In dreams: Paprika (****) & The Lathe of Heaven (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 21, 2007)

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It’s no secret among fans of intelligent, adult sci-fi that some of the best genre films these days aren’t originating from Hollywood, but rather from the masters of Japanese anime. Films like Akira and Ghost in the Shell display a quality of writing and visual imagination that few live action productions  can touch (well, post-Blade Runner).

One of the more adventurous anime directors is Satoshi Kon. In previous work like his TV miniseries Paranoia Agent, and in several feature films, Kon has displayed a flair for coupling complex characterization with photo-realistic visual style;  making me forget that I’m watching an anime. Most of Kon’s work has drawn on genres that one does not typically associate with anime: adult drama (Tokyo Godfathers), film noir (Perfect Blue), psychological thriller (Paranoia Agent) and character study (Millennium Actress). Kon’s latest, Paprika, is the first of his films that I would call “sci-fi”… and it’s a doozy.

A team of scientists develops an interface device called the “DC mini” that facilitates the transference of dreams from one person to another. This dream machine is designed primarily for use by psychotherapists; it allows them to literally experience a patient’s dreams and take a closer look under the hood. In the wrong hands, however, this could become a very dangerous tool.

As you have likely guessed, “someone” has hacked into a DC mini and begun to wreak havoc with people’s minds. One by one, members of the research team are driven to suicidal behavior after the dreams of patients are fed into their subconscious without their knowledge (akin to someone slipping acid into the punch).

Things get more complicated when these waking dreams begin taking sentient form and spread like a virus, forming a pervasive matrix that threatens to supplant “reality”. A homicide detective joins forces with one of the researchers, whose alter-ego, Paprika, is literally a “dream girl”, a sort of super-heroine of the subconscious.

“Mind-blowing” doesn’t begin to describe this Disney-on-acid/ sci-fi murder mystery, featuring  Kon’s most stunning use of color and imagery to date.  Kon raises some philosophical points (aside from the hoary “what is reality?” debate). At one point, Paprika ponders: “Don’t you think dreams and the internet are similar? They are both areas where the repressed conscious vents.” Perhaps Kon is positing that the dream state is the last “sacred place” left for humans; if technology encroaches (any more than it already has) we will lose our last true refuge. A must-see for anime and sci-fi fans.

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While watching Paprika, I was reminded of one of my favorite sci-fi “mind trip” films, The Lathe of Heaven. Adapted from Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic novel, the film was produced by Thirteen/WNET-TV in New York and originally aired on PBS stations in 1979. A coveted cult favorite for years, it was reissued on DVD by Newvideo in 2000.

The story takes place in “near future” Portland, at a time when the Earth is suffering  profound effects from global warming and pandemics are rampant (rather prescient, eh?) The film stars Bruce Davison as George Orr, a chronic insomniac who has become convinced that his nightly dreams are affecting reality. Depressed and sleep-deprived, he overdoses on medication and is forced by legal authorities to seek psychiatric help from Dr. William Haber (Kevin Conway), who specializes in experimental dream research.

When Dr. Haber realizes to his amazement that George is not delusional, and does in fact have the ability to literally change the world with his “affective dreams”, he begins to suggest reality-altering scenarios to his hypnotized patient. The good doctor’s motives are initially altruistic; but as George catches on that he is being used like a guinea pig, he rebels. A cat and mouse game of the subconscious ensues; every time Dr. Haber attempts to make his Utopian visions a reality, George finds a way to subvert the results.

The temptation to play God begins to consume Dr. Haber, and he feverishly begins to develop a technology that would make George’s participation superfluous. So begins a battle of wills between the two that could potentially rearrange the very fabric of reality.

This is an intelligent and compelling fable with thoughtful subtext; it is certainly one of the best “made-for-TV”  sci-fi films ever produced. I should warn you that  picture quality and sound on the DVD is not quite up to today’s exacting A/V equipment specs; apparently the master no longer exists, so the transfer was made from a 2” tape copy. Don’t let the low-tech special effects throw you, either (remember, this was made for public TV in 1979 on a shoestring). Substantively speaking, however, I’d wager that The Lathe of Heaven has much more to offer than any $200 million dollar special effects-laden George Lucas “prequel” one would care to name.

