Girl, you know it’s true: My Kid Could Paint That ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

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You’ve heard the expression, “If I told the truth, no one would believe me”? Dig this: I’ve just watched the best Christopher Guest film ever, but it wasn’t made by Christopher Guest. In fact, it wasn’t even a mockumentary. Amar Bar-Lev’s new documentary, My Kid Could Paint That, is ostensibly about the “career” of 4-year old (not a typo) Marla Olmstead, who hit the spotlight when her abstract paintings became a hit in the New York art world. I say “ostensibly”, because by the time credits roll, you realize this film goes deeper than news-kicker fodder about another child prodigy. As one of the film’s subjects (a local newspaper reporter) says, “…this story is really more about the adults.”

The back story: Mark and Laura Olmstead, a young couple living in sleepy Binghamton, New York, begin to notice that their daughter, Marla, appears to have a knack for art that transcends the random scribbling of a typical toddler. To be sure, every parent likes to think their kid is a bloody little genius, but the Olmsteads receive validation when a friend suggests they hang some of Marla’s work in his local coffee shop (for a lark) and to their surprise, the paintings start selling like hotcakes. A local newspaper reporter picks up on the story, as does the owner of a local art gallery.

Then, faster than you can say “just out of diapers”, young Marla becomes a media darling, resulting in a substantial spike in the value of her paintings (some are sold in the five-figure range). Everything is going quite swimmingly until 60 Minutes sets their sights on the family, airing a “take-down” story in 2004 that includes hidden camera footage showing Mark Olmstead barking instructions at Marla as she paints. Needless to say, sales drop off dramatically.

Bar-Lev began filming prior to the 60 Minutes report; hence the first act is standard documentary fare: interviews with the parents, the gallery owner and the newspaper reporter. You glean early on that Markis enjoying the spotlight more than the rest of his family; Marla is too young to understand what’s going on, and his wife Laura retains a cautious pragmatism. “I know there’s a fine line between a child prodigy and a freak show” she says at one point. Even while she is backstage getting prepped for Marla’s Tonight Show appearance, she worries out loud “…if all of this is really good for Marla”. Is she telling this to the camera, or taking a by-proxy jab at her husband?

The first real seeds of doubt are sown when Bar-Lev sets up his camera to capture Marla at work. Marla sits on the floor, staring an empty canvas for quite some time while her father fidgets. At one point, Marla says something very interesting. “Do you want to paint something, Daddy?” Whoopsie! “I don’t know what’s wrong,” Mark says nervously, “She usually doesn’t act like this.”  The awkward moments are just beginning…with many twists and turns ahead.

At the end of the day, My Kid Can Paint That is not just about whether or not Marla is the real deal; it’s about the nature of “art” itself (be it painting, film making, music, whatever) At what point does childish scribbling become “abstract expressionism”? Does a “documentary” become a lie the nanosecond the filmmaker makes the first edit? Whose judgment determines the intrinsic and/or monetary value of a painting-a local newspaper reporter, a New York Times art critic or Mike Wallace? Does the eye of the beholder still count for anything? Does it really matter who painted it, if you feel it’s worth hanging on your wall? Who wrote Shakespeare’s plays-Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford, and do you care? Does it really matter that the Monkees didn’t write any of their hits or play their own instruments? Feast your eyes on this exceptional film and decide for yourself.

Thin Lizzie: Elizabeth: The Golden Age (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 20, 2007)

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Alas and anon…just when you thought it was safe to assemble an armada and go back into the water, here comes another costumer concerning a certain virgin queen. Bollywood director Shekhar Kapur has re-enlisted Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush for one more crack at the old girl in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Picking up a few decades hence from where he left off in his 1998 film Elizabeth (which depicted her ascendancy) Kapur condenses a turbulent, historically significant 4-year period during Elizabeth’s reign into what appears to be a very eventful week in the life of HRM.

As the film opens, we are introduced to a much more wary and care-worn monarch (an alarmingly thin Blanchett) holding court over England’s destiny. Gone is the radiant, rosy-cheeked and free-spirited “Bess” who lit up the screen in the previous film; she has been replaced by a mercurial, slightly paranoid monarch constantly on guard against duplicitous well-wishers and sycophants. Even close confidants are kept at arm’s length, especially her Machiavellian “spymaster”, Sir Francis Walsingham (Rush).

The Queen has two big headaches keeping her on edge. The first is her cousin, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland (Samantha Morton, in a fiercely intense performance) who feels she is the rightful heir to the English throne, not the childless “bastard” Elizabeth (who is a Protestant to boot). Mary has some influential Catholic sympathizers at home and abroad, including the other royal pain in Elizabeth’s derriere, King Philip II of Spain (Jordi Molla), who gets his jollies jeering at the English queen and rattling his saber.

