Category Archives: Dramedy

The accidental tsuris: A Serious Man ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 10, 2009)

The noodge-y professor: A Serious Man.

Someone I once worked with in my standup comedy days (my hand to God, I wish I could remember who) had a great bit that he called “Jewish calisthenics”. “OK,” he would exhort the audience, “Here we go…ready? Neck back, and…repeat after me…” (shrug) “Why me? And rest. And again…” (shrug) “Why me?” Well, you had to be there.

Anyway, I thought it was a brilliant distillation of what “Jewish humor” is all about; a rich tradition of comedic expression borne exclusively from a congenital persecution complex and cultural fatalism (trust me on this-I was raised by a Jewish mother).

You know who else was raised by a Jewish mother? Those nice Coen boys-Joel and Ethan. They grew up in a largely Jewish suburban Minneapolis neighborhood (St. Louis Park). But you wouldn’t know it from their films. They nevah call. They nevah write a nice story a mother could love. Instead, it’s always with the corruption, the selfish behavior, and the killing, and the cattle prods…until now.

Well, I don’t know if you would  call it a “nice” story, but A Serious Man is the closest that the Coen Brothers have come to writing something semi-autobiographical . They do set their story in a Minnesotan Jewish suburban enclave, in the summer of 1967 (when Joel was 13 and Ethan was 10). God help them, however, if their family was anything like the Gopniks; although if they were, it would explain a lot about the world view they expound in their films.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a “serious man”- a buttoned-down physics professor who can map out the paradoxical quantum mysteries of Schrodinger’s cat, but is stymied as to why his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) suddenly announces to him one day out of the blue that she wants a divorce. To add insult to injury, she wants him to move out of the house as soon as possible, so that the man she wishes to spend the rest of her life with, a smarmy neighborhood widower named Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed) can settle in.

This situation alone would give any self-respecting mensch such tsuris, nu? Yes, it gets worse. Larry gets no sympathy or support from his snotty, self-absorbed daughter (Jessica McManus) or his stoner son (Aaron Wolff), who spends more time obsessing on his favorite TV show F Troop than brushing up on his Hebrew for an upcoming Bar Mitzvah.  Larry also has problems at work. And then there is his perennially underemployed brother (Richard Kind) who has become a permanent house guest who spends an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom, draining his, erm, cyst.

Teetering on the verge of an existential meltdown, Larry seeks advice from three rabbis, embarking on a spiritual quest in order to glean, “Why me?” The story takes on the airs of a modern fable from this point onward, neatly telegraphed by the film’s opening ten minutes-a blackly comic, “old school” Yiddish folk tale with semi-mystical overtones,  reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Love and Death.

In the context of the Coen’s oeuvre, the character of Larry Gopnick is not really so far removed from William Macy’s character in Fargo or Billy Bob Thornton’s character in The Man Who Wasn’t There; sans the murder and mayhem, but sharing the plight of the hapless Everyman, ultimately left twisting in the wind by the detached cruelty of Fate…and the Coens themselves.

The cast is excellent, especially Sthulbarg and Kind, very believable as brothers with a complex relationship,  (does their relationship reflect Joel and Ethan’s, I wonder?). I have to mention a wonderful (if brief) performance by Amy Landecker as the sexy neighbor, Mrs. Samsky (channeling Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson), who has a hilarious seduction scene with the uptight Larry.

I think I need to see this film again, because it  has interesting layers to it that I don’t think can be fully appreciated in just one viewing. It’s smart, it’s funny, it’s made (gasp!) for adults, and it’s one of the most wildly original films I’ve seen this year.

Apparently there’s buzz from some quarters about the film being “too” Jewish, propagating stereotypes and so on and so forth, the Coens are self-loathing, blah blah blah, but I think that’s silly. Hell, I’ve got relatives that are more “Jewish” than the characters in the film. Besides, the Coens are Jews-is there some law against artists incorporating their heritage into their art? One might as well condemn Phillip Roth, Saul Bellow, Jules Feiffer, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Neil Simon for the same “crime”. So why do they persecute the Jews, huh? Why? (shrug) Why us? (shrug). And repeat…

Standing in the shadows of love: Medicine for Melancholy ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 28, 2009)

Don’t let the oddball title of writer-director Barry Jenkins’ film Medicine for Melancholy throw you. It may share its title with an anthology of short stories by Ray Bradbury, but there is nothing “sci-fi” about this down-to-earth  indie gem about love, African-American identity and the gentrification of San Francisco’s neighborhoods.

