SIFF 2009: Mid-August Lunch ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 6, 2009)

Eccentric ladyland.

This slice-of-life charmer from Italy, set during the mid-August Italian public holiday known as Ferragosto, was written and directed by Gianni Di Gregorio (who also co-scripted the critically-acclaimed 2009 gangster drama Gomorrah). Light-ish in plot but rich in observational insight, it proves that sometimes, less is more.

The Robert Mitchum-ish Di Gregorio casts himself as Giovanni, a middle-aged bachelor living in Rome with his elderly mother. He doesn’t work, because as he quips to a friend, taking care of mama is his “job”. Although nothing appears to faze the easy-going Giovanni, his nearly saintly countenance is tested when his landlord, who wants to take a little weekend excursion with his mistress, asks for a “small” favor.

In exchange for some forgiveness on back rent, he requests that Giovanni take on a house guest for the weekend-his elderly mother. Giovanni agrees, but is chagrined when the landlord turns up with two little old ladies (he hadn’t mentioned his aunt). Things get more complicated when Giovanni’s doctor makes a house call, then in lieu of a bill asks if he doesn’t mind taking on his dear old mama as well (Ferragosto is a popular “getaway” holiday in Italy).

It’s the small moments that make this film such a delight. Giovanni reading Dumas aloud to his mother, until she quietly nods off in her chair. Two friends, sitting in the midday sun, enjoying white wine and watching the world go by. And in a scene that reminded me of a classic POV sequence in Fellini’s Roma, Giovanni and his pal glide us through the streets of Rome on a sunny motorcycle ride. This mid-August lunch might offer you a somewhat limited menu, but you’ll find that every morsel on it is well worth savoring.


SIFF 2009: Telstar ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 6, 2009)

It’s weird kismet that I screened Telstar, a new biopic about the legendary, innovative and tragically deranged music producer Joe Meek (whose career abruptly ended when he shot his landlady before shooting himself in 1967), just one day after a judge sentenced the legendary, innovative and tragically deranged music producer Phil Spector (whose career abruptly ended when he shot actress Lana Clarkson) to a term of 19 years to life.

Similar to his U.S.  counterpart, the British-born Meek also reached his creative peak in the early 60s, and developed a signature studio “sound” that set his song productions apart from virtually everyone else’s. While the two shared an equally unpredictable and mercurial temperament, they were innovative in mutually exclusive ways. Spector’s much-heralded, signature “Wall of Sound” was generated by utilizing elaborate “live” sessions, involving large groups of musicians, state-of-the-art studios and a huge echo chamber.

Meek, on the other hand, recorded piecemeal, and produced most of his legacy in a tiny home studio, set up in a modest London flat. He would isolate musicians in different rooms in order to achieve very specific sounds for each instrument or vocal track, often utilizing overdubbing (SOP these days, but not at that time). Completely untrained (and unskilled) as a musician, his sonic experimentation was fueled by his obsession with outer space and informed by musical tonalities that came from, well, “beyond”; his resulting forays have secured him a place as a pioneer in electronic music.

(OK, now engaging Music Geek Mode). One of my prized CDs is I Hear a New World-which was written, produced and conceived by Joe Meek (and recorded by “Rod Freeman and the Blue Men”) which I described as follows in a 2003 review that I published on Amazon:

Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson drop acid in a recording studio on the dark side of the moon, and the resulting session yields something that sounds very much like this long lost Joe Meek album. “I Hear a New World” was a more literal title than you might think, as the voices in his head were soon to drown out the sounds of the Muse for the tragically doomed Meek… Informed music fans will intuit snippets of templates here and there for the Residents, Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream or even more recent offerings from Radiohead and The Flaming Lips. The fact that Meek bore a spooky physical resemblance to director David Lynch certainly adds fuel to his already eerie aura.

Telstar is named after Meek’s biggest and most recognizable hit from 1962, an instrumental performed by The Tornados (who were essentially his studio band at the time). The film (based on a stage play by James Hicks, who co-adapted the screenplay with director Nick Moran) suffers a bit from an uneven tone, but I still think it is quite watchable (especially for fans of the era), thanks to the great location filming, a colorful and tuneful recreation of the early 60s London music scene, and a fearless, flamboyant performance from Con O’Neill (recreating his stage role as the tortured Meek).

