Tag Archives: 2008 Reviews

Castro revolutionary: Milk ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 6, 2008)

“The important thing is not that we can live on hope alone, but that life is not worth living without it.” -Harvey Milk

 This past Thanksgiving quietly marked the 30th anniversary of one of the more shocking American political assassinations to take place in the latter  20th century.  On November 27th, 1978, San Francisco mayor George Moscone and District Supervisor Harvey Milk were murdered  in their respective offices at City Hall; both men shot repeatedly at point blank range. Even more shocking (and bordering on the downright bizarre) was the fact that their killer was a fellow San Francisco politician-former District Supervisor Dan White.

It’s an anniversary usually given short shrift by the MSM, who apparently have decided that its significance lacks the social impact and historical gravitas of the JFK, RFK and MLK killings, which each receive at least a requisite nod once a year from an appropriately “solemn” news anchor. There’s a new film about the life of Harvey Milk from director Gus Van Sant that may help rectify that.

Milk is one of the more straightforward efforts from the art house filmmaker since his surprise mainstream hit Good Will Hunting back in 1997, yet arguably stands as his most significant work to date. The key word here, as a matter of fact, is “restraint”. Van Sant restrains from allowing his usual overdose of style to obfuscate substance.

Sean Penn plays Milk; the film  enters his life journey at age 40, which was when he experienced the epiphany that led to him to dedicate the rest of his life to public service. Using his tiny camera shop in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood as HQ, Milk quickly garnered a reputation as the city’s leading gay activist, thanks to his relentless drive and a natural gift for community organizing.

Beginning in 1973, Milk began the first of three unsuccessful runs for a San Francisco District Supervisor position. His perseverance paid off in 1977, when he won. Although he wasn’t going to wield the political clout of a mayor, governor or senator, his victory was still a milestone in the history of the gay movement in America. His agenda was not limited to gay issues; he also advocated for other traditionally marginalized groups like the elderly, poor and the handicapped.

He entered the national spotlight when he helped spearhead the anti-Proposition 6 campaign in 1978. Also known as the “Briggs initiative”, the proposed legislation would have given California school districts the right to identify and fire gay and lesbian teachers and administrators, and ban any future applicants as well. Milk also became the public counterpoint to singer Anita Bryant, whose  strident anti-gay activism became the blueprint for the Religious Right lobbying model that flourishes to this day (unfortunately).

The excellent script (by Dustin Lance Black, one of the writers on HBO’s Big Love) is engaging, yet never strays too far from Milk’s own words and deeds. Most crucial to the success of this film is the powerhouse performance at its heart by Oscar shoo-in Penn, who never falls into caricature; opting instead to essentially channel the wit, passion and genuine humanity of this remarkable individual.

Van Sant actually had a tough act to follow, in the form of one of the most riveting and emotionally resonant documentaries that I have ever seen, The Times of Harvey Milk. Released in 1984 and directed by Rob Epstein, the film deservedly picked up a Best Documentary Oscar. It recounted an incredible real-life tale that was equal parts Greek tragedy, black comedy, political potboiler and film noir.

One of the most compelling elements of Epstein’s film were the snippets of audio from a tape recording Milk had made shortly before his death, which he directed to be released to the public only in the event of his assassination. The sad, funny and insightful auto-biographical musings on that tape resonate beyond a morbid premonition of fate; they crystallize as the dedicated vision of someone who was determined to make a profound difference, and to inspire others to tap into those resources within themselves.

Black transcribes verbatim excerpts from the tape as the framing device for his screenplay. It’s a wise creative choice, because it gives Milk a tragicomic Sunset Boulevard sensibility; even though we know from the get-go how horribly the story will end, it is somehow comforting to have the wry, self-aware “postmortem” narration of the doomed protagonist to accompany us on his journey.

The film abounds with wonderful supporting performances, particularly from Diego Luna, Emile Hirsch and Josh Brolin (as Supervisor White). Van Sant captures the period flavor of late 70s San Francisco; I can attest to that because I lived there from 1979 to 1981. My girlfriend and I lived in the Sunset district (Irving Street, for you curious locals) but we would head over to the Castro district now and then to catch a matinee at the neighborhood’s iconic architectural landmark, the Castro Theater.

It doesn’t matter if you are gay or straight, this film will inspire you, and the continued relevance of the issues it addresses certainly does not need to be spelled out to Digby’s readers. The year isn’t quite over, but this looks like a definite contender for one of my picks for the “top ten” of 2008. In the meantime-run (don’t walk) to see Milk.

