Tag Archives: On Politics

Oliver Stone looks back, and to the Right: W ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 18, 2008)

Two of America’s finest actors.

No one has ever accused Oliver Stone of being subtle. However, once audiences view his highly anticipated film concerning the life and times of George W. Bush, I think the popular perception about the director, which is that he is a rabid conspiracy theorist who rewrites history via Grand Guignol-fueled cinematic polemics, could begin to diminish. I’m even going to go out on a limb here (gulp!) and call W a fairly straightforward biopic.

Stone intersperses highlights of Bush’s White House years with episodic flashbacks and flash forwards, beginning in the late 60s (when Junior was attending Yale) and taking us up to the present day. I don’t think a full plot summary is necessary; if you are a regular Hullabaloo reader, you know the story all too well: Alcoholic son of Texas oil millionaire stumbles through early adulthood, gets into Yale (eventually Harvard) through the back door, marries a librarian, then discovers his Special Purpose after helping Poppy become President.

Thanks to the savvy guidance of a homunculus sidekick he dubs as “Turdblossom”, he is elected as the governor of Texas (twice) and then finds God, who informs him personally that he is destined to become President, because He has a Special Mission for him. Turns out that his Special Mission is to fight the Evil Doers where they live, after they stage a terrorist attack on America. Trouble is, there seems to be some confusion as to exactly where they live. In the meantime, he’ll need to bitch slap that Bill of Rights (just a little), for our protection.

Best supporting performance?

I’m not saying that Stone doesn’t take a point of view; he wouldn’t be Oliver Stone if he didn’t. He’s already catching flak for the screen time spent dwelling on Bush’s battle with the bottle (the manufacturers of Jack Daniels must have laid out serious bucks for the ubiquitous product placement ). Bush’s history of boozing is a matter of record.

Some are taking umbrage at another one of the chief underlying themes of Stanley Weisner’s screenplay, which is that Bush’s angst (and the drive to succeed at all costs) is propelled by an unrequited desire to please a perennially disapproving George Senior. I’m no psychologist, but that sounds reasonable to me.

Live, from New York…it’s Saturday Night!

As usual, Stone has assembled a massive cast with a bazillion speaking parts. His choice of Josh Brolin for the lead initially struck many people as an odd selection (including yours truly), but now that I have seen the film, I have to say it was a smart move.

Brolin is nothing short of brilliant. He doesn’t go for a cartoon caricature, which would have been the easy route to take; I think he pulls off a Daniel Day Lewis-worthy “total immersion” quite successfully. It is interesting to note that Brolin (tangential to Junior) has been accused of riding into a Hollywood career on the coattails of his dad (James Brolin) and stepmother (Barbara Streisand); if Stone chose his leading man with this in mind, he is a very canny operator.

Some of the other standouts in the cast include Toby Jones as Karl Rove, James Cromwell and the great Ellen Burstyn as President and Mrs. Bush Sr., Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell and Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney. Wright and Dreyfuss play off each other beautifully while recreating Cheney and Powell’s tiffs. Scott Glenn isn’t given an awful lot to do as Donald Rumsfeld, but he has the evil squint down.

The only casting misfire is an overly mannered Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice; it is like she dropped in from an SNL sketch. Perhaps it is not entirely her fault, as there’s so much prosthetic on her face, she can barely move her lips.

Perhaps I should qualify something. When I called this a “straightforward” biopic, I was speaking in relative terms. You have to keep in mind that in one respect, Stone is boldly going where no filmmaker has gone before. PT 109 aside, this is the only biopic about a president to be released while he is still sitting in the Oval Office; and since the former film dealt with JFK’s WW2 exploits, and not his actual presidency, that makes Stone’s film even more unique.

Another hurdle is the fact that the Bush administration has probably been satirized, parodied and ridiculed (via print, blogosphere, TV, film, theater, comedy club, YouTube, T-shirt, billboard, and water cooler chat) more than any other presidency in my lifetime (not that they haven’t asked for it in every way imaginable). This zeitgeist makes it virtually impossible for someone to make a “serious” biopic about W. By playing it straight, Stone is really being subversive (clever boy!).

If the Bush administration had never really happened, and this was a completely fictional creation, I would be describing Stone’s film by throwing out one-sheet ready superlatives like “A wildly imaginative look at the dark side of the American Dream!” or “A vivid, savage satire for our times!” But you see, when it comes to the life and legacy of one George W. Bush and the Strangelovian nightmare that he and his cohorts have plunged this once great nation into for the last eight years, all you have to do is tell the truth…and pass the popcorn.

Too much heaven on their minds: Religulous ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 4, 2008)

Did you make mankind after we made you?
And the devil too!
-Andy Partridge

 “Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic. -Douglas Adams

 I’ve always been a bit of a fence-sitter when it comes to religion. Undoubtedly, this is due to the fact that I was begat by a Jewish woman from Brooklyn and a Protestant man from Ohio (I can hear long-time readers now: “That explains a lot“).

