Paging Dr. Leakey: 10,000 B.C. **

By Dennis Hartley

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

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A fact is a fact. Director Roland Emmerich makes great movie trailers. C’mon-admit it, you loved watching the White House blow up real good in the previews for Independence Day. For The Day After Tomorrow, he had you at the tornado-fueled disintegration of the “Hollywood” sign. You cried like a little schoolboy when Matthew Broderick exclaimed “He’s pregnant!” in the trailer for the 1998 remake of Godzilla. And I know that you haven’t been able to avoid the TV teasers for his latest epic, the prehistoric adventure 10,000 B.C. (unless you’ve been living in a…oh, never mind).

Emmerich is the heir apparent to the late Irwin Allen (aka “The Master of Disaster”); he has the same penchant for producing audience pleasing spectacles unencumbered by complex narrative or character development. But you can’t argue with his marketing savvy.

For his new film, Emmerich takes a break from the apocalyptic gloom and doom and plunders Aesop’s fables, Atlantean legend, Mel Gibson, John Ford, Steven Spielberg, the Discovery Channel’s Walking with Prehistoric Beasts and even his own 1994 cult favorite Stargate to concoct a hunk of cave-aged cinematic cheese that barely sits on a Ritz.

The story (co-scripted by the director with Harald Kloser) allegedly takes place sometime around, oh, 12,000 years ago and concerns a small tribe of mammoth hunters. The men (who all appear to have been cloned from Counting Crows’ lead singer) hunt, naturally, whilst the women busily gather (and still find time to maintain their perfect Bo Derek cornrows). The tribe is led by an aging matriarch and seer named, appropriately enough, Old Mother (Mona Hammond, channeling Cousin Itt from The Addams Family).

Old Mother prophesies big doings for a young hunter named D’leh (uncharismatic leading man Steven Strait). D’leh apparently is the Chosen One (chosen for what, specifically, is not made quite clear). There is a bit of exposition provided via some underwritten narration (voiced over by a palpably disinterested Omar Sharif, who sounds like he would rather be playing bridge). One thing is made quite clear…D’leh is destined to eventually knock sandals with pretty, blue-eyed Evolet (Camilla Belle).

However, before D’leh’s destiny can be, er, fulfilled, his beloved is kidnapped by a band of Persian-looking horsemen, referred to by the mammoth hunters as the “four-legged demons”. D’leh forms a posse with his best bud Tic’ Tic (Cliff Curtis, probably pondering how the hell he got from Whale Rider to here) and the chase is on.

Many perils lie in wait, like roving packs of huge, wingless avian raptors, who turn the tables on Thanksgiving by gobbling up humans like so many delicious birdie num-nums. D’leh takes a tumble into an animal trap, and makes like Androcles with a larger-than-scale saber-toothed tiger. As the dynamic duo pursues their quarry, they pick up reinforcements in the unlikely form of a tribe of African warriors (Dr. Leakey is spinning in his grave). We also learn some interesting facts about the local geography. Although the mammoth hunters appear to live on a sub-arctic taiga, rimmed by snowy peaks, they are only a day or two’s stroll from grassy African style savannahs, lush tropical rainforests, and a vast sandy desert. But hey, it’s only a movie, right?

The story climaxes in an opulent desert city that looks like a leftover movie set from Apocalypto (or Cleopatra) replete with pyramids, toiling slave laborers, high priests sporting bejeweled feathered hats, and a god-king who demands the odd human sacrifice.

So should this post have been titled When Anachronisms Ruled the Earth? Mmm, maybe. (I also toyed with 10 IQ,  Mammoth Misfire, Dude, Where’s My Spear?,  Two Years Before the Mastodon, and Yabba Dabba Doo Doo …but hey, I don’t want to bore you with details about my “process”). One gloriously incongruous moment that elicited unintentional laughs and nominates the film for future camp status: a climactic, mascara-streaked crying scene (even the Geico Caveman would find Evelot’s “raccoon eyes” a bit out of place 12,000 years before the debut of Maybelline and Max Factor).

You’re probably getting a vibe that I’m not recommending that you go out of your way to shell out your ten bucks for this one? Well, that depends. The CGI creations are convincing, and there are a few rousing action scenes, if that’s what you’re in the mood for. If you have a soft spot for the prehistoric adventure genre to begin with, you will likely be more forgiving to Emmerich’s liberal use of “artistic license” (when I was 11 years old, ogling Raquel Welch for 90 minutes while she ran around in a bear fur bikini, fleeing from hungry dinosaurs, do you think I was stressing out over epochal accuracy?). If you’re an anthropologist, you will definitely want to avoid this one like the Plague (that was, like, back in the Middle Ages… with Robin Hood and all those dudes…right?)

Confessions of a dangerous mind: Frost/Nixon ****

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devised at first to keep the strong in awe.

-Wm. Shakespeare (from Richard III)

I’m saying that when the president does it…that means it’s not illegal.

-Richard M. Nixon

There’s an old theatrical performer’s axiom that goes “Always leave ‘em wanting more.” In August of 1974, President Richard Nixon made his Watergate-weary exit from the American political stage with a nationally televised resignation soliloquy, and left ‘em wanting more…answers. Any immediate hopes for an expository epilogue to this 5 year long usurpation of the Constitution  and Shakespearean tragedy were abruptly dashed one month later when President Gerald Ford granted him a full pardon. Like King Lear, the mad leader slunk back to his castle by the sea and out of public view.

Time passed. Most Americans turned their attention to the recession of ’74-’75, and various shiny distractions like Pet Rocks, disco balls, and Charlie’s Angels. Some inquiring minds, however, still wanted to know. One of them was a British television personality/savvy self-promoter by the name of David Frost, who had been kicking around the medium since the early 60s in various guises,  from droll satirist (That Was the Week that Was and The Frost Report in the U.K.) to straight-up talk show host (Frost on America).