In fact, the first 15 minutes of the film are infused with a door-slamming exuberance and manic musical energy that I haven’t seen since the memorable opening salvo of Julien Temple’s love letter to London’s late 50s pop scene, Absolute Beginners. Unfortunately, the last 15 minutes are more akin to the denouement in Taxi Driver. Then again, if you are already familiar with the story of Meek’s trajectory into paranoia and madness, you go into this film with the foreknowledge that it is not likely to have a happy ending.

The bulk of the film delves into elements of  Meek’s personal life, like his stormy relationship with protégé/lover Heinz Burt (JJ Field), a middling singer/guitarist who Meek had hoped to manufacture into the next Eddie Cochran (that didn’t happen). In fact, one of Meek’s greatest tragedies was how he squandered much of his potential with missed opportunities, unfortunate judgment calls and misdirected energies. For example, Meek once turned down an opportunity to produce some sessions for a certain (then relatively unknown) Merseyside combo managed by a Mr. Brian Epstein.

I would have liked to have seen more emphasis on portraying Meek’s genius in the studio, but you can’t have everything.S till, I got a kick out of the vivid recreations of performances by early 60s rock luminaries like Gene Vincent and Screamin’ Lord Sutch (who was a major influence on Alice Cooper). It’s during those moments (and the sporadic glimpses of Meek working his studio magic) that the film really comes alive. O’Neill’s performance is a real tour-d-force.

Tom Burke is also quite good as the oddball Geoff Goddard, who worked as an in-house songwriter for Meek (as well as a kind of “medium” for helping him retrieve pop hooks from “beyond”). James Corden is quite engaging (and provides some much-needed levity) as Meek’s long-suffering session drummer, Clem Cattini. The ubiquitous Kevin Spacey (who is featured in at least 3 SIFF entries this year) is also on hand in a small but memorable role as Meek’s chief investor, Major Banks. I hope this film finds distribution.

SIFF 2009: We Live in Public ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 30, 2009)

Marshall McLuhan is spinning.

So, how many “internet pioneers” were there, anyway? Tiresome jokes about Al Gore “inventing” the web aside, it seems every time you turn around, yet another person is credited for being the “visionary” who put “us” where “we” are today (wherever the hell that is, in the virtual sense).

Take the naked guy in the photo above, for instance. His name is Josh Harris. He’s an internet pioneer. Ever hear of him? God knows, I hadn’t, until I screened a fascinating new documentary called We Live in Public. The film was a 10-year labor of love for director Ondi Timoner (Dig!). Depending on who you ask, her subject is either an unheralded genius, or a complete loon who got lucky during the dot com boom (he’s a bit of both). By 1999, Harris had built a personal fortune of 80 million dollars by cannily presaging the explosion of social networking. In less than ten years, he was completely broke and had expatriated himself to Ethiopia.

What separates Harris from the rest of the nerdy, pocket-protected web entrepreneurs is his self-styled persona as an “artist” (he apparently was referred to by some as the “Warhol of the Web”). He considered his “art” to be his life (and the lives of others), as filtered, documented and shared through the matrix of digital technology.

In December 1999, Harris bankrolled a “social experiment” that could have been concocted by Hunter S. Thompson and Jim Jones on an ether binge. Harris narrowed down scores of applicants to 100 “subjects” who would room together in a bunker-like underground environment for 30 days. Each person had to consent to having a CCTV camera trained on them 24/7. Each also had his or her own monitor, with access to “flip channels” and peek in on what any of the other 99 people were doing at any given time (showers and toilets were communal, and there were no bedroom doors, to answer the obvious question). The complex was stockpiled with food, beverages, and guns (the latter allowed people to “blow off steam”). Each person was housed in their own sleeping pod.

Harris hired psychologists, who would grill residents in stark interrogation rooms. It was fun and games for the first couple weeks, but things quickly went downhill when people started losing their sense of reality. When New York City law enforcement caught wind of these (literally) underground shenanigans, they pictured a Heaven’s Gate-type cult scenario, and Harris’ “experiment” was abruptly shut down on January 1, 2000. Orwellian implications aside, the idea itself was prescient; especially when you consider the current popularity of personal webcams and the glut of reality TV.

Harris soon took the concept to the next level when he wired up every room in his home with cameras and launched the “We Live in Public” website with his girlfriend, enabling any one with an internet connection to peek in on their daily life (with absolutely no holds barred). By the time Harris pulled the plug six months later, his girlfriend had left him, daily hits were down to a handful, and he appeared to be in the middle of a mental meltdown (watching the footage of Harris moping about, I was reminded of Charles Foster Kane’s waning days, listlessly pacing the empty halls of Xanadu).