Thank the deity du jour that my folks never endeavored to push me into one belief system or the other. To me, the conundrum of “Torah or Bible?” holds about the same academic import as pondering “Paper or plastic?” I’m not an atheist, nor an agnostic. If pressed, I might admit that I’m a cautiously optimistic pan-spiritualist.

I believe robots are stealing my luggage. –Jack Handey

I just believe in me. Yoko and me. –John Lennon

And I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days. –Ron Shelton

“Logic” is the antithesis to any manner of fundamentalist belief. Setting off on a quest to deconstruct fundamental religious belief, armed solely with logic and convincing yourself that you are going to somehow make sense of it all, ironically seems like some kind of nutty fundamentalist belief in and of itself. But that’s exactly what star Bill Maher and director Larry Charles have set out to accomplish in their new documentary, Religulous.

Maher’s “spiritual journey” begins in America’s southeastern Bible belt, highlighted by a round-table discussion with several burly, Cat-hatted worshipers at a roadside truck stop chapel (you couldn’t make shit like this up). Maher gets his first walkout from one of the drivers, who takes major umbrage that Maher is “…disputin’ my God.” Fair enough. But as Maher says with a shrug after the fellow stalks out, “I’m just asking questions.”

Another highlight is a visit to a Christian theme park in Orlando Florida, where Maher trade a few good-natured jibes with Jesus. Well, a Jesus impersonator, who is the star of what appears to be some kind of Bronco Billy road show-style reenactment of the crucifixion.

My favorite scene occurs in London’s Hyde Park. Maher disguises himself in Ignatius J. Reilly garb (complete with ear flaps) and begins spouting a hodgepodge of tenets that are lifted verbatim from Scientology, Mormonism and the Witnesses. This gathers a crowd of bemused onlookers, naturally, who all seem convinced that Maher is just another crazy street person railing nonsensically at an unfeeling universe. Juvenile methodology, perhaps, but one can’t dispute that it seems to back up Maher’s frequently voiced assertion that unquestioning, dogmatic belief is a form of mental illness.

The journey culminates in Jerusalem, where Maher grills Orthodox Jews and Muslims. Perhaps not so surprisingly, Maher quite noticeably tones down his customary smug mode, particularly when visiting a sacred mosque (well, can you blame him?).

 Maher is no stranger to controversy. In his various guises as actor, comedian, political satirist, author, and talk show host, he has managed to push a lot of buttons, proving himself to be a full spectrum, equal opportunity offender. It’s his special power. But what I found most interesting about the film is that Maher himself is not necessarily “mocking” religion here, although I know that he and Charles will be accused of doing so and roundly vilified by the self-righteously pious and the small-minded.

To be sure, some of the fringe interviewees and their belief systems are milked for laughs; but Maher’s roots are in stand-up comedy, so naturally he’s not going to pass up an opening. It’s reflexive. These people make themselves look ridiculous, so mocking them is redundant. I think Maher and Charles are smart enough to figure that out. A similarly perceptive grasp of the state of the American idiocracy was what made Borat (Charles’ collaboration with comic genius Sacha Baron Cohen) such a brilliantly incisive satire.

The film is timely. Maher brought up a good point on The Daily Show earlier this week. When he mentioned Sarah Palin’s staunch Christian stance, Jon Stewart countered that Barack Obama claims to be deeply religious as well, to which Maher replied, “I hope he’s lying.” My sentiments exactly. Because, as Maher went on to point out, when anyone runs for president in the “United States of Stupid” (Maher’s words) they have to trawl votes by toeing the spiritual line.

It’s a given that McCain is paying lip service to piety, and I’d like to assume Obama isn’t some kind of secret crazy fundamentalist. But Palin? She is dangerous. I know that Digby, Dday and Tristero have been warning us about this from the get-go, but it is encouraging to hear someone saying it on a high profile television talk show. It can’t be said enough. All I can say is- go see this film, and then come November 4, everybody grab their hose and socks…and pray.

Counter-intelligent: Burn After Reading ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 20, 2008)

Attention, K Street choppers.

In an inspired bit of dialog from the new Coen brothers film, Burn After Reading that will surely become oft-quoted, ex-CIA agent Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) goes into an exasperated, paranoiac rant about the “league of morons” in America who have continually conspired to make his life hell. While I was laughing along with everyone else in the audience, part of me was thinking “Well, yeah…I know exactly how you feel.”

 It’s sad. “Stupidity” has become the buzzword in any examination of contemporary American cultural anthropology. It insidiously pervades all aspects of our lives-home life, work life, school life. Television celebrates it-American Idol, America’s Got Talent, American Gladiator, Fox “News”. Preachers and politicians bank on it. As Madge would say, we’re soaking in it. Besides-why crack open a book, when you have text messages to read?

