Allow me to demonstrate: Chicago 10 ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 22, 2008)

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A modern revolutionary group heads for the television station.

-Abbie Hoffman

 In September of 1969, Abbie Hoffman and fellow radical activists Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner were hauled into court along with Black Panther Bobby Seale on a grand jury indictment for allegedly conspiring to incite the massive anti-Vietnam war protests and resulting violent mayhem that transpired in the Chicago environs during the 1968 Democratic Convention. What resulted is arguably the most overtly political “show trial” in American history.

Scarcely a day after I went to see Brett Morgen’s new documentary, Chicago 10, which recounts the events leading up to the “police riots” in the streets, the tumultuous convention itself and the subsequent trial of the “Chicago 7”, I saw this story on the local TV news here in Seattle and thought to myself, “Yippee!”…

TACOMA, Wash. – About 150 people — those opposed to the Iraq War and those supporting it — gathered noisily outside a Tacoma Mall office building on Saturday. A group known as World Can’t Wait had organized an anti-war protest to mark the coming fifth anniversary of the Iraq War. But long before their protest was scheduled to begin, counter-protesters arrived.

The counter-protesters surrounded an office building that houses military recruiting offices, which anti-war protesters had said they planned to “shut down.” They shouted “God bless our troops” and waved American flags. As the two groups faced off, dozens of police officers, including some in full SWAT gear, served as a buffer zone. They formed a human line to divide the groups. But there were no arrests or injuries. The two groups shouted insults at each other and waved posters and flags. The demonstrators shouted insults at each other and each side attempted to out-yell the other side.

“They don’t appreciate our soldiers and what they do for our freedom,” said Cheryl Ames. “I am on this side because I do not agree with the way the war started,” said Tommie CeBrun. Protesters held up photos of Iraq detainees tortured at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. They also laid out 281 pairs of shoes on the sidewalk in front of the building, including 81 pairs of combat boots that carried tags bearing the name of a U.S. military member killed in Iraq who listed Washington as his or her home state. The protesters said the 200 pairs of shoes represented the 200-to-1 ratio of the Iraqi-to-American death rate.

But the act was met with a volley of insults. Warnings for military families to avoid the mall had been circulating for days, since some recent protests, including one at the Port of Olympia, have seen increased violence. Meghan Tellez and her children planned to avoid the mall. Her husband is in the Navy Reserve. “I love that mall, but I don’t want my children around that,” she said.

 Up against the mall, motherfucker.

 Yes, it’s been nearly 40 years to the day since the tumultuous 1968 Democratic Convention, but it would seem that the more things change, the more they stay the same; which is all the more reason that you need to rush out and see Chicago 10 immediately.

First, let’s solve the math story problem that addresses the disparity between the film’s title and the conventional “Chicago 7” reference. There were originally 8 defendants, but Bobby Seale was (for all intents and purposes) “banished” from court early in the proceedings after heated verbal exchanges with presiding judge Julius Hoffman. After draconian physical restraint methods failed to silence him (Seale was literally bound, gagged and chained to his chair at one point), Judge Hoffman had him tossed out altogether.

His crime? Demanding his constitutional right to an attorney of his choice, for which he eventually served an unbelievable 4 year sentence for contempt (“unbelievable” in the pre-Gitmo era). The group’s outspoken defense attorneys, William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, also rubbed the judge the wrong way and were cited for contempt  (although they never did time). Hence, the answer is “10”.

Using a mélange of animation, archival footage and voiceover re-creation by well-known actors, Morgen expands even further on the eye-catching multimedia technique that he and co-director Nanette Burstein used in their 2002 doc The Kid Stays in the Picture.

The bulk of the animated sequences are re-enactments from the trial , with dialog from courtroom transcripts (no rewrites were required, because you couldn’t make this shit up). This visual technique perfectly encapsulates the circus atmosphere of the trial, which was largely fueled by Hoffman and Rubin’s amusing yet effective use of “guerilla theater” to disrupt the proceedings and expose what they felt to be the inherent absurdity of the charges. The courtroom players are voiced by the likes of Nick Nolte (as prosecutor Thomas Foran), Jeffrey Wright (as Bobby Seale) and the late Roy Scheider in full “fuddy-duddy” mode as Judge Hoffman.

Do not, however, mistake this film as a gimmicky and superficial “cartoon” that only focuses on the hi-jinx. There is plenty of evidence on hand, in the form of archival footage (fluidly incorporated by editor Stuart Levy) to remind us that these were very serious times. In one memorable clip, the normally unflappable Walter Cronkite, ensconced in the press booth above the convention arena, shakes his head and declares the situation in Chicago to be tantamount to “…what could only be called a police state”.

Interestingly, the iconic, oft-used footage of reporter Dan Rather being manhandled by security officers on the convention floor is conspicuously MIA; Morgen seems determined to avoid the conventional documentary approach in order to give us a fresh perspective on the story. The footage of the Chicago police wildly bludgeoning any and all who crossed their path (demonstrator and innocent bystander alike) still has the power to shock and physically sicken the viewer. There is a protracted montage of this violence that seems to run on for at least 10 minutes; sensitive viewers may find this sequence particularly upsetting.

