Category Archives: Conspiracy a-go-go

Get the papers, get the papers: The Irishman (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 30, 2019)

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If I didn’t know better, I’d wager Martin Scorsese’s new crime drama, The Irishman was partially intended to be a black comedy. That’s because I thought a lot of it was so …funny.

Funny how?

It’s funny, y’know, the …the story. It’s funny. OK, the story isn’t “ha-ha” funny; there’s all these mob guys, and there’s a lot of stealing and extorting and shooting and garroting. It’s just, y’know, it’s … the way Scorsese tells the story and everything. Like my cousin.

True story. I have this cousin. Technically 2nd cousin, I think (my dear late mother’s 1st cousin…however the math works). Due to our age spread he’s always seemed more like an uncle to me. He’s a character. A funny guy …always with the jokes. A modne mensch.

At any rate, he’s Brooklyn born-and-raised (as was my mother). Earlier this week he and I had a little exchange going on Facebook regarding The Irishman. I had posted about how excited I was that the film had finally dropped on Netflix following its limited 2-month theatrical run.

I know what you’re thinking: “Bad movie critic! Shame!” But why schlep to the theater, with the parking and the ticket prices and the overpriced stale popcorn…and besides I’m already paying extra for Netflix on top of my $200 Comcast bill so dammit I will have my own private screening, on my couch thank you very much.

Anyway, my cousin commented that The Irishman was great, and that “the 3½ hours went by very quickly”. Knowing that portions of the film’s narrative (which is steeped in mob history) take place in NYC, I half-teasingly replied to him:

“I’m guessing that a lot of Scorsese’s period mob films are kind of like a stroll down memory lane for anyone who grew up in NYC back in the day?”

To which he wrote back:

“The Gambinos were one block up on Carroll Street about six blocks from us …and we learned at an early age to stay away from any men wearing suits with a newspaper folded underneath their arm.”

That cracked me up. I thought it was, y’know …funny. But then he followed up with this:

“These men in suits usually had a schlom [sic] rolled up in the newspaper and were on the way to bust up somebody who was a slow payer. If they had to come back the 2nd or 3rd time they usually beat up the man’s wife, now we had two things to worry about.”

The uh, “scholm”? He must have been reading my mind, adding:

“The schlom was a piece of pipe or a heavy piece of cable-when you saw these guys you just walked the other way.”

Oh. That’s not so funny. It’s just, y’know, the way my cuz tells the story and everything.

One thing’s for sure-after 50 years of film-making Martin Scorsese knows how to tell a story and everything. And while it is not the only subject he makes films about, nor is the subject his exclusive domain, few living filmmakers have his particular flair for telling stories about the Mob; specifically for the way he pulls the viewer inside the heads of people who feel perfectly at home living in the shadows of a completely amoral universe.

Despite the consistently visceral, in-your-face nature of his crime dramas, Scorsese once commented “…there is no such thing as pointless violence” on-screen. “Deep down you want to think that people are really good—but the reality outweighs that.” C’est la vie.

I know this sounds weird, but there’s something oddly reassuring about tucking into a Scorsese film that features some of the most seasoned veterans of his “mob movie repertory” like Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel; akin to putting on your most well-worn pair of comfy slippers. And with the addition of Al Pacino …fuhgeddaboudit!

Slipping into place from the get-go like the natural bookend to a triptych that began with Scorsese’s 1990 “true-crime”-inspired New York mob drama Goodfellas and continued with Casino, his 1995 film set in the mob underworld of 1970s Vegas, The Irishman ambitiously paints an even broader historical canvas of underworld chronology; from Albert Anastasia to Sam Giancana to “Crazy Joe” Gallo and Joe Columbo. And that’s just a warm-up. Maybe you find out who ordered the Jimmy Hoffa hit. And possibly JFK (such elements of the narrative reminded me of James Ellroy’s novel American Tabloid).

At the center of this swirling, blood-spattered history is “the Irishman”-Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a Mafia hitman who, if his real-life counterpart’s “confessions” are to be believed (as documented in Charles Brandt’s non-fiction source book I Heard You Paint Houses, adapted here by Steve Zaillian) is like the Forrest Gump of the mob underworld.

“Painting houses” is mob slang for carrying out hit jobs. As the retired geriatric iteration of Sheeran pointedly assures us (breaking the fourth wall Goodfellas style throughout the film), he was a very good “painter” back in the day. He knew some guys. We meet them via flashbacks and flash-forwards.

Sheeran’s key cohort is Russell Bufalino (brilliantly played by Joe Pesci, who reportedly had to be brow-beaten out of semi-retirement by Scorsese and co-producer De Niro to get the gang back together for just one final heist). In younger days, when he is working as a truck driver for a meat packing firm, Sheeran has a (friendly) chance encounter with Bufalino, the head of a Pennsylvania mob family.

The pair’s professional association does not begin at that time, but Sheeran is later “officially” introduced to Russell by his cousin Bill (Ray Romano), a union lawyer who gets Sheeran off the hook for skimming meat shipments and selling them to a Philly mob.

