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.

Touch me, I’m sick: Sicko ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 7, 2007)

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Oh, Michael-you are such a pill.

Our favorite cuddly corn-fed agitprop filmmaker is back to stir up some doo-doo, spark national debate and make pinko-hatin’ ‘murcan “patriots” twitch and shout. Unless you’ve been living in a cave and have somehow missed the considerable amount of pre-release hype, you have likely gleaned that I am referring to documentary maestro Michael Moore’s meditation on the current state of the U.S. health care system, Sicko.

Moore grabs our attention right out of the gate with a real Bunuel moment. Over the opening credits, we are treated to shaky home video depicting a man pulling up a flap of skin whilst patiently stitching up a gash on his knee with a needle and thread, as Moore deadpans in V.O. (with his cheerful Midwestern countenance) that the gentleman is an avid cyclist- and one of the millions of Americans who cannot afford health insurance.

Moore doesn’t waste any time showing us the flipside of the issue-even those who are “lucky” enough to have health coverage often end up with the short end of the stick as well. A young woman, knocked unconscious in a high speed auto collision and rushed to the ER via ambulance, was later denied coverage for the ambulance ride by her insurance company because it was not “pre-approved”. She ponders incredulously as to exactly how she was supposed to have facilitated “pre-approval” in such a scenario (as do we).

The film proceeds to delve into some of some of the other complexities contributing to the overall ill health of our current system; such as the monopolistic power and greed of the pharmaceutical companies, the lobbyist graft, and (perhaps most depressing of all) the heartless bureaucracy of a privatized health “coverage” system that focuses first and foremost on profit, rather than on actual individual need.

I know what you’re thinking-kind of a downer, eh? Well, this is a Michael Moore film, so there are plenty of laughs injected to help salve our tears. Most of the levity occurs as Moore travels abroad to the socialized nations of Canada, Britain, France and Cuba to do a little comparison shopping for alternate health care systems.

Much of the vitriol and spite aimed at Sicko seems to have been triggered by this aspect of the film. Indeed, the film has only been open for a week, and already the wing nut comment threads are ablaze with about a million variations on “Well if you think it’s so much better than America then why don’t you just move there you big fat Commie traitor.” (In his typically sly, self-aware fashion, Moore leads into his Cuba segment by weaving in footage and music from vintage Communist propaganda films; knowing full well that those with small minds will undoubtedly take the bait and completely miss the irony.)

The classic Moore moment in Sicko arrives as he sails into Guantanamo Bay with a megaphone and a boatload of financially tapped Ground Zero volunteer rescue worker veterans who are all suffering from serious respiratory illnesses. After learning that the Gitmo detainees all enjoy completely free, round the clock medical care on the taxpayer’s nickel, he figures that the state of the art prison hospital wouldn’t mind offering the same services to some genuine American heroes. Of course, the personnel manning the heavily armed U.S. military patrol boats in the bay fail to see his logic, and they are unceremoniously turned away.

Undeterred, he decides to give the Cuban health care system a spin (while they’re in the neighborhood-why not?) They are welcomed unconditionally, and receive prompt and thorough care. Is it a propaganda move by the Cubans? Probably. Does Moore conveniently fail to mention the minuses of the Cuban health care system (or the Canadian, British and French systems for that matter)? Sure-but who cares? The pluses greatly outweigh the minuses, especially when compared to the current health care mess in our own country (at least he’s showing enough sack to step up and give people some alternatives to mull over). Moore makes his point quite succinctly-the need for health care is a basic human need. It should never hinge on economic, political or ideological factors. As one of his astute interviewees observes, it is a right, not a privilege.

In fact, this may qualify as the least polemical of Moore’s films to date. Consequently, it may disappoint or perplex some of his usual supporters, especially those who always anticipate that a Moore film will give them a vicarious “let’s go stick it to The Man” thrill ride. Things are not so black and white this time out; the issue at hand is too complex. I don’t think there is any filmmaker out there right now who could sum it all up (tidy solutions and all) in less than 2 hours, but Moore has done an admirable job of scratching the surface, and most importantly, he manages to do so in an entertaining and engaging fashion. After all, isn’t that why we go to the movies?

