Endless rain into a paper cup (with dancing!) – Across the Universe ***

By Dennis Hartley

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

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When I first heard that there was a new movie musical based on interpretations of classic Beatle songs, that nervous tic in my left eye started up again. I don’t think I have ever quite fully recovered from the trauma of watching Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the final straw that broke the back of entertainment mogul Robert Stigwood’s empire back in 1978. Sometimes, during those long dark nights of my soul, the apparition of George Burns still appears unbidden before me; singing “Fixing a Hole” (shudder!). (And let’s pretend that All This and World War II never even happened, OK?).

However, when I found out that the gifted film and stage director Julie Taymor (Titus) was at the helm, I decided to give her new piece a chance. Across the Universe is fundamentally a collection of visually stunning, slickly choreographed production numbers, all propelled by Beatles covers loosely connecting the requisite “boy meets girl” motif. Toss in 60s references (Vietnam, Leary, Kesey, Owsley, the Weathermen, Hendrix, Joplin, etc.)…and voila! The narrative is a bit thin; this will likely be a sticking point for anyone looking for a deeper meditation on the peace love and dope generation.

The story’s central character is Jude (Jim Sturgess), a young working class Liverpudlian who stows away illegally to the States in search of his father, an American GI who had a brief wartime fling with his mother. He ends up at Princeton University, where he finds out his father now works as a janitor. Jude soon falls in with Max (Joe Anderson), a free-spirited Ivy League slacker, through whom he meets the love of his life, Max’s sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood).

Eventually, the trio decides to drop out and move to Manhattan, where they find an apartment managed by the (sexy!) Sadie (Dana Fuchs), a hippie earth mother archetype who also is an up and coming rock singer (replete with bluesy Janis Joplin wail). The three roommates are soon sucked into the vortex of 60’s turbulence. Max is drafted and shipped to Vietnam; Lucy throws herself into political activism and the mercurial Jude, still trying to find himself, flirts with becoming an artist.

There are other main characters, but they are somewhat underwritten and largely there for color. For example, one character named Prudence (I assume you’ve caught on to the name game by now?) appears to exist solely to make her grand entrance in the film’s lamest visual pun-she comes in through the bathroom window .

There are some memorable cameos. Joe Cocker belts out a great version of “Come Together”, U-2’s Bono dispenses hallucinogens and hams it up as the day tripping “Dr. Robert”, crooning “I Am The Walrus” and Eddie Izzard (bearing an eerie resemblance to the late Oliver Reed as he appeared in Ken Russell’s Tommy) cavorts with a chorus line comprised of Blue Meanies, to the strains of “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite”.

Inevitably, a few of the more exuberant numbers recall Milos Forman’s 1979 film version of Hair. In fact, one could say that some elements of the story line in Across the Universe recall Hair as well; but I think Taymor is sharp enough to navigate that fine line between “inspiration” and “plagiarism” (or as film makers are fond of calling it: “paying homage”). I also gleaned clever references to The Graduate and Alice’s Restaurant.

If the film has a weakness, it lies in the casting of the two leads. The character of Jude, as written, has obvious parallels John Lennon’s life; Liverpool roots, an estranged father, his creative angst and inherent cynicism. Sturgess doesn’t quite have the depth that a more seasoned actor might have put into those elements of the character. Wood sleepwalks through her role; it’s a disappointing follow-up to her acclaimed performance in Thirteen.

At the end of the day, however, we must keep in mind that this is, after all, a musical. Audiences seem to be much more forgiving about rote line readings when there’s lots of good singing and dancing. Even a genuine genre classic like West Side Story had weaknesses on that front; Richard Beymer was no Brando, and Natalie Wood could have used a better dialect coach. But what do people remember most about that film? The kickass choreography and the incredible music score. And do you want to know what the best part is about Across the Universe is? The Bee Gees are nowhere in sight.

Thursday’s child is Sunday’s clown: Factory Girl **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 18, 2007)

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(This review is based on the “extended” director’s cut of the film that appears on the DVD; I have not screened the original theatrical version.)

One of the more interesting trends to emerge in simpatico with the ever-narrowing window between the moment a first-run film leaves the multiplex and its appearance on DVD is what I like to refer to as the “auto repair cut” of box-office flops (“Okay, I think I’ve found the problem -try starting it now…”)

One recent example is George Hickenlooper’s extended cut of Factory Girl, which is his biopic about the pin-up girl of the 1960s underground, Andy Warhol discovery Edie Sedgwick. The film, plagued with production problems and prematurely rushed into theaters late last year, did marginal box office at best, and was even less enthusiastically received by some of the surviving real-life participants in the Warhol Factory scene

Edie Sedgwick was the Paris Hilton of the 1960s; a trust fund babe imbued with no real discernible native talent aside from the ability to attract the paparazzi by associating with just the right people in just the right places at just the right juncture of the pop culture zeitgeist. Despite growing up as a child of privilege, Sedgwick’s childhood was less than idyllic (two of her brothers committed suicide and her mother was institutionalized).