Although he occasionally interviewed politicians and statesmen, he wasn’t generally thought of as a “journalist” prior to 1977. When he first started shopping an idea to tackle former President Nixon in a series of exclusive TV interviews, he raised many an eyebrow and was laughed out of a few network executive’s offices (it would be like David Letterman suddenly deciding that he wanted to become the next Mike Wallace… “Get out of here, you nut!”). Undeterred, Frost decided that he would fund the project himself and independently syndicate the broadcasts. Eventually, of course, the interviews did hit the airwaves, and the rest, as they  say, is History.

While the broadcasts themselves have become the stuff of legend to political junkies (as it is the closest anyone ever got to coaxing anything resembling a pang of conscience and regret from The Tricky One for his crimes), the machinations leading up to the actual broadcasts may not sound like the makings of an engrossing tale, but it has inspired a popular Broadway play and now a riveting new film.

Guided with an assured hand by director Ron Howard, and adapted for the screen by Peter Morgan (from his own award-winning play), Frost/Nixon is a superbly crafted mélange of history lesson, courtroom drama, backstage tale,  championship boxing match, and (perhaps most importantly) another tie-in for you to use to impress friends with your prowess at playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

Morgan’s screenplay is deftly built around this perfect setup for a clash of the titans: The Consummate Showman vs. The Consummate Politician. The “oil and water” mix of the two personalities is also a natural for theatrical consideration. Frost was good-looking, charming, glib,  and fashionably attired; whereas Nixon was shifty-eyed, socially awkward and brooding, with a relatively rumpled countenance.

In this corner: Former President Richard M. Nixon (Frank Langella, reprising his Tony-winning stage role), his agent Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones), his former White House Chief of Staff/Man Friday Jack Brennen (Kevin Bacon!), and wife Pat (Patty McCormack). And in this corner: David Frost (Michael Sheen, also reprising his Broadway role), his chief researchers (Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt) and girlfriend/Muse (Rebecca Hall).

Langella and Sheen are nicely in tune with each other onscreen; likely this is due to the fact that they’ve had ample opportunity to flesh out their respective characters during  the course of their  Broadway run. It’s one of the best performances I’ve seen by Langella (he already has a Golden Globe nom, we will see what happens come Oscar time). Armed with Morgan’s incisive dialog, and with Howard’s skillful and unobtrusive direction to cover his flank, he  uncannily captures the essence of Nixon’s contradictions and complexities; the supreme intelligence, the grandiose pomposity and the congenital craftiness, all corroded by the insidious paranoia that eventually consumed his soul, and by turn, the soul of the nation.

All the supporting performances are wonderful, particularly from Platt and Rockwell as Frost’s tenacious strategists, who in a roundabout way play out like Tom Stoppard’s re-imagining of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Nixon’s Hamlet (if I may continue to run with the Shakespearean analogies). Indeed, it is Rockwell’s character who utters the most insightful observation in the script about Nixon’s Achilles Heel in this affair; he posits that no matter how cagily Nixon fancied himself to be putting one over on Frost, he was ultimately done in by something that never lies: “The reductive power of the close-up.” Anon. (Fade to black).

Swing voters and Nixon calling: Swing Vote **1/2 & Deja vu ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 9, 2008)

“If daddy punches a chad, an angel gets his wings.”

 With less than 100 shopping days left until The Most Important Election Day Ever, I thought I would alert you to a couple of politically-themed films that have reached out from behind the curtain to give a timid tug on Batman’s cape, and tide us over until Oliver Stone’s W opens this fall.

First up on the ballot is Swing Vote, a lightweight but agreeable political fantasy/civics lesson from writer-director Joshua Michael Stern (Neverwas). Signaling a return to form for star Kevin Costner, the film speculates on what would happen if a presidential election literally hinged on one person’s vote (I already said it’s a fantasy).

Costner plays the underachieving Bud Johnson, a trailer-dwelling, beer-quaffing, NASCAR worshiping single parent who supports himself and daughter Molly (amazing 11-year old newcomer Madeline Carroll) with a job at an egg-packaging plant in Texico, New Mexico. Young Molly may be the “dependent” as far as Family Services is concerned, but in reality takes on the role of the responsible parent in the household. She constantly admonishes her Dad for his drinking, poor grooming habits and slack attitude toward his job. The civic-minded Molly also takes it upon herself to register her father for voting in an upcoming national election, much to his chagrin (he’d rather not be bothered with any pesky jury duty). Needless to say, he doesn’t follow politics, or the “issues”.

You know where this is headed, don’t you? After a chain of serendipitous events that only occurs in movies, this gomer ends up with the fate of the free world hinging on the flick of his chad finger. Before he knows it, he is at the center of a crazed media circus, and is being personally feted by the incumbent Republican (a convincingly presidential Kelsey Grammer) and his Democratic challenger (the always interesting Dennis Hopper).

Some of the film’s most clever moments arrive in the form of the faux-TV ads brainstormed by the campaign strategists for both sides (ably played by Stanley Tucci for the Republicans and Nathan Lane for the Democrats). It’s quite amusing to see a rainbow-hued, pro-gay marriage ad endorsed by the Republican president and a radical anti-abortion polemic featuring the Democratic challenger, tripping over partisan party platforms and each other in their rush to pander to one undecided swing voter.

There is a temptation to call this a modern-day Capraesque tale, which is where the film appears headed at first. In actuality, it’s  Capra in reverse; “Washington goes to Mr. Smith”, if you will (Capra’s Jeff Smith is a political idealist by nature; Bud Johnson, on the other hand, has his idealism thrust upon him). There has been some critical outcry that the film is derivative of a relatively obscure 1939 John Barrymore vehicle called The Great Man Votes. I’ve never seen that film, so I can’t address that specific issue.

In a more contemporary context, you could say that this film could be viewed as Mike Judd’s Idiocracy-with a heart (and much better acting). Some of the satirical aspects recall Hal Ashby’s Being There and Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero. The film’s depiction of a flock of ravenous media vultures descending on a small New Mexico town has some strong echoes of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, as well.