A two-character “morning after” study of a one-night stand in the tradition of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, the film opens with an attractive, 20-something African-American couple waking up and performing their morning ablutions. You sense of a polite, yet awkward deferment between the two as they wordlessly descend the stairs of a very large house that displays ample evidence of a previous evening’s revelry.

Once they find their shoes, and the inevitable “So what was your name again?” formalities are dispensed with over coffee, Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Jo (Tracey Heggins) share a cab. After Jo requests to be dropped off “at the corner”, the two go their separate ways. Of course it doesn’t end there (otherwise we wouldn’t have much of a film). Micah spots Jo’s purse on the floor of the cab, and learns (to his chagrin) that she did not give him her real name. Hmm.

This is one of those films where not an awful lot “happens”; yet for the careful observer, there is still a lot going on. Micah and Jo spend a day together. After some wary circling, they begin to warm to each other’s company. They ride their bikes around San Francisco. Micah accompanies Jo on an errand to an art museum, where her boyfriend (currently out of town) works as a curator. They talk about their jobs. They make love. For all intents and purposes, they begin to appear no different than any other loving couple, spending a lazy Sunday together. Until they pay a visit to the Museum of the African Diaspora, which sparks a philosophical debate between them.

This is where the film’s central theme emerges: How do African-Americans define themselves? Despite the fact that he is basically a wisecracking, hipster indie culture geek by nature, Micah primarily defines himself as a “black man” who is becoming ever-increasingly marginalized by the creeping gentrification of San Francisco’s traditionally ethnic and/or low-income neighborhoods.

Jo, on the other hand, doesn’t feel that her “blackness” solely defines who she is, and pegs Micah as “…one of those people who thinks they chose February as Black History Month because it’s the shortest month.” Her boyfriend is white; a moot fact to her but a sticking point for Micah (or is it just old-fashioned jealously, cloaked in a self-righteous polemical stance?). Ah, mysteries of love.

One  touchstone here (perhaps unconsciously on the part of the filmmaker) is Shadows, John Cassavetes’ 1959 film about the complexities of racial identity and the role that it plays in social/romantic interaction. The film has a naturalistic feel that recalls Cassavetes as well. I was also reminded of Kurosawa’s One Wonderful Sunday, with occasional echoes of Godard and Rohmer. The director’s decision to employ a monochromatic visual look is an astute choice, as it’s all about the perception of “color”.

My only previous awareness of Wyatt Cenac is from his work on The Daily Show; he shows promise as a dramatic actor. The appealing Tracey Heggins has potential as well; she and Cenac have good chemistry. If you tire of the Hollywood grist currently topping the box office, Medicine for Melancholy may just be the perfect tonic .

Crazy rhythms: The Visitor ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 26, 2008)

If Richard Jenkins doesn’t get an Oscar nod for his amazing performance in Thomas McCarthy’s new comedy-drama, The Visitor, I will personally picket the Academy. Jenkins absolutely owns the character of  life-tired, middle-aged widower Walter Vale. He is a Connecticut college professor who leads a life of quiet desperation; he sleepwalks through his dreary workday, and it’s obvious that any inspirational spark is long gone from a staid lesson plan more aged than his students. His personal life has become rote as well; he putters through his off-hours, halfheartedly plunking away on his late wife’s piano. Clearly, Walter needs to get out more.

When Walter travels to New York to attend a conference, he has a big surprise awaiting him at the seldom-used apartment he keeps there.  Someone has sublet his digs to a Syrian immigrant named Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Gurira). After some initially awkward moments, the forlorn Walter invites the couple to stay rather than turning them out on the street.

As friendship blossoms between the three, Walter begins to emerge from his cocoon, prompted by Tarek’s infectious enthusiasm for pounding out joyful rhythms on his African djembes. Before he knows it, Walter is loosening his tie and joining Tarek in a drum circle. When Tarek ends up at a detention center, Walter hires a lawyer and becomes even more ensconced in the couple’s lives. Add one more unexpected “visitor” to the mix…Tarek’s widowed mother Mouna (Israeli actress Hiam Abbass), and all the elements are in place for The Reawakening of Walter Vale.

