Category Archives: Drama

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of second childishness and mere oblivion: Synecdoche, NY ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 15, 2008)

Time – He’s waiting in the wings
He speaks of senseless things
His script is you and me boys

-David Bowie

“Did you see their faces?” my friend stage-whispered to me as we shuffled up the aisle toward the movie theater’s exit. “Yes,” I answered, staring glumly at my shoes, “I did.”

He was referring to the ashen-faced patrons with thousand-yard stares who remained pinned to their seats, following a Sunday matinee showing of Synecdoche, New York. “Well,” I deadpanned, in a halfhearted attempt to lighten the mood, “Should we just go outside now and throw ourselves under the nearest bus?” My friend appeared to actually be weighing the pros and cons for a moment. “What do you say we grab some pizza instead?” he finally countered. We decided on the pizza. After all, it was only a movie.

Well, technically, it was only a movie about a theater director whose life is only a play. Or was it? Who were all these players, strutting and fretting about their two hours upon the movie screen? Were they just a Fig Newton of someone’s overactive imagination? And why didn’t the “play” in the film ever have an audience?

Maybe we should ask the guy who wrote and directed it (I just happen to have Charlie Kaufman right here, under my desk on Floor 7 ½). Mr. Kaufman, what was that you once said about third acts?

 I don’t know what the hell a third act is.

 -Charlie Kaufman

 Oh. You’re not helping (I’ve got a review to write here, and deadline is fast approaching). If you are just joining us (and wondering when the hell the review is going to start) we’re talking about screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who, with his stubbornly insistent anti-multiplex sensibility and a resultant propensity for penning feverishly bizarre, densely oblique narratives (Being John Malkovich, Human Nature, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) has become a hot property in cult/art house filmdom, and The Guy Everybody Wants To Work With (For Scale).

Now someone has gone and given Kaufman a director’s chair, and the result is the most simultaneously brilliant and maddeningly indecipherable character study since (dare I say it?) Berlin Alexanderplatz (though the running time is 13 hours shorter).

First, let’s get something out of the way, regarding the film’s unpronounceable, Spell-check challenged title. “Synecdoche” is Kaufman’s cryptic nom de plume for Schenectady, a real town in upstate New York. Even though I briefly lived in the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area, I’m afraid I cannot shed any light on the significance of the title (maybe Kaufman couldn’t come up with a clever misspelling for Massapequa?). Okay, I’m being a wee bit facetious; according to the dictionary, it means:

 ..a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole or the whole for a part, the special for the general or the general for the special, as in ten sail for ten ships or a Croesus for a rich man.

Get it? Got it. Good. Er-let’s move on to the synopsis portion of this “review”, shall we?

Philip Seymour Hoffman eats up the screen five ways from Sunday as Caden Cotard, a struggling regional theater director from Schenectady who gets a shot at  mounting his magnum opus on the Great White Way after scoring a  “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation.

Obsessed with “keeping it real”, Caden ambitiously leases a huge Manhattan warehouse, and literally constructs a theatrical version of his life, replete with life-sized reproductions of the places he has lived and a large ensemble cast to portray himself and all the people he has known.

Lest you assume this is “Rocky on Broadway”, two things: a) This was written by Charlie Kaufman, and b) Something that John Lennon once observed- “Genius is pain.”

Caden has his fair share of pain, physical and emotional. He suffers from an unknown malady that is systematically destroying his autonomic functions. His first wife (Catherine Keener) has left him (with their daughter) to pursue a career as an artist in Germany, where her myopic paintings (so tiny that they require  magnifying goggles for viewing) have won her accolades.

Caden has remarried, to one of his leading ladies (Michelle Williams), but things aren’t going so well. His therapist (Hope Davis) is too self-absorbed and preoccupied with marketing her self-help books to offer him any counsel. The only woman in his life that seems to understand him is his personal assistant (Samantha Morton) with whom he develops a complex, long-standing, (mostly) platonic relationship.