Evil corporate bastards: Michael Clayton ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

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The late great Paddy Chayefsky would surely be pleased by the opening salvo of searing verbiage that launches writer-director Tony Gilroy’s superb new legal thriller, Michael Clayton. The fine British actor Tom Wilkinson nearly walks off with the movie before the opening credits are even finished rolling with a magnificently performed voice-over rant that recalls Howard Beale’s “cleansing moment of clarity” in Network.

Wilkinson portrays Arthur Edens, a crack lawyer and senior partner for a prestigious New York corporate law firm who is, well, cracking up. On the eve of closing a case he has been working on for several years on behalf of U-North, an agrichemical company faced with a class-action lawsuit, Edens suffers a Dostoevkskian meltdown and suddenly decides to side with the plaintiffs and publicly expose his client’s turpitude in the matter.

As you can probably imagine, with many millions of dollars at stake and the reputations of both the corporation and law firm on the line, there are some very powerful, pissed off people sitting in dark boardrooms, scrambling for a quick and decisive solution to their “problem”. Enter the film’s title character, Michael Clayton (George Clooney, in a first-rate performance). Clayton, who is on the payroll as an attorney, is in actuality the firm’s “fixer”, who cynically refers to himself as a “janitor” (he’s not a “cleaner”, like Jean Reno in La Femme Nikita, but akin to Harvey Keitel’s “Mr. Wolfe” in Pulp Fiction).

Clayton cleans up other people’s messes, but cannot get his own life in order; he’s divorced and up to his eyes in gambling debts and bad investments. And, like his friend Arthur, he’s having some primal doubts about the moral and ethical ambiguities involved with what he does for a living. His immediate concern, however, is to salvage this potential disaster for the firm by coaxing Arthur back to reality. Arthur may have a screw loose, but he hasn’t lost any of his shrewd lawyer chops, so he won’t be swayed easily. Still, Clayton is sure that if he can just get him back on his meds, he’ll come around.

In the meantime, unbeknownst to Clayton, the head of U-North’s legal department (Tilda Swinton) has already lost patience with the situation at hand and enlisted a pair of much more sinister “fixers” to zero in and eliminate the problem (with extreme prejudice). As the situation becomes more insidiously deadly and the stakes become extremely high, Clayton, ever the compulsive gambler, faces the ultimate moral choice: he could risk his life and do the right thing, or he could play it safe- at the risk of losing his soul.

Gilroy extrapolated on this moral dilemma previously in his screenplay for the 1997 Taylor Hackford film, The Devil’s Advocate, in which he pitted fledgling lawyer Keanu Reeves’ naïve idealism against senior partner Al Pacino’s devilishly Faustian temptations. In Michael Clayton, the situation isn’t so black and white; ethics and principals cast minimal light in this shadowy noir world of boardroom conspiracies.

This film marks Gilroy’s debut as a director. His intelligently constructed screenplays for the Jason Bourne trilogy have all featured refreshingly adult dialog and subtle character nuance that has played no small part in setting those three films apart from the majority of mindless Hollywood action thrillers. That being said, Michael Clayton is not as fast-paced as the Bourne films, but it is no less gripping (and there’s only one explosion!).

In fact, Michael Clayton hearkens back to the kind of films that Sidney Lumet used to make, like the aforementioned Network, and more specifically, The Verdict. I see some parallels between Paul Newman’s brilliantly nuanced turn as the burned out ambulance chaser who gets a chance at redemption in the latter film and Clooney’s equally accomplished performance as the disillusioned Clayton. I also thought Wilkinson’s character would have felt right at home in the underrated 1979 satire And Justice For All which features Al Pacino’s classic courtroom meltdown (“YOU’RE out of order! HE’S out of order! “We’re ALL out of order…”)

Clooney and Wilkinson both deliver Oscar-caliber performances, and are well-supported by Swinton, who gives depth to a dragon-lady character who would likely have been more cartoonish and one-dimensional in the hands of a less-accomplished actress. I also got a kick out of Sydney Pollack, who gets some choice lines (Pollack co-produced, along with Steven Soderbergh, Anthony Minghella and Clooney). Gilroy has made something you don’t see enough of at the multiplex these days-a film for grown ups.

Girl, you’ll be a woman soon: Juno (***1/2) & Wish You Were Here (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 22, 2007)

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Here’s a line you’ve likely never heard in an ABC After-school Special:

“I’m already pregnant, so what other shenanigans can I get into?”

