Category Archives: Social Satire

Everybody hurts: La Nana ***

By Dennis Hartley

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

Upstairs, creepy stares: Catalina Saavedra in The Maid

Mike Leigh, meet Sebastian Silva. With his second feature, La Nana (aka The Maid) the Chilean writer-director has made a beautifully acted little film that plays like a telenovela, black comedy, intimate character study and social commentary, all rolled into one.

Catalina Saavedra is a revelation as Raquel, a live-in maid employed by an upper-middle class family in Santiago for over 20 years. More than just a housekeeper, she has been the nanny to all the children since birth, and is considered a family member. However, despite her dedicated years of service with the loving clan, who (with the exception of one of the daughters) treat her with the utmost deference and respect, Raquel vibes a glum countenance; she remains emotionally guarded and cryptically aloof much of the time.

When some chronic health issues begin to compromise her efficiency, the mother (Claudia Celedon) decides to hire a second maid to give her a hand. The territorial Raquel is not at all pleased; passive-aggressiveness escalates into open hostility as we watch her transform into a veritable Cruella DeVille.

After manipulatively hastening the departures of two new hires in rapid succession, Raquel suddenly finds herself facing a formidable “opponent”. Her name is Lucy (Mariana Loyola). Her weapons are serenity and compassion. No matter what amount of bad vibes or acts of spite Raquel hurtles in her direction, they all appear to incinerate harmlessly in the aura of Lucy’s perennially sunny disposition before they can reach their target.

Then, something miraculous begins to unfold-Raquel’s seemingly impenetrable defensive shell cracks, and as it does, the emotional repression of 42 years slowly peels away, resulting in unexpectedly delightful and engaging twists and turns.

Initially, I was reminded of Joseph Losey’s dark class struggle allegory, The Servant; but as the film switched gears, I found it closer  to the more recent Happy Go Lucky. Saavedra’s wonderful and fearless performance is the heart of the film. In less sensitive hands, the character of Raquel could have easily been an unsympathetic cartoon villain, but Saavedra never allows her character’s humanity to slip from our view. Raquel is a reminder that everybody deserves a chance to be loved and understood. And that’s a good thing.

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…

Stalking tall: Big Fan ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 19, 2009)

Limited goals: Oswalt and Corrigan in Big Fan.

There are sports fans, and there are sports fans. And then there is Paul Aufiero, the protagonist of writer-director Robert D. Siegel’s new film, Big Fan. To say that Paul (Patton Oswalt) is an uber-fan of the N.Y. Giants football team is a vast understatement. The Giants are his raison d’être. Every night before he goes to bed, he doesn’t say his prayers. Instead, he religiously breaks out his dog-eared yellow-ruled tablet and furiously scrawls out a litany of devotion to his team, which he then delivers like a well-rehearsed sermon in his nightly call to a popular local sports talk radio program.

Occasionally, he is compelled to offer a point-by-point rebuttal to his arch-nemesis, a Philadelphia Eagles fan who calls into the same show for the express purpose of antagonizing the Giants fans.

Paul (a cross between Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty Piletti and John Kennedy Toole’s literary creation, Ignatius J. Reilly) has a lot of spare time to devote to defending the honor of his team against evil radio trolls, because he doesn’t have too many other distractions in his life.

A 30-something bachelor who still lives with his mother, he works an undemanding job as a parking lot attendant and has virtually no social life (if this sounds like it’s shaping up to be one of those depressing character studies about empty lives of quiet desperation, I am here to tell you… you’re right.) Well, Paul does have one friend named Sal (played by indie film stalwart Kevin Corrigan) who shares his undying love for the team;  and he doesn’t date much, either.

One night, while Paul and Sal are out and about enjoying a bit of the Staten Island nightlife, they happen to spot one of their beloved team’s star players (Jonathan Hamm) getting into a limousine at a local gas station. The two pals, walking on air and feeling beside themselves with fan boy giddiness, decide to surreptitiously tail the player and his entourage, to see how the other half lives.

Eventually, they find themselves at a pricey strip joint in Manhattan, where Paul screws up enough courage to make a beeline for his hero’s booth, in hopes of a meet and greet. Unfortunately, the evening (and  Paul’s life) goes sideways from that point forward.

The film is an odd mix of broad social satire and brooding character study; but for the most part, it works.  Partially, it’s about the cult of celebrity, especially as it applies to the tendency Americans have to turn a blind eye to the sociopathic tendencies displayed by some multimillionaire athletes. The film takes a few unexpected twists and turns that reminded me of Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66, another quirky indie character study that keeps you on your toes by challenging your expectations right up to the end.

