Too much heaven on their minds: Religulous ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 4, 2008)

Did you make mankind after we made you?
And the devil too!
-Andy Partridge

 “Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic. -Douglas Adams

 I’ve always been a bit of a fence-sitter when it comes to religion. Undoubtedly, this is due to the fact that I was begat by a Jewish woman from Brooklyn and a Protestant man from Ohio (I can hear long-time readers now: “That explains a lot“). Thank God (or Deity du jour) that my folks never endeavored to push me into one belief system or the other. To me, the conundrum of “Torah or Bible?” holds about the same degree of academic import as pondering “Paper or plastic?” I’m not an atheist, nor an agnostic. If pressed, I might admit that I’m a cautiously optimistic pan-spiritualist.

I believe robots are stealing my luggage. –Jack Handey

I just believe in me. Yoko and me. –John Lennon

And I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days. –Ron Shelton

“Logic” is the antithesis to any manner of fundamentalist belief. Setting off on a quest to deconstruct fundamental religious belief, armed solely with logic and convincing yourself that you are going to somehow make sense of it all, ironically seems like some kind of nutty fundamentalist belief in and of itself. But that’s exactly what star Bill Maher and director Larry Charles have set out to accomplish in their new documentary, Religulous.

Maher’s “spiritual journey” begins in America’s southeastern Bible belt, highlighted by a round-table discussion with several burly, Cat-hatted worshipers at a roadside truck stop chapel (you couldn’t make shit like this up). Maher gets his first walkout from one of the drivers, who takes major umbrage that Maher is “…disputin’ my God.” Fair enough. But as Maher says with a shrug after the fellow stalks out, “I’m just asking questions.” Another highlight is a visit to a Christian theme park in Orlando Florida, where Maher trade a few good-natured jibes with Jesus. Well, a Jesus impersonator, who is the star of what appears to be some kind of Bronco Billy road show-style reenactment of the crucifixion.

My favorite scene occurs in London’s Hyde Park. Maher disguises himself in Ignatius J. Reilly garb (complete with earflaps) and begins spouting a hodgepodge of tenets that are lifted verbatim from Scientology, Mormonism and the Witnesses. This gathers a crowd of bemused onlookers, naturally, who all seem convinced that Maher is just another crazy street person railing nonsensically at an unfeeling universe. Juvenile methodology, perhaps, but one can’t dispute that it seems to back up Maher’s frequently voiced assertion that unquestioning, dogmatic belief is a form of mental illness.

The journey culminates in Jerusalem, where Maher grills Orthodox Jews and Muslims. Perhaps not so surprisingly, Maher quite noticeably tones down his customary smug mode, particularly when visiting a sacred mosque (well, can you blame him?).

 Maher is no stranger to controversy. In his various guises as actor, comedian, political satirist, author, and talk show host, he has managed to push a lot of buttons, proving himself to be a full spectrum, equal opportunity offender. It’s his special power. But what I found most interesting about the film is that Maher himself is not necessarily “mocking” religion here, although I know that he and Charles will be accused of doing so and roundly vilified by the self-righteously pious and the small-minded.

To be sure, some of the fringe interviewees and their belief systems are milked for laughs; but Maher’s roots are in stand-up comedy, so naturally he’s not going to pass up an opening. It’s reflexive. These people make themselves look ridiculous, so mocking them is redundant. I think Maher and Charles are smart enough to figure that out. A similarly perceptive grasp of the state of the American idiocracy was what made Borat (Charles’ collaboration with comic genius Sacha Baron Cohen) such a brilliantly incisive satire.

The film is timely. Maher brought up a good point on The Daily Show earlier this week. When he mentioned Sarah Palin’s staunch Christian stance, Jon Stewart countered that Barack Obama claims to be deeply religious as well, to which Maher replied, “I hope he’s lying.” My sentiments exactly. Because, as Maher went on to point out, when anyone runs for president in the “United States of Stupid” they have to trawl for votes by toeing the spiritual line. It’s a given that McCain is paying lip service to piety, and I’d like to assume Obama isn’t some kind of secret crazy fundamentalist. But Palin? She is dangerous. I know that Digby, Dday and Tristero have been warning us about this from the get-go, but it is encouraging to hear someone saying it on a high profile television talk show. It can’t be said enough. All I can say is- go see this film, and then come November 4, everybody grab their hose and socks…and pray.

Counter-intelligent: Burn After Reading ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 20, 2008)

Attention, K Street choppers.

In an inspired bit of dialog from the new Coen brothers film, Burn After Reading that will surely become oft-quoted, ex-CIA agent Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) goes into an exasperated, paranoiac rant about the “league of morons” in America who have continually conspired to make his life hell. While I was laughing along with everyone else in the audience, part of me was thinking “Well, yeah…I know exactly how you feel.”

 It’s sad. “Stupidity” has become the buzzword in any examination of contemporary American cultural anthropology. It insidiously pervades all aspects of our lives-home life, work life, school life. Television celebrates it-American Idol, America’s Got Talent, American Gladiator, Fox “News”. Preachers and politicians bank on it. As Madge would say, we’re soaking in it. Besides-why crack open a book, when you have text messages to read?

Thank god for the Coen brothers. Perhaps more than any other American filmmakers, they have provided an on-going movie therapy service for those of us who are chronically depressed about the chuckle-headed state of our union. Through films like Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Man Who Wasn’t There and Fargo, the Coens have milked many a sardonic guffaw from the axiom “stupid is as stupid does”. Those films also serve as reminders that if you are dumb enough to believe that you can find a shortcut to achieving your American Dream at the expense of destroying somebody else’s dreams…without karmic payback, then you are even dumber than originally advertised. Whether or not karmic payback exists outside of a movie universe is up for debate, but the possibility makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Burn After Reading signals a welcome return to the type of dark, absurdist cringe comedy that the Coens truly excel at. The story revolves around the aforementioned Osborne Cox, a CIA analyst who decides to “write his memoirs” after quitting his job in an acrimonious huff. The arrogant, misanthropic Cox is a paper tiger bureaucrat who pompously fancies himself more akin to a Robert Ludlum hero. He is certainly less than a hero to his fed-up, no-nonsense physician wife (Tilda Swinton) who is having a torrid affair with a married, sex-addicted treasury agent (George Clooney).

