Electric Kool-Aid acid reflux: Taking Woodstock ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 5, 2009)

Bob & Carol & Ted &…uh, has anyone seen Alice?

“If you can remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there”. Don’t you hate it when some lazy-ass critic/wannabe sociopolitical commentator trots out that  old chestnut to preface some pompous “think piece” about the Woodstock Generation?

God, I hate that.

But I think it was Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane who once said: “If you remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there.” Or it could have been Robin Williams, or Timothy Leary. Of course, the irony is that whoever did say it originally, probably can’t really remember if they were in fact the person who said it first.

You see, memory is a funny thing. Let’s take the summer of 1969, for example. Here’s how Bryan Adams remembers it:

 That summer seemed to last forever
and if I had the choice
Yeah – I’d always wanna be there
Those were the best days of my life

Best days of his life. OK, cool. Of course, he wrote that song in 1984. He’d had a little time to sentimentalize events. Now, here’s how Iggy Stooge describes that magic time:

 Well it’s 1969 okay.
We’ve got a war across the USA.
There’s nothing here for me and you.
We’re just sitting here with nothing to do.

Iggy actually wrote and released that song in the year 1969. So which of these two gentlemen were really there, so to speak?

“Well Dennis,” you may be thinking (while glancing at your watch) “…that’s all fine and dandy, but doesn’t the title of this review indicate that the subject at hand is Ang Lee’s new film, Taking Woodstock? Shouldn’t you be quoting Joni Mitchell instead ?”

Patience, Grasshopper. Here’s how Joni Mitchell “remembers” Woodstock:

 By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration

She wrote that in 1969. But here’s the rub: she wasn’t really there.

There was a point in there, somewhere. Somehow it made sense when I was peaking on the ‘shrooms about an hour ago. Oh, I’m supposed to be writing a movie review. Far out, man.

My point is, there’s always been a disconnect between “Woodstock”  the romanticized representation of a generation, and the actual “Woodstock Music and Art Fair” event that took place near Bethel, New York in August of 1969. In other words, can “anybody” who was of a certain age and mindset in 1969 rightfully claim (like Joni) that they were “there”, in spirit, and that it was a beautiful, groovy thing?

Or, did you have to physically attend the event, parking miles away, slogging through a muddy sea of humanity, with only a slim chance of getting close enough to the stage to identify who was playing?

And in spite of the impression given by Michael Wadleigh in his brilliant rock doc, Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music (whittled down from over 300 hours of footage into a 4-hour film), the sound system reportedly left much to be desired, and many of the bands (by their own admission) did not give career best performances.

None of the main characters in Taking Woodstock get that close to the stage, either (although some do ingest certain substances, play in the mud and take a figurative wallow in the counter-cultural zeitgeist of 1969). For the most part, Lee doesn’t set out to just reenact the grand canvas of the event as has already been depicted in Wadleigh’s iconic documentary (what would be the point?).

Instead, he has opted for a far more intimate approach, based on a memoir by Elliot Tiber, who helped broker the deal between the producers of the music festival and the Bethel Town Board to hold the event there after the permits were refused for the originally intended location in the nearby  town of Wallkill, N.Y.

Elliot is played by stand-up comic/first time leading man Demetri Martin (a former writer for Conan O’Brien who you will most likely recognize from sporadic appearances on The Daily Show).

In 1969, he is living in the Village in N.Y.C., eking out a living as an interior designer. When it becomes clear that his aging parents (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton) are overextending themselves trying to  keep their Catskills motel business afloat as the bank threatens foreclosure, Elliot heads back home upstate to become their Man Friday. Serendipity eventually puts Elliot face-to-face with concert producer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff).

Seeing little more than an opportunity to sell out the motel for a few weeks and give the business some much-needed cash flow, Elliot (having no idea that he is playing a pivotal role in enabling what is destined to become  the high-water mark of the 60s counterculture movement) introduces Lang to a local farmer, Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), who has some spacious fields that might fit the bill.

There is some resistance to overcome from grumpy neighboring farmers, as well as consternation from a local Town Board members about the idea of their sleepy hamlet being overrun by a bunch of Dirty Fucking Hippies (this part of the tale takes on a Footloose vibe).

“Dramedies” can be tricky. Too much drama curdles the comedy. Too much comedy can sabotage dramatic tension. Unfortunately, Lee’s film takes a fair stab at both but doesn’t fully succeed at either, leaving you with the cinematic equivalent of tepid dishwater. There are also a few  intriguing backstories hinted at, but never explored.

That being said, there are a couple decent sequences; particularly a protracted vignette in which Elliot,  trying to work his way closer toward the stage, gets waylaid by a mellow couple, camped out in their VW van. The pair, played with doe-eyed blissfulness by Paul Dano and Kelli Garner invite Elliot aboard for a nice little trip (which doesn’t involve any actual driving-wink wink). It’s a very sweet little interlude, beautifully played by all three young actors.