This is Sheeran’s entree into the mob underworld, and the ensuing tale, which spans the 1950s through the 1970s, is nothing short of a grand Mafia epic (whether it’s 100% factual or not). The story begins in Philadelphia but shifts locales to cover events that went down in New York City, Detroit and Miami (Scorsese’s use of Jackie Gleason’s “Melancholy Serenade” for his establishing shot of Miami is so money I nearly plotzed).

A significant portion of the film involves Sheeran’s association with Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). It’s a treat to savor De Niro and Pacino sharing so much screen time; a long-overdue pairing of acting titans that was comparatively teased at in Michael Mann’s 1995 crime epic Heat.

I’m on the fence regarding Pacino’s take on Hoffa. It’s quite…demonstrative. Then again, Jimmy Hoffa was a larger-than-life character. Also, De Niro’s performance is relatively low-key, so perhaps it’s just their contrasting styles.

The supporting cast is uniformly excellent…and populous. Stephen Graham (as “Tony Pro” Provenzano) is a standout (the always intense UK actor had a memorable recurring role as Al Capone in the Scorsese-produced HBO series Boardwalk Empire).

The cast also includes Bobby Cannavale (another Boardwalk Empire alum) and Anna Paquin (as Sheeran’s eldest daughter). I didn’t recognize comedian Jim Norton (as Don Rickles) or musician (and Sopranos veteran) Steven Van Zandt as singer Jerry Vale until the credits!

Ultimately, the film belongs to (and hinges on) De Niro and his performance; and he does not disappoint. He and Scorsese have collaborated so closely for so many decades that it is hard to distinguish when one or the other’s aesthetic begins and the other one’s ends. Not that this collaboration signals the “the end” of either artist’s creative journey; if anything, it serves to remind movie audiences what real classical filmmaking is all about.

On Winter Kills (***), conspiracy a-go-go and that day in Dallas

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 23, 2019)

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“Strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us. […]

 If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. […]

We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth […] But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

President John F. Kennedy, from his Robert Frost tribute address (October 23, 1963)

Why are uneven anniversaries the less popular rest stops along the time continuum? For example, “56th anniversary” is not as sexy as “50th anniversary…or “60th anniversary” (this could explain why “51st Anniversary” is one of Jimi Hendrix’s more obscure songs).

Regardless, time marches on, the Earth continues to revolve around the Sun, and then (with apologies to Pink Floyd) one day you find ten years have got behind you, and so on and so forth and eventually we’re just history and a highlight film, over and out, bye now.

Still, we seem to need anniversaries. Why? Well, according to The Awareness Centre:

It’s a chance to reflect on a relationship or a cultural identity, to come together to remember a person who’s died, or to celebrate a joyous event.

Whatever the anniversary, it gives us a chance to look back over the years since the event we’re marking and reflect on how it has shaped us. Remembering the past (but without letting it rule us) can be an important part of understanding who we are.

Obviously, the “us” can apply to the collective, as well as the personal. Being of “a certain age”, there is one “collective” anniversary that I never fail to note…November 22.

“Where were you when Kennedy got shot?” has been a meme for anyone old enough to remember what happened that day in Dallas on November 22, 1963…56 years ago this past Friday. I was but a wee military brat, attending my second-grade class at a public school in Columbus, Ohio (my dad was stationed at nearby Fort Hayes). Our class was herded into the main gym for an impromptu all-school assembly. Someone (probably the principal) gave a brief address. It gets fuzzy from there; but I think that we either sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” or recited the Pledge of Allegiance, then got sent home early.

My 7-year-old mind could not grasp the profound sociopolitical impact of this tragedy; but I have come to understand it in the fullness of time. From my 2016 review of Jackie:

Understandably, the question of “why now?” could arise, to which I would reply (paraphrasing JFK) …why not? To be sure, Jacqueline Kennedy’s story has been well-covered in a myriad of documentaries and feature films; like The Beatles, there are very few (if any) mysteries about her life and legacy to uncover at this point. And not to mention that horrible, horrible day in Dallas…do we really need to pay $15 just to see the nightmare reenacted for the umpteenth time? (Spoiler alert: the President dies at the end).

I think that “we” do need to see this film, even if we know going in that there was no “happy ever-aftering” in this Camelot. It reminds us of a “brief, shining moment” when all seemed possible, opportunities were limitless, and everything was going to be all right, because Jack was our king and Jackie was our queen. So what if it was all kabuki, as the film implies; merely a dream, invented by “a great, tragic actress” to unite us in our sadness. Then it was a good dream, and I think we’ll find our Camelot again…someday.

Sadly, anyone who follows the current news cycle knows we’re still looking for Camelot.

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They will run you dizzy. They will pile falsehood on top of falsehood, until you can’t tell a lie from the truth – and you won’t even want to. That’s how the powerful keep their power. Don’t you read the papers?

From Winter Kills (screenplay by William Richert)

The Kennedy assassination ultimately precipitated a cottage industry of independent studies, papers, magazine articles, non-fiction books, novels, documentaries and feature films that riff on the plethora of conspiracy theories that continue to flourish to this day.

This is despite the fact few stones remain unturned…and there was that Warren Commission report released in 1964; an 888-page summation concluding JFK’s alleged murderer Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. This “conclusive” statement, of course only fueled more speculation that our government was not being completely ah…forthcoming.

