Tag Archives: 2011 Reviews

Hear no evil, see no evil: Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 19, 2011)

These men saw no evil, spoke none, and none was uttered in their presence. This claim might sound very plausible if made by one defendant. But when we put all their stories together, the impression which emerges of the Third Reich, which was to last a thousand years, is ludicrous.

 –Justice Robert Jackson (chief counsel for the U.S. at the first Nuremberg trial in 1946)

 

Herman Goring. Rudolf Hess. Hans Frank. Wilhelm Frick. Joachim von Ribbentrop. Alfred Rosenberg. Julius Streicher. Any one of those names alone should send a chill down the spine of anyone with even a passing knowledge of 20th Century history. Picture if you will, all of those co-architects of the horror known as the Third Reich sitting together in one room (along with a dozen or so of their closest friends). This egregious assemblage really did occur, during the first of the Nuremberg trials (November 1945 to October 1946).

Through the course of the grueling 11-month long proceedings, a panel of judges and prosecutors representing the USA, the Soviet Union, England and France built a damning case, thanks in large part to the Nazis themselves, who had a curious habit of meticulously documenting their own crimes. The thousands of confiscated documents-neatly typed, well-annotated and (most significantly) signed and dated by some of the defendants, along with the gruesome films the Nazis took of their own atrocities, helped build one of the most compelling cases of all time.

By the time it was over, out of the 24 defendants (several of whom were tried in absentia for various reasons), 12 received a sentence of death by hanging, 7 were given prison sentences ranging from 10 years to life, and the remainder were either acquitted or not charged. One of the biggest fish, Herman Goring, ended up “cheating the hangman” by committing suicide in his cell (Martin Bormann, one of the condemned tried in absentia, had already beat him to the punch-although his 1945 suicide in Berlin was not confirmed until his remains were identified in a 1972 re-investigation).

Hollywood would be hard pressed to cook up a courtroom drama of such epic proportions; much less a narrative that presented a more clearly delineated battle of Good vs. Evil. Granted, in the fog of war, the Allies undoubtedly put the blinders on every now and then when it came to following the Geneva Convention right down to the letter-but when it comes to the short list of parties throughout all of history who have willfully committed the most heinous crimes against humanity, there seems to be a general consensus among civilized people that the Nazis are the Worst.Bad.Guys.Ever…right? At any rate, this is why a newly-restored U.S. War Department documentary, produced over 60 years ago and never officially released for distribution in America (until now) may well turn out to be the most riveting courtroom drama that will hit theaters this year.

Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today (made in 1948) was written and directed by Stuart Schulberg, who had worked with John Ford’s OSS field photography unit, which was assigned by the government to track down incriminating Nazi film footage to be parsed by the Nuremberg prosecution team and help build their case. Schulberg’s brother Budd (who later became better known in Hollywood as the screenwriter for On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd) was a senior officer on the OSS film team; he supervised the compilation of two films for the U.S. prosecutors; one a sort of macabre Whitman’s Sampler of Nazi atrocities, from the Third Reich’s own archives, and the other assembled from that ever-shocking footage taken by Allied photographers as the concentration camps were being discovered and liberated by advancing troops in early 1945.

Stuart Schulberg, in turn, mixed excerpts from those two films with the official documentation footage from the trial to help illustrate the prosecution’s strategy to address the four indictments (conspiring to commit a crime against peace; planning, initiating and committing wars of aggression; perpetrating war crimes; and crimes against humanity).

So why had Schulberg’s film (commissioned, after all, by the U.S. government to document a very well-known, historically significant and profound event in the annals of world justice) never been permitted open distribution to domestic audiences by same said government? After being shown around Germany in 1948 and 1949 as part of the de-Nazification program, extant prints of the film appeared to have vanished somewhere in the mists of time, with no documented attempts by the U.S. government to even archive a copy. Even the man who had originally commissioned the film, Pare Lorentz (who at the time of the film’s production was head of Film, Theatre and Music at the U.S. War Department’s Civil Affairs Division) was given the brush off by Pentagon brass when he later petitioned to buy it and distribute it himself.

A 1949 Washington Post story offered an interesting take on why Lorentz had been stonewalled, saying that “…there are those in authority in the United States who feel that Americans are so simple that they can only hate one enemy at a time. Forget the Nazis, they advise, and concentrate on the Reds.” (there are several layers of delicious, prescient irony in that quote…so I won’t belabor it).

Stuart Schulberg’s daughter Sandra, along with Josh Waletzky, embarked on a five-year mission  in 2004 to restore this important documentary. I should note that the term “restore”, in this particular case, does not necessarily refer to crystalline image quality; though they have done the best they can with what is purported to be the best existing print (stored at the German Film Archive).

They did have better luck with the soundtrack; they found what sounds to my ears to be fairly decent audio from the original trial recordings, which they painstakingly matched up as best they could to reconstruct the long-lost sound elements from the original. Voice-over narration has been re-recorded by Liev Schreiber, who is a bit on the dry side, but adequate . It is chilling to hear the voices of these defendants; even if it is at times merely a “jawohl” or a “nein”- one hopes it is enough to give even the most stalwart of Holocaust deniers cause for consternation (or the tiniest little nervous twitch).

