All posts by Dennis Hartley

Sayles of August: Honeydripper ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 1, 2008)

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Lord, I’m goin’ to Rosedale, gon’ take my rider by my side

We can still barrelhouse baby, on the riverside.

 -Robert Johnson, Traveling Riverside Blues

 In his latest film, director John Sayles transports us back to the deep south of the early 1950s, evoking the earthy poetry of the Delta, outfitting it in shades of August Wilson and transferring it to the screen. Essentially a languidly paced folk tale, set in an Alabama backwater called Harmony, Honeydripper rolls along, slow and steady, like a glass bottle sliding up a steel string, and is easily his most engaging ensemble piece since Lone Star.

Surrounded by cotton fields, adjacent to a small military post and connected to the rest of the world by a lone train station and a few dusty country roads, the town of Harmony is classic Mythic South, all the way. This is a place where black and white residents each literally live on their respective “side of the tracks”. The “Honeydripper” is the name of a ramshackle music club on the edge of town (um, down by the crossroads) run by a barrel house piano player named Tyrone “Pine Top” Purvis (Danny Glover). As the film opens, Purvis and his business partner Maceo (Charles S. Dutton) are scrambling to stay one step ahead of the debt collectors. Purvis has been losing business to a neighboring juke joint, due to his curious aversion to hiring guitar acts or acquiescing to the jukebox.

Enter a young, wispy railroad tramp named Sonny (Gary Clark, Jr.) who blows into Harmony on the night train, with little more than the clothes on his back…and a guitar. The next morning, in search of a gig, he finds his way to the Honeydripper, where Purvis feeds him breakfast, then politely shows him the door, suggesting that he might have better luck finding a job at one of the local cotton plantations. Unfortunately, Sonny is soon intercepted by a corrupt county sheriff (a hammy Stacey Keach, veritably oozing Eau de Peckerwood) who runs a hustle “arresting” drifters for vagrancy and then indenturing them to local plantation owners for a kickback.

In the meantime, the reluctant Purvis is talked into booking a New Orleans guitar legend, Guitar Sam, for a “one night only” appearance, with the hope that the draw will bring in enough money to stave off the landlord’s threat to pull the plug on his lease. However, when Guitar Sam fails to show up at the train station on the morning of the heavily promoted show, the situation starts to look pretty grim. Then, Purvis remembers the young guitarist; a light bulb appears and…well, I think you know where this is going.

Honeydripper is rife with many of Sayles’ pet themes, such as family ties, culture clash, tests of faith, class warfare and local politics. Like all good folk tales, Honeydripper has an elemental narrative structure (not to be confused with “simplistic”). When he is operating at full tilt, Sayles’ strengths as a screenwriter lie in his canny gift for perceptive, true-to-character dialog and in his ability for drawing rich characterizations. His penchant for  leisurely  pacing occasionally backfires (Silver City and Sunshine State were uncharacteristically flat; and I literally dozed off during the interminable Men With Guns) but when he’s “on” (City of Hope, Passion Fish, Baby It’s You, Brother From Another Planet, Limbo, Lone Star) there are few of his American indie contemporaries that can touch him. You can add Honeydripper to the latter list.

Sayles captures the sultry southern atmosphere to a tee, thanks in no small part to the excellent DP work by British cinematographer Dick Pope (who has worked on most of Mike Leigh’s films). The director’s distinctive feel for regional Americana and sharp eye for period detail (evidenced previously in Matewan and Eight Men Out) is on form here as well.

Per usual, Sayles employs a sizeable cast, and every speaking part, large or small, is well written and fleshed out. Glover and Dutton are both wonderful actors, and do an excellent job; newcomer Clark makes a splash in an impressive film debut. Real life blues guitarist Keb’Mo’ does a memorable turn as a cryptic, somewhat spectral character who pulls double duty as a tangential narrator and Greek Chorus for the tale. In another bit of inspired stunt casting, singer Mable John appears in a brief role as the Honeydripper house act (she was a backup singer for Ray Charles and is the sister of blues great Little Willie John). There’s good support as well from Lisa Gay Hamilton, Mary Steenburgen and Vondie Curtis-Hall. Fans of blues, gospel and roots rock ’n’ roll will dig the music performances, and Sayles aficionados will not be disappointed.

If it’s Tuesday, this must be a Boschian nightmare: In Bruges ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 23, 2008)

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It’s hard to believe, but it’s been 14 years since Pulp Fiction was unleashed on an unsuspecting public. So what can we glean from this  factoid? What hath Tarantino wrought? For one thing, the genre tag “hit man comedy” is now officially part of the cinematic lexicon. And, by the looks of things, (love it or loathe it) it is here to stay.

The latest example is a film that reportedly, er, knocked ‘em dead at Sundance  and is currently n theaters-Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges. A pair of Irish hit men, Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell) botch a job in London and are exiled to the Belgian city of Bruges, where they are ordered to lay low and await judgment on their cock-up from their piqued Dublin employer (Ray Fiennes).

Ken is enamored by the “fairy tale” ambience of Bruges, with its intricate canals and well-preserved medieval architecture, and decides to play tourist. The ADD-afflicted Ray, on the other hand, fails to see the appeal of “old buildings” and would just as soon plant himself in front of a pint for the duration of his purgatory. Initially, Ken lures the reluctant Ray into joining him for sightseeing with the promise of pub time afterwards. However, it becomes evident that Ray lacks any discernible social filter, displaying a general disregard for local mores and folkways. Ken decides that the best way to stay low profile would be to let Ray pass time as he wishes.