The tutors: The Boys of Baraka ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 21, 2007)

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In their 2005 documentary, The Boys of Baraka (now available on DVD) co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have fashioned a fresh and inspiring take on a well-worn cause celebre: the sad, shameful state of America’s inner-city school system. Eschewing the usual hand-wringing about the under funded, over-crowded, glorified daycare centers that many of these institutions have become for poor, disenfranchised urban youth, the filmmakers chose to showcase one program that strove to make a real difference.

The story follows a group of 12-year-old boys from Baltimore who attended a boarding school in Kenya, staffed by American teachers and social workers. In addition to more personalized tutoring, there was emphasis on conflict resolution through communication, tempered by a “tough love” approach. The events that unfold from this bold social experiment (filmed over a three year period) are alternately inspiring and heartbreaking.

Many of these African-American youth seem to have sprung straight from Central Casting for HBO’s dramatic series The Wire; they are the corner boys, the habitual troublemakers acting out in cacophonous homerooms, kids with junkie mothers who only get to see their fathers during visiting hours at the jail. In other words, most seem destined to lead the kinds of lives that serve to fuel the stereotype of the inner-city poor.

Something amazing happens, however, when these “at risk” kids find themselves in a completely new environment-a place of light, space and none of the distractions of urban living. As cliché as this sounds, they begin to find themselves, and it is a wondrous transformation to observe. By the time they embark on a day hike to Mount Kenya to celebrate their one-year anniversary at the school, and you realize that they have at that point literally and figuratively “been to the mountain” and gazed over the limitless landscape of their potential, I guarantee you’ll have a lump in your throat. There is no pat, sugar-coated denouement (that’s life) but one is still left with a sense of hope as some of the boys are inspired to push forward and build on their newfound momentum.

That aside, Mrs. Lincoln…what did you think of the play? – Death of a President **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 28, 2007)

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Picture if you will: Sometime in the near future (October of 2007 to be precise), President Bush makes a trip to Chicago for some speechifying and political schmoozing. As his motorcade nears the site of a scheduled luncheon, it runs into a gauntlet of agitated demonstrators. When the crowd unexpectedly breaches the police line, all hell breaks loose; there is a moment where the POTUS appears to be in danger before things get back under control.

The President is whisked off to his luncheon, he makes his speech, and decides afterwards to work the ropes and shake hands with supporters for a few minutes before heading out (much to the chagrin of his Secret Service detail). Suddenly, gunfire erupts and the President crumples to the ground.

This is the audacious opening scenario of British writer-director Gabriel Range’s speculative political thriller Death of a President, now on DVD. While in its initial (and sparse) theatrical release, it invoked some amount of controversy; primarily knee-jerk reaction from those who assumed this was going to be some type of sick Bush-hating liberal snuff fantasy (a conclusion drawn, of course, before they had even screened it).

Setting politics aside for a moment, the film itself turns out to be a somewhat tame and at times downright tepid affair, despite its sensationalist premise. Range utilizes the docudrama technique of blending archival news footage with mixed-media film stocks (a la JFK) to lend an air of authenticity; and indeed the opening sequences depicting the assassination event are chillingly realistic.

The director apparently filmed an actual anti-Bush demonstration in the streets of Chicago, then for the sake of continuity invited some of the same protestors to appear as extras in the fictional motorcade scene (which invites comparisons to Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, in which actors were thrown into the midst of the real-life 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention demonstrator/police skirmishes and told to improvise while cameras rolled).

Unfortunately, by front-loading the gripping assassination enactment and then descending into a more static, History Channel-style blend of talking-head recollections and dramatic re-enactments, Range shoots himself in the foot and removes potential added suspense or dramatic tension (don’t expect The Day of the Jackal). There is a “whodunit” element, but the pacing slows to such a crawl that it’s anti-climactic when the killer is revealed.

The most interesting aspects are the speculations about the post-assassination political climate. And yes, most of your dystopian nightmares about a Cheney-led administration do “come true”, including a particularly foreboding piece of emergency legislation entitled the “Patriot Act 3” (shudder!). There is also a treatise of sorts about the post-9/11 tendency in this country to make “rush to judgment” assumptions about people of color. “Conspiracy-a-go-go” buffs might find this film worth a look; others may doze off.