So what is the “lesson for today” that we can glean from this straightforward and relatively non-didactic historical document? Unfortunately, humanity in general hasn’t learned too awful much; the semantics may have changed, but the behavior, sadly, remains the same (they call it “ethnic cleansing” now). “Crimes against humanity” are still perpetrated every day-so why haven’t we had any more Nurembergs? If it can’t be caught via cell phone camera and posted five minutes later on YouTube like Saddam Hussein’s execution, so we can take a quick peek, go “Yay! Justice is served!” and then get back to our busy schedule of eating stuffed-crust pizza and watching the Superbowl, I guess we just can’t be bothered. Besides, who wants to follow some boring 11-month long trial, anyway (unless, of course, an ex-football player is involved).

Or maybe it’s just that the perpetrators have become savvier since 1945; many of those who commit crimes against humanity these days wear nice suits and have corporate expense accounts, nu? Or maybe it’s too hard to tell who the (figurative) Nazis are today, because in the current political climate, everyone and anyone, at some point, is destined to be compared to one. Maybe we all need to watch this film together and get a reality check.

In search of the lost chord: Pianomania ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 16, 2011)

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Tuner sandwich: Stefan Knupfer at work in Pianomania

“It looks like you’re just poking around in there,” observes a young woman. “Yes,” replies Stefan Knupfer, with a shrug and a laugh, “…that’s exactly what I’m doing.” On one level, he is in fact just “poking around” the innards of an immense concert grand piano. However, as we come to learn from watching Pianomania, a new documentary from Robert Cibis and Lilian Franck, Herr Knupfer is being somewhat modest. He is actually engaging in a much more complex and esoteric endeavor: the art of piano tuning.

Cibis and Franck offer up a “year of the life” portrait of the affable Austrian piano technician, tagging along as he dashes around Europe in a company van (doggie in tow) to service Steinways for a bevy of world-class performers (including Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Lang Lang, Alfred Brendel and Richard Hyung-Ki Joo). I admit that I had doubts going in regarding the subject matter (“That note sounds flat-can he tweak it to A-440 in time for the big concert? I’m on the edge of my seat!”). However, as it turns out, this pursuit of tonal perfection holds the dramatic elements of a classic “quest” narrative.

Knupfer must prepare two pianos (beginning nearly a year in advance) which will be used by Aimard for a recorded performance of Bach’s “The Art of Fugue”. The fastidious Aimard isn’t asking for much…only that Knupfer adjust his instruments in such a way that affords him the option to call up the tonality of a clavichord, an organ and a harpsichord at will. The two artists (for the film bears out that the tuner is just as much an ‘artist’ as the performer) ensconce themselves onto the stage of Vienna’s Konzerthaus and set to work like a pair of mad scientists sweating over a formula.

Nothing fazes the cheerful Knupfer, with exception of a horrifying realization that his new hammerheads are off-size by 0.7 millimeter (prompting an uncharacteristic cry of “Shist!” from our intrepid hero). Knupfer is so empathetic with his client’s vision that when the performer makes a nebulous request like “less air!” he knows exactly what Aimard means (even if we don’t).

Knupfer’s infectious enthusiasm for his gig is a documentarian’s dream; especially when the camera is there for his frequent moments of creative inspiration. While helping Richard Hyung-Ki Joo and violinist Aleksey Igudesma brainstorm visual gags for one of their comedic performances, he comes up with an idea to replace a piano leg with a cheap yet still fully functional violin (in a very funny scene, Knupfer calls an instrument dealer and says he is looking for a violin that costs “like five Euros or something”, to which the dealer instinctively responds, “Do you want to smash it?”) Even the more serious work that he does inside the music box greatly benefits from his ability to constantly think outside the box, as it were (like bouncing tennis balls to temper the strings, for example).

I’m not a keyboard player, or frankly much of a classical piano fan (more of a guitar guy) yet I still found this film to be absorbing and entertaining . As credits rolled, I realized  I previously had no clue as to what a piano tuner  does; like a lot of folks I’ve always assumed it to be more on the technical, rather than creative side of the music.

I can relate to Knupfer’s obsessive nature; I’ve been known to zone out for two or three hours at a time “poking around” with pedal settings and amp adjustments in search of the “perfect” guitar tone. Some viewers may cry foul  that the filmmakers seem to have made a conscious decision not to reveal too much about Knupfer’s personal life. However, the pursuit of excellence and perfection in any field is an admirable endeavor, and  at the end of the day that’s really what the film is about. Sometimes, it not the music-it’s how you play it.

I love you, Desmond Morris: Rise of the Planet of the Apes ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 13, 2011)

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The original 1968  film The Planet of the Apes had a lot going for it. It was based on an acclaimed sci-fi novel  by Pierre Boulle (whose semi-autobiographical debut, The Bridge on the River Kwai, had been adapted into a blockbuster film). It was helmed by Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton, Papillon ,The Boys from Brazil). It had a smart script by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling. And, of course, it starred Charlton Heston, at his hammy apex (“God DAMN you ALL to HELL!!”).