From a purely cinematic standpoint, Timoner has assembled an absorbing and stylishly kinetic portrait; but curiously, her subject remains somewhat of an enigma by the film’s end. Is he truly a “pioneer”, or is he just a glorified exhibitionist? What did he “pave the way” for, ultimately…Katie Couric’s televised colonoscopy? Is there such a thing as “too much information” in the Information Age? Does everybody necessarily need their “15 minutes”? If so, why? Is the medium the message? And while I’ve got your attention, have you seen this video of my adorable little cat with a bag stuck on his head?

SIFF 2009: The Yes Men Fix the World ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 30, 2009)

Live bait: The Yes Men chum for corporate sharks

What do you get when you throw Roger and Me and The Sting into a blender? Probably something along the lines of The Yes Men Fix the World, an alternately harrowing and hilarious documentary featuring anti-corporate activist/pranksters Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno. This is a more focused follow up to their ballsy but uneven debut, The Yes Men.

In that 2003 film, they established a simple yet amazingly effective Trojan Horse formula that garnered the duo invitations to key business conferences and TV appearances as “WTO spokesmen”. Once lulling their marks into a comfort zone, they would then proceed to cause well-deserved public embarrassment for some evil corporate bastards, whilst exposing the dark side of global free trade. (Most amazingly, they have managed not to suffer “brake failure” on a mountain road, if you know what I’m saying).

In this outing, Bichlbaum, Bonanno and co-director Kurt Engfehr come out swinging, vowing to do a take-down of a very powerful nemesis…an Idea. If money makes the world go ‘round, then this particular Idea is the one that oils the crank on the money-go-round, regardless of the human cost. It is the free market cosmology of economist Milton Friedman, which the Yes Men posit as the root of much evil in the world.

Of course, there is not much our dynamic duo can do at this point to take the man himself down (as the forlorn expressions on their faces during a visit to his grave site would indicate); but the Idea survives, as do those who would “drink the Kool-Aid”.  And thus, the fun begins.

Perhaps “fun” isn’t quite the appropriate term, but there are definitely hijinx afoot, and you’ll find yourself chuckling through most of the film (when you’re not crying). However, the filmmakers have a loftier goal than mining laughs: they want to smoke out some corporate accountability; and ideally, atonement. I know that “corporate accountability” is an oxymoron, but one still has to admire the dogged determination (and boundless creativity) of the Yes Men and their co-conspirators, despite the odds.

Case in point: the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India, when a Union Carbide pesticide plant mishap exposed 500,000 people (200,000 of them children) to a toxic gas. Between 8,000 and 10,000 deaths occurred within 3 days. Since then, an estimated additional 25,000 Bhopal residents have since died from complications due to exposure. Union Carbide eventually paid an insurance settlement to the Indian government of 470 million dollars in 1989 (it sounds like a lot of loot…until you split it 500,000 ways). To add insult to injury, Union Carbide pulled up stakes (read: fled the scene of the crime) without ever cleaning up the site; to this day residents are drinking groundwater leached by toxins.

In 2004, BBC News did a special report on the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, which included an appearance by a spokesman for Dow Chemical (the corporation that had just recently acquired Union Carbide at the time of the broadcast). The spokesman, a Mr. “Jude Finisterra” made an astounding, headline-grabbing announcement: In an effort to truly atone for the Bhopal incident, Dow Chemical was going to invest a tidy sum of 12 billion dollars to clean up the area and compensate the victims.

For several hours, all hell broke loose; Dow stockholders panicked and dumped over 2 billion dollars worth of stock in record time. To anyone with a soul, it was too good to be true-corporate criminals coming clean on live TV, in front of 300 million viewers? There’s hope for humanity! Well, not exactly. “Jude Finisterra” was really a member of our intrepid duo.

But the point was made; in fact, the real beauty of the ruse didn’t come into full flower until the Yes Men were “exposed”. When the real Dow Chemical spokespeople jumped into the fray to denounce the prank, they only made themselves look more ridiculous (and culpable) by essentially saying “Obviously, we would not commit such a large amount of money in this manner (i.e. of course we would never publicly take responsibility for the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people).”