If you can buy  the premise, I think you’ll be entertained. I enjoyed the performances. Costner revives the long-dormant “aw shucks” charm that he played to such laid-back perfection in Bull Durham and Field of Dreams. Sure, he’s playing a chuckle-head this time out, but he’s a sympathetic chuckle-head. Carroll gives one of those “30-year-old midget” turns that belies her chronological age and shows great promise (like Diane Lane or Natalie Portman in their fledgling days). The always excellent and perennially underrated Mare Winningham has a small but welcome role as Bud’s estranged wife. Brat-pack aficionados will be sure to recognize Judge Reinhold as one of Bud’s co-workers, and comedian George Lopez fires off some zingers as a local TV news director. Also featuring a  rogue’s gallery of MSM pundits and journalists, in cameos (don’t let that keep you from seeing it…but don’t say I didn’t warn you,)

CSN&Y: Old songs for a new war.

 Another film swamped in the wake of the summer’s surge of superheroes is CSNY:Déjà vu, a timely rockumentary from Bernard Shakey (Greendale). Bernard who? You  know him best as iconoclastic folk-rock-alt-country-“Godfather of Grunge”-cum-antiwar activist-filmmaker (did I leave anything out?)…Neil Young.

Mixing backstage footage and musical highlights from the 2006 Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young Freedom of Speech Tour with vox populi interviews and analysis by “embedded” journalist Mike Cerre (a veteran front lines Afghanistan/Iraq war correspondent) the doc plays somewhere between The Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing and Fahrenheit 9-11.

The 2006 reunion of the notoriously mercurial foursome was spearheaded by Young not so much as a nostalgia tour but rather as a musical wake-up call addressing the Bush administration’s post 9-11 shenanigans, at home and in Iraq. The tour commenced on the heels of Young’s incendiary Living with War album (definitely not on Junior’s iPod).

The reaction from audiences (and music critics) was mixed. Young cheekily employs voice-over actors to read excerpts from concert reviews in the local rags, and seems to take perverse delight in highlighting the sneers and jeers (usually agog with glib references to the band’s senior citizen status). I will give him credit for including some “warts and all” excerpts from earlier shows in the tour, like one instance where the quartet’s rusty pipes are most definitely a couple bubbles off plumb. And speaking of falling flat, we also witness a senior moment as a band member takes an onstage tumble.

The most eye-opening moment occurs when the band plays Atlanta, a city usually perceived as a blue oasis in a red state. At first, all goes swimmingly, with the audience clapping and singing along with the old “hits”. But things get interesting as the band launches into some more recent material from Young’s aforementioned Living with War album (accompanied by a faux-Karaoke lyric scroll on the huge onstage projection screen, just in case anyone misses the point):

 Let’s impeach the President for lying
And misleading our country into war
Abusing all the power that we gave him
And shipping all our money out the door

 Suddenly, the temperature in the auditorium drops about 50 degrees; catcalls and hisses escalate to boos, bird flipping and near-rioting. Cerre interviews some of the disenchanted as they stalk out; the outrage ranges from bitching about ticket prices to threatening grievous bodily harm to Neil Young, should they get close enough. Backstage, the band takes the philosophical high road (with age comes wisdom, nu?)

But all cracks about geriatric rockers aside, it becomes apparent that the one thing that remains ageless is the power of the music, and the commitment from the performers. Songs like “Ohio”, “Military Madness”, “For What it’s Worth” and “Chicago” prove to have resilience and retain a topical relevance that does not go unnoticed by younger fans. And anyone who doesn’t tear up listening to the band deliver the solemnly beautiful harmonies of their elegiac live show closer, “Find the Cost of Freedom”, while a photo gallery featuring hundreds of smiling young Americans who died in Iraq scrolls on the big screen behind them, can’t possibly have anything resembling a soul residing within.

Allow me to demonstrate: Chicago 10 ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 22, 2008)

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A modern revolutionary group heads for the television station.

-Abbie Hoffman

 In September of 1969, Abbie Hoffman and fellow radical activists Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner were hauled into court along with Black Panther Bobby Seale on a grand jury indictment for allegedly conspiring to incite the massive anti-Vietnam war protests and resulting violent mayhem that transpired in the Chicago environs during the 1968 Democratic Convention. What resulted is arguably the most overtly political “show trial” in American history.

Scarcely a day after I went to see Brett Morgen’s new documentary, Chicago 10, which recounts the events leading up to the “police riots” in the streets, the tumultuous convention itself and the subsequent trial of the “Chicago 7”, I saw this story on the local TV news here in Seattle and thought to myself, “Yippee!”…

TACOMA, Wash. – About 150 people — those opposed to the Iraq War and those supporting it — gathered noisily outside a Tacoma Mall office building on Saturday. A group known as World Can’t Wait had organized an anti-war protest to mark the coming fifth anniversary of the Iraq War. But long before their protest was scheduled to begin, counter-protesters arrived. The counter-protesters surrounded an office building that houses military recruiting offices, which anti-war protesters had said they planned to “shut down.” They shouted “God bless our troops” and waved American flags. As the two groups faced off, dozens of police officers, including some in full SWAT gear, served as a buffer zone. They formed a human line to divide the groups. But there were no arrests or injuries. The two groups shouted insults at each other and waved posters and flags. The demonstrators shouted insults at each other and each side attempted to out-yell the other side.

“They don’t appreciate our soldiers and what they do for our freedom,” said Cheryl Ames. “I am on this side because I do not agree with the way the war started,” said Tommie CeBrun. Protesters held up photos of Iraq detainees tortured at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. They also laid out 281 pairs of shoes on the sidewalk in front of the building, including 81 pairs of combat boots that carried tags bearing the name of a U.S. military member killed in Iraq who listed Washington as his or her home state. The protesters said the 200 pairs of shoes represented the 200-to-1 ratio of the Iraqi-to-American death rate. But the act was met with a volley of insults. Warnings for military families to avoid the mall had been circulating for days, since some recent protests, including one at the Port of Olympia, have seen increased violence. Meghan Tellez and her children planned to avoid the mall. Her husband is in the Navy Reserve. “I love that mall, but I don’t want my children around that,” she said.

