lily laughs off his attempt to offer up the advance money “for her trouble” and then steer her onto the next train heading back to Chicago. Now, you and I know that these two are obviously destined to rip each other’s clothes off at some point; the fun is in getting there.

Although the setup may give the impression that this is going to be a standard romantic triangle melodrama, the film segues into noir territory from the moment that the Widmark Stare first appears. For those not familiar with the Widmark Stare, it goes thusly:

Suffice it to say-when you see the Widmark Stare, it is very likely that trouble lies ahead. As his character becomes more and more unhinged, Widmark eventually employs all his “greatest hits” (including, of course, The Demented Cackle). His performance builds to an operatic crescendo of psychopathic batshit craziness in the film’s final act that plays like a precursor to Ben Kingsley’s raging, sexual jealously-fueled meltdown in Sexy Beast.

Widmark and Lupino are both in top form here. Wilde is overshadowed a bit, but then again his “boy toy” role isn’t as showy as the others. Celeste Holm is wonderfully droll as one of Jefty’s long-suffering employees. Lupino insisted on doing her own singing in the film; while she was not a technically accomplished crooner, she actually wasn’t half bad in a husky-voiced “song stylist” vein (she really tears it up on “One For My Baby”).

Both films sport excellent DVD transfers and insightful commentary from noir experts.

‘Board certified: Paranoid Park **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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Gus Van Sant’s name has become synonymous with what I call “northwest noir”, and, true to form, his latest film cozies right up alongside some of the director’s previous genre forays like Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Elephant and Last Days.

Dreamlike and elliptical in construct, Paranoid Park is a Crime and Punishment type portrait of a young man struggling with guilt and inner turmoil after inadvertently causing the death of a security guard. A Portland skateboarder named Alex (Gabe Nevins), lives with his brother and their mother (Grace Carter), who is separated from the boys’ father. We get a glimpse of the otherwise taciturn Alex’s inner life through snippets from a private journal, relayed to us in voice-over (a la Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver).

His parent’s pending divorce aside, Alex appears to be a typical suburban high school student. His girlfriend (Taylor Momsen) is a cheerleader; his best friend Jared (Jake Miller) is a skateboard enthusiast as well. The two friends hang out after school at an unsanctioned skateboard course, hidden beneath a freeway overpass and nicknamed “Paranoid Park” by users (the kind of place you don’t want to go to after dark). Alex and Jared spend most of their time there marveling at the prowess of the hard core boarders. Alex harbors a fascination for the fringe lifestyles of the park’s more feral denizens; a breed he describes in his journal as “gutter punks, train hoppers, skate drunks…throwaway kids.” Late one night, out of sheer boredom (and against his better instincts) Alex ventures into the park and hooks up with one of the “train hoppers”, a dubious character named “Scratch” (tempted by the Devil?). The resulting incident and its aftermath forms the crux of Alex’s churning moral dilemma and creeping paranoia.

The director’s script (adapted from Blake Nelson’s novel) features the minimalist dialogue we’ve come to expect in his films. This probably works to the young star’s advantage; especially since this was his first acting role (the director picked him out of an open casting call in Portland for extras). Nevins, a slightly built, doe-eyed teenager who bears an uncanny resemblance to 70s bubble-gum idol Leif Garrett, fits the physical profile of the typical Van Sant protagonist. He and the rest of the largely non-professional cast give naturalistic performances. There is some nifty work from cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Kathy Li, especially in the chimerical skateboarding sequences.

As with many of Van Sant’s efforts (especially those of most recent vintage), your reaction to this film may hinge on your disposition when you watch it. Not for all tastes; but fans of movies like Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge and Francis Coppola’s The Outsiders will likely want to check out this similarly haunting mood piece about youthful angst.

Sky-high Fe: Iron Man ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

Robert Downey, Jr. forges a head.

The season of popcorn has now been officially thrust upon us with the release of Iron Man, the latest live-action “issue” produced from the seemingly inexhaustible stable of Marvel Comics superheroes.

This marks the fourth feature film and the second fantasy-adventure in a row from director-writer-actor Jon Favreau (Made, Elf and Zathura: A Space Adventure). Despite his growing list of director’s credits, Favreau the actor is probably still most recognizable for his role as the neurotic, lovelorn stand-up comic in Doug Liman’s 1996 cult film Swingers. Favreau also wrote the screenplay for that film, which means that you can credit (or blame) as being responsible for injecting the catchphrase “Vegas, baby, Vegas!” into the pop lexicon.

