Tag Archives: 2012 Reviews

The winds of Var: The Well Digger’s Daughter ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 21, 2012)

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There is an unbilled co-star stealing nearly every scene in the latest film adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s novel, La Fille du puisatier; it’s the immutable breeze that rustles the verdant forests, fields and groves of France’s Provence region. It’s no coincidence that this is the  same intoxicating locale that informed two of the most acclaimed Pagnol film adaptations, Claude Berri’s Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring. It’s also no coincidence that the first-time director overseeing The Well Digger’s Daughter is veteran actor Daniel Auteuil, who played  one of the major characters in Berri’s 1986 diptych.

Auteuil casts himself as the father of the eponymous young woman. The story begins on the eve of WW I. Pascal is a working class widower with six daughters,  literally scraping to get by. His eldest, 18 year-old Patricia (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) has in essence filled her late mother’s shoes, selflessly devoting herself to attending to the welfare of her father and younger sisters. Patricia is special in another way . When she was 6, a wealthy (and childless) Parisian woman on a countryside visit was so taken with the angelic young girl that she offered to take her back to the city and become her guardian. Seeing this as an opportunity for one of their daughters to have a shot at a better life, her parents agreed. But when her benefactor died, Patricia returned home at 15, now carrying herself with a certain air of refinement that set her apart from her peers.

Patricia’s trifecta of beauty, carriage and saintliness has certainly not been lost on at least two potential suitors. One is Felipe (Kad Merad). Felipe, a kindhearted bachelor in his mid-40s, is Pascal’s closest friend and sole employee (Merad’s characterization reminded me of Karl Malden’s turn as the quietly desperate, romantically awkward but well-meaning Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire). When Felipe begins dropping not-so-subtle hints about his intentions, Pascal gives his blessing, mostly for pragmatic reasons; Felipe’s house is nearby, so he wouldn’t “lose” his beloved daughter, and it would be one less mouth for him to feed. Still, it would be up to Patricia, who, while fond of Felipe, has no romantic feelings for him.

Patricia’s introduction to her second suitor is straight out of Red Riding Hood. While cutting through unfamiliar woods one day to bring some lunch to her father and Felipe at their well dig, she encounters a somewhat over-confident (yet undeniably seductive) young man (Nicolas Duvauchelle) who introduces himself as the son of a local well-to-do store owner. It’s love at first sight; although Patricia doesn’t realize it yet. By the time she does, the young man, a military pilot, is called to serve at the front, and she is left with a child on the way and a disappointed and conflicted father.

If that sounds like the setup for an old fashioned romantic melodrama, you would be 100% correct in that assumption. And I mean that in the best possible way (as I have never had an opportunity to see Pagnol’s own original 1940 film version, which doesn’t seem to be readily available on any home video format, I can’t address comparisons). This is a magnificent “old fashioned romantic melodrama” in the tradition of Ryan’s Daughter; a beautifully acted, sensitively directed, emotionally resonant film, with lushly photographed scenery (by Betty Blue DP Jean-Francois Robin) that becomes a palpable character in the story.

Auteuil plays his Noble Peasant with a sense of aplomb that reminded me more than a little of Gerard Depardieu’s performance as the hunchback in Jean de Florette (I did have to chuckle though, when I recalled the late Pauline Kael’s droll assessment in her review: “…Depardieu wears ‘GOOD MAN’ in capital letters across his wide brow; in smaller letters we can read: ‘He has poetry in his soul.’). As a bonus, Berges-Frisbey (radiantly lovely) and Duvauchelle (vibing the young Alain Delon)  make great eye candy. Tired of superheroes, aliens and car crashes? This is your cure for the summertime blues.

The story of O: Savages **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 7, 2012)

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“Just because I’m telling you this story,” cautions the narrator in the opening scene of Oliver Stone’s Savages, “…doesn’t mean I’m alive at the end of it.” While this may conjure up visions of William Holden floating face down in Gloria Swanson’s swimming pool in Sunset Boulevard, this isn’t Hollywood hack Joe Gillis’ voice we’re listening to; rather it’s a young woman named “O” (Blake Lively). Blonde, Laguna Beach tanned, and, erm, quite “fit”, O could have materialized directly from Brian Wilson’s libido. However, hers is not a happy story of sun and surf…it’s a darker tale about guns and turf.

No stranger to dark tales about guns and turf, Stone takes the ball that novelist Don Winslow tossed him with his 2010 pot trade noir, and not only runs with it, but ratchets it up six ways from any given Sunday; transforming it into Scarface 2.0 for Millennials, with a touch of Jules and Jim. Indeed, it’s only five minutes before he has someone revving up a chainsaw (and not to cut wood). The power tools star in an exclusive (and gruesome) webcast targeting O’s two lovers, Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch).

Ben and Chon are 20-something BFFs who run a thriving business selling weed touted “the best cannabis in the world.” It seems a Tijuana drug cartel, led by a ruthless widow (and prolific widow-maker) named Elena (a scenery-chewing Salma Hayek), wants a piece of their action. Her message is very clear: Use your head, or lose your head.