Thank god for the Coen brothers. Perhaps more than any other American filmmakers, they have provided an on-going movie therapy service for those of us who are chronically depressed about the chuckle-headed state of our union. Through films like Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Man Who Wasn’t There and Fargo, the Coens have milked many a sardonic guffaw from the axiom “stupid is as stupid does”. Those films also serve as reminders that if you are dumb enough to believe that you can find a shortcut to achieving your American Dream at the expense of destroying somebody else’s dreams…without karmic payback, then you are even dumber than originally advertised. Whether or not karmic payback exists outside of a movie universe is up for debate, but the possibility makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Burn After Reading signals a welcome return to the type of dark, absurdist cringe comedy that the Coens truly excel at. The story revolves around the aforementioned Osborne Cox, a CIA analyst who decides to “write his memoirs” after quitting his job in an acrimonious huff. The arrogant, misanthropic Cox is a paper tiger bureaucrat who pompously fancies himself more akin to a Robert Ludlum hero. He is certainly less than a hero to his fed-up, no-nonsense physician wife (Tilda Swinton) who is having a torrid affair with a married, sex-addicted treasury agent (George Clooney).

Following the advice of a divorce attorney, Mrs. Cox surreptitiously downloads information from her husband’s hard drive onto a disc, which ends up (through a typically Coen-esque comedy of errors) in the hands of a pair of dim bulb fitness club employees (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt). Mistaking Cox’s memoir notes as some type of coded high-level state secrets, the would-be criminal masterminds cook up a lame-brained scheme that starts as a simple garden-variety blackmail attempt, but somehow morphs into a grand clusterfuck involving the Russian Embassy and nearly every branch of the Beltway’s clandestine community.

The cougar and the slow man.

If that sounds High Concept…it is. But leave it to the Coens to mash up the elements of screwball comedy, door-slamming bedroom farce, spy spoof, political satire, social commentary and self-parody into a perfect cinematic cocktail. The breezy script (penned by the brothers) is tighter than a one-act play, and capped off with a great zinger. It’s a rarity in film these days: an expedient, highly satisfying denouement. In other words, the film neither overstays its welcome nor feels rushed; it wraps up just when it needs to. Setup. Story. Punchline. Callback. You’ve been a great crowd!

Malkovich is in top form; he is a master of the slow burn that builds into manic apoplexy. He manages to make these fits of rage both extremely menacing and screamingly funny at the same time; it’s an acting tic that rings of vintage Gene Wilder. It’s a cakewalk for McDormand; it goes without saying that her husband and brother-in-law know more than anyone else on the planet how to best utilize her unique instrument. She and Pitt make a great comedic tag team, and it’s easily Pitt’s funniest performance since Snatch.

This is the third outing with the Coens for Clooney, and he appears to have their quirky rhythms down to a science. Swinton seems to have the most thankless role (she’s mostly required to just glower and fume) but it is interesting to see her reunited with her Michael Clayton co-star. Veteran character actors J.K. Simmons and Richard Jenkins round off the fine ensemble cast quite nicely. As a follow-up to last year’s No Country for Old Men, which was a much more somber and thoughtful piece, Burn After Reading may feel like a relatively superfluous toss-off, but it’s a perfect salve for election season weltschmerz. So as your fake physician, I prescribe that you buy two tickets, and call me in the morning.

The comedies of terror: Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay *** & Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 3, 2008)

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They say that tragedy plus time equals comedy. In the 2005 film, The Aristocrats, a documentary about the “filthiest joke in the world”, there is a fascinating bit of footage from the 2001 Friar’s Club Roast for Hugh Hefner, which took place just after 9/11. Gilbert Gottfried launched into  a bit about the attack. Within moments, he was being roundly catcalled by cries of “Too soon!”

Mind you, this was a room full of professional funny people, who make their living from irreverence. But that was then. I don’t know if I should laugh or cry  that we currently have two films  that glibly incorporate 9/11 into their titles: Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay and Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? Has the War on Terror been slogging on for that long? Yes, it has.

In 2004, a modestly-budgeted stoner comedy, with a juvenile title and two unknown leads, became an unexpected cult phenomenon. Arguably, the most surprising thing about Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle was that, between the bong hits, sex gags and scatological references, there lurked an undercurrent of sharp sociopolitical commentary about racial stereotyping in America (for the uninitiated, Harold and Kumar are portrayed by a Korean-American and Indian-American actor, respectively)

The movie was gut-busting funny, and in a fresh way. The film’s co-creators, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Scholssberg, now officially turn their baked slacker heroes into a sort of Cheech and Chong franchise for millennials with the release of a politically topical sequel, Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay.

The events of the first film occurred just “last week”.  Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) are excitedly packing their bags for a dream European vacation in weed-friendly Amsterdam. Unbeknownst to Harold, Kumar has smuggled his new invention, a “smokeless” bong, on board their flight. Since it is a homemade, cylindrical device containing liquid, it resembles a You Know What.

When a “vigilant” passenger, already eyeballing Kumar with suspicion due to his ethnic countenance, accidentally catches a glimpse of him attempting to fire up his device in the bathroom, all hell breaks loose. Before they know it, Harold and Kumar have been handcuffed by on-board air marshals, given the third degree back on the ground by an overzealous, jingoistic government spook (played to the hilt by The Daily Show alumnus Rob Corddry) and issued a pair of orange jumpsuits, courtesy of the Gitmo quartermaster.

