The whole Bolivian army: Che ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 24, 2009)

Bosch:  A series about a bunch of bank-robbing guerillas? 

Schlesinger:  What’re we going to call it –the ‘Mao Tse Tung Hour’?

Diana:  Why not? They’ve got StrikeForce, Task Force, SWAT — why not Che Guevara and his own little mod squad?

-from Network (by Paddy Chayefsky)

No…wait! How about a full-length feature film about Che Guevara? No, wait….two full-length feature films, combined as a 4 ½ hour epic? We’ll throw Fidel into the mix, and make it a buddy movie. We’ll show how these two young, rugged and idealistic Marxists sowed the seeds of the Cuban Revolution with little more than a couple of guns, a rag-tag band of rebel soldiers, and a leaky boat. Then, we’ll move the action over to Bolivia, where Che plays cat and mouse in the jungle, Rambo-style, with the whole Bolivian Army looking for him…then he goes out in a blaze of glory! How’s this for a working title: “Butch Castro and the Argentine Kid”? We could get that kid who just directed another Oceans 11 sequel? Oh yeah, Soderbergh. That means he’s due for one of his Art House Cred films? Perfect!

Well, as far as Art House Cred flicks go, you could do worse than Che, Steven Soderbergh’s new biopic about one of the most iconic figures in the history of revolutionary politics. I know what you’re thinking. You’ve got your Thomas Jefferson, with the intellectualized ideals and the Declaration thingie; you’ve got your Mahatma Gandhi, with the passive resistance and the civil disobedience.

However, let’s face facts: Whose mug do you see on all the T-shirts and the dorm room posters? The stately, bewigged gentleman farmer? The lovable, bespectacled uncle? That’s not sexy. The bearded guy with the beret and the bandolier, leading his own little mod squad through the jungle like Robin Hood and his merry band, sticking it to The Man in the name of the People. Now that’s sexy.

Let’s get this out of the way first. Ernesto “Che” Guevara was no martyr. By the time he was captured and executed by a unit of CIA-directed Bolivian Special Forces in October of 1967, he had played judge and jury and put his own fair share of people up against the wall in the name of the Revolution. He was Fidel Castro’s right-hand man; some historians have referred to him as “Castro’s brain”.

That said, he was a complex, undeniably charismatic and fascinating individual. By no means your average run-of-the-mill revolutionary guerilla leader, he was also well-educated, a physician, a prolific writer (from speeches and essays on politics and social theory to articles, books and poetry), a shrewd diplomat and had a formidable intellect (he “palled around” with the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir; like many native Argentines, he was fluent in French as well). He was also a brilliant military tactician.

Soderbergh and his screenwriters Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. Van Der Veen have adapted their two-part story from a pair of Guevara’s own autobiographical accounts (respectively): Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War and The Bolivian Diary.

Part 1 begins with Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) preparing to address the U.N. in 1964, in his capacity as the head of the Cuban delegation. It was during this brief yet significant visit where Guevara’s cult of personality was first seededin America; he made a TV appearance on Face the Nation and was even feted by Senator Eugene McCarthy (both events are recreated in the film). Guevara also met with Malcolm X during this  junket; although the film skips over that.

DP “Peter Andrews” ( Soderbergh in actuality…long story) shoots the footage of the 1964 trip in a stark, B&W verite style, which gives it a faux-documentary vibe and cleverly instills an effective period flavor. It also makes an eye-catching contrast to the beautifully photographed full-color flashbacks that make up the bulk of Part 1, which covers Guevara’s involvement in the Cuban revolution, beginning with his initial introduction to Castro in 1955, and culminating with an expansive, rousing, Sergio Leone-worthy recreation of the decisive battle of Santa Clara in 1958.

Regardless of your feeling on Guevara’s significance as a historical figure (or Castro’s, for that matter), what ensues in the movie’s first half is nothing less than a thoroughly absorbing, and at times downright exhilarating, piece of ace film making. What I found most fascinating about this part of the story is the amount of sheer determination and force of will that can be summoned up by people who are so thoroughly and immovably committed to an ideal.

Intellectually, it helps you grok the romanticism of “revolution” and the  rock star appeal that leaders of such political movements can possess. Again, however, Castro and Guevara were no saints. They “freed” the Cuban people from an oppressive dictatorship, only to turn around and install their own oppressive dictatorship (meet the new boss, same as the old boss). And so endeth Part 1.