Following the advice of a divorce attorney, Mrs. Cox surreptitiously downloads information from her husband’s hard drive onto a disc, which ends up (through a typically Coen-esque comedy of errors) in the hands of a pair of dim bulb fitness club employees (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt). Mistaking Cox’s memoir notes as some type of coded high-level state secrets, the would-be criminal masterminds cook up a lame-brained scheme that starts as a simple garden-variety blackmail attempt, but somehow morphs into a grand clusterfuck involving the Russian Embassy and nearly every branch of the Beltway’s clandestine community.

The cougar and the slow man.

If that sounds High Concept…it is. But leave it to the Coens to mash up the elements of screwball comedy, door-slamming bedroom farce, spy spoof, political satire, social commentary and self-parody into a perfect cinematic cocktail. The breezy script (penned by the brothers) is tighter than a one-act play, and capped off with a great zinger. It’s a rarity in film these days: an expedient, highly satisfying denouement. In other words, the film neither overstays its welcome nor feels rushed; it wraps up just when it needs to. Setup. Story. Punchline. Callback. You’ve been a great crowd!

Malkovich is in top form; he is a master of the slow burn that builds into manic apoplexy. He manages to make these fits of rage both extremely menacing and screamingly funny at the same time; it’s an acting tic that rings of vintage Gene Wilder. It’s a cakewalk for McDormand; it goes without saying that her husband and brother-in-law know more than anyone else on the planet how to best utilize her unique instrument. She and Pitt make a great comedic tag team, and it’s easily Pitt’s funniest performance since Snatch.

This is the third outing with the Coens for Clooney, and he appears to have their quirky rhythms down to a science. Swinton seems to have the most thankless role (she’s mostly required to just glower and fume) but it is interesting to see her reunited with her Michael Clayton co-star. Veteran character actors J.K. Simmons and Richard Jenkins round off the fine ensemble cast quite nicely. As a follow-up to last year’s No Country for Old Men, which was a much more somber and thoughtful piece, Burn After Reading may feel like a relatively superfluous toss-off, but it’s a perfect salve for election season weltschmerz. So as your fake physician, I prescribe that you buy two tickets, and call me in the morning.

Like one of his earlier, funnier films: Vicky Cristina Barcelona ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

Ay, mama.

Dare I say it? Woody Allen’s new film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, is his wisest, sexiest and most engaging romantic comedy in years. Okay…truth? To rate it on a sliding scale: as far as his own particular brand of genial bedroom farces go, it may not be in quite the same league as, let’s say, Hannah and Her Sisters, but it handily blows the boudoir doors off of A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.

The Barcelona-bound Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are two young Americans who have decided to take a summer breather in the form of a Mediterranean getaway. Vicky, engaged to be married in the fall, is enjoying her last holiday as a single woman, and is looking forward to indulging her scholarly interest in Catalan architecture (she has a Gaudi fixation). Cristina is taking a mental health break after self-producing and starring in a short film (which “she hates”) about the Meaning of Love. The women are warm friends, but polar opposites. Vicky is practical, analytical and guarded; a no-nonsense, borderline control freak. Cristina is adventurous and free-spirited, but suffers a bevy of neuroses and insecurities. In their own symbiotic manner, Vicky and Cristina are really two sides of the same coin.

Enter seasoned coin-flipper Javier Bardem, who drops the cattle prod and picks up an artist’s brush for a return to his main forte-portraying a smoldering heart breaker with the soul of a poet. In this outing, Bardem is Juan Antonio, a lusty Spanish painter who espies the two women in a Barcelona restaurant one sultry evening. Eschewing the usual small talk, he strolls up to their table and announces his sincere wish that the two of them come away with him in his private plane for a romantic weekend on a Spanish isle.

The incredulous Vicky bristles at the presumptuous come-on; Cristina shrugs off her friend’s warnings and votes for calling Juan Antonio on his bluff. What the hell, they’re on vacation-why not venture a little spontaneity (besides, it’s Javier Bardem, fer chrissake). Against her better judgment, Vicky reluctantly acquiesces to her friend, and off they go.

What ensues that weekend ultimately changes the lives of all three; not to mention any previous notions they may have had about los misterios del amor. Things really get interesting when Juan Antonio’s tempestuous ex-wife (Penelope Cruz) enters the mix

Allen’s playful screenplay deftly addresses the age old question: Are human beings really monogamous by nature? Is it realistic (or even fair) to expect one Significant Other to nurture and fulfill all of our physical and intellectual needs? And what’s wrong with occasionally breaking the mold of what constitutes a “relationship” between consenting adults? Jesus Cristos lizards, I’m sounding like Dr. Phil here…but you get the gist.

To be sure, this is a perennially popular theme in film; Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim being the most famous example and most obvious touchstone here. Also, the contrast of the voluptuous and almost shockingly blonde Johansson against the deep azure of the Mediterranean recalls Godard’s similar utilization of Bardot. Then again, Allen has made no secret of his long time infatuation with European cinema; to paraphrase the Woodman himself, “Hey, he had to mold himself after someone!” There are worse influences.