Most notably, it opened the same month as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both Kubrick’s and Schaffner’s films not only blew minds, but raised the bar on  film-goers expectations for science-fiction movies; each was groundbreaking in its own unique fashion.

The film also had one of the best “endings” ever; a classic “Big Reveal” (drenched in Serling’s signature sense of irony) that still delivers chills. “They” could have left it right there. Granted,  the end also had Charlton Heston riding off into the proverbial sunset with a hot brunette,  implying it wasn’t over yet, but lots of films end with the hero riding into the sunset; not all beg for a sequel. But Planet of the Apes turned out to be a box office smash, and once Hollywood studio execs smell the money…well, you know. So in 1970 we were treated to Beneath the Planet of the Apes; while watchable, it was a few steps “beneath” its predecessor…literally and figuratively.

Still, it did well, inspiring yet another sequel-Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), which was silly but kind of fun-although it set up a time travel paradox that makes your head explode (it’s a sequel and a prequel!).  Conquest for the Planet of the Apes (1972) and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) were no more than cheesy cash-in prequels. But nothing could have prepared us for the mind-numbing ghastliness of Tim Burton’s pointless 2001 remake of Schaffner’s 1968 original…which likely accounts for the decade of silence.

To be honest, I had absolutely no idea  another attempt was being made to recharge the franchise until I began noticing TV trailers for Rise of the Planet of the Apes a few weeks ago (was it a state secret or something?). I hadn’t been invited to a press screening (harrumph).

So I swallowed my pride and stood in line (I know-how common) to buy a full-price ticket (the sacrifices I make for you people) and sulkily settled into my seat, fully prepared to hate it with the intensity of 1000 suns and already formulating the verbal savaging I would surely be doling out with my poison pen. But I’ll be a damned dirty ape if I didn’t find director Rupert Wyatt’s film (co-written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver) to be not only much better than I had expected, but to be one of the better sci-fi flicks in recent memory.

If you can get past James Franco a bit miscast as a genetic engineer-you’ll be good to go (hey-I had no problem accepting Raquel Welch as a scientist in Fantastic Voyage-so there you are). Franco is Will Rodman, a San Francisco-based researcher working on a serum to reverse the ravages of Alzheimer’s. His quest is not only professional, but personal-his father (John Lithgow, in a poignant performance) has the disease. Will’s ‘star’ test subject is a female lab chimp called Bright Eyes (ape scientist Kim Hunter’s moniker for her human “subject” Heston in the 1968 film-first of many references).

Bright Eyes has undergone a metamorphosis after being injected with the experimental serum-an accelerated learning curve and level of intelligence hitherto unseen in simians. On the eve of a presentation that could assure future funding, an unfortunate lab incident leaves Bright Eyes dead and suggests a grievously counterproductive side effect of the formula. Will consequently becomes a “foster parent”, when an empathetic chimp handler, after receiving orders to destroy all extant test animals involved in the now-defunct research project, smuggles Bright Eyes’ newborn, Caesar, from harm’s way and into Will’s care.

As Caesar matures, it becomes apparent that he has “inherited” his mother’s preternatural intelligence; he becomes a de facto family member, communicating with Will via sign language.  Will, frustrated by the helplessness he feels as his father’s condition worsens, injects Dad with the yet-to-be-perfected serum. Initial results are encouraging; his father seems to be in a miraculous remission.

Will develops a relationship with a primatologist (Slumdog Millionaire’s Freida Pinto) who shares his fascination with Caesar’s mental development, but expresses concerns about the chimp’s emotional growth as he approaches maturity. Those fears are realized one fateful day when Caesar runs amok. Caesar is picked up by Animal Control and taken to a state-run “halfway house” for impounded simians (more like a prison), lorded over by a duplicitous “warden” (Brian Cox) and his evil, creepy son (Tom Felton).

At this point, the narrative switches from Flowers for Algernon to more or less a “re-imagining” of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, in which the adult Caesar spearheads a Spartacus-style revolt against The Man (with homage to Jules Dassin’s 1947 prison noir Brute Force…or maybe I’ve seen too many movies). Wyatt may even be borrowing from his own 2008 prison drama, The Escapist.

At any rate, if all this touchy-feely Dr. Doolittle stuff in the first act has you squirming in your seat and wondering when the cool “apes taking over the planet” action movie tropes are going to kick in-it’s right about then. There are some rousing set-pieces, especially a spectacular simian vs. human showdown on the Golden Gate Bridge (the film could be read as a PETA revenge fantasy). BTW, no apes were harmed in the making of this film-they are all CGI creations (enhanced by the Olivier of the green screen, Andy Serkis).

So is this entry destined to be considered a “classic”, in the same vein as the original? No, not exactly. But in relative terms, compared to the majority of films passing as “sci-fi” these days, this one hearkens back (in a good way) to the genre’s classic era-before it became all about the CGI and the big  production budgets. There was a time when sci-fi was about imagination, ideas and intelligent writing.

