Tag Archives: 2011 Reviews

The sorrow and the pity: City of Life and Death ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 9, 2011)

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One of the lighter moments in City of Life and Death

 After watching Chuan Lu’s City of Life and Death, “war is hell” feels like an understatement. Set during the “second” Sino-Japanese War,  this historical drama  focuses on the 1937 “Rape of Nanking” (an estimated 200,000-300,000 residents were slaughtered by Japanese soldiers over six weeks ). The horrors recounted here burrow into your psyche and bivouac like an occupying army.

Shot in stark black and white, the film  hearkens to the classic era of neorealist war dramas like de Sica’s Two Women and Rossellini’s Open City. Lu infuses his narrative with a Kurosawa-like humanism, taking a relatively non-didactic approach. Initially, we get the invaders-eye view, primarily through the personal experiences of a Japanese soldier named Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi).

As they enter the ruins of the heavily bombarded city, Kadokawa and fellow members of his small patrol seem frightened and confused, like they are not quite sure what their next order of business is. They meet pockets of resistance from the tattered remnants of the outgunned Chinese defensive forces, who have obviously taken heavy casualties. It’s not long before most remaining Chinese soldiers have been captured and rounded up. In the first of many horrifying atrocities reenacted in the film, they are marched en mass to the beach, where they are unceremoniously mowed down (so much for that whole Geneva Convention thing).

Out of this pile of carnage crawls a survivor, young Xiaodouzi (Bin Liu), a prepubescent soldier who looks like a cherub that has stumbled into the pits of Hell. His (true) story is an amazing one. He finds his way into the “safety zone” of the city-which brings us to the conundrum of this tale. If I told you that the most compassionate character in this film is a Nazi, would you believe me? All I have to do is tell the truth, because John Rabe (John Paisley) was a real person.

A German businessman, he was a key organizer in a group of foreigners who negotiated with the Japanese for the Safety Zone, which ended up saving thousands of Chinese (shades of Oskar Schindler). Rabe’s assistant, Mr. Tang (Wei Fan), who is bilingual in Japanese, plays a huge part in this endeavor, as does Mrs. Tang (Lan Qin). Tang cultivates an uneasy “friendship” with Kadokawa’s mercurial commanding officer, Ida (Ryu Kohata), a textbook sociopath. Mr. Tang learns that dealing with the devil is  tenuous at best  (Ida’s cold-blooded betrayal is beyond reprehension-and one of the more shocking moments in a film that is rife with them).

But Ida outdoes even himself when he demands that Rabe surrender 100 female “volunteers” from the Safety Zone to be requisitioned as “comfort women” for the Japanese troops. In an emotionally shattering scene, women slowly begin raising their hands, seeming to reach a mutual grim epiphany as they look around the room at each other and realize that this may be the only way to ensure that their children survive the nightmare (heart-wrenching as that scene is, it pales in comparison to the historical record-there were an estimated 20,000 rape victims, from toddler age to grandmothers).

Interestingly, the most compelling character is Kadokawa, who is the “conscience” of the story (the director has taken flak in his native China for portraying a Japanese soldier in a sympathetic light). Granted-through association  he is complicit, yet he is still human. He’s conflicted; at times visibly appalled and repelled by what he is witnessing. He doesn’t refuse orders (until the crucial denouement) but in a way he is an avatar for the collective guilt all humans bear as a species perennially bent on inflicting pain and suffering on itself.

In one extraordinarily staged sequence, a contingent of Japanese soldiers conducts a traditional victory dance through the city. Keep an eye on Kadokawa’s face. He is chanting along with the other soldiers, but as his eyes meet those of the dazed and expressionless Chinese onlookers, it becomes clear that as far as his soul and humanity are concerned, this is a Pyrrhic victory at best.

I can’t say that I “enjoyed” such a relentlessly grim and depressing 133 minutes. That said, City of Life and Death is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. It is intense (and brutal), but masterfully made and well-acted. It also examines a chapter of 20th century history that has been largely overlooked by film makers. The fact that the Chinese and Japanese governments remain at loggerheads over respective “official” accounts of those horrific six weeks back in 1937 demonstrates that this is not an obscure incident that should just be relegated to the dustbins of history. In fact…no “incident” of this nature should just be relegated to the dustbins of history.

Days of future past: The Conspirator **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 23, 2011)

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War does not determine who is right…only who is left.

-Bertrand Russell

Who was it that originally quipped “There was nothing ‘civil’ about it” in reference to the American Civil War? Truer words have seldom been spoken in reference to that ugly chapter of U.S. history that left 600,000 corpses in its wake. The scars still run deep; witness the controversies stirred up by some of the recent commemorative events related to noting the 2011 Civil War Sesquicentennial.

By the spring of 1865, after four horrifying years, it was all over but the shooting, as far as the war itself was concerned, but the psychic wounds were fresh. And, as we’ve all known since elementary school, it was in this climate of fear and loathing that, on the night of April 14th (with the ink barely dry on Lee’s official surrender at Appomattox), President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while attending a play with his wife at the Ford Theater in Washington D.C. by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth.

What many Americans are not as cognizant of is that Booth was but one of the players in a conspiracy to kill not only Lincoln, but VP Johnson and Secretary of State Seward. In essence, it was an attempt to take down the federal government in one fell swoop (Seward, bedridden at the time, was stabbed at his home, but survived, and the VP’s would-be killer lost his nerve).

Out of the eight accused co-conspirators who stood trial before a specially appointed government commission (official-speak for “military tribunal”), the most enigmatic figure was D.C. boarding house proprietress Mary Surratt, who holds the dubious distinction as the first woman ever executed by the United States. Her story has been dramatized in Robert Redford’s  The Conspirator, which is the first feature film produced by his American Film Company.