The most distressing thing to observe is how quickly the MSM jumps in to toe the corporate line; in the case of the Dow sting (and later in the film, when they pose as HUD spokesmen, announcing that the government agency will provide housing for all the Katrina victims it had originally displaced in order to clear the way for redevelopment by private sector contractors) the newspapers and TV news anchors condemn the “cruel hoax” that gave “false hopes” to the victims of Bhopal and Katrina, respectively.

When the concerned Yes Men travel to Bhopal to personally apologize to the residents for their “cruelty”, they are greeted with open arms; one Bhopal victim tells them that even though he was admittedly disappointed, he was, for an hour or so, “in Heaven”. By the end of the film, the Yes Men may not actually “fix the world”, but they certainly succeed in giving it hope with their sense of compassion and infectious optimism. And for an hour or so, I was in Heaven.

Lighten up, Francis: Tetro **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  June 27, 2009)

ORMAN “Well, you see Willard… Every man has got a breaking point. You and I have. Walter Kurtz has reached his.And very obviously, he has gone insane.” 

WILLARD “Yes sir, very much so sir. Obviously insane.” 

-from Apocalypse Now

It’s official now. With his latest film, Tetro, a mad fever dream of a family angst drama that plays out like a telenovela on acid, Francis Ford Coppola has become Colonel Kurtz.

I don’t really mean to insinuate that the venerable 70-year old director has literally gone completely around the bend in his new film; but as an artist, it signals that he has come full circle-in a sort of insane fashion. Back in 1963, under the auspices of the famously “no-budget” producer Roger Corman, a then 24-year old Coppola wrote and directed a B & W horror cheapie called Dementia 13.

The story revolved around a twisted family with dark secrets. It’s been a while since I’ve screened it, but I seem to remember one of the family members creeping about the estate wielding an axe. While it’s not ostensibly “horror”, one could peg Tetro as a B & W film revolving around a twisted family with dark secrets; and, oddly enough, there is a climactic scene where one of the family members creeps about an estate-wielding an axe.

For the setup of this (possibly) very personal story, Coppola utilizes some of his own emotional leftovers to cook up a Tennessee Williams meets Douglas Sirk-worthy family stew (with just a hint of balletic Powell and Pressburger opera tossed in for flavoring). Tetro (Vincent Gallo) is an ex-pat living in Buenos Aires with his dancer girlfriend Miranda (Mirabel Verdu), who is an Argentine native.

Tetro is a troubled soul; a gifted but unpublished writer-poet with a history of mental breakdowns who has willfully estranged himself from his family (for complex reasons that are unraveled in very sudsy fashion). He is quite chagrined when an unwelcomed boulder comes smashing through this wall of self-imposed exile in the form of his younger brother Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), who shows up on his doorstep one day. Bennie, a cruise ship worker whose boat “happens” to be in port, has not seen his big brother since he was knee high to a grasshopper, and is eager to reestablish contact.

In fact, Bennie idolizes Tetro; it is that unique mixture of envy and romanticized esteem that younger family members hold for the older siblings who are first in line to declare independence from parental restraints and strike out into the coveted world of adult “freedom” (we all know how soon that illusion gets shattered…heh).

Tetro, however, is not eager to reciprocate. Not only does he make it clear that Bennie is not welcome to stay any longer than necessary, but he refuses to refer to him as a relative when introducing him to the locals. Undaunted, Bennie remains hell-bent to reconnect, and soon fate and circumstance serve to prolong his visit to Buenos Aires, setting off a chain of events that eventually forces both brothers to come to terms with their shared “Daddy issues”. Klaus Maria Brandauer chews major scenery as their narcissistic father, who is a world-famous symphony conductor… and world-class prick.

Coppola’s films have generally vacillated between the Big Theme (The Godfather, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, Gardens of Stone) and the intimate character study (The Rain People, One From the Heart, Rumble Fish, Peggy Sue Got Married). I have to admit to being more partial to his Big Theme films. As I conjectured earlier, this is “possibly” an extremely personal film; I’m no psychiatrist, but Coppola’s dad, Carmine, is a composer/conductor (I’m just saying).

At any rate, this definitely qualifies as a “personal” work on some level; it virtually screams at you from the passionate, high drama of the piece. It goes without saying that “family” is a recurring theme in his work as well; so in that respect, you could say that Tetro is a return to form. So is that a good thing in this case?

