Category Archives: 60’s Counterculture

SIFF 2007: Monkey Warfare ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 23, 2007)

https://i0.wp.com/alchetron.com/cdn/Monkey-Warfare-images-70306555-1e0f-4051-8032-fbfd39a3dff.jpg?w=474&ssl=1

Monkey Warfare, written and directed by Reginald Harkema, is a nice little cinematic bong hit of low-key political anarchy. The film stars Don McKellar and Tracy Wright (the Hepburn and Tracy of quirky Canadian cinema) as a longtime couple who are former lefty radical activists-turned “off the grid” Toronto slackers.

Dan and Linda dutifully hop on their bicycles every morning at the crack of dawn to go dumpster-diving for “antiques” to sell on the internet. They live in a ramshackle rental, filled with the type of posters and memorabilia that suggest an aging hippie mindset, with a particular interest and nostalgic attachment to 1960’s radical politics.

The longtime couple’s relationship has become platonic; they interact with the polite diffidence of roommates making a conscious attempt to avoid pushing each others buttons. We quickly get the sense that Dan and Linda also have a stronger bond that transcends the relationship itself; perhaps a shared secret from their past that feeds a just-barely palpable sense of chronic paranoia tempered only by smoking pot. A lot of pot.

Panic sets in when their regular dealer is suddenly hauled off to jail. Despair quickly turns to relief when our heroine rides into town-not on a white horse, but on a bicycle (merrily flipping off honking motorists like Emily Lloyd in Wish You Were Here). Enter Susan (Nadia Litz) a spirited twenty-something pot dealer/budding anarchist who keeps her basket full of some heady shake she calls “B.C. Organic”.

When Dan invites Susan over to make her first weed delivery, she becomes intrigued by his extensive library of subversive literature. Dan, who is deliriously baked on the B.C. and flushed by the attention of such an inquisitive young hottie, decides to give Susan a crash course in revolutionary politics, which (hilariously) includes dusting off his old MC5 and Fugs LPs.

However, when he loans her his treasured “mint copy” of a book about the Baader-Meinhof Gang, Dan unintentionally triggers a chain of events that will reawaken long dormant passions between himself and Linda (amorous and political) and profoundly affect the lives of all three protagonists.

Monkey Warfare is not exactly a comedy, but Harkema’s script is full of great lines, and the actors deliver them in that peculiarly Canadian deadpan style (I call it the “time-released zinger”). I also like  how Harkema cleverly makes political statements without being heavy-handed.  For instance, all of the principal characters (including a gang of eco-terrorists) ride bicycles. Obviously, Harkema is thumbing his nose at the oil companies, but almost subliminally.

There is also some basis in reality; the director partially modeled the characters of Dan and Linda on the real-life “Vancouver Five”, members of the Canadian anarchist scene who were arrested in 1983 for their links to several politically motivated attacks, including an explosion at a Litton Industries factory where a component for the U.S. cruise missile was being manufactured.

By the way, if you do get an opportunity to screen this film (outside of Canada), be sure to hang around until after the credits roll. There is an audacious scene tacked on the very end in which a gentleman demonstrates, step by step, “how to make” a Molotov Cocktail as he prattles on in (non-subtitled) French (the scene was greeted with some nervous titters, even though it is mostly played for laughs.)

At any rate, it’s certainly not something you see every day at the multiplex. According to the director, who was at the screening I attended, this scene has been censored by the Canadian government and must be excised from any prints that are to be distributed in his home country. (Welcome to our brave new world.)

Endless rain into a paper cup (with dancing!) – Across the Universe ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 22, 2007)

https://i0.wp.com/cdn.funcheap.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/beatles_musical.jpg?w=474

When I first heard that there was a new movie musical based on interpretations of classic Beatle songs, that nervous tic in my left eye started up again. I don’t think I have ever quite fully recovered from the trauma of watching Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the final straw that broke the back of entertainment mogul Robert Stigwood’s empire back in 1978. Sometimes, during those long dark nights of my soul, the apparition of George Burns still appears unbidden before me; singing “Fixing a Hole” (shudder!). (And let’s pretend that All This and World War II never even happened, OK?).

However, when I found out that the gifted film and stage director Julie Taymor (Titus) was at the helm, I decided to give her new piece a chance. Across the Universe is fundamentally a collection of visually stunning, slickly choreographed production numbers, all propelled by Beatles covers loosely connecting the requisite “boy meets girl” motif. Toss in 60s references (Vietnam, Leary, Kesey, Owsley, the Weathermen, Hendrix, Joplin, etc.)…and voila! The narrative is a bit thin; this will likely be a sticking point for anyone looking for a deeper meditation on the peace love and dope generation.

The story’s central character is Jude (Jim Sturgess), a young working class Liverpudlian who stows away illegally to the States in search of his father, an American GI who had a brief wartime fling with his mother. He ends up at Princeton University, where he finds out his father now works as a janitor. Jude soon falls in with Max (Joe Anderson), a free-spirited Ivy League slacker, through whom he meets the love of his life, Max’s sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood).

Eventually, the trio decides to drop out and move to Manhattan, where they find an apartment managed by the (sexy!) Sadie (Dana Fuchs), a hippie earth mother archetype who also is an up and coming rock singer (replete with bluesy Janis Joplin wail). The three roommates are soon sucked into the vortex of 60’s turbulence. Max is drafted and shipped to Vietnam; Lucy throws herself into political activism and the mercurial Jude, still trying to find himself, flirts with becoming an artist.