In order to avoid spoilers, I won’t elaborate, other than to say that Ray wanders off and finds himself a love interest and enjoys escapades like a coke binge with a “racist dwarf” while Ken is thrust into a moral and ethical dilemma that fuels the dramatic turn of the film’s final third. Toss some heaping tablespoons of raging Catholic guilt, existentialism 101 and winking Hieronymus Bosch references into the mix, and voila! (The Sundance crowd swoons…)

So what exactly has McDonagh cooked up here? Well, as much as I’d like to be able to tell you that it’s “an original dish”, I’d have to call it more of a “sampler plate” featuring a generous wedge of Tarantino and tidbits of Guy Ritchie, sprinkled with a taste of Brendan Behan. If you’re a fan of dark (very dark) Irish humor, you’ll likely get a few decent chuckles out of playwright McDonagh’s brash and brassy dialog (and marvel at his creative use of “fook” as a noun, adverb, super verb and adjective). Unfortunately, the humor doesn’t fold so well into the mix with the generous dollops of dramatic bathos and queasy violence. Also, some of the more decidedly un-PC jokes fall terribly flat (I realize that nothing is sacred in comedy, but referring to obese people as “elephants” and a dwarf as a “short-arse” is not what I consider groundbreaking, cutting-edge humor).

That being said, there are some strong performances here, almost in spite of the film’s uneven tone. Gleeson and Farrell vibe a Laurel and Hardy dynamic together that works very well; you almost expect the doughy, exasperated Gleeson to exclaim “Well, it’s another fine mess you’ve got us into this time!” every time Farrell throws more gas on the fire with one of his Tourette’s-like outbursts. Farrell has not previously impressed me as a nuanced performer, but in this film he proves to be quite deft at navigating the tricky waters of black comedy (that unibrow sure comes in handy). Gleeson, a world-class actor, is superb as always. Fiennes, who seems to be channeling Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast (by way of Michael Caine) goes way over the top with his archetypal caricature of a “hard” Cockney gangster, but he appears to be having a grand old time just the same.

I had an “OK” time on my little Belgian excursion with Ray and Ken; and the location filming does make for a great travelogue, as Bruges truly is a beautiful city-but In Bruges may not be the ideal cinematic getaway for all tastes. A guarded recommendation.

Out here in the fields: There Will Be Blood ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 12, 2008)

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In the audacious opening shot of his magnificent, sprawling, demented epic, There Will Be Blood, director P.T. Anderson presents us with a tracking shot of a vast expanse of rocky, desolate scrub land, scored by an ominous, discordant drone. When the camera (literally) disappears down a hole, we are introduced to the protagonist, a lone, shadowy figure, chiseling away at the subterranean rock wall of a derelict well with a fierce, single-minded determination. There is nary a word of dialogue uttered during the ensuing 15 minutes; yet through the masterful implementation of purely cinematic language, we are given a sufficient enough glimpse so as to feel that we may already have some inkling of what it is that drives this man, even though we do not yet even know his name.

Stylistically, this scene recalls the prologue for 2001: A Space Odyssey. What we witness in the film’s introduction may not be quite as profound as Kubrick’s rendering of “the dawn of man”, but it does put the spotlight on something just as primeval. It is something that is buried deep within the capitalist DNA-the relentless drive to amass wealth and power through willful exploitation and opportunism (hey, don’t knock it- it’s what made this country great!)

Flash forward a few years, and we find that our mystery man has made a name for himself in the midst of California’s turn-of-the-century oil boom. The ambitious Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) has moved up from prospecting for precious metals to leasing tracts of land for the oil drilling rights. He is well on his way to becoming very wealthy. He did not get to this place in his life by being a nice guy (who does?).

He is a bachelor; but in order to give an impression as a sincere “family man”, he totes a young orphan along to business meetings, who he introduces as his son (not unlike Ryan and Tatum O’Neal’s con artist team in Paper Moon). In his worldview, you are either with him, or you are his “competitor”. In fact, Plainview is the quintessential lone wolf, having very little tolerance or use for people in general, unless they can help further his agenda.

Plainview’s biggest payday arrives in the form of a furtive and enigmatic young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), who walks out of the desert  with a hot tip about a possible oil field beneath his family’s central California ranch land. Everything appears to be going swimmingly until Plainview crosses paths with Sunday’s twin brother Eli (also played by Dano) a fire and brimstone evangelical who sees his family’s business partnership with Plainview as a potential cash cow for building up his ministry. The relationship between these two characters forms the heart of the story’s conflict.

Plainview and Sunday are in reality two peas in a pod; they both employ their own fashion of charlatanism and manipulation to get what they want. They circle each other warily, grudgingly accepting that they need each other to achieve their goals. Plainview sees himself as an empire builder, and promises the milk and honey of economic prosperity to sway the landowners to his way of thinking.

The unhinged Sunday envisions himself as a prophet, and uses the lure of eternal life and the theatrics of faith healing to win over his followers. He clearly sees (plainly views?) Plainview as the Devil; this is suggested in one of the film’s most stunning visuals, where Anderson frames Day-Lewis in ominous silhouette against the hellish backdrop of an oil well fire, recalling the image of Chernabog in the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment from Fantasia. It is significant to note that when we are first introduced to Plainview, he emerges from underground (the Underworld?). The resulting pissing contest between prophet and profiteer makes for a compelling tale.