 Up against the mall, motherfucker.

 Yes, it’s been nearly 40 years to the day since the tumultuous 1968 Democratic Convention, but it would seem that the more things change, the more they stay the same; which is all the more reason that you need to rush out and see Chicago 10 immediately.

First, let’s solve the math story problem that addresses the disparity between the film’s title and the conventional “Chicago 7” reference. There were originally 8 defendants, but Bobby Seale was (for all intents and purposes) “banished” from court early in the proceedings after heated verbal exchanges with presiding judge Julius Hoffman. After draconian physical restraint methods failed to silence him (Seale was literally bound, gagged and chained to his chair at one point), Judge Hoffman had him tossed out altogether.

His crime? Demanding his constitutional right to an attorney of his choice, for which he eventually served an unbelievable 4 year sentence for contempt (“unbelievable” in the pre-Gitmo era). The group’s outspoken defense attorneys, William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, also rubbed the judge the wrong way and were cited for contempt  (although they never did time). Hence, the answer is “10”.

Using a mélange of animation, archival footage and voiceover re-creation by well-known actors, Morgen expands even further on the eye-catching multimedia technique that he and co-director Nanette Burstein used in their 2002 doc The Kid Stays in the Picture.

The bulk of the animated sequences are re-enactments from the trial , with dialog from courtroom transcripts (no rewrites were required, because you couldn’t make this shit up). This visual technique perfectly encapsulates the circus atmosphere of the trial, which was largely fueled by Hoffman and Rubin’s amusing yet effective use of “guerilla theater” to disrupt the proceedings and expose what they felt to be the inherent absurdity of the charges. The courtroom players are voiced by the likes of Nick Nolte (as prosecutor Thomas Foran), Jeffrey Wright (as Bobby Seale) and the late Roy Scheider in full “fuddy-duddy” mode as Judge Hoffman.

Do not, however, mistake this film as a gimmicky and superficial “cartoon” that only focuses on the hi-jinx. There is plenty of evidence on hand, in the form of archival footage (fluidly incorporated by editor Stuart Levy) to remind us that these were very serious times. In one memorable clip, the normally unflappable Walter Cronkite, ensconced in the press booth above the convention arena, shakes his head and declares the situation in Chicago to be tantamount to “…what could only be called a police state”.

Interestingly, the iconic, oft-used footage of reporter Dan Rather being manhandled by security officers on the convention floor is conspicuously MIA; Morgen seems determined to avoid the conventional documentary approach in order to give us a fresh perspective on the story. The footage of the Chicago police wildly bludgeoning any and all who crossed their path (demonstrator and innocent bystander alike) still has the power to shock and physically sicken the viewer. There is a protracted montage of this violence that seems to run on for at least 10 minutes; sensitive viewers may find this sequence particularly upsetting.

For once, a film about the “turbulent 60s” does not feature “Fortunate Son” by CCR, “Get Together” by the Youngbloods or (most notably) “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield (you can always re-watch Forrest Gump if you wish to wallow in trite 60s clichés). Rather, appropriately incendiary music by Rage Against the Machine, The Beastie Boys and Eminem infuses seamlessly with well-chosen period songs from Black Sabbath (“War Pigs”), Steppenwolf (“Monster”) and the MC5 (“Kick Out the Jams”).

I understand that Steven Spielberg is currently in pre-production on a dramatized version of the story, written by Aaron Sorkin and tentatively titled The Trial of the Chicago 7. Rumor has it Sacha Baron Cohen will play Abbie Hoffman, which is a perfect match on many levels (if someone can prove to me that his alter-egos “Ali G” and “Borat” don’t have deep roots in the political guerilla theater of the 60s, I’ll eat my Che cap). With the obvious historical parallels abounding vis a vis the current government’s foreign policy and overall climate of disenfranchisement in this country, I say the more films about the Chicago 7 trial that are out there, the merrier.

If I have any quibble with Chicago 10, it is a minor one. Although some of us are old enough (ahem) to remember the high-profile media coverage of the trial and grok the circumstances surrounding it, a little hindsight analysis or discussion of historical context would have been helpful for younger viewers. But perhaps Morgen wanted to steer clear of the usual clichés, like parading a series of talking heads with gray ponytails, sentimentalizing and waxing poetically about the halcyon days of yore. Besides, if you “remember” the 60s, you probably weren’t there anyway, right?

Men with puns: Military Intelligence and You! ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 22, 2008)

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As both Groucho Marx and George Carlin have famously (and astutely) observed, the phrase “military intelligence” may very well be the ultimate oxymoron. Writer/director Dale Kutzera takes that concept one step further in a unique film that has been simmering on the festival circuit since 2006, but is currently making a round of limited runs around the country. Military Intelligence and You! cleverly mixes the political satire of Dr. Strangelove and the skewering lunacy of Catch-22 with the film parodist sensibilities of Mel Brooks and the Zucker brothers to deliver a volley of not-so-subtle allusions to the current administration’s all-to-real comedy of errors at home and abroad since 9/11.

Seamlessly incorporating film clips from vintage B&W movies and historical archive footage with newly shot narrative (a la Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid and Zelig), Kutzera  creates a faux-WW2 military training film, circa 1944. The “film” is replete with the stilted dialogue, over-the-top melodrama, uber-patriotism and jingoist stance that one expects in a government-sanctioned wartime propaganda production. It is lorded over by a ubiquitous Narrator (Clive van Owen) whose delivery falls somewhere between a vintage Ed Herlihy newsreel and the droll voice-over in Dr. Strangelove.

