Category Archives: Historical drama

First there is a mountain: North Face ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 20, 2010)

The hills are alive:  Lukas and Furmann in North Face

The language of cinema may be universal, but certain genres seem to be nation-centric. The American western, the Japanese samurai film and the French farce come to mind. Germany’s claim to fame (arguably running neck-in-neck with Expressionism) are the Alpine “mountain films” of the 1920s and 1930s, ruggedly adventurous tales pitting man (and occasionally, the ruggedly adventurous Leni Riefenstahl) against nature.

The narratives generally applaud moral fiber and strength of character (bet you’re glad I didn’t say “triumph of the will”), as well as variations on the theme of “What doesn’t kill you, can only make you stronger.” Many of these mountain films hold up well, mostly due to the genuinely exciting on-location climbing sequences, which obviously had to be filmed without benefit of enhancements like CGI. Okay, there were some camera tricks and such, but the actors and crew were often working in relatively perilous situations.

This brings us to Philipp Stozl’s remarkably authentic mountaineering tale, North Face (released in Germany in 2008 as Nordwand, and currently making its theatrical debut in the U.S.). I will tell you one thing. Despite what I know in my heart of hearts about the “magic” of movie making, days later I’m still pondering how the hell they produced this film without any cast or crew members going “Whoopsie!” and plunging to their doom.

The film is based on the true story of four climbers (a pair of two-man teams, one German and the other Austrian) who tackled the previously unconquered north face of Switzerland’s legendary Eiger in 1936. This particular route to the summit of the formidable 13,000 foot peak was considered suicidal at best; due to its dauntingly sheer ascent, dicey traversals, unforgiving exposure to mercurial weather conditions and relative scarcity of safe bivouacking options. Based on my research about the actual events, Stolzl and co-writers Cristoph Silber, Rupert Henning and Johannes Naber have taken artistic license in their dramatization, but have still delivered a riveting adventure.

The German climbing team of lifelong friends Toni Kurz (Benno Furmann) and Andreas Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) are professional rivals of their Austrian counterparts, Edi Rainer (Georg Friedrich) and Willy Angerer (Simon Schwarz). Toni and Andreas have been persuaded by the government to represent Germany (and for Nazi propaganda purposes, the “superior” Aryan ideal) in a multi-nation  competition to scale the Eiger.

The two are much more enthusiastic about the potential to become the first to successfully navigate the north face than they are about scoring political points for the Fatherland. In fact, neither are party members. Although they are in the army, they are ambivalent about their military careers. They cheekily respond to the standard greeting of “Heil Hitler!” with either a cheery “Guten tag!” or a jaunty “Berg heil!”

A childhood friend of the pair named Luise (Johanna Wokelek), now an aspiring photojournalist, is assigned to accompany her editor (Ulrich Tukur) to cover the competition (for those who fret about historical accuracy, she’s a complete invention). It is intimated that Luise and Toni share a romantic history.

For one reason or another, the Germans and the Austrians are the only two teams who end up making the climb; initially as competitors but eventually merging as one team due to unexpected circumstances. The ascent subsequently is aborted and becomes a harrowing survival tale that will have you on the edge of your seat.

Despite a narrative invention or two, Stolzl has delivered a believable film; immersive, exhilarating, heartbreaking. The mountaineering sequences are astounding, instilling a sense of admiration for what these men were able to achieve, outfitted in their relatively primitive 1930s climbing gear (no Gore-Tex or GPS tracking devices in those days).

The Nazi politics are downplayed, but there is a pointed juxtaposition made between the porcine “spectators” and journalists reveling in warm and cozy opulence at the nearby four-star hotel, and the tortuous, sub-zero life-and-death struggles unfolding just a few miles away on the Eiger. Whether this was intended as political allegory is up for debate.

I detected an echo of Billy Wilder’s cynical noir classic Ace in the Hole in one scene. When news reaches the journalists that the climbers have aborted the attempt and begun a premature descent, Luise asks her editor why he has made an abrupt decision to abandon the story as well and immediately leave the hotel. He snorts, “You either need a glorious triumph…or a horrible tragedy. An unspectacular retreat is nothing more than a few lines on page 3.” Plus ca change

DVD Reissue: Gone With the Wind ****

By Dennis Hartley

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

Gone With the Wind  (70th Anniversary Edition)  – Warner (2-disc)

1939 was a good year for director Victor Fleming. Even if he had been hit by a bus after helming The Wizard of Oz, his rep would have been secured; but he also delivered a little sleeper you may have heard of called Gone With the Wind that  same year. Technically,  he “inherited” the project from  George Cukor, who dropped out over differences with producer David O. Selznick (who in essence co-directed). No matter who actually called the shots, the end result is generally considered the quintessential American film epic.