In a sepia-toned opening scene recreating the look of a Matthew Brady photo, we meet Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) a Union soldier lying wounded among the dead and dying. After his discharge from military service, he goes into law practice, and his first major case is a doozy. He is asked by his mentor, Senator Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to defend Mary Surratt (Robin Wright).

While her son John, who had managed to flee the U.S. and eluded authorities until well after his mother’s trial and execution, appeared to be more directly involved, a combination of circumstantial proximity (the conspirators held numerous meetings at her boarding house) and less-than-flattering press (President Andrew Johnson publicly stated that she “…kept the nest that hatched the egg”) assured that her attorney had a tough row to hoe. As portrayed in the film, Surratt retains an air of almost serene inscrutability throughout the trial. Wright embodies this dichotomy quite well.

After choking back his initial abhorrence at the very idea of defending Surratt, Aiken’s formidable challenge is how to build a strong defense under the restrictions imposed by military tribunal procedure (there is no entitlement to a jury of your peers, for starters). The man charged with assembling the tribunal wasn’t much help; Secretary of War Edwin Stanton did everything in his power to push for an expedient trial and executions. Kevin Kline gives an interesting performance as Stanton; I could swear that he’s consciously channeling Dick Cheney’s voice and mannerisms.

And the parallels don’t stop there. Although Redford has been playing dumb in the several recent TV interviews I saw, denying any analogical intentions, it’s inevitable that any halfway historically astute viewer is going to notice the pointed similarities brought to the fore in James Solomon’s script between the dramatic shift in the nation’s sociopolitical climate post-Lincoln assassination in 1865 and post-9/11 in 2001 (Bob Redford ain’t dumb, nor is he apolitical).

Most of these didactic are telegraphed in the exchanges between McAvoy and Kline. Stanton tells Aiken at one point, “Someone must be held accountable. The People want that.” To which Aiken replies, “It’s not justice you’re after; it’s revenge.” Operation Iraqi Freedom, anyone? Several of their conversations hammer home the reminder (and it’s a good one) that, no matter how grave the “national crisis” may be, the basic constitutionally-assured civil rights of American citizens do not come with a factory-equipped “on/off” switch.

One interesting parallel arose just this week, when it was announced that Wikileaks suspect Bradley Manning (still awaiting trial) was transferred from solitary confinement at the brig at Quantico to a medium-security facility at Leavenworth. In the film, Aiken appeals (successfully) to the tribunal that Surratt be transferred from the draconian Old Capitol Prison (where she was never allowed outside) to another facility, where she was permitted outside to take fresh air and exercise (the other accused co-conspirators were initially kept below decks on two ironclads anchored in the Potomac River).

McAvoy and Wright have great chemistry. Evan Rachel Wood makes the most of her brief turn as Surratt’s daughter; she’s a wonderfully intuitive actress. While I wouldn’t place this film in the same echelon as  a Breaker Morant, Redford has made something that will please history buffs, yet be eminently watchable to others. I will admit that his tendency to take an austere approach in his film making has left me cold on many occasions. But Redford’s hand is assured; his art comes from a thoughtful and intelligent place. And sadly, that has become the exception to the rule in modern American cinema.

Yes, darling…but is it art? – Certified Copy ****

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Love is like two dreamers dreaming, the exact same dream

Just another Technicolor romance on the screen

-from “Nightmoves” by Michael Franks

In the introduction to his playful 1974 rumination on art forgery, F for Fake, director Orson Welles looks straight into the camera and says, “This is a promise. For the next hour, everything you hear from us is absolutely true, and based on solid fact.” Trouble is, the film runs 85 minutes (think about that for a moment). I couldn’t help but flash on that, when somewhere around the halfway mark of Certified Copy, the latest film from Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, I had to ask myself: “Now…steady. Is he having a laugh?”

Initially embarking in the direction of Before Sunset/Two for the Road, before taking an abrupt turn into Last Year at Marienbad/Track 29 territories, Kiarostami’s film begins innocently enough. Elle (Juliette Binoche) is a French ex-pat living in Tuscany. A single mom, Elle supports herself and her pre-teen son by running a small art gallery. One day, she attends a lecture by a British art critic named James Miller (William Shimell). He’s promoting his latest book, which deals with art forgery, and the age-old conundrum: If it is perceived as “art” in the eye of the beholder, does it matter if it’s “real”?

Elle, who splits before the lecture ends, seems less fascinated by what the author has to say than she is by the man himself; although she blushes and vehemently denies as such when her precocious son teases her afterwards about her apparent crush. Doing her best not to come off like a groupie, Elle introduces herself to James, and after he lets on that he has no particular plans until he has to catch his train that night, offers to take him on a tour of the countryside.

Hey-it’s Tuscany, right? And as we’ve learned from watching countless romantic movies set in the Tuscan countryside, what’s not to love about those sunny, pastoral vistas that inspired the likes of Michelangelo, daVinci, Donatello and Botticelli? This is not lost on the director or his DP Luca Bigazzi (Il Divo, Bread and Tulips) who allow us plenty of time and space to soak in the lovely views while Elle and James prattle on about love, life, art, meow-meow, etc.

Just when you’re being lulled into thinking this is going to be one of those brainy, talky, yet pleasantly diverting romantic romps where you and your date can amuse yourselves by placing bets on “will they or won’t they-that is, if they can both shut up long enough to get down to business sometime before the credits roll” propositions, Kiarostami throws you a curve ball.

When a café proprietress mistakes James for Elle’s husband, marveling at how he seems to be treating his wife as if he is courting her for the first time, she decides to play along. While James is at the gent’s, Elle romances an entire back story on the spot, telling the woman that this is their 15th anniversary, and that they have decided to revisit the town where they spent their honeymoon.