It’s a bullet-proof rhetorical question, posed by a glibly self-aware 16 year-old named Juno MacGuff, played to perfection by the ever-surprising Ellen Page (Hard Candy) in the cleverly written and wonderfully acted film Juno, from director Jason Reitman.

Juno is an intelligent and unconventional Minneapolis teen who finds herself up the duff after deciding, on one fateful evening, to lose her virginity with her (initially) platonic buddy, a gawky, introverted but sweet-natured classmate named Paulie (Michael Cera). Not wanting to be a burden to Paulie, or trouble her loving parents (J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney) with the news, Juno decides to take sole responsibility for her situation.

After losing her nerve at an abortion clinic, Juno brainstorms with her girlfriend Leah (Olivia Thirlby) who suggests a search in the Penny Saver for couples looking to adopt. Enter Mark and Vanessa (well-played by Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), a childless yuppie couple with a sprawling house in the ‘burbs, complete with the requisite unfinished nursery (Pink, blue, or “gender neutral” yellow? (Decisions, decisions.) With the blessing of Juno’s supportive dad, papers are drawn up and Mark and Vanessa become the adoptive parents-in-waiting. Everything appears hunky dory- but you know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice (with apologies to Douglas Adams).

With such oft-used cinematic fodder at its core, this film could have easily descended into cliché-ridden piffle, but it doesn’t; in fact it surprises and delights at every twist and turn, without feeling manipulative. I can’t give enough praise to the acting ensemble here. Page and Cera mange to convey Juno and Paulie’s growing pains in a very genuine and touchingly palpable manner, even through all the hyper stylized dialog. Simmons and Janney deserve kudos as Juno’s dad and step mom, respectively. It’s refreshing to see Simmons play such a likeable character after all the heavies he’s played in the past (I think this role will finally exorcise the creepy inmate he played for 6 years on HBO’s brutal prison drama, Oz). In fact, all the actors emanate that same understated vibe of “Minnesota nice” that made the characters in Fargo so endearing, despite their travails.

Reitman (son of director Ivan Reitman) has hit one out of the park with this sophomore effort (his first film was Thank You For Smoking) thanks in no small part to Diablo Cody’s smart and airtight script. While this is Cody’s first screenplay, she has previously gained some notoriety via her “Pussy Ranch” blog and subsequent book Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper, a sort of anthropological feminist treatise on the peep show/stripper world (based on her brief employment in the industry).

I have to mention the film’s soundtrack, which is one of the better ones I’ve heard in a while. The original songs, by Kimya Dawson and Antsy Pants, are catchy, whimsical alt-pop in the Moxy Fruvous vein, but I was more impressed by selections from the likes of The Kinks, Sonic Youth, Belle & Sebastian, Velvet Underground, Mott the Hoople and Astrud Gilberto (it sounded like they had raided my CD collection!). A must-see.

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Juno and its young star reminded me of one of my all-time favorite films, Wish You Were Here-David Leland’s 1987 comedy-drama about a headstrong 16-year-old girl “coming of age” in post WW 2 England. The story is loosely based on the real-life exploits of infamous British madam Cynthia Payne (Leland also collaborated as screenwriter with director Terry Jones on the film Personal Services, which starred Julie Walters and covered Payne’s later adult years). Vivacious teenager Emily Lloyd made an astounding, Oscar-worthy debut as pretty, potty-mouthed “Linda”, whose hormone-fueled manic behavior and sexual antics cause her somewhat reserved widower father and younger sister to walk around in a perpetual state of public embarrassment.

With a taut script and precise performances, the film breezes along on a deft roller coaster of deep belly-laugh hilarity and genuine, bittersweet emotion. Excellent support from the entire cast, especially from the great Thom Bell, who finds a sympathetic humanity in a vile character that a lesser actor could not likely pull off. It’s quite unfortunate that Emily Lloyd, who displayed such amazing potential in this debut, never really “broke big”, appearing in only a few unremarkable projects and then basically dropping off the radar to join that sad “whatever happened to…” file. Let’s hope that Ellen Page fares better.

