Tag Archives: 2007 Reviews

What did you do in the war, Mommy? – Black Book (***1/2) & The Good German (**1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 2, 2007)

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If you have perceived a deluge of WW2-themed films as of late, you’re not imagining things. Most of the critical brouhaha seems to have been centered on Clint Eastwood’s   Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (neither of which I have seen yet, I will admit), which likely explains why two other WW2 dramas helmed by a pair of equally noteworthy directors have slipped in and out of theatres relatively un-noticed.

Paul Verhoeven’s Zwartboek (aka Black Book) and Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German share some interesting similarities. They both represent a throwback to a certain type of old-fashioned WW2 adventure yarn, and they both feature strong female protagonists doing whatever it takes to survive their wartime nightmare.

Black Book (co-written by the director with Gerard Soeteman) is native Hollander Paul Verhoeven’s first Dutch language film in quite a while. It’s a “Mata Hari” style tale set in Holland in the waning days of the German occupation, as the Allies make their post-D-Day push across Europe. Carice van Houten is compelling as a former chanteuse named Ellis, a Dutch Jew who has spent the occupation in hiding with a farm family. When her hosts perish in a bombing raid, Ellis is left with the realization that she will now have to live by her wits if she is to survive (The Sound of Music meets Showgirls? Discuss.)

After a series of harrowing escapes, Ellis finds herself in the Dutch Resistance. As part of a plan to spring some imprisoned Resistance fighters, she is asked to seduce the commander of the local SS detachment, Colonel Muntze (Sebastian Koch, in a nicely fleshed out performance). Things become complicated when Ellis develops a genuine attraction to Muntze.

This is an exciting war adventure, with interesting plot twists along the way (replete with a few patented over-the-top Verhoeven moments, usually involving uncompromising nudity and gore). It’s refreshing to see Verhoeven escaping from Hollywood and getting back to his roots; while I generally enjoy his big budget popcorn fare, I have always felt his Dutch films (e.g. Spetters, The 4th Man, Soldier of Orange) were more challenging and substantive (Verhoeven the Hired Hand vs. Verhoeven the Auteur, if you will).

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Steven Soderbergh loves to pay homage. In fact, (Mr. Tarantino aside), he probably holds the record for dropping more cinema buff-centric references per film than any other director. In his most recent film, The Good German (filmed in glorious B&W), he may have allowed this tendency lead him too deeply into “style over substance” territory.

The story is set in immediate post-war Berlin, with the backdrop of the uneasy alliance and growing mistrust between the occupying U.S. and Russian military forces. Captain Jacob Geismer (George Clooney) is an American military correspondent who has been assigned to cover the Potsdam Conference.

His G.I. driver, Tully (Tobey Maguire) is a slick wheeler-dealer (reminiscent of James Garner’s character in The Americanization of Emily) who procures everything from cigarettes to women and has a German girlfriend (a barely recognizable Cate Blanchett, dutifully delivering her lines in a husky Marlene Dietrich drone).

Imagine Capt. Geismer’s surprise when Tully introduces him to said girlfriend, and she happens to be an old lover of his. To tell you more risks revealing spoilers, so suffice it to say that Lena, a Woman with a Dark Secret, becomes the central figure in a murder mystery, with the hapless Geismer drawn right into the thick of it.

Unfortunately, despite a certain amount of suspense in the first act, the story becomes increasingly convoluted and curiously non-involving.  Blanchett’s performance feels phoned-in, and I wouldn’t call it Clooney’s best work either. Now, it is possible that Soderbergh is SO obsessed with aping an old-fashioned, film noir-ish, black and white late-40’s war thriller, that he may have in fact directed his actors to mimic the semi-wooden, melodramatic acting style that informed many of those films. (Even the DVD transfer appears to be part of the joke; as it is matted in full frame 1.33:1 aspect ratio).

The film does sport a great “vintage” look; the cinematography is outstanding (Soderbergh has never faltered in that department) and he perfectly captures the chiaroscuro look of a certain classic Carol Reed film (I am sure I am not the first person to draw comparisons to The Third Man). There are also some other obvious touchstones here, like Hitchcock’s WW2 thrillers Notorious and Foreign Correspondent.