Love means never having to say you’re sari: Slumdog Millionaire ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 29, 2008)

Leave it to Danny Boyle, who somehow managed to transmogrify the horrors of heroin addiction into an exuberant romp (Trainspotting), to reach into the black hole of Mumbai slum life and pull out the most exhilarating “feel good” love story of 2008. Slumdog Millionaire nearly defies category; think Oliver Twist meets Quiz Show in Bollywood.

Using a framing device reminiscent of The Usual Suspects, the tale unwinds in first person narrative flashback, as recalled by a young man who is being detained and grilled at a police station. Teenage “slumdog” Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a contestant on India’s version of the popular game show franchise Who Wants to be a Millionaire? has been picked up and accused of cheating, on the eve of his final appearance on the program, which could cap off his prodigious winning streak with a cool 20 million rupees. What makes Jamal suspect to the show’s host (played with smarmy aplomb by Bollywood superstar Anil Kapoor) is his apparent detachment.

Despite the fact that he’s continually hitting the jackpot with the correct answer to every question, Jamal’s pained expressions and mopey countenance suggests a slouching indifference. After all, he’s a dirt-poor orphan from the streets, so shouldn’t he be beside himself with joy and gratitude ? What could possibly be motivating him to win, if not greed? Love, actually. But don’t worry, I’m not going to spoil anyone’s fun. Suffice it to say, when you see the object of Jamal’s devotion, portrayed by Freida Pinto (whose “STARmeter” on the Internet Movie Database has gone up nearly 2000% since last week), you’ll be rooting for our hero (and rutting for Freida).

Patel and Pinto have an appealing on-screen chemistry (some viewers may recognize Patel as a regular cast member of BBC-TV’s cult series, Skins). Madhur Mittal is excellent as Jamal’s brother Salim, with whom he has a complex and mercurial relationship. I don’t know where Boyle found them, but the child actors who portray the younger versions of the three core characters and other supporting roles deliver extraordinary performances. An honorable mention to Ankur Vikal, who plays the most evil villain of the piece, a Fagin-type character who exploits street children in the worst way possible (no one will accuse Boyle of sugar-coating slum life).

While the film is structured like an old school Hollywood love story, it still has snippets of Boyle’s visceral, in-your-face “smell-o-vision”. The flashbacks of the protagonist’s hard-scrabble childhood in the impoverished slums of Mumbai  takes this modern Indian folk into Brothers Grimm land; if you have a bad gag reflex, be prepared.

In the  Bollywood tradition, the film (co-directed by Loveleen Tandan and adapted  by Simon Beaufoy from Vikas Swarup’s novel) is equal parts melodrama, comedy, action, and romance. It’s a perfect masala for people who love pure cinema, with colorful costume and set design and hyper-kinetic camera work from DP Anthony Dod Mantle, topped off by a catchy soundtrack. And if you feel like dancing in the aisles during those end credits,  knock yourself out.

Goddam right it’s a beautiful day: Happy Go Lucky ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 8, 2008)

So what is “happiness”, anyway? (If you say “…a warm gun” I swear I will punch you right in the head). According to Roget’s Thesaurus, it can be defined as a state of:

 …beatitude, blessedness, bliss, cheer, cheerfulness, cheeriness, content, contentment, delectation, delight, delirium, ecstasy, elation, enchantment, enjoyment, euphoria, exhilaration, exuberance, felicity, gaiety, geniality, gladness, glee, good cheer, good humor, good spirits, hilarity, hopefulness, joviality, joy, jubilation, laughter, lightheartedness, merriment, mirth, optimism, paradise, peace of mind, playfulness, pleasure, prosperity, rejoicing, sanctity, seventh heaven, vivacity or well-being.

 The lead character in Happy Go Lucky, British director Mike Leigh’s new film, appears to exist in a perpetual state of all of the above (and a large orange soda). Her name is Poppy, and her improbably infectious giddiness is brought to life in an amazing performance by Sally Hawkins, who can count me among her newest fans.

The appropriately named Poppy is a single and carefree 30 year old primary school teacher. She breezes around London on her bicycle, exuding “young, colorful and kooky” like Lynn Redgrave in Georgy Girl. She is nothing, if not perky. Some might say she is insufferably perky, but all she really wants is for everybody else to be happy, too. Her best friend and flatmate, Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) “gets” her, as do her young students, who naturally gravitate to her own childlike delight in all things shiny and fun.