The story is divided between the intrigue taking place at an army intelligence HQ and the ordeals of a downed and captured bomber crew in a Nazi POW camp. Back at HQ, intelligence officer Major Nick Reed (Patrick Muldoon) is convinced of the existence of a Super Secret German Fighter Base that has been launching damaging sneak attacks on Allied bomb squadrons headed for Germany. Reconnaissance missions have failed to produce evidence of these weapons of mass destruction, and Reed is having a tough time convincing his colleague, Major Mitch Dunning (Mackenzie Astin) and their superior, General Jake Tasker (John Rixley Moore) that this Nazi “ghost squadron” airfield even exists. The only one who has faith in him is his trusty aide/ex-squeeze Lieutenant Monica Tasty (Elizabeth Ann Bennett, spoofing Lauren Bacall and Veronica Lake).

Meanwhile, back at the POW camp, our intrepid fly-boys are teaching us the “Dos and Don’ts” of dealing with Gestapo interrogators, whilst the narrator duly notes whose example we should be following and whose we shouldn’t (like the guy who spills the beans after letting the commandant liquor him up in front of a cozy fire…that’s a definite no-no!).

Most of the real WW2 era training film footage (taken from a War Department film called “Resisting Enemy Interrogation”) is folded into the POW camp narrative. The rest of the film is seasoned with well-selected scenes from vintage Hollywood WW2 action movies, which infuses Kutzera’s modestly-budgeted production with an impressive roster of “supporting” stars like William Holden, Alan Ladd, Elisha Cook, Jr. and Van Heflin. There is also a notable appearance by a young and particularly gung-ho fighter pilot by the name of Ronald Reagan, who really gives it to those evil empire builders-with a purposeful squint and a pair of hot blazing barrels.

Although it is a one-joke premise, I found it a very amusing one. Kutzera’s script will  likely not age as well as Terry Southern’s  has for  Dr. Strangelove…but for now, it’s on target. For instance, the narrator refers to Pearl Harbor several times, but never mentions it by name. It is referred to as “the events of 12/7” or simply “12/7”. At one point, General Tasker lowers the threat level from “orange…to tangerine.” Major Reed gives Lieutenant Tasty a pep talk, urging her to go shopping; otherwise “the evil doers win” . Not all of the laughs rely on the nudge-nudge wink-wink ; every time the fictional German city of “Riboflavin” was mentioned, I fell out of my chair. Then again, I still find the running “blucher!” gag in Young Frankenstein hysterical. What the hell-I’m easy.

Some viewers might find all the anachronistic references to our current political situation a little too smug and overly obvious, but you know what? I think people need to be hit over the head with these kinds of allusions right now, even if it comes in the guise of a goofy little 78 minute film that will lose its topical relevance a year or two down the road. And for all of our sakes, let’s pray that it does, starting next Inauguration Day.

Sayles of August: Honeydripper ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 1, 2008)

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Lord, I’m goin’ to Rosedale, gon’ take my rider by my side

We can still barrelhouse baby, on the riverside.

 -Robert Johnson, Traveling Riverside Blues

 In his latest film, director John Sayles transports us back to the deep south of the early 1950s, evoking the earthy poetry of the Delta, outfitting it in shades of August Wilson and transferring it to the screen. Essentially a languidly paced folk tale, set in an Alabama backwater called Harmony, Honeydripper rolls along, slow and steady, like a glass bottle sliding up a steel string, and is easily his most engaging ensemble piece since Lone Star.

Surrounded by cotton fields, adjacent to a small military post and connected to the rest of the world by a lone train station and a few dusty country roads, the town of Harmony is classic Mythic South, all the way. This is a place where black and white residents each literally live on their respective “side of the tracks”. The “Honeydripper” is the name of a ramshackle music club on the edge of town (um, down by the crossroads) run by a barrel house piano player named Tyrone “Pine Top” Purvis (Danny Glover). As the film opens, Purvis and his business partner Maceo (Charles S. Dutton) are scrambling to stay one step ahead of the debt collectors. Purvis has been losing business to a neighboring juke joint, due to his curious aversion to hiring guitar acts or acquiescing to the jukebox.

Enter a young, wispy railroad tramp named Sonny (Gary Clark, Jr.) who blows into Harmony on the night train, with little more than the clothes on his back…and a guitar. The next morning, in search of a gig, he finds his way to the Honeydripper, where Purvis feeds him breakfast, then politely shows him the door, suggesting that he might have better luck finding a job at one of the local cotton plantations. Unfortunately, Sonny is soon intercepted by a corrupt county sheriff (a hammy Stacey Keach, veritably oozing Eau de Peckerwood) who runs a hustle “arresting” drifters for vagrancy and then indenturing them to local plantation owners for a kickback.

In the meantime, the reluctant Purvis is talked into booking a New Orleans guitar legend, Guitar Sam, for a “one night only” appearance, with the hope that the draw will bring in enough money to stave off the landlord’s threat to pull the plug on his lease. However, when Guitar Sam fails to show up at the train station on the morning of the heavily promoted show, the situation starts to look pretty grim. Then, Purvis remembers the young guitarist; a light bulb appears and…well, I think you know where this is going.

Honeydripper is rife with many of Sayles’ pet themes, such as family ties, culture clash, tests of faith, class warfare and local politics. Like all good folk tales, Honeydripper has an elemental narrative structure (not to be confused with “simplistic”). When he is operating at full tilt, Sayles’ strengths as a screenwriter lie in his canny gift for perceptive, true-to-character dialog and in his ability for drawing rich characterizations. His penchant for  leisurely  pacing occasionally backfires (Silver City and Sunshine State were uncharacteristically flat; and I literally dozed off during the interminable Men With Guns) but when he’s “on” (City of Hope, Passion Fish, Baby It’s You, Brother From Another Planet, Limbo, Lone Star) there are few of his American indie contemporaries that can touch him. You can add Honeydripper to the latter list.

Sayles captures the sultry southern atmosphere to a tee, thanks in no small part to the excellent DP work by British cinematographer Dick Pope (who has worked on most of Mike Leigh’s films). The director’s distinctive feel for regional Americana and sharp eye for period detail (evidenced previously in Matewan and Eight Men Out) is on form here as well.