Through a serendipitous set of circumstances that could only occur in Harold and Kumar’s resin-encrusted alternate universe, they manage to break out, and hitch a boat ride to Florida (don’t ask). This sets off a series of wacky cross-country misadventures, mostly through the deep South (imagine the possibilities).

As in the first film, the more ridiculously over-the-top and unlikely their predicament gets, the funnier it becomes (it’s like being really stoned, I mean, from what I’ve been told-ahem). And once again, the duo’s Doogie ex machina appears just in time to lend a much-needed hand, in the person of “Neil Patrick Harris” (played with winking, hyper-hetero exaggeration by, erm, Neil Patrick Harris).

I will admit that my unabashed enjoyment of Hurwitz and Schlossberg’s oeuvre (if I may call it that after only two entries) is a guilty pleasure. Okay, so we’re not talking Coppola or Scorsese here. And I’ll grant you, H & K films can be crass, even vulgar at times; but it’s somehow good-naturedly crass and vulgar, in a South Park kind of way. I see a lot of parallels between Hurwitz and Schlosberg’s work and the output of South Park creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker.

Both teams serve up their social and political satire slyly cloaked by the  silly behavior of their (literally and figuratively) cartoon-like protagonists. You can get away with subversive anarchy when your polemic is delivered “from of the mouth of babes”. At the end of the day, Harold and Kumar are classic “innocents” at heart, as are South Park’s little potty-mouthed darlings. Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay may not be everybody’s bowl of Columbian, but I’ll be goddamned if it ain’t the funniest film I’ve seen so far this year.

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I wish I could say the same for the latest from documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), who I like to refer to as “Michael Moore lite”. Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? is an admirably earnest, if flawed attempt by the likeable Spurlock to reach out to the “everyday folks” living in the Middle East and show Americans that they’re really just like us, after all; you know- “people are people”, and all that. Oh, and while he was there, he thought he might get some leads on where Osama’s bin hidin’.

Spurlock’s concept for his new film was inspired by his wife’s pregnancy (their first child). While brainstorming proactive steps he could take to ensure a “safe world” for his unborn, he thought he might start by doing his part to end the war on terror-by helping our hapless government locate You Know Who. Using the gimmicky framing device of an ersatz video game to introduce film segments, we follow Spurlock’s progress as he travels to Egypt, Israel, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco in search of the vox populi (and the slippery tall dude with the walkie-talkie).

With the exception of a few cranky customers, like a radical Muslim cleric with a vitriolic demeanor and a Charlie Manson glare , most of Spurlock’s subjects express variations on “I really don’t have any truck with the American people, but I do hate your government with the intensity of a thousand suns.” Proving of course, that they really are like us (well, those of us who have been paying close attention for the last seven years). And, naturally, the response to queries on bin-Laden’s whereabouts is usually a shrug and a laugh, or a vague point in the direction of the border they share with a neighboring country.

My favorite response is from a hard-scrabbled Afghani tribesman who counters, “Who’s ‘Osama’?” When the interpreter tells him: “He’s the one who destroyed the buildings in America”, the old codger  testily snaps: “Fuck him.” Then, as an afterthought, before turning on his heel to dive back into his motley hut, he adds: “And fuck America”. That’s my kind of guy, a real pragmatist.

There are some other genuinely funny moments that temper the underlying grimness. For instance, a high ranking official in Tora Bora (location of the infamous subterranean HQ for bin Laden in Afghanistan) speaks enthusiastically of his proposed plan to turn the caves into a tourist attraction (I think there’s an idea for a Mel Brooks movie in there somewhere). Spurlock is to be admired for keeping a straight face throughout this particular interview.

Unfortunately , Spurlock’s  loses credibility  in two specific scenes. The first takes place in Tel Aviv, where Spurlock and his crew are stonewalled (and nearly stoned) by a group of ultra-orthodox Jews (Haredim, I believe, from their clothing). Spurlock mugs an annoyingly self-righteous “why are they persecuting me?” look at the camera while he’s being shoved about; as if he assumes that the viewer will find these angry men with hats very amusing.

Some sects of orthodox Jews are a very strict, closed society and wary of strangers (not unlike the Amish and the Mormon polygamist sect), so naturally they are not going to be too crazy about an outsider shoving cameras and microphones in their faces. What did he expect? I’d like to think Spurlock is smarter than that, especially when the message of his film is allegedly about reaching out to bridge cultural misunderstandings, as opposed to creating new ones.

The other scene occurs during the Saudi Arabia segment. Spurlock interviews two teenage male students. After giving disclaimers that the two interviewees were  handpicked by the school staff, and that two school officials insisted on being present during the interview, Spurlock precedes to pepper the boys with incendiary questions.