Part 2 is a different bailiwick. In late 1966, following an unsuccessful attempt to stir up a people’s revolution from the disarray caused by a civil war in the Congo (mentioned only in passing in the film), Guevara headed for Bolivia to see what kind of trouble he could scare up there (he was nothing, if not committed to his principles).

Unfortunately for Guevara, this venture was to lead to his final undoing. Compared to the relative cakewalk of a small island nation like Cuba, the rugged, desolate vastness of landlocked Bolivia proved to be a more daunting logistical hurdle for his preferred method of using “armed struggle” to win over the hearts and minds of the peasants; consequently this revolution didn’t quite “take”.

Since we know this going in, and after checking our watches, we also know that the film still has 135 minutes to go, the question is: How can Part 2 be as engrossing as Part 1? Well, it depends on how you look at it. If you’re the completist type (like me), naturally you’re going to want to know how the story ends.

I found Part 2  equally involving, but in a different vein. Whereas Part 1 is a fairly straightforward biopic, Part 2 reminded me of two fictional adventures with an existential bent, both of which also happen to be set in similarly torrid and unforgiving South American locales; Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear and Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Like the doomed protagonists in those films, Guevara is fully committed to his journey into the heart of darkness, and has no choice but to cast his fate to the wind and let it all play out.

A word about the presentation. My review is based on the “special road show edition” of the film that I saw here in Seattle (now playing in selected cities). This was presented as a 4 ½ hour film (ow, my ass), with a 15-minute intermission, and no opening or closing credits.

When it goes into wider release, it will be presented as The Argentine (Part 1) and Guerilla (Part 2), with individual admissions. I also noticed (to my chagrin) that it has now popped up on PPV in two parts (if your lineup includes the “IFC in Theaters” feature). I would recommend seeing it as a whole; but if your budget and/or attention span dictates otherwise, at least try to catch The Argentine if you can.

Greetings from Asbury Park: The Wrestler ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 17, 2009)

I witnessed something you don’t see very often on TV, on  last Sunday’s 2008 Golden Globes Awards. Sincerity. Mickey Rourke took to the stage to accept his statue for his performance in The Wrestler, and delivered one of the most heartfelt monologues never penned by a screenwriter (i.e., it was  sans the usual mawkish Hollywood bullshit that you usually hear on an awards show).

The parallels between Rourke’s real-life redemption story and that of the character he plays in the film  hit me like a freight train running through the middle of my head, and I felt a lump in my throat. “Jesus H.,” I told myself, “…it’s only a stupid awards show,” but by the time Rourke proffered “Sometimes when you’re alone…all you got is your dog,” and then thanked all of his pooches (past and present) I was done for. I haven’t cried like that since  I saw Old Yeller.

It’s funny. As the lights went down in the theater at the screening of the film I had attended the night before, I had no clue that Bruce Springsteen had penned an original tune for The Wrestler (it isn’t heard  until the closing credits). Yet, from the first moment Mickey Rourke shambled onscreen as the fading, world-weary wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson, I thought to myself, “This guy just walked right out of a Bruce Springsteen song!” More specifically:

 I had skin like leather and the diamond-hard look of a cobra

I was born blue and weathered but I burst just like a supernova

I could walk like Brando right into the sun

Then dance just like a Casanova

Rourke walks like Brando right into the kliegs and gives the performance of a lifetime in director Darren Aronofsky’s grim and gritty character study (scripted by Robert D. Siegel). When I say “grim and gritty”, I’m not kidding. This film ain’t exactly a day at the beach, or even a quick stroll out on the boardwalk to grab a knish.

“The Ram” is a semi-retired, down-on-his-luck pro wrestler, reduced to co-billing at the odd exhibition match or autograph-signing down at the Legion Hall. He lives alone in a trailer park, where he occasionally gets locked out for coming up short on the rent.

Still, he remains amiable and gracious; whether playing the “gentle giant” clowning around with neighborhood ki, or offering backstage advice and encouragement to young wrestlers. Nonetheless, his pained, ravaged road map of a face can’t hide an undercurrent of quiet desperation. After a health scare puts the kibosh on plans for a career comeback, he comes face-to-face with his mortality.