There are other main characters, but they are somewhat underwritten and largely there for color. For example, one character named Prudence (I assume you’ve caught on to the name game by now?) appears to exist solely to make her grand entrance in the film’s lamest visual pun-she comes in through the bathroom window .

There are some memorable cameos. Joe Cocker belts out a great version of “Come Together”, U-2’s Bono dispenses hallucinogens and hams it up as the day tripping “Dr. Robert”, crooning “I Am The Walrus” and Eddie Izzard (bearing an eerie resemblance to the late Oliver Reed as he appeared in Ken Russell’s Tommy) cavorts with a chorus line comprised of Blue Meanies, to the strains of “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite”.

Inevitably, a few of the more exuberant numbers recall Milos Forman’s 1979 film version of Hair. In fact, one could say that some elements of the story line in Across the Universe recall Hair as well; but I think Taymor is sharp enough to navigate that fine line between “inspiration” and “plagiarism” (or as film makers are fond of calling it: “paying homage”). I also gleaned clever references to The Graduate and Alice’s Restaurant.

If the film has a weakness, it lies in the casting of the two leads. The character of Jude, as written, has obvious parallels John Lennon’s life; Liverpool roots, an estranged father, his creative angst and inherent cynicism. Sturgess doesn’t quite have the depth that a more seasoned actor might have put into those elements of the character. Wood sleepwalks through her role; it’s a disappointing follow-up to her acclaimed performance in Thirteen.

At the end of the day, however, we must keep in mind that this is, after all, a musical. Audiences seem to be much more forgiving about rote line readings when there’s lots of good singing and dancing. Even a genuine genre classic like West Side Story had weaknesses on that front; Richard Beymer was no Brando, and Natalie Wood could have used a better dialect coach. But what do people remember most about that film? The kickass choreography and the incredible music score. And do you want to know what the best part is about Across the Universe is? The Bee Gees are nowhere in sight.

Thursday’s child is Sunday’s clown: Factory Girl **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 18, 2007)

https://thedandylife.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/screenshot2010-12-13at5-13-40pm.png?resize=474%2C296

(This review is based on the “extended” director’s cut of the film that appears on the DVD; I have not screened the original theatrical version.)

One of the more interesting trends to emerge with the narrowing window between the moment a first-run film leaves the multiplex and its  DVD release is what I like to call the “auto repair cut” of box-office flops (“OK, I think I’ve found the problem -try starting it now.”)

Consider George Hickenlooper’s extended cut of Factory Girl, his biopic about the pin-up girl of the 1960s underground, Andy Warhol discovery Edie Sedgwick. Plagued by production problems and prematurely rushed into theaters late last year, the film did marginal box office, and was even less enthusiastically received by some of the surviving real-life participants in the Warhol Factory scene

Edie Sedgwick was the Paris Hilton of the 1960s; a trust fund babe imbued with no discernible talent aside from the ability to attract the paparazzi by associating with  the right people at just the right places at just the right time. Despite growing up as a child of privilege, Sedgwick’s childhood was less than idyllic (two of her brothers committed suicide and her mother was institutionalized).

She arrived in NYC in the mid 60s and was drawn to the downtown art scene, where she was  spotted by Warhol. Taken by herwaif-like beauty,  he vowed to make her a “superstar”. He featured her in his experimental films, and she became the iconic symbol of the “Factory”, where Warhol worked on his projects and played host to a co-op of avant-garde artists, musicians, actors and hangers-on.

Sedgwick fell from grace with Warhol when she became strung out on various substances and was financially cut off by her family. She sought treatment and cleaned up, only to tragically die of a drug overdose at age 28.

Hickenlooper’s  affection for the subject is evidenced in his canny visual replication of the 60s underground art scene; he alternates grainy, b&w film footage with saturated 16mm color stock and utilizes hand-held cinema verite shots, aping the look of Warhol’s own experimental films. The fashion, the music, and the overall vibe of the era is pretty much captured in a bottle here.

But what about the narrative? Ay, there’s the rub. The director’s pastiche plays like the Cliff’s Notes version of Warhol and Sedgwick’s partnership. A lot of things are left unexplained; peripheral characters come and go without exposition (it wasn’t until the credits rolled that I learned tidbits like “Oh, that was supposed to be Moe Tucker from the Velvet Underground?”

In a narrative film, you can get away with creating bit parts like “Man #2 with suitcase” or “Crazy bag lady in subway”, but when you are dramatizing a true story…well, I think you see my point. (Ironically, the 30 minute documentary extra on the DVD, featuring recollections from friends and family. offers more insight into what made Sedgwick tick than the full length feature does).

You can’t fault the actors. Sienna Miller gives her all in the lead role and does an admirable job portraying the full arc of Edie’s transition from an innocent pixie, fresh from a pastoral country estate, to a haggard junkie, encamped in a dingy room at the Chelsea Hotel.

The always excellent Guy Pearce “becomes” Warhol. It’s not as easy as one might think to convincingly inhabit Warhol’s deadpan persona; actors have made valiant efforts (David Bowie, Jared Harris and Crispin Glover) but generally end up doing little more than donning a white wig and delivering a rote lank stares and signature catch phrases (“Umm, yeah. That’s great.” “Yeah, hi.”).

Even the traditionally wooden Hayden Christensen registers a pulse with his performance and delivers a  spirited impression of Bob Dylan. Sorry-did I say ‘Bob Dylan’? I meant to say, ‘Billy Quinn’ (as in “The Mighty Quinn”?), referred to as a “famous folk singer”.

Factory Girl is perhaps not quite as dismal as many have led you to believe, but it is still not as good as one might have hoped.