At the end of the day, however, if I want to see something that reminds me of The Third Man or Foreign Correspondent, I think if I had my druthers, I would just as soon pull out my DVD of The Third Man or Foreign Correspondent, if you know what I am saying. While The Good German certainly looks pretty, it ultimately feels pretty… empty.

Touch me, I’m sick: Sicko ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 7, 2007)

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Oh, Michael-you are such a pill.

Our favorite cuddly corn-fed agitprop filmmaker is back to stir up some doo-doo, spark national debate and make pinko-hatin’ ‘murcan “patriots” twitch and shout. Unless you’ve been living in a cave and have somehow missed the considerable amount of pre-release hype, you have likely gleaned that I am referring to documentary maestro Michael Moore’s meditation on the current state of the U.S. health care system, Sicko.

Moore grabs our attention right out of the gate with a real Bunuel moment. Over the opening credits, we are treated to shaky home video depicting a man pulling up a flap of skin whilst patiently stitching up a gash on his knee with a needle and thread, as Moore deadpans in V.O. (with his cheerful Midwestern countenance) that the gentleman is an avid cyclist- and one of the millions of Americans who cannot afford health insurance.

Moore doesn’t waste any time showing us the flipside of the issue-even those who are “lucky” enough to have health coverage often end up with the short end of the stick as well. A young woman, knocked unconscious in a high speed auto collision and rushed to the ER via ambulance, was later denied coverage for the ambulance ride by her insurance company because it was not “pre-approved”. She ponders incredulously as to exactly how she was supposed to have facilitated “pre-approval” in such a scenario (as do we).

The film proceeds to delve into some of some of the other complexities contributing to the overall ill health of our current system; such as the monopolistic power and greed of the pharmaceutical companies, the lobbyist graft, and (perhaps most depressing of all) the heartless bureaucracy of a privatized health “coverage” system that focuses first and foremost on profit, rather than on actual individual need.

I know what you’re thinking-kind of a downer, eh? Well, this is a Michael Moore film, so there are plenty of laughs injected to help salve our tears. Most of the levity occurs as Moore travels abroad to the socialized nations of Canada, Britain, France and Cuba to do a little comparison shopping for alternate health care systems.

Much of the vitriol and spite aimed at Sicko seems to have been triggered by this aspect of the film. Indeed, the film has only been open for a week, and already the wing nut comment threads are ablaze with about a million variations on “Well if you think it’s so much better than America then why don’t you just move there you big fat Commie traitor.” (In his typically sly fashion, Moore leads into his Cuba segment by weaving in footage and music from vintage Communist propaganda films; knowing full well that those with small minds will take the bait and completely miss the irony.)

The classic Moore moment in Sicko arrives as he sails into Guantanamo Bay with a megaphone and a boatload of financially tapped Ground Zero volunteer rescue worker veterans who are all suffering from serious respiratory illnesses. After learning that the Gitmo detainees all enjoy completely free, round the clock medical care on the taxpayer’s nickel, he figures that the state of the art prison hospital wouldn’t mind offering the same services to some genuine American heroes. Of course, the personnel manning the heavily armed U.S. military patrol boats in the bay fail to see his logic, and they are unceremoniously turned away.

Undeterred, he decides to give the Cuban health care system a spin (while they’re in the neighborhood-why not?) They are welcomed unconditionally, and receive prompt and thorough care. Is it a propaganda move by the Cubans? Probably. Does Moore conveniently fail to mention the minuses of the Cuban health care system (or the Canadian, British and French systems for that matter)? Sure-but who cares?

The pluses greatly outweigh the minuses, especially when compared to the current health care mess in our own country (at least he’s showing enough sack to step up and give people some alternatives to mull over). Moore makes his point quite succinctly-the need for health care is a basic human need. It should never hinge on economic, political or ideological factors. As one of his astute interviewees observes, it is a right, not a privilege.

In fact, this may qualify as the least polemical of Moore’s films to date. Consequently, it may disappoint or perplex some of his usual supporters, especially those who always anticipate that a Moore film will give them a vicarious “let’s go stick it to The Man” thrill ride.

Things are not so black and white this time out; the issue at hand is too complex. I don’t think there is any filmmaker out there right now who could sum it all up (tidy solutions and all) in less than 2 hours, but Moore has done an admirable job of scratching the surface, and most importantly, he manages to do so in an entertaining and engaging fashion. After all, isn’t that why we go to the movies?

