Category Archives: Up the Workers

Salt of the earth: Last Train Home ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 23, 2010)

One of the best family melodramas I have seen this year is not fictional, but rather an absorbing, beautifully photographed documentary by Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Lixin Fan called Last Train Home.

The family in the spotlight is the Zhangs: Changhua (dad), Suqin (mom), their 17 year old daughter Qin, and their young son. Changhua and Suqin are two of the 130 million migrant workers who crowd China’s train depots and bus stations every spring in a mass, lemming-like frenzy to get back to their rural villages in time for New Year’s holiday. And like many of those workers, these are the few precious days they have per year to see their children, who, due to the fact that their parents lack urban residency status, do not qualify to attend the public schools in the cities where they work.

Changhua and Suqin toil away their days in the city of Guangzhou, working in a factory. Early on in the film, a wordless sequence, wherein we watch the couple performing their evening ablutions before turning in for the night, speaks volumes about the joyless drudgery and quiet desperation of their daily life. They appear to be bunking in a closet-sized cubicle (with only a curtain for privacy) within some kind of communal flophouse (possibly adjacent to, or perhaps  part of, their factory building-which is an even more depressing thought). One colorless day blends into the next.

The only break in the monotony comes when the New Year arrives, and the couple  attempt to make their way home in time-and I have to say, this is as far from a madcap John Hughes romp starring Steve Martin and John Candy that you can possibly get. After several frustrating setbacks, they eventually find a place on a train (at thrice the usual rates). The scenes at the train stations are surreal and harrowing; the press of so much humanity, crammed into one finite space, and all of one mind (to claim a seat and stash their luggage no matter who gets injured) is mind boggling. Happy New Year.

The real drama, however, unfolds once the bedraggled parents reach their destination. They are greeted by a young son who is much more excited about the toys they have brought than he is in seeing them again (it’s been three years since he’s seen his mother) and a sullen, hostile Qin, who resents their prolonged absences.

The children are much closer to their grandmother, who has been taking care of them while Changhua and Suqin work in the city. When Qin announces that she has decided to quit school and follow in her parents footsteps by finding a job in the city, the shit hits the fan (like parents anywhere else in the world, they live in hope that their kids will achieve more than them).

The director was given an amazing degree of latitude by the family n filming their lives; to the point of feeling almost too close for comfort at times (especially during an intense family row that gets physical). As difficult as some of it is to watch, however, the end result is an engrossing portrait of what happens in a country like China, which has seen so much rapid industrialization and exponential economic growth in such a relatively short period of time that the infrastructure and social policies have fallen light years behind.

And the saddest (and most ironic) part is that the millions of working poor like the Zhangs, who made the country’s new prosperity possible, are in no position to benefit from it. Hold on sec. Maybe we have more in common with China than I thought…

Blu-ray reissue: Metropolis (1927) ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 11, 2010)

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The Complete Metropolis – Kino Lorber Blu-ray

For film buffs, the news that a “complete” print of Fritz Lang’s visionary expressionist 1927 sci-fi masterpiece had been discovered languishing on a dusty shelf in a film historian’s personal collection in Argentina in 2008 was akin to hearing that the Holy Grail had turned up at a church rummage sale. A box-office flop upon its first run, it was famously butchered for time by its original U.S. distributor, and censored for content by German authorities. Happily for fans, the film is now likely as close as it is ever going to get to its original presentation as intended by Lang.

Kino has one-upped their previous “definitive” DVD version with this new Blu-ray transfer of the Murnau Foundation’s latest re-tweaking, which now shores up previously choppy scenes by incorporating 20+ minutes of the Argentine footage. A recently discovered copy of the censor’s notes (containing all of the original inter-titles) was an equally valuable tool for the restoration team (especially for syncing up the original music score, which has been beautifully re-recorded). This all adds up to a new total running time of 147 minutes (compared to the tacky 90-minute Georgio Moroder-scored version that floated around for years, this is a godsend).

There is one  caveat you should be aware of.  The recovered Argentine footage was a 16mm copy of a tattered 35mm print. They cleaned it up as best they could without compromising image; be warned that these new inserts are relatively “gauzy”, albeit essential. Still, this (nearly) complete version, with its absorbing companion documentary, makes it a worthwhile investment for collectors.

SIFF 2010: Miss Nobody *1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 12, 2010)

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“Black comedy” is a fickle art form. Too dark-nobody laughs. Too “ha-ha” funny, and it’s just comedy. One thing that does not work for black comedy is “cute”-although it can provide a touch of irony, if the doses are carefully measured (see John Waters). Miss Nobody, which premiered at SIFF this week, is just  too cute for its own purposes.

Leslie Bibb stars as mousy (but cute) secretary Sarah Jane, a “nobody” in the food chain at a large pharmaceutical company. At the urging of her workplace confidante (Missi Pyle) she applies for an open junior executive position. Much to her surprise, she gets the job-only to have it snatched from her by a weaselly, Machiavellian corporate climber (Brandon Routh) who offers her a job as his executive assistant with transparent pseudo-sincerity. Sarah Jane swallows her humiliation and disappointment and takes the offer anyway. Her mother (Kathy Baker) sees a silver lining, urging her to go ahead and dig for the gold. WTF, Sarah Jane figures, if she can hook up with her new boss, she can at least become “Mrs.” Machiavellian corporate climber (besides-he’s, you know, so cute).

Her “plan B” however is dashed when, in the midst of putting the moves on her in his apartment late one night, her boss lets it slip that he already has a fiancee. While physically struggling to put the kibosh on his advances, Sarah Jane inadvertently causes his death by freak accident. She is still in shock the next  day at work, fully expecting to be “found out”. She receives an even bigger shock when she is called into the chief executive’s office, not to be turned over to the authorities, but to be congratulated on her promotion-to her late boss’ position. The gears in her brain click, and a more sinister “plan B” for climbing the ladder emerges. What a kooky setup!