For his new film, Favreau turns screenwriting chores over to Mark Fegus, Hawk Otsby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway; but those paying close attention will catch a clever visual homage to Swingers in the opening sequence, which takes place in (you guessed it) Las Vegas. Favreau has a cameo as one of the nattily attired security men for wealthy inventor/industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) who is in town to accept a recognition award for his ingenious achievements in the advancement of weapons technology. Stark is a cocky eccentric who enjoys the typical pursuits and distractions of a rich playboy, when not ensconced in the high-tech basement laboratory of his (movie fabulous) cliff mansion in Malibu. He is attended to by trusty gal Friday, Pepper Pots (Gwyneth Paltrow).

While on a junket in Afghanistan to demonstrate and promote sales of his latest missile technology, Stark’s military escort convoy is ambushed and he is captured by a group of terrorists, who then demand that he construct a crude prototype of his latest invention for their further development and use. Thanks to the assistance of a fellow prisoner, a doctor-inventor (natch), Stark instead constructs an armored suit with built-in weapon technology and jet-propulsion capabilities, which enables his eventual escape. You know-the kind of thing anyone can MacGyver just by re-purposing a few odds ‘n’ ends that you might find lying about…

Stark is quite shaken by his experience, and is particularly traumatized by the realization that the terrorist’s cave complex was chock-a-block with crates of weaponry labeled “Stark Industries”. He calls a press conference after his return to the states. Stricken by his conscience, he announces that his company will detach themselves from the propagation of the war machine and instead devote research and development to high-tech products that will be more beneficial to humanity (now that’s a “fantasy”). The scene reminded me of that oft-played newsreel in which atomic bomb developer Robert Oppenheimer utters his mournful epiphany: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” (which precipitated the anti-nuke crusade he embarked on for the remainder of his life).

This sudden and unexpected change in the corporate mission statement doesn’t settle well with Stark Industries’ longtime VP Obadiah Stone (Jeff Bridges) who thinks the CEO has gone off his rocker. The duplicitous Stone’s machinations eventually lead to his transmogrification into Iron Man’s first arch-nemesis, “Iron Monger”.

The film is thankfully bereft of the headache and/or vertigo-inducing f/x overkill one usually encounters in this genre (the reason I generally avoid the comic book inspired action flicks these days; chalk it up to the joys of aging). The action sequences are exciting and quite well done, but parceled out in just the right amounts. The emphasis is on character development, helped along quite nicely by a talented cast. Downey’s knack for physical comedy enlivens a hugely entertaining montage depicting the construction of his “new and improved” body armor. Downey keeps getting better, and despite the fact that he is not the first actor one thinks of as the “superhero type” he is perfectly cast here as the complex Tony Stark. You could say… the irony suits him well (insert groan here).

Crazy rhythms: The Visitor ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 26, 2008)

If Richard Jenkins doesn’t get an Oscar nod for his amazing performance in Thomas McCarthy’s new comedy-drama, The Visitor, I will personally picket the Academy. Jenkins absolutely owns the character of  life-tired, middle-aged widower Walter Vale. He is a Connecticut college professor who leads a life of quiet desperation; he sleepwalks through his dreary workday, and it’s obvious that any inspirational spark is long gone from a staid lesson plan more aged than his students. His personal life has become rote as well; he putters through his off-hours, halfheartedly plunking away on his late wife’s piano. Clearly, Walter needs to get out more.

When Walter travels to New York to attend a conference, he has a big surprise awaiting him at the seldom-used apartment he keeps there.  Someone has sublet his digs to a Syrian immigrant named Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Gurira). After some initially awkward moments, the forlorn Walter invites the couple to stay rather than turning them out on the street.

As friendship blossoms between the three, Walter begins to emerge from his cocoon, prompted by Tarek’s infectious enthusiasm for pounding out joyful rhythms on his African djembes. Before he knows it, Walter is loosening his tie and joining Tarek in a drum circle. When Tarek ends up at a detention center, Walter hires a lawyer and becomes even more ensconced in the couple’s lives. Add one more unexpected “visitor” to the mix…Tarek’s widowed mother Mouna (Israeli actress Hiam Abbass), and all the elements are in place for The Reawakening of Walter Vale.