Thanks to Jenkins’ subtle, quietly compelling performance, that transformation is the heart of the film, and an absolute joy to behold. Although he has over 70 films to his credit (mostly supporting roles, but always memorable), he is probably most recognizable for his portrayal of the “late” father in HBO’s popular series, Six Feet Under.

Abbass is a revelation here as well; she and Jenkins play off each other in sublime fashion . In fact, no one in the cast hits a false note;  likely due to the fact that McCarthy is an actor’s director (he himself remains active in front of the camera as well, most recently playing a troubled newspaper reporter in the final season of HBO’s The Wire).

The “strange bedfellows” setup of the narrative may resemble The Goodbye Girl or The Odd Couple, but this not a glib Neil Simon play, where characters throw perfectly timed zingers at each other; these are people who feel, and interact like real human beings. There is humor, but also heartbreak and melancholy. The important thing is that it is all perfectly balanced, and beautifully nuanced.

Although the circumstances leading up to Tarek’s detention could be viewed as an allusion to the Kafkaesque scenarios faced by immigrants in a post 9-11 world, McCarthy doesn’t get preachy or use his film as a polemic. In fact, this movie has more in common with the keen social observations of Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things or the gentle observational satire of Bill Forsyth’s low key culture-clash comedy Local Hero than, say, The Road to Guantanamo.

One thing I will say-if the overwrought and vastly overrated Crash (2005) could win Best Picture, then surely The Visitor, which deals with many of the same themes, and in a less histrionic and more palatable manner, deserves consideration as well (we shall see). In the meantime, you don’t want to miss this lovely little gem.

Swing voters and Nixon calling: Swing Vote **1/2 & Deja vu ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 9, 2008)

“If daddy punches a chad, an angel gets his wings.”

 With less than 100 shopping days left until The Most Important Election Day Ever, I thought I would alert you to a couple of politically-themed films that have reached out from behind the curtain to give a timid tug on Batman’s cape, and tide us over until Oliver Stone’s W opens this fall.

First up on the ballot is Swing Vote, a lightweight but agreeable political fantasy/civics lesson from writer-director Joshua Michael Stern (Neverwas). Signaling a return to form for star Kevin Costner, the film speculates on what would happen if a presidential election literally hinged on one person’s vote (I already said it’s a fantasy).

Costner plays the underachieving Bud Johnson, a trailer-dwelling, beer-quaffing, NASCAR worshiping single parent who supports himself and daughter Molly (amazing 11-year old newcomer Madeline Carroll) with a job at an egg-packaging plant in Texico, New Mexico. Young Molly may be the “dependent” as far as Family Services is concerned, but in reality takes on the role of the responsible parent in the household. She constantly admonishes her Dad for his drinking, poor grooming habits and slack attitude toward his job. The civic-minded Molly also takes it upon herself to register her father for voting in an upcoming national election, much to his chagrin (he’d rather not be bothered with any pesky jury duty). Needless to say, he doesn’t follow politics, or the “issues”.

You know where this is headed, don’t you? After a chain of serendipitous events that only occurs in movies, this gomer ends up with the fate of the free world hinging on the flick of his chad finger. Before he knows it, he is at the center of a crazed media circus, and is being personally feted by the incumbent Republican (a convincingly presidential Kelsey Grammer) and his Democratic challenger (the always interesting Dennis Hopper).

Some of the film’s most clever moments arrive in the form of the faux-TV ads brainstormed by the campaign strategists for both sides (ably played by Stanley Tucci for the Republicans and Nathan Lane for the Democrats). It’s quite amusing to see a rainbow-hued, pro-gay marriage ad endorsed by the Republican president and a radical anti-abortion polemic featuring the Democratic challenger, tripping over partisan party platforms and each other in their rush to pander to one undecided swing voter.

