Category Archives: Family Issues

Wild child, full of grace: Where the Wild Things Are ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 24, 2009)

Pathos, on a cliff by the sea: Where the Wild Things Are

 Shilo, when I was young
I used to call your name
When no one else would come
Shilo, you always came
and we’d play

 -from “Shiloh” by Neil Diamond

Childhood is a magical time. Well, at least until the Death of Innocence…whenever that is supposed to occur. At what point DO we slam the window on Peter Pan’s fingers? When we stop believing in faeries? That seems to be the consensus, in literature and in film.

In Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire; only children “see” the angels. Even when the fantastical pals are more tangible, the adults in the room keep their blinders on. In Stephen Spielberg’s E.T., Mom doesn’t initially “see” her children’s little alien playmate, even when she’s seemingly gawking right at him. When the protagonist with the “imaginary” friend is an adult, he’s either dismissed as being drunk (Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey), crazy (Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams), or both (Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club).

These adults, naturally, are acting…“childish”. Why is “childish” such a dirty word, anyway? To paraphrase Robin Williams, what is wrong with retaining a bit of  “mondo bozo” to help keep your perspective? Wavy Gravy once gave similar advice: “Laughter is the valve on the pressure cooker of life. Either you laugh and suffer, or you got your beans or brains on the ceiling.” Basically (in the parlance of psycho-babble) they are advising to “stay in touch with your Inner Child”.

Director Spike Jonze and co-screenwriter Dave Eggars both get their Inner Child on in Where the Wild Things Are, a bold and wildly imaginative film adaptation of the classic children’s book by Maurice Sendak. Blending live action with expressive CGI/Muppet creations, the filmmakers construct a child’s inner fantasy world that lives and breathes, while avoiding the mawkishness that has been the ruin of many a children’s film. In actuality, this arguably may not qualify as such in the strictest sense; perhaps no more so than Lord of the Flies or Pan’s Labyrinth can be labeled as “children’s” films.

Young Max (Max Records) lives with his mother (Catherine Keener) and teenaged sister Claire (Pepita Emmerichs) in suburbia. Max is the type of child who might be described by some as having an “overactive imagination”, by others as a troubled kid). At any rate, we’ll just say that he definitely has some anger management issues stemming from (among other things) feelings of abandonment by his father (whether this situation was precipitated by death or divorce isn’t made quite clear, unless I overlooked something obvious).

He appears to have a loving relationship with his mom, but her job pressures, along with the additional stresses of single parenthood are obviously putting the damper on their quality time. His sister is too sidetracked by the social whirlwind of burgeoning adolescence to take interest in bonding with Kid Brother, and he doesn’t seem to have any peers to hang with. In short, Max is the Lonely Little Boy.

One evening, his mom’s boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) comes for a visit, triggering an unseemly episode of “acting out” by Max. A defiant standoff with his exasperated mom culminates with Max physically attacking her. Surprised and confused by the ferocity of his own behavior, a spooked Max runs off into the night to wrestle with his demons. Somewhere in the course of this long dark night of his 9 year-old soul, in the midst of a panicky attempt to literally flee from his own actions, Max crosses over from Reality into Fantasy (even children need to bleed the valve on the “pressure cooker of life”).

This pivotal transition is handled beautifully and subtly by the filmmakers; a sequence that I found reminiscent of the unexpectedly lyrical and fable-like interlude in Charles Laughton’s otherwise foreboding noir thriller, The Night of the Hunter, in which the children find respite from trauma via a moonlit, watery escape.

Max washes up on the shore of a mysterious island where he finds that he suddenly has the ability to not only wrestle with his inner demons, but run and jump and laugh and play with them as well. These strange and wondrous manifestations are the literal embodiment of the “wild things” inside of him that drive his complex emotional behaviors; anthropomorphic creatures that also pull double duty as avatars for the people who are closest to him.

At first, the beasts are reflexively territorial, threatening to serve him up for dinner if he doesn’t prove his mettle; Max is quick enough on his feet to figure out that he is going to have to make up in clever invention for what he lacks in physical size to keep himself out of the soup kettle. Somehow he convinces them that he is not only worthy of their trust, but is an excellent candidate to become their “king” as well (I’m no psych major, but if your emotions threaten to consume you, the best way to conquer them is to take control of them, right?)