At any rate (and speaking of anniversaries) 2019 marks the 40th anniversary of one of the more oddball conspiracy thrillers based on the JFK assassination…Winter Kills, which has just been reissued on Blu-ray by Kino-Lorber. Director William Richert adapted his screenplay from Richard Condon’s book (it’s worth noting that Condon also wrote the conspiracy thriller The Manchurian Candidate, which was adapted for the screen twice).

Jeff Bridges stars as the (non-political) half-brother of an assassinated president. After witnessing the deathbed confession of a man claiming to be a “second gunman”, he reluctantly gets drawn into a new investigation of his brother’s murder nearly 20 years after the matter was allegedly put to rest by the findings of the “Pickering Commission”.

John Huston chews the scenery as Bridges’ father (a larger-than-life character said to be loosely based on Joseph Kennedy Sr.). The cast includes Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Sterling Hayden, Ralph Meeker, Toshiro Mifune, Richard Boone, and Elizabeth Taylor.

The film vacillates between genuine conspiracy thriller and a broad satire of other byzantine conspiracy thrillersbut is eminently watchable, thanks to an interesting cast and a screenplay that, despite ominous undercurrents, delivers a great deal of dark humor.

I own the 2003 Anchor Bay DVD, so I can attest that Kino’s 4K transfer is a definite upgrade; accentuating cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s exemplary lens work. Unfortunately, there are no new extras; but all bonus materials from Anchor Bay’s DVD have been ported over, including an entertaining commentary track by director Richert (the story behind the film’s production is nearly as over-the-top as the finished product).

Is Winter Kills essential viewing? It depends. If you like quirky 60s and 70s cinema, it’s one of the last hurrahs in a film cycle of arch, lightly political and broadly satirical all-star psychedelic train wrecks like The Loved One, The President’s Analyst, Skidoo, Candy and The Magic Christian. For “conspiracy-a-go-go” completists, it is a must-see.

Here are 5 more films that either deal directly with or have a notable link with the JFK conspiracy cult. And while you’re watching, keep President Kennedy’s observation in the back of your mind: “In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

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Suddenly – Lewis Allen’s taut 1954 crime thriller/film noir stars a surprisingly effective Frank Sinatra as the cold-blooded leader of a three-man hit team who are hired to assassinate the (unnamed) President during a scheduled whistle-stop at a sleepy California town. They commandeer a family’s home that affords the hit team a clear shot.

The film is primarily played as a hostage drama. It should be noted that in this case, the shooter’s motives are financial, not political (“Don’t hand me that politics jazz-that’s not my bag!” Sinatra snarls after he’s accused of being “an enemy agent” by one of his hostages). Richard Sale’s script also drops in a perfunctory nod or two to the then-contemporaneous McCarthy era (one hostage speculates that the hit men are “commies”).

That said, some aspects of the story are quite eerily prescient of President Kennedy’s assassination 9 years later; Sinatra’s character is an ex-military sharpshooter, zeroes down on his target from a high window, and utilizes a rifle of a European make. Most significantly, there have been more than a few claims over the years in JFK conspiracy circles suggesting that Lee Harvey Oswald had watched this film with a keen interest.

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The Manchurian Candidate – There’s certainly more than just a perfunctory nod to Red hysteria in John Frankenheimer’s 1962 cold war paranoia fest, which was the last assassination thriller of note released prior to the zeitgeist-shattering horror of President Kennedy’s murder. Oddly enough, Frank Sinatra was involved in this project as well.

Sinatra plays a Korean War vet who reaches out to help a buddy he served with (Laurence Harvey). Harvey is on the verge of a meltdown, triggered by recurring war nightmares. Sinatra has been suffering the same malady (both men had been held as POWs by the North Koreans). Once it dawns on Sinatra that they both may have been brainwashed during their captivity for very sinister purposes, all hell breaks loose.

In this narrative (based on Richard Condon’s novel) the assassin is posited as an unwitting dupe of a decidedly “un-American” political ideology; a domestic terrorist programmed by his Communist puppet masters to kill on command. While many of the Cold War references have dated, the film remains a solid and suspenseful political thriller (Jonathan Demme’s 2004 version was an interesting take, but I much prefer the original).

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Executive Action – After the events of November 22, 1963, Hollywood took a decade-long hiatus from the genre; it seemed nobody wanted to “go there”. But after Americans had mulled a few years in the sociopolitical turbulence of the mid-to-late 1960s (including the double whammy of losing Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King to bullets in 1968), a new cycle of more cynical and byzantine conspiracy thrillers began to crop up (surely exacerbated even further by Watergate).

The most significant shift in the meme was to move away from the concept of the assassin as a dupe or an operative of a “foreign” (i.e., “anti-American”) ideology; some films postulated that shadowy cabals of businessmen and/or members of the government were capable of such machinations. The rise of the JFK conspiracy cult (and the cottage industry it created) was probably a factor as well.

One of the earliest examples was this 1973 film, directed by David Miller, and starring Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan. Dalton Trumbo (famously blacklisted back in the 50s) adapted the screenplay from a story by Donald Freed and Mark Lane.

