Category Archives: Conspiracy a-go-go

Ich bin ein Netflix-binger: Babylon Berlin (***½) & Mute (*)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 3, 2018)

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How do I describe the genre-defying Netflix series Babylon Berlin?  Does “cop-on-the edge” / conspiracy thriller/ historical drama/ musical-fantasy pique your interest? Nein? How about: The Singing Detective meets Seven Days in May at the corner of Berlin Alexanderplatz and Cabaret? Does that help-or does it at least make your ganglia twitch?

You see, it’s very simple to follow:

It is 1929 Weimar Republic-era Berlin. There are contingents of German Communists, Monarchists, and National Socialists fighting among themselves; meanwhile the German police are investigating contingents of Russian White, Trotskyite, and Bolshevik emigres, who are fighting among themselves. The German police are also investigating a porn film ring…and themselves. There’s an Armenian crime lord with an interesting variety of ways to make you talk.

Nearly everybody is jockeying and scheming and blackmailing each other to get dibs on a train car believed to contain a fortune in gold bars. Oh-and there’s something about the possibility of a military coup, and a magic ring.

There’s actually nothing about a magic ring, but as “Babylon” in the title infers, there’s lots of sex and drugs and Reich ‘n’ roll to hold your interest, should the byzantine political milieu make your eyes glaze over. Truth be told, the politics take a back seat to an array of fascinating characters to follow, led by two terrific lead performances from Volker Bruch and Liv Lisa Fries. Bruch plays vice squad Inspector Rath, a WW1 veteran suffering from PTSD (he keeps ampules of morphine handy for countering “the shakes”).

Rath’s fate becomes significantly intertwined with that of Fries’ character, Charlotte. Charlotte is a “flapper” (she dances a mean Charleston!) who lives with her highly dysfunctional family in the Berlin slums. She scrapes by as best she can while she yearns to one day break the Berlin police department’s glass ceiling by becoming a homicide detective (needless to say, that’s an uphill battle for an ambitious young woman in 1929).

There are nearly as many characters to keep track of as in a Tolstoy novel. However, with the luxury of 16 episodes, most are nicely fleshed out. I do want to mention two more standout performances. First, Peter Kurth’s turn as Chief Inspector Wolter, a complex, morally ambiguous career cop who could have popped right out of a James Ellroy story.

I’ve become an instant fan of Severija Janušauskaitė, as Countess Sorokina, a Mata Hari-like character who spies for the Soviet secret police when she’s not busy performing her drag cabaret act or juggling love affairs with a Trotskyite leader and a right-wing German industrialist. It’s a meaty role, and the Lithuanian actress tackles it with aplomb (speaking of the cabaret acts…Roxy Music fans should be on the lookout for a Bryan Ferry cameo).

It was a bit of a coup for Netflix to secure the domestic broadcast rights (it premiered last October on Germany’s Sky 1 Network). Co-directed and co-written by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, The International, Drei), Achim von Borries, and Hendrik Handloegten, the production is based on the first volume of Volker Kutscher’s “Gereon Rath Mystery Series”.

Babylon Berlin is also said to be the highest-budgeted non-English language TV series to date. The lavish sets, stylish production numbers and large-scale action sequences seem to bear this out, giving the narrative a Dr. Zhivago-style historical sweep.

Still, it’s the intimate moments that are most absorbing. While the viewer never loses sense of the huge sociopolitical upheaval in Germany at the time, the filmmakers wisely remember that whether the story’s characters are good or bad, rich or poor, it’s those teasing glimpses of our shared humanity (flawed or not) that compel us to keep watching.

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Unfortunately, one could say exactly the opposite of Mute, another recent addition to the Netflix catalog: in this case, the story and the character development takes a back seat to the slick, shiny production design. The sci-fi mystery-thriller is the latest feature film from Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie and the director of the 2009 cult favorite Moon).

Oddly enough, this story is also set in Berlin; however we now move forward in time 100 years from the 1920s (give or take a decade or two). In the umpteenth take on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner model, we are presented with an eye-filling cityscape of deco-futurism, replete with flying cars, vaguely punkish fashionistas, and an overdose of neon.

Alexander Skarsgård plays Leo, a (wait for it) mute bartender working at a Berlin strip joint. A brief flashback in the film’s opening attributes his condition to a childhood mishap, in the course of which Leo received a serious throat injury and nearly drowned. Leo is dating one of the waitresses, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). We get the impression right off the bat that Leo may be a little more devoted to the relationship than Naadirah; while she is affectionate, something about her demeanor when she is with Leo seems tentative.

We don’t get much time to mull that over, as Naadirah suddenly and mysteriously disappears. We don’t get much time to mull that over either, because the narrative abruptly shifts to a pair of shifty American surgeons (Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux) who run a black market clinic (most of their clients appear to be mobsters who require the odd slug to be removed, with no questions asked).

The pair are suspiciously reminiscent of Hawkeye and Trapper John in the movie version of M*A*S*H. Not only do they crack wise while cutting into patients, and go by similar nicknames (“Cactus Bill” and “Duck”), but Rudd constantly wears a parka and sports a 3-day growth and 70s-style ‘stache-all clearly modeled on Elliot Gould’s “look” in the aforementioned Altman film.

Frankly, keeping myself amused with playing “spot the influence” was the only thing that kept me from dozing off from that point forward…otherwise, I kept waiting for something to happen. Like a cohesive narrative. The two story lines meander aimlessly until eventually converging in the 3rd act. While it does bring a symmetry to the story, it’s too little, too late.

It’s like Jones was afflicted by ADD while constructing his screenplay (co-written with Michael Robert Johnson). It roars out of the gate like it’s going to be a character study (with no character development), quickly shifts to a mystery (but with no tension or suspense), then toys with Tarantino-esque flourishes (sans any of the flourish).