Conjuring up Mr. Serling again…considerThe Twilight Zone. Not a lot of budget on display; in fact most of the special effects are laughable by today’s standards. But the TV series had one quality that will never feel dated: great storytelling, something  sorely lacking in much Hollywood fare these days. Don’t get me wrong-I go to the movies to be “entertained” as much as the next schlub; I don’t mind an explosion here and there to keep me awake. But I enjoy a little exposition, as well. Isn’t that what separates us from the monkeys?

Japed crusader: Griff the Invisible **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 27, 2011)

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While the “outsider” is a well-established archetype in film, a new sub-genre has emerged in recent years. It’s perhaps best described as “Revenge of the Nerds: The Millennial Generation Re-boot”; a little bit mumble core, with a touch of character study and magical realism (steeped in hipster irony). The protagonist is usually a quirky, socially awkward daydreamer who pines for love and understanding, but despite best efforts to connect, comes off as, well, a dork.

Frequently, our hero or heroine is ridiculed and/or bullied by others, prompting deeper retreat into a private universe, or the creation of an alter ego who then (figuratively or literally) “defeats” their tormentors. Think: Office Killer, Welcome to the Dollhouse, Amelie, Secretary, Muriel’s Wedding, Ghost World, Lars and the Real Girl, Napoleon Dynamite, Eagle vs. Shark and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Now you can add Australian import Griff the Invisible to that list.

20-something Griff (Ryan Kwanten) is an introverted Sydney office drone one or two symptoms shy of an Asperger’s diagnosis. The more he tries to make himself “invisible”, the more he incites the office bully (Toby Schmitz) to cruelly prank him in front of his co-workers. Poor Griff hasn’t figured out that most basic tenet of social anthropology-the more you assimilate, the less attention you draw to yourself . His only solace comes in the form of an alter ego, “Griff the Protector”. A legend in his own mind, Griff the Protector is a nocturnal crime-fighter, who takes names and kicks ass.

The Sydney police have been receiving numerous complaints from Griff’s neighbors about some weirdo running around at night wearing a rubber superhero suit, peering into windows and creeping people out. “Oh no, you’re not doing it again, are you?” asks Griff’s concerned older brother Tim (Patrick Brammall), implying that Griff has had a history of difficulty delineating reality from fantasy.

You can tell that Tim (the “responsible” sibling) cares about his brother, but is at the end of his rope as to how he’s going to drag Griff out of his  arrested development and into adult life (kicking and screaming) . Besides, he has his own life to live, with a career, a bright future and a new girlfriend named Melody (Maeve Dermody).

However, as we get to know Melody, we wonder if she’s hooked up with the “right” brother. For example, whenever Tim starts prattling on about plans for the future, Melody tends to drift off, fixing her gaze on an indeterminate point somewhere on the horizon. And when it’s time to say “good night”, her quick pull away when Tim tries to give her a peck doesn’t bode well for the couple’s future, either.

The only time Melody gets jazzed is when she’s alone, reading up on particle physics. She has become obsessed with the possibilities of passing a human body through solid matter. She has been practicing the trick on her bedroom wall; needless to say, she’s been sustaining head injuries-which could explain the “drifting off” thing.  So, are these two kooks (Griff and Melody) going to end up together?

This is the first feature film for writer-director Leon Ford, and while it’s a bit uneven, Kwanten and Dermody have great screen chemistry and lend charm to the film. However, the characters, as written, teeter precariously between “endearingly quirky” and “mentally ill” (you’re torn between cheering them on and wishing someone would whisk them both off for a psych evaluation).

That aside, Ford’s film is a diverting enough 90 minutes, as long as you don’t set expectations too high. And the film’s message, which is something along the lines of: Who cares what people believe about you, as long as you have someone in your life who truly believes in you…is certainly an encouraging one, nu?

Lady in a cage: Nenette ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 29, 2011)

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Orangutans are skeptical

Of changes in their cages

And the zookeeper is very fond of rum.

-Paul Simon

Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore!’

-Edgar Allan Poe

The cat, of course, said nothing.

-Kinky Friedman

Humans are silly creatures, particularly with our compulsive need to anthropomorphize our animal friends. You see what just happened there? I had an uncontrollable compulsion to say, animal “friends”. How do I really know they’re my “friends”? When I was a kid, I loved spending Saturday mornings watching Yogi and Boo-Boo copping picnic baskets. Now, let’s say I’m taking a nature hike on Kodiak Island, and suddenly find myself face to face with a 1500 pound bear. What would be my first “compulsion” then? Give him a cheerful greeting? Not likely. I would probably acquiesce to my lizard brain response (i.e., soil myself and flee in the opposite direction).

In Nicolas Philibert’s Nenette, a documentary centering on a beloved 41 year-old female orangutan who has resided in the menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris since 1969, a zoo visitor hypothesizes likewise. “The thickness of the glass…it’s in proportion to our fear of getting closer,” he muses. “She seems familiar to us, because we’re protected. But, if the glass were to break all of a sudden…you wouldn’t hear ‘my sweet Nenette’ anymore. You’d only hear, ‘Run for your lives!’.” Like I said- humans are silly creatures.

