All posts by Dennis Hartley

Let fiefdom ring: Capitalism: a Love Story ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 3, 2009)

Money speaks for money, the Devil for his own

Who comes to speak for the skin and bone?

 -Billy Bragg

 So it’s not just me. Recently, in my review of Public Enemies, I wrote:

If you blink, you might miss the chance to revel in a delicious moment of schadenfreude in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies that decidedly con-temporizes this otherwise ol’skool “gangsters vs. G-men” opus. In the midst of conducting an armed robbery, the notoriously felonious John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) notices that a bank employee has reflexively emptied his pockets of some crumpled bills and loose change onto his desk. “That’s your money, mister?” Dillinger asks. “Yes,” the frightened man replies. Dillinger gives him a bemused look and says, “We’re here for the bank’s money, not yours. Put it away.”

I almost stood up and cheered…then I remembered that a) Dillinger was a murderous thug, and b) I would never even fantasize about participating in such a caper, so I thought better of it. Still, I couldn’t help but savor an opportunity for a little vicarious thrill at watching a bank getting hosed. I don’t know…it could’ve had something to with the fact that my bank recently doubled my credit card interest, even after they eagerly gobbled up the bailout money that was funded by my hard-earned tax dollars (ya think?). In fact, in the context of our current economic woes, one can watch Mann’s film and sort of grok how John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Ma Barker, Al Capone, Pretty Boy Floyd and other “public enemy” list alums gained folk hero cachet during the Great Depression.

In the opening credits of  Capitalism: A Love Story, Michael Moore runs a montage of real-life bank robberies in progress. As you watch masked felons in slow-mo, strong-arming their way through bank lobbies, firing off warning salvos into the air like it’s the 4th of July and leaping over counters like Peking acrobats, it becomes an oddly balletic rendering of the ever-widening chasm between the Haves and the Have-nots in our country, writ large through the unblinking eye of a security camera and all choreographed to Iggy Pop’s growling rendition of  “Louie Louie”:

 The communist world is fallin apart
The capitalists are just breakin hearts
Money is the reason to be
It makes me just wanna sing louie louie

So how did we arrive to this sorry state of our Union, where the number of banks being robbed by desperate people is running neck and neck with the number of desperate banks robbing We The People? What paved the way for the near-total collapse of our financial system and its subsequent government bailout, which Moore provocatively refers to as a “financial coup d’etat”?

The enabler, Moore suggests, may  be our sacred capitalist system itself-and he proceeds to build a case (in his inimitable fashion) that results in his most engaging, thought-provoking film since Roger and Me (and you can call me a Commie for saying that…I don’t care).

In essence,  this film is the belated sequel to the aforementioned 1989 documentary; it would seem that, 20 years later, the rest of the country has “caught up” with Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan. Roger and Me chronicled the economic collapse of the city following General Motors CEO Roger Smith’s decision to close down the plants that once employed 30,000 of its residents.

Moore does take a few moments in his new film to bask in the “what goes around, comes around” irony of GM’s bankruptcy filing this past June-and you can’t really blame him. If you recall the heartbreaking scene in Roger and Me of a family getting evicted on Christmas Eve by an apologetic yet duty-bound sheriff, you will detect a bit of recycling in that department; same as it ever was.

However, this is not just a rehash of what happens when the capitalist dream dies, but an attempt to examine why it so often does. Moore digs deep into the dark underbelly of the beast in this outing; he gives us many eye-opening examples of truly soulless profiteering and unchecked vulture capitalism at its most egregious.

The film’s trailer has misled many people into assuming that they are just going to be seeing Moore doing another series of his patented grandstanding pranks. Although you do see him running around Wall Street armed with a megaphone, yellow crime scene tape and a rented Loomis truck, demanding a refund from bailed out financial institutions on behalf of the American taxpayers and generally being a pain-in-the-ass to hapless security guards, these types of shenanigans really only take up a relative fraction of screen time.

Those moments of shtick aside, I think that the film represents the most cohesive and mature film making Moore has done to date. Interestingly, from a purely polemical standpoint, it is also one of his least partisan, which I’m sure is going to make some of his usual knee-jerk critics develop a little twitch. Not that it really matters; his haters will continue to despise him no matter what kind of film he makes, and likely condemn it as anti-American, unpatriotic and full of lies (without bothering to actually see it, of course).

Okay, so he does close the film with a lounge-y version of “The Internationale” playing over the end credits (you just know he can’t help himself). Yet despite that rather obvious provocation (and the film’s title, of course), I didn’t really find his message to be so much “down with capitalism” as it is “up with people”.

There is a streak of genuine and heartfelt humanism that runs through all his work; a fact curiously overlooked by many. Isn’t that kind of what the founding fathers were all about? After all, I believe that little Declaration thingie reads that we all have the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, not “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness, even at the expense of someone else’s”. Or does it?

Daze of love: Whatever Works *** & The 500 Days of Summer **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 18, 2009)

The fine art of eating and complaining: Whatever Works.

I anticipate a chorus of detractors. “So-Woody Allen has written and directed yet another fantasy about a neurotic, misanthropic middle-aged Jewish intellectual Manhattanite who meets a young, hot, wide-eyed Shiksa who is irresistibly (and inexplicably) attracted to him? Enough, already!” So he has written and directed another fantasy about a neurotic, misanthropic middle-aged Jewish intellectual Manhattanite who meets a young, hot, wide-eyed Shiksa who is irresistibly (and inexplicably) attracted to him, OK? And it’s smart, insightful and funnier than hell. You got a problem with that?