The story spans thirty years; culminating on the eve of the Depression, by which time the obscenely wealthy but completely soulless Plainview has morphed into a reclusive Charles Foster Kane type figure, alone in his mansion. The film’s jaw-dropping climatic scene is destined to be dissected and argued over by film buffs for some years to come.

The story is rich in allegory; especially in the character of Plainview, who is the very personification of the blood-soaked history of profit-driven expansionism in America at the turn of the century (and it must be said that the particular brand of puritanical religious zealotry represented by Sunday has been responsible for its fair share of damage throughout U.S. history as well). I was reminded, oddly enough, of the excellent documentary The Corporation, in which the filmmakers build a psychological profile of the typical corporation, as if it were a person. From that film’s website:

To assess the ‘personality’ of the corporate ‘person,’ a checklist is employed, using diagnostic criteria of the World Health Organization and the standard diagnostic tool of psychiatrists and psychologists. The operational principles of the corporation give it a highly anti-social ‘personality’: it is self-interested, inherently amoral, callous and deceitful; it breaches social and legal standards to get its way; it does not suffer from guilt, yet it can mimic the human qualities of empathy, caring and altruism.

That is Plainview, and to some extent, Sunday. The famously meticulous Day-Lewis is nothing short of astonishing . It is one of his finest performances . He does make some interesting choices; especially in his carefully measured vocal inflection. I’d swear that he is channeling the voice of the late Jack Palance. But it works-and maybe it’s not such a stretch, since director Anderson appears to be channeling the mythic style of George Stevens’ westerns (Giant, obviously; and in a tangential sense, Shane). Credit must also go to Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine), who does an admirable job of holding his own against the greatest character actor on earth. In a recent TV interview, Dano said that Day-Lewis never once broke character, even refusing to acknowledge him off-camera.

This marks the most cohesive and mature work from director Anderson, who adapted his screenplay from Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!. Anderson’s previous films have shown a tendency to polarize critics and audiences. I personally find him one of the most unique American filmmakers working today, and I think that this movie is going to surprise a lot of people. Kudos go out as well for Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood’s soundtrack.

Of bedpans and Brecht: The Savages ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Jesus, this little weekly post is starting to look like the Philip Seymour Hoffman fan boy page. It’s not by design; it’s just that I can’t  swing a half-eaten tub of stale popcorn around the auditorium lately without hitting another screen image of the man who is rapidly morphing into the Charles Laughton of his generation.

And yes, Hoffman delivers a superb performance in The Savages, the latest from writer-director Tamara Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills). In a bit of inspired casting, Jenkins has paired Hoffman up with one of the finest character actresses around, Laura Linney. Hoffman and Linney are Jon and Wendy Savage, middle-aged siblings suddenly saddled with the responsibility of caring for their estranged father, who has been diagnosed with dementia. When his “girlfriend” of twenty years dies, the elder Savage, Lenny (beautifully played by veteran stage actor Philip Bosco) is kicked to the curb by her adult children, who now legally own the Arizona home they shared.

Neither Savage sibling is well-equipped to take care of this unexpected burden. Each is suffering through their own mid-life crisis, and lead self-absorbed lives. Wendy is an aspiring playwright, building stacks of rejection letters as she supports herself working temp jobs. She lives alone in a modest NYC apartment (with the requisite cat) and gobbles down anti-depressants while slogging her way through a passionless affair with a married neighbor.

Jon is a drama professor at an upstate college, spending his spare time doing obsessive research for a book on “the dark comedy” of Berthold Brecht (in one particularly wonderful scene, he grooves to Kurt Weill while cruising in his car, high on Percocet). His love life is also in disarray; his live-in girlfriend of several years is heading back to her native Poland because her visa has expired (along with her hopes of a marriage proposal from the commitment-shy Jon).

Necessity sparks the uneasy family reunion as Jon and Wendy scramble to find a nursing home for Lenny, whose moments of lucidity are marked by the demeaning verbal abuse that obviously drove the siblings apart from their father in the first place (and explains the self-esteem issues that pervade their adult life). It doesn’t take long for long-dormant rivalries and simmering resentments between the brother and sister to re-emerge as well.

This is one of those family angst dramas that could have easily turned into a wrist-slitting downer in the Eugene O’Neill/Harold Pinter vein. After all, it does deal with some heavy issues; existential middle age despair and the looming prospect of the inevitable downward spiral of our parents’ “golden years” does not exactly make for light holiday season fare. However, writer-director Jenkins strikes a nice balance here; while her script doesn’t sugar-coat the film’s central theme (i.e., we’re all gonna die) with maudlin sentimentality, she still provides just the right amount of levity and very real, life-affirming moments to make this an engaging watch. It doesn’t hurt to have the monster talents of Hoffman and Linney on board. I know this is a dreaded cliché, but they made me laugh, and they made me cry. I’d rate this one three and a half Percocets. Enjoy.

Castro revolutionary: Milk ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 6, 2008)

“The important thing is not that we can live on hope alone, but that life is not worth living without it.” -Harvey Milk

 This past Thanksgiving quietly marked the 30th anniversary of one of the more shocking American political assassinations to take place in the latter half of the 20th century. On November 27th, 1978, San Francisco mayor George Moscone and District Supervisor Harvey Milk were murdered in cold blood in their respective offices at City Hall; both men were shot repeatedly at point blank range. Even more shocking (and bordering on the downright bizarre) was the fact that their killer was a fellow San Francisco politician-former District Supervisor Dan White.