Elizabeth finds a temporary distraction from all her political woes when the dashing adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen, in all his rangy glory) strolls into her court, full of tales and loaded with booty from his latest excursion to the New World. Elizabeth is obviously charmed, but has to suppress her schoolgirl crush for sake of appearances. However, when she learns that Raleigh has fathered a child and secretly eloped with her favorite chambermaid, Bess Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish) she is not so amused, and gives him a nice cozy jail cell to explore for a few years. Not to worry, however-history intervenes and the Queen pardons Raleigh in time to put him in charge of naval defenses in the year of the Armada (1588), which fuels the climactic (and rousing) battle scenes.

This is one of those “historical” epics where you have to make a decision going in whether you are going to nitpick and get cranky over odd factual inaccuracies and anachronisms, or just sit back and bask in the opulent pageantry and bodice-ripping court intrigue with a shit-eating grin on your face. Keep in mind, the screenplay is by William Nicholson, who scripted the (very) loose re-invention of the Camelot legend, First Knight, and Michael Hirst, who wrote for The Tudors, Showtime’s recent mini-series about the reign of Henry VIII. In other words, this ain’t Masterpiece Theater, folks.

Kapur seems indecisive; as if he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to make an updated version of Fire Over England (which depicted Elizabeth and Raleigh embroiled in court intrigue in the year of the Armada) or pay homage to The Sea Hawk (the swashbuckling action scenes featuring Owens in full Errol Flynn mode will definitely make history majors twitch). Nicholson and Hirst’s dialogue fuels some spirited exchanges between Blanchett and Owen in the first half of the film that reminded me of the clever repartee from Shakespeare in Love, but it ultimately clashes with some of the heavier moments later on (Samantha Morton nearly steals the movie in her execution scene, but it seems to belong in a different, darker-toned film).

If you are a genre fan, you’ll be pleased. Blanchett is excellent in the lead role, and Owen is charismatic as always. Rush is good, although his character is a bit one-dimensional (not his fault). One thing for sure-this should be the last of Liz the First for a while. Right? Tell me there isn’t another one in pre-production. Prithee (sp.?), tell me.

Wanna Be in My Gang? – Eastern Promises (***1/2) & This is England (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 6, 2007)

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This week we’ll take a peek at two powerful new dramas, both set in merry old England,…but dealing with some not-so-merry themes.

Director David Cronenberg brings on the blood and the balalaikas in his crackerjack neo-noir, Eastern Promises. Anna (Naomi Watts) is a London midwife obsessed with tracking down the relatives of a newborn infant, left behind by a 14 year-old unwed Russian who tragically dies on her delivery table. Intrigued by the Cyrillic scribbling in the dead girl’s diary, Anna turns to her Russian-speaking uncle, Stepan (Jerzy Skolimosky) for translation.

Stepan staunchly refuses, citing old country superstitions and admonishing his niece for “stealing from the dead”. Undaunted, Anna follows her only solid lead, a business card for a Russian restaurant that she finds in the diary. Anna soon gleans that she would have been better off heeding her uncle’s warning, because the diary is  a hot potato for some extremely dangerous and scary individuals. Soon,  she is pulled into the brutal world of the Russian mob.

 Viggo Mortensen delivers one of his most accomplished performances to date as Nikolai, the Siberian driver for a psychotic mob captain (Vincent Cassel), the son of a godfather (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Mortensen, Cassel and Mueller-Stahl  completely disappear into character. These skilled actors make it easy to forget that they are in actuality American, French and German; you do not doubt for one second that you are watching native Russians, who live and die by the rules of “vory v zakone” (“thieves in law”, a strict code borne from the gang culture of Russian prisons).

 Screenwriter Steven Knight revisits some of the themes he explored in Dirty Pretty Things; namely, how immigrant communities assimilate (legally and otherwise) while still maintaining a sense of their native culture. (I think this is the aspect of the film that has some people drawing comparisons to The Godfather). The only quibble I had with Knight’s script was a “twist” toward the end involving one of the main characters that doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the narrative.

 Cronenberg, who has built his reputation on Grand Guginol excess, has slouched toward a lean, almost poetic style in recent films. For devotees, not to worry; the director’s propensity for viscerally “shocking” images and squib-happy bloodletting is still on display, but it doesn’t feel gratuitous; these characters live in a brutal world, and it’s par for the course. As per usual, Cronenberg slips black humor into the mix. One particular scene, involving an attempted mob hit in a steam bath (and a very naked Viggo), is an instant classic. At once a brooding character study and atmospheric thriller, Eastern Promises rates among the Canadian iconoclast’s finest work.