If you are really hell-bent to skinny-dip in nostalgia, you needn’t scratch your head over Taking Woodstock. Dim all the lights, plug in the lava lamp, light up the bong, then “take Woodstock” (the original documentary) off the shelf. All together now:  “Gimme an ‘F’…”

Torah! Torah! Torah!: Inglourious Basterds ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 29, 2009)

Care to repeat that anti-Semitic remark?

World War II movies can be divided into four categories. There’s the no-nonsense, fact-based docudrama (The Longest Day, The Battle of the Bulge, Tora! Tora! Tora!). There’s the grunt’s-eye-view, “based on a true story”  yarn (Saving Private Ryan, The Big Red One, Hell is for Heroes). There’s the Alistair MacLean-style action-adventure fantasy;  with maybe one toe grounded in reality (Where Eagles Dare, The Dirty Dozen, The Eagle Has Landed). And finally, there’s the “alternate reality” version (Castle Keep, The Mysterious Doctor, and The Keep). Quentin Tarantino’s new war epic, Inglourious Basterds, vacillates between action-adventure fantasy and alternate reality.

Sharing scant more than a title with the correctly spelled 1978 original (itself a knockoff of The Dirty Dozen) Inglourious Basterds is ultimately less concerned with WW2 than it is with giving the audience a Chuck Workman on acid montage of 20th century cinema, “101”. It’s not like we haven’t come to expect the cinematic mash-up/movie geek parlor game shtick in Tarantino’s films, but he may have outdone himself here, referencing everything from the Arnold Fanck/Leni Riefenstahl mountain movies to Tony Montana making his final stand in Brian DePalma’s Scarface.

Tarantino wastes no time referencing his Sergio Leone obsession, with a prelude cut straight out of Once Upon a Time in the West and pasted into “Nazi-occupied France”. Remember Henry Fonda’s memorably execrable villain? He has a soul mate in SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a disarmingly erudite sociopath who has been assigned the task of combing France to round up and eliminate Jews hiding out in the countryside. Landa is very good at his “job”, which has earned him the nickname of “The Jew Hunter”.

A scenery-chewing Brad Pitt stars as Lieutenant Aldo Raine (whose name, I am assuming, is homage to the late actor Aldo Ray, who was a staple player for many years in war films like Battle Cry, The Naked and the Dead, Men in War and The Green Berets). Lt. Raine has been charged with assembling a Geneva Convention-challenged terror squad comprised of a hand-picked group of Jewish-American G.I.s.

Their special assignment: Kill Nazis. I know – “Wasn’t that the goal of the Allied forces in Europe?” Yes, but the mission orders normally didn’t include a directive to take scalps. And forget about taking prisoners; although they always leave a lone survivor (not before they etch out a Charlie Manson-style souvenir in his forehead).

The self-anointed “Basterds” have managed to “carve out” quite a name for themselves, and have become the bane of evil Nazis (or as Raine refers to them in his Huckleberry Hound drawl, “gnat-sees”) everywhere; these are some bad-ass Jews. Even the Fuhrer (Martin Wuttke) fears them; he is particularly chagrined whenever the name of the dreaded “Bear Jew” (horror director Eli Roth) is mentioned.

This particular team member (known to fellow Basterds as Sgt. Donny Donowitz) has earned his nickname from his swarthy, hulking appearance and a preference for dispatching Nazis utilizing a baseball bat (move over, Sandy Koufax). These happy Jews, this band of bubelehs have even enlisted a Nazi-hating German defector (Til Schweiger) who fits right in; he’s a complete psychopath.

This outing is not strictly a Braunschweiger fest. No Tarantino film from Jackie Brown onward would be complete without an ass-kicking heroine. Shosanna Dreyfus (played with smoldering intensity by Melanie Laurent) is a French Jew who has a score to settle with one of the main characters (recalling “The Bride” in Kill Bill).

She’s a clandestine resistance fighter (a la Melville’s Army of Shadows) who has covered up her Jewish heritage by changing her name and “hiding in plain sight” as proprietress of a movie house. Her story eventually converges with the Basterds (and her quarry), culminating in an audacious, Grand Guignol finale.

Love him or hate him, Tarantino proves again to have a real knack for two things: writing crackling dialogue, and spot-on casting. As usual, every actor seems to have been born to play his or her respective part , especially Waltz. Repellent as his character is, Waltz manages to telegraph the pure joy of performing, just short of hamming it up.

Pitt, who doesn’t get as much screen time as trailers infer, seems to be having the time of his life. Diane Kruger is good as a German movie star who is feeding intelligence to the Allies. A heavily made-up Mike Myers can be seen as a British general; playing he type of supporting character “back at HQ” that you could picture Anthony Quayle, Jack Hawkins or Trevor Howard playing back in the day.