When James returns, he seems to intuit Elle’s Kabuki, and slides into character, picking up Elle’s narrative right on cue. Even after they leave the café, they don’t “break character”. Or is it Kabuki? Have they actually been married for 15 years-and all that blushing first date stuff was just a role-playing game? Perhaps this is an attempt to spruce up a tired relationship? Or is James a figment of Elle’s imagination…or vice versa? I’m not telling.

Don’t worry, these are not spoilers. Because the director isn’t “telling” either (sly devil). I don’t even think he knows what’s going on with these two. You know what I think? I think that he wants us to think. I know-life throws enough curve balls at us every day. You’ve got enough to think about; why spend ten bucks on a movie that’s going to make your brain hurt even more? Because while you’re pondering, you have an impossibly attractive couple to ogle.

Not to mention Binoche’s amazing performance; there’s pure poetry in every glance, every gesture. Shimell (an opera singer by trade), is impressive as well in his first notable movie role. Then again, maybe this film isn’t so much about “thinking”, as it is about “perceiving”. Because if it’s true that a “film” is merely (if I may quote Mr. Welles again) “a ribbon of dreams”-then Certified Copy, like any true work of art, is simply what you perceive it to be-nothing more, nothing less.

Crisis? What crisis? – Carbon Nation ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 12, 2011)

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Remember those math story problems in elementary school? Good times. Anyway, here’s a fun one for you: Mankind’s daily energy use is 16 terawatts a day. Currently, an estimated 2 of those terawatts are derived from “green” sources. That means that the remaining 14 terawatts rely on traditional fossil fuels. Now, if the Sun alone (to name but one available form of “free” alternative energy) is bombarding the Earth with a potential tap of 86,000 terawatts a day, WTF IS WRONG WITH MANKIND? Oh-did you remember to carry the global warming deniers? Good! Now, you may put down your No. 2 pencils and pass your papers to the front of the class.

It’s a simple question, really. And it frames the premise of an eco-doc from director Peter Byck, called Carbon Nation. In all fairness, that little dig at the global warming deniers was my embellishment; the film’s tag line actually promises “a climate change solutions movie that doesn’t even care if you believe in climate change”. This is either good news or bad news, depending on what you generally look for in an eco-doc.

If you are looking to have your worst fears confirmed about how screwed the planet might be (An Inconvenient Truth, The 11th Hour) or a “catch ‘em with their pants down” muckraker about the fossil fuels industry, like GasLand-then you may be frustrated by Byck’s non-partisan approach. However, if you already “get” the part about the sky falling, yet are looking for some positive news on the “solutions” front, this film could be an inspiration.

Byck traverses America, profiling people who are striving to make a difference in lightening our carbon footprint. People like Cliff Etherege, a West Texas cotton farmer who talked a number of his neighbors into pooling their relatively small 500-acre farms together into forming an operation called Peak Wind, which is now (collectively) one of the largest wind farms in the world. The formation of the company literally saved the town of Roscoe, which had been slowly dying for a number of years.

There is Alaskan entrepreneur Bernie Karl (who I had the pleasure of meeting through my Fairbanks radio gig many moons ago). Karl is the owner of the Chena Hot Springs Resort, a popular tourist destination about 60 miles north of Fairbanks. He has devised a machine that generates geothermal power from a water temperature of 165 degrees. 95% of the liquid drilled from the ground by most oil wells is water, which averages a temperature of…165 degrees. In an ideal universe, each of those wells would have one of Bernie’s converters on hand-which would create a power output equivalent to 10 nuclear plants. Oil companies currently view the water simply as waste-but we can dream, right?

One of the more admirable folks profiled is Van Jones, the civil rights advocate who has become a green jobs organizer. He was a key advocate for the Green Jobs Act (signed into law back in 2007). Armed with an uplifting catchphrase (“Green jobs, not jails”) Jones is shown spreading his message through economically challenged urban communities like Richmond, California, where disadvantaged youths have found steady employment installing solar panels on neighborhood homes through one of his programs. It’s quite inspirational to see that someone has figured a way to mesh the idea of sustaining a green economy with making a positive social impact.

Byck also touches base with “Green Hawks” who are working with the Department of Defense to make overseas military support operations more energy efficient via wind and solar power. One of them, ex-CIA head R. James Woolsey, delivers the film’s money quote. In consideration of the “blood and treasure” sacrifices that we suffer as a result of our dependence on fossil fuels, he observes, “President (George Herbert Walker) Bush probably would not have felt like he had to protect Saudi Arabia from Iraq, if the Persian Gulf had been home to 2/3 of the world’s proven supply of broccoli.”

Woolsey’s comment is the closest that the film comes to being polemical; as I stated at the top of the review, Byck has made a concerted effort to just accentuate the positive. Which is all well and good (who can’t use an uplift and a little inspiration now and then?), but in a way it’s a bit of a shame, particularly with the timing of the film’s release (have any change left after filling your tank recently?).

With all the eco-docs that have dealt with the global warming/fossil fuels dependency issues, I’ve yet to see one that acknowledges and addresses the elephant in the room: Despite the fact that this is one issue that should transcend politics, it has been co-opted as a political football, and we need to get away from that (at least if we ever hope to see more planet-friendly legislation).

During my morning commute the other day I was listening to “Democracy Now” and heard Amy Goodman interviewing Naomi Klein, who is working on a new book about climate change and the climate change deniers. I thought Klein offered some thoughtful observations on why most of the deniers come from the Right:

But something very different is going on on the right, and I think we need to understand what that is. Why is climate change seen as such a threat? I don’t believe it’s an unreasonable fear. I think it is—it’s unreasonable to believe that scientists are making up the science. They’re not. It’s not a hoax. But actually, climate change really is a profound threat to a great many things that right-wing ideologues believe in. So, in fact, if you really wrestle with the implications of the science and what real climate action would mean, here’s just a few examples what it would mean.