Manic street preacher: What Would Jesus Buy? ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2007)

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Deck the halls with advertising, Fa la la la la la la la la

‘Tis the time for merchandising, Fa la la la la la la la la

Profit never needs a reason, Fa la la la la la la la la

Get the money, it’s the season, Fa la la la la la la la la

-Stan Freberg, from “Green Chri$tma$”

Joy to the world!

In the form of goods.

Consume! Consume! Consume!

-Rev. Billy and his choir

This week I thought we’d take a respite from holiday shopping to check out a new documentary called What Would Jesus Buy? Produced by Morgan Super Size Me Spurlock (who I like to refer to as “Michael Moore Lite”) and directed by Rob VanAlkemade, the film documents the public antics of improv performer/anti-consumerism activist Bill Talen, better-known as his alter-ego, Reverend Billy, the “spiritual” leader of the “Church of Stop Shopping”.

Talen honed his act in San Francisco, originally creating the stage persona of “Reverend Billy”, a flashy, big-haired TV evangelist who performs with the fearless, in-your-face conviction of a sidewalk preacher. The Reverend doesn’t preach traditional gospel, however. His “mission” is to rail against the evils of corporate retail giants. Talen calls attention to corporate sanctioned sweat shops, abused and underpaid store employees, and the cradle-to-grave brainwashing of American consumers by the advertising media-to anyone who will listen. His favorite targets include Disney (Rev. Billy considers Mickey Mouse “the Antichrist”), Starbucks and Wal-Mart.

In 2005, Talen and his troupe left their New York City home base to embark on a nationwide bus tour to spread the good word: “Stop shopping!” VanAlkemade and his film crew tagged along, as they executed their blend of street theater and social activism. The traveling church members stake out malls and retail chain stores, treating unsuspecting shoppers to impromptu sermons and Weird Al-style rewording of well-known hymns and Christmas carols. They also rent local public halls, where they stage “church services” and “revivals”. In one particularly inspired  church service, Rev. Billy exhorts attendees to come forward and have their credit cards exorcised; he collapses on cue for his  grand finale.

As the group treks across the fruited plains, they make stops at the likes of the behemoth Mall of America . We watch the performers repeat the same drill several times: Billy, armed with a megaphone and backed by his singing, hand-clapping choir members, plants himself squarely in center court and proceeds to call for an immediate cessation to mindless spending. Groups of shoppers, at first a little puzzled, eventually begin to gather, some clapping along and getting into the spirit of the performance, others watching but still blinking uncomprehendingly. By the time a crowd gathers, the ubiquitous teams of beer-gutted, walkie-talkie wielding mall security personnel converge to unceremoniously escort the group from the premises. The audience disperses, chuckling and shaking their heads on their way to the Orange Julius.

The final whistle stop is Anaheim, where the reverend and his flock descend on Disneyland. Just before he is (inevitably) escorted out by the Disney brown shirts (seriously-they are disturbingly fascistic in dress and demeanor), Billy delivers the best line in the film through his megaphone: “People! Main Street, U.S.A. is made in China!”

Mission accomplished? Hardly, but you do find yourself admiring Talen’s conviction and dedication to his activist principles, despite the fact that his message is apparently falling on deaf ears. When he is filmed making a purchase, it’s at an independently-owned, small town clothing store where he first checks labels to make sure his new sweater is “Made in the U.S.A.” You get a vibe that it isn’t a grandstanding gesture for the cameras, but a sincere effort on Talen’s part to literally practice what he preaches.

To my observation, Talen is the heir apparent to a style of guerrilla theater popularized by the likes of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Diggers in the 1960s, with a pinch of Abbie Hoffman. One scene in particular, where Billy and his flock perform an “exorcism” on a Wal-Mart store, reminded me of Hoffman’s crowning moment of political theater in 1967, when he joined forces with Allen Ginsberg and thousands of anti-war protesters in an attempt to “levitate” the Pentagon.

The film’s “Stop the presses! Christmas is crassly commercial!” revelation is as hoary as Miracle on 34th Street or A Charlie Brown Christmas. Also, there have already been several documentaries produced that frankly do a much better job covering the “corporate exploitation of workers” angle (Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price and The Big One come to mind).  That said, I still admire Talen’s adherence to his “mission”, and it’s refreshing to see a Christmas holiday-themed film that might actually make people snap out of their Return of the Living Dead mall stupor. One immediate epiphany as I walked out of the theater: for two hours (counting previews) I didn’t charge one thing to my credit card. And that’s a good thing.