She arrived in New York City in the mid 60s and was drawn to the downtown art scene, where she was subsequently spotted by Warhol, who was taken by her wide-eyed, waif-like beauty and vowed to make her a “superstar”. Warhol featured her in a number of his experimental films, and she became the iconic symbol of the “Factory”, where Warhol worked on his multi-media projects and played host to a co-op of avant-garde artists, musicians, actors and hangers-on. Sedgwick fell from grace with Warhol when she became strung out on various substances and was financially cut off by her family. She sought treatment and cleaned up, only to tragically die of a drug overdose at age 28.

This is a rich vein from which to mine a biopic. The director is no stranger to this territory; his outstanding 2003 documentary about L.A. DJ/rock impresario Rodney Bingenheimer, The Mayor of the Sunset Strip basically deals with the same theme. So, is Hickenlooper up to the task? Well, yes and no. His affection for the subject is evidenced in his canny visual replication of the 60s underground art scene; he alternates grainy, b&w film footage with saturated 16mm color stock and utilizes hand-held cinema verite shots, aping the look of Warhol’s own experimental films. The fashion, the music, and the overall vibe of the era is pretty much captured in a bottle here.

But what about the narrative? Ay, there’s the rub. The director’s pastiche plays like the Cliff’s Notes version of Warhol and Sedgwick’s partnership. A lot of things are left unexplained; peripheral characters come and go without exposition (it wasn’t until the credits rolled that I learned tidbits like “Oh, that was supposed to be Moe Tucker from the Velvet Underground. Coulda fooled me…”). In a fictional story, you can get away with creating bit parts like “Man #2 with suitcase” or “Crazy bag lady in subway”, but when you are dramatizing a true story…well, I think you see my point. (Ironically, the 30 minute documentary extra on the DVD, featuring recollections from friends and family. offers more insight into what made Sedgwick tick than the full length feature does).

One cannot fault the actors. Sienna Miller gives her all in the lead role and does an admirable job portraying the full arc of Edie’s transition from an innocent pixie, fresh from her parent’s pastoral country estate, to a haggard junkie, encamped in a dingy room at the Chelsea Hotel. The always excellent Guy Pearce disappears into a spooky evocation of Warhol. It’s not as easy as one might think to convincingly inhabit Warhol’s deadpan persona; several actors have made valiant efforts (David Bowie, Jared Harris and Crispin Glover) but generally end up doing little more than donning a white wig and delivering a rote compendium of blank stares and signature catch phrases (“Umm, yeah. That’s great.” “Yeah, hi.”).

If you’ve seen footage of the real deal, Warhol was quite a subversive wiseacre. Pearce perfectly captures Warhol’s calculatingly detached, bemused demeanor. Even the wooden Hayden Christensen registers a pulse and delivers a  spirited impression of Bob Dylan. Sorry-did I say ‘Bob Dylan’? I meant to say, ‘Billy Quinn’ (as in “The Mighty Quinn”?), referred to as a “famous folk singer”.

Factory Girl is perhaps not quite as dismal as many have led you to believe, but it is still not as good as one might have hoped (I guess we can call this a ‘mixed review’).

Bless CC and its vanilla suburbs: Talk to Me **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 4, 2007)

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“Wake up, goddammit!” As far as daybreak salutations go, that may not be as sanguine as, let’s say, “goo-oood morning, VietNAAAM!”, but for D.C. radio personality Ralph “Petey” Greene, it was all part of “keepin’ it real” for the better part of two decades.In the new biopic, Talk to Me, director Kasi Lemmons tackles the true story of the ex-con who went on to become an immensely popular DJ, community activist, comedian and TV show host in the Washington D.C. market from the mid 1960s up until his death in 1984.

Don Cheadle (who co-produced) delivers another amazing performance…and it’s a good thing too, because it is the saving grace in a film that might otherwise play out like a glorified episode of WKRP in Cincinnati. His portrayal of the fast-talking, streetwise Greene grabs your attention from the get go, as we find him working his first DJ gig-broadcasting live and direct from the warden’s office over a jailhouse P.A. system. Judging from his fellow inmates’ reactions, it becomes clear that Greene has a natural gift, not only for being entertaining, but articulating what his audience is thinking as well.

In 1966, Greene is released, and through a series of machinations (and sheer chutzpah) manages to ingratiate himself with Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), program director of Washington D.C. soul station WOL. Against his better judgment, Hughes puts his job on the line and gives the motor-mouthed hustler a shot in the air chair.