Well, it would mean upending the whole free trade agenda, because it would mean that we would have to localize our economies, because we have the most energy-inefficient trade system that you could imagine. And this is the legacy of the free trade era. So, this has been a signature policy of the right, pushing globalization and free trade. That would have to be reversed.

You would have to deal with inequality. You would have to redistribute wealth, because this is a crisis that was created in the North, and the effects are being felt in the South. So, on the most basic, basic, “you broke it, you bought it,” polluter pays, you would have to redistribute wealth, which is also against their ideology.

You would have to regulate corporations. You simply would have to. I mean, any serious climate action has to intervene in the economy. You would have to subsidize renewable energy, which also breaks their worldview.

You would have to have a really strong United Nations, because individual countries can’t do this alone. You absolutely have to have a strong international architecture.

So when you go through this, you see, it challenges everything that they believe in. So they’re choosing to disbelieve it, because it’s easier to deny the science than to say, “OK, I accept that my whole worldview is going to fall apart,” that we have to have massive investments in public infrastructure, that we have to reverse free trade deals, that we have to have huge transfers of wealth from the North to the South. Imagine actually contending with that. It’s a lot easier to deny it.

Klein did go on to say that a lot of the major green groups are in a “kind of denial” as well; in that they don’t want to confront the fact that it this a political and economic issue. Getting back to Byck’s film, many of the people and companies he profiles are, in fact, proving that sustainability can be both an earth-friendly and economically sound proposition. So what’s stopping everybody from getting together on the same page? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Don’t make me turn this into another math story problem…

Dirty words and punky dads: The Weird World of Blowfly *** & The Other F Word ***

By Dennis Hartley

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

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%*@#!! : The Weird World of Blowfly

Before you can begin to process the paradox that is cult rapper Clarence “Blowfly” Reid, you have to understand that “he” (as, in the singular) is actually a duo. Do I mean that he has a split personality? Not necessarily; after all, in the music business, it’s not unusual for artists to adapt an alter ego (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson) or to reinvent themselves on an annual basis (David Bowie, Madonna, Prince), but there aren’t many whose careers can be divided into such mutually exclusive halves as Reid’s.

First, there is Clarence Reid, whose 1965 recording of “The Dirty Rap” is considered by some to be the first rap song. He made a few R&B albums through the late 60s; then wrote and produced hits for Betty Wright, Gwen Macrae, KC & the Sunshine Band and others during  tenure with Miami-based TK records through the mid-70s. Then, there is “Blowfly”, a nickname assigned to him as a teenager by his grandmother, who, chagrined by his tendency to amuse himself and his friends by singing his own “dirtied up” versions of Top 40 hits, allegedly proclaimed Clarence to be “nastier than a blowfly”.

In 1970, a metamorphosis took place, beginning with an album called The Weird World of Blowfly. It was in fact so “weird” (and nasty) that Reid had to create his own independent label (Weird World), in order to release it in its unexpurgated glory (possibly inspired by Frank Zappa’s Bizarre Records). Most of the songs were parodies; with titles like “Spermy Night in Georgia” and “Shittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”. Needless to say, this Weird Al Yankovic meets Rudy Ray Moore persona was the antithesis of the artist formerly known as Clarence Reid, who had been a bit more radio-friendly. The LP was a hit with the “party record” crowd, as were many subsequent releases throughout the 80s and 90s. Thus, “Blowfly” was born; lewd, crude, and bedecked like a Mexican wrestler.

In case you ever wondered what became of him, a documentary called The Weird World of Blowfly brings you up to snuff. That is not to say that you will necessarily like everything you learn. Jonathan Furmanski’s film (at times a disconcerting cross between This is Spinal Tap and The Elephant Man) doesn’t pull punches, particularly concerning the less savory side of The Business We Call “Show”.

Furmanski follows Blowfly and his backup band on a 2-year “world tour” (for wont of a better term). Pushing 70 at the time of filming and suffering from a bum knee, the road-weary Reid is shuffled from gig to gig by his doughy drummer/manager, Tom Bowker. Bowker, a professed super-fan (and so-so drummer), appears to have Reid’s best interests at heart, but at times he emits a whiff of Eau de Colonel Parker.

In one scene, Bowker harangues Reid in an uncomfortably disrespectful manner. Then again, Blowfly has several bizarre on-camera meltdowns himself. He throws a backstage hissy fit, going apoplectic after Bowker sets his boxed pizza on a chair (“…where people put their dirty asses?!”). And his racist diatribe about African-Americans is a definite eyebrow-raiser.

Obvious freak show aspects of the film aside, there are a few genuine surprises. Reid pays a visit to his mother, where he pulls out a dog-eared Bible and talks about his devout Christian faith. Shooting down another stereotype about hard-partying musicians on the road, it also turns out that Reid has always eschewed drugs and alcohol. Whatever demons lurk in his soul are apparently purged whenever he puts on his mask and cape and takes to the stage. Reid does show himself to be a solid trouper in performance, whether its playing to five people in a stateside dive bar (the film’s most Spinal Tap moment) or to a concert hall audience in Dresden, where he opens for Die Artze, one of Germany’s top punk bands (the young audience seems stunned into silent bewilderment).