Of prose and cons: The Hoax (***1/2) & Color Me Kubrick (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 14, 2007)

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One of my favorite movie lines is from The Princess Bride: “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” (Alas-if we could only remember that sage advice before writing our phone number on a cocktail napkin, signing on a dotted line, dropping coins into a collection plate or pulling on a voting lever.) Indeed, the art of the con is as old as the snake in the Garden of Eden. Hollywood loves con artists, probably because movie audiences never appear to tire of watching yet one more poor schmuck getting bamboozled. It makes us feel superior-“Oh, I’d never fall for THAT!”

Director Lasse Hallstrom has delivered a smashing entry in the genre with his new movie, The Hoax. The film is based on the story of Clifford Irving, a struggling writer who toiled in relative obscurity until he stumbled onto an idea for “the most important book of the 20th century”- the “Autobiography of Howard Hughes”. The book was the most hyped literary event of 1972, and would assure Irving the notoriety he craved. Hell, he even made the cover of Time. Unfortunately, his Time portrait was slugged with “Con Man of the Year”,  because as it turned out, the “autobiography” was a bit of a surprise to Mr. Hughes, because, you see, Mr. Irving made the whole thing up (oops). The books were unceremoniously yanked from the shelves soon after their debut.

Richard Gere tears through the lead role with an intensity we haven’t seen from him in quite a while (easily his best work since Internal Affairs). His Clifford Irving is a charlatan and a compulsive liar, to be sure, but Gere manages to make him sympathetic, in a carefully measured way that doesn’t feel like audience pandering. Even as he digs himself into an ever deepening hole, and you cover your eyes because you know the other shoe is going to drop at any time, you’ve just got to love this guy’s pure chutzpah. Compared to some other mass public deceptions that were brewing at the time (the Irving scandal was soon knocked out of the headlines by Watergate), his resulting fraud trial almost seems like malicious prosecution in retrospect (he did end up doing jail time).

Hallstrom does an excellent job at capturing the 70’s milieu; especially the insidious paranoia of the Nixon era (almost by accident, Irving uncovered documents that implicated Nixon family members and associates in defense contract bribery scams involving Hughes Corporation while Nixon was VP in 1956. It is suggested in the film that the 1972 Nixon White House was tipped off to the existence of the documents, and that it may have been an impetus for the Watergate break in. Hey-who knows?)

The outstanding cast includes Alfred Molina (in an Oscar-caliber turn as Irving’s researcher Richard Susskind), Marcia Gay Harden (sporting a Streep-worthy accent as Irving’s Eurotrash wife), and chameleon character actress Hope Davis (looking very Mary Richards as Irving’s agent). Also with Stanley Tucci, Julie Delpy and Eli Wallach.

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Another noteworthy new film examining the art of the con is Brian W. Cook’s Color Me Kubrick: A True…ish Story (concurrently on DVD and in theaters). John Malkovich gives a typically hammy, gleefully giddy performance as real-life con man Alan Conway, who flitted about England in the early 90’s, posing as the notoriously reclusive director Stanley Kubrick.

The irresistible hook in Conway’s story is the fact that he had virtually no idea what Kubrick was about, aside from the fact that he was a famous director. What is even more amazing is that he got away with it for as long as he did, scamming sex, money and accommodations with his hijacked nom de plume (ironically, had he actually bothered to watch Kubrick’s films, he could have picked up some pointers from fictional con men Barry Lyndon and Clare Quilty) His victims ranged from easy marks (aspiring actors, screenwriters and musicians) to those who should have known better (film critics!). His luck ran out when a New York Times columnist was tipped to his shenanigans and wrote an exposé.

Malkovich chews major scenery as he minces his way through the role, utilizing a variety of ridiculously funny accents and affectations. Director Cook worked with the late Kubrick, and ladles on the in-jokes with a nod and a wink (Kubrick aficionados should have a blast playing “spot the homage”). Good supporting performances, particularly from comedian Jim Davidson (one of Conway’s real life victims). Two notable cameos to watch for: Honor Blackman (Pussy Galore!) and director Ken Russell, who pops up as a mental patient (not such a stretch, if you are familiar with his work). Not for all tastes; but destined for cult status.