Oswalt is impressive, giving a fearless performance in this decidedly unflattering role (you are most likely to be familiar with him from his work as a standup and the myriad of quirky supporting characters he’s played on TV shows like Reno 911). Corrigan is excellent, as always (when is somebody going to give this perennial second banana a starring role?). Michael Rapaport is suitably obnoxious as Paul’s radio tormentor, “Philadelphia Phil”. Gino Cafarelli is good as Paul’s brother, an ambulance-chasing personal injury lawyer, and  Serafina Fiore is a hoot as his wife, an orange-tanned, big-haired, high-maintenance East coast princess straight out of Soprano world.

This is the directorial debut for Siegel, who also wrote the screenplay for last year’s critically acclaimed, Oscar-nominated  sports dramaThe Wrestler. There are enough parallels (dark character study, sports backdrop, blue-collar East Coast milieu) to suggest that there may be a certain theme running through his work. Or perhaps it’s too early to judge, based on two films. It will be interesting to see what he decides to do next.

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.

Counter-intelligent: Burn After Reading ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

Attention, K Street choppers.

In an inspired bit of dialog from the new Coen brothers film, Burn After Reading that will surely become oft-quoted, ex-CIA agent Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) goes into an exasperated, paranoiac rant about the “league of morons” in America who have continually conspired to make his life hell. While I was laughing along with everyone else in the audience, part of me was thinking “Well, yeah…I know exactly how you feel.”

 It’s sad. “Stupidity” has become the buzzword in any examination of contemporary American cultural anthropology. It insidiously pervades all aspects of our lives-home life, work life, school life. Television celebrates it-American Idol, America’s Got Talent, American Gladiator, Fox “News”. Preachers and politicians bank on it. As Madge would say, we’re soaking in it. Besides-why crack open a book, when you have text messages to read?

Thank god for the Coen brothers. Perhaps more than any other American filmmakers, they have provided an on-going movie therapy service for those of us who are chronically depressed about the chuckle-headed state of our union. Through films like Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Man Who Wasn’t There and Fargo, the Coens have milked many a sardonic guffaw from the axiom “stupid is as stupid does”.

Those films also serve as reminders that if you are dumb enough to believe that you can find a shortcut to achieving your American Dream at the expense of destroying somebody else’s dreams…without karmic payback, then you are even dumber than originally advertised. Whether or not karmic payback exists outside of a movie universe is up for debate, but the possibility makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Burn After Reading signals a welcome return to the type of dark, absurdist cringe comedy that the Coens truly excel at. The story revolves around the aforementioned Osborne Cox, a CIA analyst who decides to “write his memoirs” after quitting his job in an acrimonious huff. The arrogant, misanthropic Cox is a paper tiger bureaucrat who pompously fancies himself more akin to a Robert Ludlum hero. He is certainly less than a hero to his fed-up, no-nonsense physician wife (Tilda Swinton) who is having a torrid affair with a married, sex-addicted treasury agent (George Clooney).

Following the advice of a divorce attorney, Mrs. Cox surreptitiously downloads information from her husband’s hard drive onto a disc, which ends up (through a typically Coen-esque comedy of errors) in the hands of a pair of dim bulb fitness club employees (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt). Mistaking Cox’s memoir notes as some type of coded high-level state secrets, the would-be criminal masterminds cook up a lame-brained scheme that starts as a simple garden-variety blackmail attempt, but somehow morphs into a grand clusterfuck involving the Russian Embassy and nearly every branch of the Beltway’s clandestine community.

The cougar and the slow man.

If that sounds High Concept…it is. But leave it to the Coens to mash up the elements of screwball comedy, door-slamming bedroom farce, spy spoof, political satire, social commentary and self-parody into a perfect cinematic cocktail. The breezy script (penned by the brothers) is tighter than a one-act play, and capped off with a great zinger. It’s a rarity in film these days: an expedient, highly satisfying denouement. In other words, the film neither overstays its welcome nor feels rushed; it wraps up just when it needs to. Setup. Story. Punchline. Callback. You’ve been a great crowd!

Malkovich is in top form; he is a master of the slow burn that builds into manic apoplexy. He manages to make these fits of rage both extremely menacing and screamingly funny at the same time; it’s an acting tic that rings of vintage Gene Wilder. It’s a cakewalk for McDormand; it goes without saying that her husband and brother-in-law know more than anyone else on the planet how to best utilize her unique instrument. She and Pitt make a great comedic tag team, and it’s easily Pitt’s funniest performance since Snatch.

This is the third outing with the Coens for Clooney, and he appears to have their quirky rhythms down to a science. Swinton seems to have the most thankless role (she’s mostly required to just glower and fume) but it is interesting to see her reunited with her Michael Clayton co-star. Veteran character actors J.K. Simmons and Richard Jenkins round off the fine ensemble cast quite nicely.