That sounds like a plan to Ben. A Berkeley alum with a business degree, he’s the brains; idealistic, California mellow, never fired a shot in anger, we can work this out, etc. His bud Chon, an ex-Navy SEAL, is the brawn. Fuck these guys, I’ve already got one in the chamber, let’s rock’n’roll, etc. He is also an Afghanistan war vet, with issues. As O helpfully clarifies in the voice-over, she “…has orgasms,” (when Chon makes love to her) whilst he “…has wargasms.” (And they said Sniglets were dead).

Chon wants to call their bluff. After a meeting with Elena’s negotiator (Demian Bichir) ends in a stalemate, she sends in her enforcer, Lado (Benicio Del Toro) to use more “persuasive” methods. Ben and Chon  brainstorm and continue to play for time, until Lado and his henchmen take O as a hostage. From that point, our intrepid duo decides that when Kush comes to shove, they will not be intimidated; so they  call in favors from a crooked DEA agent (John Travolta) and a few of Chon’s ex-SEAL buddies.

In real life, one suspects that Ben and Chon would end up starring in one of Elena’s snuff videos somewhere around the end of the first act (I’m not even sure they could locate their car after a Phish concert). I know… “It’s only a movie!” But I still advise you be prepared to suspend disbelief regarding what ensues in this rote (if slickly made and beautifully photographed) Elmore Leonard-esque tale  of double-crosses, triple-crosses, and ultimately, a lot of white crosses (although to be fair, Stone’s body count here isn’t  as high as  in Natural Born Killers). All the Stone trademarks are here, except for the passion; not that he’s required to provide political subtext every time out, but this is uncharacteristically joyless film making.

The cast does its best with woefully underwritten parts, but by the muddled third act, everyone’s acting in a different film. Travolta and Del Toro, who usually liven up things, regardless of script quality (especially when playing heavies) look too bored to even go for camp. None of the characters are particularly likable (even our heroine is a whiny ditz). Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the All-Star Dutch Treat quality of Showtime’s Weeds and AMC’s Breaking Bad, but this narrative (independent entrepreneur outwits the big bad cartel) has been done to death…and frankly, with more originality and élan.

Crimes and misdemeanors: Elena ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 14, 2012)

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Life is sustained by the grinding opposition of moral entities.

-Anthony Burgess

It quickly becomes apparent in the opening scenes of Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Elena that you are settling in to watch a film wherein nothing is going to quickly become apparent. He holds a static shot of a tree bathed in the cool light of dawn for what must be at least three minutes. Aside from the cackling of crows, there doesn’t seem to be anything of particular significance going on. Wait a minute…is that a window, beyond the branches? It is, in fact, a balcony window, but we can’t quite see in; the glass only reflects the burgeoning sunrise. And (crows aside) it’s quiet…too quiet. This gives the viewer ample time to ponder: What’s going on behind that window? Are those crows an omen?

Interior shots reveal a decidedly less sinister scenario; a well-appointed luxury apartment, where a plain, unassuming middle-aged woman shuts off her alarm and gets out of bed. Again, the director takes his time, documenting the minutiae of her morning ablutions. Just when we are about to assume she lives alone, she enters a different bedroom, drawing the curtains open to awaken a gentleman who is a number of years her senior. There is minimal verbal exchange.

As she diligently begins to prepare breakfast, new questions arise. Is she his live-in housekeeper? Or maybe a caregiver for an elderly relative? While arguably a bit of both, turns out she’s technically neither. Despite their undemonstrative behavior, they are married. Vladmir (Andrey Smirnov) is an aloof, well-do-do patrician, and Elena (Nadezhda Markina), a retired nurse, hails from a working class background.

Mundane breakfast chat reveals that Vladmir and Elena each have an adult child from previous marriages. Vladmir has a daughter, with who he is rarely in contact with. According to him, she is a self-centered “hedonist”, who “takes after her mother”. Still, he spoils her; sending her money to support her party girl lifestyle. Much to Vladmir’s chagrin, Elena is off after breakfast to visit her son Sergei (Aleksey Rosen). Sergei, who is unemployed, relies on the money Elena funnels him from her monthly pension check to support himself, his wife, infant and teenage son.

Vladmir, despite his wealth, refuses to give Elena’s son financial support; to him, Sergei is a useless lay about who needs to “get his ass off the couch” and provide for his family. Elena, who has heard this tirade before, absorbs it all with quiet resignation. Then, she’s off on a long slog via bus, train and shoe leather express to just beyond the outskirts of urban renewal, where Sergei and his family live in a drab, rundown beehive apartment complex (which, with its twitchy youth gang skulking about the stoop and trashed, graffiti-scrawled lobby, is reminiscent of the building where Alex and his droogs held their confabs in A Clockwork Orange).