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Oi! It’s time now to break out those old Sham 69 LPs for our next film, This is England, the latest work from British director Shane Meadows (Twenty-Four Seven, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands). A hard-hitting, naturalistic social drama reminiscent of the work of Ken Loach and British “angry young man” films of the early 60s (with a slight whiff of A Clockwork Orange), This is England is set against the backdrop of the Thatcher era, circa 1983.

The story (loosely auto-biographical, based on the director’s Midlands upbringing) centers on a glum, alienated 12 year-old named Shaun (first-time film actor Thomas Turgoose, in an extraordinary performance) who can’t fit in at his school. Shaun presents a real handful to his loving but somewhat exasperated mother (Jo Hartley), a working-class Falklands War widow who does her best to support herself and her son. After a particularly bad day of being bullied about by teachers and schoolmates, happenstance leads Shaun into the midst of a skinhead gang.

Shaun’s initial apprehension is quickly washed away when the good-natured gang leader Woody (Joe Gilgun) takes him under his wing and offers him an unconditional entrée into their little club. Shaun’s weary working mum is initially not so crazy about his new pals, but after sizing them up decides essentially to leave her son in their care. Some may feel that this development strains credibility, but I think it’s a pragmatic decision. Her son has no siblings, no close friends, and is suffering from the loss of his father; perhaps this surrogate family will give him what she cannot provide.

The idyll is soon shattered, however, when the gang’s original leader, Combo (Stephen Graham) is released from prison. Combo’s return causes a rift that divides the gang; his jailhouse conversion to racist National Front ideals doesn’t settle well with Woody and his supporters, and they break off on their own. Shaun decides to stay on after forming an instant bond with the thuggish Combo, who easily parlays the impressionable Shaun’s grief over his father into a blame-shifting hatred of immigrants, with tragic results.

The film works successfully on several levels; as a cautionary tale, a history lesson and a riveting drama. As cautionary tale, it demonstrates how easily the neglected and disenfranchised can be recruited and indoctrinated into the politics of hate. As a history lesson, it’s a fascinating glimpse at a not-so-long ago era of complex politics and social upheaval in Great Britain. As a riveting drama, it features some astounding performances, particularly from the aforementioned young Turgoose and Graham, who positively owns the screen with his charismatic intensity. Not to be missed.

Brother sun, sister moon: In the Shadow of the Moon (****) & Sunshine (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 29, 2007)

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I thought we’d take a spin around the solar system tonight, via two new films; one that gets my vote for the best documentary of 2007, and the other…well, we’ll get to that.

Normally, I make a conscious effort to not shamelessly gush about films in this column (it’s so unseemly) but pardon me while I gush over a documentary about the Apollo space program, In The Shadow of the Moon. Admittedly, I walked into the theater with trepidation; it would seem that the NASA legacy has already been milked for all its worth, from feature films (The Right Stuff, Apollo 13) and IMAX documentaries, to lauded TV fare (From the Earth to the Moon).

But somehow, director David Sington has managed to take this very familiar piece of 20th century history and infuse it with a sense of joyous rediscovery. In the process, it offers something rarer than hen’s teeth these days-a reason to take pride in being an American.

The premise is simple enough; surviving members of the Apollo moon flights tell their stories, accompanied by astounding mission footage (some previously unseen). There are a few of the “tumultuous 60s” clichés tossed in (clips of student demonstrations, political assassinations, etc) but they remain onscreen just long enough to provide brief expository reference. The film is beautifully scored (Philip Sheppard) and edited (David Fairhead).

The term “hero” is carelessly tossed about with reflexively wild abandon in our post 9-11 world; but as you listen to these astronauts recount their extraordinary experiences with such eloquence, fierce intelligence and self-effacing candor, you realize that these people truly do represent our best and our brightest, they are “heroes” in every sense of the word.

It’s interesting to hear the astronauts expound on the pragmatic geopolitical perspective that results from being in a position to “blot the entire earth out with (your) thumb”, as one gentleman puts it. Several marvel at how truly fragile the Earth looks hanging “like a jewel” in the vast blackness of space; one interviewee ponders incredulously as to “how we can worry more about paying three dollars for a gallon of gas” than we do about attending to the health of the planet. I lost count of my “amens” halfway through the film.

This is also the first time (to my knowledge) that these men have been given a public forum to extrapolate on the profound spiritual, metaphysical and philosophical questions that arise following such literally out of this world experiences as walking on the surface of another planet; it’s fascinating and extremely moving at times.

As your fake physician I am prescribing that you run out and see it immediately, as In the Shadow of the Moon is a perfect tonic for the Bush-Cheney blues. It reminds us that there was a time when the rest of the world looked to this country for inspiration; a time when people were not ashamed of hailing from the great state of Texas, because it was then better known as the home of Mission Control.