Per usual, Sayles employs a sizeable cast, and every speaking part, large or small, is well written and fleshed out. Glover and Dutton are both wonderful actors, and do an excellent job; newcomer Clark makes a splash in an impressive film debut. Real life blues guitarist Keb’Mo’ does a memorable turn as a cryptic, somewhat spectral character who pulls double duty as a tangential narrator and Greek Chorus for the tale. In another bit of inspired stunt casting, singer Mable John appears in a brief role as the Honeydripper house act (she was a backup singer for Ray Charles and is the sister of blues great Little Willie John). There’s good support as well from Lisa Gay Hamilton, Mary Steenburgen and Vondie Curtis-Hall. Fans of blues, gospel and roots rock ’n’ roll will dig the music performances, and Sayles aficionados will not be disappointed.

If it’s Tuesday, this must be a Boschian nightmare: In Bruges ***

By Dennis Hartley

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

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It’s hard to believe, but it’s been 14 years since Pulp Fiction was unleashed on an unsuspecting public. So what can we glean from this  factoid? What hath Tarantino wrought? For one thing, the genre tag “hit man comedy” is now officially part of the cinematic lexicon. And, by the looks of things, (love it or loathe it) it is here to stay.

The latest example is a film that reportedly, er, knocked ‘em dead at Sundance  and is currently n theaters-Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges. A pair of Irish hit men, Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell) botch a job in London and are exiled to the Belgian city of Bruges, where they are ordered to lay low and await judgment on their cock-up from their piqued Dublin employer (Ray Fiennes).

Ken is enamored by the “fairy tale” ambience of Bruges, with its intricate canals and well-preserved medieval architecture, and decides to play tourist. The ADD-afflicted Ray, on the other hand, fails to see the appeal of “old buildings” and would just as soon plant himself in front of a pint for the duration of his purgatory. Initially, Ken lures the reluctant Ray into joining him for sightseeing with the promise of pub time afterwards. However, it becomes evident that Ray lacks any discernible social filter, displaying a general disregard for local mores and folkways. Ken decides that the best way to stay low profile would be to let Ray pass time as he wishes.

In order to avoid spoilers, I won’t elaborate, other than to say that Ray wanders off and finds himself a love interest and enjoys escapades like a coke binge with a “racist dwarf” while Ken is thrust into a moral and ethical dilemma that fuels the dramatic turn of the film’s final third. Toss some heaping tablespoons of raging Catholic guilt, existentialism 101 and winking Hieronymus Bosch references into the mix, and voila! (The Sundance crowd swoons…)

So what exactly has McDonagh cooked up here? Well, as much as I’d like to be able to tell you that it’s “an original dish”, I’d have to call it more of a “sampler plate” featuring a generous wedge of Tarantino and tidbits of Guy Ritchie, sprinkled with a taste of Brendan Behan. If you’re a fan of dark (very dark) Irish humor, you’ll likely get a few decent chuckles out of playwright McDonagh’s brash and brassy dialog (and marvel at his creative use of “fook” as a noun, adverb, super verb and adjective). Unfortunately, the humor doesn’t fold so well into the mix with the generous dollops of dramatic bathos and queasy violence. Also, some of the more decidedly un-PC jokes fall terribly flat (I realize that nothing is sacred in comedy, but referring to obese people as “elephants” and a dwarf as a “short-arse” is not what I consider groundbreaking, cutting-edge humor).

That being said, there are some strong performances here, almost in spite of the film’s uneven tone. Gleeson and Farrell vibe a Laurel and Hardy dynamic together that works very well; you almost expect the doughy, exasperated Gleeson to exclaim “Well, it’s another fine mess you’ve got us into this time!” every time Farrell throws more gas on the fire with one of his Tourette’s-like outbursts. Farrell has not previously impressed me as a nuanced performer, but in this film he proves to be quite deft at navigating the tricky waters of black comedy (that unibrow sure comes in handy). Gleeson, a world-class actor, is superb as always. Fiennes, who seems to be channeling Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast (by way of Michael Caine) goes way over the top with his archetypal caricature of a “hard” Cockney gangster, but he appears to be having a grand old time just the same.

I had an “OK” time on my little Belgian excursion with Ray and Ken; and the location filming does make for a great travelogue, as Bruges truly is a beautiful city-but In Bruges may not be the ideal cinematic getaway for all tastes. A guarded recommendation.

Out here in the fields: There Will Be Blood ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 12, 2008)

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In the audacious opening shot of his magnificent, sprawling, demented epic, There Will Be Blood, director P.T. Anderson presents us with a tracking shot of a vast expanse of rocky, desolate scrub land, scored by an ominous, discordant drone. When the camera (literally) disappears down a hole, we are introduced to the protagonist, a lone, shadowy figure, chiseling away at the subterranean rock wall of a derelict well with a fierce, single-minded determination. There is nary a word of dialogue uttered during the ensuing 15 minutes; yet through the masterful implementation of purely cinematic language, we are given a sufficient enough glimpse so as to feel that we may already have some inkling of what it is that drives this man, even though we do not yet even know his name.

Stylistically, this scene recalls the prologue for 2001: A Space Odyssey. What we witness in the film’s introduction may not be quite as profound as Kubrick’s rendering of “the dawn of man”, but it does put the spotlight on something just as primeval. It is something that is buried deep within the capitalist DNA-the relentless drive to amass wealth and power through willful exploitation and opportunism (hey, don’t knock it- it’s what made this country great!)

Flash forward a few years, and we find that our mystery man has made a name for himself in the midst of California’s turn-of-the-century oil boom. The ambitious Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) has moved up from prospecting for precious metals to leasing tracts of land for the oil drilling rights. He is well on his way to becoming very wealthy. He did not get to this place in his life by being a nice guy (who does?).