The stark contrast in living quarters, along with Vladmir and Elena’s disparate social backgrounds are metaphors for the central themes of Zvyagintsev’s screenplay (co-written by Oleg Negin): the chasm between the haves and the have-nots, and instinct vs. morality (echoes of Kurosawa’s High and Low). All the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out when Vladmir suffers a sudden heart attack. He is visited in the hospital by his estranged daughter (Elena Lyadova, in a standout turn). Despite her nihilist stance regarding Vladmir’s situation, father and daughter unexpectedly reconcile, inspiring Vladmir to make changes in his will. This decision leads another character to make a moral choice that profoundly changes the family’s dynamics. When this decision occurs, it is so subtle and reflexive that you might miss it; but such is the banality of evil.

Zvyagintsev has served up a complexly flavored filet of dark Russian soul, spiced with a hint of Dostoyevsky, a sprig of Burgess and a dash of Hitchcock. I suppose you could describe his film as a “noir-ish thriller”, but not in the traditional sense. There are no suspenseful musical cues. In fact, save for a solitary Philip Glass piece that makes several brief appearances on the soundtrack, there’s no music to speak of (thankfully, the director is astute enough to realize that a little bit of Philip Glass goes a long, long way). The deliberate pacing could be a deal-breaker for some; I’ll admit I found myself struggling a bit through the first hour or so. But if you are patient, you will come to realize that there is a Kubrickian precision to the construct. And you will finally grok what’s going on behind that window…it’s a primordial dance as old and familiar as human nature itself.

Start the revolution without me: Farewell My Queen **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 28, 2012)

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From family trees the dukes do swing: Farewell, My Queen.

Benoit Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen is the type of period film that critics love, because it gives them carte blanche to drop  descriptive phrases  like “handsomely mounted” and “sumptuously detailed” with abandon. OK, so it is a handsomely mounted, sumptuously detailed period film that achieves verisimilitude by occasionally soiling the hem of its petticoats with (to paraphrase from Monty Python and the Holy Grail) “lovely” (and authentic!) 18th century filth.

That’s exactly what happens when an otherwise poised young lady named Sidonie (Lea Seydoux) goes unceremoniously ass over teakettle while scurrying to attend to the whims of one Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger). The year is 1789, and that would be the same Marie Antoinette who was Queen of France at the time. As any history major would tell you, 1789 wasn’t the best year to have that particular gig. Indeed, it is July of 1789, and there’s a sizable coterie of disgruntled (and filthy!) 99 per centers days away from donning tri-corner hats and brandishing pitchforks to storm the Bastille.

But the Queen currently has more pressing concerns. For example, where oh where is her “finery book”? She’s just had an epiphany for a new dress design, while Sidonie (her personal reader) reads an article aloud to her from a fashion magazine as Marie wistfully ogles the pictures (you have to understand, they didn’t have cable back then). You are probably getting the picture that, despite the fomenting revolution on the streets of Paris, life within the Société Particulière de la Reine is continuing unabated. At least at first glance.

Through Sidonie’s eyes (she is one of the Queen’s primary “ladies in waiting”) we are given an upstairs/downstairs peek at  the doings at Versailles during the waning days of the French monarchy. In the drawing rooms, it’s all curtsies and hushed deference, but as we move farther out of royal earshot and closer to the servant’s quarters, gossip and rumors rule (as well as furtive bodice-ripping).

It’s nearly impossible to observe the disconnect of these privileged aristocrats carrying on in their gilded bubble while the impoverished and disenfranchised rabble sharpen up the guillotines without drawing parallels with our current state of affairs (history, if nothing else, is cyclical). The director seems sharp enough to “know that we know” this already, so he doesn’t hit us over the head with it. His screenplay (co-written by Gilles Taurand) manages to contemporize the emotional life of the characters, whilst managing to avoid the anachronistic conceits that plagued Sofia Coppola’s 2006 misfire, Marie Antoinette.

The film is carried primarily through earthy, believable performances fby Seydoux and Kruger (who also worked together in  Inglourious Basterds). Kruger conveys Marie’s spoiled frivolousness, but avoids broad caricature; there’s a resigned melancholy lurking beneath the veneer, adding an interesting layer to her performance. Kruger’s subtlety is particularly highlighted in a memorable scene where she confides to Seydoux regarding her “special” friendship with Gabrielle de Polignac (a duchess in the Queen’s court rumored to have been her lover). The dialog is strictly innuendo, but Kruger’s delivery and facial expressions say it all (it’s quite reminiscent of Laurence Oliver’s infamous “snails and oysters” conversation with Tony Curtis in Spartacus). This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this story, and it won’t be the last, but somehow…I never tire of watching the oligarchy crumble (pass the popcorn!).

Friedkin knocks one out of the trailer park: Killer Joe ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 25, 2012)

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There’s a hard-boiled American crime film sub-genre one might dub “Texas Noir”, with its roots in the 1958 Orson Welles classic, Touch of Evil.  Other notable examples are Sam Peckinpah’s original 1972 version of The Getaway, Bonnie and Clyde, The Sugarland Express, Wild at Heart, Lone Star, Blood Simple, The Hot Spot, No Country for Old Men, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and The Killer Inside Me. These films reside at the crossroads of sun-bleached adobe and permanent midnight; where a wellspring of deceit and malice burbles and roils just beneath the cowboy charm and a laid-back drawl.