It’s an anniversary that is traditionally ignored by the MSM, who apparently have decided, for whatever reason, that its significance lacks the social impact and historical gravitas of the JFK, RFK and MLK killings, which each receive the requisite nod once a year from an appropriately “solemn” news anchor. I would hope we could rule out the fact that Moscone was a socially progressive city leader and that Milk was America’s first openly gay politician of significant influence as a decisive factor in this continual oversight? I mean, this is 2008, fergawdsake-we’ve advanced farther than that in this country, right? (Don’t answer that, and whatever you do, don’t mention Proposition 8). Well, I’m here to tell you that if enough people see it (and “get” it), there’s an inspiring new film about the life of Harvey Milk from director Gus Van Sant that just might be the first “baby step” in rectifying that.

Milk is one of the most straightforward efforts from the frequently abstract and self-consciously arty filmmaker since his surprise mainstream hit Good Will Hunting back in 1997, yet arguably stands as his most significant work to date. The key word here, as a matter of fact, is “restraint”. Van Sant has wisely restrained from allowing his usual overdose of style to overpower the substance of his subject. The excellent script (by Dustin Lance Black, one of the primary writers for HBO’s Big Love) is richly engaging, yet never strays too far from Milk’s own words and deeds. And most crucial to the success of this film is the powerhouse performance that lies at its heart from Oscar shoo-in Sean Penn, who never falls into exaggerated caricature, opting instead to essentially channel the wit, passion and genuine humanity of this remarkable individual.

The film picks up Milk’s life journey at age 40, which was when he experienced the epiphany which led to him to dedicate the rest of his life to public service. Using his dingy little camera shop in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood as his HQ, Milk quickly garnered a reputation as the city’s leading gay activist, thanks to his relentless drive and a natural gift for community organizing (hmm…he started his political career as a ”community organizer”- now does that remind you of any president-elects that you know of?).

Beginning in 1973, Milk began the first of three unsuccessful runs for a San Francisco District Supervisor position. His perseverance finally paid off in 1977, when he won his seat. Although he wasn’t going to wield the political clout of a mayor, governor or senator, his victory was still a symbolically empowering milestone in the history of the gay movement in America. His agenda was not strictly limited to gay issues; he also became an important advocate for other groups who traditionally suffered from phobia-induced oppression, like the elderly, poor and the handicapped.

He entered the national spotlight when he helped spearhead the anti-Proposition 6 campaign in 1978. Also known as the “Briggs initiative”, the proposed legislation would have given California school districts the right to identify and fire gay and lesbian teachers and administrators, and ban any future applicants as well. Milk also became the symbolic counterpoint to singer Anita Bryant, whose very strident anti-gay stance became the prototype for the type of right wing, crypto-fascist fundamentalist Christian lobbying that we are still saddled with to this day. Milk accomplished a lot during his 11 month tenure; from a historical perspective you could say it was the gay community’s rendition of JFK’s figurative “Camelot”.

Van Sant actually had a tough act to follow, in the form of one of the most riveting and emotionally resonant documentaries that I have ever seen, The Times of Harvey Milk. Released in 1984 and directed by Rob Epstein, the film deservedly picked up a Best Documentary Oscar. It recounted an incredible real-life tale that was equal parts Greek tragedy, black comedy, political potboiler and film noir.

One of the most compelling elements of Epstein’s film were the snippets of audio from a tape recording Milk had made shortly before his death, which he directed to be released to the public only in the event of his assassination. The sad, funny and insightful auto-biographical musings on that tape resonate beyond a morbid premonition of fate; they crystallize as the dedicated vision of someone who was determined to make a profound difference, and to inspire others to tap into those resources within themselves.

Black transcribes verbatim excerpts from the tape as the framing device for his screenplay. It’s a wise creative choice, because it gives Milk a tragicomic Sunset Boulevard sensibility; even though we know from the get-go how horribly the story will end, it is somehow comforting to have the wry, self-aware “postmortem” narration of the doomed protagonist to accompany us on his journey.

The film abounds with wonderful supporting performances, particularly from Diego Luna, Emile Hirsch and the ubiquitous Josh Brolin (as Supervisor White). Van Sant captures the period flavor of late 70s San Francisco to a ‘T’; I can attest to that because I lived there from 1979 to 1981. My girlfriend and I lived in the Sunset district (Irving Street, for you curious locals) but we would head over to the Castro district now and then to catch a matinee at that neighborhood’s iconic architectural landmark, the Castro Theater. At any rate, having observed the milieu firsthand, I have to say that Milk really transported me back to that era.

It doesn’t matter if you are gay or straight, this film will inspire you, and the continued relevance of the issues it addresses certainly does not need to be spelled out to Digby’s readers. The year isn’t quite over, but this looks like a definite contender for one of my picks for the “top ten” of 2008. In the meantime-run (don’t walk) to see Milk.

Love means never having to say you’re sari: Slumdog Millionaire ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 29, 2008)

Leave it to Danny Boyle, who somehow managed to transmogrify the horrors of heroin addiction into an exuberant romp (Trainspotting), to reach into the black hole of Mumbai slum life and pull out the most exhilarating “feel good” love story of 2008. Slumdog Millionaire nearly defies category; think Oliver Twist meets Quiz Show in Bollywood.