I was with Coppola for the first half or so of the movie. Gallo delivers an explosive performance; I think it’s his finest work to date. The charismatic Verdu is very effective inhabiting a character who is at once earthy, sensuous and saintly. Newcomer Ehrenreich admirably holds his own with his more seasoned co-stars. The problem I have is with the film’s over-the-top third act. Even accounting for Coppola’s (literally) operatic construct that leads up to the jaw-dropping finale, it’s all a bit too…too (if you know what I’m saying). Maybe it’s me; if you enjoy that sort of thing, perhaps you’ll be more forgiving.

One cannot deny the visual artistry on display. Even when he lost me with the story, Coppola’s mastery of the medium kept my eyes riveted to the screen. So he did his job, after all. He’s been doing it for 50 years-so I’ll let him off the hook…for old time’s sake.

All power to the people: William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  November 7, 2009)

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe is a sometimes stirring, sometimes confounding, yet ultimately moving portrait of the iconoclastic and controversial defense lawyer who was sort of the Zelig of the radical Left throughout most of the 1970s. Somehow, he became the key legal champion for the Chicago 7, The Black Panther Party, anti-war activist Father Daniel Berrigan, the American Indian Movement and the ill-fated inmates who initiated the Attica prison riots.

However, beginning sometime in the 1980s (for reasons known only to himself, or perhaps just merely in keeping with the inherently contrarian nature of a defense lawyer) he slowly but surely turned to The Dark Side (at least in the opinion, and to the chagrin, of many of his professional cohorts and former “co-conspirators”). He began taking on high-profile cases involving clients who were decidedly less sexy to the dedicated followers of fashionable radical chic.

These clients included accused terrorists (including the chief planner of the first World Trade Center attack and the man accused of murdering Rabbi Kahane), mobsters (John Gotti and associates), notorious murderers (L.I. Railroad killer Colin Ferguson) and alleged rapists (the Central Park jogger assault case)-to name a few.

The filmmakers may have more personal reasons to be stymied by this mass of contradictions, and may be best qualified to take a stab at analysis-because after all, he was their dad. Emily and Sarah Kunstler were precocious film makers from an early age; they were in a position to capture a wealth of candid home movie moments of a man who spent a good deal of his professional life playing up to the news cameras.  This footage is interwoven in such a way to greatly humanize a man who had a larger-than-life public persona,

To their credit, the film makers don’t sugarcoat that they were actually quite puzzled and horrified by some of their father’s professional choices (not to mention that some of those choices precipitated some all-too-real death threats against the family).

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Kunstler’s eventual decision to seemingly pull any defendant’s name out of the hat and give it his all, regardless of the possible  political perceptions, the ultimate takeaway you get from the film is the same one his daughters movingly acknowledge in the denouement-there’s never anything wrong with making a stand against social injustice, even if you’re the only one who perceives it.

This point is brought home when Emily and Sarah remind us that the young African Americans originally brought to trial in the 1989 Central Park jogger case, roundly vilified in the media and vigorously defended by their father, were exonerated in 2002, when DNA linked a murderer to the rape. And so it goes.

The worst years of our lives: The Messenger ****


(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  November 7, 2009)

The bad news bearers: Harrelson and Foster in The Messenger

It took long enough. Someone has finally made a film that gets the harrowing national nightmare of the Iraq/Afghanistan wars right. Infused with sharp writing, smart and unobtrusive direction and compelling performances, The Messenger is one of those insightful observations of the human condition that quietly sneaks up and really gets inside you, staying with you long after the credits roll.

This is one of the best films I have seen this year (and one of the few with real substance). First-time director Owen Moverman and co-writer Alessandro Camon not only bring the war(s) home, but proceed to march up your driveway and deposit in on your doorstep.

Knock, knock.

“The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret that your (son, daughter, husband, wife) (died/was killed in action) in (country/state) on (date). The Secretary extends his deepest sympathy to you and your family in your tragic loss.”

Those are words that no one ever wants to hear, and I can’t imagine any job in the world that could possibly be any worse than being the person assigned to deliver that message. “There’s no such thing as a satisfied customer,” deadpans Casualty Notification Officer Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) to his new apprentice, Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), who is emotionally shattered by his virgin encounter with bereaved “NOK”.

Sgt. Montgomery is a decorated, recently returned Iraq War vet whose enlistment is almost up. Although he accepts this one last thankless assignment with the stoic obedience expected from a professional soldier, he appears to privately suffer from PTSD; a condition that makes an odd bedfellow with his new responsibilities.