Max forges an instant bond with the fearsome yet benign Carol (James Gandolfini) who serves as both father figure and soul mate (he also thinks it’s a hoot to rage and howl and break shit to blow off steam). Inversely, Max also is drawn to the calming countenance of Carol’s (Wife? Girlfriend?  Roommate? It’s a little hazy) “KW” (Lauren Ambrose), a morph of a maternal/big sister confidant.

All the voice-over actors (including Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper and Catherine O’Hara ) do a great job giving the various creatures hearts and souls. The episodic nature of the film’s structure may be trying for some; on the other hand, one must consider that such leaps of faith in logic are, after all, the stuff dreams are made of.

That Jonze and Eggars were able to wring this much compelling narrative and fleshed out back stories from what was essentially a child’s picture book with minimal text and virtually no exposition, and execute it all with such inventive visual flair (lovely work from DP Lance Acord), is quite an amazing accomplishment.

In a way, Jonze was the perfect director for this project. His two previous feature films (both collaborations with the iconoclastic Charlie Kaufman, known for writing densely complex, virtually un-filmable screenplays) were expert cinematic invocations of journeys into “inner space”. In Being John Malkovich, the protagonist literally finds a portal into another person’s psyche; Adaptation dived headlong into the consciousness of a blocked writer.

With his new film, Jonze seems to have drilled a portal both into the mind of Maurice Sendak, and straight into the collective memory of childhood lost. And now, if you will excuse me, I’m going out to the back yard to play for a while. And may your wild rumpus never end.

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…

John Hughes lives: Post Grad **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 22, 2009)

Although it “looks” like one of those indie comedies about quirky families (Little Miss Sunshine, Juno), Post Grad is populated by characters who would have felt more at home in a mid-1980s John Hughes vehicle; in an odd way this makes it pleasantly anachronistic.

You could almost picture Molly Ringwald as Ryden Malby (Alexis Bledel), a college lit major whose post-graduation dream is to jump right into the career track at a major L.A. publishing house. You have the male childhood friend (and fellow grad) Adam (Zach Gilford) who secretly pines away for her while gallantly respecting the platonic reality (yes…he is, and will forever be…her Duckman).

You even have the Hated Rival. Her name is Jessica (played to the hilt with amusingly snobby arrogance by Catherine Reitman) and she’s been Ryden’s academic arch-nemesis since high school. Much to Ryden’s chagrin, Jessica (along with her other fellow grads) all manage to breeze into immediate employment (obviously, the film was not made with the current economic realities in mind). Her road to that dream job runs into some bumps; consequently she faces every grad’s worst nightmare: Moving back in with the family.

This brings us to the Batshit Crazy Yet Lovable Family. There’s the D.I.Y. Dad (Michael Keaton, at times recalling his character in Night Shift) who manages a luggage store, but who is always dreaming up quirky money-making schemes on the side (he’s got one word of fatherly advice for his daughter…not “plastics”, but  “buckles”).

Mom (Jane Lynch) divides her time between pinching pennies and reining in Ryden’s weird, sock-puppet wielding little brother (Bobby Coleman) who gets into trouble at school for, uh, licking his classmates; he apparently finds their heads particularly appealing.

And don’t forget Grandma (a scene-stealing Carol Burnett, still an absolute riot at 76) who makes her grand entrance at Ryden’s graduation ceremony replete with clanging portable oxygen bottle and a rather noisy bag of Cheetos (not the only glaring product placement-Eskimo Pies get more screen time than some of the cast).

There’s not a lot of room for character development within the film’s breezy 90-minute running time (don’t expect anything much deeper than a slightly better than average sitcom episode), but the cast is game, there are some genuinely funny scenes and at its heart the film is so amiable  that it’s hard not to like it.

The only misstep of note is a subplot about a flirtation between Ryden and her 30-something neighbor, a wannabe filmmaker who directs TV infomercials (played by Brazilian beefcake Rodrigo Santoro). It doesn’t convince; and the romantic chemistry isn’t there between Bledel and Santoro. Bledel has a charming screen presence, although she is handily upstaged by Keaton, Lynch and Burnett

This is the first feature-length “live action” film for director Vicky Jenson, who has a background in animation  (she previously co-directed Shark Tale and Shrek). It’s also the feature film debut for screenwriter Kelly Fremon. Ivan Reitman (who directed Ghostbusters and Stripes) produced; which might explain the film’s 80s vibe.

