Category Archives: On Politics

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Castro revolutionary: Milk ****

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wish you were here: Standard Operating Procedure ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 24, 2008)

Auschwitz staff, 1944.

Abu Ghraib staff, 2004.

There was a fascinating documentary recently on the National Geographic Channel called Nazi Scrapbooks from Hell. It was the most harrowing depiction of the Holocaust I’ve seen, but it offered nary a glimpse of the oft-shown photographs of the atrocities themselves. Rather, it focused on photos from a recently discovered scrapbook that belonged to an SS officer assigned to Auschwitz. Essentially an organized, affably annotated gallery of the “after hours” lifestyle of a “workaday” concentration camp staff, it shows cheerful participants enjoying a little outdoor nosh, catching some sun, and even the odd sing-along, all in the shadow of the notorious death factory where they “worked”. If it weren’t for the Nazi uniforms, you might think it was just a bunch of guys from the office, hamming it up for the camera at a company picnic. As the filmmakers point out, it is the everyday banality of this evil that makes it so chilling. The most amazing fact is that these pictures were taken in the first place.

What were they thinking?

This is the same rhetorical question posed by one of the interviewees in Standard Operating Procedure, a new documentary about the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal from renowned filmmaker Errol Morris. The gentleman is a military C.I.D. investigator who had the unenviable task of sifting through the hundreds of damning photos taken by several of the perpetrators. Since this is primarily a movie review, I don’t feel a need to rehash the back story for you (especially when a Google search of “Abu Ghraib” yields over 3 million results). We’ve all viewed those thoroughly repulsive photos ad nauseam, and the cold hard facts of the case have been well-documented and endlessly dissected.

The next logical question might be, what was Erroll Morris thinking? What startling new insight could he offer on this well-worn subject? This guy is no slouch-he has been responsible for several of the most well-crafted and compelling American documentaries of the last 30 years, from his 1978 debut Gates of Heaven (a knockout doc about pet cemeteries) to the true crime classic The Thin Blue Line (1988), and his most recent critical success The Fog of War (2003). Once again, Morris serves up intimate confessions from his interviewees, delivered directly into a modified teleprompter.

Morris makes an interesting choice here. He aims his spotlight not so much on analyzing the glaringly obvious inhumanity on display in those sickening photos, but rather on our perception of them. So just who are these people that took them? What was the actual intent behind the self-documentation? Can we conclusively pass judgment on the actions of the people involved, based solely on what we “think” these photographs show us?

In a weird way, Morris’ insistence on drawing us completely “inside” the photos made me flash on Antonioni’s 1966 classic Blow Up. The protagonist in that film is a fashion photographer who becomes obsessed with examining a series of seemingly benign pictures that he takes in a public park. He begins to believe that he has inadvertently documented a murder taking place in the background of the photos…or is he just seeing what he wants to see? The film challenges our perception of what we “see” as reality.

According to Abu Ghraib poster girl Lyddie England and several other of the convicted MPs who Morris interviews in the film, the “reality” behind the prisoner “abuse” was (in their perception ) “standard operating procedure”; they were merely “softening up” the subjects for the CIA interrogators. You know-just doing their job. One phrase you hear over and over is “everybody knew what was going on”, which sounds suspiciously like that old Nuremberg litany “we were only following orders”.  And so it goes.

Morris also plays up the bizarre love triangle aspect. When asked to explain her hammy poses for the infamous prisoner humiliation photos, England blames it on amore. “What can I say,” she shrugs, “I was in love.” She is referring to Charles Graner, currently serving 10 years for his part in the scandal (Morris was denied permission by the military to interview him). As we now know, Graner was concurrently dating another MP, Megan Ambuhl, whom he has since married (it’s all so Jerry Springer). Here’s a sobering thought: Thanks to the “softening up” of America’s prestige conducted by the Bush white house, all it took was this taxpayer-funded white trash “scrapbook from hell” to drive the final nail into its coffin.

Morris has taken some flak for focusing only on those who some may consider the low-level “scapegoats” of the Abu Ghraib debacle; these critics seem to be implying that he is not targeting high enough in the food chain. There is some merit in this assertion; the only brass who appears on camera is the palpably embittered ex-brigadier general and former Abu Ghraib overseer Janis Karpinski, who angrily asserts that she was treated to a dog and pony show whenever she visited the facilities. But in all fairness, Morris does not have the hindsight of history on his side in this case.