As you might expect, there are cameos a-plenty, including Rod Taylor (as Winston Churchill) and Bo Svenson (a veteran from the original film). Don’t strain your eyes trying to spot cameos by QT stalwarts Harvey Keitel and Samuel L. Jackson; they are heard, but not seen. Tarantino appears as a dead German soldier getting scalped, which undoubtedly fulfills the fantasies of some of his detractors.

Much of the dialogue is spoken in-language by the French and German actors. It’s quite a testament to the director’s formidable writing skills that after the first few scenes, you don’t really notice that some characters will frequently switch idioms (especially the amazing Waltz, who proves equal fluency in German, French, Italian and English). Even when subtitled, the words veritably sing and dance with Tarantino’s unmistakably idiosyncratic pentameter.

In the context of pure visual storytelling, I think that Inglourious Basterds signals the director’s most assured, mature and resplendent work to date (beautifully photographed by Robert Richardson, who was the DP on both Kill Bill films and previously a veteran of 11 Oliver Stone collaborations). This is particularly evident in the film’s opening scene, which immediately draws you in with an eye-filling, gorgeously expansive exterior shot of the French countryside.

The buildup to the finale is the visual highlight of any QT film to date. In a possible homage to Joan Crawford’s Vienna (whose name is derived from the French word for “life”) donning her rose red blouse for the final showdown with her black-clad nemesis in Nicholas Ray’s  lurid revenge western Johnny Guitar, Shosanna (whose name derives from the Hebrew word for “rose”) dons her vividly Technicolor red dress as she prepares for the showdown with her black-clad nemesis, scored with David Bowie’s “Putting Out Fire” (originally the theme for Paul Schrader’s 1982 version of Cat People).

It’s a ballsy move by Tarantino, but not unlike his similarly brash gamble lifting of the theme song from Across 110th Street for Jackie Brown’s credits, I’ll be damned if it ain’t the perfect choice (maybe he figured it would have been pushing his luck to also “borrow” the “harmonica man” theme from Once Upon a Time in the West?).

Finally, I wanted to share a thought or two about the violence, which is de rigueur for any Tarantino film, and which invariably provides the catalyst for discord in any conversation between his disciples and detractors. Yes,  you will see scalpings, stabbings, shootings, and deaths by strangulation and bludgeoning. This is not Pinocchio.

Yet, if you were to add up all of this mayhem in screen time, I’m guesstimating that it wouldn’t be more than 10 minutes (out of a 153 minute total running time). With the possible exception of Kill Bill Vol. 1 (an over-the-top affair in the bloodletting department by anyone’s standards) I think that the knee-jerk tendency is to perceive a higher ratio of violence in Tarantino’s films than actually exists.

In fact, do you know which scene has the most white-knuckled, edge-of-your seat, heart-pounding suspense in this film? People playing a game of Celebrity Heads. I won’t spoil it for you; just know that wherever Alfred Hitchcock is, he’s probably looking down on QT with a nod and a wink…from one inglourious basterd to another.

John Hughes lives: Post Grad **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 22, 2009)

Although it “looks” like one of those indie comedies about quirky families (Little Miss Sunshine, Juno), Post Grad is populated by characters who would have felt more at home in a mid-1980s John Hughes vehicle; in an odd way this makes it pleasantly anachronistic.

You could almost picture Molly Ringwald as Ryden Malby (Alexis Bledel), a college lit major whose post-graduation dream is to jump right into the career track at a major L.A. publishing house. You have the male childhood friend (and fellow grad) Adam (Zach Gilford) who secretly pines away for her while gallantly respecting the platonic reality (yes…he is, and will forever be…her Duckman).

You even have the Hated Rival. Her name is Jessica (played to the hilt with amusingly snobby arrogance by Catherine Reitman) and she’s been Ryden’s academic arch-nemesis since high school. Much to Ryden’s chagrin, Jessica (along with her other fellow grads) all manage to breeze into immediate employment (obviously, the film was not made with the current economic realities in mind). Her road to that dream job runs into some bumps; consequently she faces every grad’s worst nightmare: Moving back in with the family.

This brings us to the Batshit Crazy Yet Lovable Family. There’s the D.I.Y. Dad (Michael Keaton, at times recalling his character in Night Shift) who manages a luggage store, but who is always dreaming up quirky money-making schemes on the side (he’s got one word of fatherly advice for his daughter…not “plastics”, but  “buckles”).

Mom (Jane Lynch) divides her time between pinching pennies and reining in Ryden’s weird, sock-puppet wielding little brother (Bobby Coleman) who gets into trouble at school for, uh, licking his classmates; he apparently finds their heads particularly appealing.

And don’t forget Grandma (a scene-stealing Carol Burnett, still an absolute riot at 76) who makes her grand entrance at Ryden’s graduation ceremony replete with clanging portable oxygen bottle and a rather noisy bag of Cheetos (not the only glaring product placement-Eskimo Pies get more screen time than some of the cast).