Using a framing device reminiscent of The Usual Suspects, the tale unwinds in first person narrative flashback, as recalled by a young man who is being detained and grilled at a police station. Teenage “slumdog” Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a contestant on India’s version of the popular game show franchise Who Wants to be a Millionaire? has been picked up and accused of cheating, on the eve of his final appearance on the program, which could cap off his prodigious winning streak with a cool 20 million rupees. What makes Jamal suspect to the show’s host (played with smarmy aplomb by Bollywood superstar Anil Kapoor) is his apparent detachment.

Despite the fact that he’s continually hitting the jackpot with the correct answer to every question, Jamal’s pained expressions and mopey countenance suggests a slouching indifference. After all, he’s a dirt-poor orphan from the streets, so shouldn’t he be beside himself with joy and gratitude ? What could possibly be motivating him to win, if not greed? Love, actually. But don’t worry, I’m not going to spill the beans (masoor?) here and spoil anyone’s fun. Suffice it to say, when you see the object of Jamal’s devotion, portrayed by drop-dead gorgeous Freida Pinto (whose “STARmeter” on the Internet Movie Database has gone up nearly 2000% since last week), you’ll be rooting for our hero (and rutting for Freida).

Patel and Pinto have an appealing on-screen chemistry (some viewers may recognize Patel as a regular cast member of BBC-TV’s cult series, Skins). Madhur Mittal is excellent as Jamal’s brother Salim, with whom he has a complex and mercurial relationship. I don’t know where Boyle found them, but the child actors who portray the pre-teen versions of the three core characters and other supporting roles deliver some extraordinary performances; from a pure acting standpoint I think they are actually given the more demanding and difficult scenes to play, and they pull it off in a convincing, genuinely heart-wrenching fashion. An honorable mention goes to Ankur Vikal, who plays the most evil villain of the piece, a Fagin-type character who exploits street children in the worst way possible (no one will accuse Boyle of sugar-coating slum life).

While this is structured like an old fashioned, slam-bang entertainment, it still contains many snippets of Boyle’s typically visceral, in-your-face “smell-o-vision”; the flashbacks of the protagonist’s hard-scrabble childhood in the impoverished slums of Mumbai spins the neo-modern Indian folk tale vibe into Brothers Grimm land for a spell. Speaking of “smell-o-vision”, Boyle actually out-grosses his “worst toilet in Scotland” scene from Trainspotting. I will say no more; only to warn if you have a low gag factor, be prepared

Just like the best Bollywood offerings, the film (co-directed by Loveleen Tandan with a script by Simon Beaufoy, adapted from Vikas Swarup’s novel) is equal parts melodrama, comedy, action, and romance. It’s a perfect masala for people who love pure cinema, infused by colorful costume and set design, informed by fluid, hyper-kinetic camera work (from DP Anthony Dod Mantle) and accompanied by an infectious soundtrack. Be sure to stick around for the end credits; if you feel like dancing in the aisles, knock yourself out.

Goddam right it’s a beautiful day: Happy Go Lucky ****

By Dennis Hartley

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

So what is “happiness”, anyway? (If you say “…a warm gun” I swear I will punch you right in the head). According to Roget’s Thesaurus, it can be defined as a state of:

 …beatitude, blessedness, bliss, cheer, cheerfulness, cheeriness, content, contentment, delectation, delight, delirium, ecstasy, elation, enchantment, enjoyment, euphoria, exhilaration, exuberance, felicity, gaiety, geniality, gladness, glee, good cheer, good humor, good spirits, hilarity, hopefulness, joviality, joy, jubilation, laughter, lightheartedness, merriment, mirth, optimism, paradise, peace of mind, playfulness, pleasure, prosperity, rejoicing, sanctity, seventh heaven, vivacity or well-being.

 The lead character in Happy Go Lucky, British director Mike Leigh’s new film, appears to exist in a perpetual state of all of the above (and a large orange soda). Her name is Poppy, and her improbably infectious giddiness is brought to life in an amazing performance by Sally Hawkins, who can count me among her newest fans.

The appropriately named Poppy is a single and carefree 30 year old primary school teacher. She breezes around London on her bicycle, exuding “young, colorful and kooky” like Lynn Redgrave in Georgy Girl. She is nothing, if not perky. Some might say she is insufferably perky, but all she really wants is for everybody else to be happy, too. Her best friend and flatmate, Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) “gets” her, as do her young students, who naturally gravitate to her own childlike delight in all things shiny and fun.

No one can harsh her mellow, not even that gloomiest of all Gusses, The Sullen Book Store Clerk (I don’t know how it is in your neck of the woods, but we’ve got a lot of them here in Seattle. Some day, I will learn why they frown so when my purchase does not meet their highly developed sense of literary aesthetic, and upon that glorious day, perhaps I will finally learn how to snatch the pebble from their pale, vegan hands…but I digress).

Now, before you think this is heading in the direction of a whimsical fable, a la Amelie, you have to remember, this is  Mike Leigh, and he generally doesn’t do “whimsical”. Through a string of compassionate, astutely observed and beautifully acted films about contemporary British life (High Hopes, Life is Sweet, Career Girls, Naked and Secrets and Lies) Leigh has proven himself a fearless storyteller when it comes to plumbing the well of real, raw human emotion. He is the heir apparent  to the aesthetic of the British “kitchen sink” dramas of the early to mid-1960s (e,g, Look Back in Anger, Billy Liar, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner).