A speculative thriller about the JFK assassination, it offers a scenario that a consortium comprised of hard right pols, powerful businessmen and disgruntled members of the clandestine community were responsible.  Frankly, the premise is ultimately more intriguing than the film itself (which is flat and talky), but the filmmakers at least deserve credit for being the first ones to “go there”. The film was a flop at the time, but has become a cult item; as such, it is more of a curio than a classic. Still, it’s worth a watch.

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The Parallax View – Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 thriller takes the concept of the dark corporate cabal one step further, positing political assassination as a sustainable capitalist venture, if you can perfect a discreet and reliable algorithm for screening and recruiting the right “employees”.

Warren Beatty gives an excellent performance as a maverick print journalist investigating a suspicious string of untimely demises that befall witnesses to a U.S. senator’s assassination in a restaurant atop Seattle’s Space Needle. The trail leads him to a clandestine recruiting agency called the Parallax Corporation.

The screenplay by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (based on the 1970 novel by Loren Singer, with an uncredited rewrite by Robert Towne) contains obvious allusions to the JFK assassination; e.g. it has the “assassin as patsy” scenario, and features a closing scene with a slow, ominous zoom out on a panel of men bearing a striking resemblance to the Warren Commission, sitting in a dark chamber solemnly reciting their “conclusive” findings on what has transpired (although we know better).

The supporting cast includes Hume Cronyn, William Daniels and Paula Prentiss. Nice work by cinematographer Gordon Willis (aka “the prince of darkness”), who sustains the foreboding, claustrophobic mood of the piece with his masterful use of light and shadow.

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JFK – The obvious bookend to this cycle is Oliver Stone’s controversial 1991 film, in which Gary Oldman gives a suitably twitchy performance as Lee Harvey Oswald. However, within the context of Stone’s film, to say that we have a definitive portrait of JFK’s assassin (or “assassins”, plural) is difficult, because, not unlike Agatha Christie’s fictional detective Hercule Poirot, Stone suspects no one…and everyone.

The most misunderstood aspect of the film, I think, is that Stone is not favoring any prevalent narrative; and that it is by the director’s definition a “speculative” political thriller. Those who have criticized the approach seem to have missed that Stone himself has stated from the get-go that his goal was to provide a “counter myth” to the “official” conclusion of the Warren Commission (usually referred to as the “lone gunman theory”).

It is a testament to Stone’s skills as a consummate filmmaker that the narrative he presents appears so seamless and dynamic, when in fact he is simultaneously mashing up at least a dozen possible scenarios. The message is right there in the script, when Donald Sutherland’s “Mr. X” advises Kevin Costner (as New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison) “Oh, don’t take my word for it. Don’t believe me. Do your own work…your own thinking.”

 

Blu-ray reissue: The Andromeda Strain (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 6, 2019)

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The Andromeda Strain – Arrow Films Blu-ray

What’s the scariest monster? The one you cannot see. Robert Wise directs this 1971 sci-fi thriller, adapted from Michael Crichton’s best-seller by Nelson Gidding. A team of scientists race the clock to save the world from a deadly virus from outer space that replicates with alarming efficiency. The team is restricted to a hermetically sealed environment until they can figure a way to destroy the microbial intruder, making this film a nail-biter from start to finish.

Arrow has done an outstanding restoration job (sourced from a 4K scan of the original 35mm camera negative). The mono audio is clean and clear (highlighting Gil Melle’s electronic score). Extras include Bryan Reesman’s engaging commentary, critic appreciations, and more.

SIFF 2019: X: The eXploited (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 18, 2019)

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This dark, brooding neo-noir from Hungarian writer-director Karoly Ujj-Meszaros mostly succeeds at being dark and brooding. It begins promisingly with an interesting protagonist; a top-flight female police detective who has been relegated to desk duty because of an acute panic disorder, initiated by her late husband’s suicide (he was also a detective). Nonetheless, she is enlisted by a new department head to help investigate a string of suicides that may have been staged. Unfortunately, the film is ultimately bogged down by a murky, pointlessly byzantine plot.

SIFF 2019: The Realm (*1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 1, 2019)

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In this conspiracy thriller, a low-level Spanish politician becomes an unwitting fall guy for the systemized corruption in his district. He decides to blow the whistle on his backstabbing colleagues before he is forced to resign his post. It’s a good premise and has a promising start, but the narrative becomes more and more preposterous, to the point of self-parody. I sensed the film makers were aiming for Three Days of the Condor…but unfortunately what they ended up with was this 2-hour turkey.

SIFF 2019: Cold Case Hammarskjold (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 18, 2019)

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Initially, Mads Brugger’s documentary promises to be straightforward investigative journalism regarding the mysterious 1961 plane crash in Zambia that killed UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarsjkold. But around the halfway mark, Brugger pivots, now claiming (admitting?) it may all just be a wild conspiracy theory. Either way, it’s a riveting political thriller (and if true-very disconcerting). I was reminded of Orson Welles’ (more playful) semi-documentary ‘F’ for Fake, which teases the viewer’s perceptions regarding what it’s “about”.

