Category Archives: Drug Culture

Electric Kool-Aid acid reflux: Taking Woodstock ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 5, 2009)

Bob & Carol & Ted &…uh, has anyone seen Alice?

“If you can remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there”. Don’t you hate it when some lazy-ass critic/wannabe sociopolitical commentator trots out that  old chestnut to preface some pompous “think piece” about the Woodstock Generation?

God, I hate that.

But I think it was Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane who once said: “If you remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there.” Or it could have been Robin Williams, or Timothy Leary. Of course, the irony is that whoever did say it originally, probably can’t really remember if they were in fact the person who said it first.

You see, memory is a funny thing. Let’s take the summer of 1969, for example. Here’s how Bryan Adams remembers it:

 That summer seemed to last forever
and if I had the choice
Yeah – I’d always wanna be there
Those were the best days of my life

Best days of his life. OK, cool. Of course, he wrote that song in 1984. He’d had a little time to sentimentalize events. Now, here’s how Iggy Stooge describes that magic time:

 Well it’s 1969 okay.
We’ve got a war across the USA.
There’s nothing here for me and you.
We’re just sitting here with nothing to do.

Iggy actually wrote and released that song in the year 1969. So which of these two gentlemen were really there, so to speak?

“Well Dennis,” you may be thinking (while glancing at your watch) “…that’s all fine and dandy, but doesn’t the title of this review indicate that the subject at hand is Ang Lee’s new film, Taking Woodstock? Shouldn’t you be quoting Joni Mitchell instead ?”

Patience, Grasshopper. Here’s how Joni Mitchell “remembers” Woodstock:

 By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration

She wrote that in 1969. But here’s the rub: she wasn’t really there.

There was a point in there, somewhere. Somehow it made sense when I was peaking on the ‘shrooms about an hour ago. Oh, I’m supposed to be writing a movie review. Far out, man.

My point is, there’s always been a disconnect between “Woodstock”  the romanticized representation of a generation, and the actual “Woodstock Music and Art Fair” event that took place near Bethel, New York in August of 1969. In other words, can “anybody” who was of a certain age and mindset in 1969 rightfully claim (like Joni) that they were “there”, in spirit, and that it was a beautiful, groovy thing?

Or, did you have to physically attend the event, parking miles away, slogging through a muddy sea of humanity, with only a slim chance of getting close enough to the stage to identify who was playing?

And in spite of the impression given by Michael Wadleigh in his brilliant rock doc, Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music (whittled down from over 300 hours of footage into a 4-hour film), the sound system reportedly left much to be desired, and many of the bands (by their own admission) did not give career best performances.

None of the main characters in Taking Woodstock get that close to the stage, either (although some do ingest certain substances, play in the mud and take a figurative wallow in the counter-cultural zeitgeist of 1969). For the most part, Lee doesn’t set out to just reenact the grand canvas of the event as has already been depicted in Wadleigh’s iconic documentary (what would be the point?).

Instead, he has opted for a far more intimate approach, based on a memoir by Elliot Tiber, who helped broker the deal between the producers of the music festival and the Bethel Town Board to hold the event there after the permits were refused for the originally intended location in the nearby  town of Wallkill, N.Y.

Elliot is played by stand-up comic/first time leading man Demetri Martin (a former writer for Conan O’Brien who you will most likely recognize from sporadic appearances on The Daily Show).

In 1969, he is living in the Village in N.Y.C., eking out a living as an interior designer. When it becomes clear that his aging parents (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton) are overextending themselves trying to  keep their Catskills motel business afloat as the bank threatens foreclosure, Elliot heads back home upstate to become their Man Friday. Serendipity eventually puts Elliot face-to-face with concert producer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff).

Seeing little more than an opportunity to sell out the motel for a few weeks and give the business some much-needed cash flow, Elliot (having no idea that he is playing a pivotal role in enabling what is destined to become  the high-water mark of the 60s counterculture movement) introduces Lang to a local farmer, Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), who has some spacious fields that might fit the bill.

There is some resistance to overcome from grumpy neighboring farmers, as well as consternation from a local Town Board members about the idea of their sleepy hamlet being overrun by a bunch of Dirty Fucking Hippies (this part of the tale takes on a Footloose vibe).

“Dramedies” can be tricky. Too much drama curdles the comedy. Too much comedy can sabotage dramatic tension. Unfortunately, Lee’s film takes a fair stab at both but doesn’t fully succeed at either, leaving you with the cinematic equivalent of tepid dishwater. There are also a few  intriguing backstories hinted at, but never explored.

That being said, there are a couple decent sequences; particularly a protracted vignette in which Elliot,  trying to work his way closer toward the stage, gets waylaid by a mellow couple, camped out in their VW van. The pair, played with doe-eyed blissfulness by Paul Dano and Kelli Garner invite Elliot aboard for a nice little trip (which doesn’t involve any actual driving-wink wink). It’s a very sweet little interlude, beautifully played by all three young actors.