Frankly the chief reason I was intrigued to screen the film was the vague inference in the trailer that it might signal Hollywood’s acknowledgment of our economic woes; it looks like we’ll still have to wait for Michael Moore’s upcoming Capitalism: A Love Story for that. In the meantime, don’t lose any sleep if you miss Post Grad in theaters, although it may be worth a rental on a slow night.

Take me to the river: Sin Nombre ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 11, 2009)

Every now and then a debut film comes along that has a voice. And when I say “voice”, I mean that the director’s confidence and clarity of cinematic vision has a tangible presence-from the very first frame to the closing credits. Maybe I’m a little jaded, but it doesn’t happen that much these days. So when I saw Cary Fukunaga’s  assured first feature, Sin Nombre, it “…made my big toe shoot right up in my boot,” (as Little Richard described the first time he ever saw Hendrix live).

Defying all expectations, this modestly budgeted, visually expansive gem hinges on a simple narrative, but is anything but predictable. It’s an adventure, yet it is informed by an almost meditative stillness that makes the occasional frisson that much more gripping and real. It delves into gang culture, but it isn’t a movie about gangs. It has protagonists who are desperately attempting to immigrate to the United States by any means necessary, yet this isn’t yet another earnest message film about “the plight” of illegal immigrants. It’s a “road movie”, but the future’s uncertain-and the end is always near.

The film has two narratives, which eventually merge as one. One story begins in Honduras, concerning a headstrong teenage girl named Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) who joins her long estranged father and uncle as they journey to Mexico, where they plan to ride the rails as far north as possible before making a final dash across the border to America, where dreams of milk and honey await.

Sayra’s father hopes to use their time together to become reacquainted with his daughter. Sayra, who seems to be working through abandonment issues, is polite but keeps a cool distance from his belated attempts at offering fatherly advice and exerting parental authority. Still, Sayra, her father and her uncle begin to form a family unit, precipitated more by necessity than affection.

Another type of extended family unit is examined in the film’s companion narrative, which takes us to the southern Mexico state of Chiapas, and centers on a local chapter of the notorious “MS-13” gang. We witness a brutal initiation rite, a 13-second long “beat down” on a young inductee nicknamed “El Smiley” (Kristian Ferrer).

Punches and kicks are soon replaced by congratulatory hugs, as Smiley is welcomed as a “brother” by his new homies, and anointed a “son” by the leader, “Lil Mago” (Tenoch Huerta Mejia). We also meet Willy, known in the gang as “El Caspar” (Edgar Flores) who is Smiley’s sponsor, and a de facto big brother figure to the young boy.

While he is a dedicated and respected member of the gang, Willy vibes creeping disenchantment; we sense he dreams of a better life. He also has something  lacking in the others-a sense of conscience. This leads to a fateful conflict with Mago, a repugnant sociopath who will accept nothing less than blind obedience . Circumstance puts Willy in the same yard where Sayra and her relatives await to jump a train that will take them north; and thus their paths converge.

While this is a very human story, containing all the elements of classic drama (love, hope, betrayal, revenge, personal sacrifice), it is also about the locales, and the elegiac tone that these backdrops lend to what is otherwise a harrowing tale. As the train whistle stops its way through Mexico, the country’s rugged beauty is captured in gorgeous “golden hour” hues by cinematographer Adriano Goldman.

Goldman’s work  reminds me of Nestor Almendros, who did the magnificent photography for Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven. The Texas prairies used as backdrop in Days of Heaven are in the same neck of the woods, and some story elements (like the protagonist’s point of view) are reminiscent of that film as well. Whether or not Malick was a conscious influence on Fukunaga is a moot point, because his film stands on its own. One could have worse influences.

For an unknown cast (many non-professionals), there are an astonishing number of outstanding performances. This adds to the naturalistic, believable tone. My film going companion, a native of Mexico (she’s from Colima), was impressed by that element, and seconded the motion that the milieu was muy autentico. Sin Nombre is another rarity these days-it’s meant to be seen on the big screen.

Greetings from Asbury Park: The Wrestler ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 17, 2009)

I witnessed something you don’t see very often on TV, on  last Sunday’s 2008 Golden Globes Awards. Sincerity. Mickey Rourke took to the stage to accept his statue for his performance in The Wrestler, and delivered one of the most heartfelt monologues never penned by a screenwriter (i.e., it was  sans the usual mawkish Hollywood bullshit that you usually hear on an awards show).