You know the story (based on Margaret Mitchell’s  sprawling novel); spoiled, narcissistic Southern diva (Vivien Leigh) has unrequited love for dashing Confederate war hero (Leslie Howard) who is betrothed to her saintly rival (Olivia deHavilland) and takes 2 hours of screen time to realize she really belongs with the roguish and equally self-absorbed Clark Gable.

The burning of Atlanta (and other Civil War distractions) provides an occasional sense of release from the smoldering passion and sexual tension (consummated in torrid fashion about 3 hours in). That’s a lot of foreplay, but in the meantime you are treated to a visually sumptuous feast and mythic performances by all four leads. It is worth noting that co-starHattie McDaniel became the first African-American actor to win an Oscar (Best Supporting Actress, 1940, for her role as “Mammy”).

While it is hopelessly “of its time” (particularly in its unfortunate characterizations of African-Americans), it is ahead of its time in one respect-it features some very strong and self-sufficient female protagonists. This is one film that transcends its own medium. Warner’s 2009 transfer is breathtaking.

DVD Reissue: The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s  Hullabaloo on December 13, 2008)

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith– Industrial Entertainment DVD

I had just about abandoned all hope that this 1978 sleeper from Australian writer-director Fred Schepisi would ever see the light of day on DVD, until I was pleasantly surprised to see it pop up on the “new release” rack of my favorite neighborhood independent video store last month (I quickly snapped up the last copy). Adapted from Thomas Keneally’s novel (which was inspired by true events) this  tale concerns the travails of the eponymous character, played with explosive intensity by non-professional actor Tommy Lewis.

Jimmie is a half-caste Aboriginal, living in New South Wales in 1900. Jimmie struggles between the pull of his native culture and the insistence of white sponsors who want him to “do the right thing” and assimilate into “civilized” society. This is easier said than done; it seems that the harder he tries to please everyone, the more he is shunned by all. Jimmie sublimates his reaction to the enveloping systemic racism and roiling inner conflicts for too long, which eventually leads to a shocking explosion of violence. This is raw, powerful and disturbing stuff (not for the squeamish), but well worth your time. The DVD includes a recent interview with Lewis.

The whole Bolivian army: Che ***

By Dennis Hartley

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

Bosch:  A series about a bunch of bank-robbing guerillas? 

Schlesinger:  What’re we going to call it –the ‘Mao Tse Tung Hour’?

Diana:  Why not? They’ve got StrikeForce, Task Force, SWAT — why not Che Guevara and his own little mod squad?

-from Network (by Paddy Chayefsky)

No…wait! How about a full-length feature film about Che Guevara? No, wait….two full-length feature films, combined as a 4 ½ hour epic? We’ll throw Fidel into the mix, and make it a buddy movie. We’ll show how these two young, rugged and idealistic Marxists sowed the seeds of the Cuban Revolution with little more than a couple of guns, a rag-tag band of rebel soldiers, and a leaky boat. Then, we’ll move the action over to Bolivia, where Che plays cat and mouse in the jungle, Rambo-style, with the whole Bolivian Army looking for him…then he goes out in a blaze of glory! How’s this for a working title: “Butch Castro and the Argentine Kid”? We could get that kid who just directed another Oceans 11 sequel? Oh yeah, Soderbergh. That means he’s due for one of his Art House Cred films? Perfect!

Well, as far as Art House Cred flicks go, you could do worse than Che, Steven Soderbergh’s new biopic about one of the most iconic figures in the history of revolutionary politics. I know what you’re thinking. You’ve got your Thomas Jefferson, with the intellectualized ideals and the Declaration thingie; you’ve got your Mahatma Gandhi, with the passive resistance and the civil disobedience.

However, let’s face facts: Whose mug do you see on all the T-shirts and the dorm room posters? The stately, bewigged gentleman farmer? The lovable, bespectacled uncle? That’s not sexy. The bearded guy with the beret and the bandolier, leading his own little mod squad through the jungle like Robin Hood and his merry band, sticking it to The Man in the name of the People. Now that’s sexy.