Evil corporate bastards: Michael Clayton ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

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The late great Paddy Chayefsky would surely be pleased by the opening salvo of searing verbiage that launches writer-director Tony Gilroy’s superb new legal thriller, Michael Clayton. The fine British actor Tom Wilkinson nearly walks off with the movie before the opening credits are even finished rolling with a magnificently performed voice-over rant that recalls Howard Beale’s “cleansing moment of clarity” in Network.

Wilkinson portrays Arthur Edens, a crack lawyer and senior partner for a prestigious New York corporate law firm who is, well, cracking up. On the eve of closing a case he has been working on for several years on behalf of U-North, an agrichemical company faced with a class-action lawsuit, Edens suffers a Dostoevkskian meltdown and suddenly decides to side with the plaintiffs and publicly expose his client’s turpitude in the matter.

As you can probably imagine, with many millions of dollars at stake and the reputations of both the corporation and law firm on the line, there are some very powerful, pissed off people sitting in dark boardrooms, scrambling for a quick and decisive solution to their “problem”. Enter the film’s title character, Michael Clayton (George Clooney, in a first-rate performance). Clayton, who is on the payroll as an attorney, is in actuality the firm’s “fixer”, who cynically refers to himself as a “janitor” (he’s not a “cleaner”, like Jean Reno in La Femme Nikita, but akin to Harvey Keitel’s “Mr. Wolfe” in Pulp Fiction).

Clayton cleans up other people’s messes, but cannot get his own life in order; he’s divorced and up to his eyes in gambling debts and bad investments. And, like his friend Arthur, he’s having some primal doubts about the moral and ethical ambiguities involved with what he does for a living. His immediate concern, however, is to salvage this potential disaster for the firm by coaxing Arthur back to reality. Arthur may have a screw loose, but he hasn’t lost any of his shrewd lawyer chops, so he won’t be swayed easily. Still, Clayton is sure that if he can just get him back on his meds, he’ll come around.

In the meantime, unbeknownst to Clayton, the head of U-North’s legal department (Tilda Swinton) has already lost patience with the situation at hand and enlisted a pair of much more sinister “fixers” to zero in and eliminate the problem (with extreme prejudice). As the situation becomes more insidiously deadly and the stakes become extremely high, Clayton, ever the compulsive gambler, faces the ultimate moral choice: he could risk his life and do the right thing, or he could play it safe- at the risk of losing his soul.

Gilroy extrapolated on this moral dilemma previously in his screenplay for the 1997 Taylor Hackford film, The Devil’s Advocate, in which he pitted fledgling lawyer Keanu Reeves’ naïve idealism against senior partner Al Pacino’s devilishly Faustian temptations. In Michael Clayton, the situation isn’t so black and white; ethics and principals cast minimal light in this shadowy noir world of boardroom conspiracies.

This film marks Gilroy’s debut as a director. His intelligently constructed screenplays for the Jason Bourne trilogy have all featured refreshingly adult dialog and subtle character nuance that has played no small part in setting those three films apart from the majority of mindless Hollywood action thrillers. That being said, Michael Clayton is not as fast-paced as the Bourne films, but it is no less gripping (and there’s only one explosion!).

In fact, Michael Clayton hearkens back to the kind of films that Sidney Lumet used to make, like the aforementioned Network, and more specifically, The Verdict. I see some parallels between Paul Newman’s brilliantly nuanced turn as the burned out ambulance chaser who gets a chance at redemption in the latter film and Clooney’s equally accomplished performance as the disillusioned Clayton. I also thought Wilkinson’s character would have felt right at home in the underrated 1979 satire And Justice For All which features Al Pacino’s classic courtroom meltdown (“YOU’RE out of order! HE’S out of order! “We’re ALL out of order…”)

Clooney and Wilkinson both deliver Oscar-caliber performances, and are well-supported by Swinton, who gives depth to a dragon-lady character who would likely have been more cartoonish and one-dimensional in the hands of a less-accomplished actress. I also got a kick out of Sydney Pollack, who gets some choice lines (Pollack co-produced, along with Steven Soderbergh, Anthony Minghella and Clooney). Gilroy has made something you don’t see enough of at the multiplex these days-a film for grown ups.

Girl, you’ll be a woman soon: Juno (***1/2) & Wish You Were Here (****)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Here’s a line you’ve likely never heard in an ABC After-school Special:

“I’m already pregnant, so what other shenanigans can I get into?”