As dark as this film is, Kaufman seems to be having fun with the Chinese Box aspect of Caden’s completely self-referential, decades-long production. The very concept of an ongoing stage piece, presented in “real time”, as a metaphor for someone’s ongoing life brings up a lot of existential questions, like, how do you “rehearse” reality? Don’t you have to be psychic?

Kaufman’s narrative idea recalls some of Andy Warhol’s experiments, like his 1963 film, Sleep, a five hour epic depicting someone sleeping for five hours. Some people called it genius, others a snore (sorry).

Synecdoche, New York may or may not be a work of genius, but it is anything but a snore, thanks to a brilliant cast. Hoffman remains one of the most amazing actors of his generation. The ensemble holds an embarrassment of riches; in addition to the aforementioned, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Jason Leigh bring their formidable skills to the table as well.

If you’re like me, you may not fully comprehend the whys and wherefores of all that commences during the course of this astounding 2-hour mind fuck, but you’ll love the pizza afterwards (…in fair round belly with good capon lined).

Silence is golden: Continental: a Film Without Guns ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 31, 2008)

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Quebecois writer-director Stephane LeFleur’s Continental: A Film Without Guns breathes new life into the “network narrative” (a device popularized by Robert Altman, but which has become  a cinematic staple dating at least as far back as 1932’s Grand Hotel.)

In fact, LeFleur uses a hotel as the rendezvous point in this story of four lonely and disenfranchised people, whose lives are destined to intersect, directly or tangentially. In the enigmatic opening scene, a middle aged insurance salesman snoozes through his bus stop and wakes up at the end of the line (literally and/or figuratively). He calmly gathers up his briefcase and coat, and after what appears to be a moment of Zen, meditating on the night sounds of the forest, walks straight into the darkness of the trees and disappears.

The remainder of the film delves into the ripple effect that the man’s disappearance has on the lives of four people-his 50-ish wife (Marie-Ginette Guay), a 30-ish life insurance salesman who is hired to replace him (Real Bosse), a 60-ish owner of a second-hand store (Gilbert Sicotte) and a 20-something hotel receptionist (Fanny Mallette). To be sure, the age spread of the characters indicates a convenient symmetry, but LeFleur is examining certain universal truths about the human condition that transcend age and/or gender; namely, the fear of dying, and perhaps most terrifying of all- the fear of dying alone.

That is not to say that this is a Bergman-esque, “excuse me while I go hang myself in the closet” fest. LeFleur injects just enough deadpan humor into his script to diffuse the inherently depressing nature of his themes. All members of the cast give uniformly excellent performances. The almost painterly photography (by DP Sara Mishara) is richly moody and atmospheric, no small feat in a film largely comprised of static interior shots.

LeFleur exhibits a style quite similar to that of fellow Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan (The Adjustor, Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter). Like Egoyan, LeFleur is not afraid to hold a shot as long as he needs to, nor is he afraid of silence. Silence can speak volumes, especially in the hands of a skilled director (just watch any Kurosawa film for a master class). In a movie season of explosions and screeching tires, a little silence can be golden.

All by myself: Mr. Lonely ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 31, 2008)

I will admit  that Harmony Korine is not one of my favorite directors. If you have followed this weekly post for a while, you know that I have high tolerance for what others might call “weird” or “unwatchable” cinema, but frankly, I found Korine’s Gummo (1997) and Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) a little too weird and (virtually) unwatchable.

However, after taking in Mister Lonely, I guess Korine can make a “watchable” film…in the form of this tragicomic rumination on alienation, mental illness, and the human tendency to kowtow at the alter of both pop culture and “God” with equal fervor.

Beautifully shot by DP Marcel Zyskind (Code 46, The Road to Guantanamo), the film begins with an elegiac slow-mo sequence reminiscent of the opening credits for Blue Velvet. Choreographed to Bobby Vinton’s plaintive ballad “Mr. Lonely”, a Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna), replete with requisite red jacket, shades and surgical mask, rides a scooter, with a stuffed, winged monkey toy in tow. It’s a remarkable scene that manages to convey both a blissful innocence and an aching sadness at the same time.