It is pretty to look at; but great production design alone does not a good story make. Skarsgård is a fine actor (he filled his mantle last year with a Golden Globe, an Emmy, a SAG award, and a Critic’s Choice Award for his performance in HBO’s Big Little Lies), but he is given little to do (much less anything to say, as he is playing a mute) aside from staring into space…and occasionally beating the crap out of someone. The same goes for Rudd and Theroux; both good players, but they’re stuck with a poor script.

It’s puzzling why this has been positioned as “sci-fi”. Aside from the futuristic vision of Berlin, and the flying cars, there’s no sense of integration with the setting-it is simply a backdrop. There is a reference to Jones’ aforementioned Moon, with that film’s star Sam Rockwell doing a cameo (he pops up, in full Moon character, as part of a court hearing playing on the TV in the bar where Skarsgård works). The only good news about Mute is that I didn’t have to buy overpriced stale popcorn, or circle endlessly for a parking space.

Shadowy men on a shadowy planet: Wormwood (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 30, 2017)

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“Sir, I am unaware of any such activity or operation, nor would I be disposed to discuss such an operation if it did in fact exist, sir.” – Captain Willard, from Apocalypse Now

 “Boy…what is it with you people? You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth?” – Joe Turner, from Three Days of the Condor

“Conscience doth make cowards of us all.” – From Hamlet, by William Shakespeare

When you peruse the history of the CIA (wait a sec…did I just hear a “click” on my phone?), at times it is indistinguishable from a campy 60s TV parody of the agency. Was there really a CIA psychotropic drugs research program called “MK-Ultra” (aka “Project Artichoke” and “Project Bluebird”) or am I conflating it with an episode of “Get Smart”?

Unfortunately, the MK-Ultra program would prove all too real for bacteriologist and former military officer Frank Olson. Olson had served as a captain in the Army’s Chemical Corps in the 1940s, which helped him snag a post-service civilian contract job with the Army’s Biological Warfare Laboratories (based out of Fort Detrick, Maryland).

Eventually Olson was recruited by the CIA to work with the agency’s Technical Services Staff, which led to his acquaintance with some of the architects of the aforementioned MK-Ultra research program. While on a retreat with a group of CIA colleagues in November of 1953, Olson was offered a drink that was spiked with an early form of LSD (unbeknownst to him). Just 10 days later, on the night of November 28th, 1953, Olson fell to his death from the 13th floor of a Manhattan hotel.

The NYPD called it suicide. And that was that. At least…that was the story at the time.

There is a lot more to this tale; specifically regarding what ensued during those critical 10 days between Olson’s LSD dosing at the retreat, and the evening that he died at the hotel.

Uncovering the details behind Olson’s demise has become an obsessive 60+ year quest for his son, Eric Olson. Eric’s relentless pursuit of the truth, a long slow white Bronco chase through the dark labyrinth of America’s clandestine community, makes for a hell of an interesting story in and of itself. This was not lost on documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, who delves deep into the mystery with his new Netflix docudrama, Wormwood.

Wormwood is essentially a 4-hour film divided into 6 episodes; with this sprawling running time, Morris has given himself lots of room to “delve”. Now, I feel that it’s my duty to advise you up front that “delving” into a mystery is not necessarily synonymous with “solving” it. So if you go in expecting pat answers, wrapped with a bow, I’m saving you 4 hours of your life now (and you’re welcome). However, if you believe the adage that it is not about the destination, but rather about the journey, feel free to press onward.

Morris has made many compelling documentaries, from his crtically acclaimed 1978 debut Gates of Heaven, to other well-received films like The Thin Blue Line (1988), A Brief History of Time (1991), and The Fog of War (2003).

Interestingly, in this outing Morris eschews his trademark “Inteterrotron”, which gives  a sense that the interviewee is “confiding” directly to the viewer. Instead, Morris plunks himself across a table from his subjects and grills them, like they’ve stumbled into Sam Spade’s office. However, he does reprise his “reality thriller” formula (mixing interviews with speculative reenactments) which he essentially invented with The Thin Blue Line; although it has been so-often imitated that it now seems cliché.

While Morris’ penchant for this Rashomon-style construction in past projects has drawn criticism, it’s a perfect foil for Wormwood; because if there is one central takeaway from the series, it is this: when it comes to plausible deniability, the CIA has 50 shades of nay.

The “official” story as to what happened in that hotel room in September 1953 has been, shall we say, “fluid” over the years (all versions are recounted). Adding to the frustration for Olson’s surviving family members (as Eric Olson points out in the film), under current laws, any citizen may file a lawsuit against the U.S. government for negligence, but never for intent. Oops! Please pardon our negligence, just never mind our culpability.

The question of “culpability” feeds the conspiracy theory elements of the film; which Morris relays via the dramatic reenactments. These segments feature a melancholic Peter Sarsgaard, whose almost spectral characterization of Frank Olson haunts the proceedings like the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

This is no accident, as Morris and Eric Olson himself make frequent analogies to Shakespeare’s classic tragedy about a son who investigates the truth behind his father’s suspicious death (hence the title of the film, taken from an aside by Hamlet, who mutters “Wormwood, wormwood” in reaction to the Player Queen’s line in the play-within-the play “None wed the second but who killed the first.”).

The Bard would be hard pressed to cook up a tale as dark, debased and duplicitous. Morris sustains a sense of dread recalling Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and The Conversation. Of course, those were fiction; Olson’s story is not. Shakespeare wrote: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Wormwood not only confirms this, but reminds us why we need folks like Eric Olson and Morris around to cast light into dark corners where the truth lies obscured.