No one can harsh her mellow, not even that gloomiest of all Gusses, The Sullen Book Store Clerk (I don’t know how it is in your neck of the woods, but we’ve got a lot of them here in Seattle. Some day, I will learn why they frown so when my purchase does not meet their highly developed sense of literary aesthetic, and upon that glorious day, perhaps I will finally learn how to snatch the pebble from their pale, vegan hands…but I digress).

Now, before you think this is heading in the direction of a whimsical fable, a la Amelie, you have to remember, this is  Mike Leigh, and he generally doesn’t do “whimsical”. Through a string of compassionate, astutely observed and beautifully acted films about contemporary British life (High Hopes, Life is Sweet, Career Girls, Naked and Secrets and Lies) Leigh has proven himself a fearless storyteller when it comes to plumbing the well of real, raw human emotion. He is the heir apparent  to the aesthetic of the British “kitchen sink” dramas of the early to mid-1960s (e,g, Look Back in Anger, Billy Liar, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner).

This “Leigh-ness” comes into play with the introduction of a character that will test the limits of Poppy’s sunny optimism and faith in humanity. His name is Scott (Eddie Marsan, in a brilliant, intense performance) and he is Poppy’s private driving instructor. Scott has a lot of “issues”, manifesting in some decidedly anti-social behaviors that suggest a dark and troubled soul.

Undaunted and determined to uncover the “good man” lurking somewhere beneath Scott’s veneer, Poppy continues her lessons, long beyond the point where most cognizant people would have decided that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to get into a small vehicle with such a dangerously unhinged individual (one red flag would be: A racist driving instructor with chronic road rage? That can’t be right.)

But this is where we learn something essential about Poppy. Her desire to assure the happiness of others isn’t borne from a clueless, self-centered “girls just wanna have fun” naiveté, but rather from a genuine sense of Mother Theresa-like selflessness and compassion for others. This attribute is conveyed in two protracted and extraordinarily acted scenes, one involving Poppy’s late night encounter in a dark alley with a mentally ill homeless man, and the other involves her reaching out to one of her troubled students.

When all is said and done, I venture to say that Leigh is actually making a somewhat revolutionary political statement for this cynical, post-ironic age of rampant smugness and self-absorption; suggesting that Poppy’s brand of bubbly, unflagging enthusiasm for wishing nothing but happiness unto others defines not just the root of true compassion, but could be the antidote to societal ills like xenophobia, child abuse and homelessness.

Then again, maybe I’m just dreaming. Like that Martin Luther King guy.

Wish you were here: Standard Operating Procedure ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 24, 2008)

Auschwitz staff, 1944.

Abu Ghraib staff, 2004.

There was a fascinating documentary recently on the National Geographic Channel called Nazi Scrapbooks from Hell. It was the most harrowing depiction of the Holocaust I’ve seen, but it offered nary a glimpse of the oft-shown photographs of the atrocities themselves. Rather, it focused on photos from a recently discovered scrapbook that belonged to an SS officer assigned to Auschwitz.

Essentially an organized, affably annotated gallery of the “after hours” lifestyle of a “workaday” concentration camp staff, it shows cheerful participants enjoying a little outdoor nosh, catching some sun, and even the odd sing-along, all in the shadow of the notorious death factory where they “worked”.

If it weren’t for the Nazi uniforms, you might think it was just a bunch of guys from the office, hamming it up for the camera at a company picnic. As the filmmakers point out, it is the everyday banality of this evil that makes it so chilling. The most amazing fact is that these pictures were taken in the first place.

What were they thinking?

This is the same rhetorical question posed by one of the interviewees in Standard Operating Procedure, a new documentary about the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal from renowned filmmaker Errol Morris. The gentleman is a military C.I.D. investigator who had the unenviable task of sifting through the hundreds of damning photos taken by several of the perpetrators.

I don’t feel a need to rehash the back story (especially when a Google search of “Abu Ghraib” yields over 3 million results). We’ve all viewed those repulsive photos ad nauseam, and the cold hard facts of the case have been well-documented and dissected.

The next logical question might be, what was Erroll Morris thinking? What startling new insight could he offer on this well-worn subject?