For once, a film about the “turbulent 60s” does not feature “Fortunate Son” by CCR, “Get Together” by the Youngbloods or (most notably) “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield (you can always re-watch Forrest Gump if you wish to wallow in trite 60s clichés). Rather, appropriately incendiary music by Rage Against the Machine, The Beastie Boys and Eminem infuses seamlessly with well-chosen period songs from Black Sabbath (“War Pigs”), Steppenwolf (“Monster”) and the MC5 (“Kick Out the Jams”).

I understand that Steven Spielberg is currently in pre-production on a dramatized version of the story, written by Aaron Sorkin and tentatively titled The Trial of the Chicago 7. Rumor has it Sacha Baron Cohen will play Abbie Hoffman, which is a perfect match on many levels (if someone can prove to me that his alter-egos “Ali G” and “Borat” don’t have deep roots in the political guerilla theater of the 60s, I’ll eat my Che cap). With the obvious historical parallels abounding vis a vis the current government’s foreign policy and overall climate of disenfranchisement in this country, I say the more films about the Chicago 7 trial that are out there, the merrier.

If I have any quibble with Chicago 10, it is a minor one. Although some of us are old enough (ahem) to remember the high-profile media coverage of the trial and grok the circumstances surrounding it, a little hindsight analysis or discussion of historical context would have been helpful for younger viewers. But perhaps Morgen wanted to steer clear of the usual clichés, like parading a series of talking heads with gray ponytails, sentimentalizing and waxing poetically about the halcyon days of yore. Besides, if you “remember” the 60s, you probably weren’t there anyway, right?

Men with puns: Military Intelligence and You! ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 22, 2008)

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As both Groucho Marx and George Carlin have famously (and astutely) observed, the phrase “military intelligence” may very well be the ultimate oxymoron. Writer/director Dale Kutzera takes that concept one step further in a unique film that has been simmering on the festival circuit since 2006, but is currently making a round of limited runs around the country. Military Intelligence and You! cleverly mixes the political satire of Dr. Strangelove and the skewering lunacy of Catch-22 with the film parodist sensibilities of Mel Brooks and the Zucker brothers to deliver a volley of not-so-subtle allusions to the current administration’s all-to-real comedy of errors at home and abroad since 9/11.

Seamlessly incorporating film clips from vintage B&W movies and historical archive footage with newly shot narrative (a la Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid and Zelig), Kutzera  creates a faux-WW2 military training film, circa 1944. The “film” is replete with the stilted dialogue, over-the-top melodrama, uber-patriotism and jingoist stance that one expects in a government-sanctioned wartime propaganda production. It is lorded over by a ubiquitous Narrator (Clive van Owen) whose delivery falls somewhere between a vintage Ed Herlihy newsreel and the droll voice-over in Dr. Strangelove.

The story is divided between the intrigue taking place at an army intelligence HQ and the ordeals of a downed and captured bomber crew in a Nazi POW camp. Back at HQ, intelligence officer Major Nick Reed (Patrick Muldoon) is convinced of the existence of a Super Secret German Fighter Base that has been launching damaging sneak attacks on Allied bomb squadrons headed for Germany. Reconnaissance missions have failed to produce evidence of these weapons of mass destruction, and Reed is having a tough time convincing his colleague, Major Mitch Dunning (Mackenzie Astin) and their superior, General Jake Tasker (John Rixley Moore) that this Nazi “ghost squadron” airfield even exists. The only one who has faith in him is his trusty aide/ex-squeeze Lieutenant Monica Tasty (Elizabeth Ann Bennett, spoofing Lauren Bacall and Veronica Lake).

Meanwhile, back at the POW camp, our intrepid fly-boys are teaching us the “Dos and Don’ts” of dealing with Gestapo interrogators, whilst the narrator duly notes whose example we should be following and whose we shouldn’t (like the guy who spills the beans after letting the commandant liquor him up in front of a cozy fire…that’s a definite no-no!).

Most of the real WW2 era training film footage (taken from a War Department film called “Resisting Enemy Interrogation”) is folded into the POW camp narrative. The rest of the film is seasoned with well-selected scenes from vintage Hollywood WW2 action movies, which infuses Kutzera’s modestly-budgeted production with an impressive roster of “supporting” stars like William Holden, Alan Ladd, Elisha Cook, Jr. and Van Heflin. There is also a notable appearance by a young and particularly gung-ho fighter pilot by the name of Ronald Reagan, who really gives it to those evil empire builders-with a purposeful squint and a pair of hot blazing barrels.

Although it is a one-joke premise, I found it a very amusing one. Kutzera’s script will  likely not age as well as Terry Southern’s  has for  Dr. Strangelove…but for now, it’s on target. For instance, the narrator refers to Pearl Harbor several times, but never mentions it by name. It is referred to as “the events of 12/7” or simply “12/7”. At one point, General Tasker lowers the threat level from “orange…to tangerine.” Major Reed gives Lieutenant Tasty a pep talk, urging her to go shopping; otherwise “the evil doers win” . Not all of the laughs rely on the nudge-nudge wink-wink ; every time the fictional German city of “Riboflavin” was mentioned, I fell out of my chair. Then again, I still find the running “blucher!” gag in Young Frankenstein hysterical. What the hell-I’m easy.

Some viewers might find all the anachronistic references to our current political situation a little too smug and overly obvious, but you know what? I think people need to be hit over the head with these kinds of allusions right now, even if it comes in the guise of a goofy little 78 minute film that will lose its topical relevance a year or two down the road. And for all of our sakes, let’s pray that it does, starting next Inauguration Day.