It’s a bullet-proof rhetorical question, posed by a glibly self-aware 16 year-old named Juno MacGuff, played to perfection by the ever-surprising Ellen Page (Hard Candy) in the cleverly written and wonderfully acted film Juno, from director Jason Reitman.

Juno is an intelligent and unconventional Minneapolis teen who finds herself up the duff after deciding, on one fateful evening, to lose her virginity with her (initially) platonic buddy, a gawky, introverted but sweet-natured classmate named Paulie (Michael Cera). Not wanting to be a burden to Paulie, or trouble her loving parents (J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney) with the news, Juno decides to take sole responsibility for her situation.

After losing her nerve at an abortion clinic, Juno brainstorms with her girlfriend Leah (Olivia Thirlby) who suggests a search in the Penny Saver for couples looking to adopt. Enter Mark and Vanessa (well-played by Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), a childless yuppie couple with a sprawling house in the ‘burbs, complete with the requisite unfinished nursery. With the blessing of Juno’s supportive dad, papers are drawn up and Mark and Vanessa become the adoptive parents-in-waiting. Everything appears hunky dory- but you know what they say about the best-laid plans.

With such oft-used cinematic fodder at its core, this film could have easily descended into cliché-ridden piffle, but luckily doesn’t pander to the audience. I Page and Cera mange to convey Juno and Paulie’s growing pains in a very genuine  manner, despite the stylized dialog. Simmons and Janney are excellent as Juno’s dad and step mom, respectively. It’s refreshing to see Simmons play such a likeable character after all the heavies he’s played in the past.

Reitman (son of director Ivan Reitman) has hit one out of the park with this sophomore effort (his first film was Thank You For Smoking) thanks in no small part to Diablo Cody’s smart script. A must-see.

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Juno and its young star reminded me of one of my all-time favorite films, Wish You Were Here-David Leland’s 1987 comedy-drama about a headstrong 16-year-old girl “coming of age” in post WW 2 England. The story is loosely based on the real-life exploits of infamous British madam Cynthia Payne (Leland also collaborated as screenwriter with director Terry Jones on the film Personal Services, which starred Julie Walters and covered Payne’s later adult years).

Vivacious teenager Emily Lloyd makes an astounding, Oscar-worthy debut as pretty, potty-mouthed “Linda”, whose hormone-fueled manic behavior and sexual antics cause her somewhat reserved widower father and younger sister to walk around in a perpetual state of public embarrassment.

With a taut script and precise performances, the film breezes along on a deft roller coaster of deep belly-laugh hilarity and genuine, bittersweet emotion. Excellent support from the entire cast, especially from the great Thom Bell, who finds a sympathetic humanity in a vile character that a lesser actor could not likely pull off.

It’s quite unfortunate that Emily Lloyd, who displayed such amazing potential in this debut, never really “broke big”, appearing in only a few unremarkable projects and then basically dropping off the radar to join that sad “whatever happened to…” file. Let’s hope that Ellen Page fares better.

Manic street preacher: What Would Jesus Buy? ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2007)

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Deck the halls with advertising, Fa la la la la la la la la

‘Tis the time for merchandising, Fa la la la la la la la la

Profit never needs a reason, Fa la la la la la la la la

Get the money, it’s the season, Fa la la la la la la la la

-Stan Freberg, from “Green Chri$tma$”

Joy to the world!

In the form of goods.

Consume! Consume! Consume!

-Rev. Billy and his choir

This week I thought we’d take a respite from holiday shopping to check out a new documentary called What Would Jesus Buy? Produced by Morgan Super Size Me Spurlock (who I like to refer to as “Michael Moore Lite”) and directed by Rob VanAlkemade, the film documents the public antics of improv performer/anti-consumerism activist Bill Talen, better-known as his alter-ego, Reverend Billy, the “spiritual” leader of the “Church of Stop Shopping”.

Talen honed his act in San Francisco, originally creating the stage persona of “Reverend Billy”, a flashy, big-haired TV evangelist who performs with the fearless, in-your-face conviction of a sidewalk preacher. The Reverend doesn’t preach traditional gospel, however. His “mission” is to rail against the evils of corporate retail giants. Talen calls attention to corporate sanctioned sweat shops, abused and underpaid store employees, and the cradle-to-grave brainwashing of American consumers by the advertising media-to anyone who will listen. His favorite targets include Disney (Rev. Billy considers Mickey Mouse “the Antichrist”), Starbucks and Wal-Mart.