The spy who came in from the beltway: Breach ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 3, 2007)

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Early in 2001, the FBI capped off its investigation of the most serious national security breach in U.S. history by arresting Robert Hanssen, who had used his access as the Bureau’s top Soviet counter-intelligence expert to sell classified information to the KGB. That case is dramatized in Breach, a superb new film starring Chris Cooper (in an Oscar-caliber performance) as Hanssen and directed by Billy Ray, who previously helmed Shattered Glass (another true tale dealing with deception and betrayal).

The film opens just a few months prior to the arrest. A young, ambitious field agent, Eric O’Neill (Ryan Philippe) is tasked to work in Hanssen’s office as his assistant, while surreptitiously reporting on his boss’s activities (O’Neill has been told that Hanssen is under suspicion of engaging in “sexual perversion” while on the taxpayer’s dime).

The officious, guarded and inherently suspicious Hanssen is a tough nut to crack; when O’Neill introduces himself on his first day of work, Hanssen barks “Your name is Clerk, and my name is Sir” before slamming his office door shut. However, as O’Neill ingratiates himself into his boss’s life, he is surprised to find him admirable in many ways; he appears to be a true patriot, a good Catholic, and a dedicated “family man”. O’Neill can’t seem to dig up any dirt on the increasingly puzzling “perversion” charges.

When he confronts his real boss (Laura Linney) with his doubts, she lets the cat out of the bag and admits that he has been the victim of a ruse to ensure he could gain Hanssen’s trust. Hanssen, she tells him, is actually under investigation for something more ominous; he is suspected of selling information to the Soviets, possibly over a period of 20-odd years. The degree of damage from this breach is so devastating, that “We (the intelligence community) might as well have all stayed home (all those years).”

Some may find the film bereft of nail-biting suspense; but real-life espionage isn’t always as intriguing as a Le Carre novel or exciting like a Bond film. When the credits roll, Hanssen remains a cipher; although we are shown enough to quash any agent 007 comparisons (unbeknownst to his wife, he videotaped their lovemaking and got his jollies mailing copies to cronies-the very antithesis of suave and sophisticated, I’d wager). If Hanssen recalls any fictional character, it would be a protagonist from a Graham Greene novel (typically a bitter, world-weary public servant, mulled in Catholic guilt).

The film abounds with excellent performances; it’s certainly the best work Philippe has done to date. Dennis Haysbert and Gary Cole lend good support, and Bruce Davison (as O’Neill’s father) makes the most of a brief, poignant scene with Philippe.

They’re gonna crucify me: The U.S. vs. John Lennon ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 24, 2007)

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Back in 1972, the U.S. government handed a certain British émigré a rather abrupt eviction notice, informing him and the missus that they had 60 days to get out of the country or face deportation proceedings. This missive might have vanished in the mists of time, had the folks in question not been a couple known to millions as, simply, John & Yoko. And so began a four-year legal battle for legal citizenship, chronicled in a straightforward documentary called The US vs John Lennon, now available on DVD.

You know the back story: After a very public and controversial courtship, John Lennon and Yoko Ono marry in 1969, the Beatles break up, John and Yoko begin making their own headlines with a series of relatively benign political media stunts (the “Bed-In For Peace”, the “Bag-In”, etc.) and then eventually settle in NYC in the early 70’s, at which time they begin to gravitate to the more “radical” politics of the American anti-war movement, much to the chagrin of the Nixon administration.

The apparent final straw for Tricky D. was John and Yoko’s 1972 appearance at a charity concert to help cover legal fees for White Panther Party founder John Sinclair, who had been jailed ostensibly on drug charges, but considered by many at the time to be a political prisoner.

Declassified documents now prove that, from day one, there was direct inter-agency manipulation of John and Yoko’s deportation proceedings, from the FBI all the way up to the Oval Office, resulting in a nearly four-year long persecution that was probably best described by Lennon himself, who referred to the machinations as “Kafkaesque”.

The film features plenty of archival footage, with present-day recollections from the likes of Bobby Seale, John Sinclair, Geraldo Rivera, Noam Chomsky, Ron Kovic, Paul Krassner, George McGovern, and, er, G. Gordon Liddy (guess whose side he’s on).

The most insightful comment comes from the ever-glib Gore Vidal, who, when asked what it was about Lennon that made him such a threat to the Nixon cabal, says: “He (Lennon) represented Life, and was admirable. Mr. Nixon, and (for that matter) Mr. Bush, represent Death, and that’s bad.” (Perhaps an over-simplification, but astute.)