After three films in a row, I have now grumpily accepted Scarlett Johansson as Allen’s latest muse (we all know how he gets obsessed with his leading ladies). Is it just me, or does she always have the dazed look of someone who has just been shaken awake from a nap? Don’t get me wrong, the camera really loves her (her translucent beauty is a DP’s dream) but I find her husky monotone a bit stultifying at times. Perhaps her “method” is too subtle for me? Or am I just pining too much for the halcyon days of Diane Keaton?

Rebecca Hall (a Brit, actually) is a wonderful seriocomic actress, and someone to keep an eye on. She’s like a less twitchy Parker Posey. I think Cruz should get an Oscar nod for her work here (she’s that good). The Bardem and Cruz reunion is comedy gold (their first onscreen pairing since Jamon, Jamon in 1992). Wisely, Allen gives them several scenes where they get to showcase their formidable talents while speaking in their native tongue; their performances really jump out of the screen in those moments. He is smart enough to understand an unfortunate anomaly that sometimes occurs when accomplished foreign actors are cast in American productions: their broken English often gets unfairly perceived as stilted acting.

I think Woody is back. And he’s made something that (sadly) is a bit of an anomaly itself at the multiplex these days: A hot date movie for grown-ups. So call the sitter, already!

Dancing in the dark: The Killing of John Lennon *** & Control ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 16, 2008)

This week, I’m taking a look at two recent films of note that you may have missed which are now available on DVD. Both  fit into a genre I like to refer to as “Rock ‘n’ Noir”; that twilight confluence of the recording studio and the dark alley, if you will.

There is a particularly creepy and chilling moment of “art-imitating-life-imitating-art-imitating life” in writer-director Andrew Piddington’s film, The Killing of John Lennon, where the actor portraying the ex-Beatles’ stalker-murderer deadpans in voice-over:

 “I don’t believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention, I believe that one should become a person like other people.”

 Anyone who has seen Scorsese and Shrader’s Taxi Driver will instantly attribute that line to the fictional Travis Bickle, an alienated, psychotic loner and would be assassin who stalks a political candidate around New York City. Bickle’s ramblings in that film were based on the diary of Arthur Bremer, the real-life nutball who grievously wounded presidential candidate George Wallace in a 1972 assassination attempt. Although Mark David Chapman’s fellow loon-in-arms John Hinckley would extrapolate even further on the Taxi Driver obsession in his attempt on President Reagan’s life in 1981, it’s still an unnerving epiphany in Piddington’s film, an eerie and compelling portrait of Chapman’s descent into alienation, madness and the inexplicable murder of a beloved music icon.

Piddington based his screenplay on transcripts of Chapman’s statements and recollections, and focuses on the killer’s complete break with reality, which ultimately culminated in John Lennon’s tragic murder in December of 1980. The story picks up in the fall of that year, when Chapman (Jonas Ball) was living in Hawaii and reaching the end of his emotional rope. Fed up with a life of chronic underachievement and a lack of any sense of purpose, he lashes out at his hapless wife (Mie Omori) and domineering mother (Krisha Fairchild). He is obsessed with J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye; he re-reads the book over and over, until in his own deluded mind, he has transmogrified into the story’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield, on a mission to seek out and denounce all the “phonies” of the world.

He quits his job and takes the first of two fateful solo trips to New York City, where he finally gleans his “purpose”-to kill his musical idol, John Lennon, for being such a “phony”. His twisted mission is postponed after he attends a screening of Ordinary People, which somehow snaps him back to his senses. Sadly, his creeping derangement did not stay dormant, and we all know what transpired.

Ball is quite convincing in the role; so convincing that it will be interesting to see if he can avoid being typecast as a brooding psychopath in future projects (Steve Railsback remains synonymous with Charles Manson to me, several decades after his creepy channeling in Helter Skelter.) To their credit, the director and his lead actor do not glorify Chapman or his deeds; nor on do they portray him as a boogie man. He’s an everyday Walter Mitty… gone sideways and armed with a .38. The film is a fairly straightforward docu-drama; what makes it compelling is Ball’s edgy unpredictability and the moody, atmospheric cinematography by Roger Eaton.

I can see how boomers like myself, who have the most sentimental attachment to the Beatles, would have an inherent revulsion for reliving this horrible milestone; I suspect that to younger viewers, the film’s subject matter would seem less morbid and of more objective interest. Clearly, there is an audience for this subject, because there is yet another film out about Chapman called Chapter 27, starring a porked-out Jared Leto (I have not seen it; it played the festival circuit last year and is due on DVD September 30).

So what is the point in lolling about in a madman’s head for nearly two hours? And isn’t giving attention to this loser who was a “nobody until I killed the biggest somebody on earth” (the movie’s tag line) just rubbing salt in the wounds of Beatle fans everywhere? Well, perhaps. Then again, it is part of history, part of life. Movies are art, true art reflects life, and life is not always a Disney movie, is it?

I never realized the lengths
I’d have to go
All the darkest corners of a sense
I didn’t know
Just for one moment –
hearing someone call
Looked beyond the day in hand
There’s nothing there at all

 -from” Twenty-Four Hours” by Joy Division

1980 was a bizarre yet pivotal year for music. The first surge of punk had come and gone and was being homogenized by the marketing boys into a genre tagged as New Wave. The remnants of disco and funk had finally loosened a tenacious grip on the pop charts, but had not quite yet fully acquiesced to the still burgeoning hip hop/rap scene as the dance music du jour. What would soon become known as Hair Metal was still in its infancy; and the inevitable merger of “headphone” prog and bloated stadium rock sealed the deal with Pink Floyd’s cynical yet amazingly successful 2-LP “fuck you” to the music business, The Wall (the hit single from the album, “Another Brick in the Wall”, was the #2 song on Billboard’s chart for the year, sandwiched between Blondie’s “Call Me” and Olivia Newton-John’s “Magic”). MTV was still a year away from killing the radio stars.