If you are really hell-bent to skinny-dip in nostalgia, you needn’t scratch your head over Taking Woodstock. Dim all the lights, plug in the lava lamp, light up the bong, then “take Woodstock” (the original documentary) off the shelf. All together now:  “Gimme an ‘F’…”

The Edge is Still Out There: Gonzo, the Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson ***

By Dennis Hartley

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

No fun to hang around
Feeling that same old way
No fun to hang around
Freaked out for another day
No fun my babe no fun

 -The Stooges

 “No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won’t hurt.”

 -Hunter S. Thompson

It’s been just over three years now since the godfather of gonzo journalism eschewed his beloved typewriter to scrawl those words with a magic marker, four days prior to pulling a Hemingway. Ever the contrarian, Thompson couldn’t resist adding a twist of gonzo irony to his suicide note, by entitling it “Football Season is Over.”

Since then, several quickie “tell-all” books have played Monday morning quarterback with the life and legacy of the iconoclastic writer, with what one would assume would be a wildly varying degree of accuracy. That’s because Hunter S. Thompson was a mass of  contradictions. His work was imbued with DFH political idealism and tempered by full commitment to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll; yet he loved to collect guns, blow shit up and counted the likes of Pat Buchanan among his personal friends. I don’t envy his biographers.

In Gonzo: the Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson, director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room) may have discovered the right formula. He takes an approach as scattershot and unpredictable as the subject himself; using a frenetic pastiche of talking heads, vintage home movies,  film clips, animation, audio tapes and snippets of prose (voiced by Johnny Depp, who has become to Thompson what Hal Holbrook is to Mark Twain). While Gibney keeps the timeline fairly linear, he does make interesting choices along the way-and equally interesting omissions (e.g., Thompson’s formative years are given the bum’s rush).

Gibney begins with the 1966 book Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, which first established Thompson’s groundbreaking style of journalism (as one interviewee observes, he essentially “embedded” himself with the notorious motorcycle gang). An overview of his Rolling Stone reportage ensues, highlighted by the assignment that resulted in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. There’s a fascinating account of how Thompson’s bacchanalian propensities caused him to blow his coverage of the Ali-Foreman bout in Zaire, posited by Gibney as the first inkling that personal excesses were starting to affect HST’s ability to consistently knock one out of the park with each piece.

A lion’s share of the film is devoted to two particular chapters of Thompson’s life: his quasi-serious run for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado and his coverage of the 1972 presidential elections (which provided fodder for Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72).

The segment regarding the 1972 campaign is so riveting and well-crafted that I wished Gibney had turned it into a full-length companion documentary. Gibney reveals how the Eagleton VP nomination debacle and resultant death knell for the McGovern campaign was also a crushing blow to Thompson’s personal sense of 1960s idealism, signaling the beginning of an escalating disillusionment and bitterness that would permeate his political writing from that point on. The director also reminds us that Thompson was quite instrumental in bringing then-governor Jimmy Carter into the national political spotlight by championing his 1974 Law Day Speech.

I think political junkies are going to dig this film more than the those chiefly enamored with Hunter S. Thompson’s superficial substance-fueled “rebel” persona. Excepting the depiction of Thompson’s relatively unproductive latter years, spent ensconced in his Colorado compound, too distracted by guns, drugs and sycophants to do little else but slowly disappear up his own legend (like Elvis at Graceland) the director suppresses the urge to play up the public notoriety and revel in the writer’s recreational excesses, just to sell more movie tickets. If you’re expecting a sequel to Gilliam’s film, this is not for you.

The film is not without its flaws; the frequent use of Depp clips from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas becomes distracting and begins to feel like cheating (by contrast, there is only one brief nod to Bill Murray’s turn in Where the Buffalo Roam.) This is a minor quibble, because there are some real treasures here. Devotees will delight in listening to the audio snippets from the original cassettes that Thompson made while cruising through the Nevada desert with his attorney, as well as the recording of a shouting match between the writer and his long-time collaborator Ralph Steadman while they were in Zaire (let us pray that the DVD will bonus more from those priceless tapes).

This is not a hagiography; several ex-wives and associates  make no bones about reminding us that the man could be a real asshole. On the other hand, examples of his genuine humanity and idealism are brought to the fore as well, making for an insightful and fairly balanced overview of this “Dr. Gonzo and Mr. Thompson” dichotomy. What the director does not forget is that, at the end of the day, HST was the most unique American political commentator/ social observer who ever sat down to peck at a bullet-riddled typewriter.

Bastard. We could sure as shit use him now.

DIggin’ the scene with a gangster lean: American Gangster ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 10, 2007)

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There is a key scene in Ridley Scott’s crime epic American Gangster that defines the personal code driving one of the principal characters. “Look at the way you’re dressed,” says the impeccably groomed, tastefully attired 1970s Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) in disgust, to his ostentatiously pimped-out brother Huey (Chiwetel Ejiofor), “…it’s a look that says: ‘arrest me’. Remember, the loudest one in the room is also the weakest one in the room.”

It’s one of the axioms Lucas picked up while paying his dues working as a driver for his mentor, an old-school Harlem crime lord (Clarence Williams III). By the time his boss keels over from a heart attack, Lucas has been thoroughly schooled in the shrewd business acumen of how to remain a wolf in sheep’s clothing; no matter how venal your methods are for getting to the top and maintaining your position, if you’re able to swing it while maintaining a respectable public appearance, everybody will still love you.