In 2005, Talen and his troupe left their New York City home base to embark on a nationwide bus tour to spread the good word: “Stop shopping!” VanAlkemade and his film crew tagged along, as they executed their blend of street theater and social activism. The traveling church members stake out malls and retail chain stores, treating unsuspecting shoppers to impromptu sermons and Weird Al-style rewording of well-known hymns and Christmas carols. They also rent local public halls, where they stage “church services” and “revivals”. In one particularly inspired  church service, Rev. Billy exhorts attendees to come forward and have their credit cards exorcised; he collapses on cue for his  grand finale.

As the group treks across the fruited plains, they make stops at the likes of the behemoth Mall of America . We watch the performers repeat the same drill several times: Billy, armed with a megaphone and backed by his singing, hand-clapping choir members, plants himself squarely in center court and proceeds to call for an immediate cessation to mindless spending. Groups of shoppers, at first a little puzzled, eventually begin to gather, some clapping along and getting into the spirit of the performance, others watching but still blinking uncomprehendingly. By the time a crowd gathers, the ubiquitous teams of beer-gutted, walkie-talkie wielding mall security personnel converge to unceremoniously escort the group from the premises. The audience disperses, chuckling and shaking their heads on their way to the Orange Julius.

The final whistle stop is Anaheim, where the reverend and his flock descend on Disneyland. Just before he is (inevitably) escorted out by the Disney brown shirts (seriously-they are disturbingly fascistic in dress and demeanor), Billy delivers the best line in the film through his megaphone: “People! Main Street, U.S.A. is made in China!”

Mission accomplished? Hardly, but you do find yourself admiring Talen’s conviction and dedication to his activist principles, despite the fact that his message is apparently falling on deaf ears. When he is filmed making a purchase, it’s at an independently-owned, small town clothing store where he first checks labels to make sure his new sweater is “Made in the U.S.A.” You get a vibe that it isn’t a grandstanding gesture for the cameras, but a sincere effort on Talen’s part to literally practice what he preaches.

To my observation, Talen is the heir apparent to a style of guerrilla theater popularized by the likes of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Diggers in the 1960s, with a pinch of Abbie Hoffman. One scene in particular, where Billy and his flock perform an “exorcism” on a Wal-Mart store, reminded me of Hoffman’s crowning moment of political theater in 1967, when he joined forces with Allen Ginsberg and thousands of anti-war protesters in an attempt to “levitate” the Pentagon.

The film’s “Stop the presses! Christmas is crassly commercial!” revelation is as hoary as Miracle on 34th Street or A Charlie Brown Christmas. Also, there have already been several documentaries produced that frankly do a much better job covering the “corporate exploitation of workers” angle (Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price and The Big One come to mind).  That said, I still admire Talen’s adherence to his “mission”, and it’s refreshing to see a Christmas holiday-themed film that might actually make people snap out of their Return of the Living Dead mall stupor. One immediate epiphany as I walked out of the theater: for two hours (counting previews) I didn’t charge one thing to my credit card. And that’s a good thing.

Of prose and cons: The Hoax (***1/2) & Color Me Kubrick (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 14, 2007)

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One of my favorite movie lines is from The Princess Bride: “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” (Alas-if we could only remember that sage advice before writing our phone number on a cocktail napkin, signing on a dotted line, dropping coins into a collection plate or pulling on a voting lever.) Indeed, the art of the con is as old as the snake in the Garden of Eden. Hollywood loves con artists, probably because movie audiences never appear to tire of watching yet one more poor schmuck getting bamboozled. It makes us feel superior-“Oh, I’d never fall for THAT!”

Director Lasse Hallstrom has delivered a smashing entry in the genre with his new movie, The Hoax. The film is based on the story of Clifford Irving, a struggling writer who toiled in relative obscurity until he stumbled onto an idea for “the most important book of the 20th century”- the “Autobiography of Howard Hughes”. The book was the most hyped literary event of 1972, and would assure Irving the notoriety he craved. Hell, he even made the cover of Time. Unfortunately, his Time portrait was slugged with “Con Man of the Year”,  because as it turned out, the “autobiography” was a bit of a surprise to Mr. Hughes, because, you see, Mr. Irving made the whole thing up (oops). The books were unceremoniously yanked from the shelves soon after their debut.