There’s not a lot of room for character development within the film’s breezy 90-minute running time (don’t expect anything much deeper than a slightly better than average sitcom episode), but the cast is game, there are some genuinely funny scenes and at its heart the film is so amiable  that it’s hard not to like it.

The only misstep of note is a subplot about a flirtation between Ryden and her 30-something neighbor, a wannabe filmmaker who directs TV infomercials (played by Brazilian beefcake Rodrigo Santoro). It doesn’t convince; and the romantic chemistry isn’t there between Bledel and Santoro. Bledel has a charming screen presence, although she is handily upstaged by Keaton, Lynch and Burnett

This is the first feature-length “live action” film for director Vicky Jenson, who has a background in animation  (she previously co-directed Shark Tale and Shrek). It’s also the feature film debut for screenwriter Kelly Fremon. Ivan Reitman (who directed Ghostbusters and Stripes) produced; which might explain the film’s 80s vibe.

Frankly the chief reason I was intrigued to screen the film was the vague inference in the trailer that it might signal Hollywood’s acknowledgment of our economic woes; it looks like we’ll still have to wait for Michael Moore’s upcoming Capitalism: A Love Story for that. In the meantime, don’t lose any sleep if you miss Post Grad in theaters, although it may be worth a rental on a slow night.

Sea my friends: Ponyo, on a Cliff by the Sea ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 15, 2009)

If you are not particularly in the mood to watch summer movie viscera exploding across the screen in a sea of gore, I do have an alternative suggestion. The newest film from anime master Hayao Miyazaki has finally reached U.S. theatres (in limited release right now).Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea is a slight but lovely tale in the Hans Christian Andersen vein, infused with the lush visual magic we’ve come to expect from Studio Ghibli.

A young boy named Sosuke, who lives (wait for it)…on a cliff by the sea discovers an amorphous ocean creature with vaguely humanoid features floundering on the beach one.  Naming “her” Ponyo, he lovingly nurses it back to health. Imagine his surprise when the little fish begins to mimic human speech (at the point where she says, “Ponyo loves Sosuke!” I couldn’t help but wonder if Miyazaki was homage to the classic “Fa loves Pa!” line from Day of the Dolphin).

Sosuke’s affinity and kindness toward his “pet” is soon reciprocated via a  wondrous transmogrification; it’s sort of a puppy-love take on Wings of Desire. Complications ensue when Ponyo’s dad (a Neptune-type sea  god) registers disapproval by unleashing the power of the ocean.

Although many of Miyazaki’s recurring themes are on display, they are less strident than usual; still, I think this is the director’s most accessible and straightforward storytelling since My Neighbor Totoro. I’ll admit, in the opening scenes I was initially a bit dismayed that the animation seemed more simplistic than usual (at least by Studio Ghibli’s own standards); but as the film unfolded I came to realize that the use of soft lines and muted pastels is a stylistic choice that meshes perfectly with the gentle rhythms of its narrative.

My review is based on a screening of the Japanese PAL DVD that is already available. I still anticipate catching it on the big screen (always preferable), especially for some gorgeous and amazingly detailed underwater milieus, and a powerful sequence of an ocean tempest that features the most breathtaking animation I’ve seen in quite a while. Overall, it may pale when compared to, say, Spirited Away, but in my experience, there is no such thing as “mediocre” Miyazaki. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

Oops! Wrong planet: District 9 ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 15, 2009)

It’s hip on the mothership.

The alien invaders have come knock knock knockin’ on the box office door to signal their seasonal pilgrimage to the local multiplex. Okay, technically, in the case of District 9, the aliens aren’t necessarily “invaders” so much as…refugees, who have the misfortune of running out of gas (in a matter of speaking) while hovering over South Africa. Boy, did they make a wrong turn.

We learn from a montage that 20-odd years have passed since the aliens first made contact; in the interim the South African government has evacuated the malnourished populace from their gargantuan mothership and introduced them to the joys of township living. The aliens, referred to derogatorily as “prawns” due to their crustacean-like physiology, develop a proclivity for tinned cat food, and resign themselves to living the slum life whilst the global debate about what ultimately should be done about them drags on.

In the meantime, the government has contracted a private company to micro-manage the residents of “District 9” (official speak for the area where the aliens are interred). The company, Multi-National United, has taken a keen interest in unlocking the secret to operating the alien weaponry that was confiscated; much to their chagrin, the hardware does not respond to human touch.

While one of the company’s officials (Sharlto Copley, as the type of officious, soullessly cheerful bureaucrat you love to hate) is serving eviction notices in one of the slums, he stumbles into a situation that soon turns him into a political football in the brewing conflict between the disgruntled aliens and their human oppressors.

Writer-director Neill Blomkamp is a “discovery” by producer Peter Jackson, who originally enlisted the up-and-comer to help develop a feature film adaptation of the Halo video game (a project which looks  to be on permanent hold). As you watch District 9, you glean why Jackson has banked on this previously unknown filmmaker; he certainly has an imaginative style and a flair for kinetic action sequences.