Allen may have found his most perfect avatar yet in Seinfeld co-creator/Curb Your Enthusiasm star (and fellow native Brooklynite) Larry David, who I think proves here that, contrary to what many may assume, he really can act. In his HBO series, David plays “himself” as a self-absorbed character whose latent hostility is primarily channeled via classic passive-aggressive behavior.

As Allen’s protagonist Boris Yellnikoff, there is nothing latent at all about the hostility. He openly hates everybody, including himself. A text book fatalist, Boris never passes up an opportunity to unceremoniously kick any tiny hint of enthusiasm to the curb and remind anyone in his proximity that it is all for naught.

A “retired” quantum mechanics physicist, Boris has chosen to live in a dumpy apartment and make a few shekels here and there giving chess lessons to “cretinous” children, whom he browbeats and berates like a Parris Island drill instructor. His social skills with adults aren’t so hot, either; still, he manages to find several intellectual Bohemian friends ; one suspects it’s because they are the only people who can  tolerate his continuous,  bristly diatribes about our cruel and unfeeling universe for any length of time.

When it comes to love and romance, Boris subscribes to accepting whatever Fate and Chance throws your way with a shrug; “Whatever works,” as he is fond of telling his friends. That credo is put to the test when Fate and Chance drops a young homeless woman with the unlikely moniker of Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood) onto his doorstep (literally).

Melodie is a southern bumpkin who has run away to the Big City to escape her fundamentalist Christian mother (Patricia Clarkson) and good ol’ boy father (Ed Begley, Jr.). Boris reluctantly offers her his couch for a night, and I think you can guess what comes next. After this setup, Allen kicks the story into his patented Urban Fable mode, adding flourishes of Pygmalion and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

It’s very theatrical, flirting with door-slamming farce, but Woody Classic. The cast is game, especially the always wonderful Clarkson and Begley, who both chew major scenery as their stereotypical Southern countenance undergoes an unlikely transformation once each gets a taste of the Big Apple. Allen also tosses a barb or two at the N.Y.C. art scene (reminiscent of John Waters’ Pecker).

Admittedly, this is the cinematic equivalent of a 12” remix of Woody’s Greatest Hits, but it’s got a great beat, and you can dance to it. Allen is not getting any younger, and if he occasionally relents his cranky contrarian tendencies and gives his most ardent fans what they want (i.e., something resembling his early, funny films), is that a bad thing? He’s given us 40 years of great laughs; and though I know in my heart of hearts that his best work is history, I’ll keep looking forward to his movies. What I am trying to say is: I know he’s not a chicken…but in these tough times, I can use the eggs.

Deconstructing Zooey: The 500 Days of Summer.

Speaking of Woody, some have compared director Marc Webb’s Sundance hit  500 Days of Summer to Annie Hall. While it obviously draws narrative inspiration from Allen’s post-deconstruction of a fizzled romantic relationship, it offers a fluffier, albeit ingratiating variation on that  theme, buoyed  by a hip  soundtrack, winking references for film buffs, and the charm of its two leads.

At the beginning of the film, a narrator with mellifluous pipes informs us what we are about to see is “…not a love story.” It is, rather, a retrospective appraisal of a relationship that didn’t work out, between a hopelessly romantic young man named Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and a more cautiously pragmatic young woman named Summer (Zooey Deschanel). Tom and Summer Meet Cute at the office. She is “the new girl”, he writes greeting cards (uh…soul of a poet?). And in portents of a love affair born in emo heaven, they bond over a mutual appreciation of Morrissey (I’m sure that the filmmakers had ‘em at the Smiths reference at Sundance).

The “500 days” of the title refers to the length of said relationship. Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber opt for the non-linear approach , giving us characters who (like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim) appear to have become “unstuck in time” (day 147 might segue into day 18, which dissolves into day 310, etc.).

While this device does become “gimmicky” rather quickly, director Webb takes full advantage of the footloose structure to inject a lot of visual playfulness. He throws in everything from Bergman references to an exuberant, audience-pleasing MTV-style number.

Under scrutiny, the film isn’t much deeper than an MTV video; but it’s a fun ride all the same, with enough originality and inventiveness to separate it from the pack of largely vacuous piffle that passes as “romantic comedy” these days (I don’t sound bitter, do I?).

I’ve only seen Gordon-Levitt in two other films (Brick and The Lookout) but I’m impressed by his range; I think he’s got a long career ahead of him. Deschanel (America’s answer to Audrey Tautou) has an effervescent screen presence that (for me, at least) makes up for the fact that she plays the same quirky, saucer-eyed Object of Desire in everything I’ve seen her in; but who can resist those baby blues?

Like many first-time directors eager to pull out all the stops, Webb may have put too many eggs in one basket here-but I look forward to seeing what else this promising filmmaker has up his sleeve.

Maladies of Spain: The Limits of Control ***1/2 & The Hit ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 9, 2009)

The LBJ look: Bill Murray in The Limits of Control.

Any one who has followed director Jim Jarmusch career will tell you there are certain things you can always expect in his films. Or perhaps it’s more about the things not to expect. Like car chases. Special effects. Flash-cut editing. Snappy dialog. A pulse-pounding music soundtrack. Narrative structure. Pacing.