And, throughout the four decades since she was captured in her native Borneo and transplanted to the Jardin des Plantes, Nenette has watched the daily parade of silly creatures that point and gawk and endlessly pontificate about what she might be thinking. The director gives us lots of time to study Nenette’s (mostly impassive) reaction to all the fuss; because the camera stays on her (and to a lesser extent, her three fellow orangutans) for nearly the entire 70-minute running time of the film. The zoo visitors are largely heard, and not seen, save for their ephemeral reflections in the thick glass that separates the simians from the homosapiens. “She looks sad,” says one little girl. “I think she looks very depressed,” one woman opines; “Maybe she misses her husband?” wonders another.

Nenette has actually been “married” three times over the years, and has borne four offspring. One of her adult sons keeps her company (and to address the inevitable question that arises concerning the particulars of that living arrangement, a handler assures us that when Nenette’s son matured, it was decided that she be put on the pill, surreptitiously dropped into her daily bowl of yogurt).

In my favorite scene, a visitor attempts to bond with Nenette’s son. Speaking in almost reverently hushed tones, she tells a companion that, unlike most zoo patrons, she “knows how to communicate” with the orangutans. “Sing for me,” this Jane Goodall wannabe coos seductively, and then kisses the glass (we assume, as the orangutan appears to be aping the gesture from his side). I suspect she is one of those people who, according to a handler, drop by for daily chats with the apes, as if visiting with a family member in prison.

Nenette, of course, says nothing. Orangutans are taciturn by nature, and not overtly demonstrative like some of the other great apes. I suppose this makes Nenette’s inscrutable countenance an ideal “blank canvas” upon which each chatty visitor can paint their own unique projection (if you planted a microphone behind the Mona Lisa, you would likely have a very similar collage of comments).

Not surprisingly, it takes the observations of (someone we assume to be) an actor to ultimately put Philibert’s enigmatic and meditative film study into perspective. As he marvels at “the quality of (Nenette’s) idleness” which she executes “with astounding virtuosity” he is reminded of an exercise from acting class, in which the teacher instructs the students that “the space is yours…just be there.” He concludes, “She is fully there, that’s all.” For all we know, she’s pondering how yummy a nice banana might taste right now.

Facebookopalypse now: Summer Wars ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 5, 2011)

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Don’t be misled by the title of Mamoru Hosoda’s Summer Wars-this could be the Gone with the Wind of Japanese anime. OK…that’s a tad hyperbolic. But it has drama, romance, comedy, and war-centering around a bucolic family estate. Maybe- Tokyo Story meets War Games? At any rate, it’s one of the better animes of recent years.

The film opens with echoes of Weird Science, as we are introduced to a couple of nerdy teenagers, geeking out in the virtual world of “Oz”, a global cyber network where all users (from individuals to governments) communicate and conduct business via avatars. Kenji (voiced by Michael Sinterniklass) and his pal have part time jobs working for the network (something techie…it’s all big magic to me).

Anyway, the boys are pretty sharp at what they do; Kenji is also a math whiz. When it comes to relating to the opposite sex, however, they are relatively clueless. Kenji has a crush on of their classmates, Natsuki (Brina Palencia), but has no idea as to where to take it from there. Imagine his surprise when Natsuki invites him along on a visit to see grandma out at her family’s sprawling country estate, where the clan is gathering to celebrate the spry matriarch’s 90th birthday.

Kenji is hit with an even bigger surprise when Natsuki introduces him to her family as her “fiancee”. Flustered at first, Kenji decides (correctly) that he should probably play along. After apologizing for springing this on him, Naksuki begs Kenji to go along with the ruse for the duration of their visit; she just wants to avoid getting hounded by nosy relatives on the subject of matrimony. This actually gives the socially awkward Kenji an instant entree with the eccentric but loving clan. He has some consternation when Natsuki’s “first crush” suddenly shows up-her brooding, James Dean-ish uncle (J. Michael Tatum), who is the long-estranged black sheep of the family.

Late one evening, Kenji receives a cryptic text message, challenging him to crack a complex equation (which is like catnip to a math nerd). After pulling an all-niter, he solves it. Unfortunately, he soon discovers that he has been duped; by solving the math problem, he has unwittingly enabled a malicious AI program to hack into the Oz network-and sees his photo plastered all over the TV news as a wanted cyber-criminal (much to his newly adopted family’s chagrin).

As the virus begins to methodically assimilate the avatars belonging to millions of users, it exponentially gains more control over the grid, wreaking increasingly insidious infrastructural havoc worldwide as its power grows. Soon the stakes become even higher-and in true anime tradition, the mantle of saving the earth falls on upon the diminutive shoulders of our geeky hero and his friends (with unexpected help from grandma, who proves that in times of crisis, it’s those old school social networking skills that really count).