This guy is no slouch-he has been responsible for several of the most well-crafted and compelling American documentaries of the last 30 years, from his 1978 debut Gates of Heaven (a knockout doc about pet cemeteries) to the true crime classic The Thin Blue Line (1988), and his most recent critical success The Fog of War (2003). Once again, Morris serves up intimate confessions from his interviewees, delivered directly into a modified teleprompter.

Morris makes an interesting choice here. He aims his spotlight not so much on the obvious inhumanity on display in those sickening photos, but rather on our perception of them (echoes of Antonioni’s Blow-Up). So just who are these people that took them? What was the actual intent behind the self-documentation? Can we conclusively pass judgment on the actions of the people involved, based solely on what we “think” these photographs show us?

According to Abu Ghraib poster girl Lyddie England and several other of the convicted MPs who Morris interviews in the film, the “reality” behind the prisoner “abuse” was (in their perception ) “standard operating procedure”; they were merely “softening up” the subjects for the CIA interrogators. You know-just doing their job. One phrase you hear over and over is “everybody knew what was going on”, which sounds suspiciously like that old Nuremberg litany “we were only following orders”.  And so it goes.

Morris also plays up the bizarre love triangle. When asked to explain her hammy poses for the infamous photos, England blames it on amore. “What can I say,” she shrugs, “I was in love.” She is referring to Charles Graner, currently serving 10 years for his part in the scandal (Morris was denied permission by the military to interview him).

As we now know, Graner was concurrently dating another MP, Megan Ambuhl, whom he has since married (it’s all so Jerry Springer). Here’s a sobering thought: Thanks to the “softening up” of America’s prestige conducted by the Bush white house, all it took was this taxpayer-funded white trash “scrapbook from hell” to drive the final nail into its coffin.

Morris has taken some flak for focusing only on those who some may consider the low-level “scapegoats” of the Abu Ghraib debacle; these critics seem to be implying that he is not targeting high enough in the food chain.

There is some merit in this assertion; the only brass who appears on camera is the palpably embittered ex-brigadier and former Abu Ghraib overseer Janis Karpinski, who angrily asserts she was treated to a dog and pony show whenever she visited the facilities.

But history will be the  judge on those matters; regardless of where the chips fall, this film is a compelling (if disturbing) treatise on the fine line between “the fog of war” and state-sanctioned cruelty.

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.

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.

Too much heaven on their minds: Religulous ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 4, 2008)

Did you make mankind after we made you?
And the devil too!
-Andy Partridge

 “Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic. -Douglas Adams

 I’ve always been a bit of a fence-sitter when it comes to religion. Undoubtedly, this is due to the fact that I was begat by a Jewish woman from Brooklyn and a Protestant man from Ohio (I can hear long-time readers now: “That explains a lot“).

Thank the deity du jour that my folks never endeavored to push me into one belief system or the other. To me, the conundrum of “Torah or Bible?” holds about the same academic import as pondering “Paper or plastic?” I’m not an atheist, nor an agnostic. If pressed, I might admit that I’m a cautiously optimistic pan-spiritualist.

I believe robots are stealing my luggage. –Jack Handey

I just believe in me. Yoko and me. –John Lennon

And I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days. –Ron Shelton

“Logic” is the antithesis to any manner of fundamentalist belief. Setting off on a quest to deconstruct fundamental religious belief, armed solely with logic and convincing yourself that you are going to somehow make sense of it all, ironically seems like some kind of nutty fundamentalist belief in and of itself. But that’s exactly what star Bill Maher and director Larry Charles have set out to accomplish in their new documentary, Religulous.

Maher’s “spiritual journey” begins in America’s southeastern Bible belt, highlighted by a round-table discussion with several burly, Cat-hatted worshipers at a roadside truck stop chapel (you couldn’t make shit like this up). Maher gets his first walkout from one of the drivers, who takes major umbrage that Maher is “…disputin’ my God.” Fair enough. But as Maher says with a shrug after the fellow stalks out, “I’m just asking questions.”

Another highlight is a visit to a Christian theme park in Orlando Florida, where Maher trade a few good-natured jibes with Jesus. Well, a Jesus impersonator, who is the star of what appears to be some kind of Bronco Billy road show-style reenactment of the crucifixion.