Although the film eventually descends into a somewhat predicable flurry of loud explosions and splattering viscera, it does sport a rousing first half, thanks to the terrific production design, outstanding alien creature effects and the gripping docu-realism. It’s not for the squeamish; if you are, you might want to take a pass.

As for the political allegory, while it can safely be assumed and is definitely implied (especially considering South Africa’s history) it is not necessarily ladled on with a trowel. I didn’t get the impression that the filmmakers were trying to make it the central theme; sometimes, a sci-fi story…is just a sci-fi story.

There is some controversy regarding the film’s depiction of Nigerian nationals who live among the aliens. The characters in question are a Nigerian crime lord and his evil henchmen, who profit off the refugees via prostitution, extortion and black marketeering. In the context of the narrative, I thought those characters served the story (perhaps we could have done without the anachronistic witch doctor). This is not the first movie of its kind (nor will it be the last), but it is one of the more original genre entries in recent memory.

Generals and majors ah ah: In The Loop ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 8, 2009)

Here’s a revelation, in the midst of summer movie torpor: The political satire is not dead; it’s just been sort of resting …at least since Wag the Dog sped in and out of theaters in 1997. Armando Iannucci and co-writers Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Ian Martin and Tony Roche (much of the team responsible for the BBC series The Thick of It) have mined the headlines and produced a nugget of pure satirical gold with In the Loop. I daresay that it recalls the halcyon days of Terry Southern and Paddy Chayefsky, whose sharp, barb-tongued screenplays once ripped the body politic with savage aplomb.

When the British Minister for International Development (Tom Hollander) gets tongue-tied during a BBC news interview and blurts out that “War is unforeseeable” in response to a question about his stance on a possible U.S. military intervention in the Middle East, it stirs up a trans-Atlantic political shit storm, as hawks and doves on both sides of the pond scramble to spin his nebulous statement into an endorsement for their respective agendas.

When he later tries to backpedal by saying “Sometimes, to walk the road of peace, we have to…climb the mountains of conflict” it raises murderous ire from the Prime Minister’s Director of Communications (Peter Capaldi, as a classic Type-A prick) who tells the minister (among other colorful admonishments) that his awkward metaphor made him sound like some kind of “Nazi Julie Andrews”.

The gaffe-prone minister is given a chance to redeem his now precarious career status with a “fact finding” visit to D.C., under the watchful eye of Capaldi. Also along for the trip is the minister’s ambitious new advisor and chief handler (Chris Addison).

They are feted by the dovish Assistant Secretary of Diplomacy( Mimi Kennedy) who is desperately trying to keep him from the clutches of the hawkish Assistant Secretary of State (David Rasche) who is like an amalgam of Rumsfeld and Cheney, and of whom Kennedy observes that “…the voices in his head are now singing barbershop together.” Things get interesting when a war-weary general turned desk-bound Pentagon brass (James Gandolfini) joins the mix.

The filmmakers take aim at multiple targets, and hit the bull’s eye nearly every time with creatively honed insults delivered in deliciously profane pentameter by all members of the cast. Capaldi’s character in particular spouts some of the most uproariously clever lines I’ve heard in years. As for my personal favorite, I’d say that it’s a tossup between “I’m putting you on a probationary period…from today until the end of recorded time” or (b) “I will marshal all the media forces of darkness to hound you to an assisted suicide.”

Politics as usual, I suppose.

Remake/remodel: The Taking of Pelham, 1-2-3 **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 20, 2009)

Washington and Travolta: Got to do with where choo-choo go.

Well, summer is back, and apparently, so are the Seventies. Let’s put it this way: if I had been able to construct a time machine back in 1979, and had set the controls for 30 years hence, I would have looked at the marquees and assumed that either a) my experiment had failed, or b) Hollywood had completely run out of original ideas.

The latest Will Farrell vehicle, Land of the Lost is based on the 1970s TV show. Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming (and spellchecker-challenged) Inglourious Basterds is a remake of a 1978 B-movie. And now,  we have Tony Scott’s The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, a retooling of Joseph Sargent’s original 1974 action thriller of the same name.

Good morning, Mr. Blue.

In the original film, the late great Robert Shaw (above) leads a team of bow-tied, mustachioed and bespectacled terrorists who hijack a New York City subway train, seize hostages and demand $1 million in ransom from the city coffers. If the ransom does not arrive in precisely 1 hour, passengers will be executed at the rate of one per minute until the money appears (no pressure!).

As city officials scramble to scare up the loot on such short notice, a tense cat-and-mouse dialog is established (via two-way radio) between Shaw’s single-minded sociopath and the ever-rumpled Walter Matthau as a wry, world weary Transit Police lieutenant. Peter Stone’s screenplay (adapted from the novel by John Godey) is sharply written and rich in characterization. It’s also memorable for being chock full of New York City attitude; every character, from the Mayor and his handlers to the subway hostages (and their captors), is soaking in it. Sargent delivers a gripping and gritty urban thriller.