The anxiety and fear is palpable on the young men’s faces; they nervously glance off camera where the school observers are  positioned before answering each question with a variation on “I have no opinion on that.”  Granted, this may be  Spurlock’s point; but by this point, he has already established Saudi Arabia is a draconian oligarchy; what’s he trying to prove by shooting fish in a barrel?

You could call this a mixed review. If you got a kick out of Super Size Me, or his TV series 30 Days, you may be more forgiving of Spurlock’s trespasses in the film. Maybe I’m just being over-sensitive, and others may not glean the same subtext from the particular scenes I found objectionable. To be fair, I did laugh a lot, and as I stated earlier, I applaud the inspiration behind the film. Let’s call it a draw.

The Cost(Co) of conflict: War, Inc. **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 21, 2008)

In star/producer/co-writer John Cusack’s pet project War, Inc., one character delivers a throwaway line that must surely have been the pitch for the film: “This is like Strangelove in the desert.” Indeed, one senses the ghosts of savage satires past, like Dr. Strangelove, The President’s Analyst, Network and Winter Kills in this topical send-up of BushCo and the post-9/11 ‘murcan zeitgeist. Unfortunately, one also senses a lack of cohesion in an initially smart script that soon loses focus and goes tumbling ass over teakettle into broad farce, wildly firing its barbs in too many directions at the same time.

Cusack’s character is Brand Hauser, a hot-sauce chugging hit man with a tortured past who seems to be an amalgam of Jason Bourne, Captain Willard and, um, Chuck Barris. He has been dispatched to “Turaqistan” (ahem), a war-torn Middle Eastern hot spot ripe for reconstruction and corporate exploitation. He is there to terminate the country’s Oil Minister (Lyubomir Neikov) with extreme prejudice. The minister is a spanner in the works for the corporate machinations of Hauser’s employer, a former Vice-President turned CEO (Dan Ackroyd, doing a credible quacking Cheney) who now heads Tamerlane (a cross between Halliburton and Blackwater).

The prospect of spearheading the “first completely out-sourced war” appears to make the ex-Veep harder than Chinese arithmetic. In order to get close to his target, Hauser poses as the event coordinator of a Tamerlane-sponsored trade fair being held in the capital city’s “green zone”. Hauser’s front soon proves to be the tougher gig, as he juggles the demands of three women: his fellow operative posing as his P.A. (Joan Cusack), a tenacious lefty journalist (Marisa Tomei) and a petulant pop diva named Yonica Babyyeah (Hilary Duff). Hilarity ensues.

Reportedly, the filmmakers have coyly denied that this is an unofficial sequel to Grosse Pointe Blank, but obvious comparisons abound, particularly in just about every scene that the Cusack siblings share; it feels at the very least to be a nod and a wink to the roles they played in that movie. Admittedly, it is great fun watching those two working together again, but it only serves as a momentary distraction from the film’s uneven tone.

Director Joshua Seftel does his best to hold it together, and manages to give the film a slick look that belies a low budget. Cusack was inspired to tackle the project after reading an article written by Canadian journalist/activist Naomi Klein back in 2004 (Tomei’s character is, I would assume, based on Klein). He enlisted the help of two talented co-writers, Bullworth scripter Jeremy Pisker and satirist Mark Leyner. However, this may be a case of “too many cooks” and could explain the screenplay’s scattershot approach.

I don’t mind an occasional brushstroke of symbolism in a film, but there are one too many instances in War, Inc. where it’s caked on with a trowel. One set piece in particular, a flashback scene showing Hauser in a violent, gladiatorial confrontation with his former boss (an even hammier than usual Ben Kingsley) takes place in a dilapidated theme park that looks to have been a replica of ancient Rome. It’s the end of the world as we know it!

I think the malady here is similar to that which plagued Lions for Lambs: an overdose of intent. Redford’s film came on too somber and preachy, even for the choir. War, Inc. swings to the opposite extreme; it’s too manic and overeager to beat us over the head with what we already know: Iraq is a shameful mess, Bush and his cronies have completely blurred the line between war and commerce, and the majority of the American public is too busy watching the sun rise and set over Britney’s thighs to really notice. I’m afraid that War, Inc. is another case of “I really wanted to like this, but…”

The Edge is Still Out There: Gonzo, the Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 12, 2008)

No fun to hang around
Feeling that same old way
No fun to hang around
Freaked out for another day
No fun my babe no fun

 -The Stooges

 “No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won’t hurt.”

 -Hunter S. Thompson

It’s been just over three years now since the godfather of gonzo journalism eschewed his beloved typewriter to scrawl those words with a magic marker, four days prior to pulling a Hemingway. Ever the contrarian, Thompson couldn’t resist adding a twist of gonzo irony to his suicide note, by entitling it “Football Season is Over.”

Since then, several quickie “tell-all” books have played Monday morning quarterback with the life and legacy of the iconoclastic writer, with what one would assume would be a wildly varying degree of accuracy. That’s because Hunter S. Thompson was a mass of  contradictions. His work was imbued with DFH political idealism and tempered by full commitment to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll; yet he loved to collect guns, blow shit up and counted the likes of Pat Buchanan among his personal friends. I don’t envy his biographers.