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We move now from science fact, to science fiction. For his new  thriller Sunshine, director Danny Boyle teams up again with writer Alex Garland, who provided the screenplays for both 28 Days Later and its sequel. Ostensibly about a team of astronauts on a mission to salvage the dying Sun and save the Earth, Sunshine aims to take its protagonists on a Homeric journey, by way of Tartovsky and Kubrick. Unfortunately, after a fairly successful liftoff, the film quickly veers off course and loses its trajectory.

The story is set in 2057, when the Sun is suffering from a condition that, as near as I was able to tell from the rather sketchy scientific exposition, is akin to some type of solar constipation. There’s something blocking the star’s ability to generate its own nuclear fusion…uh, I think. Well, whatever “it” is, there ain’t no sunshine when it’s gone…okay?

Anyway, the highly specialized 8-member crew of Icarus II is mankind’s last hope (the crew of Icarus I apparently stopped sending postcards some months back). It is up to them to launch and detonate a powerful bomb that will presumably jump-start the Sun back into its preferred central heating mode for our solar system.

I know what you’re thinking-sounds familiar? Yes, it is pretty much a glorified rehash of Armageddon. Well, Armageddon for philosophy majors. Because, you see, things get “deep” between the requisite scenes of stuff blowing up real good. There’s an awful lot of brooding and gnashing of teeth among the crew once they set the controls for the heart of the sun. It is also implied  there are metaphysical conundrums afoot, but the screenplay fails to extrapolate on the significance. By the time the third act disintegrates into a cheesy Alien rip-off, you’ll be likely to  have stopped caring anyway.

Boyle regular Cillian Murphy stars as the brooder-in-chief, the crew’s egghead physicist, ‘Robert Capa’ (I’ve racked my mind over that one…why is a fictional nuclear physicist named after a famous war photographer? I invite your speculation. These are the types of things that keep me awake at night, folks.) To his credit, Murphy maintains a compelling presence, even though you suspect that he doesn’t have much more of a clue about what is going on in this film than the viewer does. Michelle Yeoh does an earnest turn as ‘Corazon’, a biologist who nurtures the ship’s on-board green houses, quite reminiscent of Bruce Dern in Silent Running (hmm…if Capa is the ship’s Brain, then I assume she is the Heart?)

Some have hailed this as a masterpiece. I am not one of them. Granted, it is handsomely mounted, with some nice set designs and impressive special effect work; but it lacks a cohesive story. It’s like someone reached into a hat full of interesting ideas, threw the scraps of paper up in the air, and just let them blow about the room while trying to follow them with a camera. For a story that flies so close to the Sun, Sunshine left me pretty damn cold.

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 with the narrowing window between the moment a first-run film leaves the multiplex and its  DVD release is what I like to call the “auto repair cut” of box-office flops (“OK, I think I’ve found the problem -try starting it now.”)

Consider George Hickenlooper’s extended cut of Factory Girl, his biopic about the pin-up girl of the 1960s underground, Andy Warhol discovery Edie Sedgwick. Plagued by production problems and prematurely rushed into theaters late last year, the film did marginal box office, 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 discernible talent aside from the ability to attract the paparazzi by associating with  the right people at just the right places at just the right time. 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 NYC in the mid 60s and was drawn to the downtown art scene, where she was  spotted by Warhol. Taken by herwaif-like beauty,  he vowed to make her a “superstar”. He featured her in his experimental films, and she became the iconic symbol of the “Factory”, where Warhol worked on his 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.

Hickenlooper’s  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?”

In a narrative film, 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).

You can’t 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 a pastoral country estate, to a haggard junkie, encamped in a dingy room at the Chelsea Hotel.

The always excellent Guy Pearce “becomes” Warhol. It’s not as easy as one might think to convincingly inhabit Warhol’s deadpan persona; 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 lank stares and signature catch phrases (“Umm, yeah. That’s great.” “Yeah, hi.”).

Even the traditionally wooden Hayden Christensen registers a pulse with his performance 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.

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’s 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 who expressed an idiosyncratic 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.

After a promising start, the 3rd act gets bogged down in  tired VH-1’s Behind the  Music-style clichés that have plunged other potentially great films into 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?

I would have liked to have seen a bit more attention to detail in the depiction of the radio station milieu. I admit this is a pet peeve because I have worked in the radio business since 1974, so I tend get nit-picky . And if I see one more movie set at a radio station that features a scene where a DJ 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 in real life (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 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!?”.

Still the film is worth watching for Cheadle and Ejiofor’s tandem performances. They are both  charismatic and talented actors, with an onscreen chemistry that could turn them into a Newman-Redford sized juggernaut, should they decide to work together again (hopefully, with a better script next time out).

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.