Not that there is anything wrong with utilizing any or all of the above in order to entertain an audience, but if those are the kinds of things you primarily look for when you go to the movies, it would behoove you to steer clear of anything on the marquee labeled as “a film by Jim Jarmusch”.  Rest assured that you will find none of the above and even less in his latest offering, The Limits of Control.

Jarmusch has decided to take another stab at the “existential hit man” genre (which he first explored in Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai).  Here, he concocts something best described as The Day of the Jackal meets Black Orpheus. Isaach De Bankole is a killer-for-hire. Referred to in the credits simply as Lone Man,  this is an assassin who at first glance mostly appears to kill time.

After receiving his cryptic assignment, he sets off via train, plane and automobile through the Spanish countryside, with a stop in Madrid. Along the way, the taciturn Lone Man meets up with an assortment of oddballs, with whom he trades matchboxes (don’t ask).

Each of these exchanges is really a setup for a cameo-length monologue about Art, Love, Life, the Universe and Everything by guest stars like John Hurt, Tilda Swinton and Gael Garcia Bernal (whose characters sport archetypal names like Guitar, Blonde and Mexican). As each contact pontificates on a pet topic, De Bankole sits impassively, sipping a double espresso, which he always demands to be served in two cups (the film’s running joke).

The coffee quirk is the least of Lone Man’s OCD-type eccentricities. When he is on a “job”, he suffers absolutely no distractions…even sleep. He doesn’t seem to require much sustenance either, aside from those double espressos. He can’t even be bothered to take up an offer for a little recreational sex with the alluring  Paz De La Huerta (what is he, nuts?!) who, true to her character’s name (Nude) spends all her screen time wearing naught but a pair of glasses.

The Big Mystery, of course, is Who’s Gonna Die, and Why-but we are not let in on that little secret until the end . OK, you’re thinking at this point, we don’t know who he is chasing, and there doesn’t appear to be anyone chasing him, so where’s the dramatic tension?

Well, dramatic tension or traditional narrative devices have never been a driving force in any of Jarmusch’s films (as I pre-qualified at the outset). It’s always about the characters, and Jarmusch’s wry, deadpan observance regarding the human comedy. In Jarmusch’s universe, the story doesn’t happen to the people, the people happen upon the story; and depending on how receptive you are to that concept on that particular day, you’re either going to hail it as a work of genius or dismiss it as an interminable, pointless snooze fest.

It so happened I was in a receptive mood that day, and I found a lot to like about The Limits of Control. In purely cinematic terms, it’s one of his best films to date. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle makes the most out of the inherently photogenic Spanish locales and deftly instills  the film with an “acid noir” feel. Jarmusch has put together a greatsoundtrack, from flamenco, ambient, psychedelic, to jazz and classical. I think I’ve even figured out what this film is “about”. Or maybe Jarmusch is just fucking with me. For the eleventh time.

I love the 80s: Terrence Stamp, John Hurt and Tim Roth in The Hit.

As the credits were rolling for The Limits of Control, something  nagged at me. It strongly reminded of another film  but I couldn’t quite place it. As I was racking my brain, I thought “Now, there can’t be that many other existential hit man movies, filmed in Spain, which also feature….John Hurt.  That’s it! It was so obvious that I wasn’t able to see it right away. One of my favorite Brit-noirs , The Hit, is an existential hit man movie, filmed in Spain and features John Hurt.

Directed by Stephen Frears and written by Peter Prince, this 1984 sleeper marked a comeback of sorts for Terence Stamp, who stars as Willie Parker, a London hood who has “grassed” on his mob cohorts in exchange for immunity. As he is led out of the courtroom following his damning testimony, he is treated to a gruff, spontaneous a Capella rendition of “We’ll Meet Again” (which has never sounded so menacing, especially when it is sung by a group of Cockney thugs who look like they were on loan from the cast of The Long Good Friday). The oddly serene Willie doesn’t appear fazed.

Flash-forward a number of years, and we learn that Willie has relocated to Spain, where he leads a somewhat comfortable existence (although his ever-present bodyguard would seem to be an indicator that he probably still sleeps with one eye open). When the other shoe finally drops “one sunny day”, and Willie is abducted by freelancing locals and delivered to a veteran hit man (John Hurt) and his hotheaded young “apprentice” (Tim Roth), he accepts his situation with a Zen-like calm (much to the chagrin of his captors).

What exactly is going on in Willie’s head? That’s what drives most of the ensuing narrative. As they motor through the scenic Spanish countryside (toward France, where Willie’s former boss awaits for a “reunion”) the trio engages in ever-escalating mind games, taking the story to unexpected places. The dynamic gets even more interesting when circumstances lead to taking on an additional hostage (Laura del Sol). Hurt is sheer perfection as his character’s icy detachment slowly unravels into blackly comic exasperation. Roth (in his film debut) is edgy, explosive and sometimes quite funny.

While this is essentially a grim drama, and exactly not a “funny ha-ha” romp; there are black comedy underpinnings that become more apparent upon subsequent viewings. There’s a great score by flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia (Eric Clapton plays the opening). Well worth rediscovering, especially since it has (finally!) been given the deluxe Criterion Collection remastering treatment (the previously available DVD was a badly transferred pan and scan).