This “Leigh-ness” comes into play with the introduction of a character that will test the limits of Poppy’s sunny optimism and faith in humanity. His name is Scott (Eddie Marsan, in a brilliant, intense performance) and he is Poppy’s private driving instructor. Scott has a lot of “issues”, manifesting in some decidedly anti-social behaviors that suggest a dark and troubled soul.

Undaunted and determined to uncover the “good man” lurking somewhere beneath Scott’s veneer, Poppy continues her lessons, long beyond the point where most cognizant people would have decided that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to get into a small vehicle with such a dangerously unhinged individual (one red flag would be: A racist driving instructor with chronic road rage? That can’t be right.)

But this is where we learn something essential about Poppy. Her desire to assure the happiness of others isn’t borne from a clueless, self-centered “girls just wanna have fun” naiveté, but rather from a genuine sense of Mother Theresa-like selflessness and compassion for others. This attribute is conveyed in two protracted and extraordinarily acted scenes, one involving Poppy’s late night encounter in a dark alley with a mentally ill homeless man, and the other involves her reaching out to one of her troubled students.

When all is said and done, I venture to say that Leigh is actually making a somewhat revolutionary political statement for this cynical, post-ironic age of rampant smugness and self-absorption; suggesting that Poppy’s brand of bubbly, unflagging enthusiasm for wishing nothing but happiness unto others defines not just the root of true compassion, but could be the antidote to societal ills like xenophobia, child abuse and homelessness.

Then again, maybe I’m just dreaming. Like that Martin Luther King guy.

Wish you were here: Standard Operating Procedure ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 24, 2008)

Auschwitz staff, 1944.

Abu Ghraib staff, 2004.

There was a fascinating documentary recently on the National Geographic Channel called Nazi Scrapbooks from Hell. It was the most harrowing depiction of the Holocaust I’ve seen, but it offered nary a glimpse of the oft-shown photographs of the atrocities themselves. Rather, it focused on photos from a recently discovered scrapbook that belonged to an SS officer assigned to Auschwitz. Essentially an organized, affably annotated gallery of the “after hours” lifestyle of a “workaday” concentration camp staff, it shows cheerful participants enjoying a little outdoor nosh, catching some sun, and even the odd sing-along, all in the shadow of the notorious death factory where they “worked”. If it weren’t for the Nazi uniforms, you might think it was just a bunch of guys from the office, hamming it up for the camera at a company picnic. As the filmmakers point out, it is the everyday banality of this evil that makes it so chilling. The most amazing fact is that these pictures were taken in the first place.

What were they thinking?

This is the same rhetorical question posed by one of the interviewees in Standard Operating Procedure, a new documentary about the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal from renowned filmmaker Errol Morris. The gentleman is a military C.I.D. investigator who had the unenviable task of sifting through the hundreds of damning photos taken by several of the perpetrators. Since this is primarily a movie review, I don’t feel a need to rehash the back story for you (especially when a Google search of “Abu Ghraib” yields over 3 million results). We’ve all viewed those thoroughly repulsive photos ad nauseam, and the cold hard facts of the case have been well-documented and endlessly dissected.

The next logical question might be, what was Erroll Morris thinking? What startling new insight could he offer on this well-worn subject? This guy is no slouch-he has been responsible for several of the most well-crafted and compelling American documentaries of the last 30 years, from his 1978 debut Gates of Heaven (a knockout doc about pet cemeteries) to the true crime classic The Thin Blue Line (1988), and his most recent critical success The Fog of War (2003). Once again, Morris serves up intimate confessions from his interviewees, delivered directly into a modified teleprompter.

Morris makes an interesting choice here. He aims his spotlight not so much on analyzing the glaringly obvious inhumanity on display in those sickening photos, but rather on our perception of them. So just who are these people that took them? What was the actual intent behind the self-documentation? Can we conclusively pass judgment on the actions of the people involved, based solely on what we “think” these photographs show us?

In a weird way, Morris’ insistence on drawing us completely “inside” the photos made me flash on Antonioni’s 1966 classic Blow Up. The protagonist in that film is a fashion photographer who becomes obsessed with examining a series of seemingly benign pictures that he takes in a public park. He begins to believe that he has inadvertently documented a murder taking place in the background of the photos…or is he just seeing what he wants to see? The film challenges our perception of what we “see” as reality.

According to Abu Ghraib poster girl Lyddie England and several other of the convicted MPs who Morris interviews in the film, the “reality” behind the prisoner “abuse” was (in their perception ) “standard operating procedure”; they were merely “softening up” the subjects for the CIA interrogators. You know-just doing their job. One phrase you hear over and over is “everybody knew what was going on”, which sounds suspiciously like that old Nuremberg litany “we were only following orders”.  And so it goes.

Morris also plays up the bizarre love triangle aspect. When asked to explain her hammy poses for the infamous prisoner humiliation photos, England blames it on amore. “What can I say,” she shrugs, “I was in love.” She is referring to Charles Graner, currently serving 10 years for his part in the scandal (Morris was denied permission by the military to interview him). As we now know, Graner was concurrently dating another MP, Megan Ambuhl, whom he has since married (it’s all so Jerry Springer). Here’s a sobering thought: Thanks to the “softening up” of America’s prestige conducted by the Bush white house, all it took was this taxpayer-funded white trash “scrapbook from hell” to drive the final nail into its coffin.