Blu-ray reissue: Day of the Jackal ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 9, 2017)

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The Day of the Jackal – Arrow Video Blu-ray (Region “B”)

“Conspiracy a-go go” films don’t get any better than Fred Zinnemann’s taut political thriller. Adapted from Frederick Forsyth’s eponymous 1971 bestseller, this 1973 film (set in 1962) takes you on a chilling “ride-along” with a professional assassin (Edward Fox) who is hired by a French right-wing extremist group to kill President Charles de Gaulle. It’s a real nail-biter from start to finish, intelligently written and well-crafted.

While undoubtedly not his intent, Zinnemann’s documentary-style realism regarding the hit man’s meticulous prep work and coolly detached social engineering methodology at times plays like a “how-to” guide (shudder). Arrow’s print is the best I’ve seen of this film. Among the extras: a new interview with a Zinnemann biographer, and Kenneth Ross’ entire original screenplay (CD ROM content).

Blu-ray reissue: Seven Days in May ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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Seven Days in May – Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray

This 1964 “conspiracy a-go go” thriller was director John Frankenheimer’s follow-up to The Manchurian Candidate (the cold war paranoia force was strong in him!). Picture if you will: a screenplay by Rod Serling, adapted from a novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II.

Kirk Douglas plays a Marine colonel who is the adjutant to a hawkish, hard right-leaning general (Burt Lancaster) who heads the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The general is at loggerheads with the dovish President (Fredric March), who is perceived by the general and some of the other joint chiefs as a “weak sister” for his strident support of nuclear disarmament.

When Douglas begins to suspect that an imminent, unusually secretive military “exercise” may in fact portend more sinister intentions, he is torn between his loyalty to the general and his loyalty to the country as to whether he should raise the alarm. Or is he just being paranoid?

An intelligently scripted and well-acted nail-biter, right to the end. Also with Ava Gardner, Edmund O’Brien, and Martin Balsam. No extras (Warner has a rep for skimping on them), but a great transfer.

Kleptocracy Now: A Top 10 List

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 14, 2017)

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“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.”

– from the official website for the film, The Corporation

I don’t know about you, but my jaw is getting pretty sore from repeatedly dropping to the floor with each successive cabinet nomination by our incoming CEO-in-chief of the United States of Blind Trust. It seems that candidate Trump, who ran on an oft-bleated promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington D.C. bears little resemblance to President-elect Trump, who is currently hell-bent on loading the place up with even more alligators.

When I heard the name “Rex Tillerson” bandied about as Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, it rang a bell. I knew he was the former head of Exxon, so it wasn’t that. Then I remembered. Mr. Tillerson was one of the “stars” of a documentary I reviewed several years back, called Greedy Lying Bastards (conversely, if I hear the words “greedy lying bastards,” bandied about, “Trump’s cabinet picks” is the first phrase that comes to mind).

So with that in mind, and in keeping with my occasional unifying theme, “Hollywood saw this coming”, I was inspired to comb my review archives of the last 10 years to see if any bellwethers were emerging that may have been dropping hints that the planets were aligning in such a manner as to set up a path to the White House for an orange TV clown (the “self-interested, inherently amoral, callous and deceitful” kind of orange TV clown).

All 10 of these films were released within the last 10 years. I’ll let you be the judge:

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The Big Short Want the good news first? Writer-director Adam McKay and co-scripter Charles Randolph’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’ eponymous 2010 non-fiction book is an outstanding comedy-drama; an incisive parsing of what led to the crash of the global financial system in 2008. The bad news is…it made me pissed off about it all over again.

Yes, it’s a bitter pill to swallow, this ever-maddening tale of how we stood by, blissfully unaware, as unchecked colonies of greedy, lying Wall Street investment bankers were eventually able to morph into the parasitic gestalt monster journalist Matt Taibbi famously compared to a “…great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” Good times!  (Full review)

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Capitalism: A Love Story – Back in 2009, Digby and I did a double post on this film, which was Michael Moore’s reaction to the 2008 crash. Here’s how I viewed his intent:

So how did we arrive to this sorry state of our Union, where the number of banks being robbed by desperate people is running neck and neck with the number of desperate banks ostensibly robbing We The People? What paved the way for the near-total collapse of our financial system and its subsequent government bailout, which Moore provocatively refers to as nothing less than a “financial coup d’etat”? The enabler, Moore suggests, may very well be our sacred capitalist system itself-and proceeds to build a case (in his inimitable fashion) that results in his most engaging and thought-provoking film since Roger and Me […] at the end of the day I didn’t really find his message to be so much “down with capitalism” as it is “up with people”.

Digby gleaned something else from the film that did a flyover on me at the time:

But this movie, as Dennis notes, isn’t really about saviors or criminals, although it features some of both. It’s a call for citizens to focus their minds on what’s actually gone wrong and take to the streets or man the barricades or do whatever defines political engagement in this day and age and demand that the people who brought us to this place are identified and that the system is reformed. Indeed, I would guess that if it didn’t feature the stuff about capitalism being evil he could have shown this to audiences of all political stripes and most of the latent teabaggers would have given him a standing ovation.

If the film manages to focus the citizenry on the most important story of our time then it will be tremendously important. If it gets lost in a cacophony of commie bashing and primitive tribalism then it will probably not be recognized for what it is until sometime later. As with all of his films, he’s ahead of the zeitgeist, so I am hopeful that this epic call to leftwing populist engagement is at the very least a hopeful sign of things to come.

She called it. “Someone” did tap into that populist sentiment; but sadly, it wasn’t the Left.