Richard Gere tears through the lead role with an intensity we haven’t seen from him in quite a while (easily his best work since Internal Affairs). His Clifford Irving is a charlatan and a compulsive liar, to be sure, but Gere manages to make him sympathetic, in a carefully measured way that doesn’t feel like audience pandering. Even as he digs himself into an ever deepening hole, and you cover your eyes because you know the other shoe is going to drop at any time, you’ve just got to love this guy’s pure chutzpah. Compared to some other mass public deceptions that were brewing at the time (the Irving scandal was soon knocked out of the headlines by Watergate), his resulting fraud trial almost seems like malicious prosecution in retrospect (he did end up doing jail time).

Hallstrom does an excellent job at capturing the 70’s milieu; especially the insidious paranoia of the Nixon era (almost by accident, Irving uncovered documents that implicated Nixon family members and associates in defense contract bribery scams involving Hughes Corporation while Nixon was VP in 1956. It is suggested in the film that the 1972 Nixon White House was tipped off to the existence of the documents, and that it may have been an impetus for the Watergate break in. Hey-who knows?)

The outstanding cast includes Alfred Molina (in an Oscar-caliber turn as Irving’s researcher Richard Susskind), Marcia Gay Harden (sporting a Streep-worthy accent as Irving’s Eurotrash wife), and chameleon character actress Hope Davis (looking very Mary Richards as Irving’s agent). Also with Stanley Tucci, Julie Delpy and Eli Wallach.

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Another noteworthy new film examining the art of the con is Brian W. Cook’s Color Me Kubrick: A True…ish Story (concurrently on DVD and in theaters). John Malkovich gives a typically hammy, gleefully giddy performance as real-life con man Alan Conway, who flitted about England in the early 90’s, posing as the notoriously reclusive director Stanley Kubrick.

The irresistible hook in Conway’s story is the fact that he had virtually no idea what Kubrick was about, aside from the fact that he was a famous director. What is even more amazing is that he got away with it for as long as he did, scamming sex, money and accommodations with his hijacked nom de plume (ironically, had he actually bothered to watch Kubrick’s films, he could have picked up some pointers from fictional con men Barry Lyndon and Clare Quilty) His victims ranged from easy marks (aspiring actors, screenwriters and musicians) to those who should have known better (film critics!). His luck ran out when a New York Times columnist was tipped to his shenanigans and wrote an exposé.

Malkovich chews major scenery as he minces his way through the role, utilizing a variety of ridiculously funny accents and affectations. Director Cook worked with the late Kubrick, and ladles on the in-jokes with a nod and a wink (Kubrick aficionados should have a blast playing “spot the homage”). Good supporting performances, particularly from comedian Jim Davidson (one of Conway’s real life victims). Two notable cameos to watch for: Honor Blackman (Pussy Galore!) and director Ken Russell, who pops up as a mental patient (not such a stretch, if you are familiar with his work). Not for all tastes; but destined for cult status.

If it bleeds, it leads: Zodiac ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 10, 2007)

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In a deliciously ironic scene in David Fincher’s new crime thriller, Zodiac, San Francisco homicide investigator Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), skulks out of a screening of Dirty Harry. He is appalled at what he sees as Hollywood’s crass exploitation of a real-life case that has consumed his life-the hunt for the notorious and ever-elusive “Zodiac” serial killer, who terrorized the Bay Area for a good part of the 1970’s. (Clint Eastwood’s fictional nemesis in Dirty Harry was a serial killer who taunted the authorities and the media, and referred to himself as “Scorpio”).

That is one of the little touches in Fincher’s multi-layered true crime opus that makes it an instant genre classic. The director has wisely eschewed the Grand Guginol that he slathered on in Se7en for a meticulously detailed etching that is equal parts Michael Mann and Stanley Kubrick, and thoroughly engrossing.

The director’s notorious perfectionism serves the protagonists well-they are all obsessed individuals. The aforementioned Inspector Toschi and his partner Inspector William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards, making a nice comeback) are the type of dedicated cops that have could have strolled right out of an Ed McBain novel.