The otherwise shy and awkward young man puts out his hat and performs all the requisite flamboyant MJ dance moves in the streets of Paris, where he is largely ignored; he supplements this meager income with help from an “agent” who gets him the odd booking.

While performing at a nursing home, he meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton). The two have an immediate mutual attraction , although “Marilyn” is quick to mention her husband, a Charlie Chaplin impersonator (Denis Lavant). She and “Charlie” live on a communal farm in Scotland with their daughter “Shirley Temple” and a few dozen other celebrity impersonators; she talks Michael into joining this odd but welcoming community (the “One of us! One of us!” chant from Freaks did enter my mind.)

At first glance, this extended family of fringe dwellers appears to lead a Utopian existence. They have a barn (yes, at one point, they do put on a show). They cheerfully tend to the livestock and enjoy warm communal mealtimes together (usually in full costume), but upon closer examination, it seems that there is trouble in paradise.

A sadomasochistic undercurrent runs through Marilyn and Charlie’s marriage; a tearful Marilyn blurts out the film’s best line: “Sometimes, when I look at you, you seem more like Adolph Hitler than Charlie Chaplain.” The “Pope” (James Fox) is an alcoholic. “Abe Lincoln” (Richard Strange) has an impulse to utilize “fuck” in every sentence. The Buckwheat impersonator has an unhealthy obsession with chickens…and so on.

Korine throws in a weaker second narrative concerning a missionary priest/pilot (German director Werner Herzog, who cannot act) and his posse of er, flying nuns who help him do relief work in Central America. I will say no more.

Luna and Morton both give lovely and touching performances. I won’t pretend I completely grasped Korine’s intent; but his film is engaging, emotionally resonant, and ultimately haunting. I find it easier to contextualize by pointing to two Nicholas Roeg films that I strongly suspect had a major influence on Korine here: Performance (1970) and Insignificance (1985).

In Performance (written and co-directed by Donald Cammel), the narrative plays with the concept of two self-loathing protagonists who swap identities in an attempt to escape themselves; in essence “impersonating” each other. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Korine has cast two of the principal actors from Performance in his film-James Fox and Anita Pallenberg (who plays the Queen of England impersonator).

In  Insignificance, screenwriter Terry Johnson fantasizes Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Senator Joe McCarthy and Albert Einstein interacting in a hotel room in the 1950s; the result is a strange but compelling treatise on fame, politics and nuclear paranoia. Korine uses the same device (the unlikely juxtaposition of iconic figures) to expound on his themes as well. Granted, Mister Lonely is not for all tastes, but if you would prefer to not “Mess With the Zohan” this summer, thank you very much, it is one possible alternative.

Wanna Be in My Gang? – Eastern Promises (***1/2) & This is England (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 6, 2007)

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This week we’ll take a peek at two powerful new dramas, both set in merry old England,…but dealing with some not-so-merry themes.

Director David Cronenberg brings on the blood and the balalaikas in his crackerjack neo-noir, Eastern Promises. Anna (Naomi Watts) is a London midwife obsessed with tracking down the relatives of a newborn infant, left behind by a 14 year-old unwed Russian who tragically dies on her delivery table. Intrigued by the Cyrillic scribbling in the dead girl’s diary, Anna turns to her Russian-speaking uncle, Stepan (Jerzy Skolimosky) for translation.

Stepan staunchly refuses, citing old country superstitions and admonishing his niece for “stealing from the dead”. Undaunted, Anna follows her only solid lead, a business card for a Russian restaurant that she finds in the diary. Anna soon gleans that she would have been better off heeding her uncle’s warning, because the diary is  a hot potato for some extremely dangerous and scary individuals. Soon,  she is pulled into the brutal world of the Russian mob.

 Viggo Mortensen delivers one of his most accomplished performances to date as Nikolai, the Siberian driver for a psychotic mob captain (Vincent Cassel), the son of a godfather (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Mortensen, Cassel and Mueller-Stahl  completely disappear into character.