Sayles of August: Honeydripper ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 1, 2008)

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Lord, I’m goin’ to Rosedale, gon’ take my rider by my side

We can still barrelhouse baby, on the riverside.

 -Robert Johnson, Traveling Riverside Blues

 In his latest film, director John Sayles transports us back to the deep south of the early 1950s, evoking the earthy poetry of the Delta, outfitting it in shades of August Wilson and transferring it to the screen. Essentially a languidly paced folk tale, set in an Alabama backwater called Harmony, Honeydripper rolls along, slow and steady, like a glass bottle sliding up a steel string, and is easily his most engaging ensemble piece since Lone Star.

Surrounded by cotton fields, adjacent to a small military post and connected to the rest of the world by a lone train station and a few dusty country roads, the town of Harmony is classic Mythic South, all the way. This is a place where black and white residents each literally live on their respective “side of the tracks”.

The “Honeydripper” is the name of a ramshackle music club on the edge of town (um, down by the crossroads) run by a barrel house piano player named Tyrone “Pine Top” Purvis (Danny Glover). As the film opens, Purvis and his business partner Maceo (Charles S. Dutton) are scrambling to stay one step ahead of the debt collectors. Purvis has been losing business to a neighboring juke joint, due to his curious aversion to hiring guitar acts or acquiescing to the jukebox.

Enter a young, wispy railroad tramp named Sonny (Gary Clark, Jr.) who blows into Harmony on the night train, with little more than the clothes on his back…and a guitar. The next morning, in search of a gig, he finds his way to the Honeydripper, where Purvis feeds him breakfast, then politely shows him the door, suggesting that he might have better luck finding a job at one of the local cotton plantations.

Unfortunately, Sonny is soon intercepted by a corrupt county sheriff (a hammy Stacey Keach, veritably oozing Eau de Peckerwood) who runs a hustle “arresting” drifters for vagrancy and then indenturing them to local plantation owners for a kickback.

In the meantime, the reluctant Purvis is talked into booking a New Orleans guitar legend, Guitar Sam, for a “one night only” appearance, with the hope that the draw will bring in enough money to stave off the landlord’s threat to pull the plug on his lease. However, when Guitar Sam fails to show up at the train station on the morning of the heavily promoted show, the situation starts to look pretty grim. Then, Purvis remembers the young guitarist; a light bulb appears and…well, I think you know where this is going.

Honeydripper is rife with many of Sayles’ pet themes, such as family ties, culture clash, tests of faith, class warfare and local politics. Like all good folk tales, Honeydripper has an elemental narrative structure (not to be confused with “simplistic”). When he is operating at full tilt, Sayles’ strengths as a screenwriter lie in his canny gift for perceptive, true-to-character dialog and in his ability for drawing rich characterizations.

His penchant for  leisurely  pacing occasionally backfires (Silver City and Sunshine State were uncharacteristically flat; and I literally dozed off during the interminable Men With Guns) but when he’s “on” (City of Hope, Passion Fish, Baby It’s You, Brother From Another Planet, Limbo, Lone Star) there are few of his American indie contemporaries that can touch him. You can add Honeydripper to the latter list.

Sayles captures the sultry southern atmosphere to a tee, thanks in no small part to the excellent DP work by British cinematographer Dick Pope (who has worked on most of Mike Leigh’s films). The director’s distinctive feel for regional Americana and sharp eye for period detail (evidenced previously in Matewan and Eight Men Out) is on form here as well.

Per usual, Sayles employs a sizeable cast, and every speaking part, large or small, is well written and fleshed out. Glover and Dutton are both wonderful actors, and do an excellent job; newcomer Clark makes a splash in an impressive film debut. Real life blues guitarist Keb’Mo’ does a memorable turn as a cryptic, somewhat spectral character who pulls double duty as a tangential narrator and Greek Chorus for the tale.

In another bit of inspired stunt casting, singer Mable John appears in a brief role as the Honeydripper house act (she was a backup singer for Ray Charles and is the sister of blues great Little Willie John). There’s good support as well from Lisa Gay Hamilton, Mary Steenburgen and Vondie Curtis-Hall. Fans of blues, gospel and roots rock ’n’ roll will dig the music performances, and Sayles aficionados will not be disappointed.

If it’s Tuesday, this must be a Boschian nightmare: In Bruges ***

By Dennis Hartley

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

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It’s hard to believe, but it’s been 14 years since Pulp Fiction was unleashed on an unsuspecting public. So what can we glean from this  factoid? What hath Tarantino wrought? For one thing, the genre tag “hit man comedy” is now officially part of the cinematic lexicon. And, by the looks of things, (love it or loathe it) it is here to stay.

The latest example is a film that reportedly, er, knocked ‘em dead at Sundance  and is currently n theaters-Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges. A pair of Irish hit men, Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell) botch a job in London and are exiled to the Belgian city of Bruges, where they are ordered to lay low and await judgment on their cock-up from their piqued Dublin employer (Ray Fiennes).

Ken is enamored by the “fairy tale” ambience of Bruges, with its intricate canals and well-preserved medieval architecture, and decides to play tourist. The ADD-afflicted Ray, on the other hand, fails to see the appeal of “old buildings” and would just as soon plant himself in front of a pint for the duration of his purgatory.