A scene-stealing Robert Downey Jr. is perfect as Paul Avery, the cocky San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter who follows the case; his “partner” of sorts is the paper’s political cartoonist, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is the first person to connect the dots (thanks to his obsession with cryptograms and puzzles). The nerdy Graysmith eventually becomes the most obsessed “detective”, conducting an independent investigation over two decades.

Fincher has assembled a film that will please true crime buffs and noir fans alike. The combination of location filming, well-chosen period music and Fincher’s OCD-like attention to detail recreates a cinematic vibe that I haven’t experienced since the golden days of Sidney Lumet (think Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico or Prince of the City.)

Children of Morons: Idiocracy **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 10, 2007)

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If the 2007 Super Bowl commercials and ever-escalating voter participation in shows like American Idol are any indication, the dumbed-down “future” of America depicted in Mike Judge’s lightweight allegory, Idiocracy, is perhaps only belaboring the obvious.

Army librarian Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) loves his cushy job. It’s the perfect gig, because, as he tells a fellow soldier- “No one ever comes here” (I think I just heard every librarian reading this review say “No kidding.”). Much to Joe’s chagrin, however, his gravy train is derailed when he is “volunteered” as a guinea pig for a top secret military experiment.

Joe is assigned to spend a year in a suspended animation pod, a process the military is testing for typically nefarious reasons. Joe is not alone, however. A hooker named Rita from “the private sector” (SNL cast member Maya Rudolph) is also enlisted. When our intrepid pair finally awake, it’s a tad more than a year later. After a series of silly events, they in fact find themselves in the year 2505 (whoops!). Does hilarity ensue?

Well…the America of 2505 is not so much dystopian, as it is dys-stupido. As the droll narrator explains, evolution has favored those who reproduce the most (you know…morons!). The #1 TV show is called “Ow My Balls”, and the #1 film is “Ass” (kind of says it all). Anyone who conjugates a verb or speaks in complete sentences is accused of talking “like a fag”. In a nutshell, this is what would happen if the entire U.S. gene pool was whittled down exclusively to the descendants of Gallagher’s fan base.

If you’ve surrendered to the premise at this point in the film, you won’t flinch when the President, a former WWF champion (not such a stretch, considering former and current guvs Ventura and Schwarzenegger) ends up appointing Joe his Secretary of the Interior.

Judge isn’t really saying anything new here; beyond pointing out that we live in a dumbed-down culture (yawn). There are a few inspired moments; particularly the keen observation that the progressive reduction of America’s average IQ is directly proportionate to the ever-increasing square footage of the average Costco store.

There is a bit of irony I can’t get past; it was Mike Judge who created MTV’s Beavis and Butthead, which one might argue played its own part in the “dumbing down” of a generation that came of age in the 90’s (despite its satirical intentions, I think B & B ended up as role models for some, not unlike those good ol’ boys who completely missed the irony and merrily sang along with Borat’s “Throw the Jew Down The Well”… discuss!)

Gathering sheep and whacking the beard: The Good Shepherd (**1/2) & 638 Ways to Kill Castro (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2007)

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If spending an evening with the CIA is your idea of good times, have I got a double bill for you. (Break out the hoods and the water buckets; we’re in for a bumpy night!)

First up, Robert De Niro takes the director’s chair in his 2006 CIA epic, The Good Shepherd, recently released on DVD. Matt Damon stars as Edward Wilson, whose career as an agency spook begins with his enlistment into the OSS during WW 2 and continues through that organization’s metamorphosis into the CIA.

The film opens in 1961, at the time of the Bay of Pigs invasion. When we are first introduced to Wilson, it is quickly established that he is an officious and dedicated Company man. As the story begins to jump back and forth in time we begin to get a peek at what lies beneath Wilson’s somewhat inscrutable veneer.

We witness a looser and more outgoing Wilson during his college days at Yale in 1939, as he is inducted into the infamous Skull and Bones society. As part of the initiation ritual, he is directed to regale his fellow Bondsmen with the deepest, darkest secret from his past. The club members get more than they bargain for as Wilson relates a harrowing childhood memory of bearing witness to his father’s suicide. Moments before taking his own life, his father hands down a credo about “trust”, which becomes the key to unlocking Wilson’s motivations and inner workings for the remainder of the film.