These skilled actors make it easy to forget that they are in actuality American, French and German; you do not doubt for one second that you are watching native Russians, who live and die by the rules of “vory v zakone” (“thieves in law”, a strict code borne from the gang culture of Russian prisons).

 Screenwriter Steven Knight revisits some of the themes he explored in Dirty Pretty Things; namely, how immigrant communities assimilate (legally and otherwise) while still maintaining a sense of their native culture. (I think this is the aspect of the film that has some people drawing comparisons to The Godfather).

The only quibble I had with Knight’s script was a “twist” toward the end involving one of the main characters that doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the narrative.

 Cronenberg, who has built his reputation on Grand Guginol excess, has slouched toward a lean, almost poetic style in recent films. For devotees, not to worry; the director’s propensity for viscerally “shocking” images and squib-happy bloodletting is still on display, but it doesn’t feel gratuitous; these characters live in a brutal world, and it’s par for the course.

As per usual, Cronenberg slips black humor into the mix. One particular scene, involving an attempted mob hit in a steam bath (and a very naked Viggo), is an instant classic.

At once a brooding character study and atmospheric thriller, Eastern Promises rates among the Canadian iconoclast’s finest work.

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Oi! It’s time now to break out those old Sham 69 LPs for our next film, This is England, the latest from British director Shane Meadows (Twenty-Four Seven, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands).

A hard-hitting, naturalistic social drama reminiscent of the work of Ken Loach and British “angry young man” films of the early 60s (with a slight whiff of A Clockwork Orange), This is England is set against the backdrop of the Thatcher era, circa 1983.

The story (loosely auto-biographical, based on the director’s Midlands upbringing) centers on a glum, alienated 12 year-old named Shaun (first-time film actor Thomas Turgoose, in an extraordinary performance) who can’t fit in at his school.

Shaun presents a real handful to his loving but somewhat exasperated mother (Jo Hartley), a working-class Falklands War widow who does her best to support herself and her son. After a particularly bad day of being bullied about by teachers and schoolmates, happenstance leads Shaun into the midst of a skinhead gang.

Shaun’s initial apprehension is washed away when  good-natured gang leader Woody (Joe Gilgun) takes him under his wing and offers him an unconditional entrée into their little club. Shaun’s weary working mum is initially not so crazy about his new pals, but after sizing them up decides essentially to leave her son in their care.

Some may feel that this development strains credibility, but I think it’s a pragmatic decision. Her son has no siblings, no close friends, and is suffering from the loss of his father; perhaps this surrogate family will give him what she cannot provide.

The idyll is soon shattered, however, when the gang’s original leader, Combo (Stephen Graham) is released from prison. Combo’s return causes a rift that divides the gang; his jailhouse conversion to racist National Front ideals doesn’t settle well with Woody and his supporters, and they break off on their own.

Shaun decides to stay on after forming an instant bond with the thuggish Combo, who easily parlays the impressionable Shaun’s grief over his father into a blame-shifting hatred of immigrants, with tragic results.

The film works successfully on several levels. Taken ss a cautionary tale, it demonstrates how easily the neglected and disenfranchised can be recruited and indoctrinated into the politics of hate.

As a history lesson, it’s a fascinating glimpse at a not-so-long ago era of complex politics and social upheaval in Great Britain. As a riveting drama, it features astounding performances, particularly from the aforementioned young Turgoose and Graham, who  owns the screen with his charismatic intensity. Not to be missed.

War is unhealthy for children: Pan’s Labyrinth ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 13, 2007)

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In 2001, Mexican writer-director Guillermo del Toro used the Spanish Civil War as a backdrop for his ghost story The Devil’s Backbone. Six years later, del Toro has returned once again to the tumultuous Franco era, this time with a twist of dark fantasy in his wildly imaginative and visually striking Spanish-language drama, Pan’s Labyrinth.

12-year old newcomer Ivana Bacquero delivers an impressive, nuanced performance as the film’s central character Ofelia, an intelligent, introverted girl on the verge of puberty who still clings to her childhood fascination with fairy tales. She and her very pregnant mother have just set up quarters with her new stepfather Captain Vidal (the always brilliant Sergi Lopez), a brutal, sadistic Fascist officer charged with mopping up stubborn rebel forces entrenched in the Spanish countryside.