Thanks to Jenkins’ subtle, quietly compelling performance, that transformation is the heart of the film, and an absolute joy to behold. Although he has over 70 films to his credit (mostly supporting roles, but always memorable), he is probably most recognizable for his portrayal of the “late” father in HBO’s popular series, Six Feet Under.

Abbass is a revelation here as well; she and Jenkins play off each other in sublime fashion . In fact, no one in the cast hits a false note;  likely due to the fact that McCarthy is an actor’s director (he himself remains active in front of the camera as well, most recently playing a troubled newspaper reporter in the final season of HBO’s The Wire).

The “strange bedfellows” setup of the narrative may resemble The Goodbye Girl or The Odd Couple, but this not a glib Neil Simon play, where characters throw perfectly timed zingers at each other; these are people who feel, and interact like real human beings. There is humor, but also heartbreak and melancholy. The important thing is that it is all perfectly balanced, and beautifully nuanced.

Although the circumstances leading up to Tarek’s detention could be viewed as an allusion to the Kafkaesque scenarios faced by immigrants in a post 9-11 world, McCarthy doesn’t get preachy or use his film as a polemic. In fact, this movie has more in common with the keen social observations of Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things or the gentle observational satire of Bill Forsyth’s low key culture-clash comedy Local Hero than, say, The Road to Guantanamo.

One thing I will say-if the overwrought and vastly overrated Crash (2005) could win Best Picture, then surely The Visitor, which deals with many of the same themes, and in a less histrionic and more palatable manner, deserves consideration as well (we shall see). In the meantime, you don’t want to miss this lovely little gem.

Surge protectors: Stop-Loss ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 5, 2008)

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Stop-loss was created by the United States Congress after the Vietnam War. It has been used on the legal basis of Title 10 , United States Code , Section 12305(a) which states in part: “… the President may suspend any provision of law relating to promotion, retirement, or separation applicable to any member of the armed forces who the President determines is essential to the national security of the United States” and Paragraph 9(c) of DD Form 4/1 (The Armed Forces Enlistment Contract) which states: “In the event of war, my enlistment in the Armed Forces continues until six (6) months after the war ends, unless the enlistment is ended sooner by the President of the United States.” Furthermore, every person who enlists in branch of the Armed Forces signs an initial contract with an eight (8) year obligation, regardless of how many years of active duty the person enlists for.

 -from Wikipedia

 One year ago (almost to the day) I wrote a post where I tied in some classic “vets coming home” films with a war weary nod to the (then) 4th anniversary of the interminable debacle in Iraq. At the time, Hollywood was yet to tackle a story about our latest generation of walking wounded; I was starting to wonder; did the studios have a case of cold feet on the subject, like they did throughout the duration of the Vietnam War, or was it simply “too soon”?

A few filmmakers have tested the water, with admirable efforts like In the Valley of Elah, Grace is Gone and Robert Redford’s Afghanistan-themed drama Lions for Lambs. Unfortunately, none of the aforementioned films have received much more than a nibble at the domestic box office (sadly, College Road Trip has already grossed more than any of those films have to date). It will be a damn shame if Stop-Loss, a powerful and heartfelt new drama from director Kimberly Peirce, elicits the same yawning indifference from the American public. With echoes of The Best Years of Our Lives, Deer Hunter, Coming Home and Born on the Fourth of July, this could be the first substantive film to address the plight of Iraq war vets.

Co-written by the director along with Mark Richard, this is Peirce’s belated follow-up to her haunting 1999 heartland noir, Boys Don’t Cry, which was based on circumstances leading up to the tragic real-life murder of trans-gendered Teena Brandon, who re-invented herself as Brandon Teena (interestingly, the protagonist in Peirce’s latest film shares the same first name).

As the film opens, we meet Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), an infantry squad leader leading his men in hot pursuit of a carload of heavily armed insurgents through the streets of Tikrit. The chase ends in a harrowing ambush, with the squad suffering heavy casualties. Brandon is wounded in the skirmish, as are two of his lifelong buddies, Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). They return to their small Texas hometown to receive Purple Hearts and a hero’s welcome, infusing the battle-weary vets with an brief euphoria that soon gives way to  varying degrees of PTSD for all members of the trio.