My favorite scene occurs in London’s Hyde Park. Maher disguises himself in Ignatius J. Reilly garb (complete with ear flaps) and begins spouting a hodgepodge of tenets that are lifted verbatim from Scientology, Mormonism and the Witnesses. This gathers a crowd of bemused onlookers, naturally, who all seem convinced that Maher is just another crazy street person railing nonsensically at an unfeeling universe. Juvenile methodology, perhaps, but one can’t dispute that it seems to back up Maher’s frequently voiced assertion that unquestioning, dogmatic belief is a form of mental illness.

The journey culminates in Jerusalem, where Maher grills Orthodox Jews and Muslims. Perhaps not so surprisingly, Maher quite noticeably tones down his customary smug mode, particularly when visiting a sacred mosque (well, can you blame him?).

 Maher is no stranger to controversy. In his various guises as actor, comedian, political satirist, author, and talk show host, he has managed to push a lot of buttons, proving himself to be a full spectrum, equal opportunity offender. It’s his special power. But what I found most interesting about the film is that Maher himself is not necessarily “mocking” religion here, although I know that he and Charles will be accused of doing so and roundly vilified by the self-righteously pious and the small-minded.

To be sure, some of the fringe interviewees and their belief systems are milked for laughs; but Maher’s roots are in stand-up comedy, so naturally he’s not going to pass up an opening. It’s reflexive. These people make themselves look ridiculous, so mocking them is redundant. I think Maher and Charles are smart enough to figure that out. A similarly perceptive grasp of the state of the American idiocracy was what made Borat (Charles’ collaboration with comic genius Sacha Baron Cohen) such a brilliantly incisive satire.

The film is timely. Maher brought up a good point on The Daily Show earlier this week. When he mentioned Sarah Palin’s staunch Christian stance, Jon Stewart countered that Barack Obama claims to be deeply religious as well, to which Maher replied, “I hope he’s lying.” My sentiments exactly. Because, as Maher went on to point out, when anyone runs for president in the “United States of Stupid” (Maher’s words) they have to trawl votes by toeing the spiritual line.

It’s a given that McCain is paying lip service to piety, and I’d like to assume Obama isn’t some kind of secret crazy fundamentalist. But Palin? She is dangerous. I know that Digby, Dday and Tristero have been warning us about this from the get-go, but it is encouraging to hear someone saying it on a high profile television talk show. It can’t be said enough. All I can say is- go see this film, and then come November 4, everybody grab their hose and socks…and pray.

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.

Like one of his earlier, funnier films: Vicky Cristina Barcelona ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 23, 2008)

Ay, mama.

Dare I say it? Woody Allen’s new film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, is his wisest, sexiest and most engaging romantic comedy in years. Okay…truth? To rate it on a sliding scale: as far as his own particular brand of genial bedroom farces go, it may not be in quite the same league as, let’s say, Hannah and Her Sisters, but it handily blows the boudoir doors off of A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.

The Barcelona-bound Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are two young Americans who have decided to take a summer breather in the form of a Mediterranean getaway. Vicky, engaged to be married in the fall, is enjoying her last holiday as a single woman, and is looking forward to indulging her scholarly interest in Catalan architecture (she has a Gaudi fixation).

Cristina is taking a mental health break after self-producing and starring in a short film (which “she hates”) about the Meaning of Love. The women are warm friends, but polar opposites. Vicky is practical, analytical and guarded; a no-nonsense, borderline control freak. Cristina is adventurous and free-spirited, but suffers a bevy of neuroses and insecurities. In their own symbiotic manner, Vicky and Cristina are really two sides of the same coin.

Enter seasoned coin-flipper Javier Bardem, who drops the cattle prod and picks up an artist’s brush for a return to his main forte-portraying a smoldering heart breaker with the soul of a poet. In this outing, Bardem is Juan Antonio, a lusty Spanish painter who espies the two women in a Barcelona restaurant one sultry evening. Eschewing the usual small talk, he strolls up to their table and announces his sincere wish that the two of them come away with him in his private plane for a romantic weekend on a Spanish isle.

The incredulous Vicky bristles at the presumptuous come-on; Cristina shrugs off her friend’s warnings and votes for calling Juan Antonio on his bluff. What the hell, they’re on vacation-why not venture a little spontaneity (besides, it’s Javier Bardem, fer chrissake). Against her better judgment, Vicky reluctantly acquiesces to her friend, and off they go.