Greene’s on-air debut is dramatized in a somewhat apocryphal manner (did he really open the mike and refer to Berry Gordy as a “pimp” right out of the starting gate, much to Management’s chagrin?) but the scene is representational of a pivotal point in radio history where some DJs were transitioning from the superficial Wolfman Jack/Murray the K/Cousin Brucie school to becoming “real” personalities with an actual world view.

Before long, Greene’s candid ruminations on the social issues of the day, as well as the urban black experience in general strikes a chord with the D.C. radio audience. Dewey Hughes soon senses an even larger potential for Greene to parlay his talents into stand up comedy and TV as well, offering to manage his career (the reenactment of Greene’s D.C. TV show led me to wonder if he was the inspiration for Chris Rock’s SNL character “Nat X”; right down to the lingo, the dashiki, the giant ‘fro and the over-size rattan chair!).

Unfortunately, the final third of the film gets bogged down in the type of biopic cliché that has ultimately demoted other potentially great films into garden-variety banality (“Bird” and “Ray” come to mind). The film is ultimately about yet another gifted performer squandering his or her potential through substance abuse and/or self sabotaging behavior. Haven’t we suffered through enough of these predictable story arcs?

I would have liked to have seen a bit more attention to detail in the depiction of the radio station milieu. Let me confess upfront that this is a pet peeve because I have worked in the radio business since 1974, so I tend get nitpicky about technical inaccuracies in radio-themed films (don’t worry, I won’t bore you with itemized minutiae about equipment and studio layouts!). Oh, and by the way-if I see one more movie set at a radio station that features a scene where a DJ defiantly barricades himself inside the studio and continues to talk while Management and/or security guards struggle to force the door open, I’ll rip off my headphones and run screaming into the sunset. It just doesn’t happen (that often).

The supporting cast is good. Taraji P. Henson portrays Greene’s long suffering girlfriend, Vernell Watson, with aplomb (and a nod to Pam Grier). Cedric the Entertainer hams it up as late night DJ “Nighthawk” Bob Terry (recalling Venus Flytrap on WKRP). Also with Martin Sheen, who feels a bit squandered here as a cartoon character GM who gets to fume and sputter and pound the studio window whenever Greene’s antics get too risqué and scream cornball lines like “What in the blue blazes do you think you’re doing!?”.

I want to stress however, that the film is worth watching for two major reasons. Cheadle and Ejiofor. They are both tremendously charismatic and talented actors, demonstrating an onscreen chemistry that I think could turn them into a Newman-Redford sized juggernaut, should they decide to work together again (with some better scripts, I hope).

The scouring of the shire: Manufactured Landscapes ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

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After viewing Canadian documentary filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes, you may not be able to ever look at a “Made in China” product label again without envisioning the film’s unforgettable opening scene.

In a tracking shot that would make Orson Welles proud, Baichwal’s camera dollies along the factory floor of a surrealistically huge Chinese manufacturing plant, passing endless rows of work benches, manned by thousands of employees. The shot dissolves into a striking, beautifully composed photograph of the entire milieu. The spectacle of myriad factory drones in their bright yellow uniforms, as captured in the photo, resembles a “human beehive” in every sense of the word. This is how we are introduced to the photography of Edward Burtynsky, the subject of Baichwal’s documentary.

Baichwal follows Burtynsky as he travels through China photographing the devastating impact of that country’s industrial revolution upon its environment. Under Mao, China was transformed into a nation 90% agrarian and 10% urban; in a relatively short period of time, the current regime has facilitated a near flip-flop of that ratio. Through Burtynsky’s lens, it quickly becomes apparent that there is a substantial price to pay for such frenetically paced “progress” (especially after a visit to the Three Gorges Dam project, which has required the dismantlement and obliteration of 13 cities, brick by brick).

Burtynsky’s eye discerns a kind of terrible beauty in the wake of the profound and irreversible human imprint incurred by accelerated “modernization”. As captured by Burtynsky’s camera, strip-mined vistas recall the stark desolation of NASA photos sent from the Martian surface; mountains of “e-waste” dumped in a vast Chinese landfill take on a kind of almost gothic, cyber-punk dreamscape. The photographs begin to play like a scroll through Google Earth images as reinterpreted by Jackson Pollock or M.C. Escher.

Burtynsky states in the film that his work is “apolitical”. Despite her subject’s disclaimer, however, director Baichwal sneaks in a point of view here and there. In one scene, Burtynsky comes up against some reticent company officials, who attempt to convince him that the “light is bad” for photos. When that fails to sway, they ask the filmmakers to turn their equipment off. They pretend to comply, surreptitiously keeping the camera going anyway as the officials then admit that they are afraid that any photos depicting an environmental impact might give anyone who would view them the “wrong impression”.

This is a worthwhile film, with a unique, slightly more artistic bent than the most of the recent spate of environmentally-themed, “sky is falling” docs (I am quite cognizant that the sky, indeed, is falling, but enough with the lecturing already.)

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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