Initially, Ken lures the reluctant Ray into joining him for sightseeing with the promise of pub time afterwards. However, it becomes evident that Ray lacks any discernible social filter, displaying a general disregard for local mores and folkways. Ken decides that the best way to stay low profile would be to let Ray pass time as he wishes.

In order to avoid spoilers, I won’t elaborate, other than to say that Ray wanders off and finds himself a love interest and enjoys escapades like a coke binge with a “racist dwarf” while Ken is thrust into a moral and ethical dilemma that fuels the dramatic turn of the film’s final third. Toss some heaping tablespoons of raging Catholic guilt, existentialism 101 and winking Hieronymus Bosch references into the mix, and voila! (The Sundance crowd swoons…)

So what exactly has McDonagh cooked up here? Well, as much as I’d like to be able to tell you that it’s “an original dish”, I’d have to call it more of a “sampler plate” featuring a generous wedge of Tarantino and tidbits of Guy Ritchie, sprinkled with a taste of Brendan Behan.

If you’re a fan of dark (very dark) Irish humor, you’ll likely get a few decent chuckles out of playwright McDonagh’s brash and brassy dialog (and marvel at his creative use of “fook” as a noun, adverb, super verb and adjective).

Unfortunately, the humor doesn’t fold so well into the mix with the generous dollops of dramatic bathos and queasy violence. Also, some of the more decidedly un-PC jokes fall terribly flat (I realize that nothing is sacred in comedy, but referring to obese people as “elephants” and a dwarf as a “short-arse” is not what I consider groundbreaking, cutting-edge humor).

That said, there are some strong performances, almost in spite of the film’s uneven tone. Gleeson and Farrell vibe a Laurel and Hardy dynamic together that works very well; you almost expect the doughy, exasperated Gleeson to exclaim “Well, it’s another fine mess you’ve got us into this time!” every time Farrell throws gas on the fire with a Tourette’s-like outburst.

Farrell has not previously impressed me as a nuanced performer, but in this film he proves to be quite deft at navigating the tricky waters of black comedy.

Gleeson, a world-class actor, is superb as always. Fiennes, who seems to be channeling Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast (by way of Michael Caine) goes way over the top with his archetypal caricature of a “hard” Cockney gangster, but he appears to be having a grand old time just the same.

I had an “OK” time on my little Belgian excursion with Ray and Ken; and the location filming does make for a great travelogue, as Bruges truly is a beautiful city-but In Bruges may not be the ideal cinematic getaway for all tastes. A guarded recommendation.

Out here in the fields: There Will Be Blood ****

By Dennis Hartley

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

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In the audacious opening shot of his magnificent, sprawling, demented epic, There Will Be Blood, director P.T. Anderson presents us with a tracking shot of a vast expanse of rocky, desolate scrub land, scored by an ominous, discordant drone. When the camera (literally) disappears down a hole, we are introduced to the protagonist, a lone, shadowy figure, chiseling away at the subterranean rock wall of a derelict well with a fierce, single-minded determination.

There is nary a word of dialogue uttered during the ensuing 15 minutes; yet through the masterful implementation of purely cinematic language, we are given a sufficient enough glimpse so as to feel that we may already have some inkling of what it is that drives this man, even though we do not yet even know his name.

Stylistically, this scene recalls the prologue for 2001: A Space Odyssey. What we witness in the film’s introduction may not be quite as profound as Kubrick’s rendering of “the dawn of man”, but it does put the spotlight on something just as primeval. It is something that is buried deep within the capitalist DNA-the relentless drive to amass wealth and power through willful exploitation and opportunism (hey, don’t knock it- it’s what made this country great!)

Flash forward a few years, and we find that our mystery man has made a name for himself in the midst of California’s turn-of-the-century oil boom. The ambitious Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) has moved up from prospecting for precious metals to leasing tracts of land for the oil drilling rights. He is well on his way to becoming very wealthy. He did not get to this place in his life by being a nice guy (who does?).

He is a bachelor; but in order to give an impression as a sincere “family man”, he totes a young orphan along to business meetings, who he introduces as his son (not unlike Ryan and Tatum O’Neal’s con artist team in Paper Moon). In his worldview, you are either with him, or you are his “competitor”. In fact, Plainview is the quintessential lone wolf, having very little tolerance or use for people in general, unless they can help further his agenda.

Plainview’s biggest payday arrives in the form of a furtive and enigmatic young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), who walks out of the desert  with a hot tip about a possible oil field beneath his family’s central California ranch land. Everything appears to be going swimmingly until Plainview crosses paths with Sunday’s twin brother Eli (also played by Dano) a fire and brimstone evangelical who sees his family’s business partnership with Plainview as a potential cash cow for building up his ministry. The relationship between these two characters forms the heart of the story’s conflict.

Plainview and Sunday are in reality two peas in a pod; they both employ their own fashion of charlatanism and manipulation to get what they want. They circle each other warily, grudgingly accepting that they need each other to achieve their goals. Plainview sees himself as an empire builder, and promises the milk and honey of economic prosperity to sway the landowners to his way of thinking.