Let’s get this out of the way first. Ernesto “Che” Guevara was no martyr. By the time he was captured and executed by a unit of CIA-directed Bolivian Special Forces in October of 1967, he had played judge and jury and put his own fair share of people up against the wall in the name of the Revolution. He was Fidel Castro’s right-hand man; some historians have referred to him as “Castro’s brain”.

That said, he was a complex, undeniably charismatic and fascinating individual. By no means your average run-of-the-mill revolutionary guerilla leader, he was also well-educated, a physician, a prolific writer (from speeches and essays on politics and social theory to articles, books and poetry), a shrewd diplomat and had a formidable intellect (he “palled around” with the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir; like many native Argentines, he was fluent in French as well). He was also a brilliant military tactician.

Soderbergh and his screenwriters Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. Van Der Veen have adapted their two-part story from a pair of Guevara’s own autobiographical accounts (respectively): Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War and The Bolivian Diary.

Part 1 begins with Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) preparing to address the U.N. in 1964, in his capacity as the head of the Cuban delegation. It was during this brief yet significant visit where Guevara’s cult of personality was first seededin America; he made a TV appearance on Face the Nation and was even feted by Senator Eugene McCarthy (both events are recreated in the film). Guevara also met with Malcolm X during this  junket; although the film skips over that.

DP “Peter Andrews” ( Soderbergh in actuality…long story) shoots the footage of the 1964 trip in a stark, B&W verite style, which gives it a faux-documentary vibe and cleverly instills an effective period flavor. It also makes an eye-catching contrast to the beautifully photographed full-color flashbacks that make up the bulk of Part 1, which covers Guevara’s involvement in the Cuban revolution, beginning with his initial introduction to Castro in 1955, and culminating with an expansive, rousing, Sergio Leone-worthy recreation of the decisive battle of Santa Clara in 1958.

Regardless of your feeling on Guevara’s significance as a historical figure (or Castro’s, for that matter), what ensues in the movie’s first half is nothing less than a thoroughly absorbing, and at times downright exhilarating, piece of ace film making. What I found most fascinating about this part of the story is the amount of sheer determination and force of will that can be summoned up by people who are so thoroughly and immovably committed to an ideal.

Intellectually, it helps you grok the romanticism of “revolution” and the  rock star appeal that leaders of such political movements can possess. Again, however, Castro and Guevara were no saints. They “freed” the Cuban people from an oppressive dictatorship, only to turn around and install their own oppressive dictatorship (meet the new boss, same as the old boss). And so endeth Part 1.

Part 2 is a different bailiwick. In late 1966, following an unsuccessful attempt to stir up a people’s revolution from the disarray caused by a civil war in the Congo (mentioned only in passing in the film), Guevara headed for Bolivia to see what kind of trouble he could scare up there (he was nothing, if not committed to his principles).

Unfortunately for Guevara, this venture was to lead to his final undoing. Compared to the relative cakewalk of a small island nation like Cuba, the rugged, desolate vastness of landlocked Bolivia proved to be a more daunting logistical hurdle for his preferred method of using “armed struggle” to win over the hearts and minds of the peasants; consequently this revolution didn’t quite “take”.

Since we know this going in, and after checking our watches, we also know that the film still has 135 minutes to go, the question is: How can Part 2 be as engrossing as Part 1? Well, it depends on how you look at it. If you’re the completist type (like me), naturally you’re going to want to know how the story ends.

I found Part 2  equally involving, but in a different vein. Whereas Part 1 is a fairly straightforward biopic, Part 2 reminded me of two fictional adventures with an existential bent, both of which also happen to be set in similarly torrid and unforgiving South American locales; Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear and Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Like the doomed protagonists in those films, Guevara is fully committed to his journey into the heart of darkness, and has no choice but to cast his fate to the wind and let it all play out.

A word about the presentation. My review is based on the “special road show edition” of the film that I saw here in Seattle (now playing in selected cities). This was presented as a 4 ½ hour film (ow, my ass), with a 15-minute intermission, and no opening or closing credits.

When it goes into wider release, it will be presented as The Argentine (Part 1) and Guerilla (Part 2), with individual admissions. I also noticed (to my chagrin) that it has now popped up on PPV in two parts (if your lineup includes the “IFC in Theaters” feature). I would recommend seeing it as a whole; but if your budget and/or attention span dictates otherwise, at least try to catch The Argentine if you can.