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The Corporation – While it’s not news to any thinking person that corporate greed and manipulation affects everyone’s life on this planet, co-directors Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott deliver the message in a unique and engrossing fashion. By applying a psychological profile to the rudiments of corporate think, Achbar and Abbott build a solid case; proving that if the “corporation” were corporeal, then “he” would be Norman Bates.

Mixing archival footage with observations from some of the expected talking heads (Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, etc.) the unexpected (CEOs actually sympathetic with the filmmakers’ point of view) along with the colorful (like a “corporate spy”), the film offers perspective not only from the watchdogs, but from the belly of the beast itself. Be warned: there are enough exposes trotted out here to keep conspiracy theorists, environmentalists and human rights activists tossing and turning in bed for nights on end.

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The Forecaster – There’s a conspiracy nut axiom that “everything is rigged”. Turns out it’s not just paranoia…it’s a fact. At least that’s according to this absorbing documentary from German filmmaker Marcus Vetter, profiling economic “forecaster” Martin Armstrong. In the late 70s, Armstrong formulated a predictive algorithm (“The Economic Confidence Model”) that proved so accurate at prophesying global financial crashes and armed conflicts, that a shadowy cabal of everyone from his Wall Street competitors to the CIA made Wile E. Coyote-worthy attempts for years to get their hands on that formula.

And once Armstrong told the CIA to “fuck off”, he put himself on a path that culminated in serving a 12-year prison sentence for what the FBI called a “3 billion dollar Ponzi scheme”. Funny thing, no evidence was ever produced, nor was any judgement passed (most of the time he served was for “civil contempt”…for not giving up that coveted formula, which the FBI eventually snagged when they seized his assets). Another funny thing…Armstrong’s formula solidly backs up his contention that it’s the world’s governments running the biggest Ponzi schemes…again and again, all throughout history.

And something tells me that we ain’t seen nuthin’ yet…

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Greedy Lying Bastards – I know it’s cliché to quote Joseph Goebbels, but: “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.” That’s the theme of Craig Rosebraugh’s 2013 documentary. As one interviewee offers: “On one side you have all the facts. On the other side, you have none. But the folks without the facts are far more effective at convincing the public that this is not a problem, than scientists are about convincing them that we need to do something about this.” What is the debate in question here? Global warming.

Using simple but damning flow charts, Rosebraugh follows the money and connects dots between high-profile deniers (“career skeptics…in the business of selling doubt”) and their special interest sugar daddies. Shills range from media pundits (with no background in hard science) to members of Congress, presidential candidates and Supreme Court justices. Think tanks and other organizations are exposed as mouthpieces for Big Money.

Sadly, the villains outnumber the heroes-which is not reassuring. What does reassure are suggested action steps in the film’s coda…which might come in handy after January 20th. (Full review)

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Inside Job I have good news and bad news about documentary filmmaker Charles Ferguson’s incisive parsing of what led to the crash of the global financial system in 2008. The good news is that I believe I finally grok what “derivatives” and “toxic loans” are. The bad news is…that doesn’t make me feel any better about how fucked we are.

Ferguson starts where the seeds were sown-rampant financial deregulation during the Reagan administration (“morning in America”-remember?). The film illustrates, point by point, how every subsequent administration, Democratic and Republican alike, did their “part” to enable the 2008 crisis- through political cronyism and legislative manipulation. The result of this decades long circle jerk involving Wall Street, the mortgage industry, Congress, the White House and lobbyists (with Ivy League professors as pivot men) is what we are still living with today…and I suspect it is about to get unimaginably worse.  (Full review)

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The International Get this. In the Bizarro World of Tom Tykwer’s conspiracy thriller, people don’t rob banks…. banks rob people. That’s crazy! And if you think that’s weird, check this out: at one point in the film, one of the characters puts forth the proposition that true power belongs to he who controls the debt. Are you swallowing this malarkey? The filmmakers even go so far as to suggest that some Third World military coups are seeded by powerful financial groups and directed from shadowy corporate boardrooms…

What a fantasy! (Not.)

The international bank in question is under investigation by an Interpol agent (Clive Owen), who is following a trail of shady arms deals all over Europe and the Near East that appear to be linked to the organization. Whenever anyone gets close to exposing the truth about the bank’s Machiavellian schemes, they die under mysterious circumstances. Once the agent teams up with an American D.A. (Naomi Watts), much more complexity ensues, with tastefully-attired assassins lurking behind every silver-tongued bank exec.

The timing of the film’s release (in 2010) was interesting, in light of the then-current banking crisis and plethora of financial scandals. Screenwriter Eric Singer (no relation to the KISS drummer) based certain elements of the story on the real-life B.C.C.I. scandal.             (Full review)

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The Queen of Versailles In Lauren Greenfield’s 2012 doc, billionaire David Siegel shares an anecdote about his 52-story luxury timeshare complex in Vegas. In 2010, Donald Trump called him and said, “Congratulations on your new tower! I’ve got one problem with it. When I stay in my penthouse suite, I look out the window and all I see is ‘WESTGATE’. Could you turn your sign down a little bit?” (how he must have suffered).

While Greenfield’s portrait of Siegal, his wife Jackie, their eight kids, nanny, cook, maids, chauffeur and (unknown) quantity of yippy, prolifically turd-laying teacup dogs is chock full of wacky “you couldn’t make this shit up” reality TV moments, there is an elephant in the room…the family’s unfinished Orlando, Florida mansion, the infamous “largest home in America”, a 90,000 square foot behemoth inspired by the palace at Versailles. Drama arises when the bank threatens to foreclose on it, along with the PH Towers Westgate. So does the family end up living in cardboard boxes? I’m not telling.