The unhinged Sunday envisions himself as a prophet, and uses the lure of eternal life and the theatrics of faith healing to win over his followers. He clearly sees (plainly views?) Plainview as the Devil; this is suggested in one of the film’s most stunning visuals, where Anderson frames Day-Lewis in ominous silhouette against the hellish backdrop of an oil well fire, recalling the image of Chernabog in the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment from Fantasia. It is significant to note that when we are first introduced to Plainview, he emerges from underground (the Underworld?). The resulting pissing contest between prophet and profiteer makes for a compelling tale.

The story spans thirty years; culminating on the eve of the Depression, by which time the obscenely wealthy but completely soulless Plainview has morphed into a reclusive Charles Foster Kane type figure, alone in his mansion. The film’s jaw-dropping climatic scene is destined to be dissected and argued over by film buffs for some years to come.

The story is rich in allegory; especially in the character of Plainview, who is the very personification of the blood-soaked history of profit-driven expansionism in America at the turn of the century (and it must be said that the particular brand of puritanical religious zealotry represented by Sunday has been responsible for its fair share of damage throughout U.S. history as well).

I was reminded, oddly enough, of the excellent documentary The Corporation, in which the filmmakers build a psychological profile of the typical corporation, as if it were a person. From that film’s website:

To assess the ‘personality’ of the corporate ‘person,’ a checklist is employed, using diagnostic criteria of the World Health Organization and the standard diagnostic tool of psychiatrists and psychologists. The operational principles of the corporation give it a highly anti-social ‘personality’: it is self-interested, inherently amoral, callous and deceitful; it breaches social and legal standards to get its way; it does not suffer from guilt, yet it can mimic the human qualities of empathy, caring and altruism.

That is Plainview, and to some extent, Sunday. The famously meticulous Day-Lewis is nothing short of astonishing . It is one of his finest performances . He does make some interesting choices; especially in his carefully measured vocal inflection. I’d swear that he is channeling the voice of the late Jack Palance. But it works-and maybe it’s not such a stretch, since director Anderson appears to be channeling the mythic style of George Stevens’ westerns (Giant, obviously; and in a tangential sense, Shane).

Credit must also go to Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine), who does an admirable job of holding his own against the greatest character actor on earth. In a recent interview, Dano said that Day-Lewis never once broke character, even refusing to acknowledge him off-camera. Kudos as well to  Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood for his soundtrack.

This marks the most cohesive and mature work from director Anderson, who adapted his screenplay from Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!. Anderson’s previous films have shown a tendency to polarize critics and audiences. I personally find him one of the most unique American filmmakers working today, and I think that this movie is going to surprise a lot of people.

Of bedpans and Brecht: The Savages ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 5, 2008)

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Jesus, this little weekly post is starting to look like the Philip Seymour Hoffman fan boy page. It’s not by design; it’s just that I can’t  swing a half-eaten tub of stale popcorn around the auditorium lately without hitting another screen image of the man who is rapidly morphing into the Charles Laughton of his generation.

And yes, Hoffman delivers a superb performance in The Savages, the latest from writer-director Tamara Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills). In a bit of inspired casting, Jenkins has paired Hoffman up with one of the finest character actresses around, Laura Linney.

Hoffman and Linney are Jon and Wendy Savage, middle-aged siblings saddled with the responsibility of caring for their estranged father, who has been diagnosed with dementia. When his “girlfriend” of twenty years dies, the elder Savage, Lenny (beautifully played by veteran stage actor Philip Bosco) is kicked to the curb by her adult children, who now legally own the Arizona home they shared.

Neither Savage sibling is well-equipped to take care of this unexpected burden. Each is suffering through their own mid-life crisis, and lead self-absorbed lives. Wendy is an aspiring playwright, building stacks of rejection letters as she supports herself working temp jobs. She lives alone in a modest NYC apartment (with the requisite cat) and gobbles down anti-depressants while slogging her way through a passionless affair with a married neighbor.

Jon is a drama professor at an upstate college, spending his spare time doing obsessive research for a book on “the dark comedy” of Berthold Brecht (in one particularly wonderful scene, he grooves to Kurt Weill while cruising in his car, high on Percocet). His love life is also in disarray; his live-in girlfriend of several years is heading back to her native Poland because her visa has expired (along with her hopes of a marriage proposal from the commitment-shy Jon).

Necessity sparks the uneasy family reunion as Jon and Wendy scramble to find a nursing home for Lenny, whose moments of lucidity are marked by the demeaning verbal abuse that obviously drove the siblings apart from their father in the first place (and explains the self-esteem issues that pervade their adult life). It doesn’t take long for long-dormant rivalries and simmering resentments between the brother and sister to re-emerge as well.

This is one of those family angst dramas that could have easily turned into a wrist-slitting downer in the Eugene O’Neill/Harold Pinter vein. After all, it does deal with some heavy issues; existential middle age despair and the looming prospect of the inevitable downward spiral of our parents’ “golden years” does not exactly make for light holiday season fare.

However, writer-director Jenkins strikes a nice balance; while her script doesn’t sugar-coat the film’s central theme (i.e., we’re all gonna die) with maudlin sentimentality, she  also injects just the right amount of levity and  life-affirming moments to keep you engaged. It doesn’t hurt to have Hoffman and Linney on board. I know this is a dreaded cliché, but they made me laugh, and they made me cry. I’d rate this one three and a half Percocets. Enjoy.