Earsplittenloudenboomer: Valkyrie **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 3, 2009)

A patchy uprising: Tom Cruise in Valkyrie.

One of my favorite  lines from Mel Brooks’ The Producers is uttered by psychedelicized thespian “Lorenzo St. Dubois” (Dick Shawn), star of the Broadway musical romp Springtime for Hitler. After “Goebbels” (David Patch) carelessly tosses a lit reefer into a vase, making it explode, our “Hitler” turns  to the audience with a wink and bemoans in mock consternation: “They try…man, how they try!”

Man, how they tried. By 30 April 1945, the day Adolph Hitler finally put us all out of his misery by treating himself to a cyanide cocktail, followed by a Walther PPK 7.65mm caliber chaser, there had been no less than 17 (documented) schemes/attempts to take him out.

The would-be assassins ranged from military officers (captains to field marshals) to members of his  inner circle (including Armaments Minister Albert Speer, who toyed with the idea of sending poison gas down the ventilator shaft of his Berlin bunker in 1945). It looked like Hitler was going to be tougher to get rid of than Rasputin.

The most famous attempt, code-named “Valkyrie”, was spearheaded by an idealistic German nationalist named Colonel Count Claus von Stauffenberg, an army staff officer who ingratiated himself into a well-organized consortium within the German resistance.

On July 20, 1944, Stauffenberg, who had finagled himself into a position to attend Hitler’s military strategy meetings, managed to smuggle a briefcase full of timed plastic explosives into a conference at the “Wolf’s Lair”. He slipped the briefcase under the table, close to where Hitler was positioned, excused himself to take an “important call”, and waited outside for the earth-shattering ka-boom.

Once all hell broke loose, Stauffenberg made a beeline to Berlin to initiate the next phase of the plot, which would require neutralizing the SS and mobilizing the reserve army (under an emergency contingency government reorganization plan that ironically had been set up by Hitler himself). It almost worked (except for the part where they forgot to check Hitler’s pulse before proceeding with Step 2). The day did not end well for Stauffenberg and several other key conspirators; they did not live to see the next sunrise.

This true-life tale contains all the thrills, suspense and complex plotting of a ripping WW2 yarn by Alistair MacLean, except that in this case, the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are all…the “bad guys” (i.e., based on the traditional Hollywood depiction of WW2 era Germans). This presents an interesting dilemma for a filmmaker. It is only in recent years that we have seen films that (for better or for worse) posit a relatively objective view of what the Second World War looked like from the perspective of the Germans.

Now, I am by no means an apologist (I had many distant relatives who perished in concentration camps, and the very sight of a swastika makes me physically ill) but it is a fact that not every single person who lived in Germany between 1933 and 1945 was a blindly obedient member of the National Socialist Party who worshiped Hitler. There was actually an active military and civilian domestic resistance movement that flourished during that era.

One of the earliest films to lurch in that direction was Edward Dmytryk’s The Young Lions (1958) which featured among its three principal characters a conflicted Nazi lieutenant (Marlon Brando) who was devoted to duty, yet palpably repulsed by the inhumanity being perpetrated in the name of the Fatherland. Cabaret (1972) tentatively touched on the idea of the anti-Nazi sentiment within Germany, but the story ends just as Hitler is coming to power, so in historical context, his full capacity for avarice and evil would have still been an unknown quantity to the general populace at the time.

Das Boot (1981) was probably the first film to portray members of the Nazi era German military in a “sympathetic” light and was one of the first to feature German military characters expressing anti-Hitler sentiments. Then again, this was not a Hollywood production (it was originally produced for German TV). And tangentially, we have Schindler’s List (1993) which cheers for an unlikely war hero-an (initially) opportunistic Nazi businessman who profited from the abundance of cheap labor from concentration camps.

All of which now inevitably (unavoidably?) brings us to the new Tom Cruise vehicle, Valkyrie, reuniting director Bryan Singer with his The Usual Suspects screenwriter, Christopher McQuarrie (who co-scripted with Nathan Alexander). Cruise stars as Stauffenberg; stern of jaw, steely of gaze and nattily resplendent in polished jackboots and matching eye patch. To the chagrin of some, he is also bereft of a German accent. This is a moot point, because most of his co-stars sport British accents. Since we know  everybody in this story is German, it’s but a momentary distraction (like when Tony Curtis informs Spartacus that he is “…a singah of sooangs.”)

