Tag Archives: 2008 Reviews

All by myself: Mr. Lonely ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 31, 2008)

I will admit  that Harmony Korine is not one of my favorite directors. If you have followed this weekly post for a while, you know that I have high tolerance for what others might call “weird” or “unwatchable” cinema, but frankly, I found Korine’s Gummo (1997) and Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) a little too weird and (virtually) unwatchable. However, after taking in Mister Lonely, I guess Korine can make a “watchable” film…in the form of this tragicomic rumination on alienation, mental illness, and the human tendency to kowtow at the alter of both pop culture and “God” with equal fervor.

Beautifully shot by DP Marcel Zyskind (Code 46, The Road to Guantanamo), the film begins with an elegiac slow-mo sequence reminiscent of the opening credits for Blue Velvet. Choreographed to Bobby Vinton’s plaintive ballad “Mr. Lonely”, a Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna), replete with requisite red jacket, shades and surgical mask, rides a scooter, with a stuffed, winged monkey toy in tow. It’s a remarkable scene that manages to convey both a blissful innocence and an aching sadness at the same time.

The otherwise shy and awkward young man puts out his hat and performs all the requisite flamboyant MJ dance moves in the streets of Paris, where he is largely ignored; he supplements this meager income with help from an “agent” who gets him the odd booking. While performing at a nursing home, he meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton). The two have an immediate attraction to each other, although “Marilyn” is quick to mention her husband, a Charlie Chaplin impersonator (Denis Lavant). She and “Charlie” live on a communal farm in Scotland with their daughter “Shirley Temple” and a few dozen other celebrity impersonators; she talks Michael into joining this odd but welcoming community (the “One of us! One of us!” chant from Freaks did enter my mind.)

At first glance, this extended family of fringe dwellers appears to lead a Utopian existence. They have a barn (yes, at one point, they do put on a show). They cheerfully tend to the livestock and enjoy warm communal mealtimes together (usually in full costume), but upon closer examination, it seems that there is trouble in paradise.

A sadomasochistic undercurrent runs through Marilyn and Charlie’s marriage; a tearful Marilyn blurts out the film’s best line: “Sometimes, when I look at you, you seem more like Adolph Hitler than Charlie Chaplain.” The “Pope” (James Fox) is an alcoholic. “Abe Lincoln” (Richard Strange) has an impulse to utilize “fuck” in every sentence. The Buckwheat impersonator has an unhealthy obsession with chickens…and so on. Korine throws in a weaker second narrative concerning a missionary priest/pilot (German director Werner Herzog, who cannot act) and his posse of er, flying nuns who help him do relief work in Central America. I will say no more.

Luna and Morton both give lovely and touching performances. I won’t pretend I completely grasped Korine’s intent; but his film is engaging, emotionally resonant, and ultimately haunting. I find it easier to contextualize by pointing to two Nicholas Roeg films that I strongly suspect had a major influence on Korine here: Performance (1970) and Insignificance (1985).

In Performance (written and co-directed by Donald Cammel), the narrative plays with the concept of two self-loathing protagonists who swap identities in an attempt to escape themselves; in essence “impersonating” each other. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Korine has cast two of the principal actors from Performance in his film-James Fox and Anita Pallenberg (who plays the Queen of England impersonator).

In  Insignificance, screenwriter Terry Johnson fantasizes Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Senator Joe McCarthy and Albert Einstein interacting in a hotel room in the 1950s; the result is a strange but compelling treatise on fame, politics and nuclear paranoia. Korine uses the same device (the unlikely juxtaposition of iconic figures) to expound on his themes as well. Granted, Mister Lonely is not for all tastes, but if you would prefer to not “Mess With the Zohan” this summer, thank you very much, it is one possible alternative.

Extreme Zen: Man on Wire ****

By Dennis Hartley

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

I’m up on the tightwire

flanked by life and the funeral pyre

putting on a show

for you to see

 –from “Tightrope”, by Leon Russell

On the surface, Man on Wire may appear to be a straightforward documentary about an eccentric high wire artist who is either incredibly brave, or incredibly stupid. But if you look closer, you might discover one of the best suspense thrillers/heist movies of 2008, although no guns are drawn and nothing gets stolen. It is also one of the most romantic films I’ve seen this year, although it is not a traditional love story. Existential and even a tad surreal at times, it is ultimately a deeply profound treatise on following your bliss.