He reaches out to a stripper, with whom he has been hoping to develop a personal relationship (Marisa Tomei, in a wonderful performance). She is quite fond of him, but keeps a professional distance (she doesn’t date “customers”). She encourages him to re-establish a relationship with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), which may be his toughest match-up yet.

There are really two films here. One is a fascinating, realistic backstage glimpse at pro wrestling; the camaraderie, the carefully orchestrated stagecraft, its kitschy cult of personality and the peculiarly devoted fans who fuel it.  Even though it’s common knowledge that most of the violence is “faked” in this sport, Aronofsky and his technical crew really make you feel Rourke’s “pain” in these fictional matches, particularly when he comes up against a competitor who peppers his upper torso with a staple gun.

The documentary-like feel is undoubtedly due to the fact that the cinematographer, Maryse Alberti, has been the DP for a number of documentaries (Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson, Taxi to the Dark Side, and most notably, When We Were Kings).

The second narrative centers on the rekindling of the father-daughter relationship. This part of the story is more boilerplate; but clichés  are overshadowed by the outstanding performances.  Aronofsky has previously shown a propensity for style over substance; I have to credit him  for reining in that tendency this time out and allowing his actors to stretch and breathe  (I thought his junkie-chic drama Requiem for a Dream  was the most pretentious, overrated and unpleasant film in recent memory. I forgive him now).

Sensitive viewers  be aware that there are many squirm-inducing moments; while Aronofsky has toned his visceral, “in-your-face” tendencies down a notch or two, some of the mayhem portrayed in the wrestling matches is still potentially upsetting. Those caveats aside, I would recommend this film to strangers. It’s that good (I’m sure Mickey would appreciate the support). Then again, you could save the $10, and instead enjoy a quiet night at home with your dog.

I think Mickey would be cool with that plan, too.

The Tao of duct tape: Gran Torino ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 10, 2009)

Which one of you punks knocked over my John McCain sign?!

Clint Eastwood certainly knows his core audience. Just when you thought that he had ceded his screen persona as one of the iconic tough guys for the more respectable mantle of a sage lion who makes prestige films, Clint Classic is back with a vengeance in Gran Torino, armed with an M-1, a cherry 1970s muscle car and a handy catchphrase (“Get off my lawn!”).

Oh, don’t panic- Clint the Sage Director is still at the helm, and Clint the Actor is smart enough to keep it real and “play his age”. This isn’t Dirty Harry with a walker; it’s more like The Visitor…with an attitude. There’s also a Socially Relevant Message, an Important Theme, and even Redemption (if you’re into that sort of thing).

Look in the dictionary under “cantankerous”, and you’ll see a picture of Walt Kowalski (wait a minute-a 1970s muscle car and a protagonist named Kowalski…Vanishing Point reference?) Kowalski (Eastwood) is a retired Michigan auto worker and Korean War vet who has recently buried his wife, and along with her, any remaining semblance of social grace or desire for human interaction.

When he is not spurning “sympathy visits” from his adult son (Brian Haley) or his late wife’s priest (Christopher Carley) he skulks about his Highland Park house, quaffing beers whilst scowling and grousing to himself about the Southeast Asians moving into “his” neighborhood. He is particularly chagrined about the Hmong family next door; the terms that Kowalski uses to describe them are derogatory racist epithets, which I am loathe to repeat here.

He doesn’t mince words when he reacts to his son and daughter-in-law’s attempts to pump him for his thoughts on estate planning, nor when the tenacious young priest begins sniffing around for dibs on his soul; he informs all the circling vultures that he would prefer they fuck off so he can return to puttering around the house, muttering to himself and fussing over his beloved ’72 Gran Torino.

Kowalski’s mistrust of his neighbors appears to be justified when he surprises a prowler in his garage, and it turns out to be Thao (Bee Vang) the teenage boy from the Hmong family next door. Initially unbeknownst to Kowalski, the otherwise straight-arrow Thao has been pressured by his n’er do well older cousin, a Hmong youth gang leader, into attempting to steal the Gran Torino as an initiation rite.

After Kowalski inadvertently saves Thao from the gang’s retaliation by chasing them off his property with his trusty service rifle (insert catch phrase here) his porch is festooned daily by an unwanted barrage of gifts, food and flowers, which is the Hmong family’s way of informing him that they are forever indebted for his act of “kindness” (to Kowalski’s abject horror).