Years later, Quentin Tarantino blatantly lifted (OK, I’ll be nice and say: “paid homage”) to one of the film’s signature gimmicks. Shaw’s gang adapts nom de plumes for their “job” based on colors (Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, Mr. Grey and Mr. Brown). The men who pull off the heist in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs are designated by their ringleader as Messrs. White, Orange, Blonde, Blue, Brown, etc. (prompting the chagrined Steve Buscemi’s immortal line: “Why am I Mr. Pink?!”)

Which now brings us to Tony Scott’s new version. Refreshing myself on the director’s credits (as listed on the Internet Movie Database), I see that I have somehow managed to overlook all of his output between Enemy of the State (1998) and this one. It wasn’t necessarily by design; I love Enemy of the State, which holds a coveted place in my Conspiracy-A-Go-Go section. It’s just that Scott historically doesn’t make the types of films that particularly grab me (The Hunger and True Romance aside). And don’t get me started on that towel-snapping military recruitment ad, Top Gun (no, seriously…don’t).

In the new film, Denzel Washington steps into Walter Matthau’s shoes as Walter Garber, with a slight shift in job description (here he is a subway dispatcher, instead of a transit cop) and John Travolta plays the heavy, simply referred to as Ryder (What? No more Mr. Blue?!).

The setup remains the same; Ryder and his henchmen hijack a subway, seizing hostages and demanding ransom. Now, the prices have gone up since 1974 (even terrorists have to adjust for inflation). Ryder wants $10 million…and one cent. As in the original film, Garber and Ryder verbally square off (via cell phone in this outing) while the ransom is assembled and the clock ticks away.

I know that this is  an action movie, but the problem with Scott’s hyper-kinetic visual style is that his goddamned camera never stops moving, even when it should. For instance, there’s a bit of exposition where the Mayor (James Gandolfini) is standing on the street having a confab with his advisors about the crisis. For the entire scene, Scott never stops spinning his camera in a dizzying 360, making you feel like you’re on a runaway merry-go-round (it damn near triggered a positional vertigo condition that I suffer on occasion).

Another issue is the lack of character development. What made the original so good that it was a great ensemble piece; even minor walk-on characters had detectable personalities. There are a few attempts; for instance, Washington’s character has hints of moral ambiguity that begins to move  the narrative in an interesting direction, but then drops it (I had expected a little more from screenwriter Brian Helgeland, because he had done such a marvelous job co-adapting L.A. Confidential). Even the bad guys all had distinct personalities in the original film; here it’s all about keeping an over-the-top Travolta in the spotlight, while his cohorts are just your standard-issue, nondescript evil henchmen.

I realize no matter how big, dumb and loud they are, summer films are virtually critic-proof. And to be sure, Washington and Travolta are talented actors (especially with the right material) and lend box office clout to any opening weekend; but this is strictly a paycheck gig. My advice? Stand clear of the closing doors…and this movie.

The bi-curious case of the closeted Neocons: Outrage ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 23, 2009)

If you want to know about the gay politician
If you want to know how to drive your car
If you want to know about the new sex position
You can read it in the Sunday papers, read it in the Sunday papers

-Joe Jackson

Speaking as the court jester, class clown, resident buffoon (take your pick) here among the otherwise accomplished and well-respected political writers at Digby’s Hullabaloo, what I am about to do could be construed as tantamount to biting the hand that feeds me, but I want you to know that I do this out of love. Think of it as an intervention. My esteemed colleagues have a dirty little secret, and I’m going to out them, right  here, right now. Okay…are you ready?

Hypocrisy is their bread and butter.

There, I’ve said it. Mind you, this “hypocrisy” of which I speak is not in reference to what they write, but what they write about. Because let’s face it-if hypocrisy did not proliferate in politics like the weeds on the banks of the Potomac, they would not have much to write about. And I’ll wager that they would sleep better, stop yelling at the tube, and not have to keep blood pressure pills in a Pez dispenser.

Political hypocrisy is certainly nothing new, nor is it a particularly partisan phenomenon when one is speaking in general terms. However, one of the biggest head-scratchers in recent years is revelation after revelation concerning closeted Republican politicians who refuse to publicly address gay rights issues and have a record of consistently voting down legislation that would benefit the LGBT community. The explanations for this  behavior may not be as cut and dry as you might think, according to a fascinating, provocative new documentary from Kirby Dick, called Outrage.

Dick grabs your attention right off the bat, with audio excerpts from the police interrogation of Senator Larry Craig after his arrest for “homosexual lewd misconduct” in a restroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. However, it soon becomes clear that the film is not going to be just a collage of sensationalized “outings” or a prurient rehash of high-profile media circuses like the Craig case.