Singer showcases his prowess for well-staged action sequences in a slam-bang battle scene early on the film that depicts how Stauffenberg suffered his disfiguring wounds. As he recovers from his injuries, we catch a glimpse of his family life, and glean  a warm relationship with his children and his devoted wife (Carice van Houten). As the tides of the war turn against the Reich, Stauffenberg comes to realize that Hitler’s hopes for victory are becoming more delusional by the day and can only lead to the complete annihilation of his beloved Germany, so he decides that he must be stopped.

The film recreates several other assassination attempts by Stauffenberg and his associates which preceded the conference room bombing at Wolf’s Lair in July 1944. The final attempt is quite riveting, tautly directed and full of nail-biting suspense. Unfortunately, however the film is marred by an abrupt ending; the split second after Cruise has his Big Death Scene, it’s time to fade to black and roll credits (it’s probably in his contract rider).

Another problem is Cruise himself. Yes, he is a Movie Star, right down to those dazzling choppers, but try as he might over the years (bless his heart), he is just simply not cut out to be a character actor.

The real Stauffenberg was a complex person; a fervent German nationalist, an aristocrat, politically conservative and introspectively philosophical by nature. All I kept seeing up on that screen was…Tom Cruise with an eye patch. Don’t get me wrong, when a part is tailor made for his particular energy (Risky Business, Jerry Maguire, Magnolia) he can be undeniably appealing and genuinely charismatic.

Two supporting performances are particular standouts; the always-excellent Tom Wilkinson as General Fromm, and Bill Nighy as Genral Olbricht. A couple other venerable Brits are on board (Terrence Stamp and Kenneth Branagh) but they aren’t given too much room to flex (perhaps Producer Tom didn’t want to be upstaged).

Singer does have a keen eye for historical detail. Several key scenes were filmed on location, most significantly the recreation of Stauffenberg’s execution, which was staged in the Berlin courtyard where the actual incident took place (that courtyard now contains a memorial to the conspirators, now regarded as national heroes in Germany). History buffs will likely be more forgiving regarding the film’s shortcomings, and just enjoy it as a straightforward WW2 action thriller. Tom Cruise fans will see it regardless of critical opinion, and the rest…may want to just wait for the DVD.

Confessions of a dangerous mind: Frost/Nixon ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 20, 2008)


Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devised at first to keep the strong in awe.

-Wm. Shakespeare (from Richard III)

I’m saying that when the president does it…that means it’s not illegal.

-Richard M. Nixon

There’s an old theatrical performer’s axiom that goes “Always leave ‘em wanting more.” In August of 1974, President Richard Nixon made his Watergate-weary exit from the American political stage with a nationally televised resignation soliloquy, and left ‘em wanting more…answers. Any immediate hopes for an expository epilogue to this 5 year long usurpation of the Constitution  and Shakespearean tragedy were abruptly dashed one month later when President Gerald Ford granted him a full pardon. Like King Lear, the mad leader slunk back to his castle by the sea and out of public view.

Time passed. Most Americans turned their attention to the recession of ’74-’75, and various shiny distractions like Pet Rocks, disco balls, and Charlie’s Angels. Some inquiring minds, however, still wanted to know. One of them was a British television personality/savvy self-promoter by the name of David Frost, who had been kicking around the medium since the early 60s in various guises,  from droll satirist (That Was the Week that Was and The Frost Report in the U.K.) to straight-up talk show host (Frost on America).

Although he occasionally interviewed politicians and statesmen, he wasn’t generally thought of as a “journalist” prior to 1977. When he first started shopping an idea to tackle former President Nixon in a series of exclusive TV interviews, he raised many an eyebrow and was laughed out of a few network executive’s offices (it would be like David Letterman suddenly deciding that he wanted to become the next Mike Wallace… “Get out of here, you nut!”). Undeterred, Frost decided that he would fund the project himself and independently syndicate the broadcasts. Eventually, of course, the interviews did hit the airwaves, and the rest, as they  say, is History.

While the broadcasts themselves have become the stuff of legend to political junkies (as it is the closest anyone ever got to coaxing anything resembling a pang of conscience and regret from The Tricky One for his crimes), the machinations leading up to the actual broadcasts may not sound like the makings of an engrossing tale, but it has inspired a popular Broadway play and now a riveting new film.