Late in the summer of 1974, a diminutive Frenchman named Philippe Petit made a splash (of the figurative kind, luckily) by treating unsuspecting NYC morning commuters to the sight of a lifetime: a man taking a casual morning stroll across a ¾” steel cable, stretched from rooftop to rooftop between the two towers of the then-unfinished World Trade Center, 1350 feet skyward. After traversing the 200 foot wide chasm with supernatural ease, he decided to turn around and have another go. And another.

All told, Petit made 8 round trips, with only one brief but memorable rest stop. He took a mid-wire breather to lie on his back  and enjoy what had to have been the ultimate Moment of Zen ever experienced in the history of humankind, contemplating the sky and enjoying a little chit-chat with a seagull (Jonathan Livingston, I presume?) He even ventured a few Fred Astaire moves, as he giggled like a 4-year-old splashing around in a backyard kiddie pool. By the time he delivered himself into the less-than-welcoming arms of the NYPD, Petit had spent an astonishing 45 minutes frolicking in the clouds. The only injuries incurred were provided courtesy of the cops, who decided to test this uppity foreigner’s gravity-defying powers by handcuffing him and “helping” him down a flight of stairs.

Now, a stunt like this doesn’t just happen on a whim. There are a few logistical hurdles to consider. How do you transport 450 lbs of steel cable to the roof of one tower of the World Trade Center, and then safely tether it across to its twin? And perhaps most importantly, considering the fact that the top floors of the complex were still under construction and therefore “off limits” to visitors, how do you case the joint without anyone noticing? Then there’s the whole pesky issue of possibly ending up in stir on a reckless endangerment beef; at the very least, a charge of criminal trespass. Considering all of that, the actual act of traipsing the wire starts to look like the easiest part of the gig. A clandestine operation of this magnitude requires meticulous planning, and at least a couple trustworthy co-conspirators. Sounds like the makings of a classic heist film, no?

All of this potential for a cracking good true-life tale was not lost on director James Marsh, who enlisted the still spry and charmingly elfin Petit, along with a few members of his “crew” to give a first-hand account of events leading up to what can perhaps best be described as a “performance art heist”. Taking an obvious stylistic cue from docu-master Errol Morris, Marsh lets these intimate and engagingly spun first person recollections drive the compelling narrative for his artfully rendered mélange of archival footage and faux-cinema verite reenactments. Marsh also deserves kudos for his excellent choice of music. Excerpts from Michael Nyman’s lovely “La traversee de Paris” are used to great effect, and the accompaniment of Peter Green’s sublime instrumental “Albatross” to one of Petit’s more balletic high wire walks makes for a  transcendent sequence.

The most obvious question is “Why did he do it?” It certainly wasn’t for money (first clue: no corporate sponsors, at least up to and including his 1974 feat). It did not appear to be an act of willful self promotion, which is where he decidedly parts ways with say, an Evel Knieval. He didn’t appear to be making any kind of political or social statement. So what gives? At the time, he enigmatically offered “When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk.” Petit himself remains a bit elusive on the motivations for his stunts.

The director doesn’t  push the issue, which I think is wise. When you watch the mesmerizing footage of Petit floating on the air between the towers of Notre Dame, the Sydney Harbour Bridge and then ultimately the World Trade Center, you realize that it is simply an act of pure aesthetic grace, like a beautiful painting or an inspired melody. And you also suspect that he does it…because he can. That’s impressive enough for me, because I can barely balance a checkbook, and as to heights? I get a nosebleed from thick socks.

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.

Knight and the City: The Dark Knight ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 26, 2008)

[dark_knight.jpg]

I love this dirty town.

Psst…Have you heard? There’s this new Batman movie out this summer. Rumor has it that it might have legs. Personally, I think the whole thing sounds a little iffy. I hope that the film studio will be able to recoup its modest $100 million promotion expenditure. Furthermore, I…oops, hang on; someone is sending me a text message. Ah-it’s from one of my inside sources. It says: “$155,000,000 opening weekend.” What a relief (whew!).