He is a bachelor; but in order to give an impression as a sincere “family man”, he totes a young orphan along to business meetings, who he introduces as his son (not unlike Ryan and Tatum O’Neal’s con artist team in Paper Moon). In his worldview, you are either with him, or you are his “competitor”. In fact, Plainview is the quintessential lone wolf, having very little tolerance or use for people in general, unless they can help further his agenda.

Plainview’s biggest payday arrives in the form of a furtive and enigmatic young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), who walks out of the desert  with a hot tip about a possible oil field beneath his family’s central California ranch land. Everything appears to be going swimmingly until Plainview crosses paths with Sunday’s twin brother Eli (also played by Dano) a fire and brimstone evangelical who sees his family’s business partnership with Plainview as a potential cash cow for building up his ministry. The relationship between these two characters forms the heart of the story’s conflict.

Plainview and Sunday are in reality two peas in a pod; they both employ their own fashion of charlatanism and manipulation to get what they want. They circle each other warily, grudgingly accepting that they need each other to achieve their goals. Plainview sees himself as an empire builder, and promises the milk and honey of economic prosperity to sway the landowners to his way of thinking.

The unhinged Sunday envisions himself as a prophet, and uses the lure of eternal life and the theatrics of faith healing to win over his followers. He clearly sees (plainly views?) Plainview as the Devil; this is suggested in one of the film’s most stunning visuals, where Anderson frames Day-Lewis in ominous silhouette against the hellish backdrop of an oil well fire, recalling the image of Chernabog in the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment from Fantasia. It is significant to note that when we are first introduced to Plainview, he emerges from underground (the Underworld?). The resulting pissing contest between prophet and profiteer makes for a compelling tale.

The story spans thirty years; culminating on the eve of the Depression, by which time the obscenely wealthy but completely soulless Plainview has morphed into a reclusive Charles Foster Kane type figure, alone in his mansion. The film’s jaw-dropping climatic scene is destined to be dissected and argued over by film buffs for some years to come.

The story is rich in allegory; especially in the character of Plainview, who is the very personification of the blood-soaked history of profit-driven expansionism in America at the turn of the century (and it must be said that the particular brand of puritanical religious zealotry represented by Sunday has been responsible for its fair share of damage throughout U.S. history as well). I was reminded, oddly enough, of the excellent documentary The Corporation, in which the filmmakers build a psychological profile of the typical corporation, as if it were a person. From that film’s website:

To assess the ‘personality’ of the corporate ‘person,’ a checklist is employed, using diagnostic criteria of the World Health Organization and the standard diagnostic tool of psychiatrists and psychologists. The operational principles of the corporation give it a highly anti-social ‘personality’: it is self-interested, inherently amoral, callous and deceitful; it breaches social and legal standards to get its way; it does not suffer from guilt, yet it can mimic the human qualities of empathy, caring and altruism.

That is Plainview, and to some extent, Sunday. The famously meticulous Day-Lewis is nothing short of astonishing . It is one of his finest performances . He does make some interesting choices; especially in his carefully measured vocal inflection. I’d swear that he is channeling the voice of the late Jack Palance. But it works-and maybe it’s not such a stretch, since director Anderson appears to be channeling the mythic style of George Stevens’ westerns (Giant, obviously; and in a tangential sense, Shane). Credit must also go to Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine), who does an admirable job of holding his own against the greatest character actor on earth. In a recent TV interview, Dano said that Day-Lewis never once broke character, even refusing to acknowledge him off-camera.

This marks the most cohesive and mature work from director Anderson, who adapted his screenplay from Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!. Anderson’s previous films have shown a tendency to polarize critics and audiences. I personally find him one of the most unique American filmmakers working today, and I think that this movie is going to surprise a lot of people. Kudos go out as well for Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood’s soundtrack.

Of bedpans and Brecht: The Savages ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 5, 2008)

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Jesus, this little weekly post is starting to look like the Philip Seymour Hoffman fan boy page. It’s not by design; it’s just that I can’t  swing a half-eaten tub of stale popcorn around the auditorium lately without hitting another screen image of the man who is rapidly morphing into the Charles Laughton of his generation.

And yes, Hoffman delivers a superb performance in The Savages, the latest from writer-director Tamara Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills). In a bit of inspired casting, Jenkins has paired Hoffman up with one of the finest character actresses around, Laura Linney. Hoffman and Linney are Jon and Wendy Savage, middle-aged siblings suddenly saddled with the responsibility of caring for their estranged father, who has been diagnosed with dementia. When his “girlfriend” of twenty years dies, the elder Savage, Lenny (beautifully played by veteran stage actor Philip Bosco) is kicked to the curb by her adult children, who now legally own the Arizona home they shared.

Neither Savage sibling is well-equipped to take care of this unexpected burden. Each is suffering through their own mid-life crisis, and lead self-absorbed lives. Wendy is an aspiring playwright, building stacks of rejection letters as she supports herself working temp jobs. She lives alone in a modest NYC apartment (with the requisite cat) and gobbles down anti-depressants while slogging her way through a passionless affair with a married neighbor.

Jon is a drama professor at an upstate college, spending his spare time doing obsessive research for a book on “the dark comedy” of Berthold Brecht (in one particularly wonderful scene, he grooves to Kurt Weill while cruising in his car, high on Percocet). His love life is also in disarray; his live-in girlfriend of several years is heading back to her native Poland because her visa has expired (along with her hopes of a marriage proposal from the commitment-shy Jon).

Necessity sparks the uneasy family reunion as Jon and Wendy scramble to find a nursing home for Lenny, whose moments of lucidity are marked by the demeaning verbal abuse that obviously drove the siblings apart from their father in the first place (and explains the self-esteem issues that pervade their adult life). It doesn’t take long for long-dormant rivalries and simmering resentments between the brother and sister to re-emerge as well.