Instead, the film specifically targets those closeted politicians who play the charade by cloaking themselves in the time-honored “family values” meme of the conservative Right. It’s not about calling these public servants out on the fact that they are living a lie in their personal life, per se; rather, it patiently illustrates how this type of self-deluding behavior by people in positions of power not only does a disservice to their constituents at large, but contributes to the continued sociopolitical suppression of the LGBT community.

The director finds a perfect framing device by profiling Blogactive’s Michael Rogers, who has been on a diligent one-man crusade to out every closeted politician who has voted down gay rights issues. There are also archival and new interviews with the likes of ex-New Jersey governor James McGreevey (who outed himself after resigning his post), the former Mrs. McGreevey, current Florida governor Charlie Crist, and Congressman Barney Frank (who offers the most pragmatic perspective on the issue).

In one of my favorite scenes, Dick cleverly parses the by-now-familiar footage of McGreevey’s final press conference as governor by deliberately zooming in on his wife’s blanched, incredulous facial expression (I think I now understand what they mean by “looking daggers”) There are surprises as well, like several well-chosen Freudian bloopers by TV anchors (Dick, like Michael Moore, does not forget to entertain, as well as outrage).

The film also gives  historical perspective on the phenomenon; particularly in regard to notorious McCarthyite Roy Cohn (playwright Tony Kushner briefly discusses the fictionalized Cohn character he created for Angels in America). Curiously, the most dangerously powerful closet case of all time, J. Edgar Hoover is not mentioned. Then again, Dick may not have even known where to start; Hoover’s decades-long reign of hypocrisy could easily provide enough material for a Ken Burns-length miniseries in and of itself.

The takeaway for me was this: Anyone who would lie to themselves (about anything of conscience or consequence, not just sexual identity) ideally should never, ever be entrusted to power over the lives of others. Which begs a question: If that credo could be magically imposed, how many people would be left in government? Do you think we could count them on more than one hand?

Pure escapism: The Escapist ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 2, 2009)

Shakespeare in gloves: Joseph Fiennes fights dirty.

I always face prison dramas with trepidation. While there have been outstanding ones produced over the years, it’s one genre that has gone a bit hoary. What more could they possibly do with it? I sometimes amuse myself by ticking off my mental checklist of prison drama clichés . I played this little game while screening The Escapist, the feature film debut for British writer-director Rupert Wyatt:

Shiv in the kidneys? Check.

 Suffocation by pillow? Check.

Shower rape scene? Check.

Brutal fistfight (with wagering) while guards look the other way? Check.

 Someone takes an “accidental” header from the upper cell block? Check.

 Cat-calls and wolf-whistles for the “new meat” as they’re processed? Check.

Drug vending via rolling book cart? Check.

 And of course, a daring, seemingly impossible escape plan? Check.

Just as I was thinking that I had The Escapist sussed and settled  in to brace for another intense (if  predictable) British prison drama along the lines of Scum, McVicar or The Criminal, I soon found myself sitting up a little straighter. Then, before I knew it, I was literally on the edge of my seat, breathlessly caught up in an exciting and compelling story that is capped off by an unexpectedly mind-blowing finale.

The story is set in a London facility that vibes vintage Wormwood Scrubs (in reality, Dublin’s  Kilmainham Jail). Brian Cox stars as an aging, life-tired convict named Frank Perry, who is doing life without parole. When he learns that his daughter has fallen gravely ill as a result of her struggle with drug addiction, he devises an escape plan that involves literally worming one’s way through the city’s hellish labyrinth of underground infrastructure to freedom. He enlists a team of four disparate personalities (played to the hilt by Dominic Cooper, Seu Jorge, Liam Cunningham and Joseph Fiennes)-who are bonded together by a fierce desire to escape their bleak milieu.

The storyline is relatively simple, but it’s really all about the journey (in this case, both literally and figuratively). The attention grabber in Wyatt’s screenplay (co-written with Daniel Hardy) is the flashback/flash forward construct; it’s an oft-used narrative trick that can be distracting or gimmicky, but it’s very effective here.

As the escape itself unfolds, the events leading up to it are revealed in a deliberate, Chinese puzzle-box fashion. With this device, the filmmakers build dramatic tension on two fronts, and by the time they intersect, you’ll have to remind yourself to breathe. What’s killing me here is that I can’t reveal the classic crime thriller that this most closely recalls-as that would be tantamount to a major spoiler!

The actors are all superb, particularly Liam Cunningham and the Scottish-born Cox, who I think is underrated. He’s one of thos skilled, “all purpose” character actors whose name may escape you, but you definitely have seen him. He worked extensively in British television from the early 70s thru the mid-80s, but didn’t register a blip with U.S. audiences until his memorable turn as (the original) Hannibal Lecktor in Michael Mann’s 1986 crime thriller, Manhunter.