Stone is a hard-ass, a cynical careerist who carries a fair share of personal baggage himself. When he bluntly asks Montgomery if he is “a head case” right after meeting him, you suspect that this may be a case of “it takes one to know one”. Stone (and Harrelson’s portrayal) is reminiscent of SM1 “Bad Ass” Buddusky, Jack Nicholson’s character in The Last Detail.

In fact, there is a lot about this film that reminds me of those episodic, naturalistic character studies that directors like Hal Ashby and Bob Rafaelson used to turn out back in the 70s; giving their actors plenty of room to breathe and inhabit their characters in a very real and believable manner.

A subplot involving a relationship between Montgomery and a widowed Army wife (Samantha Morton) strongly recalled one of my all-time favorite sleepers from that particular era and style of film making, Mark Rydell’s Cinderella Liberty (worth seeking out).

Although the filmmakers hold back from making overt political statements, the notification scenes say it all-we continue to ship scores of young American men and women overseas whole of limb and spirit, and return many of them home sans either or both (or in a box)…and for what justifiable reason, exactly? And as heartbreaking, gut-wrenching and hard to watch as these scenes are-I am sure they pale in comparison to the agony of those families and loved ones who have answered the door and received that news for real.

In fact, I’ll take this one step further. I challenge anyone out there who feels we “need” to dig ourselves in deeper into our present Middle East quagmire to watch this film, reassess their justifications, and get back to me. Go. I’ll wait

Every comic wants to be an actor: Funny People **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 1, 2009)

I have good news and bad news about writer-director Judd Apatow’s Funny People. The good news is that he’s made a terrific 100 minute film. The bad news is that no one will ever get to see it without suffering through an additional 40 minutes of self-indulgence.

Adam Sandler stars as comic-turned-actor George Simmons, who has become an A-list box office draw through a series of low-brow yet successful comedy films (*cough* type casting *cough*). He lives the requisite movie star bachelor lifestyle to the hilt; soaking in public adulation, living in a Hollywood mansion with a revolving door of beautiful women, etc. His biggest daily chore is sorting through the piles of script offers. Everything in his life is going swimmingly, until the staple of every Disease of the Week Movie appears: The Results of Your Blood Test Are In scene.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the low-rent section of town, we are introduced to a trio of roommates-Ira, Leo and Mark (Seth Rogan, Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman, respectively) who are much farther down the show biz ladder. Ira and Leo are aspiring stand-up comics; Mark is an actor who has recently got his first major break with a starring role on a middling sitcom. Using their own sliding scale of success, Mark is at the top of the pyramid (he’s on TV!) and Leo has a slight lead over Ira, because he has received kudos from Budd Friedman (to fledgling L.A. comics, a “thumbs up” from the founder of the Hollywood Improv is an anointment by the Pope).

It looks like it’s going to take a miracle to give Ira’s career a boost (so he can quit that day job at the deli); in the meantime he’s just another rubber-faced no-name standing in front of a brick wall on Open Mike Night. His deux ex machina arrives when George Simmons, still reeling from the bad medical news, figures that it might be good therapy to get back to his roots and do some stage time (on a night when Ira also happens to be on the bill). George sees something in Ira’s act that appeals to him; perhaps it reminds him of himself in hungrier days. On impulse, he offers Ira a job as his P.A. It becomes apparent that what George really wants is a genuine friendship before he shuffles off to that Great Gig in the Sky.

Now it would seem that this would be enough of a setup to carry a feature length movie. For most directors. Unfortunately, Apatow’s third act, revolving around an ill-advised attempt on George’s part to rekindle a romance with The One Who Got Away (Leslie Mann) while her husband (Eric Bana) is out of town just goes on and on and on, at the lumbering pace of a brontosaur (Apatowsaurus?) plodding through a Triassic swamp, crushing all semblance of levity in its path.

There is an inordinate amount of screen time given to the two young girls who play Mann’s daughters-revealed in the credits as husband-and-wife Apatow and Mann’s kids; which gives the film with a glorified home-movie vibe . Also tiresome: an endless parade of cameos, mostly from well-known comics (ironically, non-standup Eminem is the funniest). It started to remind me of those Cannonball Run films that Burt Reynolds and his pals used to do in the 1970s.