The latest genre entry to hit the multiplex is a blackly funny and deliriously nasty piece of work called Killer Joe, from veteran director William Friedkin. Jim Thompson meets Sam Shepherd (with a whiff of Tennessee Williams) in this dysfunctional trailer trash-strewn tale of avarice, perversion and murder-for-hire, adapted for the screen by Tracy Letts from his own play. This is the second collaboration between director and writer, who teamed up in 2006 for the psychological horror film, Bug (which I have never seen).

Emile Hirsch is Chris, a low-level drug dealer who lives with his abusive alcoholic mother. As if his life wasn’t hellish enough, he’s up to his eyes in debt to a  hood, who is threatening to take it out of his hide. This leaves Chris facing deadline pressure, with a short list of options for quick cash. Not being overly fond of his loutish mama, he decides to kill two birds with one stone by (figuratively) throwing her from the train and cashing in on her $50,000 life insurance policy. While he may not be the brightest piece of charcoal in the BBQ pit, he is savvy enough to realize that this will require collusion.

Enter the family: his mouth-breathing auto mechanic daddy (Thomas Haden Church), slatternly stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) and his Lolita-ish nymphet sister Dottie (Juno Temple), who all live together in a cozy trailer home. They tentatively approve of Chris’ plan to hire a Dallas police detective who moonlights as a hit man (Matthew McConaughey) to do the deed, with the assumption that the insurance will be paid out to Dottie. “Killer” Joe (as our bad, bad cop is known) isn’t happy to learn that Chris doesn’t have the cash retainer. Joe is on the verge of cancelling when the virginal Dottie catches his eye. Hmm…perhaps we can work something out (I told you it was perverse).

While the noir tropes in the narrative may hold few surprises (the requisite red herrings and triple-crosses abound), the squeamish are forewarned that the 76 year-old Friedkin still has a formidable ability to startle unsuspecting viewers; proving you’re never too old to earn an NC-17 rating (I would expect no less from the man who directed The Exorcist, which remains one of the most viscerally unsettling films of all time). That being said, those who appreciate the mordantly comic sensibilities of David Lynch, John Waters or the Coen brothers will find themselves giggling more often than gasping. The real litmus test occurs during the film’s climactic scene, which is so Grand Guignol that (depending on your sense of humor) you’ll either cringe and cover your eyes…or laugh yourself sick.

The biggest surprise is McConaughey’s nuanced work as the creepy, quietly menacing Joe. Frankly, I had written him off as an actor who had been steadily obfuscating fine early-career work in films like Dazed and Confused, Lone Star, and A Time to Kill by accepting relatively unchallenging roles in a forgettable string of boilerplate rom-coms (trust me…you won’t soon forget this film). Gershon camps it up with a cartoonish rendering of a trailer park cougar, but that’s what makes her character so entertaining.

Newcomer Temple (daughter of British director Julien), is a revelation. She and McConaughey plunge fearlessly into a seduction scene that recalls controversial moments from Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of Cape Fear (involving Robert De Niro and Julliette Lewis) and Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (Eli Wallach and Carroll Baker’s infamous “porch swing” exchange, which earned the 1956 film a “condemned” rating from the Catholic church’s Legion of Decency).

Judging by the umbrage taken by disgruntled audience members at the screening I attended, Friedkin’s enigmatic fadeout may leave some viewers feeling “cheated”, but those “old enough to remember” will get a chuckle out of the director’s obvious in-jokey homage to his vintage classic, The French Connection (well, that’s my theory). Granted, Killer Joe may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but if you’re seeking uncompromising, non-formulaic, adult fare…have a sip.

Postcards from the dreamtime: Samsara ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 8, 2012)

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Though the Christian view of the world has paled for many people, the symbolic treasure-rooms of the East are still full of marvels that can nourish for a long time to come the passion for show and new clothes. What is more, these images — be they Christian or Buddhist or what you will — are lovely, mysterious, and richly intuitive.

-Carl Jung

In 1982, an innovative, genre-defying film called Koyannisqatisi quietly made its way around the art house circuit. The piece (directed by Godfrey Reggio, photographed by Ron Fricke and scored by Philip Glass) was generally received as a transcendent experience by admirers and dismissed as New Age hokum by detractors. The title is taken from the ancient Hopi language, and describes a state of “life out of balance”. There are likely as many interpretations of what it’s “about” as there are people who have viewed it; if I had to make a generalization, I’d say it’s about technology vs. nature. Reggio followed up in 1988 with Powaqqatsi (a more political entry illustrating Third/First World disparity) and the slick yet curiously uninvolving sequel Naqoyqatsi in 2002.