The parallels between Rourke’s real-life redemption story and that of the character he plays in the film  hit me like a freight train running through the middle of my head, and I felt a lump in my throat. “Jesus H.,” I told myself, “…it’s only a stupid awards show,” but by the time Rourke proffered “Sometimes when you’re alone…all you got is your dog,” and then thanked all of his pooches (past and present) I was done for. I haven’t cried like that since  I saw Old Yeller.

It’s funny. As the lights went down in the theater at the screening of the film I had attended the night before, I had no clue that Bruce Springsteen had penned an original tune for The Wrestler (it isn’t heard  until the closing credits). Yet, from the first moment Mickey Rourke shambled onscreen as the fading, world-weary wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson, I thought to myself, “This guy just walked right out of a Bruce Springsteen song!” More specifically:

 I had skin like leather and the diamond-hard look of a cobra

I was born blue and weathered but I burst just like a supernova

I could walk like Brando right into the sun

Then dance just like a Casanova

Rourke walks like Brando right into the kliegs and gives the performance of a lifetime in director Darren Aronofsky’s grim and gritty character study (scripted by Robert D. Siegel). When I say “grim and gritty”, I’m not kidding. This film ain’t exactly a day at the beach, or even a quick stroll out on the boardwalk to grab a knish.

“The Ram” is a semi-retired, down-on-his-luck pro wrestler, reduced to co-billing at the odd exhibition match or autograph-signing down at the Legion Hall. He lives alone in a trailer park, where he occasionally gets locked out for coming up short on the rent.

Still, he remains amiable and gracious; whether playing the “gentle giant” clowning around with neighborhood ki, or offering backstage advice and encouragement to young wrestlers. Nonetheless, his pained, ravaged road map of a face can’t hide an undercurrent of quiet desperation. After a health scare puts the kibosh on plans for a career comeback, he comes face-to-face with his mortality.

He reaches out to a stripper, with whom he has been hoping to develop a personal relationship (Marisa Tomei, in a wonderful performance). She is quite fond of him, but keeps a professional distance (she doesn’t date “customers”). She encourages him to re-establish a relationship with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), which may be his toughest match-up yet.

There are really two films here. One is a fascinating, realistic backstage glimpse at pro wrestling; the camaraderie, the carefully orchestrated stagecraft, its kitschy cult of personality and the peculiarly devoted fans who fuel it.  Even though it’s common knowledge that most of the violence is “faked” in this sport, Aronofsky and his technical crew really make you feel Rourke’s “pain” in these fictional matches, particularly when he comes up against a competitor who peppers his upper torso with a staple gun.

The documentary-like feel is undoubtedly due to the fact that the cinematographer, Maryse Alberti, has been the DP for a number of documentaries (Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson, Taxi to the Dark Side, and most notably, When We Were Kings).

The second narrative centers on the rekindling of the father-daughter relationship. This part of the story is more boilerplate; but clichés  are overshadowed by the outstanding performances.  Aronofsky has previously shown a propensity for style over substance; I have to credit him  for reining in that tendency this time out and allowing his actors to stretch and breathe  (I thought his junkie-chic drama Requiem for a Dream  was the most pretentious, overrated and unpleasant film in recent memory. I forgive him now).

Sensitive viewers  be aware that there are many squirm-inducing moments; while Aronofsky has toned his visceral, “in-your-face” tendencies down a notch or two, some of the mayhem portrayed in the wrestling matches is still potentially upsetting. Those caveats aside, I would recommend this film to strangers. It’s that good (I’m sure Mickey would appreciate the support). Then again, you could save the $10, and instead enjoy a quiet night at home with your dog.

I think Mickey would be cool with that plan, too.

The Tao of duct tape: Gran Torino ***

By Dennis Hartley

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

Which one of you punks knocked over my John McCain sign?!

Clint Eastwood certainly knows his core audience. Just when you thought that he had ceded his screen persona as one of the iconic tough guys for the more respectable mantle of a sage lion who makes prestige films, Clint Classic is back with a vengeance in Gran Torino, armed with an M-1, a cherry 1970s muscle car and a handy catchphrase (“Get off my lawn!”).

Oh, don’t panic- Clint the Sage Director is still at the helm, and Clint the Actor is smart enough to keep it real and “play his age”. This isn’t Dirty Harry with a walker; it’s more like The Visitor…with an attitude. There’s also a Socially Relevant Message, an Important Theme, and even Redemption (if you’re into that sort of thing).