One gathers the  impression Blowfly’s biggest fans are fellow musicians; his influence has eclipsed his popularity, as it were. Ice-T, Chuck D., Die Artze’s Farin Urlaub and Jello Biafra  gush like fan boys (Biafra joins Blowfly onstage for one of the performance highlights, an exquisitely tasteless cover of The Dead Kennedys’ “Holiday in Cambodia”, re-entitled “R. Kelly in Cambodia”). Love Blowfly or hate him, there’s something to be said for any artist who challenges the status quo and makes the censors twitch. I pictured Frank Zappa somewhere out there in the ether, holding a guitar in one hand and copy of the First Amendment in the other, smiling.

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Dad, you’re totally embarrassing me: The Other F Word

I could easily go the rest of my life without having one more person say this to me: “Having a kid completely changes your life.” Yeah, whatever. Bully for you, you’ve reproduced. Happy for ya, Mazel Tov. Congrats. Love to stay and chat longer, but I simply must get back to the Arctic desolation of my studio apartment and resume brooding about a life tragically misspent (thanks for the reminder). Busy schedule, things to do. Check ya later. But enough about me. I’ve resigned to the fact that if I’m still a confirmed bachelor at 55, I’m obviously too narcissistic to have children. Or something.

But you know what? Having a kid completely changes your life, even if you are a punk rocker. Just ask Flea, Tony Adolescent, Mark Hoppus, Rob Chaos or Jim Lindberg. Those are a few of the interviewees in an engagingly candid and unexpectedly touching documentary about punk rock dads called The Other F Word, directed by Andrea Blaugrund Nevins. Nevins follows her subjects on the road, on stage and at home with their families, then does an admirably deft job of tying all the incongruities together.

Jim Lindberg (lead singer of the venerable skatepunk outfit Pennywise) gets a lion’s share of the camera time. Astutely and entertainingly self-aware, Lindberg makes a good front man for the film, delivering the money quote that gets to the heart of Nevins’ study: “It’s tough to be a punk rock hero and still be an authority figure to my kids.” An amusing case in point: Lindberg (who co-wrote the band’s anthem, “Fuck Authority”) is observed admonishing his young daughter for calling one of her siblings a “turdface”.

Nevins also weaves in a little history of the punk scene, with a primary focus on the SoCal bands, which adds context and some meaty substance (which helped me forgive the somewhat cliché ADD visual style of the film). The director saves her biggest emotional guns for the final third, when some of her subjects open up about their relationships with their own fathers, which for most were less than ideal (cue the waterworks). This is where the rubber meets the road, and the takeaway is revealed: I never sang for my father, but I will sing for my kids* (*parents advisory: explicit lyrics).

Ambition’s debt is paid: The Ides of March **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 8, 2011)

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In the decidedly theatrical opener of George Clooney’s latest directorial effort, The Ides of March, a well-attired young man with a lean and hungry look emerges from backstage shadows, steps up to a podium and begins to address an empty hall. After muttering some standard-issue mike check gibberish, he begins to recite snippets of what sounds like some tried-and-true, audience-rousing political campaign rhetoric.

His tone becomes so assured and impassioned, you find yourself wondering if he is the one running for office. He’s not, actually. But he is playing to win. He’s a hotshot campaign advisor named Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), a Ninja spin doctor (or, “Spinja” if you like) who also possesses something relatively rare in the cynical and duplicitous profession he has chosen to work in. He actually believes in the candidate he is working to put into office.

That candidate is Governor Mike Morris (Clooney), making a first-time bid for the presidency. The charismatic and straight-talking Morris is in a fierce fight to win the Ohio primary, which should cinch him as the Dem’s nominee. Stephen isn’t the only weapon in his arsenal; his campaign manager is Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) a seasoned veteran with an impressive track record. In the pecking order, Stephen answers to Paul. The one thing that Paul values above all is loyalty, and he makes no bones about it.

That is why Stephen is torn when approached by Paul’s competition, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) who manages the rival campaign. After the obligatory “You should be working for the winning team, kid” pitch, Tom gives Stephen a “hot tip” that his camp has been assured a key endorsement from a senator (Jeffrey Wright) which will give Tom’s guy the win. Why is he telling Stephen this? Is it a trick? Then again, it’s nice to be wooed. In the meantime, Stephen does some wooing of his own, with an intern (Evan Rachael Wood). You would think that this sharp young man would know the pitfalls of office romance. This leads a huge pitfall…one that could sink the campaign.

I suppose that is the message of this film (politics is all awash in the wooing). The art of seduction and the art of politicking are one and the same; not exactly a new revelation (a narrative that goes back at least as far as, I don’t know, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar). The politician is seduced by power. However, the politician first must seduce the voter. A pleasing narrative is spun and polished, promises are made, sweet nothings whispered in the ear, and the voter caves.

But once your candidate is ensconced in their shiny new office, well…about that diamond ring? It turns out to be cubic zirconium. Then it’s all about the complacency, the lying, the psychodramas, and the traumas. While a lot of folks do end up getting ‘screwed’, it is not necessarily in the most desirable and fun way. But I digress.

If you would indulge me my prurient analogy a wee bit more, Clooney’s film, while competently made and well-acted, could have used a little Viagra (or something). The TV ad campaign spins it as a political thriller, but while it involves politics, and does feature some intrigue, it’s not really that thrilling. I would classify as more of a political potboiler, simmering on medium high all of the way through.

The screenplay is by-the-numbers (Clooney co-adapted from Beau Willimon’s play, Farragut North with Willimon and Grant Heslov). Clooney is believable as presidential material (duh), Gosling continues to impress with his chameleon skills, and there are fine moments with Marisa Tomei (as well as Hoffman and Giamatti), but if you assemble this much potentially explosive talent, don’t just give ‘em caps and a hammer to play with. That’s free campaign advice.