As a follow-up to last year’s No Country for Old Men, which was a much more somber and thoughtful piece, Burn After Reading may feel like a relatively superfluous toss-off, but it’s a perfect salve for election season weltschmerz. So as your fake physician, I prescribe that you buy two tickets, and call me in the morning.

Children of Morons: Idiocracy **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

Image result for idiocracy

If the 2007 Super Bowl commercials and ever-escalating voter participation in shows like American Idol are any indication, the dumbed-down “future” of America depicted in Mike Judge’s lightweight allegory, Idiocracy, is perhaps only belaboring the obvious.

Army librarian Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) loves his cushy job. It’s the perfect gig, because, as he tells a fellow soldier- “No one ever comes here” (I think I just heard every librarian reading this review say “No kidding.”). Much to Joe’s chagrin, however, his gravy train is derailed when he is “volunteered” as a guinea pig for a top secret military experiment.

Joe is assigned to spend a year in a suspended animation pod, a process the military is testing for typically nefarious reasons. Joe is not alone, however. A hooker named Rita from “the private sector” (SNL cast member Maya Rudolph) is also enlisted. When our intrepid pair finally awake, it’s a tad more than a year later. After a series of silly events, they in fact find themselves in the year 2505 (whoops!). Does hilarity ensue?

Well…the America of 2505 is not so much dystopian, as it is dys-stupido. As the droll narrator explains, evolution has favored those who reproduce the most (you know…morons!). The #1 TV show is called “Ow My Balls”, and the #1 film is “Ass” (kind of says it all). Anyone who conjugates a verb or speaks in complete sentences is accused of talking “like a fag”. In a nutshell, this is what would happen if the entire U.S. gene pool was whittled down exclusively to the descendants of Gallagher’s fan base.

If you’ve surrendered to the premise at this point in the film, you won’t flinch when the President, a former WWF champion (not such a stretch, considering former and current guvs Ventura and Schwarzenegger) ends up appointing Joe his Secretary of the Interior.

Judge isn’t really saying anything new here; beyond pointing out that we live in a dumbed-down culture (yawn). There are a few inspired moments; particularly the keen observation that the progressive reduction of America’s average IQ is directly proportionate to the ever-increasing square footage of the average Costco store.

There is a bit of irony I can’t get past; it was Mike Judge who created MTV’s Beavis and Butthead, which one might argue played its own part in the “dumbing down” of a generation that came of age in the 90’s (despite its satirical intentions, I think B & B ended up as role models for some, not unlike those good ol’ boys who completely missed the irony and merrily sang along with Borat’s “Throw the Jew Down The Well”… discuss!)

Stereotyped in America: Crash (*1/2) & The Landlord (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 16, 2006)

I’m going to risk crucifixion here and confess that I only recently got around to viewing Crash, Paul Haggis’ 2005 Oscar winning meditation on racism in America. (Perhaps I was shamed into screening it after Michael Richard’s recent star turn on YouTube).

Crash takes the premise of 1993’s Falling Down and expands on it exponentially. Instead of one disenfranchised white guy going off the deep end and raging through L.A. as he blames every person of color he encounters for his own personal failures, Crash serves up an Altman-sized, multicultural cast of self-pitying whiners running around L.A. pissed off at everybody else. They hail from all ethnic and socioeconomic strata, they are all fuming about their (real or perceived) victimization by one societal injustice or another and (wait for it…) they are all on a ‘crash’ course, about to collide.

The cast is talented, the performances are earnest and the film is slickly made, but the mind boggles as to how this condescending, contrived, PC-pandering mess earned a Best Picture Oscar. The Message (people are people and bigotry is colorblind) has been delivered numerous times before…and with much more panache

The late great Hal Ashby only directed a relative handful of films, but most, especially his 70’s output, were built to last (Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Bound for Glory, Shampoo, Being There). His 1970 social satire follows the travails of a trustafarian (Beau Bridges) who buys a run-down Brooklyn tenement, with initial intentions to evict current residents and renovate (much to the chagrin of his blue-blood parents, who scoff at his “liberal views”). The landlord’s sincere but awkward attempts to “relate” to his black tenants is sometimes milked for laughs, other times for dramatic tension-but always rings true-to-life.

Top-notch ensemble work, featuring a young Lou Gossett (with hair!), Susan Anspach (hilarious as Bridge’s perpetually stoned and bemused sister) and Diana Sands. The scene where Pearl Bailey and Lee Grant get drunk and bond over a bottle of “sparkling” wine is a classic. Ashby and screenwriter Bill Gunn’s observations about race relations in America are dead-on (and still timely).  They don’t make ‘em like this anymore-honest, bold, uncompromising, socially and politically meaningful, yet (lest we forget) entertaining.