Bang bang shoot ’em up, 1-2-3: Public Enemies **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 11, 2009)

If you blink, you might miss the chance to revel in a delicious moment of schadenfreude in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies that decidedly contemporizes this otherwise old school “gangsters vs. G-men” opus. In the midst of conducting an armed robbery, the notoriously felonious John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) notices that a bank employee has reflexively emptied his pockets of crumpled bills and loose change . “That’s your money, mister?” Dillinger asks. “Yes,” the frightened man replies. Dillinger gives him a bemused look and says, “We’re here for the bank’s money, not yours. Put it away.”

I almost stood up and cheered…then I remembered that a) Dillinger was a murderous thug, and b) I would never even fantasize about participating in such a caper, so I thought better of it. Still, I couldn’t help but savoring the vicarious thrill of watching a bank getting hosed. I don’t know…it could’ve had something to with the fact that my bank recently doubled my credit card interest, even after they eagerly gobbled up  bailout money  funded by my hard-earned tax dollars. And in context of current economic woes, one can watch Mann’s film and grok how John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Ma Barker, Al Capone, Pretty Boy Floyd and other “public enemy” list alums gained folk hero cachet during the Great Depression.

Mann focuses his story on the last year or so of Dillinger’s short life (he was  31 when he was fatally ambushed by FBI agents while exiting a movie screening at Chicago’s Biograph Theater on July 22, 1934). The film literally opens with a bang, with Dillinger and his gang shooting their way out of a Lima, Ohio prison in 1933.

While this is not the first crime thriller to open with a prison break (one of Mann’s prime influences, Jean-Pierre Melville came to mind as I watched), it is an exciting and well-mounted sequence, bestowed with a jolting  hyper-realism through Mann’s use of hi-def video. Unfortunately, with the exception of a pulse-pounding reenactment of a pre-dawn gun battle between Dillinger’s gang and FBI agents at the remote Little Bohemia Lodge, the remainder of the film never quite lives up to the crackling promise of its opening salvo.

There’s only one thing a notorious bank robber wants to do as soon as he busts out of stir (hint: the film’s catchphrase is “I rob banks.”). OK…maybe there are two things. Rising star Marion Cotillard (who made a splash last year as Edith Piaf in La vie en rose) plays Dillinger’s French-Native American girlfriend, Billie Frechette with a sexy earthiness that spices up her scenes with Depp (although she is not given much to do beyond playing a stalwart gangster’s moll).

When he’s not wooing Billie, Dillinger spends most of his time robbing banks and staying one step ahead of his arch-nemesis, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) who was one of J. Edgar Hoover’s golden boys back in the fledgling days of the FBI (Billy Crudup hams it up as Hoover). Liverpudlian Stephen Graham appears to be having the time of his life as Dillinger’s most well-known associate, the psychotic Baby Face Nelson (I hailed Graham as a new talent to watch in my 2007 review of This is England).

Look fast for Diana Krall’s cameo as a nightclub singer (crooning a smoky “Bye Bye Blackbird”). And of course there is an appearance by “the lady in red” (Branka Katic)-although apparently it was the “lady in the white blouse and orange skirt” who led the unwitting Dillinger to his doom.

It’s a good thing that the charismatic Depp is present, and that the film is stylishly executed in Mann’s fastidious manner, because, had lesser artists been involved, the rote cops and robbers story lurking at its core would be exposed. Although Mann and co-writers Ronan Bennet and Ann Biderman recycle the narrative device that made his 1995 crime thriller Heat so compelling (i.e., blurring the line of moral demarcation by fleshing out pursuer and quarry with equal import) it all feels sort of perfunctory in this outing.

And, at the risk of being accused of talking apples and oranges, I felt that Bale and Depp’s Big Scene together failed to ignite sparks like Pacino and DeNiro’s face-off did in the aforementioned film. Since Mann has established himself as an auteur,  I don’t think it is unfair to suggest that, relative to his own standards, this is not his best work (although it’s still superior to most of the summer fare currently grinding away at the multiplexes). That being said, if you are a Depp and/or Mann fan, you still may want to give it a shot.

Standing in the shadows of love: Medicine for Melancholy ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 28, 2009)

Don’t let the oddball title of writer-director Barry Jenkins’ film Medicine for Melancholy throw you. It may share its title with an anthology of short stories by Ray Bradbury, but there is nothing “sci-fi” about this down-to-earth  indie gem about love, African-American identity and the gentrification of San Francisco’s neighborhoods.

A two-character “morning after” study of a one-night stand in the tradition of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, the film opens with an attractive, 20-something African-American couple waking up and performing their morning ablutions. You sense of a polite, yet awkward deferment between the two as they wordlessly descend the stairs of a very large house that displays ample evidence of a previous evening’s revelry.

Once they find their shoes, and the inevitable “So what was your name again?” formalities are dispensed with over coffee, Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Jo (Tracey Heggins) share a cab. After Jo requests to be dropped off “at the corner”, the two go their separate ways. Of course it doesn’t end there (otherwise we wouldn’t have much of a film). Micah spots Jo’s purse on the floor of the cab, and learns (to his chagrin) that she did not give him her real name. Hmm.

This is one of those films where not an awful lot “happens”; yet for the careful observer, there is still a lot going on. Micah and Jo spend a day together. After some wary circling, they begin to warm to each other’s company. They ride their bikes around San Francisco. Micah accompanies Jo on an errand to an art museum, where her boyfriend (currently out of town) works as a curator. They talk about their jobs. They make love. For all intents and purposes, they begin to appear no different than any other loving couple, spending a lazy Sunday together. Until they pay a visit to the Museum of the African Diaspora, which sparks a philosophical debate between them.