Scott’s film is all about “appearances”; judging a book by its cover, if you will. When we are first introduced to the other main character, New Jersey police detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), it’s unclear whether we’re observing a cop and his partner serving a warrant…or watching a disheveled street thug and his pal pulling a B & E. While his personal grooming habits may be questionable, it is apparent his integrity is of the highest order. Not only is he an honest cop in a department soaked with corruption (he’s sneered at as a “boy scout” when he turns in a million in cash discovered in a dealer’s car), he is also diligently studying to pass the bar exam so he can prosecute criminals in court as well. Ironically, he is concurrently entangled in a messy child custody battle with his ex-wife.

Lucas, on the other hand, maintains the appearance of an upstanding citizen; while surreptitiously operating on the opposite side of the law. He has prospered via an ingenious Southeast Asian heroin pipeline that bypasses any pesky “middlemen”. He buys an estate in the suburbs and sets up house for his brothers and his mother (played by the great Ruby Dee, who we don’t see enough of these days). He marries a beautiful Latina (Lymari Nadal) and ingratiates himself as a pillar of the community, mingling with the hoi polloi and contributing to charitable causes. Most interestingly, Lucas is also able to “hide in plain sight” due to the fact that during this era (the early to mid 1970s), it was literally beyond the ken of the law enforcement community to consider that such a sophisticated, large-scale drug operation could be helmed by an African-American.

Steven Zailian’s screenplay is based on true events; the story revels in the same seedy 70s N.Y.C. milieu that informed films like The French Connection, Serpico and Prince of the City; namely, the occasionally blurry line between a “cop” and a “robber” Scott also uses a trick that worked well for Michael Mann in Heat, building dramatic tension by keeping his two stars apart for most of the film, while teasing us on the inevitability that the pair’s “professional” paths are destined to cross. When Washington and Crowe finally do share a scene together, it proves well worth the wait (watch closely for the coffee cup prop that becomes a metaphorical chess piece; it’s a masterstroke of gesture from both actors).

Scott utilizes his patented ultra-slick visual style (although a grittier look might have better served the story). One bone to pick: despite the deliberate pacing for the first 2 hours, something about the denouement feels curiously rushed. That aside, honorable mentions need to go out to Josh Brolin, for his full-blooded performance as a corrupt Special Investigations Unit cop, and Armand Assante as a mob big shot. I liked the period soundtrack as well, although we need to declare a moratorium on Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street”. It’s a great song, but it’s now been used in three films!

SIFF 2007: Monkey Warfare ***

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two bongs up! Six degrees of Woody Harrelson: Scanners (***) & Grass (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 27, 2007)

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Richard Linklater entered the sci-fi arena in 2006 with his adaptation of the late Phillip K. Dick’s semi-autobiographical novel A Scanner Darkly (now on DVD). Set in a not-so-distant future L.A., the story injects themes of existential dilemma, drug-fueled paranoia and Orwellian government surveillance  into what is otherwise a fairly standard “undercover-cop-who’s-gone-too-deep” yarn.

Keanu Reeves stars as a dazed and confused narc that has become helplessly addicted to the mind-altering drug that he has been assigned to help eradicate (“substance D”). Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Linklater alumni Rory Cochrane are his fellow D-heads who may not exactly be whom they appear to be on the surface. Adding to the mood of hallucinatory psychosis is Linklater’s use of rotoscoping (as per his underrated Waking Life). The rotoscoping technique does present challenges to the actors; Downey, with his Chaplinesque knack for physical expression, pulls it off best, while the more inert performers like Reeves and Ryder are quite literally akin to oil paintings.

Linklater’s script keeps fairly close to its source material-particularly in relation to the more cerebral elements (Linklater’s propensity for lots of talk and little action may be a turn-off for those expecting another Minority Report). Depending on what you bring with you, the film is a) a cautionary tale about addiction, b) a warning about encroaching technocracy, c) an indictment on the government’s “war” on drugs, d) a really cool flick to watch while stoned, e) the longest 99 minutes of your life or f) all of the above.

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Speaking of the “war” on drugs-here’s a sleeper you may have missed. Grass is a unique, well-produced documentary dealing (er, pun intended) with the history of anti-marijuana legislation  in the United States. Far from a dry history lesson, the film builds its own “counter-myth” of sorts, by exposing the hypocrisy of the government’s anti-marijuana propaganda machine over the years; from the  histrionics of the 1930’s howler Reefer Madness to the Reagan administration’s “Just Say No” campaign in the 1980’s.

There is also an eye-opening  tally of all the tax money the various law-enforcement agencies have spent (thrown away?) attempting to eradicate marijuana usage…from the days of Elliot Ness to the present. The filmmakers ladle some well-chosen period music over a wealth of archive footage (maximized for full ironic effect). Woody Harrelson, who has famously lived through a series of herb-related legal problems, off-screen, narrates with winking bemusement. Whether you are for or against legalization, you should find this one quite informative and highly (sorry!) entertaining.