Brandon, who has had a bellyful of war horrors, has decided to pass on his option to re-enlist. Steve, a crack marksman who is also up for re-enlistment, is on the fence. His company commander (Timothy Olyphant) is pressuring him to re-up and return to combat duty; but his long-time fiancée, Michelle (Abbie Cornish) is concerned about Steve’s sometimes violent flashbacks and may leave him if he opts to stay in the Army. Tommy, who is suffering the most mental anguish, dives into a maelstrom of alcohol and textbook self-destructiveness.

Brandon appears to be holding up better than his two friends; that is, until he is ordered to report back to his unit and finds out that he is to be shipped back immediately for another tour of duty in Iraq, on the very day he is slated for his official discharge. When he starts asking questions, he is curtly informed that he has been “stop-lossed, under Title 10 of the United States Code…” (see above) and is summarily dismissed. Even though he has served in good faith and with a sense of patriotic duty, it now appears that the government has betrayed his trust (and why are we not surprised?). Determined not to take this sitting down, Brandon confronts the company commander, who views his protestations as “mutinous” and orders him to be thrown in the stockade. Brandon gives his M.P. escorts the slip and goes AWOL; Steve’s fiancée Michelle offers to tag along.

Brandon and Michelle’s subsequent road trip drives the film’s third act; it becomes both a literal and metaphorical journey through the zeitgeist of the modern American vet.  Peirce and her co-writer largely avoid clichés; sans a few obligatory nods ( I believe that there is a rule stipulating that every war vet film must contain at least one scene where the protagonist gets goaded into a street fight and goes temporarily medieval after it triggers a flashback).

Aside from a brief (and eye-opening) depiction of an “underground railroad” network that enables U.S. expatriates to flee to Canada, the filmmakers manage to remain low-key on political subtext; this is ultimately a soldier’s story. After all, the bottom line in any appraisal of our current “war” (or any war, for that matter) is (or should be) the human cost. The irrefutable fact here is that young people are dying, and many who do survive their tours of duty are left to deal with horrendous physical and/or mental damage for the rest of their lives. A beautifully played scene centered on a visit to a V.A. hospital brings this sad point home quite poignantly. Anyone with an ounce of compassion should find Stop-Loss to be wrenching and moving.

It is interesting to peruse the discussion boards on the Internet Movie Database regarding this film. As you might guess, there is predictable wing nut blather condemning the film as anti-American, anti-war hippie propaganda. But the most telling comments are coming from Iraq veterans themselves, who for the most part seem to indicate that the film rings true. Hmm, I wonder which of those two camps is more likely to know of what they speak?

The case of the cracked case-cracker: Mad Detective **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 2, 2008)

“When I was in school, I cheated on my metaphysics exam. I looked into the soul of the boy sitting beside me.”

 -Woody Allen

 In the opening scene of Mad Detective (a new psychological drama/murder mystery that cheats on its metaphysics exam), detective inspector Chan Kwai Bun (Lau Ching Wan) appears to be intently staring into the soul of a dead pig, suspended from the ceiling of a homicide division squad room. A group of his fellow officers silently stands by, transfixed by the sight of Bun, wielding a formidable looking knife as he circles the dangling porker.

When rookie inspector Ho Ka On (Andy On) blunders into the room to report for duty, he is pulled aside and shushed by another officer, who whispers, “Bun is immersed in the investigation.” Suddenly, Bun lunges at the pig and begins to stab it repeatedly. Then he dives under a desk and grabs a travel bag, bidding the wide-eyed Ho to accompany him to the top of a staircase. “I’ll lie inside the suitcase,” Bun says. “You push me down the stairs.” And so begins the partnership between inspectors Ho and Bun.

Bun apparently possesses the ability to literally “look into the soul” of both perpetrators and deceased victims alike (a neat trick that handily one-ups the cognitive abilities of your typical criminal profiler), and has consequently racked up a 100% success rate solving his murder cases.

This odd ability doesn’t come without its psychic/social price; Bun is viewed by most of his peers as a bit of a freak show and is pushed into an “early retirement”. The doubts about his overall mental state appear to be confirmed when, at the end of his career, he inexplicably slices off one of his ears (a la Van Gogh) and dutifully presents it along with his gun and badge. (Cuckoo! Cuckoo!)