This is where the film’s central theme emerges: How do African-Americans define themselves? Despite the fact that he is basically a wisecracking, hipster indie culture geek by nature, Micah primarily defines himself as a “black man” who is becoming ever-increasingly marginalized by the creeping gentrification of San Francisco’s traditionally ethnic and/or low-income neighborhoods.

Jo, on the other hand, doesn’t feel that her “blackness” solely defines who she is, and pegs Micah as “…one of those people who thinks they chose February as Black History Month because it’s the shortest month.” Her boyfriend is white; a moot fact to her but a sticking point for Micah (or is it just old-fashioned jealously, cloaked in a self-righteous polemical stance?). Ah, mysteries of love.

One  touchstone here (perhaps unconsciously on the part of the filmmaker) is Shadows, John Cassavetes’ 1959 film about the complexities of racial identity and the role that it plays in social/romantic interaction. The film has a naturalistic feel that recalls Cassavetes as well. I was also reminded of Kurosawa’s One Wonderful Sunday, with occasional echoes of Godard and Rohmer. The director’s decision to employ a monochromatic visual look is an astute choice, as it’s all about the perception of “color”.

My only previous awareness of Wyatt Cenac is from his work on The Daily Show; he shows promise as a dramatic actor. The appealing Tracey Heggins has potential as well; she and Cenac have good chemistry. If you tire of the Hollywood grist currently topping the box office, Medicine for Melancholy may just be the perfect tonic .

From crayons to perfume: Top 10 School Flicks

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 28, 2010)

It’s a funny thing. I know that this is supremely silly (I’m over 50, fergawdsake)- but as soon as September rolls around and retailers start touting their “back to school” sales, I still get that familiar twinge of dread. How do I best describe it? It’s a vague sensation of social anxiety, coupled with a melancholy resignation to the fact that from now until next June, I have to go to bed early. BTW, now that I’m allowed to stay up with the grownups, why do I drift off in my chair at 8pm every night? It’s another one of life’s cruel ironies. At any rate,  I offer you  my Top 10 show-and-tell picks for homeroom:

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The Blackboard Jungle-I always like to refer to this searing 1955 drama (produced in an era when ADD-afflicted teenagers were referred to as “juvenile delinquents”) as the “anti-Happy Days”. An idealistic English teacher (Glenn Ford) takes on an inner-city classroom full of leather-jacketed malcontents who would much rather steal hubcaps and break windows than, say, study the construct of iambic pentameter.

Considered a hard-hitting “social issue” film at the time, it still retains considerable power, despite some dated trappings. Vic Morrow and Sidney Poitier are appropriately surly and unpredictable as the alpha “toughs” in the classroom. The impressive supporting cast includes Richard Kiley, Anne Francis and Louis Calhern. Director Richard Brooks co-scripted with Evan Hunter, from Hunter’s novel (the author is best-known by nom de plume “Ed McBain”). The film also had a hand in making Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” a monster hit.

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The Boys of Baraka– Co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady offer a fresh take on a time-worn cause celebre: what to do about the state of America’s inner-city school system. Eschewing the usual hand-wringing about the under funded, over-crowded, glorified daycare centers that many of these institutions have become for poor and disenfranchised urban youth, the filmmakers showcase one program that strove to make a difference. T

he documentary tracks the journey of a group of 12-year-old boys from Baltimore who go to study at a boarding school in Kenya, staffed by American teachers and social workers. In addition to personalized tutoring, there is an emphasis on conflict resolution through communication, tempered with a “tough love” approach.

Something amazing happens when these “at risk” kids find themselves in a new environment. Cliché as it sounds, they begin to find themselves, and it is wondrous to observe.  There is no pat denouement, yet the viewer is left with a sense of hope as some of the boys are inspired to push forward and build on the momentum.

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Dazed and Confused– I confess that my attachment to Richard Linklater’s vivid 1993 recreation of a high school milieu circa 1976 has a lot to do with the sentimental chord it touches within me (I graduated from high school in 1974). Such is the verisimilitude of the clothing, the hairstyles, the lingo, the social behaviors and the music that I went into a total-immersion sense memory the first time I saw the film (I’m guessing that the first wave of boomers born a decade before me had a similar reaction to American Graffiti).

This is not a goofy teen comedy; while there are laughs (mostly of recognition), the sharply written screenplay is more about  keen observation and genuine poignancy. Linklater would be hard pressed to reassemble this bright, energetic young cast at the same bargain rates now: Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, Adam Goldberg, Rory Cochrane, Joey Lauren Adams and Nicky Katt, to name a few. I give it two bongs up!

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Election-Writer-director Alexander Payne and creative partner Jim Taylor (Sideways, About Schmidt) followed their 1995  debut, Citizen Ruth, with this biting 1999 sociopolitical allegory, thinly cloaked as a teen comedy (which it decidedly is not). Reese Witherspoon delivers a pitch perfect performance as the psychotically perky, overachieving Tracy Flick, who makes life a special hell for her brooding civics teacher, Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick).

Much to Mr. McAllister’s chagrin, Tracy is running a meticulously organized  campaign for school president. Her opponent is a more popular, but politically and strategically clueless jock (why does that sound so familiar?). Payne’s film is very funny at times, yet it never pulls its punches; there are some painful truths about the dark underbelly of suburbia bubbling beneath the veneer (quite similar to American Beauty, which interestingly came out the same year).