Still, there are some things I liked about the film. Although I will admit that I am not a fan , I thought Sandler was decent enough in his seriocomic role (it reminded me of his work in Punch-Drunk Love). Rogan and Sandler play well off each other, and Hill fires off some of the film’s best one-liners. Newcomer Aubrey Plaza gives a wry turn as a fellow comic that Rogan is crushing on. Torsten Voges is a scene stealer as Sandler’s German doctor; a hysterical exchange in the doctor’s office between Sandler, Rogan and Voges is an instant classic-it’s too bad that the rest of the film can’t quite match up to it.

I would have liked to have seen more emphasis on the world of stand-up, because it is during those brief interludes that the film truly shines. Apatow came up from the comedy clubs,  so every scene dealing with the creative process, the camaraderie, and, oh yes-the angst and the backstabbing ring absolutely true. I think he could have made a fabulous film just dealing with that subject alone.

But then again, I may be a little biased, because I used to be one of those rubber-faced no-names, standing in front of a brick wall on Open Mike Night. Wait a minute…I had a day job working at a deli, while doing stand up gigs at night. Um, excuse me (sfx knocking on computer screen) does anybody out there need a personal assistant?

Tales from topographic oceans: Avatar **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 26, 2009)

If I was restricted to writing one-line movie reviews (which would undoubtedly make many readers rejoice) I would summarize James Cameron’s super-hyped, epic fantasy-adventure Avatar as: “A three-dimensional masterpiece with a one-dimensional script.”

Then again, Cameron has never lost any money underestimating the attention span of your average  film goer. Sure, his movies tend to go on longer than the Old Testament, but there’s usually an easy-to-follow 90 minute narrative buried somewhere within those 2 ½ to 3 hour running times (padded out by the protracted action set-pieces).

If you do  go for it, you might as well go all the way (you know-get your $300 million worth). This film is like the Baskin-Robbins of movie events-you may be confronted with 31 different choices of viewing experiences. At the multiplex I went to, it was offered  in three auditoriums and in as many formats: 2-D, 3-D and 3-D IMAX.

No one warned me that there would be a pop quiz, so I suffered a few moments of embarrassment. I visualized the people in line behind me rolling their eyes and miming a garroting to amuse their friends as I was vacillating. To save face, I muttered “IMAX” and sheepishly pushed my check card under the window. I suppressed the urge to exclaim “Fifteen fucking fifty? For a matinee?!?!

I hear you. “There IS a 90-word movie review, buried somewhere within this 2000 word rant about the cost of an IMAX screening, right, Dennis?” I just wanted to clarify that prior to this, I was a 3-D virgin. It always seemed gimmicky to me; if I’m really itching to experience the sensation that the actors and I are in the same room , I could attend one  of those oh, what are they called…“stage plays”?

Cameron’s story is simple enough; thematically it is an inverse re-imagining of his 1986 sci-fi adventure Aliens (with more than a few suspicious similarities to Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke and John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest). Set sometime in the future, the story centers on a lush, verdant planet called Pandora, which has been targeted for deforestation and mining by an Earth-based corporation. This doesn’t set well with the planet’s inhabitants, a relatively peaceful race of aboriginal forest dwellers called the Na’vi.

A contingent of Marines has been deployed to help “convince” the locals that it would be in their best interest to cooperate. This doesn’t set well with a small team of research scientists who have been studying and interacting with the Na’vi  via an experimental assimilation method using avatars, which take on the physiology of the aliens. Deadlines have been set, and tensions mount.

Faster than you can say Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest, we are presented with The One Human who could save the day, in the person of a brave young wheelchair-bound Marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). Sully is assigned by the gung-ho Marine commander  to be the military liaison with the tribe (played by a hammy Stephen Lang, getting his Col. Kilgore on).

Sully soon becomes the political football between his C.O., the head researcher (Sigourney Weaver) and the corporate weasel from the mining company (Giovanni Ribisi). Yes, I was thinking “Halliburton reference”, too. Oops-we can’t forget the rote love story-Sully hooks up with a Na’vi babe (a 10 ft. tall and very blue Zoe Saldana).

This is all academic. How many people are flocking to see this for the “plot”? Don’t get me wrong, there were elements that did appeal to me. I liked the idea of a paraplegic hero; the scene where Sully first “finds his legs” in his avatar body is quite moving. Aside from that brief moment, I didn’t find myself getting emotionally invested in the film or its characters. The “save the forest” theme performed its requisite tug at my big ol’ softie lib’rul tree-hugging lefty heart and all, but it’s become such a hoary movie cliché anymore. By the time the final third dissolved into interminable mayhem, they lost me.