Guided with an assured hand by director Ron Howard, and adapted for the screen by Peter Morgan (from his own award-winning play), Frost/Nixon is a superbly crafted mélange of history lesson, courtroom drama, backstage tale,  championship boxing match, and (perhaps most importantly) another tie-in for you to use to impress friends with your prowess at playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

Morgan’s screenplay is deftly built around this perfect setup for a clash of the titans: The Consummate Showman vs. The Consummate Politician. The “oil and water” mix of the two personalities is also a natural for theatrical consideration. Frost was good-looking, charming, glib,  and fashionably attired; whereas Nixon was shifty-eyed, socially awkward and brooding, with a relatively rumpled countenance.

In this corner: Former President Richard M. Nixon (Frank Langella, reprising his Tony-winning stage role), his agent Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones), his former White House Chief of Staff/Man Friday Jack Brennen (Kevin Bacon!), and wife Pat (Patty McCormack). And in this corner: David Frost (Michael Sheen, also reprising his Broadway role), his chief researchers (Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt) and girlfriend/Muse (Rebecca Hall).

Langella and Sheen are nicely in tune with each other onscreen; likely this is due to the fact that they’ve had ample opportunity to flesh out their respective characters during  the course of their  Broadway run. It’s one of the best performances I’ve seen by Langella (he already has a Golden Globe nom, we will see what happens come Oscar time). Armed with Morgan’s incisive dialog, and with Howard’s skillful and unobtrusive direction to cover his flank, he  uncannily captures the essence of Nixon’s contradictions and complexities; the supreme intelligence, the grandiose pomposity and the congenital craftiness, all corroded by the insidious paranoia that eventually consumed his soul, and by turn, the soul of the nation.

All the supporting performances are wonderful, particularly from Platt and Rockwell as Frost’s tenacious strategists, who in a roundabout way play out like Tom Stoppard’s re-imagining of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Nixon’s Hamlet (if I may continue to run with the Shakespearean analogies). Indeed, it is Rockwell’s character who utters the most insightful observation in the script about Nixon’s Achilles Heel in this affair; he posits that no matter how cagily Nixon fancied himself to be putting one over on Frost, he was ultimately done in by something that never lies: “The reductive power of the close-up.” Anon. (Fade to black).

Oliver Stone looks back, and to the Right: W ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 18, 2008)

Two of America’s finest actors.

No one has ever accused Oliver Stone of being subtle. However, once audiences view his highly anticipated film concerning the life and times of George W. Bush, I think the popular perception about the director, which is that he is a rabid conspiracy theorist who rewrites history via Grand Guignol-fueled cinematic polemics, could begin to diminish. I’m even going to go out on a limb here (gulp!) and call W a fairly straightforward biopic.

Stone intersperses highlights of Bush’s White House years with episodic flashbacks and flash forwards, beginning in the late 60s (when Junior was attending Yale) and taking us up to the present day. I don’t think a full plot summary is necessary; if you are a regular Hullabaloo reader, you know the story all too well: Alcoholic son of Texas oil millionaire stumbles through early adulthood, gets into Yale (eventually Harvard) through the back door, marries a librarian, then discovers his Special Purpose after helping Poppy become President.

Thanks to the savvy guidance of a homunculus sidekick he dubs as “Turdblossom”, he is elected as the governor of Texas (twice) and then finds God, who informs him personally that he is destined to become President, because He has a Special Mission for him. Turns out that his Special Mission is to fight the Evil Doers where they live, after they stage a terrorist attack on America. Trouble is, there seems to be some confusion as to exactly where they live. In the meantime, he’ll need to bitch slap that Bill of Rights (just a little), for our protection.

Best supporting performance?

I’m not saying that Stone doesn’t take a point of view; he wouldn’t be Oliver Stone if he didn’t. He’s already catching flak for the screen time spent dwelling on Bush’s battle with the bottle (the manufacturers of Jack Daniels must have laid out serious bucks for the ubiquitous product placement ). Bush’s history of boozing is a matter of record.

Some are taking umbrage at another one of the chief underlying themes of Stanley Weisner’s screenplay, which is that Bush’s angst (and the drive to succeed at all costs) is propelled by an unrequited desire to please a perennially disapproving George Senior. I’m no psychologist, but that sounds reasonable to me.

Live, from New York…it’s Saturday Night!

As usual, Stone has assembled a massive cast with a bazillion speaking parts. His choice of Josh Brolin for the lead initially struck many people as an odd selection (including yours truly), but now that I have seen the film, I have to say it was a smart move.