On mad kings, Mueller’s report, and Altman’s Secret Honor

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 20, 2019)

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It’s been déjà vu all over again this week. In my 2008 review of Frost/Nixon, I wrote:

There’s an old theatrical performer’s axiom that goes “Always leave ‘em wanting more.” In August of 1974, President Richard Nixon made his Watergate-weary exit from the American political stage with a nationally televised resignation soliloquy and left ‘em wanting more…answers. Any immediate hopes for an expository epilogue to this 5-year long usurpation of the Constitution and Shakespearean tragedy were abruptly dashed one month later when President Gerald Ford granted him a full pardon. Like King Lear, the mad leader slunk back to his castle by the sea and out of public view. […]

[Actor Frank Langella] uncannily captures the essence of Nixon’s contradictions and complexities; the supreme intelligence, the grandiose pomposity and the congenital craftiness, all corroded by the insidious paranoia that eventually consumed his soul, and by turn, the soul of the nation.

Speaking of the devil, on Sunday CNN premiered the concluding episode of Tricky Dick, a 4-part docuseries about Nixon’s life and political career (recommended-CNN always repeats broadcasts, so don’t despair if you missed it first time around).

It was followed by an hour-long panel discussion about the lessons learned, hosted by Anderson Cooper and featuring journalist Carl Bernstein (who famously broke the Watergate story for the Washington Post with Bob Woodward), former Nixon White House lawyer John Dean, presidential historian Timothy Naftali and former Watergate Special Prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste. When Cooper asked him about the legacy of Watergate, Ben-Veniste said:

“As I said in my book, written shortly after I left the office [as Special Prosecutor] …For the future, the lessons of Watergate are wonderful, in that the system worked–in this circumstance…but they almost didn’t work. For the future, does it take something more than what we have experienced in Watergate [regarding] the type of evidence: demonstrative, incredibly powerful evidence of criminal wrongdoing for a President of the United States to be put in a position of either resigning, or certainly [being] impeached and convicted?”

That was a loaded question, coming as it did 4 days prior to the official (belated) release of the (almost) full Mueller report to the United States Congress and the American people. Of course, everyone on that panel was fully aware that the exhaustive 2-year investigation looking into possible foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election, possible collusion with the Trump campaign, and possible obstruction of justice by Trump and/or members of his administration after the fact was about to come to a head.

Carl Bernstein was more succinct, offering this take:

“The system worked in Watergate. But it worked ultimately because there was a ‘smoking gun tape’. It’s very questionable whether the system would have worked without that gun.”

Bernstein was referring to Nixon’s self-incriminating statements regarding a coverup and obstruction of justice…captured for posterity via a secret recording system the President himself had arranged to be set up in order to document all his Oval Office conversations.

And so here we are, 45 years after Nixon resigned, and the media, members of Congress and concerned citizens find themselves poring over the 400 pages of the Mueller Report (replete with “limited” redactions) as they ask themselves the other $64,000 question:

Is there a “smoking gun” buried somewhere in here…or a reasonable facsimile thereof?

At least one Congressperson has stepped up to the plate and said (in so many words) “Smoking gun?! Try a field howitzer!” Taking an extraordinarily fearless and principled stance amid the disappointing backpedaling and hand-wringing angst emanating from many of her colleagues, senator and presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren was interviewed Friday night by Rachael Maddow on MSNBC, and did not mince any words:

 “This is about point of principle […] This isn’t about politics. This isn’t even specifically about Donald Trump himself. It is about what a President of the United States should be able to do and about the role of Congress is in saying: ‘No. A president does not get to come in and stop an investigation about a foreign power that attacked this country, or an investigation about his own wrongdoing.’ Equal justice under law, no one is above the law; and that includes the President of the United States. It is the constitutional responsibility of Congress to follow through on that. […]

Because it matters, not just for this president, it matters for the next president, and the next president after that, and the next president after that. I get it…in dictatorships, the government coalesces around one person in the middle and does everything to protect that one person. But that’s not where we live. We live in a democracy, and it is controlled by a constitution. And the way we make that democracy work is with checks and balances. And a president who says, “I don’t have to follow the law, and nobody can touch me on criminal acts” -that’s not right.

The Constitution says that the House and the Senate can do this. […] And every member of the House, and every member of the Senate should be called on to vote: Do you believe that constitutes an impeachable offense? I do believe that the evidence is just overwhelming that Donald Trump has committed these offenses, and that means that we should open proceedings in the House. And then the House can take a vote.”

Nixon famously stated in the David Frost interviews, “I’m saying that when the president does it…it’s not illegal.” Mind you, he made that statement several years after he had resigned from the office of the president in shame, ending a decades-long political career in the most humiliating manner imaginable. Yet he never publicly apologized for any of the questionable actions he engaged in while serving as the President of the United States.

If that pathology reminds you of somebody else…perhaps a specific “somebody” currently occupying the White House, you will not be surprised to learn that there is a disturbingly prescient link between Richard M. Nixon and Donald J. Trump, in the form of this letter:

 

December 21, 1987

Dear Donald,

I did not see the program, but Mrs. Nixon told me you were great on the Donahue show.

As you can imagine, she is an expert in politics, and she predicts that whenever you decide to run for office you will be a winner!

With warm regards,

Sincerely,

(signed) Richard M. Nixon

 

Nightmare fuel.

How ironic that Nixon, the man who many historians posit lost his 1960 presidential bid because he was not as telegenic as JFK and never did get the hang of the medium (even once he eventually became the leader of the free world) was nonetheless canny enough to recognize a master manipulator of the idiot box when his wife saw Trump on a TV show.