The film is a bit dry in its execution (it was produced by VH-1, which probably explains the rote Behind the Music vibe) but it’s still a compelling story, and an important one. It has much to say about what is going on right now, particularly in regards to the “dissent vs. disloyalty” issue and the dangers of living under an administration that treats the Bill of Rights as a list of “suggested options”. Careful, Junior. Instant karma’s gonna get you.

War is unhealthy for children: Pan’s Labyrinth ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 13, 2007)

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In 2001, Mexican writer-director Guillermo del Toro used the Spanish Civil War as a backdrop for his ghost story The Devil’s Backbone. Six years later, del Toro has returned once again to the tumultuous Franco era, this time with a twist of dark fantasy in his wildly imaginative and visually striking Spanish-language drama, Pan’s Labyrinth.

12-year old newcomer Ivana Bacquero delivers an impressive, nuanced performance as the film’s central character Ofelia, an intelligent, introverted girl on the verge of puberty who still clings to her childhood fascination with fairy tales. She and her very pregnant mother have just set up quarters with her new stepfather Captain Vidal (the always brilliant Sergi Lopez), a brutal, sadistic Fascist officer charged with mopping up stubborn rebel forces entrenched in the Spanish countryside.

With nothing resembling love or affection forthcoming from the odious Vidal, and with her mother becoming increasingly bedridden due to a difficult pregnancy, Ofelia finds an escape valve by retreating ever deeper into a personal fantasy world, which she enters through an imaginary gate in a nearby garden. This is not necessarily Alice through the looking glass, as you might think; this is a much darker world of personified demons and monsters borne from Ofelia’s subconscious take on the real-life horrors being perpetrated by her monstrous stepfather and his Fascist henchmen.

In some respects, the film reminded me of 1973’s Spirit of the Beehive, also set against the backdrop of Franco’s Spain, and likewise centering on a lonely young girl retreating into a private fantasy world in response to feelings of estrangement from her family. While there are also some similarities here to the likes of Alice In Wonderland, Spirited Away, and The Secret Garden, be advised that this is not a feel-good fairy tale with a warm and fuzzy ending that you want to sit down and watch with the kids. The fantasy elements are closer in tone to Brothers Grimm morbidity than Tolkien whimsy; and del Toro pulls no punches depicting the horror and suffering that takes place during wartime.

Two bongs up! Six degrees of Woody Harrelson: Scanners (***) & Grass (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 27, 2007)

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Richard Linklater entered the sci-fi arena in 2006 with his adaptation of the late Phillip K. Dick’s semi-autobiographical novel A Scanner Darkly (now on DVD). Set in a not-so-distant future L.A., the story injects themes of existential dilemma, drug-fueled paranoia and Orwellian government surveillance  into what is otherwise a fairly standard “undercover-cop-who’s-gone-too-deep” yarn.

Keanu Reeves stars as a dazed and confused narc that has become helplessly addicted to the mind-altering drug that he has been assigned to help eradicate (“substance D”). Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Linklater alumni Rory Cochrane are his fellow D-heads who may not exactly be whom they appear to be on the surface. Adding to the mood of hallucinatory psychosis is Linklater’s use of rotoscoping (as per his underrated Waking Life). The rotoscoping technique does present challenges to the actors; Downey, with his Chaplinesque knack for physical expression, pulls it off best, while the more inert performers like Reeves and Ryder are quite literally akin to oil paintings.

Linklater’s script keeps fairly close to its source material-particularly in relation to the more cerebral elements (Linklater’s propensity for lots of talk and little action may be a turn-off for those expecting another Minority Report). Depending on what you bring with you, the film is a) a cautionary tale about addiction, b) a warning about encroaching technocracy, c) an indictment on the government’s “war” on drugs, d) a really cool flick to watch while stoned, e) the longest 99 minutes of your life or f) all of the above.

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Speaking of the “war” on drugs-here’s a sleeper you may have missed. Grass is a unique, well-produced documentary dealing (er, pun intended) with the history of anti-marijuana legislation  in the United States. Far from a dry history lesson, the film builds its own “counter-myth” of sorts, by exposing the hypocrisy of the government’s anti-marijuana propaganda machine over the years; from the  histrionics of the 1930’s howler Reefer Madness to the Reagan administration’s “Just Say No” campaign in the 1980’s.