However, there is a more chilling message, buried near the end of the film. When Siegel boasts he was “personally responsible” for the election of George W. Bush in 2000, the director asks him to elaborate. “I’d rather not say,” he replies, “…because it may not necessarily have been legal.” Any further thoughts? “Had I not stuck my big nose into it, there probably would not have been an Iraqi War, and maybe we would have been better off…I don’t know.” Gosh, imagine a billionaire having the power to “buy” the POTUS of their choice. Worse yet, imagine a similarly odious billionaire becoming the POTUS. Oh.   (Full review)

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Welcome to New York While it is not a “action thriller” per se, Abel Ferrara’s film is likewise “ripped from the headlines”, involves an evil banker, and agog with backroom deals and secret handshakes. More specifically, the film is based on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal. In case you need a refresher, he was the fine fellow who was accused and indicted for an alleged sexual assault and attempted rape of a maid employed by the ritzy NYC hotel he was staying at during a 2011 business trip. The case was dismissed after the maid’s credibility was brought into question (Strauss-Kahn later admitted in a TV interview that a liaison did occur, but denied any criminal wrongdoing).

I’m sure that the fact that Strauss-Kahn was head of the International Monetary Fund at the time (and a front-runner in France’s 2012 presidential race) had absolutely nothing to do with him traipsing out from the sordid affair smelling like a rose (as of this writing, we don’t know the veracity of intelligence reports alleging shenanigans in a Russian hotel room that involve a “certain” President-elect, so I won’t draw any parallels…just sayin’).

It is interesting watching the hulking Gerard Depardieu wrestle with the motivations (and what passes as the “conscience”) of his Dostoevskian character. It doesn’t make this creep any more sympathetic, but it is a fearless late-career performance, as naked (literally and emotionally) as Brando was playing a similarly loathsome study in Last Tango in Paris. Jacqueline Bisset gives a good supporting turn as the long-suffering wife.   (Full review)

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The Yes Men Fix the World – Anti-corporate activist/pranksters Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno (aka “The Yes Men”) and co-director Kurt Engfehr come out swinging, vowing to do a take-down of a powerful nemesis…an Idea. If money makes the world go ‘round, then this particular Idea is the one that oils the crank on the money-go-round, regardless of the human cost. It is the free market cosmology of economist Milton Friedman, which the Yes Men posit as the root of much evil in the world.

Once this springboard is established, the fun begins. Perhaps “fun” isn’t the right term, but there are hijinks afoot, and you’ll find yourself chuckling through most of the film (when you’re not crying). However, the filmmakers have a loftier goal than mining laughs: corporate accountability; and ideally, atonement. “Corporate accountability” is an oxymoron, but one has to admire the dogged determination (and boundless creativity) of the Yes Men and their co-conspirators, despite the odds. It’s a call to activism that is as timely as ever.          (Full review)

If you really must pry: Top 10 films of 2016

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 31, 2016)

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It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years since my pal Digby graciously offered me a crayon, a sippy cup and a weekly play date on her otherwise grownup site so I can scribble about pop culture. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everybody who continues to support Hullabaloo and wish you and yours the best in 2017! ‘Tis the season to do a year-end roundup of the best films I reviewed in 2016. Alphabetically, not in order of preference:

The Curve – It’s tempting to synopsize Rifqi Assaf’s road movie as “Little Miss Sunshine in the Arabian Desert” but that would be shortchanging this humanistic, warmly compassionate study of life in the modern Arab world. It’s essentially a three-character chamber piece, set in a VW van as it traverses desolate stretches of Jordan. Fate and circumstance unite a taciturn Palestinian who has been living in his van, with a chatty Palestinian divorcee returning to a Syrian refugee camp and an exiled Lebanese TV director. A beautifully directed and acted treatise on the commonalities that defy borders. (Full review)

Eat That Question – If there’s a missing link between today’s creative types who risk persecution in the (virtual) court of public opinion for the sake of their art, and Lenny Bruce’s battles in the actual courts for the right to even continue practicing his art, I would nominate composer-musician-producer-actor-satirist-provocateur Frank Zappa, who is profiled in Thorsten Schutte’s documentary. Admittedly, the film plays best for members of the choir. If you’ve never been a fan, the largely non-contextualized pastiche of vintage clips will likely do little to win you over. Still, if you’re patient enough to observe, and absorb, the impressionistic approach manages to paint a compelling portrait.  (Full review)

Hail, Caesar! – Truth be told, the narrative is actually a bit thin in this fluffier-than-usual Coen Brothers outing; it’s primarily a skeleton around which they are able to construct a portmanteau of 50s movie parodies. That said, there is another level to the film, one which (similar to the 2015 film Trumbo) depicts the Red Scare-induced fear and paranoia that permeated the movie industry in the 1950s through the eyes of a slightly fictionalized real-life participant (in this case, a Hollywood “fixer” played by Josh Brolin). George Clooney hams it up as a dim-witted leading man who gets snatched off the set of his latest picture (a sword-and-sandal epic bearing a striking resemblance to Spartacus) by an enigmatic organization called The Future (don’t ask). It’s supremely silly, yet enjoyable.  (Full review)

Home Care – The “Kubler-Ross Model” postulates that there are five distinct emotional stages humans experience when brought face-to-face with mortality: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. All five are served up with a side of compassion, a dash of low-key anarchy and a large orange soda in this touching dramedy from Czech director Slavek Horak. An empathic, sunny-side-up Moravian home care nurse (Alena Mihulova) is so oriented to taking care of others that when the time comes to deal with her own health crisis, she’s stymied. A deft blend of family melodrama with gentle social satire. Mihulova and Boleslav Polivka (as her husband) make an endearing screen couple.   (Full review)