Morris has taken some flak for focusing only on those who some may consider the low-level “scapegoats” of the Abu Ghraib debacle; these critics seem to be implying that he is not targeting high enough in the food chain. There is some merit in this assertion; the only brass who appears on camera is the palpably embittered ex-brigadier general and former Abu Ghraib overseer Janis Karpinski, who angrily asserts that she was treated to a dog and pony show whenever she visited the facilities. But in all fairness, Morris does not have the hindsight of history on his side in this case.

We can’t expect anything close to that great final shot in All the President’s Men…the close-up of teletype keys pounding out the Nixon resignation bulletin. In a truly “fair and balanced” universe, the only satisfactory denouement to any story about the Iraq “war” should be a closing shot of a spinning newspaper, finally righting itself to declare “Bush and Cheney to be Impeached for War Crimes!” The Nixon administration is history. We’re still living this nightmare.

Oliver Stone looks back, and to the Right: W ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 18, 2008)

Two of America’s finest actors.

No one has ever accused Oliver Stone of being subtle. However, once audiences view his highly anticipated film concerning the life and times of George W. Bush, I think the popular perception about the director, which is that he is a rabid conspiracy theorist who rewrites history via Grand Guignol-fueled cinematic polemics, could begin to diminish. I’m even going to go out on a limb here (gulp!) and call W a fairly straightforward biopic.

Stone intersperses highlights of Bush’s White House years with episodic flashbacks and flash forwards, beginning in the late 60s (when Junior was attending Yale) and taking us up to the present day. I don’t think a full plot summary is necessary; if you are a regular Hullabaloo reader, you know the story all too well: Alcoholic son of Texas oil millionaire stumbles through early adulthood, gets into Yale (eventually Harvard) through the back door, marries a librarian, then discovers his Special Purpose after helping Poppy become President.

Thanks to the savvy guidance of a homunculus sidekick he dubs as “Turdblossom”, he is elected as the governor of Texas (twice) and then finds God, who informs him personally that he is destined to become President, because He has a Special Mission for him. Turns out that his Special Mission is to fight the Evil Doers where they live, after they stage a terrorist attack on America. Trouble is, there seems to be some confusion as to exactly where they live. In the meantime, he’ll need to bitch slap that Bill of Rights (just a little), for our protection.

Best supporting performance?

I’m not saying that Stone doesn’t take a point of view; he wouldn’t be Oliver Stone if he didn’t. He’s already catching flak for the screen time spent dwelling on Bush’s battle with the bottle (the manufacturers of Jack Daniels must have laid out serious bucks for the ubiquitous product placement ). Bush’s history of boozing is a matter of record.

Some are taking umbrage at another one of the chief underlying themes of Stanley Weisner’s screenplay, which is that Bush’s angst (and the drive to succeed at all costs) is propelled by an unrequited desire to please a perennially disapproving George Senior. I’m no psychologist, but that sounds reasonable to me.

Live, from New York…it’s Saturday Night!

As usual, Stone has assembled a massive cast with a bazillion speaking parts. His choice of Josh Brolin for the lead initially struck many people as an odd selection (including yours truly), but now that I have seen the film, I have to say it was a smart move.

Brolin is nothing short of brilliant. He doesn’t go for a cartoon caricature, which would have been the easy route to take; I think he pulls off a Daniel Day Lewis-worthy “total immersion” quite successfully. It is interesting to note that Brolin (tangential to Junior) has been accused of riding into a Hollywood career on the coattails of his dad (James Brolin) and stepmother (Barbara Streisand); if Stone chose his leading man with this in mind, he is a very canny operator.

Some of the other standouts in the cast include Toby Jones as Karl Rove, James Cromwell and the great Ellen Burstyn as President and Mrs. Bush Sr., Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell and Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney. Wright and Dreyfuss play off each other beautifully while recreating Cheney and Powell’s tiffs. Scott Glenn isn’t given an awful lot to do as Donald Rumsfeld, but he has the evil squint down.

The only casting misfire is an overly mannered Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice; it is like she dropped in from an SNL sketch. Perhaps it is not entirely her fault, as there’s so much prosthetic on her face, she can barely move her lips.

Perhaps I should qualify something. When I called this a “straightforward” biopic, I was speaking in relative terms. You have to keep in mind that in one respect, Stone is boldly going where no filmmaker has gone before. PT 109 aside, this is the only biopic about a president to be released while he is still sitting in the Oval Office; and since the former film dealt with JFK’s WW2 exploits, and not his actual presidency, that makes Stone’s film even more unique.

Another hurdle is the fact that the Bush administration has probably been satirized, parodied and ridiculed (via print, blogosphere, TV, film, theater, comedy club, YouTube, T-shirt, billboard, and water cooler chat) more than any other presidency in my lifetime (not that they haven’t asked for it in every way imaginable). This zeitgeist makes it virtually impossible for someone to make a “serious” biopic about W. By playing it straight, Stone is really being subversive (clever boy!).

If the Bush administration had never really happened, and this was a completely fictional creation, I would be describing Stone’s film by throwing out one-sheet ready superlatives like “A wildly imaginative look at the dark side of the American Dream!” or “A vivid, savage satire for our times!” But you see, when it comes to the life and legacy of one George W. Bush and the Strangelovian nightmare that he and his cohorts have plunged this once great nation into for the last eight years, all you have to do is tell the truth…and pass the popcorn.