Brolin is nothing short of brilliant. He doesn’t go for a cartoon caricature, which would have been the easy route to take; I think he pulls off a Daniel Day Lewis-worthy “total immersion” quite successfully. It is interesting to note that Brolin (tangential to Junior) has been accused of riding into a Hollywood career on the coattails of his dad (James Brolin) and stepmother (Barbara Streisand); if Stone chose his leading man with this in mind, he is a very canny operator.

Some of the other standouts in the cast include Toby Jones as Karl Rove, James Cromwell and the great Ellen Burstyn as President and Mrs. Bush Sr., Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell and Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney. Wright and Dreyfuss play off each other beautifully while recreating Cheney and Powell’s tiffs. Scott Glenn isn’t given an awful lot to do as Donald Rumsfeld, but he has the evil squint down.

The only casting misfire is an overly mannered Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice; it is like she dropped in from an SNL sketch. Perhaps it is not entirely her fault, as there’s so much prosthetic on her face, she can barely move her lips.

Perhaps I should qualify something. When I called this a “straightforward” biopic, I was speaking in relative terms. You have to keep in mind that in one respect, Stone is boldly going where no filmmaker has gone before. PT 109 aside, this is the only biopic about a president to be released while he is still sitting in the Oval Office; and since the former film dealt with JFK’s WW2 exploits, and not his actual presidency, that makes Stone’s film even more unique.

Another hurdle is the fact that the Bush administration has probably been satirized, parodied and ridiculed (via print, blogosphere, TV, film, theater, comedy club, YouTube, T-shirt, billboard, and water cooler chat) more than any other presidency in my lifetime (not that they haven’t asked for it in every way imaginable). This zeitgeist makes it virtually impossible for someone to make a “serious” biopic about W. By playing it straight, Stone is really being subversive (clever boy!).

If the Bush administration had never really happened, and this was a completely fictional creation, I would be describing Stone’s film by throwing out one-sheet ready superlatives like “A wildly imaginative look at the dark side of the American Dream!” or “A vivid, savage satire for our times!” But you see, when it comes to the life and legacy of one George W. Bush and the Strangelovian nightmare that he and his cohorts have plunged this once great nation into for the last eight years, all you have to do is tell the truth…and pass the popcorn.

Arise, Commie Pinko Hollywood Lefties: Reds (****) & The Internationale (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 17, 2007)

Every time I see our illustrious VP’s mug on the tube or hear mention of Halliburton, I always flash on my favorite scene in Warren Beatty’s Reds. Early on in the film, the story’s protagonist, journalist/activist/Communist Party member John Reed (Beatty), is at a meeting of Portland’s Liberal Club, where discussion has turned to the current war in Europe (WWI). Reed is asked what he thinks the conflict is “about”. Reed stands up, simply mumbles one word, then promptly sits right back down. The word: “Profits”. The crystalline brevity of that answer blew my (then) twenty-something mind back in 1981.

Indeed, it is a testament to Beatty’s own sense of conviction and legendary powers of persuasion (or as Tom Hanks put it, repeatedly, at the recent Golden Globe Awards, “Balls”) that he was able to convince a major Hollywood studio to back a 3 ½ hour epic about a relatively obscure American Communist (who is buried in the Kremlin, no less).

As we know now, of course, the film turned out to be a critical success, and garnered a dozen Oscar noms (it won three, including Best Director). Almost unbelievably, it was not released on DVD until late 2006. If you haven’t seen it in a while, or have never seen it-you owe yourself a screening, particularly if you are a history buff.

Diane Keaton turns in one of her best performances as Reed’s lover, writer and feminist Louise Bryant. Maureen Stapleton (who we sadly lost last year) earned her Best Supporting Actress trophy with a memorable portrayal of activist Emma Goldman. Jack Nicholson’s take on the complex, mercurial playwright, Eugene O’Neill is a wonder to behold. And Beatty deserves kudos for assembling an amazing group of surviving real-life participants, whose anecdotal recollections are seamlessly interwoven throughout, like a Greek Chorus of living history. No one makes ‘em like this anymore.

If you really want to make a “subversive” night of it, a certain rousing anthem that figures prominently in the Reds soundtrack is the sole spotlight of another recent DVD release. Blending archival footage with thoughtful commentary, The Internationale takes a look at the origins and historical impact of the eponymous political anthem, from its 19th century roots in the French Commune movement to Tienanmen Square and beyond, packed into a breezy 30 minutes.