There is also an eye-opening  tally of all the tax money the various law-enforcement agencies have spent (thrown away?) attempting to eradicate marijuana usage…from the days of Elliot Ness to the present. The filmmakers ladle some well-chosen period music over a wealth of archive footage (maximized for full ironic effect). Woody Harrelson, who has famously lived through a series of herb-related legal problems, off-screen, narrates with winking bemusement. Whether you are for or against legalization, you should find this one quite informative and highly (sorry!) entertaining.

Ordinary people go to war: Lions For Lambs **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 17, 2007)

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I’m a schoolboy. Teach me.

There are three things I learned from watching Robert Redford’s new film Lions for Lambs. (1) The MSM is in bed with K Street spin doctors (2 ) War is hell, and (3) Apparently, the United States is currently embroiled in some kind of endless Vietnam-like quagmire in the Middle East (I didn’t say I learned anything new, did I?).

Redford casts himself as Vietnam vet/poly sci professor Stephen Malley, who strives to mentor his brightest and most promising students to walk the walk and commit themselves to affecting real political change through active civic involvement. Two of his recent graduate students, Arian Finch (Derek Luke) and Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Pena) have not only accepted his challenge to “get involved”, but upped the ante by enlisting for combat duty in Afghanistan.

Professor Malley feels conflicted; while he admires their integrity, he had secretly hoped the young men would be inspired to use their talents to help change the system that perpetuates the Vietnam and Afghanistan type conflicts, rather than volunteering to become cannon fodder themselves (Gallipoli, anyone?). His current concern this school year, however, is his latest star pupil, Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield) who has sunk into apathy. Todd has been called into the office for a pep talk.

Unbeknownst to the professor, while he is sitting in his office chatting so amiably, his two ex-pupils are taking part in the first wave of a new military strategy to locate and destroy stubborn pockets of Taliban resistance in Afghanistan. Small units of Special Forces troops are being sent in to the most rugged mountain areas to bait the enemy into the open, so they can be easily taken out by tactical air strikes. Cannon fodder, indeed.

The plan is the brainchild of an ambitious, hawkish conservative congressman, Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise, who also co-produced). As the film opens, he is sitting down for an interview with TV journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep). Irving is a rising star in the Republican Party, grooming himself for a presidential bid. The senator has cagily chosen Janine to receive the “exclusive” news on the new military strategy, because he credits her previous coverage with helping to build his  cachet. Janine is apprehensive; she knows she’s being played, but on the other hand no reporter with a pulse can resist an exclusive story. A verbal cat-and-mouse game ensues.

The film is structured around these three scenarios; all the “action” takes place concurrently in a professor’s office, a senator’s office, and a remote mountain ridge in Afghanistan. And that is Lions for Lambs in a nutshell. While the stories are tied together by characters and events, the overall effect is dramatically flat. Redford’s character literally spends the entire film lecturing the passive Todd (a proxy, no doubt, for the hapless audience). The battle scenes are chock-a-block with cliche, boo-ya  Blackhawk Down heroics.

The only real acting sparks are courtesy of la Streep, who has some spirited moments with Cruise. Cruise is OK, though basically playing himself.  In essence, Cruise is reprising a  suspiciously similar scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia,  where he plays an arrogant, egotistical  media star who sits down with a reporter and spins like a dervish. Full disclosure: I am not a Tom Cruise fan (there, I said it).

I really wanted to like this film, really I did. Historically, Redford has proven himself to be a thoughtful and intelligent filmmaker-but I can’t really recommend this one. I applaud his effort to snap our present generation of future leaders out of their video game stupor, challenging them to think hard about what our government is really up to; but if you’re going to rip a story out of today’s headlines and turn it into a movie, you’ve got to give the kids something more exciting to watch than a glorified C-Span broadcast.

It’s a shame, really- because the audience he really needs to reach is going to stay away from this film in droves. At the sparsely attended Saturday matinee screening I attended here in Seattle, I glanced around and found myself essentially looking at fellow choir members, nodding sympathetically while thoughtfully stroking our salt-and-pepper goatees. But are any of us going to rush home and announce our candidacy? Not likely.

Maybe Cruise and Redford would get more mileage out of their film if they arrange showings for high school civics and poly sci college classes (no, I’m not being facetious). Otherwise, the only way you are going to successfully market a film with a sociopolitical message to the Jackass demographic is to follow Sacha Baron Cohen’s lead.