The time was ripe for something new; perhaps a whole new paradigm. For my money, there were several key albums released that year that definitely lurched in that direction. They included Remain in Light by the Talking Heads, Sandinista by the Clash, Black Sea by XTC, Sound Affects by The Jam…and Closer by Joy Division.

Joy Division was a quartet from north of England way who formed in the late 70s. They mixed a punk ethos with a catchy but somber pop sensibility that echoed the stark industrial landscape of their Greater Manchester environs. Along with local contemporaries like The Fall and The Smiths, they helped seed what would eventually be referred to as the “Manchester scene” (brilliantly dramatized in the outstanding 2002 film, 24-Hour Party People).

I remember being  blown away the first time I heard Closer;  I was struck by the haunted baritone of lead singer Ian Curtis, who had a Jim Morrison-like way of chanting his dark, cryptic lyrics in such a manner that they really got under your skin. Like Morrison, Curtis’ touchstones as a songwriter seemed to draw more impetus from the likes of Conrad and Blake than Leiber and Stoller. It was more of an invocation of the soul, as opposed to merely “singing a song”.

Tragically, by the time that album had been released, and its memorable single “Love Will Tear Us Apart” was playing on the radio, Curtis had passed away, at the age of 23. Distraught over his deteriorating marriage and chronic health problems, he hung himself in his flat in May of 1980. There is a general consensus that side effects from the myriad of anti-seizure medications he was taking for epilepsy had contributed to elevating his depression and feelings of despair. The surviving band members regrouped, dusted themselves off and mutated into a more radio-friendly synth-pop outfit called New Order (and the rest, as they say, is history).

I know that doesn’t sound like the makings of a feel good summer movie, but I can’t heap enough praise upon Control, first-time director Anton Corbijn’s highly impressionistic dramatization of Curtis’ short-lived music career. Based on the book Touching from a Distance, a memoir by Curtis’ widow Deborah, the film (shot in stark black and white) eschews the usual biopic formula and instead aspires to setting a certain atmosphere and mood. Corbijn, known previously as a still photographer, actually had a brief professional relationship with Joy Division. He snapped a series of early publicity photos for the band, which  become iconic to fans.

The film is fueled by a mesmerizing performance from the relatively unknown Sam Reilly , who actually had a bit part in the aforementioned 24-Hour Party People playing Mark. E. Smith, lead singer of The Fal). He avoids merely “doing an impression” of Ian Curtis, opting instead for a very naturalistic, believable take on a gifted but tortured soul. The fact that Reilly is also a musician certainly doesn’t hurt either (all four of the actors portraying Joy Division actually did their own “live” singing and playing).

He holds his own against the more seasoned Samantha Morton, who plays his long-suffering wife. Morton is one of the finest and most fearless actresses of her generation; she keeps getting better.  Her character  reminded me of the type of role Rita Tushingham used to tackle head on in classic British “kitchen sink” dramas of the 1960s.

In fact, the intense realism that Reilly and Morton instill into their portrayals of a struggling young British working class couple, along with the black and white photography and gritty location filming strongly recalls classics of the aforementioned genre, like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Look Back in Anger and The Leather Boys. Even if you are not a fan of the band, Control is not to be missed.

The comedies of terror: Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay *** & Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 3, 2008)

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They say that tragedy plus time equals comedy. In the 2005 film, The Aristocrats, a documentary about the “filthiest joke in the world”, there is a fascinating bit of footage from the 2001 Friar’s Club Roast for Hugh Hefner, which took place just after 9/11. Gilbert Gottfried launched into  a bit about the attack. Within moments, he was being roundly catcalled by cries of “Too soon!” Mind you, this was a room full of professional funny people, who make their living off of irreverence. But that was then. I don’t know if I should laugh or cry  over the fact that we currently have two films in release that glibly incorporate 9/11 into their titles: Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay and Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? Has the War on Terror been slogging on for that long? Yes, it has.

Back in 2004, a modestly-budgeted stoner comedy, sporting a juvenile title and featuring two unknown leads, became an unexpected cult phenomenon. Arguably, the most surprising thing about Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle was that, between the bong hits, sex gags and scatological references, there lurked an undercurrent of sharp sociopolitical commentary about racial stereotyping in America (for the uninitiated, Harold and Kumar are portrayed by a Korean-American and Indian-American actor, respectively) The movie was gut-busting funny, and in a fresh way. The film’s co-creators, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Scholssberg, now officially turn their baked slacker heroes into a sort of Cheech and Chong franchise for millennials with the release of a politically topical sequel, Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay.

The events of the first movie are referred to as having occurred just “last week”.  Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) are excitedly packing their bags for a dream European vacation in weed-friendly Amsterdam. Unbeknownst to Harold, Kumar has smuggled his new invention, a “smokeless” bong, on board their flight. Since it is a homemade, cylindrical device containing liquid, it resembles a You Know What. When a “vigilant” passenger, already eyeballing Kumar with suspicion due to his ethnic countenance, accidentally catches a glimpse of him attempting to fire up his device in the bathroom, all hell breaks loose. Before they know it, Harold and Kumar have been handcuffed by on-board air marshals, given the third degree back on the ground by an overzealous, jingoistic government spook (played to the hilt by The Daily Show alumnus Rob Corddry) and issued a pair of orange jumpsuits, courtesy of the Gitmo quartermaster.

Through a serendipitous set of circumstances that could only occur in Harold and Kumar’s resin-encrusted alternate universe, they manage to break out, and hitch a boat ride to Florida (don’t ask). This sets off a series of wacky cross-country misadventures, mostly through the deep South (imagine the possibilities). As in the first film, the more ridiculously over-the-top and unlikely their predicament gets, the funnier it becomes (it’s kind of like being really, really stoned, now that I think about it; I mean, from what I’ve been told-ahem). Also, as in the previous movie, the duo’s Doogie ex machina appears just in time to lend a much-needed hand, in the person of “Neil Patrick Harris” (played with winking, hyper-hetero exaggeration by, erm, Neil Patrick Harris).