Some leading critics are hailing The Dark Knight as the best “superhero” movie of all time. I can’t weigh in on that angle, because it’s not one of my favorite genres (although I was pleasantly surprised by Iron Man). One thing I can tell you with assurance about Christopher Nolan’s sequel to Batman Begins is this: it is one of the best contemporary film noirs I’ve seen since Michael Mann’s Heat.

Giving you a detailed synopsis would be moot; suffice it to say that crime-ridden Gotham City still enjoys the nocturnal protection of the Batman (Christian Bale), the masked vigilante/alter-ego of wealthy industrialist playboy (corporate fascist?) Bruce Wayne. He continues his uneasy alliance with the stalwart Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) an Elliot Ness-type lawman who has vowed to round up all the bad guys in Gotham and outfit them in striped PJs. In this outing, they are joined by “incorruptible” D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart).

A spanner in the works arrives in the person of The Joker (the late Heath Ledger) a vile criminal mastermind who has formed an uneasy alliance of his own with an assortment of Gotham’s most unsavory recidivists, like the city’s mob boss (Eric Roberts). However, the Joker’s increasingly twisted, nihilistic acts of mayhem even begin to repulse his underworld cohorts. He is the embodiment of purely soulless anarchy, which brings us to Ledger’s performance, which is what lies at the very (dark) heart of this film.

This is one part of the  hype surrounding the film that is justified; Ledger is mesmerizing in every  frame he inhabits. This definitely isn’t your father’s Joker (Cesar Romero’s vaudevillian cackler in Batman ’66) or even Jack’s Joker (Nicholson’s hammy turn in Batman ‘89). Ledger plays his Joker like a psychotic mash-up of Malcolm McDowell’s Alex in A Clockwork Orange, Tim Curry’s evil clown in Stephen King’s It, with maybe some occasional sampling from Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Gene Simmons on crack. He’s John Wayne Gacy, coming for your children with a paring knife, and in the clown costume. I don’t know what war-torn region of the human soul Ledger went to in order to find his character, but I don’t ever want to go there, even just to snap a few pictures.

While there is no shortage of the requisite budget-busting action sequences that one expects in a summer crowd-pleaser, it’s the surprisingly complex morality tale simmering just beneath the Biff! Pow! Bam! in Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s screenplay that is unexpectedly engaging; it even verges on being thought-provoking.

Nolan is no stranger to the noir sensibility; previous films like Insomnia, Memento, and Following bear that out. When I watch those films, I get a sense he has studied the masters; in fact the bank robbery that opens The Dark Knight is obvious homage to the heist scene in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. There are a lot of classic noir themes at work here, in particularly the hard-boiled notion that no one is incorruptible; everyone has their price. This idea informs the nexus between the “heroes” and “villains” of the piece; nearly everyone eventually crosses the line to get what they want (even if it’s “justice”). That is what is most frightening about this particular incarnation of the Joker; his sole raison d’etre is to orchestrate a scenario of fear and anarchy-and then sit back and enjoy the show. “I am an agent of chaos,” he states at one point, and you believe him.

I wouldn’t recommend bringing the kids (or the squeamish) to this film, it’s the most brutally violent installment of the franchise. The violence feels very “real”; and I think that is what makes it disturbing. Despite the fact that it is, after all, a super hero fantasy, the film carries an overall tone of gritty realism that is unique for the genre. One scene in particular, set in an interrogation room of a police station and involving Batman and his nemesis, begins to reek uncomfortably of Eau de Jack Bauer (Holy Gitmo, Batman!).

I have a couple of other issues, but they don’t sink the film. Superb actors like Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Cillian Murphy feel under-utilized in their underwritten parts. I also felt there were a few too many false endings; as a consequence, some subplots, like the transition of a principal “good guy” into a signature Batman nemesis, seem to get short shrift. Undoubtedly, these loose ends were primarily tacked on as sequel bait, which I suppose is par for the course. Still, you still might want to catch the The Dark Knight on a slow night… if only for experiencing Ledger’s singularly unique contribution to the screen villain hall of fame.