However, according to the Rules of Old Mentor/Young Protégé Cop Buddy Movies, at this point in the narrative, an occasion must arise that precipitates Bun being dragged out of retirement to help solve “one last case” (otherwise, we would only have a 20 minute film.) After a cop mysteriously disappears, Ho talks the reluctant Bun into assisting in the case, to lend that special voodoo, that he do, so well.

Now, this is where co directors Johnny To and Ka-Fai Wai decide to borrow a few tricks from M. Night Shyamalan, and have some wicked fun with the viewer’s perception of reality; especially when you realize that you are “seeing” the inner personalities of certain characters just as Bun “sees” them. Toss in a prime suspect with multiple personalities, and buckle up for a real mindfuck.

While this is not your typical Hong Kong crime thriller, it contains enough requisite elements to genre enthusiasts, like the inevitable denouement wherein all the principal characters converge (usually in a deserted building or warehouse) and have a Mexican standoff. There are some nice visual touches, especially in a nifty “hall of mirrors” climax a la The Lady from Shanghai or Enter the Dragon.

Although there isn’t a lot of “ha ha funny” inherent in the screenplay (written by co-director Ka-Fai Wai along with Kin-Yee Au), it does contain dark comedy, helped by some subtly arch undercurrents in Wan’s deadpan take on inspector Bun. Not a masterpiece, but an intriguing watch for fans of (really, really) off-beat whodunits.

Paging Dr. Leakey: 10,000 B.C. **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 15, 2008)

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A fact is a fact. Director Roland Emmerich makes great movie trailers. C’mon-admit it, you loved watching the White House blow up real good in the previews for Independence Day. For The Day After Tomorrow, he had you at the tornado-fueled disintegration of the “Hollywood” sign. You cried like a little schoolboy when Matthew Broderick exclaimed “He’s pregnant!” in the trailer for the 1998 remake of Godzilla. And I know that you haven’t been able to avoid the TV teasers for his latest epic, the prehistoric adventure 10,000 B.C. (unless you’ve been living in a…oh, never mind).

Emmerich is the heir apparent to the late Irwin Allen (aka “The Master of Disaster”); he has the same penchant for producing audience pleasing spectacles unencumbered by complex narrative or character development. But you can’t argue with his marketing savvy.

For his new film, Emmerich takes a break from the apocalyptic gloom and doom and plunders Aesop’s fables, Atlantean legend, Mel Gibson, John Ford, Steven Spielberg, the Discovery Channel’s Walking with Prehistoric Beasts and even his own 1994 cult favorite Stargate to concoct a hunk of cave-aged cinematic cheese that barely sits on a Ritz.

The story (co-scripted by the director with Harald Kloser) allegedly takes place sometime around, oh, 12,000 years ago and concerns a small tribe of mammoth hunters. The men (who all appear to have been cloned from Counting Crows’ lead singer) hunt, naturally, whilst the women busily gather (and still find time to maintain their perfect Bo Derek cornrows). The tribe is led by an aging matriarch and seer named, appropriately enough, Old Mother (Mona Hammond, channeling Cousin Itt from The Addams Family).

Old Mother prophesies big doings for a young hunter named D’leh (uncharismatic leading man Steven Strait). D’leh apparently is the Chosen One (chosen for what, specifically, is not made quite clear). There is a bit of exposition provided via some underwritten narration (voiced over by a palpably disinterested Omar Sharif, who sounds like he would rather be playing bridge). One thing is made quite clear…D’leh is destined to eventually knock sandals with pretty, blue-eyed Evolet (Camilla Belle).

However, before D’leh’s destiny can be, er, fulfilled, his beloved is kidnapped by a band of Persian-looking horsemen, referred to by the mammoth hunters as the “four-legged demons”. D’leh forms a posse with his best bud Tic’ Tic (Cliff Curtis, probably pondering how the hell he got from Whale Rider to here) and the chase is on.

Many perils lie in wait, like roving packs of huge, wingless avian raptors, who turn the tables on Thanksgiving by gobbling up humans like so many delicious birdie num-nums. D’leh takes a tumble into an animal trap, and makes like Androcles with a larger-than-scale saber-toothed tiger. As the dynamic duo pursues their quarry, they pick up reinforcements in the unlikely form of a tribe of African warriors (Dr. Leakey is spinning in his grave). We also learn some interesting facts about the local geography. Although the mammoth hunters appear to live on a sub-arctic taiga, rimmed by snowy peaks, they are only a day or two’s stroll from grassy African style savannahs, lush tropical rainforests, and a vast sandy desert. But hey, it’s only a movie, right?