Swede sweetback’s baadassss song: The Black Power Mixtape ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 1, 2011)

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Diana: Hi, I’m Diana Christensen, a racist lackey of the imperialist ruling circles.

Laureen: I’m Laureen Hobbs, a badass commie nigger.

Diana: Sounds like the basis of a firm friendship.

 –from Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky

The slyly subversive sociopolitical subtext of that memorable exchange between Faye Dunaway and Marlene Warfield in Sidney Lumet’s classic 1976 satire could be lost on anyone not old enough to recall the radical politics and revolutionary rhetoric of the era, but for those of us who are (and who do), the character of “Laureen Hobbs” was clearly inspired by Angela Davis, the UCLA professor-turned activist whose name became synonymous with the Black Power movement of the late 60s to mid 70s.

Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s distillation of the two characters into winking cultural stereotypes, while wryly satirical, was not  far off the mark as to how the MSM spun the image of Davis and other prominent figures like Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Seale. As I recall, the media tended to focus on the more extreme, sensationalist facets. Police shootouts with Black Panthers, prison riots and U.S. athletes giving the Black Power salute at the Olympic Games made for good copy, but didn’t paint the entire picture of the Black Experience in America.

With the alternative press (and most likely the FBI) excepted, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of investigative parsing going on at the time to unearth the root cause and/or ideology behind the images of violence and civil unrest that the MSM played on a continuous loop. After all, this was, at its core, a legitimate and historically significant American political movement (if not a revolution), and no one seemed to be taking the pains to document it. At least, no one in this country. Sweden, on the other hand? They had it covered.

I know…Sweden. Go figure. At any rate, a treasure trove of vintage 16mm footage, representing nearly a decade of candid interviews with movement leaders and meticulous documentation of Black Panther Party activities and African-American inner city life was recently discovered tucked away in the basement of Swedish Television. Director Goran Olsson has cherry-picked fascinating clips and assembled them in a chronological historical order for his documentary, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975

Olsson leaves the contextualization to present-day retrospection from surviving participants (Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, Kathleen Cleaver and Harry Belafonte), as well as reflections by contemporary African-American academics, writers, poets and musicians. The director restricts modern commentators to voice-over, thereby devoting maximum screen time to the pristine archive footage. And if you’re expecting bandolier-wearing, pistol-waving bad-ass commie, uh, interviewees spouting fiery Marxist-tinged rhetoric, dispense with that hoary stereotype now.

What you will see is a relaxed and soft-spoken Stokely Carmichael, surprising his interviewers by borrowing the mike to ask his own mother questions about her life experience as an African-American woman in America. There are interviews with a jailed Angela Davis, an exiled Eldridge Cleaver (in Algiers), Bobby Seale, Huey P. Newton and others; and what really comes through is the humanity behind the rhetoric. Whether one agrees or disagrees with all the means and methods they utilized to get their views across to the powers-that-be, the underlying message is self-empowerment, and a forward-thinking commitment to changing the world for the better.

Speaking of the “powers-that-be”, there are interesting segments on the state response to the movement at the time (infiltration and entrapment, turning a blind eye to civil liberties, etc.) that beg comparisons to our post 9-11 environment (plus ca change…). In fact, the subject of Olsson’s film feels trapped by its 100 minute time constraint; there’s more than enough angles to this largely neglected part of 20th-century American history to provide ample material for a Ken Burns-length miniseries. Olsson weaves social context into the mix by using clips from a 1973 Swedish TV cinema-verite documentary called Harlem: Voices, Faces, a time capsule that lends a sense of poetry to an otherwise straightforward collage

The film is not without flaws; some of the contemporary commentators don’t necessarily lend new insight. Also, Olssons’s commitment to offering viewers a “mix, not a remix” feels unfocused at times (“subjective” doesn’t have to mean “dry”). Still, a film like this is important, because the time is ripe to re-examine the story of the Black Power movement, which despite its failures and flaws, still emerges as one of the last truly progressive grass roots political awakenings that we’ve had in this country (no, the Tea Party shares no parallels, by any stretch of the imagination).

Watching the film made me a little sad. Where is the real passion (and social compassion) in American politics anymore? It’s become all about petty partisanship and myopic self-interest and next to nothing about empowering citizens and maintaining a truly free and equal society. However (to end on an up note), I came across this rousing speech, recently delivered on the  40th anniversary of the Attica prison riot. It gave me hope that the legacy is alive:

Amen, brother.

The punk and the godfather: Brighton Rock (2010) **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 10, 2011)

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It seemed to Scobie that life was immeasurably long. Couldn’t the test of man have been carried out in fewer years? Couldn’t we have committed our first major sin at seven, have ruined ourselves for love or hate at ten, have clutched at redemption on a fifteen-year-old deathbed?

 -Graham Greene, from The Heart of the Matter

 Did you ever get on a kick with a writer? It can be quite a passionate love affair. When I was in my early 20s, a friend loaned me a dog-eared paperback copy of The Heart of the Matter, by Graham Greene. The diamond-cut prose, compelling narrative, and thematic depth left me gob smacked. “Ah,” I thought, “so this must be that ‘literature’ of which they speak.” It was time to put Ian Fleming and Alistair MacLean behind me and kick it up a notch (when I was a child, I thought as a child, etc.). I had to have more of this.

And so it was that I got on a Graham Greene kick, voraciously devouring virtually every word that he ever fought from his pen. As I plowed through the oeuvre, I began to notice prevalent themes emerging; most notably that whole Catholic thing (for someone like me, with a Jewish mother and a Protestant father, it was theologically fascinating). There was much ado about guilt, mortal sin, clutching at redemption, moral failure, lapsed faith…and more guilt. But you could still “dance to it” (in a literary sense).