Cinematographer Fricke has since become a director in his own right; most notably with his 1985 IMAX short Chronos, and the 1992 theatrical length feature Baraka. The latter film is frequently mentioned in the same breath as Koyannisqatsi; while it shares some themes and (obviously) a very similar visual aesthetic, Baraka stands on its own. The title is a Sufi term that roughly translates to “a blessing”, and indeed, this globe-trotting cultural/anthropological journey was more pan-spiritual in nature than Reggio’s film; proving that Fricke had his own unique vision. Taken as a whole, all of the aforementioned films form a sub-genre I have dubbed the “Jungian travelogue”; a narrative-free collage of mesmerizing and thought-provoking imagery (natural and man-made) that jacks the viewer directly into humankind’s collective unconscious (or…not).

For those familiar with the director’s oeuvre, Fricke’s latest film, Samsara (currently in limited release) may initially unfold like a “greatest hits” collection of somewhat familiar imagery. Languidly paced scenes of Buddhist rituals? Check. Joshua trees silhouetted against a time-lapsed night sky? Check. Hyper-accelerated time-lapse sequences mirroring the dizzying pace of a mindless consumerist society going nowhere fast? Check. And so on. The title is a Sanskrit term signifying “the ever turning wheel of life”. And appropriately, Fricke plays “pick up sticks” with the spokes, leaving it up to each individual viewer to reinvent their own wheel, as it were. In other words, if you just “turn off your mind, relax and float downstream” (as a great English poet advised) there is as much here for a thinking person to ponder as there is to savor.

Or, if you prefer to enjoy it on aesthetic terms, I think the film (much like its predecessors) works fine as pure cinema; a visual tone poem that intoxicates all the senses. Be forewarned, however, that it isn’t all soothing images (animal lovers in particular should be advised that there are scenes filmed in a Chinese poultry processing plant that are potentially upsetting). If you have an opportunity to catch it on the big screen, I would highly recommend you do so; this is one of the most beautiful looking films of 2012. Interestingly, it was shot in 70mm, but the 65mm negative was scanned to DCP, enabling exhibitors to project it in hi-res 4k format. The results are stunning.

And again, don’t feel pressured to “connect the dots”, because there will not be a pop quiz afterwards. At the end of the day, whether you interpret the film as a deep treatise on the cyclic nature of the Omniverse, or see it merely as an assemblage of pretty pictures, doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. I think the director drops us a clue early on in the film, as we observe a group of Buddhist monks painstakingly creating a sand mandala. At the end of the film, we revisit the artists, who now sit in silent contemplation of their lovely creation. This (literal) Moment of Zen prefaces the monks’ next project-a ritualistic de-construction of the painting. And yes Grasshopper, it is a very simple metaphor for the transitory nature of beauty, life, the universe and everything. But, as they say, there’s beauty in simplicity. Take the wheel, for example…

Strange bedfellows: Grassroots *** & True Wolf ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 23, 2012)

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Seattle politician in native habitat: Grassroots.

There aren’t many political biopics that open with the candidate-to-be dressed in a bear suit and screaming at traffic. But then again, there aren’t many cities I have lived in that have a political climate quite like Seattle. I’ve never forgotten what a standup comic pal (and long-time resident) told me when I first moved to the Emerald City 20 years ago. “Don’t let anybody bullshit you about how ‘hip’ or ‘metropolitan’ this town is,” he advised, “…Because it will always be Mayberry with a Space Needle.”

A case in point would be the brief but colorful political career of Grant Cogswell, which has provided fodder for a film from director Stephen Gyellenhaal (yes, acting siblings Maggie and Jake are his progeny). Cogswell (Joel David Moore) was an unemployed music critic (a polite term for “slacker”) with no prior political experience, who made a run for a city council seat back in 2001. His unconventional grassroots campaign was managed by his friend and fellow political neophyte Phil Campbell (Jason Biggs). The film opens with Campbell getting fired from his gig writing for The Stranger (Seattle’s long-running alt-weekly hipster rag). “You can’t get any lower,” a self-pitying Campbell whines to his live-in girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose). What’s he to do with all his time now?

The answer soon arrives when he is roped into joining his eccentric pal Grant on a quest to unseat incumbent councilman Richard McIver (Cedric the Entertainer). Cogswell sees McIver as the quintessential self-serving politician in bed with the Big Money Boys; in this case emptying city coffers for an ambitious light rail project, when the answer to Seattle’s traffic congestion has been right there in front of everybody since the 1962 World’s Fair: the monorail. Why not expand this cheaper, green-friendly “…super-ass modern transportation system”? Launching his campaign armed with this “electro-strategy”…they’re off to the races.