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Fast Times at Ridgemont High-Amy Heckerling’s hit 1982 coming-of-age dramedy introduced a bevy of talent to movie audiences: Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, Eric Stoltz, Nicholas Cage, Anthony Edwards, and Sean Penn as quintessential stoned California surfer dude, Jeff Spicoli (“Learning about Cuba…and having some food!”). A marvelously droll Ray Walston plays Spicoli’s exasperated history teacher, Mr. Hand.

Rolling Stone reporter (and soon-to-be film director) Cameron Crowe adapted the screenplay from his book, which was based on his experiences “embedded” at a San Diego high school (thanks to his youthful looks, Crowe passed himself off as a student). Heckerling returned to the California high school milieu for her hit Clueless.

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The First Grader– Even though I knew from frame one that this was one of those “triumph of the human spirit over insurmountable socioeconomic odds” tales engineered to tug mercilessly at the strings of my big ol’ pinko-commie, anti-imperialist, bleeding softie lib’rul heart, I nonetheless loved every minute of it.

Beautifully directed by Justin Chadwick, the film is based on the true story of an illiterate 84 year-old Kikuyu tribesman (Oliver Litando) who had been a freedom fighter during the Mau-Mau uprising  in the 1950s. Fired up by a 2002 Kenyan law that guaranteed free education for all citizens, he shows up at his local one-room schoolhouse, eager to hit the books. The real story, however, lies in his past. The sacrifices he made are brought deliberately into focus; resulting in a denouement with a powerful, bittersweet gut punch.

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Gregory’s Girl– Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth’s delightful examination of first love follows gawky teenager Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair) as he goes ga-ga over Dorothy (Dee Hepburn), a fellow soccer player at school. Gregory receives advice from an unlikely mentor, his little sister (Allison Forster). While his male classmates put on airs about having deep insights about the opposite sex, they are just as clueless as he is.

Forsyth gets a lot of mileage out of a basic truth about adolescence- girls are light years ahead of the boys getting a handle on the mysteries of love. Not as precious as you might think, as Forsyth is a master of low-key anarchy . You may have trouble navigating those Scottish accents, but it’s worth the effort. Also with Clare Grogan, whom music fans may recall as lead singer of 80s band Altered Images, and Red Dwarf fans may recognize as “Kristine Kochanski”.

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if…. – In this  boldly anarchic 1968 class struggle allegory, director Lindsay Anderson uses his depiction of the British public school system as a microcosm of England’s sociopolitical upheaval at the time. It was also the star-making debut for a young Malcolm McDowall, who plays Mick Travis, one of the “lower sixth form” students at a boarding school (McDowall would return as the recurring character of Travis in Anderson’s  “sequels” O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital). Travis forms the nucleus of a trio of mates who foment armed insurrection against the abusive upperclassmen and oppressive headmasters (i.e. the “System”).

Some critical reappraisals have drawn parallels with Columbine, but the film has ittle to do with that and nearly everything to do with the revolutionary zeitgeist of 1968 (the uprisings in Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, etc.). That said,  Anderson’s film could be read as a pre-cursor to Massacre at Central High, Rock ’n’ Roll High School, Heathers, (or tangentially) The Chocolate War and Rushmore.

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To Sir With Love-A decade after he co-starred in The Blackboard Jungle, Sidney Poitier traded his switchblade for a lesson plan; it was his turn to play the mentor. This well-acted 1967 drama offered a bold twist on the prevalent narrative of its time period. Movie audiences were accustomed to watching an idealistic white teacher struggling to bond with a classroom chockablock with unruly (and usually “ethnic”) inner city students; in this case, you had an idealistic black teacher struggling to bond with a classroom chockablock with unruly, white British working class students.

It’s a tour de force for director James Clavell, who also wrote and produced. Culture clash is a dominant theme in Clavell’s novels and films (most famously in Shogun). The film is also a “swinging 60s” time capsule-thanks to an onscreen performance of the theme song by Lulu, and an appearance by the Mindbenders (don’t blink or you’ll miss future 10cc co-founder Eric Stewart). Also with Judy Geeson (in a poignant performance) and future rock star Michael Des Barres (lead singer for Silverhead, Detective, and Power Station).

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Twenty-Four Eyes-This moving drama from Keisuke Kinoshita could be the ultimate “inspirational teacher” movie. Set in an isolated, sparsely populated village on the ruggedly beautiful coast of Japan’s Shodoshima Island, the story begins in 1928 and ends just after WW 2. A simple yet deeply resonant tale about a long term relationship  between a compassionate, nurturing teacher (Hideko Takamine) and her 12 students, from grade school through adulthood.

Many of the cast members are non-actors, but you would never guess it from the uniformly wonderful performances. Kinoshita enlisted sets of siblings to portray the students as they “age”,  giving the story a heightened sense of realism. The film, originally released in 1954, was hugely popular in Japan; a revival years later enabled it to be discovered by Western audiences, who warmed to its humanist stance and undercurrent of anti-war sentiments. You may want to keep a box of  Kleenex on standby.

#  #  #

And now to play us out of study hall, here’s Rockpile:

Class dismissed!