We can’t expect anything close to that great final shot in All the President’s Men…the close-up of teletype keys pounding out the Nixon resignation bulletin. In a truly “fair and balanced” universe, the only satisfactory denouement to any story about the Iraq “war” should be a closing shot of a spinning newspaper, finally righting itself to declare “Bush and Cheney to be Impeached for War Crimes!” The Nixon administration is history. We’re still living this nightmare.

Oliver Stone looks back, and to the Right: W ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 18, 2008)

Two of America’s finest actors.

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. I’m even going to go out on a limb here (gulp!) and call W a fairly straightforward biopic.

Stone intersperses highlights of Bush’s White House years with episodic flashbacks and flash forwards, beginning in the late 60s (when Junior was attending Yale) and taking us up to the present day. I don’t think a full plot summary is necessary; if you are a regular Hullabaloo reader, you know the story all too well: Alcoholic son of Texas oil millionaire stumbles through early adulthood, gets into Yale (eventually Harvard) through the back door, marries a librarian, then discovers his Special Purpose after helping Poppy become President.

Thanks to the savvy guidance of a homunculus sidekick he dubs as “Turdblossom”, he is elected as the governor of Texas (twice) and then finds God, who informs him personally that he is destined to become President, because He has a Special Mission for him. Turns out that his Special Mission is to fight the Evil Doers where they live, after they stage a terrorist attack on America. Trouble is, there seems to be some confusion as to exactly where they live. In the meantime, he’ll need to bitch slap that Bill of Rights (just a little), for our protection.

Best supporting performance?

I’m not saying that Stone doesn’t take a point of view; he wouldn’t be Oliver Stone if he didn’t. He’s already catching flak for the screen time spent dwelling on Bush’s battle with the bottle (the manufacturers of Jack Daniels must have laid out serious bucks for the ubiquitous product placement ). Bush’s history of boozing is a matter of record.

Some are taking umbrage at another one of the chief underlying themes of Stanley Weisner’s screenplay, which is that Bush’s angst (and the drive to succeed at all costs) is propelled by an unrequited desire to please a perennially disapproving George Senior. I’m no psychologist, but that sounds reasonable to me.

Live, from New York…it’s Saturday Night!

As usual, Stone has assembled a massive cast with a bazillion speaking parts. His choice of Josh Brolin for the lead initially struck many people as an odd selection (including yours truly), but now that I have seen the film, I have to say it was a smart move.

Brolin is nothing short of brilliant. He doesn’t go for a cartoon caricature, which would have been the easy route to take; I think he pulls off a Daniel Day Lewis-worthy “total immersion” quite successfully. It is interesting to note that Brolin (tangential to Junior) has been accused of riding into a Hollywood career on the coattails of his dad (James Brolin) and stepmother (Barbara Streisand); if Stone chose his leading man with this in mind, he is a very canny operator.

Some of the other standouts in the cast include Toby Jones as Karl Rove, James Cromwell and the great Ellen Burstyn as President and Mrs. Bush Sr., Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell and Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney. Wright and Dreyfuss play off each other beautifully while recreating Cheney and Powell’s tiffs. Scott Glenn isn’t given an awful lot to do as Donald Rumsfeld, but he has the evil squint down.

The only casting misfire is an overly mannered Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice; it is like she dropped in from an SNL sketch. Perhaps it is not entirely her fault, as there’s so much prosthetic on her face, she can barely move her lips.

Perhaps I should qualify something. When I called this a “straightforward” biopic, I was speaking in relative terms. You have to keep in mind that in one respect, Stone is boldly going where no filmmaker has gone before. PT 109 aside, this is the only biopic about a president to be released while he is still sitting in the Oval Office; and since the former film dealt with JFK’s WW2 exploits, and not his actual presidency, that makes Stone’s film even more unique.

Another hurdle is the fact that the Bush administration has probably been satirized, parodied and ridiculed (via print, blogosphere, TV, film, theater, comedy club, YouTube, T-shirt, billboard, and water cooler chat) more than any other presidency in my lifetime (not that they haven’t asked for it in every way imaginable). This zeitgeist makes it virtually impossible for someone to make a “serious” biopic about W. By playing it straight, Stone is really being subversive (clever boy!).