This is one of those family angst dramas that could have easily turned into a wrist-slitting downer in the Eugene O’Neill/Harold Pinter vein. After all, it does deal with some heavy issues; existential middle age despair and the looming prospect of the inevitable downward spiral of our parents’ “golden years” does not exactly make for light holiday season fare. However, writer-director Jenkins strikes a nice balance here; while her script doesn’t sugar-coat the film’s central theme (i.e., we’re all gonna die) with maudlin sentimentality, she still provides just the right amount of levity and very real, life-affirming moments to make this an engaging watch. It doesn’t hurt to have the monster talents of Hoffman and Linney on board. I know this is a dreaded cliché, but they made me laugh, and they made me cry. I’d rate this one three and a half Percocets. Enjoy.

Castro revolutionary: Milk ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 6, 2008)

“The important thing is not that we can live on hope alone, but that life is not worth living without it.” -Harvey Milk

 This past Thanksgiving quietly marked the 30th anniversary of one of the more shocking American political assassinations to take place in the latter half of the 20th century. On November 27th, 1978, San Francisco mayor George Moscone and District Supervisor Harvey Milk were murdered in cold blood in their respective offices at City Hall; both men were shot repeatedly at point blank range. Even more shocking (and bordering on the downright bizarre) was the fact that their killer was a fellow San Francisco politician-former District Supervisor Dan White.

It’s an anniversary that is traditionally ignored by the MSM, who apparently have decided, for whatever reason, that its significance lacks the social impact and historical gravitas of the JFK, RFK and MLK killings, which each receive the requisite nod once a year from an appropriately “solemn” news anchor. I would hope we could rule out the fact that Moscone was a socially progressive city leader and that Milk was America’s first openly gay politician of significant influence as a decisive factor in this continual oversight? I mean, this is 2008, fergawdsake-we’ve advanced farther than that in this country, right? (Don’t answer that, and whatever you do, don’t mention Proposition 8). Well, I’m here to tell you that if enough people see it (and “get” it), there’s an inspiring new film about the life of Harvey Milk from director Gus Van Sant that just might be the first “baby step” in rectifying that.

Milk is one of the most straightforward efforts from the frequently abstract and self-consciously arty filmmaker since his surprise mainstream hit Good Will Hunting back in 1997, yet arguably stands as his most significant work to date. The key word here, as a matter of fact, is “restraint”. Van Sant has wisely restrained from allowing his usual overdose of style to overpower the substance of his subject. The excellent script (by Dustin Lance Black, one of the primary writers for HBO’s Big Love) is richly engaging, yet never strays too far from Milk’s own words and deeds. And most crucial to the success of this film is the powerhouse performance that lies at its heart from Oscar shoo-in Sean Penn, who never falls into exaggerated caricature, opting instead to essentially channel the wit, passion and genuine humanity of this remarkable individual.

The film picks up Milk’s life journey at age 40, which was when he experienced the epiphany which led to him to dedicate the rest of his life to public service. Using his dingy little camera shop in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood as his HQ, Milk quickly garnered a reputation as the city’s leading gay activist, thanks to his relentless drive and a natural gift for community organizing (hmm…he started his political career as a ”community organizer”- now does that remind you of any president-elects that you know of?).

Beginning in 1973, Milk began the first of three unsuccessful runs for a San Francisco District Supervisor position. His perseverance finally paid off in 1977, when he won his seat. Although he wasn’t going to wield the political clout of a mayor, governor or senator, his victory was still a symbolically empowering milestone in the history of the gay movement in America. His agenda was not strictly limited to gay issues; he also became an important advocate for other groups who traditionally suffered from phobia-induced oppression, like the elderly, poor and the handicapped.

He entered the national spotlight when he helped spearhead the anti-Proposition 6 campaign in 1978. Also known as the “Briggs initiative”, the proposed legislation would have given California school districts the right to identify and fire gay and lesbian teachers and administrators, and ban any future applicants as well. Milk also became the symbolic counterpoint to singer Anita Bryant, whose very strident anti-gay stance became the prototype for the type of right wing, crypto-fascist fundamentalist Christian lobbying that we are still saddled with to this day. Milk accomplished a lot during his 11 month tenure; from a historical perspective you could say it was the gay community’s rendition of JFK’s figurative “Camelot”.

Van Sant actually had a tough act to follow, in the form of one of the most riveting and emotionally resonant documentaries that I have ever seen, The Times of Harvey Milk. Released in 1984 and directed by Rob Epstein, the film deservedly picked up a Best Documentary Oscar. It recounted an incredible real-life tale that was equal parts Greek tragedy, black comedy, political potboiler and film noir.

One of the most compelling elements of Epstein’s film were the snippets of audio from a tape recording Milk had made shortly before his death, which he directed to be released to the public only in the event of his assassination. The sad, funny and insightful auto-biographical musings on that tape resonate beyond a morbid premonition of fate; they crystallize as the dedicated vision of someone who was determined to make a profound difference, and to inspire others to tap into those resources within themselves.

Black transcribes verbatim excerpts from the tape as the framing device for his screenplay. It’s a wise creative choice, because it gives Milk a tragicomic Sunset Boulevard sensibility; even though we know from the get-go how horribly the story will end, it is somehow comforting to have the wry, self-aware “postmortem” narration of the doomed protagonist to accompany us on his journey.

The film abounds with wonderful supporting performances, particularly from Diego Luna, Emile Hirsch and the ubiquitous Josh Brolin (as Supervisor White). Van Sant captures the period flavor of late 70s San Francisco to a ‘T’; I can attest to that because I lived there from 1979 to 1981. My girlfriend and I lived in the Sunset district (Irving Street, for you curious locals) but we would head over to the Castro district now and then to catch a matinee at that neighborhood’s iconic architectural landmark, the Castro Theater. At any rate, having observed the milieu firsthand, I have to say that Milk really transported me back to that era.

It doesn’t matter if you are gay or straight, this film will inspire you, and the continued relevance of the issues it addresses certainly does not need to be spelled out to Digby’s readers. The year isn’t quite over, but this looks like a definite contender for one of my picks for the “top ten” of 2008. In the meantime-run (don’t walk) to see Milk.