There is a temptation to call this a modern-day Capraesque tale, which is where the film appears headed at first. In actuality, it’s  Capra in reverse; “Washington goes to Mr. Smith”, if you will (Capra’s Jeff Smith is a political idealist by nature; Bud Johnson, on the other hand, has his idealism thrust upon him). There has been some critical outcry that the film is derivative of a relatively obscure 1939 John Barrymore vehicle called The Great Man Votes. I’ve never seen that film, so I can’t address that specific issue.

In a more contemporary context, you could say that this film could be viewed as Mike Judd’s Idiocracy-with a heart (and much better acting). Some of the satirical aspects recall Hal Ashby’s Being There and Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero. The film’s depiction of a flock of ravenous media vultures descending on a small New Mexico town has some strong echoes of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, as well.

If you can buy  the premise, I think you’ll be entertained. I enjoyed the performances. Costner revives the long-dormant “aw shucks” charm that he played to such laid-back perfection in Bull Durham and Field of Dreams. Sure, he’s playing a chuckle-head this time out, but he’s a sympathetic chuckle-head. Carroll gives one of those “30-year-old midget” turns that belies her chronological age and shows great promise (like Diane Lane or Natalie Portman in their fledgling days). The always excellent and perennially underrated Mare Winningham has a small but welcome role as Bud’s estranged wife. Brat-pack aficionados will be sure to recognize Judge Reinhold as one of Bud’s co-workers, and comedian George Lopez fires off some zingers as a local TV news director. Also featuring a  rogue’s gallery of MSM pundits and journalists, in cameos (don’t let that keep you from seeing it…but don’t say I didn’t warn you,)

CSN&Y: Old songs for a new war.

 Another film swamped in the wake of the summer’s surge of superheroes is CSNY:Déjà vu, a timely rockumentary from Bernard Shakey (Greendale). Bernard who? You  know him best as iconoclastic folk-rock-alt-country-“Godfather of Grunge”-cum-antiwar activist-filmmaker (did I leave anything out?)…Neil Young.

Mixing backstage footage and musical highlights from the 2006 Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young Freedom of Speech Tour with vox populi interviews and analysis by “embedded” journalist Mike Cerre (a veteran front lines Afghanistan/Iraq war correspondent) the doc plays somewhere between The Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing and Fahrenheit 9-11.

The 2006 reunion of the notoriously mercurial foursome was spearheaded by Young not so much as a nostalgia tour but rather as a musical wake-up call addressing the Bush administration’s post 9-11 shenanigans, at home and in Iraq. The tour commenced on the heels of Young’s incendiary Living with War album (definitely not on Junior’s iPod).

The reaction from audiences (and music critics) was mixed. Young cheekily employs voice-over actors to read excerpts from concert reviews in the local rags, and seems to take perverse delight in highlighting the sneers and jeers (usually agog with glib references to the band’s senior citizen status). I will give him credit for including some “warts and all” excerpts from earlier shows in the tour, like one instance where the quartet’s rusty pipes are most definitely a couple bubbles off plumb. And speaking of falling flat, we also witness a senior moment as a band member takes an onstage tumble.

The most eye-opening moment occurs when the band plays Atlanta, a city usually perceived as a blue oasis in a red state. At first, all goes swimmingly, with the audience clapping and singing along with the old “hits”. But things get interesting as the band launches into some more recent material from Young’s aforementioned Living with War album (accompanied by a faux-Karaoke lyric scroll on the huge onstage projection screen, just in case anyone misses the point):

 Let’s impeach the President for lying
And misleading our country into war
Abusing all the power that we gave him
And shipping all our money out the door

 Suddenly, the temperature in the auditorium drops about 50 degrees; catcalls and hisses escalate to boos, bird flipping and near-rioting. Cerre interviews some of the disenchanted as they stalk out; the outrage ranges from bitching about ticket prices to threatening grievous bodily harm to Neil Young, should they get close enough. Backstage, the band takes the philosophical high road (with age comes wisdom, nu?)

But all cracks about geriatric rockers aside, it becomes apparent that the one thing that remains ageless is the power of the music, and the commitment from the performers. Songs like “Ohio”, “Military Madness”, “For What it’s Worth” and “Chicago” prove to have resilience and retain a topical relevance that does not go unnoticed by younger fans. And anyone who doesn’t tear up listening to the band deliver the solemnly beautiful harmonies of their elegiac live show closer, “Find the Cost of Freedom”, while a photo gallery featuring hundreds of smiling young Americans who died in Iraq scrolls on the big screen behind them, can’t possibly have anything resembling a soul residing within.