Jackie – Who among us (old enough to remember) hasn’t speculated on what it must have been like to be inside Jacqueline Kennedy’s head on November 22, 1963? Pablo Larrain’s film fearlessly wades right inside its protagonist’s psyche, fueled by a precisely measured, career-best performance from Natalie Portman in the titular role, and framed by a (fictional) interview session that the recently widowed Jackie has granted to a probing yet acquiescing journalist (Billy Crudup), which serves as the convenient launching platform for a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards. The narrative (and crucially, Portman’s performance) is largely internalized; resulting in a film that is more meditative, impressionistic and personalized than your standard-issue historical drama. The question of “why now?” might arise, to which I say (paraphrasing JFK)…“why not?”  (Full review)

Mekko – Director Sterlin Harjo’s tough, lean, neorealist character study takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Rod Rondeaux (Meek’s Cutoff) is outstanding as the eponymous character, a Muscogee Indian who gets out of jail after 19 years of hard time. Bereft of funds and family support, he finds tenuous shelter among the rough-and-tumble “street chief” community of homeless Native Americans as he sorts out how he’s going to get back on his feet. Harjo coaxes naturalistic performances from all. There’s more here than meets the eye, with subtexts about Native American identity, assimilation and spirituality.  (Full review)

Older Than Ireland – “They” say with age, comes wisdom. Just don’t ask a centenarian to impart any, because they are likely to smack you. Not that there is any violence in Alex Fegan and Garry Walsh’s doc, but there is a consensus among interviewees (aged from 100-113 years) that the question they find most irksome is: “What’s your secret to living so long?” Once that hurdle is cleared, Fegan and Walsh’s subjects have much to impart in this wonderfully entertaining (and ultimately moving) pastiche of the human experience. Do yourself a favor: turn off your personal devices for 80 minutes, watch this wondrous film and plug into humankind’s forgotten backup system: the Oral Tradition.  (Full review)

Snowden – Oliver Stone had a tough act to follow (Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning 2014 documentary, Citizenfour) when he tackled his biopic about Edgar Snowden, the former National Security Agency subcontractor who ignited an international political firestorm (and became a wanted fugitive) when he leaked top secret information to The Guardian back in 2013 regarding certain NSA surveillance practices, but he pulls it off quite well. This is actually a surprisingly restrained dramatization by Stone, which is not to say it is a weak one. In fact, quite the contrary-this time out, Stone had no need to take a magical trip to the wrong side of the wardrobe. That’s because the Orwellian machinations (casually conducted on a daily basis by our government) that came to light after Snowden lifted up the rock are beyond the most feverish imaginings of the tin foil hat society. Stylistically speaking, the film recalls cerebral cold war thrillers from the 1960s like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, with a nuanced performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  (Full review)

The Tunnel– Kim Seong-hun’s film is a (no pun intended) cracking good disaster thriller from South Korea, concerning a harried Everyman (Ha Jung-woo) who gets trapped in his car when a mountain tunnel collapses on top of him. Now, I should make it clear that this is not a Hollywood-style disaster thriller, a la Roland Emmerich. That said, it does have thrills, and spectacle, but not at the expense of its humanity. This, combined with emphasis on characterization, makes it the antithesis of formulaic big-budget disaster flicks (typically agog with CGI yet bereft of IQ). There’s more than meets the eye here; much akin to Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, Seong-hun uses the “big carnival” allusions of the mise-en-scene outside the tunnel to commentate on how members of the media and the political establishment share an alchemist’s knack for turning calamity into capital.  Full review)

Weiner – Co-directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg were given remarkable access to Anthony Weiner, his family and campaign staffers during the course of his ill-fated 2013 N.Y.C. mayoral run. Their no-holds-barred film raises many interesting questions prompted in the wake of the former congressman’s “sexting” scandal (which led to his resignation from the U.S. House of Representatives in 2011)…the most obvious one being: should ‘we’ be willing to forgive personal indiscretions (barring actual criminal offenses) of those we have voted into office? After all, if making boneheaded decisions in one’s love life was a crime, there would be barely enough politicians left outside of prison to run the country. Then there’s this chestnut: WTF were you thinking?! If you’re curious to see the film because you think it answers that one, don’t waste your time. However, if you want to see an uncompromising, refreshingly honest documentary about how down and dirty campaigns can get for those in the trenches, this is a must-see.   (Full review)

# # #

And  these were my “top 10” picks for each of the years since I began writing film reviews over at Digby’s Hullabaloo (you may want to bookmark this post as a  handy quick reference for movie night).

[Click on title for full review]

2007

Eastern Promises, The Hoax, In the Shadow of the Moon, Kurt Cobain: About a Son, Michael Clayton, My Best Friend, No Country for Old Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, PaprikaZodiac

2008

Burn After Reading, The Dark Knight, The Gits, Happy Go Lucky, Honeydripper, Man on Wire, Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Visitor

2009

The Baader Meinhof Complex, Inglourious Basterds, In the Loop, The Limits of Control, The Messenger, A Serious Man, Sin Nombre, Star Trek, Where the Wild Things Are, The Yes Men Fix the World

2010

Creation, Inside Job, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Little Big Soldier, A Matter of Size, My Dog Tulip, Nowhere Boy, Oceans, The Runaways, Son of Babylon

2011

Another Earth, Certified Copy, The Descendants, Drei, Drive, The First Grader, Midnight in Paris, Summer Wars, Tinker/Tailor/Soldier/Spy, The Trip

2012

Applause, Dark Horse, Killer Joe, The Master, Paul Williams: Still Alive, Rampart, Samsara, Skyfall, The Story of Film: an Odyssey, Your Sister’s Sister

2013

The Act of Killing, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Computer Chess, 56 Up, The Hunt, Mud, The Rocket, The Silence, The Sweeney, Upstream Color