Sometimes, covert ops are just like a box of chocolates: Charlie Wilson’s War ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 29, 2007)

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Aaron Sorkin, you silver-tongued devil, you had me at: “Ladies and gentlemen of the clandestine community…”

That line is from the opening scene of the new film Charlie Wilson’s War, in which the title character, a Texas congressman (played in full Gumpian southern-drawl mode by Tom Hanks) is receiving an Honored Colleague award from the, er-ladies and gentlemen of the clandestine community (you know, that same group of merry pranksters who orchestrated such wild and wooly hi-jinx as the Bay of Pigs invasion.)

Sorkin, (creator/writer of The West Wing ) provides the smart, snappy dialog for high-class director Mike Nichols’ latest foray into political satire, a genre he hasn’t dabbled in since his excellent 1998 film Primary Colors. In actuality, Nichols and Sorkin may have viewed their screen adaptation of Wilson’s real-life story as  a cakewalk, because it falls into the “you couldn’t make this shit up” category.

Wilson, known to Beltway insiders as “good-time Charlie” during his congressional tenure, is an unlikely American hero. He drank like a fish and loved to party, but could readily charm key movers and shakers into supporting his pet causes and any attractive young lady within range into the sack. So how did this whiskey quaffing poon hound circumvent the official U.S. government foreign policy of the time (mid to late 1980s) and help the Mujahideen rebels drive the Russians out of Afghanistan, ostensibly paving the way for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War?

He did it with a little help from his friends- a coterie of strange bedfellows including an Israeli arms dealer, a belly-dancing girlfriend, high-ranking officials in Egypt and Pakistan, a misanthropic but handily resourceful CIA operative, and “the sixth-richest woman in Texas”, who also happened to be a fervent anti-communist. It’s quite the tale.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman continues his track record of stealing every film he appears in. He plays the aforementioned CIA operative, Gust Avrakotos, with aplomb. His character is less than diplomatic in the personality department; he becomes a pariah at the Agency after telling his department head to fuck off once or twice (and always within earshot of colleagues). Through serendipity, Gust falls in league with Wilson and one of his lady friends, wealthy socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts).

Once they unite, the three are a sort of political X-Men team; each with their own Special Power. Joanne has influence with high-ranking Middle East officials, and can set up meetings; Charlie can talk just about anybody into anything; and Gust can get “it” done, especially if it involves cutting corners and bypassing the middleman. Once Joanne lures powerful congressman Doc Long (the wonderful Ned Beatty) on board, the deal is sealed.

The film doesn’t deviate too much from the facts laid out in the book by George Crile; despite some inherent elements of political satire, it’s a fairly straightforward rendering. What is most interesting to me is what they left out; especially after viewing The True Story of Charlie Wilson, a documentary currently airing on the History Channel (check your listings). One incident in particular, which involved a private arms dealer “accidentally” blowing up a D.C. gas station (oops!) on his way to a meeting with Wilson and Avrakotos, seems like it would have been a no-brainer for the movie (maybe some legal issues involved, perhaps?) The History Channel documentary also recalls Wilson’s involvement with a (non-injury) hit and run accident that occurred on the eve of one of his most crucial Middle-Eastern junkets (the congressman admits that he was plastered).

I think it’s also worth noting one more little tidbit from Wilson’s past that didn’t make it into the movie-but I think I can understand why. Allegedly, the randy congressman once had a little, er, “congress” with a hot young television journalist named Diane Sawyer. Yes, that Diane Sawyer, of 60 Minutes fame. That same Diane Sawyer who is married to (wait for it)…director Mike Nichols (it’s all part of life’s rich pageant, you know).

 A final thought. After the film’s feel-good, flag waving coda subsided and the credits started rolling, something nagged at me. There was a glaring omission in the postscript of this “true story”; I will pose it as an open question to Mssrs. Nichols, Sorkin and Hanks:

So tell me-exactly how did we get from all those colorful, rapturously happy, missile launcher-waving Afghani tribesmen, dancing in praise to America while chanting Charlie Wilson’s name back in the late 80s to nightly news footage of collapsing towers and U.S. troops spilling their blood into the very same rocky desert tableau, a scant decade later?

Let’s see you spin that story into a wacky romp starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.