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shades of Ashby: Choke ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 11, 2008)

There was a time, not too far removed,  when the phrase “character study” did not necessarily equate “box office poison.” I’m talking about the 1970’s, when maverick directors like Hal Ashby, Robert Altman and Bob Rafelson made quirky, compelling “character studies” that audiences actually went out of their way to see.

The protagonists were usually iconoclastic fringe dwellers or workaday antiheroes who, like the filmmakers themselves, questioned authority, flouted convention and were generally able to convey thoughts and feelings without CG enhancement. The films may not have always sported linear narrative or wrapped up with a “Hollywood ending”, but they nearly always left us a bit more enlightened about the human condition.

I’m not saying that the character study ever really went away; it just became increasingly marginalized as the era of the Hollywood blockbuster encroached. Indie films of recent vintage like Buffalo 66, Jesus’ Son and SherryBaby are direct stylistic descendants of episodic 70s fare like Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces, Altman’s California Split, and Ashby’s The Last Detail, and prove that the genre is alive and well.

The main difference between then and now, of course, is that when you venture out to the multiplex now to such fare, you  feel like donning dark glasses and a raincoat. When I went to a weekend matinee to catch Clark Gregg’s Choke, I counted exactly 4 other patrons in the postage stamp auditorium. It made me feel so…dirty.

Gregg adapted  the screenplay for this unique dramedy  from the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, whose previous book-to-screen adaptation was 1999’s Fight Club.  Similar to Fight ClubChoke serves up a melange of human foibles (addiction, perversion, madness and deception, to rattle off a few) and tempers it with a dark comic sensibility. Think of it as a screwball romantic comedy for nihilists.

In his straight job, Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) is employed as a “historical re-enactor” in a theme park that replicates American colonial life. Victor’s personal life is more akin to a psycho-sexual Disneyland. In his off-hours, Victor regularly attends support group meetings for sex addicts, along with his pal/co-worker, the Portnoy-like Denny (Brad William Henke). Victor doesn’t appear to be making much headway toward recovery, as he customarily spends most of the session time furtively (and joylessly) humping fellow group member Nico (Paz de la Huerta) on the restroom tiles.

The rest of  Victor’s  spare time is spent running a con game. To help foot the private hospital bill for his ailing mother Ida (Anjelica Huston), he goes to restaurants and feigns choking fits. He carefully screens his “saviors” based on the likelihood of them having wallets that are as big as their bleeding hearts.

Ida suffers from dementia, subsequently she fails to recognize her son most of the time. In her rare moments of lucidity, Victor attempts to learn more about his unknown father, a subject Ida has always been reticent to discuss . Through episodic flashbacks of Victor’s childhood, we glean that the free-spirited Ida has raised her son in, shall we say “a creative fashion”. One thing that does become clear is that, insomuch as Victor’s abilities to run a skillful con game go, it looks like the apple has not fallen very far from the family tree.

The plot thickens when Ida’s doctor, a pretty, enigmatic young woman named Paige (Kelly MacDonald) counters Victor’s inevitable horndogging attempts with an invitation to assist her with some medical “research”. Paige’s proposed method for propagating the stem cells for her experiment requires Victor’s um, interactive participation, and is medically unorthodox, to say the least. So is it love, or purely science? I can say no more.

Rockwell gives a nuanced turn in the lead performance, and is well-supported by Henke and MacDonald. Anjelica Huston is excellent, as always. In a tangential sense, she is reprising the character she played in The Grifters. In fact, the dynamic of the mother-son relationship played out between Huston and Rockwell in Choke shares many similarities to the one she had with John Cusack’s character in the aforementioned film, particularly concerning unresolved “abandonment issues” on the part of the son.

This marks the directorial debut for Gregg,  previously known for his TV acting credits (The New Adventures of Old Christina). Gregg casts himself as a self-important “lord high” role-player in the faux-colonial village where Victor and Denny work; it’s a small but interesting part. Also look for Joel Grey (who we don’t see enough of these days) as a battle-scarred member of the sex addiction group.