I will admit that my unabashed enjoyment of Hurwitz and Schlossberg’s oeuvre (if I may call it that after only two movies) is a guilty pleasure. Okay, so we’re not talking Coppola or Scorsese here. And I’ll grant you, H & K films can be crass, even vulgar at times; but it’s somehow good-naturedly crass and vulgar, in a South Park kind of way. I see a lot of parallels between Hurwitz and Schlosberg’s work and the output of South Park creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker.

Both teams serve up their social and political satire slyly cloaked by the generally silly behavior of their (literally and figuratively) cartoon-like protagonists. You can get away with quite a bit of subversive anarchy when your polemic is delivered “from of the mouth of babes”. At the end of the day, Harold and Kumar are classic “innocents” at heart, as are South Park’s little potty-mouthed darlings (or the young siblings on The Simpsons, baby Stewie on The Family Guy, etc. etc.). Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay may not be everybody’s bowl of Columbian, but I’ll be goddamned if it ain’t the funniest film I’ve seen so far this year.

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I wish I could say the same for the latest from documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), who I like to refer to as “Michael Moore lite”. Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? is an admirably earnest, if flawed attempt by the likeable Spurlock to reach out to the “everyday folks” living in the Middle East and show Americans that they’re really just like us, after all; you know- “people are people”, and all that. Oh, and while he was there, he thought he might get some leads on where Osama’s bin hidin’.

Spurlock’s concept for his new film was inspired by his wife’s pregnancy (their first child). While brainstorming proactive steps he could take to ensure a “safe world” for his unborn, he thought he might start by doing his part to end the war on terror-by helping our hapless government locate You Know Who. Using the gimmicky framing device of an ersatz video game to introduce film segments, we follow Spurlock’s progress as he travels to Egypt, Israel, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco in search of the vox populi (and the slippery tall dude with the walkie-talkie).

With the exception of a few extra-cranky customers, like a genuinely scary radical Muslim cleric with a vitriolic demeanor and a Charlie Manson glare , most of Spurlock’s subjects seem to be expressing a variation on “You know, I really don’t have any truck with the American people, but I do hate your government with the intensity of a thousand suns.” Proving of course, that they really are like us (well, those of us who have been paying close attention for the last seven years). And, naturally, the response to queries on bin-Laden’s whereabouts is usually a shrug and a laugh, or a vague point in the direction of the border they share with a neighboring country.

My favorite answer to that question comes from ahard-scrabbled Afghani tribesman who counters with “Who’s ‘Osama’?” When the interpreter tells him: “He’s the one who destroyed the buildings in America”, the old codger thinks on that for about five seconds, then testily snaps: “Fuck him.” Then, as an afterthought, before turning on his heel to dive back into his motley hut, he adds: “And fuck America”. That’s my kind of guy, a real pragmatist.

There are some other genuinely funny moments that temper the underlying grimness. For instance, a high ranking official in Tora Bora (location of the infamous subterranean HQ for bin Laden in Afghanistan) speaks enthusiastically of his proposed plan to turn the caves into a tourist attraction (I think there’s an idea for a Mel Brooks movie in there somewhere). Spurlock is to be admired for keeping a straight face throughout this particular interview.

Unfortunately , Spurlock’s  loses credibility  in two specific scenes. The first takes place in Tel Aviv, where Spurlock and his crew are stonewalled (and nearly stoned) by a group of ultra-orthodox Jews (Haredim, I believe, from their clothing). Spurlock mugs an annoyingly self-righteous “why are they persecuting me?” look at the camera while he’s being shoved about; as if he assumes that the viewer will find these angry men with hats very amusing.

Some sects of orthodox Jews are a very strict, closed society and wary of strangers (not unlike the Amish and the Mormon polygamist sect), so naturally they are not going to be too crazy about an outsider shoving cameras and microphones in their faces. What did he expect? I’d like to think Spurlock is smarter than that, especially when the message of his film is allegedly about reaching out to bridge cultural misunderstandings, as opposed to creating new ones.

The other scene that tends to cancel out any good will that precedes it occurs during the Saudi Arabia segment. Spurlock interviews two teenage male students. After giving us the disclaimers that the two interviewees were essentially handpicked (and likely briefed) by the school staff, and that two school officials insisted on being present during the interview, Spurlock precedes to pepper the boys with incendiary questions anyway. The anxiety and fear is quite palpable on the young men’s faces; they nervously glance off camera where the school observers are obviously positioned before answering each question with a variation on “I have no opinion on that.” OK, maybe that is Spurlock’s point; but by this time in the film, he has already firmly established that Saudi Arabia is a draconian oligarchy; what’s he trying to prove by shooting fish in a barrel?

You could call this a mixed review. If you got a kick out of Super Size Me, or his TV series 30 Days, you may be more forgiving of Spurlock’s trespasses in the film. Maybe I’m just being over-sensitive, and others may not glean the same subtext from the particular scenes I found objectionable. To be fair, I did laugh a lot, and as I stated earlier, I applaud the inspiration behind the film. Let’s call it a draw.

Chicken chucker, arms dealer, Brit killer: OSS 117:Cairo, Nest of Spies ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 17, 2008)

“I was woken by a guy screaming on a tower. I couldn’t sleep. I had to shut him up.”

 (Shocked tone) “A muezzin? You ‘shut up’ a muezzin?! He was calling for prayer!!”

 (Bemusedly) “Yours is a strange religion. You’ll grow tired of it…it won’t last long.”