If it bleeds, it leads: Zodiac ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 10, 2007)

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In a deliciously ironic scene in David Fincher’s new crime thriller, Zodiac, San Francisco homicide investigator Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), skulks out of a screening of Dirty Harry. He is appalled at what he sees as Hollywood’s obvious and crass exploitation of a real-life case that has consumed his life-the hunt for the notorious and ever-elusive “Zodiac” serial killer, who terrorized the Bay Area for a good part of the 1970’s. (Clint Eastwood’s fictional nemesis in Dirty Harry was a serial killer who taunted the authorities and the media, and referred to himself as “Scorpio”).

That is one of the little touches in Fincher’s multi-layered true crime opus that makes it an instant genre classic. The director has wisely eschewed the broad brush strokes of Grand Guginol that he slathered on in Se7en for a meticulously detailed etching that is equal parts Michael Mann and Stanley Kubrick, and thoroughly engrossing.

The director’s notorious perfectionism serves the protagonists well-they are all obsessed individuals. The aforementioned Inspector Toschi and his partner Inspector William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards, making a nice comeback) are the type of dedicated cops that have could have strolled right out of an Ed McBain novel. A scene-stealing Robert Downey Jr. is perfect as Paul Avery, the cocky San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter who follows the case; his “partner” of sorts is the paper’s political cartoonist, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is the first person to connect the dots (thanks to his obsession with cryptograms and puzzles). The nerdy Graysmith eventually becomes the most obsessed “detective” of them all, conducting an independent investigation over two decades.

Fincher has assembled a film that will please true crime buffs and noir fans alike. The combination of location filming, well-chosen period music and Fincher’s OCD-like attention to detail recreates a cinematic vibe that I haven’t experienced since the golden days of Sidney Lumet (think Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico or Prince of the City.)

Children of Morons: Idiocracy **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 10, 2007)

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If the 2007 Super Bowl commercials and ever-escalating voter participation in shows like American Idol are any indication, the dumbed-down “future” of America depicted in Mike Judge’s lightweight allegory, Idiocracy, is perhaps only belaboring the obvious.

Army librarian Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) loves his cushy job. It’s the perfect gig, because, as he tells a fellow soldier- “No one ever comes here” (I think I just heard every librarian reading this review say “No kidding.”). Much to Joe’s chagrin, however, his gravy train is derailed when he is “volunteered” as a guinea pig for a top secret military experiment.

Joe is assigned to spend a year in a suspended animation pod, a process the military is testing for typically nefarious reasons. Joe is not alone, however. A hooker named Rita from “the private sector” (SNL cast member Maya Rudolph) is also enlisted. When our intrepid pair finally awake, it’s a tad more than a year later. After a series of silly events, they in fact find themselves in the year 2505 (whoops!). Does hilarity ensue?

Well…the America of 2505 is not so much dystopian, as it is dys-stupido. As the droll narrator explains, evolution has favored those who reproduce the most (you know…morons!). The #1 TV show is called “Ow My Balls”, and the #1 film is “Ass” (kind of says it all). Anyone who conjugates a verb or speaks in complete sentences is accused of talking “like a fag”. In a nutshell, this is what would happen if the entire U.S. gene pool was whittled down exclusively to the descendants of Gallagher’s fan base.

If you’ve surrendered to the premise at this point in the film, you won’t flinch when the President, a former WWF champion (not such a stretch, considering former and current guvs Ventura and Schwarzenegger) ends up appointing Joe his Secretary of the Interior.

Judge isn’t really saying anything new here; beyond pointing out that we live in a dumbed-down culture (yawn). There are a few inspired moments; particularly the keen observation that the progressive reduction of America’s average IQ is directly proportionate to the ever-increasing square footage of the average Costco store.

There is a bit of irony I can’t get past; it was Mike Judge who created MTV’s Beavis and Butthead, which one might argue played its own part in the “dumbing down” of a generation that came of age in the 90’s (despite its satirical intentions, I think B & B ended up as role models for some, not unlike those good ol’ boys who completely missed the irony and merrily sang along with Borat’s “Throw the Jew Down The Well”… discuss!)