2014

Birdman, Child’s Pose, A Coffee in Berlin, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Kill the Messenger, The Last Days of Vietnam, Life Itself, A Summer’s Tale, The Wind Rises, The Theory of Everything

2015

Chappie, Fassbinder: Love Without Demands, An Italian Name, Liza the Fox Fairy, Love and Mercy, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Song of the Sea, Tangerines, Trumbo, When Marnie Was There

After my date with tragedy: Jackie ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 24, 2016)

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In his 2009 Vanity Fair article, “A Clash of Camelots”, Sam Kashner gives a fascinating account of the personal price author William Manchester ultimately paid for accepting Jackie Kennedy’s invitation to write an authorized account of JFK’s assassination. Death of a President sold well, but by the time it was published in 1967, Manchester had weathered “…a bitter, headline-making battle with Jackie and Bobby Kennedy.” Among other things, Kashner’s article unveils Manchester’s interesting take on Jackie K. herself:

On April 7, 1964, Jacqueline, dressed in yellow Capri pants and a black jersey, closed the sliding doors behind her in her Georgetown home, and Manchester came face-to-face with the president’s widow for their first official meeting. “Mr. Manchester,” she said in her soft, whispery voice. Manchester was struck by her “camellia beauty” and thought she looked much younger than her 34 years. “My first impression—and it never changed—was that I was in the presence of a very great, tragic actress.… There was a weekend in American history when we needed to be united in our sadness,” he later wrote, and Jacqueline Kennedy had “provided us with an unforgettable performance as the nation’s First Lady.”

That particular aspect of Jacqueline Kennedy’s persona – the “very great, tragic actress” – is a tragedian’s dream, an opportunity seized by director Pablo Larrain and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim, who take it and run with it in the speculative historical drama, Jackie.

The film is fueled by a precisely measured, career-best performance from Natalie Portman in the titular role, and framed by a (fictional) interview session that the recently widowed Jackie has granted to a probing yet acquiescing journalist (Billy Crudup), which serves as the convenient launching platform for a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards.

Most of the narrative focuses on the week following the president’s assassination, as Mrs. Kennedy finds herself immediately thrown into the minutiae of moving her family and belongings out of the White House, planning her husband’s funeral, and preserving his presidential legacy; all while still reeling from the horror and shock of what happened in Dallas just days before (which I’m certain would be enough to completely crack anyone).

Therein lays the genius of this film. Who among us (old enough to remember that day) hasn’t speculated on what it must have been like to be inside Jackie’s head on November 22, 1963? You wake up that sunny fall morning, you’re beautiful, glamorous, admired by millions, and married to the most powerful leader in the free world. By that night, you’re in shock, gobbling tranquilizers like Pez, standing in the cramped galley of Air Force One in a daze, still wearing that gore-spattered pink dress, watching the Vice President being sworn in as the new POTUS…while realizing you are already getting brushed to the side.

No one but Jackie herself will ever truly know what it was like to be inside her head in the wake of this zeitgeist-shattering event, and she took that with her to her grave. That gives the film makers much creative leeway, but there are still many points grounded in reality. For example, it’s no secret that Jackie fiercely (and famously) guarded her privacy; so the insinuations that she shrewdly cultivated her image (in one scene, she demands the right of final edit for the journalist’s article) are not necessarily exaggerated.

That said, the narrative (and crucially, Portman’s performance) is largely internalized; resulting in a film that is more meditative, impressionistic and personalized than your standard-issue historical drama. Two films came to mind while I was watching Jackie that I would consider stylistic cousins: Francois Girard’s 1993 Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould and Satoshi Kon’s 2001 Millennium Actress; the former for its use of episodic vignettes from its subject’s life to construct a portrait, and the latter for doing the same, but with the added similarity of using a journalist’s interview for a framing device.

Larrain also evokes Kubrick, in his use of classical-style music, meticulously constructed shots (with lovely photography throughout by cinematographer Stephane Fontaine) and deliberate pacing. The film ultimately belongs to Portman, who may not physically resemble Jackie, but uncannily captures her persona, from her “soft, whispery voice” and public poise, to her less-guarded side (replete with chain-smoking and sardonic wit). There is excellent supporting work from the aforementioned Crudup, Peter Sarsgaard (as Robert F. Kennedy), and a cameo by the always wonderful John Hurt (as Jackie’s priest).

Understandably, the question of “why now?” could arise, to which I would reply (paraphrasing JFK)…why not? To be sure, Jacqueline Kennedy’s story has been well-covered in a myriad of documentaries and feature films; like The Beatles, there are very few (if any) mysteries about her life and legacy to uncover at this point. And not to mention that horrible, horrible day in Dallas…do we really need to pay $15 just to see the nightmare reenacted for the umpteenth time? (Spoiler alert: the President dies at the end).

I think that “we” do need to see this film, even if we know going in that there was no “happy ever-aftering” in this Camelot. It reminds us of a “brief, shining moment” when all seemed possible, opportunities were limitless, and everything was going to be all right, because Jack was our king and Jackie was our queen. So what if it was all kabuki, as the film implies; merely a dream, invented by “a great, tragic actress” to unite us in our sadness. Then it was a good dream, and I think we’ll find our Camelot again…someday.

Mr. Robot goes to Washington: Snowden ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 25, 2016)

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“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”  

       -from “1984”, by George Orwell

Reality can be a tough act to follow. As I noted in my 2008 review of the biopic, W:

No one has ever accused Oliver Stone of being subtle. However, once audiences view his highly anticipated film concerning the life and times of George W. Bush, I think the popular perception about the director, which is that he is a rabid conspiracy theorist who rewrites history via Grand Guignol-fueled cinematic polemics, could begin to diminish.