In Gonzo: the Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson, director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room) may have discovered the right formula. He takes an approach as scattershot and unpredictable as the subject himself; using a frenetic pastiche of talking heads, vintage home movies,  film clips, animation, audio tapes and snippets of prose (voiced by Johnny Depp, who has become to Thompson what Hal Holbrook is to Mark Twain). While Gibney keeps the timeline fairly linear, he does make interesting choices along the way-and equally interesting omissions (e.g., Thompson’s formative years are given the bum’s rush).

Gibney begins with the 1966 book Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, which first established Thompson’s groundbreaking style of journalism (as one interviewee observes, he essentially “embedded” himself with the notorious motorcycle gang). An overview of his Rolling Stone reportage ensues, highlighted by the assignment that resulted in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. There’s a fascinating account of how Thompson’s bacchanalian propensities caused him to blow his coverage of the Ali-Foreman bout in Zaire, posited by Gibney as the first inkling that personal excesses were starting to affect HST’s ability to consistently knock one out of the park with each piece.

A lion’s share of the film is devoted to two particular chapters of Thompson’s life: his quasi-serious run for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado and his coverage of the 1972 presidential elections (which provided fodder for Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72).

The segment regarding the 1972 campaign is so riveting and well-crafted that I wished Gibney had turned it into a full-length companion documentary. Gibney reveals how the Eagleton VP nomination debacle and resultant death knell for the McGovern campaign was also a crushing blow to Thompson’s personal sense of 1960s idealism, signaling the beginning of an escalating disillusionment and bitterness that would permeate his political writing from that point on. The director also reminds us that Thompson was quite instrumental in bringing then-governor Jimmy Carter into the national political spotlight by championing his 1974 Law Day Speech.

I think political junkies are going to dig this film more than the those chiefly enamored with Hunter S. Thompson’s superficial substance-fueled “rebel” persona. Excepting the depiction of Thompson’s relatively unproductive latter years, spent ensconced in his Colorado compound, too distracted by guns, drugs and sycophants to do little else but slowly disappear up his own legend (like Elvis at Graceland) the director suppresses the urge to play up the public notoriety and revel in the writer’s recreational excesses, just to sell more movie tickets. If you’re expecting a sequel to Gilliam’s film, this is not for you.

The film is not without its flaws; the frequent use of Depp clips from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas becomes distracting and begins to feel like cheating (by contrast, there is only one brief nod to Bill Murray’s turn in Where the Buffalo Roam.) This is a minor quibble, because there are some real treasures here. Devotees will delight in listening to the audio snippets from the original cassettes that Thompson made while cruising through the Nevada desert with his attorney, as well as the recording of a shouting match between the writer and his long-time collaborator Ralph Steadman while they were in Zaire (let us pray that the DVD will bonus more from those priceless tapes).

This is not a hagiography; several ex-wives and associates  make no bones about reminding us that the man could be a real asshole. On the other hand, examples of his genuine humanity and idealism are brought to the fore as well, making for an insightful and fairly balanced overview of this “Dr. Gonzo and Mr. Thompson” dichotomy. What the director does not forget is that, at the end of the day, HST was the most unique American political commentator/ social observer who ever sat down to peck at a bullet-riddled typewriter.

Bastard. We could sure as shit use him now.

Arise, Commie Pinko Hollywood Lefties: Reds (****) & The Internationale (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 17, 2007)

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Every time I see our illustrious VP’s mug on the tube or hear mention of Halliburton, I always flash on my favorite scene in Warren Beatty’s Reds. Early on in the film, the story’s protagonist, journalist/activist/Communist Party member John Reed (Beatty), is at a meeting of Portland’s Liberal Club, where discussion has turned to the current war in Europe (WWI). Reed is asked what he thinks the conflict is “about”. Reed stands up, simply mumbles one word, then promptly sits right back down. The word: “Profits”. The crystalline brevity of that answer blew my (then) twenty-something mind back in 1981.

Indeed, it is a testament to Beatty’s own sense of conviction and legendary powers of persuasion (or as Tom Hanks put it, repeatedly, at the recent Golden Globe Awards, “Balls”) that he was able to convince a major Hollywood studio to back a 3 ½ hour epic about a relatively obscure American Communist (who is buried in the Kremlin, no less).

As we know now, of course, the film turned out to be a critical success, and garnered a dozen Oscar noms (it won three, including Best Director). Almost unbelievably, it was not released on DVD until late 2006. If you haven’t seen it in a while, or have never seen it-you owe yourself a screening, particularly if you are a history buff.

Diane Keaton turns in one of her best performances as Reed’s lover, writer and feminist Louise Bryant. Maureen Stapleton (who we sadly lost last year) earned her Best Supporting Actress trophy with a memorable portrayal of activist Emma Goldman. Jack Nicholson’s take on the complex, mercurial playwright, Eugene O’Neill is a wonder to behold. And Beatty deserves kudos for assembling an amazing group of surviving real-life participants, whose anecdotal recollections are seamlessly interwoven throughout, like a Greek Chorus of living history. No one makes ‘em like this anymore.