I have to admit, I didn’t recognize Joseph Fiennes until the credits rolled; I guess that proves he is more of a chameleon than I had previously thought. Damian Lewis is also quite good as the prison kingpin, and Steven MacKintosh delivers an edgy, unpredictable performance as his dangerous, perpetually tweaked brother.

I think Wyatt will be a director to watch. I can tell that he has studied the masters. There are echoes of Carol Reed, particularly in a sequence that takes the escapees through the London sewers; the expressionistic use of chiaroscuro lighting recalls The Third Man. He’s not overly flashy, and most refreshingly, does not appear to be trying to remake Reservoir Dogs (like so many first-time out directors are these days). There’s no escaping one fact: this is one terrific film.

Conspiracy a go-go: State of Play ***

By Dennis Hartley

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

Hey, Aqualung! Crowe and Affleck in State of Play.

Let’s get this out of the way. I have not seen the original BBC series that Kevin MacDonald’s terrific new thriller, State of Play, was based upon. So if there are any nuances that have been lost in translation, I will profess in advance that I am blissfully unaware of them (so feel free to fight among yourselves in the comment section).

Chock-a-block with paranoid journalists, shadowy assassins, corrupt politicians, and soulless lackeys of the corporate war machine (perhaps “State of the Union” would have been more apt?), the film is a mash-up of complex, old school conspiracy thrillers like The Parallax View and slicker contemporary fare like Enemy of the State. And perhaps most interestingly, it views its timely appraisal of corporatist Washington politics and the usurpation of responsible American journalism through a decidedly European sensibility.

Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) is an investigative reporter for The Washington Globe; he’s one of those grizzled, rumpled newspaper veterans of the “analog” variety. His office cubicle has that “lived-in” look; an explosion of chaotic, paper-strewn clutter that tells us that this is a guy with ink-stained fingers who actually digs deep, takes notes and probably even fact checks before he writes a story (remember that kind of journalism?). Cal, sporting unkempt long hair, a scraggly beard and frequently outfitted in a long wool overcoat, may look like he just strolled off a Jethro Tull album cover, but you sense that once he latches onto a story, he is going to get the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but.

In his years on the Beltway beat, Cal has made a lot of friends in high places, including Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), a golden boy whose star is on the rise. Collins chairs a committee that is investigating some dubiously vetted Defense Department contract awards (are there any other kind?). Currently under the committee’s microscope is a shady Blackwater-type corporation that appears bent on spearheading the complete privatization of America’s Homeland Security operations.

On the eve of the scheduled hearings, the congressman’s young female research assistant (wink wink) dies under mysterious circumstances. Cal is immediately put on the story by his requisite crusty yet benign editor (Helen Mirren). When the panicked congressman reaches out for Cal’s counsel as a friend, the stage is set for a test of the reporter’s objective integrity, especially as the (personal and professional) circumstances become more byzantine.

If it’s starting to sound like you may have been here before, there’s a reason for the plot point déjà vu. Three reasons, actually. The trio of writers who adapted the screenplay is kind of like the Crosby, Stills & Nash of conspiracy thriller scribes. Tony Gilroy wrote Michael Clayton, which was about deadly corporate machinations; Matthew Michael Carnahan did Lions for Lambs, which delved a bit into the grey areas in the relationships between Beltway journalists and politicians; and Billy Ray scripted Breach (based on a true story) which dealt with duplicity and betrayal within the intelligence community.

I think it’s notable that the film also gives a nod to the advent of the blogosphere, and the ripple effect it is has had on traditional mainstream journalism (something my friend Digby has written about, oh, once or twice). When a cub reporter (Rachael McAdams) from the news paper’s online division ingratiates herself into a co-assignment with Cal on the congressional assistant’s murder story, he initially reacts with a fair amount of hostility.

There’s a great scene where Cal calls her with urgent information that she needs to write down; the look on his face as he waits for her while she scrambles to find a pen speaks volumes. Eventually, despite the “oil and water” mix, the pair develops a working dynamic that vacillates between the time-honored student/mentor relationship and Woodward and Bernstein following the money.

Despite the utilization of a few genre clichés (I think there has been a rule ever since All the President’s Men that you are required to have at least one tense scene that takes place after hours in a dark and foreboding underground parking garage) I found the film quite involving, thanks to a great cast and tight direction.

It was fun to watch Mirren and Crowe working together; these are two of the finest actors currently walking the planet (although I wish they would have given Dame Helen a bit more to do aside from pacing and fuming about imminent deadlines). The underrated Robin Wright-Penn (excellent as the congressman’s wife) is also on hand.

I think MacDonald, who also directed The Last King of Scotland, has the potential to be the next Costa-Gavras. His feature films all vibe an undercurrent of docu-realism; perhaps not too surprising, since he made his bones with highly lauded documentaries like Touching the Void and One Day in September. In a spring season of mall cops and 3-D monsters, with Summer Release Purgatory looming, State of Play is one movie that will not require putting your brain on hold.