Michael Crichton: A Top 5 List

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 8, 2008)

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I’m sure that you’ve heard the news about Michael Crichton’s passing. The prolific, Harvard-educated MD turned science fiction author/screenwriter/director/producer (and yes, yes, I know…global warming denier…but nobody’s perfect) invented the “techno-thriller” genre. He was the master of the science-gone-amuck/chaos theory narrative, a theme that informed his best books and screenplays. Crichton’s novels have become synonymous with edge of your seat thrills and nail-biting suspense, tempered with detailed and (mostly) plausible science. He also created  the TV drama  ER. He also has an impressive film legacy;  here’s my Top 5 picks:

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Westworld-This 1973 cult favorite marked Crichton’s first foray into film directing, and it shows. But the film has two very strong suits in its favor: Crichton’s taut, sharply written screenplay and Yul Brenner’s memorable performance as a psychotic android gunslinger (the original Terminator!). James Brolin and Richard Benjamin also have an appealing on-screen chemistry, which livens things up (although Benjamin is an odd choice as an action hero). The “amusement park attractions killing the tourists” concept was an obvious warm up for Jurassic Park. Brenner would later reprise his role in the dicey 1976 sequel, Futureworld (watch at your own risk).

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Jurassic Park-Crichton adapted the screenplay from his own original novel (with assistance from David Koepp) for this Steven Spielberg blockbuster. Years of re-watching on the home screen may have diminished the visceral thrill of the cinematic artistry in several key scenes (the unforgettable T. Rex attack in the driving rainstorm, for starters) but this film undeniably remains a groundbreaking affair; thanks to the impressive pool of talent involved. My favorite line: “Must go faster.” Director Spielberg, Crichton and Koepp reunited for the sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park; while the special effects were impressive, it was a relatively tepid rehash of the previous.

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The Andromeda Strain-What’s the scariest monster of them all? The one you cannot see. This 1971 Robert Wise film is the most faithful Crichton book-to-screen adaptation. A team of scientists race the clock to save the world from a deadly virus from outer space that reproduces itself at alarming speed. With its claustrophobic atmosphere (all the scientists are  trapped in a sealed underground laboratory until they can find a way to destroy the microbial “intruder”) it could be seen as a precursor to Alien. It’s a nail-biter from start to finish. Nelson Gidding adapted the script from Crichton’s novel. The 2008 TV movie version was a real snoozer.

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The Terminal Man-Paging Dr. Jekyll! George Segal is excellent in the lead as a gifted computer scientist who has developed a neurological disorder which triggers murderously psychotic blackout episodes. He becomes the guinea pig for an experimental cure that requires a microchip to be planted in his brain to circumvent the attacks. Although it’s essentially “sci-fi”, this 1974 effort shares some interesting characteristics with the post-Watergate paranoid political thrillers that all seemed to propagate around that same time (especially The Parallax View, which also broached the subject of mind control). Director Mike Hodges (who directed the original version of Get Carter) adapted his screenplay from Crichton’s novel.

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Twister-I admit, I went into the theater with low expectations, but this 1996 popcorn adventure about storm chasers tearing through Tornado Alley turned out to be quite the guilty pleasure. Crichton co-scripted with Anne-Marie Martin. The film doesn’t have any threatening reptiles or rogue androids, and the science isn’t as complex as the typical Crichton story, but some of his signature themes are there (the violent unpredictability of a tornado-there’s your “chaos theory” at work). Also, note that the protagonists (Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt) have the same dynamic as Sam Neill and Laura Dern’s scientist couple in Jurassic Park. Action director Jan de Bont (Speed, Lara Croft Tomb Raider) isn’t a very deep filmmaker, but he certainly knows how to deliver a slam-bang cinematic thrill ride.

Also worth a peek: The 13th Warrior, Sphere, Disclosure, Rising Sun, Looker, Coma.

SIFF 2008: Blood Brothers ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 14, 2008)

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Woo me, baby.

No film festival would be complete without a fistful of entries from the Hong Kong action factory. One of the more visually stylish genre pics I’ve seen so far at this year’s SIFF is from first-time director Alexi Tan. Although the story is pure pulp and could have stood a little script doctoring, it’s shot with the rich tones of a Bertolucci film and plays like a 90-minute dance mix of Sergio Leone’s greatest hits. Produced by Hong Kong cinema legend John Woo, Blood Brothers is a noodle western posing as a gangster saga, with a narrative more than a tad reminiscent of Woo’s 1990 classic, Bullet in the Head.

Two brothers, Feng (Daniel Wu) and Hu (Tony Yang) make a pact with their lifelong buddy Kang (Liu Ye) to break out of their backwater village and head off to an exotic and sophisticated metropolis to find fame, fortune and, uh, babes. Think HBO’s Entourage, substituting the race to the top of 1930s Shanghai  underworld for success in present day Hollywood as the brass ring.

Handsome and charismatic Kang is the babe magnet of the trio (he would be  the Vincent Chase character. His younger brother Hu is the frequently overshadowed and more chronically underachieving of the two siblings (there’s your Johnny Drama). And last but not least, there is the physically intimidating, fiercely protective Kang, who is thuggish but cunningly “street smart” (sort of a morph between Eric and “Turtle”). Or, perhaps we could just refer to them as Michael, Fredo and Sonny Corleone? Nah…that’s too easy!