The story climaxes in an opulent desert city that looks like a leftover movie set from Apocalypto (or Cleopatra) replete with pyramids, toiling slave laborers, high priests sporting bejeweled feathered hats, and a god-king who demands the odd human sacrifice.

So should this post have been titled When Anachronisms Ruled the Earth? Mmm, maybe. (I also toyed with 10 IQ,  Mammoth Misfire, Dude, Where’s My Spear?,  Two Years Before the Mastodon, and Yabba Dabba Doo Doo …but hey, I don’t want to bore you with details about my “process”). One gloriously incongruous moment that elicited unintentional laughs and nominates the film for future camp status: a climactic, mascara-streaked crying scene (even the Geico Caveman would find Evelot’s “raccoon eyes” a bit out of place 12,000 years before the debut of Maybelline and Max Factor).

You’re probably getting a vibe that I’m not recommending that you go out of your way to shell out your ten bucks for this one? Well, that depends. The CGI creations are convincing, and there are a few rousing action scenes, if that’s what you’re in the mood for. If you have a soft spot for the prehistoric adventure genre to begin with, you will likely be more forgiving to Emmerich’s liberal use of “artistic license” (when I was 11 years old, ogling Raquel Welch for 90 minutes while she ran around in a bear fur bikini, fleeing from hungry dinosaurs, do you think I was stressing out over epochal accuracy?). If you’re an anthropologist, you will definitely want to avoid this one like the Plague (that was, like, back in the Middle Ages… with Robin Hood and all those dudes…right?)

Confessions of a dangerous mind: Frost/Nixon ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 20, 2008)

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Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devised at first to keep the strong in awe.

-Wm. Shakespeare (from Richard III)

I’m saying that when the president does it…that means it’s not illegal.

-Richard M. Nixon

There’s an old theatrical performer’s axiom that goes “Always leave ‘em wanting more.” In August of 1974, President Richard Nixon made his Watergate-weary exit from the American political stage with a nationally televised resignation soliloquy, and left ‘em wanting more…answers. Any immediate hopes for an expository epilogue to this 5 year long usurpation of the Constitution  and Shakespearean tragedy were abruptly dashed one month later when President Gerald Ford granted him a full pardon. Like King Lear, the mad leader slunk back to his castle by the sea and out of public view.

Time passed. Most Americans turned their attention to the recession of ’74-’75, and various shiny distractions like Pet Rocks, disco balls, and Charlie’s Angels. Some inquiring minds, however, still wanted to know. One of them was a British television personality/savvy self-promoter by the name of David Frost, who had been kicking around the medium since the early 60s in various guises,  from droll satirist (That Was the Week that Was and The Frost Report in the U.K.) to straight-up talk show host (Frost on America).

Although he occasionally interviewed politicians and statesmen, he wasn’t generally thought of as a “journalist” prior to 1977. When he first started shopping an idea to tackle former President Nixon in a series of exclusive TV interviews, he raised many an eyebrow and was laughed out of a few network executive’s offices (it would be like David Letterman suddenly deciding that he wanted to become the next Mike Wallace… “Get out of here, you nut!”). Undeterred, Frost decided that he would fund the project himself and independently syndicate the broadcasts. Eventually, of course, the interviews did hit the airwaves, and the rest, as they  say, is History.

While the broadcasts themselves have become the stuff of legend to political junkies (as it is the closest anyone ever got to coaxing anything resembling a pang of conscience and regret from The Tricky One for his crimes), the machinations leading up to the actual broadcasts may not sound like the makings of an engrossing tale, but it has inspired a popular Broadway play and now a riveting new film.

Guided with an assured hand by director Ron Howard, and adapted for the screen by Peter Morgan (from his own award-winning play), Frost/Nixon is a superbly crafted mélange of history lesson, courtroom drama, backstage tale,  championship boxing match, and (perhaps most importantly) another tie-in for you to use to impress friends with your prowess at playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

Morgan’s screenplay is deftly built around this perfect setup for a clash of the titans: The Consummate Showman vs. The Consummate Politician. The “oil and water” mix of the two personalities is also a natural for theatrical consideration. Frost was good-looking, charming, glib,  and fashionably attired; whereas Nixon was shifty-eyed, socially awkward and brooding, with a relatively rumpled countenance.