Shades of Ashby: Choke ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 11, 2008)

There was a time, not too far removed, when the descriptive phrase “character study” was not necessarily the American film industry’s code for “box office poison.” I’m talking about the 1970’s, when maverick directors like Hal Ashby, Robert Altman and Bob Rafelson made quirky, compelling “character studies” that audiences actually went out of their way to see. The protagonists were usually iconoclastic fringe dwellers or workaday antiheroes who, like the filmmakers themselves, questioned authority, flouted convention and were generally able to convey thoughts and feelings without CG enhancement. The films may not have always sported linear narrative or wrapped up with a “Hollywood ending”, but they nearly always left us a bit more enlightened about the human condition.

I’m not saying that the character study ever really went away; it just became increasingly more marginalized as the era of the Hollywood blockbuster juggernaut encroached. Indie films of more recent vintage like Buffalo 66, Jesus’ Son and SherryBaby are direct stylistic descendants of episodic 70s fare like Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces, Altman’s California Split, and Ashby’s The Last Detail, and prove that the genre is alive and well. The main difference between then and now, of course, is that when you venture out to the multiplex to seek such a film these days, you almost feel like donning dark glasses and a raincoat. When I went to a weekend matinee to catch Clark Gregg’s Choke, I counted exactly 4 other patrons in the postage stamp auditorium. It just made me feel so…dirty.

Choke is one of the most original comedy-dramas I have seen this year, undoubtedly due in no small part to the fact that Gregg’s screenplay is based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, whose previous book-to-screen adaptation was 1999’s Fight ClubChoke, similar to Fight Club, serves up a mélange of human foibles (addiction, perversion, madness and deception, to rattle off a few) and tops it all off with a dark comic sensibility. To put it another way, it’s a sort of a screwball romantic comedy for nihilists.

In his work life, Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) is employed as a “historical re-enactor” in a theme park that replicates American colonial life. Victor’s personal lifeis more akin to some kind of a psycho-sexual Disneyland. In his off-hours, Victor regularly attends support group meetings for sex addicts, along with his pal/co-worker, the Portnoy-like Denny (Brad William Henke). Victor doesn’t appear to be making much headway toward recovery, as he customarily spends most of the session time furtively (and joylessly) humping fellow group member Nico (Paz de la Huerta) on the restroom tiles. The rest of his spare time is spent working a hustle. To help foot the private hospital bill for his ailing mother Ida (Anjelica Huston), he goes to restaurants and feigns choking fits. He carefully screens his “saviors” based on the likelihood of them having wallets that are as big as their bleeding hearts.

Ida suffers from dementia, subsequently she fails to recognize her son most of the time. In her rare moments of lucidity, Victor attempts to learn more about his unknown father, a subject Ida has always been reticent to discuss in any detail. Through episodic flashbacks of Victor’s childhood, we glean that the free-spirited Ida has raised her son in, shall we say “a creative fashion” (in the interest of avoiding spoilers). One thing that does become clear is that, insomuch as Victor’s abilities to run a skillful con game go, it looks like the apple has not fallen very far from the family tree.

The plot thickens when Ida’s doctor, a pretty, enigmatic young woman named Paige (Kelly MacDonald) counters Victor’s inevitable horndogging attempts with an invitation to assist her with some medical “research”. Paige’s proposed method for propagating the stem cells for her experiment requires Victor’s um, interactive participation, and is medically unorthodox, to say the least. So is it love, or purely science? I can say no more.

Rockwell gives a nuanced turn in the lead performance, and is well-supported by Henke and MacDonald. Anjelica Huston is excellent, as always. In a tangential sense, she is reprising the character she played in The Grifters. In fact, the dynamic of the mother-son relationship played out between Huston and Rockwell in Choke shares many similarities to the one she had with John Cusack’s character in the aforementioned film, particularly concerning unresolved “abandonment issues” on the part of the son.

This marks the directorial debut for Gregg, who is probably most recognizable for his work as a TV actor (The New Adventures of Old Christina). Gregg casts himself as a self-important “lord high” role-player in the faux-colonial village where Victor and Denny work; it’s a small but very interesting part. Also look for the great Joel Grey (who we don’t see enough of these days) as a battle-scarred member of the sex addiction group.

This is not a popcorn movie. Challenging and thought-provoking, it does demand your full attention; and even though it offers a fair share of chuckles, it is not really designed to be taken lightly. There’s a hell of a lot of ideas packed into 90 minutes here, ranging from Oedipal conflict to Christ metaphor. There’s even a sense of twisted cinematic homage to Tom Jones when we are treated to the occasional fast-cut montage of bodice-ripping flashbacks depicting Victor, replete in leggings, waistcoat and tri-corner hat, having it off “on the job” with a few of his more comely fellow re-enactors.

Prepare yourself for a lot of sexual frankness, not visually graphic, necessarily, but still the uncompromising, in-your-face kind that makes a lot of people squirm in their seats. Warning: one scene that some may find very disturbing takes place between Victor and a woman he has met through the personal ads. She “enjoys” acting out rape fantasies. In the context of the narrative,  it is actually an important and pivotal moment in the protagonist’s journey. This trip can be psychically brutal at times, but if you’re open-minded and willing to take the whole ride, it may blindside you with genuine warmth, humanity, and yes, even some redemption.