In further keeping with cultural tradition, Thao is ordered by the family elders to make amends for the attempted theft by offering his services to Kowalski as a handyman for the summer. Thanks to some cultural bridging and good will on the part of Thao’s sister (Ahney Her), Kowalski slowly warms to the family and becomes a father figure/mentor to Thao, teaching him how to “stand his ground” while still retaining a sense of responsibility for his actions.

There is a bit of a “wax on, wax off” vibe that recalls The Karate Kid, but screenwriter Nick Schenk (who adapted from a story he developed with Dave Johannson) delves deeper into the heart of darkness with his variation on the theme. Whereas the aforementioned film was about overcoming the fear of failure, Gran Torino deals with a veritable litany of primal fears, namely fear of The Other, fear of death, and the fear of losing one’s soul.

There is still a surprising amount of levity in Schenk’s screenplay, allowing Eastwood can stretch his proclivity (as an actor) for deadpan comedy. One scene in particular that stands out in this regard involves a parting of wisdom positing that any logistical hurdle you may encounter in your journey can be defeated with a “…pair of Vise-Grips, a roll of duct tape and some WD-40.”

The film’s only flaw (and this could be a major distraction for some) is the casting of non-professional actors in most of the Hmong roles. For secondary or background characters, this is not so much of an issue, but concerning two more prominent (and very crucial) roles, I did find some of the amateurish line deliveries to be a distraction.

Eastwood’s direction is assured, but I think the main reason to see this film is for his work in front of the camera; I would consider this one of his career-best performances and certainly his most well fleshed-out characterization since Unforgiven. All I know is-I should be so lucky to be as convincing as a bad-ass when I’m pushing 80.

Earsplittenloudenboomer: Valkyrie **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

A patchy uprising: Tom Cruise in Valkyrie.

One of my favorite  lines from Mel Brooks’ The Producers is uttered by psychedelicized thespian “Lorenzo St. Dubois” (Dick Shawn), star of the Broadway musical romp Springtime for Hitler. After “Goebbels” (David Patch) carelessly tosses a lit reefer into a vase, making it explode, our “Hitler” turns  to the audience with a wink and bemoans in mock consternation: “They try…man, how they try!”

Man, how they tried. By 30 April 1945, the day Adolph Hitler finally put us all out of his misery by treating himself to a cyanide cocktail, followed by a Walther PPK 7.65mm caliber chaser, there had been no less than 17 (documented) schemes/attempts to take him out.

The would-be assassins ranged from military officers (captains to field marshals) to members of his  inner circle (including Armaments Minister Albert Speer, who toyed with the idea of sending poison gas down the ventilator shaft of his Berlin bunker in 1945). It looked like Hitler was going to be tougher to get rid of than Rasputin.

The most famous attempt, code-named “Valkyrie”, was spearheaded by an idealistic German nationalist named Colonel Count Claus von Stauffenberg, an army staff officer who ingratiated himself into a well-organized consortium within the German resistance.

On July 20, 1944, Stauffenberg, who had finagled himself into a position to attend Hitler’s military strategy meetings, managed to smuggle a briefcase full of timed plastic explosives into a conference at the “Wolf’s Lair”. He slipped the briefcase under the table, close to where Hitler was positioned, excused himself to take an “important call”, and waited outside for the earth-shattering ka-boom.

Once all hell broke loose, Stauffenberg made a beeline to Berlin to initiate the next phase of the plot, which would require neutralizing the SS and mobilizing the reserve army (under an emergency contingency government reorganization plan that ironically had been set up by Hitler himself). It almost worked (except for the part where they forgot to check Hitler’s pulse before proceeding with Step 2). The day did not end well for Stauffenberg and several other key conspirators; they did not live to see the next sunrise.

This true-life tale contains all the thrills, suspense and complex plotting of a ripping WW2 yarn by Alistair MacLean, except that in this case, the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are all…the “bad guys” (i.e., based on the traditional Hollywood depiction of WW2 era Germans). This presents an interesting dilemma for a filmmaker. It is only in recent years that we have seen films that (for better or for worse) posit a relatively objective view of what the Second World War looked like from the perspective of the Germans.