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 like “A wildly imaginative look at the dark side of the American Dream!” or “A vivid, savage satire for our times!” 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.

Too much heaven on their minds: Religulous ***

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

 I’ve always been a bit of a fence-sitter when it comes to religion. Undoubtedly, this is due to the fact that I was begat by a Jewish woman from Brooklyn and a Protestant man from Ohio (I can hear long-time readers now: “That explains a lot“).

Thank the deity du jour that my folks never endeavored to push me into one belief system or the other. To me, the conundrum of “Torah or Bible?” holds about the same academic import as pondering “Paper or plastic?” I’m not an atheist, nor an agnostic. If pressed, I might admit that I’m a cautiously optimistic pan-spiritualist.

I believe robots are stealing my luggage. –Jack Handey

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

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

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

Maher’s “spiritual journey” begins in America’s southeastern Bible belt, highlighted by a round-table discussion with several burly, Cat-hatted worshipers at a roadside truck stop chapel (you couldn’t make shit like this up). Maher gets his first walkout from one of the drivers, who takes major umbrage that Maher is “…disputin’ my God.” Fair enough. But as Maher says with a shrug after the fellow stalks out, “I’m just asking questions.”

Another highlight is a visit to a Christian theme park in Orlando Florida, where Maher trade a few good-natured jibes with Jesus. Well, a Jesus impersonator, who is the star of what appears to be some kind of Bronco Billy road show-style reenactment of the crucifixion.

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

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

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

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

The film is timely. Maher brought up a good point on The Daily Show earlier this week. When he mentioned Sarah Palin’s staunch Christian stance, Jon Stewart countered that Barack Obama claims to be deeply religious as well, to which Maher replied, “I hope he’s lying.” My sentiments exactly. Because, as Maher went on to point out, when anyone runs for president in the “United States of Stupid” (Maher’s words) they have to trawl votes by toeing the spiritual line.

It’s a given that McCain is paying lip service to piety, and I’d like to assume Obama isn’t some kind of secret crazy fundamentalist. But Palin? She is dangerous. I know that Digby, Dday and Tristero have been warning us about this from the get-go, but it is encouraging to hear someone saying it on a high profile television talk show. It can’t be said enough. All I can say is- go see this film, and then come November 4, everybody grab their hose and socks…and pray.

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

Attention, K Street choppers.

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

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

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

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

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

The cougar and the slow man.

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

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

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

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

https://i2.wp.com/www.dvd-covers.org/d/200291-5/harold_and_kumar_21.jpg?resize=474%2C267

They say that tragedy plus time equals comedy. In the 2005 film, The Aristocrats, a documentary about the “filthiest joke in the world”, there is a fascinating bit of footage from the 2001 Friar’s Club Roast for Hugh Hefner, which took place just after 9/11. Gilbert Gottfried launched into  a bit about the attack. Within moments, he was being roundly catcalled by cries of “Too soon!”

Mind you, this was a room full of professional funny people, who make their living from irreverence. But that was then. I don’t know if I should laugh or cry  that we currently have two films  that glibly incorporate 9/11 into their titles: Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay and Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? Has the War on Terror been slogging on for that long? Yes, it has.

In 2004, a modestly-budgeted stoner comedy, with a juvenile title and two unknown leads, became an unexpected cult phenomenon. Arguably, the most surprising thing about Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle was that, between the bong hits, sex gags and scatological references, there lurked an undercurrent of sharp sociopolitical commentary about racial stereotyping in America (for the uninitiated, Harold and Kumar are portrayed by a Korean-American and Indian-American actor, respectively)

The movie was gut-busting funny, and in a fresh way. The film’s co-creators, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Scholssberg, now officially turn their baked slacker heroes into a sort of Cheech and Chong franchise for millennials with the release of a politically topical sequel, Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay.

The events of the first film occurred just “last week”.  Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) are excitedly packing their bags for a dream European vacation in weed-friendly Amsterdam. Unbeknownst to Harold, Kumar has smuggled his new invention, a “smokeless” bong, on board their flight. Since it is a homemade, cylindrical device containing liquid, it resembles a You Know What.