 No, that transcript is not excerpted from secret Oval Office tapes; it’s an exchange between the cheerfully sexist, jingoistic, folkway-challenged and generally clueless French secret agent Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath (alias OSS 117) and his Egyptian liaison, the lovely Larmina El Akmar Betouche. The scene is from OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, a gallingly amusing Gallic spy romp from director Michel Hazanavicius.

The director and his screenwriter Jean-Francois Halin adapted the script based on characters from the original “OSS 117” novels by Jean Bruce, which concerned the misadventures of an Ian Fleming-esque French government agent. The books inspired a series of films, produced in France between 1956 and 1970. This latest installment played the festival circuit two years ago (I wasn’t able to get into the sold-out screening at the 2006 Seattle International Film Festival, much to my chagrin) but is only just now receiving American distribution in May of 2008 via limited engagements in select cities.

After a brief b&w prologue depicting agent OSS 117 (Jean Dujardin) handily dispatching a Nazi adversary from a plane (sans parachute) in a wartime escapade, the film flash-forwards to the year 1955. Hubert (as we will refer to him going forward) is sent to Cairo to investigate the mysterious death of a fellow agent. He is assisted by the aforementioned Larmina (Bernice Bejo) and just like an undercover 007, he is given a business front. In this case, our intrepid agent poses as a chicken exporter; and yes, all of the inherent comic possibilities involving this most ubiquitous species of barnyard fowl are gleefully explored (and the credits assure us that none were harmed during filming).

As the intrigue thickens, Hubert encounters some sexy royalty in the person of La princesse Al Taouk (Aure Atika) as well as the usual Whitman’s assortment of shady informers, sneaky assassins and dirty double dealers that populate exotic spy capers. In the interim, thanks to his deGaullist stance and blissful cultural ignorance of the Muslim world, Hubert manages to deeply offend nearly every local he comes in contact with. As one Egyptian associate muses to himself: “He is very stupid…or very smart.”

Hazanavicius has concocted a tremendously well-crafted and entertaining spy spoof here that actually gets funnier upon repeat viewings. Unlike the Austin Powers films, which utilizes the spy spoof motif primarily as an excuse for Mike Meyers to string together an assortment of glorified SNL sketches and (over) indulge in certain scatological obsessions, this film remains true and even respectful to the genre and era that it aspires to parody.

The acting tics, production design, costuming, music, use of rear-screen projection, even the choreography of the action scenes are so pitch-perfect that if you were to screen the film side by side with one of the early Bond entries (e.g. From Russia With Love) you would swear the films were produced the very same year.

I also have to credit the director’s secret weapon, which is leading man DuJardin. He has a marvelous way of underplaying his comedic chops that borders on genius. He portrays his well-tailored agent with the same blend of arrogance and elegance that defined Sean Connery’s 007, but tempers it with an undercurrent of obliviously graceless social bumbling (recalling Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau.

One of the running gags has Hubert uttering “deep thought” epiphanies that belabor the obvious. While getting a massage, he announces: “I love being rubbed with oil.” At breakfast, he realizes: “I love buttering my toast.” Stopping to gaze at a public fountain, he wistfully offers: “I love the white noise water makes.” DuJardin delivers these lines with the knowing wisdom of a high lama, imparting a Zen proverb. I tell you, the man is a bloody genius.

The Cost(Co) of conflict: War, Inc. **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 21, 2008)

In star/producer/co-writer John Cusack’s pet project War, Inc., one character delivers a throwaway line that must surely have been the pitch for the film: “This is like Strangelove in the desert.” Indeed, one senses the ghosts of savage satires past, like Dr. Strangelove, The President’s Analyst, Network and Winter Kills in this topical send-up of BushCo and the post-9/11 ‘murcan zeitgeist. Unfortunately, one also senses a lack of cohesion in an initially smart script that soon loses focus and goes tumbling ass over teakettle into broad farce, wildly firing its barbs in too many directions at the same time.

Cusack’s character is Brand Hauser, a hot-sauce chugging hit man with a tortured past who seems to be an amalgam of Jason Bourne, Captain Willard and, um, Chuck Barris. He has been dispatched to “Turaqistan” (ahem), a war-torn Middle Eastern hot spot ripe for reconstruction and corporate exploitation. He is there to terminate the country’s Oil Minister (Lyubomir Neikov) with extreme prejudice. The minister is a spanner in the works for the corporate machinations of Hauser’s employer, a former Vice-President turned CEO (Dan Ackroyd, doing a credible quacking Cheney) who now heads Tamerlane (a cross between Halliburton and Blackwater).

The prospect of spearheading the “first completely out-sourced war” appears to make the ex-Veep harder than Chinese arithmetic. In order to get close to his target, Hauser poses as the event coordinator of a Tamerlane-sponsored trade fair being held in the capital city’s “green zone”. Hauser’s front soon proves to be the tougher gig, as he juggles the demands of three women: his fellow operative posing as his P.A. (Joan Cusack), a tenacious lefty journalist (Marisa Tomei) and a petulant pop diva named Yonica Babyyeah (Hilary Duff). Hilarity ensues.

Reportedly, the filmmakers have coyly denied that this is an unofficial sequel to Grosse Pointe Blank, but obvious comparisons abound, particularly in just about every scene that the Cusack siblings share; it feels at the very least to be a nod and a wink to the roles they played in that movie. Admittedly, it is great fun watching those two working together again, but it only serves as a momentary distraction from the film’s uneven tone.

Director Joshua Seftel does his best to hold it together, and manages to give the film a slick look that belies a low budget. Cusack was inspired to tackle the project after reading an article written by Canadian journalist/activist Naomi Klein back in 2004 (Tomei’s character is, I would assume, based on Klein). He enlisted the help of two talented co-writers, Bullworth scripter Jeremy Pisker and satirist Mark Leyner. However, this may be a case of “too many cooks” and could explain the screenplay’s scattershot approach.