The rich complexity and narrative appeal of Greene’s “theological thrillers” certainly has not been lost on filmmakers over the years; nearly all of his novels have been adapted for the screen (with mixed results). Most have been dramas and film noirs, like the The Fallen Idol, This Gun for Hire (based on A Gun for Sale), The Ministry of Fear, The Fugitive (based on The Power and the Glory), The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair (with a 1955 and 1999 version), The Quiet American (twice-made, in 1958 and 2002) and two uncharacteristically light-hearted entries-Our Man in Havana and Travels with my Aunt. All the aforementioned are worthwhile, but if pressed to pick my personal favorite Greene-to-screen, it would be John Boulting’s 1947 noir thriller, Brighton Rock.

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That film was memorable on several counts. It was stylishly directed (Boulting later helmed one of the early nuclear paranoia thrillers, Seven Days to Noon and the classic comedy I’m All Right, Jack), well-scripted (by Greene himself, along with Terence Rattigan) and topped off by then 24 year-old Richard Attenborough’s indelible portrayal of the central character, a ruthless and ambitious hood named Pinkie Brown.

In fact, Attenborough so thoroughly inhabits the creepy, sociopathic Pinkie that you find it difficult to connect the actor who plays this hateful little punk with the future Oscar-winning director of Gandhi (by then addressed as ‘Sir’ Richard). Any way you slice it, a tough act to follow, for anyone attempting to do a remake. And guess what-someone has.

For the new BBC Films production of Brighton Rock writer-director Rowan Joffe has, for the most part, kept original characters, chief plot points and thematic subtexts intact, but moved the time period to the 1960s. The story is set in 1964 Brighton; on the eve of the infamous Mods vs. Rockers youth riots which took place at the popular English seaside resort that year (shades of Quadrophenia). Sam Riley tackles the Pinkie Brown role. Pinkie is a low-rung mobster who has been scheming for dominance of his gang.

When his mentor (Geoff Bell) is killed by a rival outfit that is attempting to monopolize the local gambling racket, Pinkie sees an opportunity to upgrade his own status by proactively seeking vengeance on his friend’s killer (Sean Harris). In their haste to grab the intended victim Pinkie and his cohorts get sloppy and involve an innocent ‘civilian’, a naïve young waitress named Rose (Andrea Riseborough). A ‘pavement photographer’, intending to take a picture of Rose, inadvertently gets an incriminating shot of the soon-to-be murder victim and his abductors. When Pinkie learns that Rose has a claim ticket for the photo, he ingratiates himself into her life, pretending to be romantically interested.

Joffe’s film left me feeling a little ambivalent. While it is kind of refreshing to see a British mobster flick that isn’t attempting to out-Guy Ritchie Guy Ritchie, this version of Brighton Rock may be a little too somber and weighty for its own good. Moving the time setting to 1964 doesn’t detract from the original, but it doesn’t necessarily improve on it, either (and did it really need ‘improving’?).

In fact, large chunks of the film are essentially a shot-by-shot remake of the 1947 version. Joffe’s version exudes more of a Hitchcockian vibe; it is particularly reminiscent of Suspicion. While Riley’s portrayal of Pinky has a brooding intensity,  it lacks  a certain subtlety that Attenborough brought to the character in the original.

In Greene’s original novel, Pinkie is described by Rose as someone who, despite his youth, seems to “know” he is “damned”, and all of his actions are predicated on this feeling of quasi-religious predestination. Attenborough, I think, embodies that perfectly, while Riley simply comes off as preternaturally evil, like a boogeyman.

Dame Helen Mirren feels a wasted as Rose’s employer Ida, who is suspicious of Pinkie and becomes a thorn in his side; oddly, her character (crucial in the book and the 1947 film) seems to have been downgraded. The usually wonderful John Hurt barely registers; not really his fault as his character is underwritten. The ubiquitous Andy Serkis chews the scenery in a couple of scenes, as the rival mob’s boss, and there is a standout supporting performance from Philip Davis (whose presence also brings a sort of symmetry to the Quadrophenia connection; he played ‘Chalky’, one of the teenage Mods  in Franc Roddam’s eponymous 1979 film). There are worse sins than watching Joffe’s film, but if you prefer to clutch at redemption, rent the original.

Bad teacher: Cracks **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 25, 2011)

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Whilst perusing the press kit synopsis of Jordan (daughter of Ridley) Scott’s directorial debut, Cracks, I confess I got my feathers ruffled over the fact that it trumpeted “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie meets Lord of the Flies!” Ahem, I thought to myself, that’s my job to come up with clever “(blank) meets (blank)” references. How dare you usurp the mighty film critic, I continued raging, like the petulant man-child that I am. So I defiantly dredged up my own mashups: Picnic at Hanging Rock meets The Children’s Hour! Heavenly Creatures meets The Fallen Idol! You want esoteric? Try The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea meets Death in Venice…top that one, bee-YATCHes!!

I digress. As you may have gleaned, Scott’s film is the latest entry in a time-honored film genre: The Boarding School Drama. Set in the 1930s, with Irish locations standing in for an English coastal island, this particular institution is an elite girl’s school. As we’ve learned from watching such tales, there’s a caste system, with a ruling clique at the top of the pyramid. This one is led by a haughty young miss named Di (Juno Temple), who publicly admonishes her peeps for such high crimes as insufficiently buttering her toast for her at breakfast; after which she magnanimously assuages the humiliated underling with a tough love caveat: “We must set the standard for the others.”

However, there is a cosmology from upon high to which Di defers for “the standard” and guidance, which is handed down by the Unconventional Yet Inspirational Teacher of the piece. She is the enigmatically named Miss G (Eva Green). Di and her hand-picked inner circle share a mutual admiration society with the free-spirited Miss G, who captivates her charges with affected worldly poise and romanticized tales of wanderlust.