Now, I am by no means an apologist (I had many distant relatives who perished in concentration camps, and the very sight of a swastika makes me physically ill) but it is a fact that not every single person who lived in Germany between 1933 and 1945 was a blindly obedient member of the National Socialist Party who worshiped Hitler. There was actually an active military and civilian domestic resistance movement that flourished during that era.

One of the earliest films to lurch in that direction was Edward Dmytryk’s The Young Lions (1958) which featured among its three principal characters a conflicted Nazi lieutenant (Marlon Brando) who was devoted to duty, yet palpably repulsed by the inhumanity being perpetrated in the name of the Fatherland. Cabaret (1972) tentatively touched on the idea of the anti-Nazi sentiment within Germany, but the story ends just as Hitler is coming to power, so in historical context, his full capacity for avarice and evil would have still been an unknown quantity to the general populace at the time.

Das Boot (1981) was probably the first film to portray members of the Nazi era German military in a “sympathetic” light and was one of the first to feature German military characters expressing anti-Hitler sentiments. Then again, this was not a Hollywood production (it was originally produced for German TV). And tangentially, we have Schindler’s List (1993) which cheers for an unlikely war hero-an (initially) opportunistic Nazi businessman who profited from the abundance of cheap labor from concentration camps.

All of which now inevitably (unavoidably?) brings us to the new Tom Cruise vehicle, Valkyrie, reuniting director Bryan Singer with his The Usual Suspects screenwriter, Christopher McQuarrie (who co-scripted with Nathan Alexander). Cruise stars as Stauffenberg; stern of jaw, steely of gaze and nattily resplendent in polished jackboots and matching eye patch. To the chagrin of some, he is also bereft of a German accent. This is a moot point, because most of his co-stars sport British accents. Since we know  everybody in this story is German, it’s but a momentary distraction (like when Tony Curtis informs Spartacus that he is “…a singah of sooangs.”)

Singer showcases his prowess for well-staged action sequences in a slam-bang battle scene early on the film that depicts how Stauffenberg suffered his disfiguring wounds. As he recovers from his injuries, we catch a glimpse of his family life, and glean  a warm relationship with his children and his devoted wife (Carice van Houten). As the tides of the war turn against the Reich, Stauffenberg comes to realize that Hitler’s hopes for victory are becoming more delusional by the day and can only lead to the complete annihilation of his beloved Germany, so he decides that he must be stopped.

The film recreates several other assassination attempts by Stauffenberg and his associates which preceded the conference room bombing at Wolf’s Lair in July 1944. The final attempt is quite riveting, tautly directed and full of nail-biting suspense. Unfortunately, however the film is marred by an abrupt ending; the split second after Cruise has his Big Death Scene, it’s time to fade to black and roll credits (it’s probably in his contract rider).

Another problem is Cruise himself. Yes, he is a Movie Star, right down to those dazzling choppers, but try as he might over the years (bless his heart), he is just simply not cut out to be a character actor.

The real Stauffenberg was a complex person; a fervent German nationalist, an aristocrat, politically conservative and introspectively philosophical by nature. All I kept seeing up on that screen was…Tom Cruise with an eye patch. Don’t get me wrong, when a part is tailor made for his particular energy (Risky Business, Jerry Maguire, Magnolia) he can be undeniably appealing and genuinely charismatic.

Two supporting performances are particular standouts; the always-excellent Tom Wilkinson as General Fromm, and Bill Nighy as Genral Olbricht. A couple other venerable Brits are on board (Terrence Stamp and Kenneth Branagh) but they aren’t given too much room to flex (perhaps Producer Tom didn’t want to be upstaged).

Singer does have a keen eye for historical detail. Several key scenes were filmed on location, most significantly the recreation of Stauffenberg’s execution, which was staged in the Berlin courtyard where the actual incident took place (that courtyard now contains a memorial to the conspirators, now regarded as national heroes in Germany). History buffs will likely be more forgiving regarding the film’s shortcomings, and just enjoy it as a straightforward WW2 action thriller. Tom Cruise fans will see it regardless of critical opinion, and the rest…may want to just wait for the DVD.

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

Money speaks for money, the Devil for his own

Who comes to speak for the skin and bone?

 -Billy Bragg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

The fine art of eating and complaining: Whatever Works.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deconstructing Zooey: The 500 Days of Summer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From crayons to perfume: Top 10 School Flicks

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#  #  #

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

Class dismissed!