Arguably one of the most idealized (and frequently misinterpreted) rallying songs ever composed (just the melody alone gives me goose bumps), the tune has been embraced by Socialists, Marxists, anarchists, anti-Fascists, workers and labor activists alike over the years, transcending nationalist and language barriers. The most interesting aspect the film examines concerns the bad rap the song received after it was “officially” adapted by the oppressive, post-revolutionary Soviet regime. Pete Seeger (a perfect choice, no?) emcees the proceedings, with support from historians, musicologists, and multinational participants (veteran and current) in some of the aforementioned movements. British punk agitprop troubadour extraordinaire Billy Bragg also makes a brief appearance. C’mon everybody! You know the words…

Thin Lizzie: Elizabeth: The Golden Age (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 20, 2007)

Alas and anon…just when you thought it was safe to assemble an armada and go back into the water, here comes another costumer concerning a certain virgin queen. Bollywood director Shekhar Kapur has re-enlisted Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush for one more crack at the old girl in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Picking up a few decades hence from where he left off in his 1998 film Elizabeth (which depicted her ascendancy) Kapur condenses a turbulent, historically significant 4-year period during Elizabeth’s reign into what appears to be a very eventful week in the life of HRM.

As the film opens, we are introduced to a much more wary and care-worn monarch (an alarmingly thin Blanchett) holding court over England’s destiny. Gone is the radiant, rosy-cheeked and free-spirited “Bess” who lit up the screen in the previous film; she has been replaced by a mercurial, slightly paranoid monarch constantly on guard against duplicitous well-wishers and sycophants. Even close confidants are kept at arm’s length, especially her Machiavellian “spymaster”, Sir Francis Walsingham (Rush).

The Queen has two big headaches keeping her on edge. The first is her cousin, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland (Samantha Morton, in a fiercely intense performance) who feels she is the rightful heir to the English throne, not the childless “bastard” Elizabeth (who is a Protestant to boot). Mary has some influential Catholic sympathizers at home and abroad, including the other royal pain in Elizabeth’s derriere, King Philip II of Spain (Jordi Molla), who gets his jollies jeering at the English queen and rattling his saber.

Elizabeth finds a temporary distraction from all her political woes when the dashing adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen, in all his rangy glory) strolls into her court, full of tales and loaded with booty from his latest excursion to the New World. Elizabeth is obviously charmed, but has to suppress her schoolgirl crush for sake of appearances. However, when she learns that Raleigh has fathered a child and secretly eloped with her favorite chambermaid, Bess Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish) she is not so amused, and gives him a nice cozy jail cell to explore for a few years. Not to worry, however-history intervenes and the Queen pardons Raleigh in time to put him in charge of naval defenses in the year of the Armada (1588), which fuels the climactic (and rousing) battle scenes.

This is one of those “historical” epics where you have to make a decision going in whether you are going to nitpick and get cranky over odd factual inaccuracies and anachronisms, or just sit back and bask in the opulent pageantry and bodice-ripping court intrigue with a shit-eating grin on your face. Keep in mind, the screenplay is by William Nicholson, who scripted the (very) loose re-invention of the Camelot legend, First Knight, and Michael Hirst, who wrote for The Tudors, Showtime’s recent mini-series about the reign of Henry VIII. In other words, this ain’t Masterpiece Theater, folks.

Kapur seems indecisive; as if he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to make an updated version of Fire Over England (which depicted Elizabeth and Raleigh embroiled in court intrigue in the year of the Armada) or pay homage to The Sea Hawk (the swashbuckling action scenes featuring Owens in full Errol Flynn mode will definitely make history majors twitch). Nicholson and Hirst’s dialogue fuels some spirited exchanges between Blanchett and Owen in the first half of the film that reminded me of the clever repartee from Shakespeare in Love, but it ultimately clashes with some of the heavier moments later on (Samantha Morton nearly steals the movie in her execution scene, but it seems to belong in a different, darker-toned film).

If you are a genre fan, you’ll be pleased. Blanchett is excellent in the lead role, and Owen is charismatic as always. Rush is good, although his character is a bit one-dimensional (not his fault). One thing for sure-this should be the last of Liz the First for a while. Right? Tell me there isn’t another one in pre-production. Prithee (sp.?), tell me.