Although a number of the narrative devices in Satoko Ohuder’s script will feel  familiar to anime fans, it’s the humanistic touches and subtle social observations (reminiscent of the films by the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu) that make this such a worthwhile and satisfying entertainment. Director Hosoda began his career in the genre back in the early 90s, working at Japan’s highly respected Toei Animation studio as an animator. This is only the second feature-length anime he has overseen; his first was the outstanding 2007 fantasy-adventure, The Girl Who Leapt through Time. Judging by these two films, he has a very promising career ahead of him.

The weight of water: Undertow ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 22, 2011)

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Just when you thought you’d had your fill of romantic ghost stories about closeted Peruvian fishermen, along comes writer-director Javier Fuentes-Leon with his debut film Contracorriente (Undertow). And yes, I am being facetious. A cross between Making Love and Truly Madly Deeply, it is a unique, compassionate, beautifully moving tale.

The story is set on the Peruvian coast. We meet an amiable young fisherman named Miguel (Cristian Mercado) and his lovely, very pregnant wife Mariela (Tatiana Astengo), who live in a sleepy little village-the kind of place where everyone not only knows your name, but nearly everything that you might be up to at any given moment.

So it’s a minor miracle that no one knows about Miguel’s amor secreto-an artist/photographer named Santiago (Manolo Cardona), an urban ex-pat who lives in an isolated beach shack, where he works on his paintings. Although he’s a low-key and gentle man, Santiago lives in literal and figurative isolation ; due to the fact that he is an openly gay agnostic. In a small town heavily imbued with the deeply conservative values of both traditional machismo culture and the Catholic Church, this counts for two  big strikes against him.

Because of his high standing with fellow fishermen and the village priest (and the fact that he is a father-to-be), Miguel is bound and determined to keep his languid, passionate trysts on the beach with Santiago compartmentalized. “I’m not that way,” he insists with a barely convincing air of macho indignation, when Santiago breaches the subject of total and open commitment (denial isn’t just a river in Egypt, as the saying goes). Mercado is a subtle actor; the look on his face as he stalks away from his lover after the spat conveys both the conflict in his heart and the inner turmoil he is suffering from .

As the birth of his child approaches, Miguel  gets jumpy. After Santiago “accidentally” runs into Mariela in the public market and offers to buy her a good luck candle for her baby after striking up a friendly chat, Miguel forbids him from further contact with his family. Santiago acquiesces, and the lovers cool their heels for a while. Imagine Miguel’s surprise when, after the birth of his new son, he is awakened in the middle of the night and discovers a distraught Santiago sitting on his kitchen floor. Miguel frantically attempts to shoo Santiago out without awakening his wife; it doesn’t work.

Miguel then has an even bigger surprise when Mariela asks him who he is talking to, even though Santiago is sitting between them . “Your face is white,” his wife says (as if he has seen a you-know-what). Santiago has a new secret, which drives the remainder of the film.

The director and his cinematographer (Mauricio Vidal) utilize the inherent beauty of the tropical South American coastline to good effect (it’s interesting to note that Cabo Blanco, where the most of the principal photography was done, was also where some location footage for the 1958 version of The Old Man and the Sea was shot).

The three leads are quite engaging. The film won the audience award at the 2010 Sundance Festival-not surprising considering the emotional wallop in the film’s denouement. While it is essentially a tale informed by magical realism, it earns its points delving into one of life’s biggest mysteries-the complexity of the human heart.

Shades of Gray: And Everything is Going Fine ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 22, 2011)

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Everything is contingent, and there is also chaos.

Spalding Gray

Who was it who once dismissed the art of the monologist as “comedy, without punch lines”? Oh…it was me. OK, I confess-when I used to work as a stand-up, I always felt a bit envious of my more long-winded show-biz cousins, because generally, they get to sit down (I’ve always been a lazy bastard). Not only that, but they get to sit behind a desk, upon which they are allowed to keep notes (in case they lose their place-which probably makes actors jealous, too).

They could get away with using props-without being accused of “hiding behind them”. Also, why is it that when a stand-up comic does a long-form piece with props, it’s a “one person-show”…never a “monologue”? Who, or what, officially certifies you as a monologist?

As  I allegedly became older and wiser, I came to admire the monologists, once I gleaned what separates them from stand ups. Stand-ups are insecure and desperate for acceptance. That’s why we’re willing to go out there “naked” with only a microphone in hand, performing the same 20 minute act night after night for roomfuls of hostile drunks, collect $50, and dash for the exit, before the sense of shame and humiliation over what we do for a living sinks in (Jay Leno once cleverly likened the life of a stand up to that of a hooker).

A monologist, on the other hand, has to have a strong sense of confidence. Confident enough to believe that the minutiae of their lives is so fascinating, people will pay good money to sit in rapt attention for 90 minutes while they prattle on about themselves.

Whether or not you are going to enjoy And Everything is Going Fine, Steven Soderbergh’s documentary about the life of the late Spalding Gray (king of all monologists) largely hinges on how open you are to paying good money to sit in rapt attention for 90 minutes while someone prattles on about themselves. That’s because Soderbergh is shrewd enough to let a man who was nothing if not a compulsive (and gifted) storyteller tell you his own story, in his own words.