Look in the dictionary under “cantankerous”, and you’ll see a picture of Walt Kowalski (wait a minute-a 1970s muscle car and a protagonist named Kowalski…Vanishing Point reference?) Kowalski (Eastwood) is a retired Michigan auto worker and Korean War vet who has recently buried his wife, and along with her, any remaining semblance of social grace or desire for human interaction.

When he is not spurning “sympathy visits” from his adult son (Brian Haley) or his late wife’s priest (Christopher Carley) he skulks about his Highland Park house, quaffing beers whilst scowling and grousing to himself about the Southeast Asians moving into “his” neighborhood. He is particularly chagrined about the Hmong family next door; the terms that Kowalski uses to describe them are derogatory racist epithets, which I am loathe to repeat here.

He doesn’t mince words when he reacts to his son and daughter-in-law’s attempts to pump him for his thoughts on estate planning, nor when the tenacious young priest begins sniffing around for dibs on his soul; he informs all the circling vultures that he would prefer they fuck off so he can return to puttering around the house, muttering to himself and fussing over his beloved ’72 Gran Torino.

Kowalski’s mistrust of his neighbors appears to be justified when he surprises a prowler in his garage, and it turns out to be Thao (Bee Vang) the teenage boy from the Hmong family next door. Initially unbeknownst to Kowalski, the otherwise straight-arrow Thao has been pressured by his n’er do well older cousin, a Hmong youth gang leader, into attempting to steal the Gran Torino as an initiation rite.

After Kowalski inadvertently saves Thao from the gang’s retaliation by chasing them off his property with his trusty service rifle (insert catch phrase here) his porch is festooned daily by an unwanted barrage of gifts, food and flowers, which is the Hmong family’s way of informing him that they are forever indebted for his act of “kindness” (to Kowalski’s abject horror).

In further keeping with cultural tradition, Thao is ordered by the family elders to make amends for the attempted theft by offering his services to Kowalski as a handyman for the summer. Thanks to some cultural bridging and good will on the part of Thao’s sister (Ahney Her), Kowalski slowly warms to the family and becomes a father figure/mentor to Thao, teaching him how to “stand his ground” while still retaining a sense of responsibility for his actions.

There is a bit of a “wax on, wax off” vibe that recalls The Karate Kid, but screenwriter Nick Schenk (who adapted from a story he developed with Dave Johannson) delves deeper into the heart of darkness with his variation on the theme. Whereas the aforementioned film was about overcoming the fear of failure, Gran Torino deals with a veritable litany of primal fears, namely fear of The Other, fear of death, and the fear of losing one’s soul.

There is still a surprising amount of levity in Schenk’s screenplay, allowing Eastwood can stretch his proclivity (as an actor) for deadpan comedy. One scene in particular that stands out in this regard involves a parting of wisdom positing that any logistical hurdle you may encounter in your journey can be defeated with a “…pair of Vise-Grips, a roll of duct tape and some WD-40.”

The film’s only flaw (and this could be a major distraction for some) is the casting of non-professional actors in most of the Hmong roles. For secondary or background characters, this is not so much of an issue, but concerning two more prominent (and very crucial) roles, I did find some of the amateurish line deliveries to be a distraction.

Eastwood’s direction is assured, but I think the main reason to see this film is for his work in front of the camera; I would consider this one of his career-best performances and certainly his most well fleshed-out characterization since Unforgiven. All I know is-I should be so lucky to be as convincing as a bad-ass when I’m pushing 80.

SIFF 2008: Half-Life **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 14, 2008)


Global warming, family meltdown.

Variety has already beat me to the punch (damn you, sirs!) and dubbed writer-director Jennifer Phang’s Half-Life as an “Asian-American Beauty”, so I’m going to describe this provocative suburban dramedy as The Ice Storm meets Donnie Darko. An audacious melange of melodramatic soap opera, dark comedy, metaphysical conundrum and apocalyptic doom, the beautifully photographed Half-Life ambitiously poses a causality dilemma: Which came first, the dystopian society or the dysfunctional family?