With nothing resembling love or affection forthcoming from the odious Vidal, and with her mother becoming increasingly bedridden due to a difficult pregnancy, Ofelia finds an escape valve by retreating ever deeper into a personal fantasy world, which she enters through an imaginary gate in a nearby garden. This is not necessarily Alice through the looking glass, as you might think; this is a much darker world of personified demons and monsters borne from Ofelia’s subconscious take on the real-life horrors being perpetrated by her monstrous stepfather and his Fascist henchmen.

In some respects, the film reminded me of 1973’s Spirit of the Beehive, also set against the backdrop of Franco’s Spain, and likewise centering on a lonely young girl retreating into a private fantasy world in response to feelings of estrangement from her family. While there are also some similarities here to the likes of Alice In Wonderland, Spirited Away, and The Secret Garden, be advised that this is not a feel-good fairy tale with a warm and fuzzy ending that you want to sit down and watch with the kids. The fantasy elements are closer in tone to Brothers Grimm morbidity than Tolkien whimsy; and del Toro pulls no punches depicting the horror and suffering that takes place during wartime.

What did you do in the war, Mommy? – Black Book (***1/2) & The Good German (**1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 2, 2007)

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If you have perceived a deluge of WW2-themed films as of late, you’re not imagining things. Most of the critical brouhaha seems to have been centered on Clint Eastwood’s   Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (neither of which I have seen yet, I will admit), which likely explains why two other WW2 dramas helmed by a pair of equally noteworthy directors have slipped in and out of theatres relatively un-noticed.

Paul Verhoeven’s Zwartboek (aka Black Book) and Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German share some interesting similarities. They both represent a throwback to a certain type of old-fashioned WW2 adventure yarn, and they both feature strong female protagonists doing whatever it takes to survive their wartime nightmare.

Black Book (co-written by the director with Gerard Soeteman) is native Hollander Paul Verhoeven’s first Dutch language film in quite a while. It’s a “Mata Hari” style tale set in Holland in the waning days of the German occupation, as the Allies make their post-D-Day push across Europe. Carice van Houten is compelling as a former chanteuse named Ellis, a Dutch Jew who has spent the occupation in hiding with a farm family. When her hosts perish in a bombing raid, Ellis is left with the realization that she will now have to live by her wits if she is to survive (The Sound of Music meets Showgirls? Discuss.)

After a series of harrowing escapes, Ellis finds herself in the Dutch Resistance. As part of a plan to spring some imprisoned Resistance fighters, she is asked to seduce the commander of the local SS detachment, Colonel Muntze (Sebastian Koch, in a nicely fleshed out performance). Things become complicated when Ellis develops a genuine attraction to Muntze.

This is an exciting war adventure, with interesting plot twists along the way (replete with a few patented over-the-top Verhoeven moments, usually involving uncompromising nudity and gore). It’s refreshing to see Verhoeven escaping from Hollywood and getting back to his roots; while I generally enjoy his big budget popcorn fare, I have always felt his Dutch films (e.g. Spetters, The 4th Man, Soldier of Orange) were more challenging and substantive (Verhoeven the Hired Hand vs. Verhoeven the Auteur, if you will).

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Steven Soderbergh loves to pay homage. In fact, (Mr. Tarantino aside), he probably holds the record for dropping more cinema buff-centric references per film than any other director. In his most recent film, The Good German (filmed in glorious B&W), he may have allowed this tendency lead him too deeply into “style over substance” territory.

The story is set in immediate post-war Berlin, with the backdrop of the uneasy alliance and growing mistrust between the occupying U.S. and Russian military forces. Captain Jacob Geismer (George Clooney) is an American military correspondent who has been assigned to cover the Potsdam Conference.