For Gray’s fans, Soderbergh’s film could be what the Beatles Anthology was to Fab Four aficionados-a masterfully edited and chronologically assembled compendium of clips from TV interviews and performance excerpts spanning the breadth of his career, spiced throughout by rare and previously unseen footage. What emerges is a portrait of the artist, narrated by the artist.

Like many moviegoers, my first awareness of Gray was due to Swimming to Cambodia, Jonathan Demme’s wonderfully realized 1987 film version of Gray’s stage show, in which Gray was able to weave a mesmerizing and entertaining monologue from his experience working on the 1984 film, The Killing Fields. He had a relatively minor part in that film, but the stage piece it inspired is a veritable epic; it may begin like just another backstage tale, but  somehow ends up touching on life, the universe and everything.

The film was a surprise hit, and although he continued to take acting roles, he was always best at  “playing” Spalding Gray, particularly in subsequent film versions of three more stage shows, (the 1988 HBO presentation Spalding Gray: Terrors of Pleasure, and two feature films-Monster in a Box from 1992 and Gray’s Anatomy, released in 1996).

There is an elephant in the room that Soderbergh largely sidesteps, and that is Gray’s tragic end. In March of 2004, after a two-month disappearance, his body was recovered from the East River, off Greenpoint in Brooklyn. It was a presumed suicide, as Gray had been suffering from severe depression (and had made several attempts to take his own life) since a 2001 car accident that left him with a fractured skull and shattered hip. There is some footage of Gray recounting the accident, and hobbling around on crutches, but not too much further elaboration on what it eventually may have led to.

Perhaps the director does broach the subject in his own oblique fashion; in one interview clip Gray jokes about how Soderbergh had talked him into taking a “perfect part” in his 1993 film King of the Hill-playing a depressive who eventually kills himself. And there are several clips (from tinterviews and stage shows) where Gray refers to his mother’s suicide; perhaps the most revealing quote comes when he says “I was darkly convinced that at age 52 I would kill myself because my mother committed suicide at that age. I was fantasizing that she was waiting for me on the other side of the grave.” We can never know who or what Gray thought might be waiting for him when he took that plunge into the watery depths, but if dead men really could tell tales, I’d bet his would be the best.

Whoa, Lopakhin: Henry’s Crime ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 30, 2011)

Keanu Reeves does Chekhov? No, I’m not pitching an idea for an SNL sketch. After all, he has done Shakespeare (in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado about Nothing, Gus van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, and played the lead in a stage version of Hamlet)-so is it such a stretch to see him sporting a goatee and a waistcoat in The Cherry Orchard?

In the quirky indie heist caper Henry’s Crime, he plays a guy who takes a role in a Chekhov play, even though his character is not an actor. I hear you-“Typecasting?” I know that Reeves has his share of detractors, perennially chagrined by his unique ability to remain completely motionless and expressionless for two hours at a stretch. But I have a theory-although his characters appear wooden, they still enjoy a rich” inner life” (you know…like Pinocchio).

One assumes that Henry (Reeves) has some kind of inner life. He seems a likable, easy-going fellow, if a bit…inscrutable. Maybe it’s his job. Working the graveyard shift at a N.Y. Thruway tollbooth would put anybody in semi-comatose state. Nothing fazes the agreeable yet impassive Henry, one way or the other-although he does display a slight twitch when, one morning at breakfast, his wife (Judy Greer) broaches the subject of the couple having a child.

We get the impression that Henry would prefer to be anywhere else but there, at that moment, having that particular conversation. What’s going on? Is this a troubled marriage? Does he love his wife? Is this cipher of a man internally harboring primal doubts? Or…is he suffering from a sudden attack of gas? There’s no way of discerning.

Fate intervenes, when an old high school chum named Eddie (Fisher Stevens) shows up on his doorstep, with a drunken cohort in tow. Both men are dubiously outfitted for baseball. Eddie wants to know if Henry can give them a ride to their “game”.  Nothing about this questionable scenario seems to raise red flags for Henry. Even Eddie’s request to stop at the bank “on the way” fails to elicit a raised eyebrow from Henry. Needless to say, the heist goes awry, Henry’s car stalls, his “friends” flee, and guess who ends up holding the bag?

Henry doesn’t rat and takes the fall. At this point, one might surmise that Henry is either some kind of transcendent Zen master…or a clueless moron (not unlike the protagonist of Forrest Gump or Chance the gardener in Being There). Ah, but our little wooden boy is about to meet his Geppetto: Veteran con man Max (James Caan).

Max is one of those oddballs who actually “likes” prison-which is why he has been sabotaging his own parole hearings, so as to continue living on the state’s dime. He becomes a mentor/father figure to Henry, who takes it to heart when Max advises him that he needs to find a Dream, and then pursue it. So what is Henry’s epiphany? Since he’s already done the time, he might as well now do the crime.