In this corner: Former President Richard M. Nixon (Frank Langella, reprising his Tony-winning stage role), his agent Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones), his former White House Chief of Staff/Man Friday Jack Brennen (Kevin Bacon!), and wife Pat (Patty McCormack). And in this corner: David Frost (Michael Sheen, also reprising his Broadway role), his chief researchers (Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt) and girlfriend/Muse (Rebecca Hall).

Langella and Sheen are nicely in tune with each other onscreen; likely this is due to the fact that they’ve had ample opportunity to flesh out their respective characters during  the course of their  Broadway run. It’s one of the best performances I’ve seen by Langella (he already has a Golden Globe nom, we will see what happens come Oscar time). Armed with Morgan’s incisive dialog, and with Howard’s skillful and unobtrusive direction to cover his flank, he  uncannily captures the essence of Nixon’s contradictions and complexities; the supreme intelligence, the grandiose pomposity and the congenital craftiness, all corroded by the insidious paranoia that eventually consumed his soul, and by turn, the soul of the nation.

All the supporting performances are wonderful, particularly from Platt and Rockwell as Frost’s tenacious strategists, who in a roundabout way play out like Tom Stoppard’s re-imagining of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Nixon’s Hamlet (if I may continue to run with the Shakespearean analogies). Indeed, it is Rockwell’s character who utters the most insightful observation in the script about Nixon’s Achilles Heel in this affair; he posits that no matter how cagily Nixon fancied himself to be putting one over on Frost, he was ultimately done in by something that never lies: “The reductive power of the close-up.” Anon. (Fade to black).

Swing voters and Nixon calling: Swing Vote **1/2 & Deja vu ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 9, 2008)

“If daddy punches a chad, an angel gets his wings.”

 With less than 100 shopping days left until The Most Important Election Day Ever, I thought I would alert you to a couple of politically-themed films that have reached out from behind the curtain to give a timid tug on Batman’s cape, and tide us over until Oliver Stone’s W opens this fall.

First up on the ballot is Swing Vote, a lightweight but agreeable political fantasy/civics lesson from writer-director Joshua Michael Stern (Neverwas). Signaling a return to form for star Kevin Costner, the film speculates on what would happen if a presidential election literally hinged on one person’s vote (I already said it’s a fantasy).

Costner plays the underachieving Bud Johnson, a trailer-dwelling, beer-quaffing, NASCAR worshiping single parent who supports himself and daughter Molly (amazing 11-year old newcomer Madeline Carroll) with a job at an egg-packaging plant in Texico, New Mexico. Young Molly may be the “dependent” as far as Family Services is concerned, but in reality takes on the role of the responsible parent in the household. She constantly admonishes her Dad for his drinking, poor grooming habits and slack attitude toward his job. The civic-minded Molly also takes it upon herself to register her father for voting in an upcoming national election, much to his chagrin (he’d rather not be bothered with any pesky jury duty). Needless to say, he doesn’t follow politics, or the “issues”.

You know where this is headed, don’t you? After a chain of serendipitous events that only occurs in movies, this gomer ends up with the fate of the free world hinging on the flick of his chad finger. Before he knows it, he is at the center of a crazed media circus, and is being personally feted by the incumbent Republican (a convincingly presidential Kelsey Grammer) and his Democratic challenger (the always interesting Dennis Hopper).

Some of the film’s most clever moments arrive in the form of the faux-TV ads brainstormed by the campaign strategists for both sides (ably played by Stanley Tucci for the Republicans and Nathan Lane for the Democrats). It’s quite amusing to see a rainbow-hued, pro-gay marriage ad endorsed by the Republican president and a radical anti-abortion polemic featuring the Democratic challenger, tripping over partisan party platforms and each other in their rush to pander to one undecided swing voter.

There is a temptation to call this a modern-day Capraesque tale, which is where the film appears headed at first. In actuality, it’s  Capra in reverse; “Washington goes to Mr. Smith”, if you will (Capra’s Jeff Smith is a political idealist by nature; Bud Johnson, on the other hand, has his idealism thrust upon him). There has been some critical outcry that the film is derivative of a relatively obscure 1939 John Barrymore vehicle called The Great Man Votes. I’ve never seen that film, so I can’t address that specific issue.