I don’t mind an occasional brushstroke of symbolism in a film, but there are one too many instances in War, Inc. where it’s caked on with a trowel. One set piece in particular, a flashback scene showing Hauser in a violent, gladiatorial confrontation with his former boss (an even hammier than usual Ben Kingsley) takes place in a dilapidated theme park that looks to have been a replica of ancient Rome. It’s the end of the world as we know it!

I think the malady here is similar to that which plagued Lions for Lambs: an overdose of intent. Redford’s film came on too somber and preachy, even for the choir. War, Inc. swings to the opposite extreme; it’s too manic and overeager to beat us over the head with what we already know: Iraq is a shameful mess, Bush and his cronies have completely blurred the line between war and commerce, and the majority of the American public is too busy watching the sun rise and set over Britney’s thighs to really notice. I’m afraid that War, Inc. is another case of “I really wanted to like this, but…”

Of second childishness and mere oblivion: Synecdoche, NY ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 15, 2008)

Time – He’s waiting in the wings
He speaks of senseless things
His script is you and me boys

-David Bowie

“Did you see their faces?” my friend stage-whispered to me as we shuffled up the aisle toward the movie theater’s exit. “Yes,” I answered, staring glumly at my shoes, “I did.” He was referring to the ashen-faced patrons with thousand-yard stares who remained pinned to their seats, following a Sunday matinee showing of Synecdoche, New York. “Well,” I deadpanned, in a halfhearted attempt to lighten the mood, “Should we just go outside now and throw ourselves under the nearest bus?” My friend appeared to actually be weighing the pros and cons for a moment. “What do you say we grab some pizza instead?” he finally countered. We decided on the pizza. After all, it was only a movie.

Well, technically, it was only a movie about a theater director whose life is only a play. Or was it? Who were all these players, strutting and fretting about their two hours upon the movie screen? Were they just a Fig Newton of someone’s overactive imagination? And why didn’t the “play” in the film ever have an audience? Maybe we should ask the guy who wrote and directed it (I just happen to have Charlie Kaufman right here, under my desk on Floor 7 ½). Mr. Kaufman, what was that you once said about third acts?

 I don’t know what the hell a third act is.

 -Charlie Kaufman

 Oh. You’re not helping (I’ve got a review to write here, and deadline is fast approaching). If you are just joining us (and wondering when the hell the review is going to start) we’re talking about screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who, with his stubbornly insistent anti-multiplex sensibility and a resultant propensity for penning feverishly bizarre, densely oblique narratives (Being John Malkovich, Human Nature, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) has become a hot property in cult/art house filmdom, and The Guy Everybody Wants To Work With (For Scale). Now someone has gone and given Kaufman a director’s chair, and the result is the most simultaneously brilliant and maddeningly indecipherable character study since (dare I say it?) Berlin Alexanderplatz (though the running time is 13 hours shorter).

First, let’s get something out of the way, regarding the film’s unpronounceable, Spell-check challenged title. “Synecdoche” is Kaufman’s cryptic nom de plume for Schenectady, a real town in upstate New York. Even though I briefly lived in the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area, I’m afraid I cannot shed any light on the significance of the title (maybe Kaufman couldn’t come up with a clever misspelling for Massapequa?). Okay, I’m being a wee bit facetious; according to the dictionary, it means:

 ..a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole or the whole for a part, the special for the general or the general for the special, as in ten sail for ten ships or a Croesus for a rich man.

Get it? Got it. Good. Er-let’s move on to the synopsis portion of this “review”, shall we?

Philip Seymour Hoffman eats up the screen five ways from Sunday as Caden Cotard, a struggling regional theater director from Schenectady who gets a shot at  mounting his magnum opus on the Great White Way after scoring a  “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation. Obsessed with “keeping it real”, Caden ambitiously leases a huge Manhattan warehouse, and literally constructs a theatrical version of his life, replete with life-sized reproductions of the places he has lived and a large ensemble cast to portray himself and all the people he has known. Lest you assume this is “Rocky on Broadway”, two things: a) This was written by Charlie Kaufman, and b) Something that John Lennon once observed- “Genius is pain.”

Caden has his fair share of pain, physical and emotional. He suffers from an unknown malady that is systematically destroying his autonomic functions. His first wife (Catherine Keener) has left him (with their daughter) to pursue a career as an artist in Germany, where her myopic paintings (so tiny that they require  magnifying goggles for viewing) have won her accolades. Caden has remarried, to one of his leading ladies (Michelle Williams), but things aren’t going so well. His therapist (Hope Davis) is too self-absorbed and preoccupied with marketing her self-help books to offer him any counsel. The only woman in his life that seems to understand him is his personal assistant (Samantha Morton) with whom he develops a complex, long-standing, (mostly) platonic relationship.

As dark as this film is, Kaufman seems to be having fun with the Chinese Box aspect of Caden’s completely self-referential, decades-long production. The very concept of an ongoing stage piece, presented in “real time”, as a metaphor for someone’s ongoing life brings up a lot of existential questions, like, how do you “rehearse” reality? Don’t you have to be psychic? Kaufman’s narrative idea recalls some of Andy Warhol’s experiments, like his 1963 film, Sleep, a five hour epic depicting someone sleeping for five hours. Some people called it genius, others a snore (sorry).

Synecdoche, New York may or may not be a work of genius, but it is anything but a snore, thanks to a brilliant cast. Hoffman remains one of the most amazing actors of his generation. The ensemble holds an embarrassment of riches; in addition to the aforementioned, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Jason Leigh bring their formidable skills to the table as well. If you’re like me, you may not fully comprehend the whys and wherefores of all that commences during the course of this astounding 2-hour mind fuck, but you’ll love the pizza afterwards (…in fair round belly with good capon lined).