To carry the Entourage analogy further, the “Man” in Shanghai who can make or break the three friend’s fortunes happens to be…a movie producer. In actuality, Boss Hong (Sun Honglei) is more adept at producing piles of bullet-riddled corpses than he is at producing films; it’s a ruthless propensity that has made him one of Shanghai’s most successful and feared crime lords.

Among his many enterprises is the Paradise Night Club, which is where Hu finds a job and brother Feng spots an object of instant desire: lovely Lulu (Shu Qi), Boss Hong’s squeeze and the requisite femme fatale of the piece. Serendipity lands all three pals into Boss Hong’s employ, and eventually into his most trusted inner circle, where friendship and blood ties get sorely tested by the corruption of power (see Godfather II, Scarface, Once Upon a Time in America, etc).

Despite the fact that this is a somewhat cliché gangster tale, and has a lot of plot points that don’t bear up so well under closer scrutiny, I really enjoyed this film because it is executed with such panache. I don’t know what it is about the Hong Kong directors, but they’ve got some kind of cinematic Kavorka that  oozes “cool”. Just watch any of John Woo’s pre-Hollywood era classics, and it’s easy to see why Tarantino and his contemporaries geek out so much over this genre.

SIFF 2008: Half-Life **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 14, 2008)

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Global warming, family meltdown.

Variety has already beat me to the punch (damn you, sirs!) and dubbed writer-director Jennifer Phang’s Half-Life as an “Asian-American Beauty”, so I’m going to describe this provocative suburban dramedy as The Ice Storm meets Donnie Darko. An audacious melange of melodramatic soap opera, dark comedy, metaphysical conundrum and apocalyptic doom, the beautifully photographed Half-Life ambitiously poses a causality dilemma: Which came first, the dystopian society or the dysfunctional family?

The dystopia is our near “future”. Global warming has created worldwide coastal flooding, displacing millions. The sun (possibly dying) belches massive solar flares, wreaking havoc with technology and environment. Perky news mannequins chirp about a Tiananmen Square style massacre of environmental activists and tsk-tsk over a family murder-suicide conducted via chainsaw. A world gone mad!

Phang uses this sense of looming catastrophe as a metaphor for the emotional storms raging within the souls of her protagonists (much the same way that Ang Lee did in his dark suburban drama The Ice Storm) The global chaos serves as the backdrop for the travails of the single-parented Wu family, living in a Spielbergian California desert suburb and led by the exasperated Saura (Julia Nickson).

Saura is the classic “mad housewife”; perpetually exasperated and dead on her feet from trying to juggle a full time job and still spend quality time attending to the needs of a live-in boyfriend (Ben Redgrave) and her two children. Saura, along with her introverted 8-year old son Timothy (Alexander Agate) and confused teenaged daughter Pam (Sanoe Lake) have all been dealing with abandonment issues since Dad took a hike some time back.

Young Timothy, who becomes the central character, escapes from all the fucked-up adult behavior that surrounds him (and possibly averts years of therapy in the process) by losing himself in escapist reveries, triggered by his imaginative crayon doodles. These brief but visually arresting scenes are nicely interpreted with a colorful blend of CG enhancement and rotoscoping techniques.  Unfortunately, Phang makes a misstep by taking this concept to a more literal plane. I’ll just say the film veers off into Carrie territory.

Phang wrestles good  performances from a mostly unknown cast, particularly from Nickson, Lake, and young Agate. Redgrave is quite effective playing a type of creepy suburban WASP character that has become an identifiable staple in twisty indie family angst dramas (e.g. Terry O’Quinn in The Stepfather, Dylan Baker in Happiness, Brad William Henke in Me and You and Everyone We Know).

I didn’t “hate” it- but I’m still vacillating as to whether or not I “liked” this film. I do think it is safe to say that Jennifer Phang shows great promise, and is definitely a director to keep an eye out for.

SIFF 2008: Sita Sings the Blues ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 7, 2008)

One early audience favorite at this year’s SIFF is  Sita Sings the Blues. This is the first full-length animated feature from cartoonist turned filmmaker Nina Paley, whose alt-comic strip Nina’s Adventures has appeared in the San Francisco Examiner and the L.A. Reader.

Paley cheekily adapts the Ramayana, an ancient Sanskrit epic about the doomed love between Prince Rama (an incarnation of the god Vishnu) and the devoted Sita. She juxtaposes it with a neurotic examination of her own failed marriage; the result is perhaps best described as Annie Hall meets Yellow Submarine in Bollywood.

Borrowing a device from the 1981 film Pennies from Heaven, Paley literally “jazzes up” the tale with musical interludes featuring the long suffering Sita lip syncing to scratchy recordings by 1920s vocal stylist Annette Henshaw. Modern context is also provided by a parallel narrative about the travails of a modern NYC couple.

The contemporary scenes are demarcated by a stylistic departure from the computer generated animation that informs Sita’s story; Paley switches to a mix of stop-motion line drawing and rotoscoping. She also utilizes three narrators, who amusingly break through the fourth wall to debate with each other about the subtexts of the tale.

Paley’s film is actually not the first animated adaptation of this story; there is a 3 hour Japanese-Indian production from 1992 called Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama. Keeping in mind that the original Ramayana is a 24,000 couplet poem, and that this is an 80 minute film obviously taking a Cliff’s Notes approach to its venerable source material, it may not sit well with scholarly purists. But for those who have no objection to an imaginative deconstruction of such a culturally archetypal tale, Sita Sings the Blues is a lively, tuneful, funny and eye-popping cinematic treat