Henry gets out of the pen, discovers that his wife has remarried to one of the creeps who set him up, and foments a plan to rob the bank that he originally had no intention of robbing in the first place. While casing the scene, he Meets Cute with an actress (Vera Farmiga) who is working at the  theater next door to the bank. Hence,  the plot thickens, getting us to that part where Keanu does Chekhov.

There’s a little déjà vu running through this film (the second effort from 44 Inch Chest director Malcolm Venville). Sacha Gervasi and David White’s script may have been “inspired” by some vintage heist flicks; specifically, Alexander Mackendrick’s 1955 comedy The Ladykillers, and Lloyd Bacon’s Larceny, Inc. from 1942 (essentially remade by Woody Allen as Small Time Crooks). While the film has classic screwball tropes, it lacks the  pace of Lubitsch or Sturges.

That said, I still found Venville’s film  engaging enough. I was reminded of Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66; in addition to sharing its filming location, this is another low-key comedy with oddly endearing characters that “sneaks up” on you, especially once you realize how sweet it really is. And there’s no crime in that, is there?

Lawyers, sons and money: Win Win ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 2, 2011)

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Back in my wintry Alaskan radio days (back in the 20th Century) there was a corny old one-liner that I wasn’t too proud to recycle once or twice as a weather forecast zinger:

In fact…it is SO cold, that as I drove past the courthouse this morning on my way to work…I spotted a lawyer who actually had his hands in his own pockets.” (SFX rim shot)

I don’t mean to insinuate that a “lawyer” is, by definition, an opportunistic, self-serving type;  what profession doesn’t have its “bad apples”? There are a lot of straight-shooting idealists out there practicing law. But I think we can all agree that that there are very few attorneys  who have never met a loophole or “gray area” they couldn’t eyeball from outer space-with their glasses cracked.

You get a vibe that attorney Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), the lumpy middle-aged protagonist of writer-director Thomas McCarthy’s new film Win Win, likely began his law career as one of those straight-shooting idealists. He’s an amiable fellow and a solid family man who devotes a good portion of his free time coaching the local high school wrestling team. There’s a noticeable deficit of statuettes in the trophy case, but Mike and his assistant coach (Jeffrey Tambor) try to keep up the positive reinforcement.

It’s too bad that Mike can’t turn some of that positive reinforcement back onto himself. While out for a morning jog with his friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale), he suffers a full-blown anxiety attack. Once the paramedics leave, Mike sheepishly opens up to his concerned pal (also an attorney) about the financial worries that have been keeping him up nights. Mike also confesses that he’s envious that Terry has amassed a relative fortune through his own successful law practice. Terry does his best to empathize, but as he is still reeling from a recent divorce, he’s anxious and depressed himself.

When one of his clients, an elderly man named Leo (Burt Young) is declared legally incapacitated, Mike comes up with a brainstorm for turning this “loss” into a “win win”. In order to pull it off, however, Mike will have to dive headfirst into one of those “gray areas” that I referenced earlier. After a brief wrestling match with his conscience, Mike offers himself to the court as Leo’s legal guardian. Leo can continue to live in his own house, and Mike will check in on him.

The judge raises an eyebrow, but grants him guardianship. So how does the “wrestling with his conscience” part figure in? Mike is fudging just a wee bit…and his wife (Amy Ryan). He actually intends to put Leo in an elder care center (a nice one, of course), so he won’t really be fussing with taking care of him, per se. Oh-and he’ll sort of “pocket” the monthly $1500 stipend Leo’s estate pays him for being a guardian. But, as long as Leo is content, and Mike is making some extra money to help support his own family, everybody wins-right?

Mike’s scheme runs like clockwork-until a potential spanner in the works named Kyle (Alex Shaffer) rolls into town. He’s Leo’s teenage grandson, who, despite his taciturn nature (quick to deflect any questions about his parental situation) ingratiates himself with Mike’s family-especially after he turns out to be a gifted wrestler. Mike can’t believe this streak of luck. But as they say-no good deed goes unpunished. Enter Kyle’s estranged mom (Melanie Lynskey), just out of drug rehab, armed with an attorney and looking for a steady income (like the $1500 a month she could get if the court appointed her as Dad’s legal guardian). Mike’s streak could be over.

In the hands of a lesser team (McCarthy co-wrote with Joe Tiboni), this narrative that could have descended into turgid family soap. But luckily, this is Thomas McCarthy, the actor/director who also helmed The Station Agent and The Visitor. A true “actor’s director”, McCarthy coaxes pitch-perfect performances from the entire cast.

It’s refreshing to see Giamatti underplay a role for a change; he’s a fine actor, but has been known to ham it up. It’s an outstanding turn, especially in his scenes with newcomer Shaffer (admirably holding his own with the seasoned players). The development of their relationship is central to the story, and neither of them hits a false note. Ryan is a wonder to behold as always; I think she remains a sorely underutilized talent and needs to be offered  a leading role immediately, if not sooner. Touching (but never maudlin), funny (without mugging) and genuinely heartwarming, this is a must-see.