When a “vigilant” passenger, already eyeballing Kumar with suspicion due to his ethnic countenance, accidentally catches a glimpse of him attempting to fire up his device in the bathroom, all hell breaks loose. Before they know it, Harold and Kumar have been handcuffed by on-board air marshals, given the third degree back on the ground by an overzealous, jingoistic government spook (played to the hilt by The Daily Show alumnus Rob Corddry) and issued a pair of orange jumpsuits, courtesy of the Gitmo quartermaster.

Through a serendipitous set of circumstances that could only occur in Harold and Kumar’s resin-encrusted alternate universe, they manage to break out, and hitch a boat ride to Florida (don’t ask). This sets off a series of wacky cross-country misadventures, mostly through the deep South (imagine the possibilities).

As in the first film, the more ridiculously over-the-top and unlikely their predicament gets, the funnier it becomes (it’s like being really stoned, I mean, from what I’ve been told-ahem). And once again, the duo’s Doogie ex machina appears just in time to lend a much-needed hand, in the person of “Neil Patrick Harris” (played with winking, hyper-hetero exaggeration by, erm, Neil Patrick Harris).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other scene occurs during the Saudi Arabia segment. Spurlock interviews two teenage male students. After giving disclaimers that the two interviewees were  handpicked by the school staff, and that two school officials insisted on being present during the interview, Spurlock precedes to pepper the boys with incendiary questions.

The anxiety and fear is palpable on the young men’s faces; they nervously glance off camera where the school observers are  positioned before answering each question with a variation on “I have no opinion on that.”  Granted, this may be  Spurlock’s point; but by this point, he has already established Saudi Arabia is a draconian oligarchy; what’s he trying to prove by shooting fish in a barrel?

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

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Edge is Still Out There: Gonzo, the Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson ***

By Dennis Hartley

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

No fun to hang around
Feeling that same old way
No fun to hang around
Freaked out for another day
No fun my babe no fun

 -The Stooges

 “No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won’t hurt.”

 -Hunter S. Thompson

It’s been just over three years now since the godfather of gonzo journalism eschewed his beloved typewriter to scrawl those words with a magic marker, four days prior to pulling a Hemingway. Ever the contrarian, Thompson couldn’t resist adding a twist of gonzo irony to his suicide note, by entitling it “Football Season is Over.”

Since then, several quickie “tell-all” books have played Monday morning quarterback with the life and legacy of the iconoclastic writer, with what one would assume would be a wildly varying degree of accuracy. That’s because Hunter S. Thompson was a mass of  contradictions. His work was imbued with DFH political idealism and tempered by full commitment to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll; yet he loved to collect guns, blow shit up and counted the likes of Pat Buchanan among his personal friends. I don’t envy his biographers.

In Gonzo: the Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson, director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room) may have discovered the right formula. He takes an approach as scattershot and unpredictable as the subject himself; using a frenetic pastiche of talking heads, vintage home movies,  film clips, animation, audio tapes and snippets of prose (voiced by Johnny Depp, who has become to Thompson what Hal Holbrook is to Mark Twain). While Gibney keeps the timeline fairly linear, he does make interesting choices along the way-and equally interesting omissions (e.g., Thompson’s formative years are given the bum’s rush).

Gibney begins with the 1966 book Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, which first established Thompson’s groundbreaking style of journalism (as one interviewee observes, he essentially “embedded” himself with the notorious motorcycle gang). An overview of his Rolling Stone reportage ensues, highlighted by the assignment that resulted in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. There’s a fascinating account of how Thompson’s bacchanalian propensities caused him to blow his coverage of the Ali-Foreman bout in Zaire, posited by Gibney as the first inkling that personal excesses were starting to affect HST’s ability to consistently knock one out of the park with each piece.

A lion’s share of the film is devoted to two particular chapters of Thompson’s life: his quasi-serious run for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado and his coverage of the 1972 presidential elections (which provided fodder for Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72).

The segment regarding the 1972 campaign is so riveting and well-crafted that I wished Gibney had turned it into a full-length companion documentary. Gibney reveals how the Eagleton VP nomination debacle and resultant death knell for the McGovern campaign was also a crushing blow to Thompson’s personal sense of 1960s idealism, signaling the beginning of an escalating disillusionment and bitterness that would permeate his political writing from that point on. The director also reminds us that Thompson was quite instrumental in bringing then-governor Jimmy Carter into the national political spotlight by championing his 1974 Law Day Speech.