This is not a popcorn movie. Challenging and thought-provoking, it does demand your full attention; and even though it offers a fair share of chuckles, it is not designed to be taken lightly. There’s a hell of a lot of ideas packed into 90 minutes here, ranging from Oedipal conflict to Christ metaphor. There’s even a sense of twisted cinematic homage to Tom Jones when we are treated to the occasional fast-cut montage of bodice-ripping flashbacks depicting Victor, replete in leggings, waistcoat and tri-corner hat, having it off “on the job” with a few of his more comely fellow re-enactors.

Prepare yourself for a lot of sexual frankness, not visually graphic, necessarily, but still the uncompromising, in-your-face kind that makes a lot of people squirm in their seats. Warning: one scene that some may find very disturbing takes place between Victor and a woman he has met through the personal ads. She “enjoys” acting out rape fantasies. In the context of the narrative,  it is actually an important and pivotal moment in the protagonist’s journey. This trip can be psychically brutal at times, but if you’re open-minded and willing to take the whole ride, it may blindside you with genuine warmth, humanity, and yes, even some redemption.

SIFF 2007: Mon Meilleur Ami (My Best Friend) **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 9, 2007)

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In French director Patrice Leconte latest film, Mon Meilleur Ami (“My Best Friend”), we are introduced to glum-faced antique dealer Francois Coste (Daneil Auteil) as he attends a funeral. After the service, Francois approaches the grieving widow and mutters a few perfunctory condolences. She doesn’t seem to recognize him; he explains that her husband was a client, then after pausing a beat, asks her if it would still be okay to stop by and take a look at a piece of furniture he had arranged to appraise for him before his unexpected demise. His faux pas (and the look she shoots him) tell us everything we need to know about our protagonist’s complete and utter lack of charm.

Later, at a dinner with clients, Francois tells his business partner Catherine (Julie Gayet) about the sad lack of attendees at the funeral, an image he can’t shake. Imagine leading such a pathetic, friendless existence that no one shows up at your funeral! Catherine seizes this moment to confront Francois about his own inability to connect with people, which he naturally denies. Flustered and humiliated, Francois accepts her challenge to produce a “best friend” within the week. Francois has his work cut out for him.

Serendipity leads Francois to the perfect mark-Bruno Bouley (Dany Boon) an outgoing cab driver who seems to have an effortless manner of ingratiating himself to strangers. As we get a closer look at Bruno, he seems an unlikely mentor; he is divorced, takes anti-depressants, lives alone in a tiny apartment next door to his elderly parents, where he spends all his spare time cutting out newspaper articles and memorizing trivial facts in hopes of someday winning a fortune on a quiz show.

Initially, Francois takes an anthropological approach; he observes Bruno with the same sort of bemused detachment that Alan Bates studied Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek. What is Bruno’s secret to connecting to people…to Life? In spite of his ulterior motives, Francois begins to develop a genuine bond with Bruno, leading to some ironic twists and complications. Uh-oh, you’re thinking-we’re going to learn Life Lessons about the value of True Friendship, aren’t we? (Cue the ABC After School Special theme…)

I was reminded a wee bit of another French film, Francis Veber’s 1999 social satire The Dinner Game, in which a group of snobs, for their amusement, challenge each other to feign friendship with an “idiot” and invite him to a special dinner night, competing to see who can produce the “biggest idiot”. And of course, the “idiot” gets the last laugh, and Lessons are Learned. (Apparently, the French adore “comedies” steeped in discomfiture.)

In his previous films, Leconte has displayed a knack for delivering compelling character studies that are wistful, brooding, darkly humorous yet simultaneously uplifting and life-affirming (his 2002 masterpiece The Man on the Train resonated with me in such a deeply profound manner that I have become emotionally attached to it). I wish I could say the same for Mon Meilleur Ami.

It is certainly not a “bad” film (even lesser Laconte stands head and shoulder above most Hollywood grist) but there is a bit too much contrivance in the third act that mixes uneasily with what has preceded. I would still recommend this film, especially for the wonderful performances. Auteil, one of France’s top actors, is always worth watching, and Boon delivers nary a false note with a funny and touching performance as the ebullient yet mentally fragile Bruno.