In pure visual terms, the film does live up to its hype, and then some. There are some real knockout scenes, particularly in the film’s first half (before the novelty starts to wear off a bit and it just becomes shit blowing up). Cameron’s inventiveness and flair for mind-blowing production design is the real star here. Pandora’s otherworldly creatures, topography, and stridently colorful flora and fauna recall Disney’s Fantasia or Rene Laloux’s Fantastic Planet at times. In the film’s best “through the looking glass” moments, I felt like I had been transported inside the world of a Roger Dean album cover.

When all was said and done, the question I was left pondering was this: At what point does a film cease being a “film” and transmogrify into an “event”-or (if I may turn the cynicism up to “11”) a glorified 2 ½ hour infomercial for a video game? Yes, Cameron has perhaps “changed the game”, regarding the purely technical aspects of film making and movie presentation. But is this ultimately for the good of the art form? When I think of my all-time favorite films, there are two things that they all seem to have in common: heart and soul. And you do not a need a pair of 3-D glasses and IMAX to experience that.

Fear and loathing in the 9th Ward: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 19, 2009)

Who could have guessed that the man who helmed art house classics like Fitzcarraldo, Woyzeck and Aguirre the Wrath of God would one day make a film entitled Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call-New Orleans? Then again, one might argue that the iconoclastic Werner Herzog’s career would be nothing, if not perennially unpredictable.

Herzog’s latest film, arguably adorned with the year’s most unwieldy title for squeezing onto a marquee, is a (sort of) sequel to Abel Ferrara’s highly controversial 1992 neo-noir about a drug and gambling-addicted NYC homicide investigator. In that film, Harvey Keitel gave a completely fearless and thoroughly maniacal performance as a “cop on the edge” who made most of the criminals he was paid to apprehend look like choir boys. Not an easy act to follow-but Nicholas Cage proves to be more than up to the task here.

To my observation, Cage has demonstrated two basic personas in his repertoire over the years. First, there is the Slack-Jawed, Dead-eyed Mumbler (Peggy Sue Got Married, Moonstruck, Red Rock West, Leaving Las Vegas). His other character is the Manic, Wild-eyed Loon (Wild at Heart, Vampire’s Kiss, Kiss of Death, Face/Off). Personally, I get a real kick out of his performances in the latter mode, and it goes without saying that you can now add the role of “bad” Lt. Terence McDonagh to that section of his resume.

As far as I could glean, there is no effort to bridge with Ferrara’s film and explain how Lt. McDonagh transitioned from NYC to New Orleans. Not that it really matters. Anyone who has followed Herzog’s career probably has figured out by now that he is perfectly content to wallow in his own peculiar universe. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing-it’s what makes his work so continually interesting to me. The “plot” ostensibly concerns itself with the murder of a Senegalese family, and the police investigation. Not that the “plot” really matters, either (although Herzog’s post-Katrina milieu is quite atmospheric).

No, if you are going to watch this film (which has “destined to become a midnight cult item” written all over it), I’ll tell you right now that you needn’t concern yourself with trying to follow the (probably deliberately) convoluted and complex murder mystery. You’ll be too busy asking yourself questions like “Did I just see what I think I just saw?” as Herzog and screenwriter William M. Finkelstein proceed to turn the “cop on the edge” genre on its head with every blackly comic twist and turn.

Cage and the rest of the cast (including Val Kilmer, Eva Mendes, Fairuza Balk, Brad Dourif and Jennifer Coolidge) all seem to be in on the director’s joke, and play it to the hilt. By the time you’ve processed Herzog’s use of the “alligator/iguana-cam”, you will have to make a decision to either run for the exit, or go with the flow and say to yourself “Well…I’ve bought the ticket, I’m gonna take the ride.”

This is the most twisted noir I’ve seen since Tough Guys Don’t Dance. So do I think you should rush out and see this? That depends. If you are looking for a refreshing alternative to the usual fourth-quarter Hollywood offerings (Oscar-baiting dramas, prestige biopics and bloated, CGI-laden epics in 3-D)-by all means, knock yourself out. But don’t say I didn’t warn you-if you don’t consider an inspired line like “Shoot him again-his soul is still dancing!” to be pure  genius, then you’d best keep away.