Castro revolutionary: Milk ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 6, 2008)

“The important thing is not that we can live on hope alone, but that life is not worth living without it.” -Harvey Milk

 This past Thanksgiving quietly marked the 30th anniversary of one of the more shocking American political assassinations to take place in the latter  20th century.  On November 27th, 1978, San Francisco mayor George Moscone and District Supervisor Harvey Milk were murdered  in their respective offices at City Hall; both men shot repeatedly at point blank range. Even more shocking (and bordering on the downright bizarre) was the fact that their killer was a fellow San Francisco politician-former District Supervisor Dan White.

It’s an anniversary usually given short shrift by the MSM, who apparently have decided that its significance lacks the social impact and historical gravitas of the JFK, RFK and MLK killings, which each receive at least a requisite nod once a year from an appropriately “solemn” news anchor. There’s a new film about the life of Harvey Milk from director Gus Van Sant that may help rectify that.

Milk is one of the more straightforward efforts from the art house filmmaker since his surprise mainstream hit Good Will Hunting back in 1997, yet arguably stands as his most significant work to date. The key word here, as a matter of fact, is “restraint”. Van Sant restrains from allowing his usual overdose of style to obfuscate substance.

Sean Penn plays Milk; the film  enters his life journey at age 40, which was when he experienced the epiphany that led to him to dedicate the rest of his life to public service. Using his tiny camera shop in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood as HQ, Milk quickly garnered a reputation as the city’s leading gay activist, thanks to his relentless drive and a natural gift for community organizing.

Beginning in 1973, Milk began the first of three unsuccessful runs for a San Francisco District Supervisor position. His perseverance paid off in 1977, when he won. Although he wasn’t going to wield the political clout of a mayor, governor or senator, his victory was still a milestone in the history of the gay movement in America. His agenda was not limited to gay issues; he also advocated for other traditionally marginalized groups like the elderly, poor and the handicapped.

He entered the national spotlight when he helped spearhead the anti-Proposition 6 campaign in 1978. Also known as the “Briggs initiative”, the proposed legislation would have given California school districts the right to identify and fire gay and lesbian teachers and administrators, and ban any future applicants as well. Milk also became the public counterpoint to singer Anita Bryant, whose  strident anti-gay activism became the blueprint for the Religious Right lobbying model that flourishes to this day (unfortunately).

The excellent script (by Dustin Lance Black, one of the writers on HBO’s Big Love) is engaging, yet never strays too far from Milk’s own words and deeds. Most crucial to the success of this film is the powerhouse performance at its heart by Oscar shoo-in Penn, who never falls into caricature; opting instead to essentially channel the wit, passion and genuine humanity of this remarkable individual.

Van Sant actually had a tough act to follow, in the form of one of the most riveting and emotionally resonant documentaries that I have ever seen, The Times of Harvey Milk. Released in 1984 and directed by Rob Epstein, the film deservedly picked up a Best Documentary Oscar. It recounted an incredible real-life tale that was equal parts Greek tragedy, black comedy, political potboiler and film noir.

One of the most compelling elements of Epstein’s film were the snippets of audio from a tape recording Milk had made shortly before his death, which he directed to be released to the public only in the event of his assassination. The sad, funny and insightful auto-biographical musings on that tape resonate beyond a morbid premonition of fate; they crystallize as the dedicated vision of someone who was determined to make a profound difference, and to inspire others to tap into those resources within themselves.

Black transcribes verbatim excerpts from the tape as the framing device for his screenplay. It’s a wise creative choice, because it gives Milk a tragicomic Sunset Boulevard sensibility; even though we know from the get-go how horribly the story will end, it is somehow comforting to have the wry, self-aware “postmortem” narration of the doomed protagonist to accompany us on his journey.

The film abounds with wonderful supporting performances, particularly from Diego Luna, Emile Hirsch and Josh Brolin (as Supervisor White). Van Sant captures the period flavor of late 70s San Francisco; I can attest to that because I lived there from 1979 to 1981. My girlfriend and I lived in the Sunset district (Irving Street, for you curious locals) but we would head over to the Castro district now and then to catch a matinee at the neighborhood’s iconic architectural landmark, the Castro Theater.

It doesn’t matter if you are gay or straight, this film will inspire you, and the continued relevance of the issues it addresses certainly does not need to be spelled out to Digby’s readers. The year isn’t quite over, but this looks like a definite contender for one of my picks for the “top ten” of 2008. In the meantime-run (don’t walk) to see Milk.

Love means never having to say you’re sari: Slumdog Millionaire ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 29, 2008)

Leave it to Danny Boyle, who somehow managed to transmogrify the horrors of heroin addiction into an exuberant romp (Trainspotting), to reach into the black hole of Mumbai slum life and pull out the most exhilarating “feel good” love story of 2008. Slumdog Millionaire nearly defies category; think Oliver Twist meets Quiz Show in Bollywood.

Using a framing device reminiscent of The Usual Suspects, the tale unwinds in first person narrative flashback, as recalled by a young man who is being detained and grilled at a police station. Teenage “slumdog” Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a contestant on India’s version of the popular game show franchise Who Wants to be a Millionaire? has been picked up and accused of cheating, on the eve of his final appearance on the program, which could cap off his prodigious winning streak with a cool 20 million rupees. What makes Jamal suspect to the show’s host (played with smarmy aplomb by Bollywood superstar Anil Kapoor) is his apparent detachment.