Therein lays the problem with The Good Shepherd. There is an awful lot of internalizing going on (for 2 hours and 47 minutes). De Niro’s plus as a director (not surprisingly) is his willingness to give his actors plenty of room to breathe and inhabit their characters. His minus as a director is his willingness to give his actors plenty of room to breathe and inhabit their characters, if you catch my drift. There are some pacing issues with the film. Not that I was expecting car chases and stuff blowing up real good. After all, the reality of espionage does not necessarily lend itself to flash cuts and pop music montage. It’s generally a somewhat somber, mundane and unpleasant business.

Eric Roth’s script has its moments, but gets murky when it comes to the intrigue. It is tough to keep track of who is doing what to whom, and why (and at times, for whose “side”?). Granted, perhaps that is part of the point; torture is torture and murder is murder, no matter how one attempts to rationalize (a point that Steven Spielberg more than sufficiently bludgeoned us over the head with in Munich) but I GET it, already.

Perhaps the most fatal flaw in the film is Matt Damon’s unconvincing “aging”. There is not much discernible physical transformation between Wilson’s collegiate years and middle age. (Maybe some better prosthetic work could have helped?). At any rate, I just wasn’t buying it, and found it to be a major distraction. Damon is a fine actor, but I think he may have been slightly miscast here. History buffs may still find the film worth a look.

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History buffs (and conspiracy-a-go-go enthusiasts) will definitely want a peek at British director Dolan Cannell’s documentary, 638 Ways to Kill Castro (just out on DVD). Mixing archival footage with some knowledgeable talking heads (including a surprising number of would-be assassins-it’s hard to believe this many lived to tell their tale!), Cannell traces the evolution of Cuban politics via a recap of literally hundreds of attempts by the U.S. government to knock off Fidel over the years.

The number in the title (638) is derived from a list compiled by a couple of former members of Castro’s security team (they are among the interviewees). They even go so far as to crunch the numbers by U.S. presidential administration. In case you’re curious, here’s the breakdown (aren’t you glad I take notes?): Eisenhower-38 attempts. Kennedy-42. Johnson-72. Nixon-184. Carter-64. Reagan-197 (Ding Ding! We have a winner!). Bush (the 1st)-16. Clinton-21. (We assume they haven’t had a chance to tally the latest Bush’s numbers, although Cannell slyly bookends his film with footage of Junior’s smug and condescending “Cuba libre!” proclamation.)

The film begins its timeline in 1959, the year that the CIA received the first official go-ahead to take Castro out. The initial schemes sound like they were hatched by Wile E. Coyote and his Acme Intelligence Agency. The plans ranged from relatively benign subversion (making his beard fall out, spraying a TV station with LSD while Castro was on air, a contingency to accuse Cuba of zapping John Glenn’s space capsule with “magnetic rays,” had Glenn not made it back to Earth) to more ominous (a poisoned diving suit, booby trapping shellfish in Castro’s favorite scuba diving spot with dynamite, and most famously, planting poisoned and/or exploding cigars into his humidor).

Although Cannell initially appears to be playing for yucks (especially with the exploding cigar type shtick) the underlying theme of the documentary soon becomes much more sobering. The most chilling revelation concerns the downing of a commercial Cuban airliner off of Barbados in 1976 (73 people were killed, none with any known direct associations with the Castro regime). One of the alleged masterminds was an anti-Castro Cuban exile living in Florida, named Orlando Bosch, who had participated in numerous CIA-backed actions in the past.

When Bosch was threatened with deportation in the late 80’s, a number of Republicans rallied to have him pardoned, including Florida congresswoman Ileana Ross, who used her involvement with the “Free Orlando Bosch” campaign as part of her running platform. Her campaign manager was a young up and coming politician named…Jeb Bush. Long story short? Then-president George Bush Sr. ended up granting Bosch a pardon in 1990. BTW, Bosch had once been publicly referred to as an “unrepentant terrorist” by the Attorney General. (Don’t get me started.)

This is a fascinating film; the only criticism I would give it is the director’s “wacky” approach (that kooky CIA and their nutty ideas!)-it doesn’t quite match the subject matter at times. My favorite quote from the doc sums it all up quite nicely-when asked to explain the decades-long obsession about Castro by one administration after another, one pundit cracks “There’s just something about (Castro’s) Cuba that affects these administrations like the full moon affects a werewolf. There’s no real logic at work here.”