His G.I. driver, Tully (Tobey Maguire) is a slick wheeler-dealer (reminiscent of James Garner’s character in The Americanization of Emily) who procures everything from cigarettes to women and has a German girlfriend (a barely recognizable Cate Blanchett, dutifully delivering her lines in a husky Marlene Dietrich drone).

Imagine Capt. Geismer’s surprise when Tully introduces him to said girlfriend, and she happens to be an old lover of his. To tell you more risks revealing spoilers, so suffice it to say that Lena, a Woman with a Dark Secret, becomes the central figure in a murder mystery, with the hapless Geismer drawn right into the thick of it.

Unfortunately, despite a certain amount of suspense in the first act, the story becomes increasingly convoluted and curiously non-involving.  Blanchett’s performance feels phoned-in, and I wouldn’t call it Clooney’s best work either. Now, it is possible that Soderbergh is SO obsessed with aping an old-fashioned, film noir-ish, black and white late-40’s war thriller, that he may have in fact directed his actors to mimic the semi-wooden, melodramatic acting style that informed many of those films. (Even the DVD transfer appears to be part of the joke; as it is matted in full frame 1.33:1 aspect ratio).

The film does sport a great “vintage” look; the cinematography is outstanding (Soderbergh has never faltered in that department) and he perfectly captures the chiaroscuro look of a certain classic Carol Reed film (I am sure I am not the first person to draw comparisons to The Third Man). There are also some other obvious touchstones here, like Hitchcock’s WW2 thrillers Notorious and Foreign Correspondent.

At the end of the day, however, if I want to see something that reminds me of The Third Man or Foreign Correspondent, I think if I had my druthers, I would just as soon pull out my DVD of The Third Man or Foreign Correspondent, if you know what I am saying. While The Good German certainly looks pretty, it ultimately feels pretty… empty.

Stereotyped in America: Crash (*1/2) & The Landlord (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 16, 2006)

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I’m going to risk crucifixion here and confess  I only recently got around to viewing Crash, Paul Haggis’ 2005 Oscar winning meditation on racism in America. (Perhaps I was shamed into screening it after Michael Richard’s recent star turn on YouTube).

Crash takes the premise of 1993’s Falling Down and expands it exponentially. Instead of one disenfranchised white guy going off the deep end and raging through L.A. as he blames every person of color he encounters for his own personal failures, Crash serves up an Altman-sized, multicultural cast of self-pitying whiners running around L.A. pissed off at everybody else. They hail from all ethnic and socioeconomic strata, they are all fuming about their (real or perceived) victimization by one societal injustice or another and (wait for it…) they are all on a ‘crash’ course, about to collide.

The cast is talented, the performances are earnest and the film is slickly made, but the mind boggles as to how this condescending, contrived, PC-pandering mess earned a Best Picture Oscar. The Message (people are people and bigotry is colorblind) has been delivered numerous times before…and with much more panache. https://i0.wp.com/40.media.tumblr.com/a7a9e50f489c19ffd14121214e574046/tumblr_n5wp6bFOQd1tse85no1_500.jpg?w=474&ssl=1

Here’s one example of getting the message across “with more panache”. The late Hal Ashby only directed a relative handful of films, but most, especially his 70’s output, were built to last (Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Bound for Glory, Shampoo, Being There).

In The Landlord, Beau Bridges plays a trustafarian with “liberal views” that his conservative parents find troubling…especially after he buys a run-down inner-city tenement, with intentions to renovate. His subsequent involvement with the various black tenants is played sometimes for laughs, other times for intense drama, but always for real. The social satire and observations about race relations are dead-on, but never preachy or condescending.

Top-notch ensemble work, featuring a young Lou Gossett (with hair!) giving a memorable turn. The lovely Susan Anspach is hilarious as Bridge’s perpetually stoned and bemused sister. A scene featuring Pearl Bailey and Lee Grant getting drunk and bonding over a bottle of “sparkling” wine is a minor classic all on its own. Moses Gunn’s sharp screenplay was adapted from Kristin Hunter’s novel. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore-honest, bold, uncompromising, socially and politically meaningful, yet also entertaining.