Despite the fact that he’s continually hitting the jackpot with the correct answer to every question, Jamal’s pained expressions and mopey countenance suggests a slouching indifference. After all, he’s a dirt-poor orphan from the streets, so shouldn’t he be beside himself with joy and gratitude ? What could possibly be motivating him to win, if not greed? Love, actually. But don’t worry, I’m not going to spoil anyone’s fun. Suffice it to say, when you see the object of Jamal’s devotion, portrayed by Freida Pinto (whose “STARmeter” on the Internet Movie Database has gone up nearly 2000% since last week), you’ll be rooting for our hero (and rutting for Freida).

Patel and Pinto have an appealing on-screen chemistry (some viewers may recognize Patel as a regular cast member of BBC-TV’s cult series, Skins). Madhur Mittal is excellent as Jamal’s brother Salim, with whom he has a complex and mercurial relationship. I don’t know where Boyle found them, but the child actors who portray the younger versions of the three core characters and other supporting roles deliver extraordinary performances. An honorable mention to Ankur Vikal, who plays the most evil villain of the piece, a Fagin-type character who exploits street children in the worst way possible (no one will accuse Boyle of sugar-coating slum life).

While the film is structured like an old school Hollywood love story, it still has snippets of Boyle’s visceral, in-your-face “smell-o-vision”. The flashbacks of the protagonist’s hard-scrabble childhood in the impoverished slums of Mumbai  takes this modern Indian folk into Brothers Grimm land; if you have a bad gag reflex, be prepared.

In the  Bollywood tradition, the film (co-directed by Loveleen Tandan and adapted  by Simon Beaufoy from Vikas Swarup’s novel) is equal parts melodrama, comedy, action, and romance. It’s a perfect masala for people who love pure cinema, with colorful costume and set design and hyper-kinetic camera work from DP Anthony Dod Mantle, topped off by a catchy soundtrack. And if you feel like dancing in the aisles during those end credits,  knock yourself out.

Goddam right it’s a beautiful day: Happy Go Lucky ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 8, 2008)

So what is “happiness”, anyway? (If you say “…a warm gun” I swear I will punch you right in the head). According to Roget’s Thesaurus, it can be defined as a state of:

 …beatitude, blessedness, bliss, cheer, cheerfulness, cheeriness, content, contentment, delectation, delight, delirium, ecstasy, elation, enchantment, enjoyment, euphoria, exhilaration, exuberance, felicity, gaiety, geniality, gladness, glee, good cheer, good humor, good spirits, hilarity, hopefulness, joviality, joy, jubilation, laughter, lightheartedness, merriment, mirth, optimism, paradise, peace of mind, playfulness, pleasure, prosperity, rejoicing, sanctity, seventh heaven, vivacity or well-being.

 The lead character in Happy Go Lucky, British director Mike Leigh’s new film, appears to exist in a perpetual state of all of the above (and a large orange soda). Her name is Poppy, and her improbably infectious giddiness is brought to life in an amazing performance by Sally Hawkins, who can count me among her newest fans.

The appropriately named Poppy is a single and carefree 30 year old primary school teacher. She breezes around London on her bicycle, exuding “young, colorful and kooky” like Lynn Redgrave in Georgy Girl. She is nothing, if not perky. Some might say she is insufferably perky, but all she really wants is for everybody else to be happy, too. Her best friend and flatmate, Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) “gets” her, as do her young students, who naturally gravitate to her own childlike delight in all things shiny and fun.

No one can harsh her mellow, not even that gloomiest of all Gusses, The Sullen Book Store Clerk (I don’t know how it is in your neck of the woods, but we’ve got a lot of them here in Seattle. Some day, I will learn why they frown so when my purchase does not meet their highly developed sense of literary aesthetic, and upon that glorious day, perhaps I will finally learn how to snatch the pebble from their pale, vegan hands…but I digress).

Now, before you think this is heading in the direction of a whimsical fable, a la Amelie, you have to remember, this is  Mike Leigh, and he generally doesn’t do “whimsical”. Through a string of compassionate, astutely observed and beautifully acted films about contemporary British life (High Hopes, Life is Sweet, Career Girls, Naked and Secrets and Lies) Leigh has proven himself a fearless storyteller when it comes to plumbing the well of real, raw human emotion. He is the heir apparent  to the aesthetic of the British “kitchen sink” dramas of the early to mid-1960s (e,g, Look Back in Anger, Billy Liar, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner).

This “Leigh-ness” comes into play with the introduction of a character that will test the limits of Poppy’s sunny optimism and faith in humanity. His name is Scott (Eddie Marsan, in a brilliant, intense performance) and he is Poppy’s private driving instructor. Scott has a lot of “issues”, manifesting in some decidedly anti-social behaviors that suggest a dark and troubled soul.

Undaunted and determined to uncover the “good man” lurking somewhere beneath Scott’s veneer, Poppy continues her lessons, long beyond the point where most cognizant people would have decided that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to get into a small vehicle with such a dangerously unhinged individual (one red flag would be: A racist driving instructor with chronic road rage? That can’t be right.)

But this is where we learn something essential about Poppy. Her desire to assure the happiness of others isn’t borne from a clueless, self-centered “girls just wanna have fun” naiveté, but rather from a genuine sense of Mother Theresa-like selflessness and compassion for others. This attribute is conveyed in two protracted and extraordinarily acted scenes, one involving Poppy’s late night encounter in a dark alley with a mentally ill homeless man, and the other involves her reaching out to one of her troubled students.