If the Bush administration had never really happened, and this was a completely fictional creation, I would be describing Stone’s film by throwing out one-sheet ready superlatives […] But you see, when it comes to the life and legacy of one George W. Bush and the Strangelovian nightmare that he and his cohorts have plunged this once great nation into for the last eight years, all you have to do is tell the truth…and pass the popcorn.

Such is the conundrum for Snowden, writer-director Oliver Stone’s new biopic about Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency subcontractor who ignited an international political firestorm (and became a wanted fugitive) when he leaked top secret information to The Guardian back in 2013 regarding certain NSA surveillance practices.

The “tough act of follow” is Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning 2014 documentary, Citizenfour. In 2013, Snowden invited Poitras, along with Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, for a meet at the Hong Kong hotel he was holed up in. This was the culmination of months of email exchanges between Snowden (sending encrypted text under the pseudonym of “Citizenfour”) and Poitras. Poitras found herself in the unique position of being a (circumstantial) “co-conspirator” in the story she was filming. The result was a gripping documentary that played like a paranoia-fueled thriller.

Now we have Oliver Stone, a filmmaker often accused by detractors of infusing his own politically charged, paranoia-fueled conspiracy theories into historical dramas like JFK and Nixon, diving head first into one of the most polarizing public debates of recent years: is Edward Snowden a hero…or a traitor? It seems to be a marriage made in heaven. Surely, this should be a perfect impetus for the return of that fearless, rabble-rousing Oliver Stone of old…speaking truth to power through his art, consequences be damned.

This is actually a surprisingly restrained dramatization by Stone, which is not to say it is a weak one. In fact, quite the contrary-this time out, Stone had no need to take a magical trip to the wrong side of the wardrobe. That’s because the Orwellian machinations (casually conducted on a daily basis by our government) that came to light after Snowden lifted up the rock are beyond even the most feverish imaginings of the tin foil hat society.

In other words, you couldn’t make this shit up, either.

After opening with a cloak-and-dagger vignette set in 2013 on the streets of Hong Kong, Stone flashes back to 2004, where we see a younger, gung-ho Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) humping it through a grueling Special Forces training course. His Army reservist career is cut short after he breaks both legs in an accident. A few years later, still determined to serve his country, he finds a more ideal fit working at the CIA, where his (apparently) sharp computer hacking skills land him a position as an info tech. Stone follows Snowden’s various job relocations, from D.C. to Japan; eventually ending up at the NSA subcontracting firm Booz Allen in Hawaii (where he famously “did the deed”).

Stone alternates between the personal bio, which includes Snowden’s longtime relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) and the increasingly furtive interview sessions with Snowden in the Hong Kong hotel room in 2013 by Guardian journalists Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), while Poitras (Melissa Leo) dutifully continues filming. Gordon-Levitt uncannily captures Snowden’s vibe; although by the time credits roll, he remains a cypher. Then again, Snowden has said, “This really isn’t about me […] It’s about our right to dissent.”

Stylistically, the film felt to me like a throwback to cerebral cold war thrillers from the 1960s like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Defector, Funeral in Berlin, and The Deadly Affair. This may not be by accident; because one of the core themes of the screenplay (adapted by Stone with Kieran Fitzgerald from Luke Harding’s The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man, and Anatoly Kucherena’s Time of the Octopus) is that we are, in fact, in the midst of a new “cold war”…in cyberspace.

As Snowden’s (fictional) mentor “Corbin O’Brien” (one of the more interesting creations in the film, especially as played by a scene-stealing Rhys Ifans) tells him, “The new battlefield is everywhere.” True that. It’s happening every day, all around us. It used to be a novelty, but it seems like my bank is issuing me a new credit card about every 6 months anymore, due to some nebulous “security breach”. Or how about the “DC Leaks” story…hacktivists with alleged Russian ties breaking into White House accounts at will?

But the question becomes, of course, how much of our privacy should we, as tax-paying citizens, be willing to sacrifice in the name of national security? As Greg Lake once sang:

Knowledge is a deadly friend, if no one sets the  rules                                      The fate of all mankind, I see, is in the hands of fools 

Luckily, we have filmmakers like Stone and Poitras, journalists like Greenwald and MacAskill, and whistle blowers like Edward Snowden, who do not suffer such fools gladly. Big Brother is watching us, but now we feel emboldened to ask: What are you lookin’ at?

SIFF 2016: Action Comandante **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 21, 2016)

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Nadine Angel Cloete’s documentary is a profile of anti-apartheid activist Ashley Kriel, who was gunned down by police in 1987 (at age 20) and name-checked by Nelson Mandela in his 1990 post-prison release speech. While obviously meant to be an inspirational piece, the film falls curiously flat; a crucial portion of the tragically short-lived Kriel’s life story seems to be MIA. His formative years are covered; his awakening as a community activist (at an unusually young age), and the shady circumstances surrounding his death are examined…but what happened in between? All we learn is that he left his hometown for several years, and returned a seasoned freedom fighter. Within a short period, he was dead. The end. Exposition regarding that transformation from activist to guerilla is much too sketchy. Kriel’s story is undoubtedly an important part of South Africa’s freedom struggle, but as told here, it feels incomplete.

SIFF 2016: If There’s A Hell Below **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 14, 2016)

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For the first two thirds of this conspiracy thriller, which concerns a clandestine meeting between a journalist and a government whistle-blower, writer-director Nathan Williams masterfully utilizes the desolate moonscape of Eastern Washington to create an almost unbearable sense of tension and dread (a la Spielberg’s Duel, or the crop dusting sequence in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest). Unfortunately, he jinxes his streak with a lazily constructed third act. Still, it’s an audacious debut that portends considerable promise for any future endeavors…which I am looking forward to.