It’s been a while since I sat so stone-faced through a “comedy”. I could sense that director Tim Cox and writer Doug Steinberg were going for a Serial Mom vibe, but their film plays more like a glorified episode of Sex in the City, right down to the chirpy narration by the protagonist. Cox’s film has a slick, glossy look, but the flat and predictable story line drags it down. Even the usually dependable Adam Goldberg (or as I like to  call him, “Gen Y’s Joey Bishop”) can’t save this one. The film seemed awfully similar to a 1997 indie starring Carol Kane, called Office Killer (which I rather enjoyed). Maybe it’s just bad timing-the employment situation is grim enough these days.

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 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.

Let fiefdom ring: Capitalism: a Love Story ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

Money speaks for money, the Devil for his own

Who comes to speak for the skin and bone?

 -Billy Bragg

 So it’s not just me. Recently, in my review of Public Enemies, I wrote:

If you blink, you might miss the chance to revel in a delicious moment of schadenfreude in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies that decidedly con-temporizes this otherwise ol’skool “gangsters vs. G-men” opus. In the midst of conducting an armed robbery, the notoriously felonious John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) notices that a bank employee has reflexively emptied his pockets of some crumpled bills and loose change onto his desk. “That’s your money, mister?” Dillinger asks. “Yes,” the frightened man replies. Dillinger gives him a bemused look and says, “We’re here for the bank’s money, not yours. Put it away.”

I almost stood up and cheered…then I remembered that a) Dillinger was a murderous thug, and b) I would never even fantasize about participating in such a caper, so I thought better of it. Still, I couldn’t help but savor an opportunity for a little vicarious thrill at watching a bank getting hosed. I don’t know…it could’ve had something to with the fact that my bank recently doubled my credit card interest, even after they eagerly gobbled up the bailout money that was funded by my hard-earned tax dollars (ya think?). In fact, in the context of our current economic woes, one can watch Mann’s film and sort of grok how John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Ma Barker, Al Capone, Pretty Boy Floyd and other “public enemy” list alums gained folk hero cachet during the Great Depression.

In the opening credits of  Capitalism: A Love Story, Michael Moore runs a montage of real-life bank robberies in progress. As you watch masked felons in slow-mo, strong-arming their way through bank lobbies, firing off warning salvos into the air like it’s the 4th of July and leaping over counters like Peking acrobats, it becomes an oddly balletic rendering of the ever-widening chasm between the Haves and the Have-nots in our country, writ large through the unblinking eye of a security camera and all choreographed to Iggy Pop’s growling rendition of  “Louie Louie”:

 The communist world is fallin apart
The capitalists are just breakin hearts
Money is the reason to be
It makes me just wanna sing louie louie

So how did we arrive to this sorry state of our Union, where the number of banks being robbed by desperate people is running neck and neck with the number of desperate banks robbing We The People? What paved the way for the near-total collapse of our financial system and its subsequent government bailout, which Moore provocatively refers to as a “financial coup d’etat”?

The enabler, Moore suggests, may  be our sacred capitalist system itself-and he proceeds to build a case (in his inimitable fashion) that results in his most engaging, thought-provoking film since Roger and Me (and you can call me a Commie for saying that…I don’t care).

In essence,  this film is the belated sequel to the aforementioned 1989 documentary; it would seem that, 20 years later, the rest of the country has “caught up” with Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan. Roger and Me chronicled the economic collapse of the city following General Motors CEO Roger Smith’s decision to close down the plants that once employed 30,000 of its residents.

Moore does take a few moments in his new film to bask in the “what goes around, comes around” irony of GM’s bankruptcy filing this past June-and you can’t really blame him. If you recall the heartbreaking scene in Roger and Me of a family getting evicted on Christmas Eve by an apologetic yet duty-bound sheriff, you will detect a bit of recycling in that department; same as it ever was.

However, this is not just a rehash of what happens when the capitalist dream dies, but an attempt to examine why it so often does. Moore digs deep into the dark underbelly of the beast in this outing; he gives us many eye-opening examples of truly soulless profiteering and unchecked vulture capitalism at its most egregious.

The film’s trailer has misled many people into assuming that they are just going to be seeing Moore doing another series of his patented grandstanding pranks. Although you do see him running around Wall Street armed with a megaphone, yellow crime scene tape and a rented Loomis truck, demanding a refund from bailed out financial institutions on behalf of the American taxpayers and generally being a pain-in-the-ass to hapless security guards, these types of shenanigans really only take up a relative fraction of screen time.

Those moments of shtick aside, I think that the film represents the most cohesive and mature film making Moore has done to date. Interestingly, from a purely polemical standpoint, it is also one of his least partisan, which I’m sure is going to make some of his usual knee-jerk critics develop a little twitch. Not that it really matters; his haters will continue to despise him no matter what kind of film he makes, and likely condemn it as anti-American, unpatriotic and full of lies (without bothering to actually see it, of course).

Okay, so he does close the film with a lounge-y version of “The Internationale” playing over the end credits (you just know he can’t help himself). Yet despite that rather obvious provocation (and the film’s title, of course), I didn’t really find his message to be so much “down with capitalism” as it is “up with people”.

There is a streak of genuine and heartfelt humanism that runs through all his work; a fact curiously overlooked by many. Isn’t that kind of what the founding fathers were all about? After all, I believe that little Declaration thingie reads that we all have the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, not “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness, even at the expense of someone else’s”. Or does it?

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Every time I see our illustrious VP’s mug on the tube or hear mention of Halliburton, I always flash on a scene in Warren Beatty’s Reds. Early 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  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.

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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…