While political junkies may take umbrage that Gyllenhaal’s screenplay (co-written with Justin Rhodes and based on Campbell’s campaign memoir Zioncheck for President) takes a broad approach by favoring the kookier elements of the story, I think most viewers will find his film engaging. The cast’s energy and enthusiasm is palpable, and whilst Gyllenhaal’s film lacks the verbal agility and pacing of, say, The Great McGinty (particularly with lines like “Politics, bitches!”), he seems to be channeling Preston Sturges at times. I think it was wise for Gyllenhaal to eschew the political minutiae; otherwise he may have ended up with something of little interest to anyone besides Seattleites. In fact, the best thing about this film is that it (dare I say it?) renews your faith in the democratic process. In these cynical times, that is a good thing.

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Canis lupus in unnatural habitat: True Wolf.

It’s often said that “politics makes strange bedfellows”, but have you ever heard of a “wolf ambassador”? Before I screened Rob Whitehair’s modest but engrossing new documentary True Wolf, I certainly hadn’t. A cross between Born Free and Never Cry Wolf, Whitehair’s film tells the story of how a wolf named Koani became an environmental activist (in a manner of speaking) and touched the lives of thousands. Born into captivity, Koani was raised by Montana couple Bruce Weide and Pat Tucker, who co-founded Wild Sentry: The Northern Rockies Ambassador Wolf Program back in 1991. The star of the show was Koani, who traveled around the country with Tucker (and the family dog) to appear at schools and museums. Together, they helped dispel common misconceptions about wolves.

The film mixes newer interviews with footage culled over the 16 years of Koani’s life, which was both a trial by fire and labor of love for her empathetic human “parents”. Ever cognizant of the inherent “wrong” (no matter how noble one’s intentions) in keeping such a magnificent wild creature enclosed or on a leash, Weide and Tucker nonetheless overcame the challenges and found a way to truly make Koani’s life matter, and it makes for an amazingly moving story. Whitehair balances the political side of the tale (which recounts the couple’s involvement in the uproar over wolf reintroduction to the Northern Rockies) by also giving screen time to detractors. The film also gives food for thought regarding the striking commonalities between wolves and humans, begging two key questions: a) who is living on whose turf, anyway? And, b)…can’t we all just get along?

Angst in my pants: Dark Horse ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 4, 2012)

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Lowered expectations: Blair and Gelber in Dark Horse

“Why does one decide to marry? Social pressure? Boredom? Loneliness? Sexual appeasement? Love? I won’t put any of these reasons down…Last year, I married a musician who wanted to get married in order to stop masturbating…He is now separated, still masturbating, but he is at peace with himself because he tried society’s way.”

 -the wedding minister in Little Murders (screenplay by Jules Feiffer)

Todd Solondz loves to make his audience uncomfortable. I can’t imagine anyone sitting through a film like Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness or Storytelling without squirming in their seat, grinding their teeth or occasionally putting their hand over their eyes and daring themselves to peek. And what is it that the viewer is afraid of looking at? It’s not what you may think. It’s not an axe murderer, lurking in the closet. It’s not someone being doused with gasoline and set ablaze or having their fingernails pulled out one by one. No, it’s much, much worse than that. Because there is nothing that human beings fear coming face to face with more than…human nature. Or the Truth. Because the Truth is…life is nothing like the movies. Paradoxically, Solondz’s films are a lot like life.

Refreshingly, his latest film, Dark Horse, does not induce the usual amount of squirming and grinding and daring yourself to peek. Not that it lacks the dark comedic flourishes that have become the director’s stock in trade, but it actually toys with sweetness and light. Sort of a twisty, postmodern art house re-imagining of Marty, the story centers on Abe (Jordan Gelber), a portly thirty-something nudnik who lives with his parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow, worth the price of admission right there).

Abe works for his father, collects action figures and doesn’t have any aspirations. You sense in Abe an undercurrent of angst and desperation, likely exacerbated by constant doting from his over-protective mother and verbal drubbing from his hyper-critical father. Abe also harbors a seething resentment toward his brother (Justin Bartha), a successful doctor.

Yes, Abe is a man-child…in the most petulant, cringe-worthy sense (which makes him a typical Solondz protagonist). Yet, he sees himself as a catch; a “dark horse” waiting to be discovered by some lucky lady (perhaps one who finds a delusional thirty-something man who works for his dad, collects toys and lives with his parents to be devastatingly attractive). Still, Abe registers genuine surprise when Miranda (Selma Blair), a lovely thirty-something woman he meets at a wedding, gives him her phone number after a few minutes of meaningless chatter.

Of course, there is a catch. She’s completely nuts (and lives with her parents, too). She’s so profoundly depressed (and heavily medicated) that she can barely hold a conversation. However, she is startled from her psychotropic haze when Abe proposes marriage during their first date (“You’re not being ironic…like performance art or something?” she asks). Abe assures her that he is being dead serious.

From this point onward, the viewer begins to wonder if maybe it is the filmmaker who is being ironic…like performance art or something? Without giving too much away, we become uncertain whether some events are occurring in the protagonist’s reality, or in his imagination. Gelber (who reminds me of the late Jack Weston) imbues his troubled character with enough vulnerability to invite empathy, yet spikes the punch with a fair amount of edgy unpredictability (lest we get too comfortable).