She has also chosen them for her exclusive “diving team”, appointing Di as the captain. In return, Miss G gets to bask in adulation and feed (in somewhat vampiric fashion) off of their youthful exuberance. “What is the most important thing in life?” she challenges them, firing them up for dive practice “Desire!” (more on that in a sec).

Everything goes swimmingly for Miss G. and her frolicking water nymphs until the arrival of a new girl throws a Spaniard in the works. Her name is Fiamma (Maria Valverde), and she hails from an aristocratic Spanish family. The headmistress puts the new girl under Miss G’s tutelage, instructing her to make Fiamma feel welcome, but with no special deference. Di wastes little time making Fiamma feel “welcome” by informing her in no uncertain terms that she is “allowed” but five personal decorative objects on her nightstand.

There is no tantrum, no tears (the kind of reaction that bullies really hate). In fact, Fiamma vibes a sophistication and maturity beyond the ken of the other girls; and when she recognizes one of Miss G’s “personal” anecdotes to be rote memorization from a published work, it is clear that the group dynamic is about to change. The divine Miss G, it would seem, has feet of clay-but don’t think that she will readily give up her stature.

The director co-adapted her screenplay with Ben Court and Caroline Ip from a novel by Shelia Kohler. I have not read the source book, but the author’s website reveals that one of her recurring themes is to dissect “…the reasons for violence within intimate relationships, in particular, the abuse of power and privilege.”

I can see that in the film; particularly through the character of Miss G.. Green is edgy and effective in the role, particularly in the way she keeps the psycho-sexual Sapphic undercurrents roiling below the surface, poised to explode at any moment (Blanche Dubois as a life coach). This is a promising debut for Scott; if her direction falters, it’s in the film’s pacing; this feels akin to a Masterpiece Theater presentation. Still, I would recommend it for the performances and absorbing story…so  you could say I’m willing to grade it on a curve.

Sonatas for the servile class: The Housemaid **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 12, 2011)

So-are you searching for that perfect date movie? Korean director Im Sang-soo’s The Housemaid would not be my first pick (unless your idea of a “perfect date movie” is, say, Angels and Insects, or maybe Crimes and Misdemeanors). However, if you are in the mood for a stylish mélange of psycho-sexual melodrama, psychological thriller, Greek tragedy and class warfare allegory, this could be your ticket.

An unassuming, angel-faced young divorcee named Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon), who lives in a dingy, low-rent apartment where she shares a bed with her mother, is offered a position as a housekeeper/nanny for a wealthy couple (expectant with twins) with a five-year-old daughter. Eun-yi eagerly accepts the job, exuding an almost child-like wonderment at her new employers’ palatial digs.

Indeed, this family seems to “have it all”. The husband, Hoon (Lee Jung-Jae) is impossibly handsome. Although it is never made clear as to what he does for a living (he leaves the house every day via limo, surrounded by an entourage-but that’s all we know), he definitely carries himself with that self-assured air of a Master of the Universe who is used to always getting what he wants, when he wants it.

His wife Haera (Seo Woo), is young, beautiful, and has “high-maintenance trophy” written all over her. Every night after work, Hoon cracks open a vintage bottle from his wine cellar, and after sitting down to an opulent meal with wife and child, retires to his music room to play classical sonatas (note-perfectly, of course) on a concert grand piano. Now, I can guess what you’re thinking right now-likely the same thing I was thinking: “Oh…that is so much like my life.” But, as a great lady once said (to quote Queen Eleanor, from The Lion in Winter) “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”

There’s one member of the household who knows about all the “downs”. She is the long-time, long suffering elder housekeeper, Byung-sik (Yun-Yeo-Jong) who is giving Eun-yi the crash-course on the family’s quirks. Outspoken and wryly cynical whenever out of the family’s earshot, Byung-sik is like the career master sergeant who knows when to salute and  how much to defer-just enough to make the  captain think he’s the one actually running the company.

In the meantime, Haera and Hoon, while accepting of their new employee, essentially abandon her to Byung-sik’s tutelage and set about ignoring Eun-yi’s presence with that casual, chilly aloofness the filthy rich reserve for the help. Their daughter Nami (Ahn seo-hyeon), on the other hand, reaches out to the new nanny, reciprocated in kind by a delighted Eun-yi (although we are not sure whether this bond can be attributed to the non-judgmental mind of the five year old, or to the innocence of the childlike young woman).

Things appear to be going swimmingly, until late one sultry evening-when Eun-yi is startled awake by master Hoon looming over her bed, sporting that frisky “Speedos and open silk robe” look whilst coddling an open bottle of vintage  (and two glasses). One thing leads to another, and…you can guess the rest. Surprise surprise, Hoon is yet another creepy, arrogant rich prick with an overdeveloped sense of sexual entitlement-but we also learn Eun-yi may not be  as “innocent” as we initially thought. And once the family viper slithers into the pit-the Mother-in-Law (a scenery-chewing Park Ji-young), all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out.

Gosh, one might assume from watching this film that the rich and powerful are generally concerned with little else in this life than remaining so, ever vigilant to decisively quash any threat of exposure or usurpation, no matter who or what gets hosed in the process. Then again-perhaps I’m projecting my own world view as to where the root cause of all sociopolitical evil lies…sometimes a psychological thriller is just a psychological thriller.

At any rate, writer-director Sang-soo (who based his screenplay on the eponymous 1960 Korean thriller, swapping the personalities of several principal characters) has fashioned an involving (if a little slow on the boil) entertainment. The Grand Guignol in the film’s climactic scene, capped by an enigmatic fade-out may prove a dream for some, a nightmare for others. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.