When all is said and done, I venture to say that Leigh is actually making a somewhat revolutionary political statement for this cynical, post-ironic age of rampant smugness and self-absorption; suggesting that Poppy’s brand of bubbly, unflagging enthusiasm for wishing nothing but happiness unto others defines not just the root of true compassion, but could be the antidote to societal ills like xenophobia, child abuse and homelessness.

Then again, maybe I’m just dreaming. Like that Martin Luther King guy.

Wish you were here: Standard Operating Procedure ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 24, 2008)

Auschwitz staff, 1944.

Abu Ghraib staff, 2004.

There was a fascinating documentary recently on the National Geographic Channel called Nazi Scrapbooks from Hell. It was the most harrowing depiction of the Holocaust I’ve seen, but it offered nary a glimpse of the oft-shown photographs of the atrocities themselves. Rather, it focused on photos from a recently discovered scrapbook that belonged to an SS officer assigned to Auschwitz.

Essentially an organized, affably annotated gallery of the “after hours” lifestyle of a “workaday” concentration camp staff, it shows cheerful participants enjoying a little outdoor nosh, catching some sun, and even the odd sing-along, all in the shadow of the notorious death factory where they “worked”.

If it weren’t for the Nazi uniforms, you might think it was just a bunch of guys from the office, hamming it up for the camera at a company picnic. As the filmmakers point out, it is the everyday banality of this evil that makes it so chilling. The most amazing fact is that these pictures were taken in the first place.

What were they thinking?

This is the same rhetorical question posed by one of the interviewees in Standard Operating Procedure, a new documentary about the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal from renowned filmmaker Errol Morris. The gentleman is a military C.I.D. investigator who had the unenviable task of sifting through the hundreds of damning photos taken by several of the perpetrators.

Since this is primarily a movie review, I don’t feel a need to rehash the back story for you (especially when a Google search of “Abu Ghraib” yields over 3 million results). We’ve all viewed those thoroughly repulsive photos ad nauseam, and the cold hard facts of the case have been well-documented and endlessly dissected.

The next logical question might be, what was Erroll Morris thinking? What startling new insight could he offer on this well-worn subject? This guy is no slouch-he has been responsible for several of the most well-crafted and compelling American documentaries of the last 30 years, from his 1978 debut Gates of Heaven (a knockout doc about pet cemeteries) to the true crime classic The Thin Blue Line (1988), and his most recent critical success The Fog of War (2003). Once again, Morris serves up intimate confessions from his interviewees, delivered directly into a modified teleprompter.

Morris makes an interesting choice here. He aims his spotlight not so much on analyzing the glaringly obvious inhumanity on display in those sickening photos, but rather on our perception of them. So just who are these people that took them? What was the actual intent behind the self-documentation? Can we conclusively pass judgment on the actions of the people involved, based solely on what we “think” these photographs show us?

In a weird way, Morris’ insistence on drawing us completely “inside” the photos made me flash on Antonioni’s 1966 classic Blow Up. The protagonist in that film is a fashion photographer who becomes obsessed with examining a series of seemingly benign pictures that he takes in a public park. He begins to believe that he has inadvertently documented a murder taking place in the background of the photos…or is he just seeing what he wants to see? The film challenges our perception of what we “see” as reality.

According to Abu Ghraib poster girl Lyddie England and several other of the convicted MPs who Morris interviews in the film, the “reality” behind the prisoner “abuse” was (in their perception ) “standard operating procedure”; they were merely “softening up” the subjects for the CIA interrogators. You know-just doing their job. One phrase you hear over and over is “everybody knew what was going on”, which sounds suspiciously like that old Nuremberg litany “we were only following orders”.  And so it goes.

Morris also plays up the bizarre love triangle aspect. When asked to explain her hammy poses for the infamous prisoner humiliation photos, England blames it on amore. “What can I say,” she shrugs, “I was in love.” She is referring to Charles Graner, currently serving 10 years for his part in the scandal (Morris was denied permission by the military to interview him).

As we now know, Graner was concurrently dating another MP, Megan Ambuhl, whom he has since married (it’s all so Jerry Springer). Here’s a sobering thought: Thanks to the “softening up” of America’s prestige conducted by the Bush white house, all it took was this taxpayer-funded white trash “scrapbook from hell” to drive the final nail into its coffin.

Morris has taken some flak for focusing only on those who some may consider the low-level “scapegoats” of the Abu Ghraib debacle; these critics seem to be implying that he is not targeting high enough in the food chain. There is some merit in this assertion; the only brass who appears on camera is the palpably embittered ex-brigadier general and former Abu Ghraib overseer Janis Karpinski, who angrily asserts that she was treated to a dog and pony show whenever she visited the facilities. But in all fairness, Morris does not have the hindsight of history on his side in this case.

We can’t expect anything close to that great final shot in All the President’s Men…the close-up of teletype keys pounding out the Nixon resignation bulletin. In a truly “fair and balanced” universe, the only satisfactory denouement to any story about the Iraq “war” should be a closing shot of a spinning newspaper, finally righting itself to declare “Bush and Cheney to be Impeached for War Crimes!” The Nixon administration is history. We’re still living this nightmare.