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If you really want to make a “subversive” night of it, a certain rousing anthem that figures prominently in the Reds soundtrack is the sole spotlight of another recent DVD release. Blending archival footage with thoughtful commentary, The Internationale takes a look at the origins and historical impact of the eponymous political anthem, from its 19th century roots in the French Commune movement to Tienanmen Square and beyond, packed into a breezy 30 minutes.

Arguably one of the most idealized (and frequently misinterpreted) rallying songs ever composed (just the melody alone gives me goose bumps), the tune has been embraced by Socialists, Marxists, anarchists, anti-Fascists, workers and labor activists alike over the years, transcending nationalist and language barriers. The most interesting aspect the film examines concerns the bad rap the song received after it was “officially” adapted by the oppressive, post-revolutionary Soviet regime. Pete Seeger (a perfect choice, no?) emcees the proceedings, with support from historians, musicologists, and multinational participants (veteran and current) in some of the aforementioned movements. British punk agitprop troubadour extraordinaire Billy Bragg also makes a brief appearance. C’mon everybody! You know the words…

That aside, Mrs. Lincoln…what did you think of the play? – Death of a President **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 28, 2007)

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Picture if you will: Sometime in the near future (October of 2007 to be precise), President Bush makes a trip to Chicago for some speechifying and political schmoozing. As his motorcade nears the site of a scheduled luncheon, it runs into a gauntlet of agitated demonstrators. When the crowd unexpectedly breaches the police line, all hell breaks loose; there is a moment where the POTUS appears to be in danger before things get back under control.

The President is whisked off to his luncheon, he makes his speech, and decides afterwards to work the ropes and shake hands with supporters for a few minutes before heading out (much to the chagrin of his Secret Service detail). Suddenly, gunfire erupts and the President crumples to the ground.

This is the audacious opening scenario of British writer-director Gabriel Range’s speculative political thriller Death of a President, now on DVD. While in its initial (and sparse) theatrical release, it invoked some amount of controversy; primarily knee-jerk reaction from those who assumed this was going to be some type of sick Bush-hating liberal snuff fantasy (a conclusion drawn, of course, before they had even screened it).

Setting politics aside for a moment, the film itself turns out to be a somewhat tame and at times downright tepid affair, despite its sensationalist premise. Range utilizes the docudrama technique of blending archival news footage with mixed-media film stocks (a la JFK) to lend an air of authenticity; and indeed the opening sequences depicting the assassination event are chillingly realistic.

The director apparently filmed an actual anti-Bush demonstration in the streets of Chicago, then for the sake of continuity invited some of the same protestors to appear as extras in the fictional motorcade scene (which invites comparisons to Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, in which actors were thrown into the midst of the real-life 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention demonstrator/police skirmishes and told to improvise while cameras rolled).

Unfortunately, by front-loading the gripping assassination enactment and then descending into a more static, History Channel-style blend of talking-head recollections and dramatic re-enactments, Range shoots himself in the foot and removes potential added suspense or dramatic tension (don’t expect The Day of the Jackal). There is a “whodunit” element, but the pacing slows to such a crawl that it’s anti-climactic when the killer is revealed.

The most interesting aspects are the speculations about the post-assassination political climate. And yes, most of your dystopian nightmares about a Cheney-led administration do “come true”, including a particularly foreboding piece of emergency legislation entitled the “Patriot Act 3” (shudder!). There is also a treatise of sorts about the post-9/11 tendency in this country to make “rush to judgment” assumptions about people of color. “Conspiracy-a-go-go” buffs might find this film worth a look; others may doze off.

They’re gonna crucify me: The U.S. vs. John Lennon ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 24, 2007)

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Back in 1972, the U.S. government handed a certain British émigré a rather abrupt eviction notice, informing him and the missus that they had 60 days to get out of the country or face deportation proceedings. This missive might have vanished in the mists of time, had the folks in question not been a couple known to millions as, simply, John & Yoko. And so began a four-year legal battle for legal citizenship, chronicled in a straightforward documentary called The US vs John Lennon, now available on DVD.

You know the back story: After a very public and controversial courtship, John Lennon and Yoko Ono marry in 1969, the Beatles break up, John and Yoko begin making their own headlines with a series of relatively benign political media stunts (the “Bed-In For Peace”, the “Bag-In”, etc.) and then eventually settle in NYC in the early 70’s, at which time they begin to gravitate to the more “radical” politics of the American anti-war movement, much to the chagrin of the Nixon administration.

The apparent final straw for Tricky D. was John and Yoko’s 1972 appearance at a charity concert to help cover legal fees for White Panther Party founder John Sinclair, who had been jailed ostensibly on drug charges, but considered by many at the time to be a political prisoner.

Declassified documents now prove that, from day one, there was direct inter-agency manipulation of John and Yoko’s deportation proceedings, from the FBI all the way up to the Oval Office, resulting in a nearly four-year long persecution that was probably best described by Lennon himself, who referred to the machinations as “Kafkaesque”.