Silence is golden: Continental: a Film Without Guns ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 31, 2008)

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Quebecois writer-director Stephane LeFleur’s Continental: A Film Without Guns breathes new life into the “network narrative” (a device popularized by Robert Altman, but which has become  a cinematic staple dating at least as far back as 1932’s Grand Hotel.)

In fact, LeFleur uses a hotel as the rendezvous point in this story of four lonely and disenfranchised people, whose lives are destined to intersect, directly or tangentially. In the enigmatic opening scene, a middle aged insurance salesman snoozes through his bus stop and wakes up at the end of the line (literally and/or figuratively). He calmly gathers up his briefcase and coat, and after what appears to be a moment of Zen, meditating on the night sounds of the forest, walks straight into the darkness of the trees and disappears.

The remainder of the film delves into the ripple effect that the man’s disappearance has on the lives of four people-his 50-ish wife (Marie-Ginette Guay), a 30-ish life insurance salesman who is hired to replace him (Real Bosse), a 60-ish owner of a second-hand store (Gilbert Sicotte) and a 20-something hotel receptionist (Fanny Mallette). To be sure, the age spread of the characters indicates a convenient symmetry, but LeFleur is examining certain universal truths about the human condition that transcend age and/or gender; namely, the fear of dying, and perhaps most terrifying of all- the fear of dying alone.

That is not to say that this is a Bergman-esque, “excuse me while I go hang myself in the closet” fest. LeFleur injects just enough deadpan humor into his script to diffuse the inherently depressing nature of his themes. All members of the cast give uniformly excellent performances. The almost painterly photography (by DP Sara Mishara) is richly moody and atmospheric, no small feat in a film largely comprised of static interior shots.

LeFleur exhibits a style quite similar to that of fellow Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan (The Adjustor, Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter). Like Egoyan, LeFleur is not afraid to hold a shot as long as he needs to, nor is he afraid of silence. Silence can speak volumes, especially in the hands of a skilled director (just watch any Kurosawa film for a master class). In a movie season of explosions and screeching tires, a little silence can be golden.

All by myself: Mr. Lonely ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 31, 2008)

I will admit  that Harmony Korine is not one of my favorite directors. If you have followed this weekly post for a while, you know that I have high tolerance for what others might call “weird” or “unwatchable” cinema, but frankly, I found Korine’s Gummo (1997) and Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) a little too weird and (virtually) unwatchable. However, after taking in Mister Lonely, I guess Korine can make a “watchable” film…in the form of this tragicomic rumination on alienation, mental illness, and the human tendency to kowtow at the alter of both pop culture and “God” with equal fervor.

Beautifully shot by DP Marcel Zyskind (Code 46, The Road to Guantanamo), the film begins with an elegiac slow-mo sequence reminiscent of the opening credits for Blue Velvet. Choreographed to Bobby Vinton’s plaintive ballad “Mr. Lonely”, a Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna), replete with requisite red jacket, shades and surgical mask, rides a scooter, with a stuffed, winged monkey toy in tow. It’s a remarkable scene that manages to convey both a blissful innocence and an aching sadness at the same time.

The otherwise shy and awkward young man puts out his hat and performs all the requisite flamboyant MJ dance moves in the streets of Paris, where he is largely ignored; he supplements this meager income with help from an “agent” who gets him the odd booking. While performing at a nursing home, he meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton). The two have an immediate attraction to each other, although “Marilyn” is quick to mention her husband, a Charlie Chaplin impersonator (Denis Lavant). She and “Charlie” live on a communal farm in Scotland with their daughter “Shirley Temple” and a few dozen other celebrity impersonators; she talks Michael into joining this odd but welcoming community (the “One of us! One of us!” chant from Freaks did enter my mind.)

At first glance, this extended family of fringe dwellers appears to lead a Utopian existence. They have a barn (yes, at one point, they do put on a show). They cheerfully tend to the livestock and enjoy warm communal mealtimes together (usually in full costume), but upon closer examination, it seems that there is trouble in paradise.

A sadomasochistic undercurrent runs through Marilyn and Charlie’s marriage; a tearful Marilyn blurts out the film’s best line: “Sometimes, when I look at you, you seem more like Adolph Hitler than Charlie Chaplain.” The “Pope” (James Fox) is an alcoholic. “Abe Lincoln” (Richard Strange) has an impulse to utilize “fuck” in every sentence. The Buckwheat impersonator has an unhealthy obsession with chickens…and so on. Korine throws in a weaker second narrative concerning a missionary priest/pilot (German director Werner Herzog, who cannot act) and his posse of er, flying nuns who help him do relief work in Central America. I will say no more.

Luna and Morton both give lovely and touching performances. I won’t pretend I completely grasped Korine’s intent; but his film is engaging, emotionally resonant, and ultimately haunting. I find it easier to contextualize by pointing to two Nicholas Roeg films that I strongly suspect had a major influence on Korine here: Performance (1970) and Insignificance (1985).

In Performance (written and co-directed by Donald Cammel), the narrative plays with the concept of two self-loathing protagonists who swap identities in an attempt to escape themselves; in essence “impersonating” each other. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Korine has cast two of the principal actors from Performance in his film-James Fox and Anita Pallenberg (who plays the Queen of England impersonator).

In  Insignificance, screenwriter Terry Johnson fantasizes Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Senator Joe McCarthy and Albert Einstein interacting in a hotel room in the 1950s; the result is a strange but compelling treatise on fame, politics and nuclear paranoia. Korine uses the same device (the unlikely juxtaposition of iconic figures) to expound on his themes as well. Granted, Mister Lonely is not for all tastes, but if you would prefer to not “Mess With the Zohan” this summer, thank you very much, it is one possible alternative.