Blair slyly pinpoints the sweet spot between funny and sad with her deadpan performance, and Walken’s magnificently gauche toupee deserves its own star billing. Solondz has fashioned something akin to a modern Jewish morality tale, in the tradition of Jules Feiffer, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Mordecai Richler (Could Solondz be their heir apparent?). He’s also delivered a thought-provoking treatise on life, love and death. While he doesn’t let anyone completely off the hook (including the audience), he slips enough humanity and compassion into the mix to make the Truth a little bit easier to swallow this time around.

Scott goes Kubrick (ish): Prometheus **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 16, 2012)

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My God, it’s full of stars: Michael Fassbender in Prometheus

I really need to get this out of the way first. “From the director of Blade Runner.” Really? Really, marketing mavens at 20th Century Fox? That’s your best tag line? I think we both know that Mr. Scott is not likely to concoct another genre film as perfect in its seamless blend of hard sci-fi and existential noir. That counts as his “Sorry, only one per career” grant from the Movie Genie. Besides, virtually no one makes that kind of sci-fi anymore: just enough CGI to render a futuristic tone, yet on the whole, believably organic. You’re setting the bar way too high. So don’t tease. OK…I feel better now. On with the review.

 As we teeter on the cusp of the movie season I  call Big, Dumb & Loud, hope may have arrived for sci-fi geeks. It is in the form of the latest film from director Ridley Scott, returning to the universe of the “Alien quadrilogy” (his own franchise kickoff Alien, James Cameron’s Aliens, David Fincher’s Alien 3 and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection) with a prequel called Prometheus. Does it live up to the hype? Since I coughed up top dollar to see it (in 3-D IMAX), I feel justified in paraphrasing J.R.R. Tolkien: I liked half of it half as well as I should have liked, and less than half of it as well as it deserved. And if that is akin to saying that it isn’t as good as 2001: a Space Odyssey, yet not as bad as Plan 9 From Outer Space, well…then so be it.

Not unlike 2001, Scott opens his film with An Enigmatic Yet Profound Event. Through an impressively mounted bit of CGI wizardry, we observe a humanoid creature making like a 17-year cicada on the banks of a roiling, primeval river (I can say no more). Flash-forward to 2093 and our introduction to the primary players, the majority of whom are tucked away in stasis pods on the good ship Prometheus, currently nearing the end of its deep space journey to an obscure moon. Their caretaker is HAL 9000…I mean “David” (Michael Fassbender), an android employed by the corporation that owns the ship and is funding the mission. As the humans groggily emerge from their hibernation, the makeup of our intrepid team comes into focus.

In addition to the requisite AI character, and in strict accordance with the Alien series template, there’s the Prickly Yet Pragmatic Ship Captain (Idris Elba) and the Corporate Weasel (a very strict Charlize Theron). The remainder of our pod people turns out to be field scientists of various stripes; including a biologist (Rafe Spall, son of Timothy) and a geologist (Sean Harris). The scientific arm of the crew is being led by two archaeologists (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green), who have sold their corporate sponsors on the idea for the expedition based on the commonality of “star maps” they discovered among the relics of several otherwise unrelated ancient Earth cultures. All roads lead to the aforementioned moon.

Also in accordance with the Alien universe, the team stumbles across Something Probably Best Left Undisturbed. But you know scientists, they always have to touch (as Buckaroo Banzai once sagely advised: “Don’t tug on that. You never know what it might be attached to”).

While Prometheus is imbued with a vibe similar to his 1979 film (thanks in large part to the visuals by DP Dariusz Wolski, whose previous credits include darkly atmospheric sci-fi/fantasy thrillers like The Crow and Dark City), Scott has largely eschewed the classic horror film tropes in this outing; opting for a more ambitious script (by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof) that tackles bigger themes.

In other words, he isn’t providing an “origin story” that merely serves to explain the alternate Alien universe; he’s suggesting an alternate version of mankind’s origin story ( What does it all mean?). As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that he’s taken on more than he can handle in 2 hours. Perhaps the problem is that Scott is beholden to his Alien universe, and that for the disappointing finale, he fully acquiesces to the season of Big Dumb and Loud.

There are positives. Performances are solid; Rapace (the ‘Ripley’ character here) displays an ability to flex her instrument beyond the indelible persona she created as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Fassbender brings subtle complexity to his android that transcends the material he’s given to work with. From a technical standpoint, I have no complaints. Scott is a filmmaker with a deep grasp of filmic language; he meticulously composes every frame (I consider his 1977 debut, The Duellists, second only to Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon as cinema’s most visually stunning period piece).

That said, you still have to tell a cohesive story, and this one is all over that star map. There’s also too much dialog devoted to spelling everything out for the audience. Sometimes it’s good to leave a little mystery (why do you think that 44 years after its release, people are still debating the “meaning” of 2001?). As Rod Serling said, sci-fi is “…a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind.” What Serling (and Kubrick, and Tarkovsky) knew, and what Scott may have forgotten, is that while the best sci-fi has a lot of imagination behind it, the best sci-fi also  leaves a lot to the imagination.