Howard Beale: “Why me?”

Arthur Jensen: “Because you’re on television, dummy.”

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Which brings me to why I felt this was the perfect week to pull out my dusty DVD of Robert Altman’s brilliant (and underappreciated) 1984 film adaptation of Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone’s one-man play Secret Honor (****) to take it for a spin on current events.

Originally titled as “Secret Honor: The Last Testament of Richard M. Nixon” when it opened in 1983 at Los Angeles Actors’ Theater, the film is a fictional monologue by Nixon, set in his post-presidential New Jersey office. Part confessional, part autobiographical, and (large) part batshit-crazy postcards from the edge rant, it’s an astonishing piece of writing; a pitch-perfect 90-minute distillation of Nixon’s dichotomy.

Philip Baker Hall (most recognizable from the Paul Thomas Anderson films Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia) pulls out all the stops in a tour-de-force turn reprising his stage role.

His Nixon is at once darkly brooding and explosively feral, pacing his claustrophobic office like a caged animal, swigging Chivas Regal and alternately pleading his “case” before an unseen Court of Public Opinion and howling at the moon (not dissimilar to how late night TV satirists envision Donald Trump pacing the Oval Office, wolfing cheeseburgers and unleashing Tweet storms from the Id).

Nixon, who is taping his monologue on a cassette recorder (in a blackly comic reference to his purported technical ineptitude, he spends the first several minutes of the film fumbling and cursing while trying to figure out how to work it) largely speaks in the first person, but oddly switches to the third at times, referring to his “client” whenever he addresses “your honor” (it’s no secret Trump often refers to himself in the third person).

The word salad soliloquies Nixon utters as he prowls the long dark night of his soul in arctic desolation share spooky parallels with the word salad soliloquies that Trump bellows as he prowls podiums in the full light of day at his public rallies.

Nixon frequently rants at his “enemies”. He is particularly obsessed with “those goddam Kennedys”. This is one of the more revealing insights into Nixon’s psychology contained in Freed and Stone’s screenplay; Nixon, ever self-conscious about his modest Quaker roots, is obviously both resentful and envious of the Kennedys’ privileged patrician upbringing, Ivy League education, movie-star charisma, and physical attractiveness.

He also lights into the other usual suspects in his orbit: Henry Kissinger, President Eisenhower, liberals, “East coast shits”, Jews, the FBI, and the media (you know…the “deep state” and “fake news”).

In rare moments of lucidity, he sadly recalls the untimely deaths of his brothers (Arthur, who died in 1925 at age 7, and Harold, who died in 1933 at age 23, both from TB) and speaks tenderly to the portrait of his late mother (although it gets weird when he refers to himself as her “loving dog”…and promptly begins to bark).

Hall is mesmerizing; while he doesn’t physically resemble Nixon, he so expertly captures his essence that by the end of the piece, he is virtually indistinguishable from the real item. It takes substantial acting chops to carry an entire film; Hall has got them in spades.

Film adaptations of stage plays can be problematic, especially in a chamber piece. But since this is, after all, Robert Altman…not to worry. He cleverly utilizes the limited props to his full advantage; for example, the four CCTV monitors in the office pull double duty as both a metaphor for Nixon’s paranoia and a hall of mirrors representing his multiple personalities (shades of the symbology in Pete Townshend’s rock opera Quadrophenia).

It also helps that Hall’s performance is anything but static; he moves relentlessly about the set (in a supplemental interview on the Criterion DVD, Hall recalls the original running time of the play as 2 ½ hours…I can’t begin to imagine the mental and physical stamina required to deliver a performance of that intensity night after night). DP Pierre Mignot deserves major kudos for his fluid tracking shots.

Watching the film again in context of all the drama and angst surrounding the release of the Mueller report, I was struck by both its timelessness as a cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked power and corruption, and its timeliness as a reminder of what democracy looks like at its lowest ebb-which is where we may be now. Time to wake up.

As Oliver Stone reminded us in the closing credits of JFK: What is past is prologue.

Nursery crimes: Three Identical Strangers (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 28, 2018)

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From whence it follows, that one thing cannot have two beginnings of existence, nor two things one beginning; it being impossible for two things of the same kind to be or exist in the same instant, in the very same place; or one or the same thing in different places.

-John Locke, from An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

It’s a well-known secret that Elvis Presley had a stillborn twin brother. As biographers have noted, Jesse Garon Presley nonetheless remained “with” Elvis until his own death 42 years later. Family and friends recounted that during times of stress or bouts of depression, it was not unusual for him to have long conversations with his “missing half.”

There is one inarguable bond between multiple birth siblings. First and foremost, there is an empirically evident biological closeness, particularly with identical siblings, who literally come from the same zygote and thereby share 100% of its genetic material.

However, once you push beyond obvious similarities like physical resemblance and shared mannerisms, you quickly enter the realm of the theoretical. For example, do some (like Elvis) have a kind of unbreakable “psychic” connection from the womb until death? Are some “pre-programmed” by nature to share the same likes, dislikes, aesthetic taste, etc.-even after they’ve left the nest and gone their separate ways to live their adult lives?