The film features plenty of archival footage, with present-day recollections from the likes of Bobby Seale, John Sinclair, Geraldo Rivera, Noam Chomsky, Ron Kovic, Paul Krassner, George McGovern, and, er, G. Gordon Liddy (guess whose side he’s on).

The most insightful comment comes from the ever-glib Gore Vidal, who, when asked what it was about Lennon that made him such a threat to the Nixon cabal, says: “He (Lennon) represented Life, and was admirable. Mr. Nixon, and (for that matter) Mr. Bush, represent Death, and that’s bad.” (Perhaps an over-simplification, but astute.)

The film is a bit dry in its execution (it was produced by VH-1, which probably explains the rote Behind the Music vibe) but it’s still a compelling story, and an important one. It has much to say about what is going on right now, particularly in regards to the “dissent vs. disloyalty” issue and the dangers of living under an administration that treats the Bill of Rights as a list of “suggested options”. Careful, Junior. Instant karma’s gonna get you.

Ordinary people go to war: Lions For Lambs **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 17, 2007)

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I’m a schoolboy. Teach me.

There are three things I learned from watching Robert Redford’s new film Lions for Lambs. (1) The MSM is in bed with K Street spin doctors (2 ) War is hell, and (3) Apparently, the United States is currently embroiled in some kind of endless Vietnam-like quagmire in the Middle East (I didn’t say I learned anything new, did I?).

Redford casts himself as Vietnam vet/poly sci professor Stephen Malley, who strives to mentor his brightest and most promising students to walk the walk and commit themselves to affecting real political change through active civic involvement. Two of his recent graduate students, Arian Finch (Derek Luke) and Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Pena) have not only accepted his challenge to “get involved”, but upped the ante by enlisting for combat duty in Afghanistan.

Professor Malley feels conflicted; while he admires their integrity, he had secretly hoped the young men would be inspired to use their talents to help change the system that perpetuates the Vietnam and Afghanistan type conflicts, rather than volunteering to become cannon fodder themselves (Gallipoli, anyone?). His current concern this school year, however, is his latest star pupil, Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield) who has sunk into apathy. Todd has been called into the office for a pep talk.

Unbeknownst to the professor, while he is sitting in his office chatting so amiably, his two ex-pupils are taking part in the first wave of a new military strategy to locate and destroy stubborn pockets of Taliban resistance in Afghanistan. Small units of Special Forces troops are being sent in to the most rugged mountain areas to bait the enemy into the open, so they can be easily taken out by tactical air strikes. Cannon fodder, indeed.

The plan is the brainchild of an ambitious, hawkish conservative congressman, Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise, who also co-produced). As the film opens, he is sitting down for an interview with TV journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep). Irving is a rising star in the Republican Party, grooming himself for a presidential bid. The senator has cagily chosen Janine to receive the “exclusive” news on the new military strategy, because he credits her previous coverage with helping to build his  cachet. Janine is apprehensive; she knows she’s being played, but on the other hand no reporter with a pulse can resist an exclusive story. A verbal cat-and-mouse game ensues.

The film is structured around these three scenarios; all the “action” takes place concurrently in a professor’s office, a senator’s office, and a remote mountain ridge in Afghanistan. And that is Lions for Lambs in a nutshell. While the stories are tied together by characters and events, the overall effect is dramatically flat. Redford’s character literally spends the entire film lecturing the passive Todd (a proxy, no doubt, for the hapless audience). The battle scenes are chock-a-block with cliche, boo-ya  Blackhawk Down heroics.

The only real acting sparks are courtesy of la Streep, who has some spirited moments with Cruise. Cruise is OK, though basically playing himself.  In essence, Cruise is reprising a  suspiciously similar scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia,  where he plays an arrogant, egotistical  media star who sits down with a reporter and spins like a dervish. Full disclosure: I am not a Tom Cruise fan (there, I said it).

I really wanted to like this film, really I did. Historically, Redford has proven himself to be a thoughtful and intelligent filmmaker-but I can’t really recommend this one. I applaud his effort to snap our present generation of future leaders out of their video game stupor, challenging them to think hard about what our government is really up to; but if you’re going to rip a story out of today’s headlines and turn it into a movie, you’ve got to give the kids something more exciting to watch than a glorified C-Span broadcast.

It’s a shame, really- because the audience he really needs to reach is going to stay away from this film in droves. At the sparsely attended Saturday matinee screening I attended here in Seattle, I glanced around and found myself essentially looking at fellow choir members, nodding sympathetically while thoughtfully stroking our salt-and-pepper goatees. But are any of us going to rush home and announce our candidacy? Not likely.

Maybe Cruise and Redford would get more mileage out of their film if they arrange showings for high school civics and poly sci college classes (no, I’m not being facetious). Otherwise, the only way you are going to successfully market a film with a sociopolitical message to the Jackass demographic is to follow Sacha Baron Cohen’s lead.