The dystopia is our near “future”. Global warming has created worldwide coastal flooding, displacing millions. The sun (possibly dying) belches massive solar flares, wreaking havoc with technology and environment. Perky news mannequins chirp about a Tiananmen Square style massacre of environmental activists and tsk-tsk over a family murder-suicide conducted via chainsaw. A world gone mad!

Phang uses this sense of looming catastrophe as a metaphor for the emotional storms raging within the souls of her protagonists (much the same way that Ang Lee did in his dark suburban drama The Ice Storm) The global chaos serves as the backdrop for the travails of the single-parented Wu family, living in a Spielbergian California desert suburb and led by the exasperated Saura (Julia Nickson).

Saura is the classic “mad housewife”; perpetually exasperated and dead on her feet from trying to juggle a full time job and still spend quality time attending to the needs of a live-in boyfriend (Ben Redgrave) and her two children. Saura, along with her introverted 8-year old son Timothy (Alexander Agate) and confused teenaged daughter Pam (Sanoe Lake) have all been dealing with abandonment issues since Dad took a hike some time back.

Young Timothy, who becomes the central character, escapes from all the fucked-up adult behavior that surrounds him (and possibly averts years of therapy in the process) by losing himself in escapist reveries, triggered by his imaginative crayon doodles. These brief but visually arresting scenes are nicely interpreted with a colorful blend of CG enhancement and rotoscoping techniques.  Unfortunately, Phang makes a misstep by taking this concept to a more literal plane. I’ll just say the film veers off into Carrie territory.

Phang wrestles good  performances from a mostly unknown cast, particularly from Nickson, Lake, and young Agate. Redgrave is quite effective playing a type of creepy suburban WASP character that has become an identifiable staple in twisty indie family angst dramas (e.g. Terry O’Quinn in The Stepfather, Dylan Baker in Happiness, Brad William Henke in Me and You and Everyone We Know).

I didn’t “hate” it- but I’m still vacillating as to whether or not I “liked” this film. I do think it is safe to say that Jennifer Phang shows great promise, and is definitely a director to keep an eye out for.

‘Board certified: Paranoid Park **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

Gus Van Sant’s name has become synonymous with what I call “northwest noir”, and, true to form, his latest film cozies right up alongside some of the director’s previous genre forays like Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Elephant and Last Days.

Dreamlike and elliptical in construct, Paranoid Park is a Crime and Punishment type portrait of a young man struggling with guilt and inner turmoil after inadvertently causing the death of a security guard. A Portland skateboarder named Alex (Gabe Nevins), lives with his brother and their mother (Grace Carter), who is separated from the boys’ father. We get a glimpse of the otherwise taciturn Alex’s inner life through snippets from a private journal, relayed to us in voice-over (a la Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver).

His parent’s pending divorce aside, Alex appears to be a typical suburban high school student. His girlfriend (Taylor Momsen) is a cheerleader; his best friend Jared (Jake Miller) is a skateboard enthusiast as well. The two friends hang out after school at an unsanctioned skateboard course, hidden beneath a freeway overpass and nicknamed “Paranoid Park” by users (the kind of place you don’t want to go to after dark).

Alex and Jared spend most of their time there marveling at the prowess of the hard core boarders. Alex harbors a fascination for the fringe lifestyles of the park’s more feral denizens; a breed he describes in his journal as “gutter punks, train hoppers, skate drunks…throwaway kids.”

Late one night, out of sheer boredom (and against his better instincts) Alex ventures into the park and hooks up with one of the “train hoppers”, a dubious character named “Scratch” (tempted by the Devil?). The resulting incident and its aftermath forms the crux of Alex’s churning moral dilemma and creeping paranoia.

The director’s script (adapted from Blake Nelson’s novel) features the minimalist dialogue we’ve come to expect in his films. This probably works to the young star’s advantage; especially since this was his first acting role (the director picked him out of an open casting call in Portland for extras).

Nevins, a slightly built, doe-eyed teenager who bears an uncanny resemblance to 70s bubble-gum idol Leif Garrett, fits the physical profile of the typical Van Sant protagonist. He and the rest of the largely non-professional cast give naturalistic performances. There is some nifty work from cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Kathy Li, especially in the chimerical skateboarding sequences.

As with many of Van Sant’s efforts (especially those of most recent vintage), your reaction to this film may hinge on your disposition when you watch it. Not for all tastes; but fans of movies like Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge and Francis Coppola’s The Outsiders will likely want to check out this similarly haunting mood piece about youthful angst.

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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.

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.