In a more contemporary context, you could say that this film could be viewed as Mike Judd’s Idiocracy-with a heart (and much better acting). Some of the satirical aspects recall Hal Ashby’s Being There and Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero. The film’s depiction of a flock of ravenous media vultures descending on a small New Mexico town has some strong echoes of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, as well.

If you can buy  the premise, I think you’ll be entertained. I enjoyed the performances. Costner revives the long-dormant “aw shucks” charm that he played to such laid-back perfection in Bull Durham and Field of Dreams. Sure, he’s playing a chuckle-head this time out, but he’s a sympathetic chuckle-head. Carroll gives one of those “30-year-old midget” turns that belies her chronological age and shows great promise (like Diane Lane or Natalie Portman in their fledgling days). The always excellent and perennially underrated Mare Winningham has a small but welcome role as Bud’s estranged wife. Brat-pack aficionados will be sure to recognize Judge Reinhold as one of Bud’s co-workers, and comedian George Lopez fires off some zingers as a local TV news director. Also featuring a  rogue’s gallery of MSM pundits and journalists, in cameos (don’t let that keep you from seeing it…but don’t say I didn’t warn you,)

CSN&Y: Old songs for a new war.

 Another film swamped in the wake of the summer’s surge of superheroes is CSNY:Déjà vu, a timely rockumentary from Bernard Shakey (Greendale). Bernard who? You  know him best as iconoclastic folk-rock-alt-country-“Godfather of Grunge”-cum-antiwar activist-filmmaker (did I leave anything out?)…Neil Young.

Mixing backstage footage and musical highlights from the 2006 Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young Freedom of Speech Tour with vox populi interviews and analysis by “embedded” journalist Mike Cerre (a veteran front lines Afghanistan/Iraq war correspondent) the doc plays somewhere between The Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing and Fahrenheit 9-11.

The 2006 reunion of the notoriously mercurial foursome was spearheaded by Young not so much as a nostalgia tour but rather as a musical wake-up call addressing the Bush administration’s post 9-11 shenanigans, at home and in Iraq. The tour commenced on the heels of Young’s incendiary Living with War album (definitely not on Junior’s iPod).

The reaction from audiences (and music critics) was mixed. Young cheekily employs voice-over actors to read excerpts from concert reviews in the local rags, and seems to take perverse delight in highlighting the sneers and jeers (usually agog with glib references to the band’s senior citizen status). I will give him credit for including some “warts and all” excerpts from earlier shows in the tour, like one instance where the quartet’s rusty pipes are most definitely a couple bubbles off plumb. And speaking of falling flat, we also witness a senior moment as a band member takes an onstage tumble.

The most eye-opening moment occurs when the band plays Atlanta, a city usually perceived as a blue oasis in a red state. At first, all goes swimmingly, with the audience clapping and singing along with the old “hits”. But things get interesting as the band launches into some more recent material from Young’s aforementioned Living with War album (accompanied by a faux-Karaoke lyric scroll on the huge onstage projection screen, just in case anyone misses the point):

 Let’s impeach the President for lying
And misleading our country into war
Abusing all the power that we gave him
And shipping all our money out the door

 Suddenly, the temperature in the auditorium drops about 50 degrees; catcalls and hisses escalate to boos, bird flipping and near-rioting. Cerre interviews some of the disenchanted as they stalk out; the outrage ranges from bitching about ticket prices to threatening grievous bodily harm to Neil Young, should they get close enough. Backstage, the band takes the philosophical high road (with age comes wisdom, nu?)

But all cracks about geriatric rockers aside, it becomes apparent that the one thing that remains ageless is the power of the music, and the commitment from the performers. Songs like “Ohio”, “Military Madness”, “For What it’s Worth” and “Chicago” prove to have resilience and retain a topical relevance that does not go unnoticed by younger fans. And anyone who doesn’t tear up listening to the band deliver the solemnly beautiful harmonies of their elegiac live show closer, “Find the Cost of Freedom”, while a photo gallery featuring hundreds of smiling young Americans who died in Iraq scrolls on the big screen behind them, can’t possibly have anything resembling a soul residing within.