Consider the long strange trip undertaken by Robert Shafran, Edward Galland, and David Kellman, three young men who grew up in separate families within the same 100-mile radius yet were blissfully unaware up until the age of 19 that they were identical triplets.

As recalled by one of the brothers in British filmmaker Tim Wardle’s mind-blowing documentary Three Identical Strangers, it was initially a case of random chance back in 1980 that led him to discover that he had a twin brother. However, the “twins” would not be such for very long; once the media picked up on this irresistible human-interest story, it was but days before kismet put the cap on a perfect hat trick: for then there were three.

The triplets were given up at birth in 1961 by their single mother. Separated immediately, they were placed with three families through the auspices of a New York City adoption agency. While it is not unusual for the identity of the biological parents to be withheld, it was somewhat unusual in this case that (for reasons unveiled as the film unfolds) even the three sets of adoptive parents were not told that their respective adoptees had siblings.

Interestingly, the families the three were placed with were socioeconomically disparate to a fault: one blue collar, one middle class, and the other well-moneyed. Even more remarkable then that the 19-year-old triplets not only bonded so quickly but discovered that they had grown up sharing many of the same predilections; ranging from a love of wrestling, smoking Marlboro cigarettes, and even being attracted to the same type of woman.

Blessed with strapping good looks and exuding enough positive, goofy energy to power a small city whenever they were in the same room together, it’s hardly surprising that they became instant media darlings (archival footage demonstrates them working their charm offensive on Tom Brokaw, Phil Donahue and Paula Zahn).

They were not shy about cashing in on their celebrity; they moved into a N.Y.C. apartment together, eventually opened a SoHo restaurant (“Triplets”) and were feted by the likes of Madonna (who landed them a cameo in Susan Seidelman’s 1985 film Desperately Seeking Susan). Each bro found the love of his life, adding “happily married” to their collective fairy tale.

Their story could’ve (should’ve?) ended there; a perennial feel-good 6 o’clock news kicker if you ever heard one. But that would be assuming that we don’t live in a cruel, unfeeling universe that can randomly taketh away…as casually as it can randomly giveth.

Here’s where my review potentially becomes…complicated. I could tell you what happens next, but then, I’d have to kill you. And I don’t even have your address. Besides, I am a man of peace and don’t own a firearm, so it’s an ineffectual, existential threat…at best.

Here’s what l’ll do for you. If you have no plans to see this film, just go ahead and Google the story (it’s a doozey). But, if you do plan to, and you enjoy documentaries that unfold like the best riveting conspiracy thrillers do, chock full of unexpected twists and turns, I’d recommend that (like me) you go in completely “cold”. Granted, some of those deeper questions vis a vis “psychic connections” and such between identical siblings are not answered, but Wardle’s film does have a lot to say about “nature vs. nurture”, scientific ethics, celebrity culture, and the unshakable bonds of familial love.

SIFF 2018: The African Storm **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018

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Writer-director-producer-star Sylvestre Amoussou’s political satire (a cross between The Mouse That Roared and O Lucky Man!) is set in the imaginary African republic of Tangara. There are no Marvel superheroes in sight, but there is the nation’s forward-thinking President (Amoussou), who issues a bold decree: he is nationalizing all of his country’s traditionally Western-controlled businesses and lucrative diamond-mining operations. Naturally, the various multinational corporations concerned immediately bring in their “fixers”, who employ every dirty trick in the playbook to sow political upheaval, public discord, and outright violence throughout the tiny nation. Undeterred, the President continues to rally, even daring to denounce (gulp) the IMF and The World Bank. Can he pull this off? I really wanted to love this plucky anti-colonial parable, but…it’s overly simplistic, to the point of cringe-worthy audience pandering.

Ich bin ein Netflix-binger: Babylon Berlin (***½) & Mute (*)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 3, 2018)

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How do I describe the genre-defying Netflix series Babylon Berlin?  Does “cop-on-the edge” / conspiracy thriller/ historical drama/ musical-fantasy pique your interest? Nein? How about: The Singing Detective meets Seven Days in May at the corner of Berlin Alexanderplatz and Cabaret? Does that help-or does it at least make your ganglia twitch?

You see, it’s very simple to follow:

It is 1929 Weimar Republic-era Berlin. There are contingents of German Communists, Monarchists, and National Socialists fighting among themselves; meanwhile the German police are investigating contingents of Russian White, Trotskyite, and Bolshevik emigres, who are fighting among themselves. The German police are also investigating a porn film ring…and themselves. There’s an Armenian crime lord with an interesting variety of ways to make you talk.

Nearly everybody is jockeying and scheming and blackmailing each other to get dibs on a train car believed to contain a fortune in gold bars. Oh-and there’s something about the possibility of a military coup, and a magic ring.

There’s actually nothing about a magic ring, but as “Babylon” in the title infers, there’s lots of sex and drugs and Reich ‘n’ roll to hold your interest, should the byzantine political milieu make your eyes glaze over. Truth be told, the politics take a back seat to an array of fascinating characters to follow, led by two terrific lead performances from Volker Bruch and Liv Lisa Fries. Bruch plays vice squad Inspector Rath, a WW1 veteran suffering from PTSD (he keeps ampules of morphine handy for countering “the shakes”).