I think political junkies are going to dig this film more than the those chiefly enamored with Hunter S. Thompson’s superficial substance-fueled “rebel” persona. Excepting the depiction of Thompson’s relatively unproductive latter years, spent ensconced in his Colorado compound, too distracted by guns, drugs and sycophants to do little else but slowly disappear up his own legend (like Elvis at Graceland) the director suppresses the urge to play up the public notoriety and revel in the writer’s recreational excesses, just to sell more movie tickets. If you’re expecting a sequel to Gilliam’s film, this is not for you.

The film is not without its flaws; the frequent use of Depp clips from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas becomes distracting and begins to feel like cheating (by contrast, there is only one brief nod to Bill Murray’s turn in Where the Buffalo Roam.) This is a minor quibble, because there are some real treasures here. Devotees will delight in listening to the audio snippets from the original cassettes that Thompson made while cruising through the Nevada desert with his attorney, as well as the recording of a shouting match between the writer and his long-time collaborator Ralph Steadman while they were in Zaire (let us pray that the DVD will bonus more from those priceless tapes).

This is not a hagiography; several ex-wives and associates  make no bones about reminding us that the man could be a real asshole. On the other hand, examples of his genuine humanity and idealism are brought to the fore as well, making for an insightful and fairly balanced overview of this “Dr. Gonzo and Mr. Thompson” dichotomy. What the director does not forget is that, at the end of the day, HST was the most unique American political commentator/ social observer who ever sat down to peck at a bullet-riddled typewriter.

Bastard. We could sure as shit use him now.

Arise, Commie Pinko Hollywood Lefties: Reds (****) & The Internationale (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 17, 2007)

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Every time I see our illustrious VP’s mug on the tube or hear mention of Halliburton, I always flash on my favorite scene in Warren Beatty’s Reds. Early on in the film, the story’s protagonist, journalist/activist/Communist Party member John Reed (Beatty), is at a meeting of Portland’s Liberal Club, where discussion has turned to the current war in Europe (WWI). Reed is asked what he thinks the conflict is “about”. Reed stands up, simply mumbles one word, then promptly sits right back down. The word: “Profits”. The crystalline brevity of that answer blew my (then) twenty-something mind back in 1981.

Indeed, it is a testament to Beatty’s own sense of conviction and legendary powers of persuasion (or as Tom Hanks put it, repeatedly, at the recent Golden Globe Awards, “Balls”) that he was able to convince a major Hollywood studio to back a 3 ½ hour epic about a relatively obscure American Communist (who is buried in the Kremlin, no less).

As we know now, of course, the film turned out to be a critical success, and garnered a dozen Oscar noms (it won three, including Best Director). Almost unbelievably, it was not released on DVD until late 2006. If you haven’t seen it in a while, or have never seen it-you owe yourself a screening, particularly if you are a history buff.

Diane Keaton turns in one of her best performances as Reed’s lover, writer and feminist Louise Bryant. Maureen Stapleton (who we sadly lost last year) earned her Best Supporting Actress trophy with a memorable portrayal of activist Emma Goldman. Jack Nicholson’s take on the complex, mercurial playwright, Eugene O’Neill is a wonder to behold. And Beatty deserves kudos for assembling an amazing group of surviving real-life participants, whose anecdotal recollections are seamlessly interwoven throughout, like a Greek Chorus of living history. No one makes ‘em like this anymore.

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If you really want to make a “subversive” night of it, a certain rousing anthem that figures prominently in the Reds soundtrack is the sole spotlight of another recent DVD release. Blending archival footage with thoughtful commentary, The Internationale takes a look at the origins and historical impact of the eponymous political anthem, from its 19th century roots in the French Commune movement to Tienanmen Square and beyond, packed into a breezy 30 minutes.

Arguably one of the most idealized (and frequently misinterpreted) rallying songs ever composed (just the melody alone gives me goose bumps), the tune has been embraced by Socialists, Marxists, anarchists, anti-Fascists, workers and labor activists alike over the years, transcending nationalist and language barriers. The most interesting aspect the film examines concerns the bad rap the song received after it was “officially” adapted by the oppressive, post-revolutionary Soviet regime. Pete Seeger (a perfect choice, no?) emcees the proceedings, with support from historians, musicologists, and multinational participants (veteran and current) in some of the aforementioned movements. British punk agitprop troubadour extraordinaire Billy Bragg also makes a brief appearance. C’mon everybody! You know the words…