Behold a pale orc-The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 29, 2012)

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With hindsight being 20/20 (as my gaffer used to say) it seems that Peter Jackson has been running the chalk backwards. The Hobbit or There and Back Again (published in 1937), J.R.R. Tolkien’s first foray into his wondrously immersive world of “Middle Earth”, is a straightforward fantasy-adventure novel. At 300 or so pages, it’s just right for a stand-alone film adaptation.

Adapting Tolkien’s subsequent Lord of the Rings trilogy for the screen, on the other hand, is a more challenging undertaking. The three volume tome is not only a darker, more intricate affair, full of vividly imagined scenarios and rich characterizations, but rife with meticulously annotated genealogies and scholarly referenced “histories”. Hence, it is a logical candidate for a 3-film adaptation.

As anyone not living in a cave with Gollum over the past decade knows, Jackson went for the (massively successful) trilogy first, starting with The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001. Now if Jackson was truly going sequentially, he should have begun with The Hobbit. Given the movie making technology available when principal filming on LOTR began (1999), he could have produced a serviceable, stand-alone 3-hour film .

I suppose this is my long-winded way of addressing Jackson’s controversial (well, among the geeks who care about this sort of thing) creative choice to s-t-r-e-t-c-h his film adaptation of The Hobbit into three films, to be released over just as many years. I imagine that cynics will be quick to point out the obvious financial benefits Jackson stands to reap by milking the franchise, but considering LOTR’s combined earnings to date of nearly 3 billion dollars…I don’t think he’s necessarily doing it “for the money”.

No, I have a different theory, which gets back to my original point about movie making technology. I’m no psychologist, but I believe that Mr. Jackson is suffering from GLTS (George Lucas Tweaking Syndrome). I think he’s looking at the exponential leaps and bounds in motion-capture, CGI and 3-D technology that have occurred since he wrapped the trilogy, and he’s thinking to himself, “Damn, I could have used those latest bells and whistles on LOTR…well, I can’t go back in time, but I’ll still show James Cameron and the rest of them a frickin’ hi-res, 3-D trilogy full of orcses and hobbitses, my prreciouss!”

Lest you begin to wonder if I’ve decided to turn my review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey into a three-part post, spread out over just as many Saturday nights, this seems just as good a time as any to actually begin the review (for those of you patient souls who haven’t clicked out of this 500 word-and-counting snore fest yet). You see, in a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit…OK you already know that part. So, you remember old Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) from the LOTR films? While he does have a cameo here, this story centers on the young Bilbo (Martin Freeman), and his first major “adventure” beyond the boundaries of his beloved Shire.

Just as awaits his nephew Frodo  in the future, the agoraphobic Bilbo is ripped from his comfort zone by one Gandalf the Wizard (a returning Ian McKellen, not looking a day over 637). Soon after a cryptic heads up from Gandalf about  some out-of-town pals who might drop by the crib , Bilbo finds no less than 13 ravenous dwarves descending on his formidably-stocked pantry like locusts. And no sooner can you say “we’re off on a quest”, Bilbo has been sweet-talked into signing on as a “burglar” to help alpha dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his dirty dozen reclaim the house of his faddah from the evil dragon squatter, Smaug.

While the director and his co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro have been careful to preserve most of the characters and creatures featured in Tolkien’s original story (including orcs, wargs, trolls and a goblin king who looks like Jabba the Hut’s first cousin with a tremendous goiter issue) they’ve also tossed a few new ones into the mix (how else are they going to embroider what I assume is destined to become the number one 11-hour bong, pizza and Blu-ray marathon of choice in 2015?).

I’m not sure yet how I feel about the Pale Orc, a heavy who seems destined to play the One Armed Man to Bilbo’s Dr. Richard Kimbel, glomming on to him and his dwarf buds like a bad suit all the way to the goddam Lonely Mountain (admittedly it’s been quite a while since I read the book, but I’m fairly sure he’s new). At any rate, until such time as someone heroically cleaves him in twain in a sequel, I guess I’ll live with it. The real scene-stealer in this outing is Andy Serkis, returning as the younger version of the creature Gollum, who has his fateful first encounter with one of those “filthy Bagginses”.

There have been grumblings in some corners about the film being a little “cutesy” compared to its predecessors; aside from a goofily choreographed housecleaning scene where I half-expected the merry dwarves to break into a rendition of “Whistle While You Work” I didn’t see it. What I did see was a story with a surprising amount of heart, especially when one considers how easily the undeniably dazzling technical wizardry involved in bringing Tolkien’s universe to life could overshadow the flesh and bone performances.

That being said, there are some real knockout set pieces, especially if you opt for seeing the film in the high-res 3-D presentation. The best eye-candy sequence involves Rivendell, which here looks like the kind of place I could really settle down with Cate Blanchett and raise a couple of half-elven kids (I can always dream, can’t I?).