Rath’s fate becomes significantly intertwined with that of Fries’ character, Charlotte. Charlotte is a “flapper” (she dances a mean Charleston!) who lives with her highly dysfunctional family in the Berlin slums. She scrapes by as best she can while she yearns to one day break the Berlin police department’s glass ceiling by becoming a homicide detective (needless to say, that’s an uphill battle for an ambitious young woman in 1929).

There are nearly as many characters to keep track of as in a Tolstoy novel. However, with the luxury of 16 episodes, most are nicely fleshed out. I do want to mention two more standout performances. First, Peter Kurth’s turn as Chief Inspector Wolter, a complex, morally ambiguous career cop who could have popped right out of a James Ellroy story.

I’ve become an instant fan of Severija Janušauskaitė, as Countess Sorokina, a Mata Hari-like character who spies for the Soviet secret police when she’s not busy performing her drag cabaret act or juggling love affairs with a Trotskyite leader and a right-wing German industrialist. It’s a meaty role, and the Lithuanian actress tackles it with aplomb (speaking of the cabaret acts…Roxy Music fans should be on the lookout for a Bryan Ferry cameo).

It was a bit of a coup for Netflix to secure the domestic broadcast rights (it premiered last October on Germany’s Sky 1 Network). Co-directed and co-written by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, The International, Drei), Achim von Borries, and Hendrik Handloegten, the production is based on the first volume of Volker Kutscher’s “Gereon Rath Mystery Series”.

Babylon Berlin is also said to be the highest-budgeted non-English language TV series to date. The lavish sets, stylish production numbers and large-scale action sequences seem to bear this out, giving the narrative a Dr. Zhivago-style historical sweep.

Still, it’s the intimate moments that are most absorbing. While the viewer never loses sense of the huge sociopolitical upheaval in Germany at the time, the filmmakers wisely remember that whether the story’s characters are good or bad, rich or poor, it’s those teasing glimpses of our shared humanity (flawed or not) that compel us to keep watching.

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Unfortunately, one could say exactly the opposite of Mute, another recent addition to the Netflix catalog: in this case, the story and the character development takes a back seat to the slick, shiny production design. The sci-fi mystery-thriller is the latest feature film from Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie and the director of the 2009 cult favorite Moon).

Oddly enough, this story is also set in Berlin; however we now move forward in time 100 years from the 1920s (give or take a decade or two). In the umpteenth take on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner model, we are presented with an eye-filling cityscape of deco-futurism, replete with flying cars, vaguely punkish fashionistas, and an overdose of neon.

Alexander Skarsgård plays Leo, a (wait for it) mute bartender working at a Berlin strip joint. A brief flashback in the film’s opening attributes his condition to a childhood mishap, in the course of which Leo received a serious throat injury and nearly drowned. Leo is dating one of the waitresses, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). We get the impression right off the bat that Leo may be a little more devoted to the relationship than Naadirah; while she is affectionate, something about her demeanor when she is with Leo seems tentative.

We don’t get much time to mull that over, as Naadirah suddenly and mysteriously disappears. We don’t get much time to mull that over either, because the narrative abruptly shifts to a pair of shifty American surgeons (Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux) who run a black market clinic (most of their clients appear to be mobsters who require the odd slug to be removed, with no questions asked).

The pair are suspiciously reminiscent of Hawkeye and Trapper John in the movie version of M*A*S*H. Not only do they crack wise while cutting into patients, and go by similar nicknames (“Cactus Bill” and “Duck”), but Rudd constantly wears a parka and sports a 3-day growth and 70s-style ‘stache-all clearly modeled on Elliot Gould’s “look” in the aforementioned Altman film.

Frankly, keeping myself amused with playing “spot the influence” was the only thing that kept me from dozing off from that point forward…otherwise, I kept waiting for something to happen. Like a cohesive narrative. The two story lines meander aimlessly until eventually converging in the 3rd act. While it does bring a symmetry to the story, it’s too little, too late.

It’s like Jones was afflicted by ADD while constructing his screenplay (co-written with Michael Robert Johnson). It roars out of the gate like it’s going to be a character study (with no character development), quickly shifts to a mystery (but with no tension or suspense), then toys with Tarantino-esque flourishes (sans any of the flourish).

It is pretty to look at; but great production design alone does not a good story make. Skarsgård is a fine actor (he filled his mantle last year with a Golden Globe, an Emmy, a SAG award, and a Critic’s Choice Award for his performance in HBO’s Big Little Lies), but he is given little to do (much less anything to say, as he is playing a mute) aside from staring into space…and occasionally beating the crap out of someone. The same goes for Rudd and Theroux; both good players, but they’re stuck with a poor script.

It’s puzzling why this has been positioned as “sci-fi”. Aside from the futuristic vision of Berlin, and the flying cars, there’s no sense of integration with the setting-it is simply a backdrop. There is a reference to Jones’ aforementioned Moon, with that film’s star Sam Rockwell doing a cameo (he pops up, in full Moon character, as part of a court hearing playing on the TV in the bar where Skarsgård works). The only good news about Mute is that I didn’t have to buy overpriced stale popcorn, or circle endlessly for a parking space.