What did you do in the war, Mommy? – Black Book (***1/2) & The Good German (**1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 2, 2007)

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If you have perceived a deluge of WW2-themed films as of late, you’re not imagining things. Most of the critical brouhaha seems to have been centered on Clint Eastwood’s   Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (neither of which I have seen yet, I will admit), which likely explains why two other WW2 dramas helmed by a pair of equally noteworthy directors have slipped in and out of theatres relatively un-noticed.

Paul Verhoeven’s Zwartboek (aka Black Book) and Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German share some interesting similarities. They both represent a throwback to a certain type of old-fashioned WW2 adventure yarn, and they both feature strong female protagonists doing whatever it takes to survive their wartime nightmare.

Black Book (co-written by the director with Gerard Soeteman) is native Hollander Paul Verhoeven’s first Dutch language film in quite a while. It’s a “Mata Hari” style tale set in Holland in the waning days of the German occupation, as the Allies make their post-D-Day push across Europe. Carice van Houten is compelling as a former chanteuse named Ellis, a Dutch Jew who has spent the occupation in hiding with a farm family. When her hosts perish in a bombing raid, Ellis is left with the realization that she will now have to live by her wits if she is to survive (The Sound of Music meets Showgirls? Discuss.)

After a series of harrowing escapes, Ellis finds herself in the Dutch Resistance. As part of a plan to spring some imprisoned Resistance fighters, she is asked to seduce the commander of the local SS detachment, Colonel Muntze (Sebastian Koch, in a nicely fleshed out performance). Things become complicated when Ellis develops a genuine attraction to Muntze.

This is an exciting war adventure, with interesting plot twists along the way (replete with a few patented over-the-top Verhoeven moments, usually involving uncompromising nudity and gore). It’s refreshing to see Verhoeven escaping from Hollywood and getting back to his roots; while I generally enjoy his big budget popcorn fare, I have always felt his Dutch films (e.g. Spetters, The 4th Man, Soldier of Orange) were more challenging and substantive (Verhoeven the Hired Hand vs. Verhoeven the Auteur, if you will).

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Steven Soderbergh loves to pay homage. In fact, (Mr. Tarantino aside), he probably holds the record for dropping more cinema buff-centric references per film than any other director. In his most recent film, The Good German (filmed in glorious B&W), he may have allowed this tendency lead him too deeply into “style over substance” territory.

The story is set in immediate post-war Berlin, with the backdrop of the uneasy alliance and growing mistrust between the occupying U.S. and Russian military forces. Captain Jacob Geismer (George Clooney) is an American military correspondent who has been assigned to cover the Potsdam Conference. His G.I. driver, Tully (Tobey Maguire) is a slick wheeler-dealer (reminiscent of James Garner’s character in The Americanization of Emily) who procures everything from cigarettes to women and has a German girlfriend (a barely recognizable Cate Blanchett, dutifully delivering her lines in a husky Marlene Dietrich drone). Imagine Capt. Geismer’s surprise when Tully introduces him to said girlfriend, and she happens to be an old lover of his. To tell you more risks revealing spoilers, so suffice it to say that Lena, a Woman with a Dark Secret, becomes the central figure in a murder mystery, with the hapless Geismer drawn right into the thick of it.

Unfortunately, despite a certain amount of suspense in the first act, the story becomes increasingly convoluted and curiously non-involving.  Blanchett’s performance feels a bit phoned-in, and I wouldn’t call it Clooney’s best work either. Now, it is possible that Soderbergh is SO obsessed with aping an old-fashioned, film noir-ish, black and white late-40’s war thriller, that he may have in fact directed his actors to mimic the semi-wooden, melodramatic acting style that informed many of those films. (Even the DVD transfer appears to be part of the joke; as it is matted in full frame 1.33:1 aspect ratio).

The film does sport a great “vintage” look; the cinematography is outstanding (Soderbergh has never faltered in that department) and he perfectly captures the chiaroscuro look of a certain classic Carol Reed film (I am sure I am not the first person to draw comparisons to The Third Man). There are also some other obvious touchstones here, like Hitchcock’s WW2 thrillers Notorious and Foreign Correspondent.

At the end of the day, however, if I want to see something that reminds me of The Third Man or Foreign Correspondent, I think if I had my druthers, I would just as soon pull out my DVD of The Third Man or Foreign Correspondent, if you know what I am saying. While The Good German certainly looks pretty, it ultimately feels pretty… empty.