Category Archives: Dramedy

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.

Sometimes, covert ops are just like a box of chocolates: Charlie Wilson’s War ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 29, 2007)

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Aaron Sorkin, you silver-tongued devil, you had me at: “Ladies and gentlemen of the clandestine community…”

That line is from the opening scene of the new film Charlie Wilson’s War, in which the title character, a Texas congressman (played in full Gumpian southern-drawl mode by Tom Hanks) is receiving an Honored Colleague award from the, er-ladies and gentlemen of the clandestine community (you know, that same group of merry pranksters who orchestrated such wild and wooly hi-jinx as the Bay of Pigs invasion.)

Sorkin, (creator/writer of The West Wing ) provides the smart, snappy dialog for high-class director Mike Nichols’ latest foray into political satire, a genre he hasn’t dabbled in since his excellent 1998 film Primary Colors. In actuality, Nichols and Sorkin may have viewed their screen adaptation of Wilson’s real-life story as  a cakewalk, because it falls into the “you couldn’t make this shit up” category.

Wilson, known to Beltway insiders as “good-time Charlie” during his congressional tenure, is an unlikely American hero. He drank like a fish and loved to party, but could readily charm key movers and shakers into supporting his pet causes and any attractive young lady within range into the sack. So how did this whiskey quaffing poon hound circumvent the official U.S. government foreign policy of the time (mid to late 1980s) and help the Mujahideen rebels drive the Russians out of Afghanistan, ostensibly paving the way for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War?

He did it with a little help from his friends- a coterie of strange bedfellows including an Israeli arms dealer, a belly-dancing girlfriend, high-ranking officials in Egypt and Pakistan, a misanthropic but handily resourceful CIA operative, and “the sixth-richest woman in Texas”, who also happened to be a fervent anti-communist. It’s quite the tale.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman continues his track record of stealing every film he appears in. He plays the aforementioned CIA operative, Gust Avrakotos, with aplomb. His character is less than diplomatic in the personality department; he becomes a pariah at the Agency after telling his department head to fuck off once or twice (and always within earshot of colleagues). Through serendipity, Gust falls in league with Wilson and one of his lady friends, wealthy socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts).

Once they unite, the three are a sort of political X-Men team; each with their own Special Power. Joanne has influence with high-ranking Middle East officials, and can set up meetings; Charlie can talk just about anybody into anything; and Gust can get “it” done, especially if it involves cutting corners and bypassing the middleman. Once Joanne lures powerful congressman Doc Long (the wonderful Ned Beatty) on board, the deal is sealed.

The film doesn’t deviate too much from the facts laid out in the book by George Crile; despite some inherent elements of political satire, it’s a fairly straightforward rendering. What is most interesting to me is what they left out; especially after viewing The True Story of Charlie Wilson, a documentary currently airing on the History Channel (check your listings). One incident in particular, which involved a private arms dealer “accidentally” blowing up a D.C. gas station (oops!) on his way to a meeting with Wilson and Avrakotos, seems like it would have been a no-brainer for the movie (maybe some legal issues involved, perhaps?) The History Channel documentary also recalls Wilson’s involvement with a (non-injury) hit and run accident that occurred on the eve of one of his most crucial Middle-Eastern junkets (the congressman admits that he was plastered).

I think it’s also worth noting one more little tidbit from Wilson’s past that didn’t make it into the movie-but I think I can understand why. Allegedly, the randy congressman once had a little, er, “congress” with a hot young television journalist named Diane Sawyer. Yes, that Diane Sawyer, of 60 Minutes fame. That same Diane Sawyer who is married to (wait for it)…director Mike Nichols (it’s all part of life’s rich pageant, you know).

 A final thought. After the film’s feel-good, flag waving coda subsided and the credits started rolling, something nagged at me. There was a glaring omission in the postscript of this “true story”; I will pose it as an open question to Mssrs. Nichols, Sorkin and Hanks:

So tell me-exactly how did we get from all those colorful, rapturously happy, missile launcher-waving Afghani tribesmen, dancing in praise to America while chanting Charlie Wilson’s name back in the late 80s to nightly news footage of collapsing towers and U.S. troops spilling their blood into the very same rocky desert tableau, a scant decade later?

Let’s see you spin that story into a wacky romp starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.

Girl, you’ll be a woman soon: Juno (***1/2) & Wish You Were Here (****)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Here’s a line you’ve likely never heard in an ABC After-school Special:

“I’m already pregnant, so what other shenanigans can I get into?”

It’s a bullet-proof rhetorical question, posed by a glib, self-aware 16 year-old named Juno MacGuff, played to perfection by Ellen Page (Hard Candy) in the cleverly written and wonderfully acted film Juno, from director Jason Reitman.

Juno is an intelligent and unconventional Minneapolis teen who finds herself up the duff after losing her virginity with her (initially) platonic buddy, a gawky but sweet classmate named Paulie (Michael Cera). Not wanting to be a burden to Paulie, or trouble her loving parents (J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney) with the news, Juno decides to take sole responsibility for her situation.

After losing her nerve at an abortion clinic, Juno brainstorms with her girlfriend Leah (Olivia Thirlby) who suggests a search in the Penny Saver for couples looking to adopt. Enter Mark and Vanessa (well-played by Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), a childless yuppie couple with a sprawling house in the ‘burbs, complete with the requisite unfinished nursery. With the blessing of Juno’s supportive dad, papers are drawn up and Mark and Vanessa become the adoptive parents-in-waiting. Everything appears hunky dory- but you know what they say about the best-laid plans.

With such oft-used cinematic fodder at its core, this film could have easily descended into cliché-ridden piffle, but luckily doesn’t pander to the audience. I Page and Cera  convey Juno and Paulie’s growing pains in a genuine fashion, despite the stylized dialog. Simmons and Janney are excellent as Juno’s parents (it’s a kick  to see Simmons inhabit such a likeable character after playing so many heavies).

Reitman (son of director Ivan Reitman) has hit one out of the park with this sophomore effort (his first film was Thank You For Smoking) thanks in no small part to Diablo Cody’s smart script.

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Juno and its young star reminded me of one of my all-time favorite films, Wish You Were Here. David Leland’s 1987 comedy-drama centers on a headstrong 16-year-old girl coming of age in post WW 2 England. The story is loosely based on the real-life exploits of British madam Cynthia Payne (Leland also collaborated as screenwriter with director Terry Jones on the film Personal Services, which starred Julie Walters and was based on Payne’s later exploits).

Vivacious teenager Emily Lloyd makes an astounding debut as pretty, potty-mouthed “Linda”, whose exhibitionist tendencies and sexual antics cause her reserved widower father and younger sister to walk around in a perpetual state of public embarrassment.

With a taut script and precise performances, the film breezes along on a deft roller coaster of belly-laugh hilarity and genuine, bittersweet emotion. Excellent support from the entire cast, especially from Thom Bell, who skillfully manages to find the sympathetic humanity in an otherwise vile character. It’s unfortunate that Lloyd never broke big, going on to appear in only a few unremarkable projects and then dropping off the radar.