What ensues that weekend ultimately changes the lives of all three; not to mention any previous notions they may have had about los misterios del amor. Things really get interesting when Juan Antonio’s tempestuous ex-wife (Penelope Cruz) enters the mix

Allen’s playful screenplay deftly addresses the age old question: Are human beings really monogamous by nature? Is it realistic (or even fair) to expect one Significant Other to nurture and fulfill all of our physical and intellectual needs? And what’s wrong with occasionally breaking the mold of what constitutes a “relationship” between consenting adults? Jesus Cristos lizards, I’m sounding like Dr. Phil here…but you get the gist.

To be sure, this is a perennially popular theme in film; Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim being the most famous example and most obvious touchstone here. Also, the contrast of the voluptuous and almost shockingly blonde Johansson against the deep azure of the Mediterranean recalls Godard’s similar utilization of Bardot. Then again, Allen has made no secret of his long time infatuation with European cinema; to paraphrase the Woodman himself, “Hey, he had to mold himself after someone!” There are worse influences.

After three films in a row, I have now grumpily accepted Scarlett Johansson as Allen’s latest muse (we all know how he gets obsessed with his leading ladies). Is it just me, or does she always have the dazed look of someone who has just been shaken awake from a nap? Don’t get me wrong, the camera really loves her (her translucent beauty is a DP’s dream) but I find her husky monotone a bit stultifying at times. Perhaps her “method” is too subtle for me? Or am I just pining too much for the halcyon days of Diane Keaton?

Rebecca Hall (a Brit, actually) is a wonderful seriocomic actress, and someone to keep an eye on. She’s like a less twitchy Parker Posey. I think Cruz should get an Oscar nod for her work here (she’s that good). The Bardem and Cruz reunion is comedy gold (their first onscreen pairing since Jamon, Jamon in 1992).

Wisely, Allen gives Bardem and Cruz several scenes where they get to flex their acting  chops in-language; their performances really jump out of the screen in those moments. He is smart enough to understand an unfortunate anomaly that sometimes occurs when accomplished foreign actors are cast in American productions: their broken English often gets unfairly perceived as stilted acting.

I think Woody is back. And he’s made something that (sadly) is a bit of an anomaly itself at the multiplex these days: A hot date movie for grown-ups. So call the sitter, already!

Dancing in the dark: The Killing of John Lennon *** & Control ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 16, 2008)

This week, I’m taking a look at two recent films of note that you may have missed which are now available on DVD. Both  fit into a genre I like to refer to as “Rock ‘n’ Noir”; that twilight confluence of the recording studio and the dark alley, if you will.

There is a particularly creepy and chilling moment of “art-imitating-life-imitating-art-imitating life” in writer-director Andrew Piddington’s film, The Killing of John Lennon, where the actor portraying the ex-Beatles’ stalker-murderer deadpans in voice-over:

 “I don’t believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention, I believe that one should become a person like other people.”

 Anyone who has seen Scorsese and Shrader’s Taxi Driver will instantly attribute that line to the fictional Travis Bickle, an alienated, psychotic loner and would be assassin who stalks a political candidate around New York City. Bickle’s ramblings in that film were based on the diary of Arthur Bremer, the real-life nutball who grievously wounded presidential candidate George Wallace in a 1972 assassination attempt.

Although Mark David Chapman’s fellow loon-in-arms John Hinckley would extrapolate even further on the Taxi Driver obsession in his attempt on President Reagan’s life in 1981, it’s still an unnerving epiphany in Piddington’s film, an eerie and compelling portrait of Chapman’s descent into alienation, madness and the inexplicable murder of a beloved music icon.

Piddington based his screenplay on transcripts of Chapman’s statements and recollections, and focuses on the killer’s complete break with reality, which ultimately culminated in John Lennon’s tragic murder in December of 1980.

The story picks up in the fall of that year, when Chapman (Jonas Ball) was living in Hawaii and reaching the end of his emotional rope. Fed up with a life of chronic underachievement and a lack of any sense of purpose, he lashes out at his hapless wife (Mie Omori) and domineering mother (Krisha Fairchild).

He is obsessed with J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye; he re-reads the book over and over, until in his own deluded mind, he has transmogrified into the story’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield, on a mission to seek out and denounce all the “phonies” of the world.

He quits his job and takes the first of two fateful solo trips to New York City, where he finally gleans his “purpose”-to kill his musical idol, John Lennon, for being such a “phony”. His twisted mission is postponed after he attends a screening of Ordinary People, which somehow snaps him back to his senses. Sadly, his creeping derangement did not stay dormant, and we all know what transpired.

Ball is quite convincing in the role; so convincing that it will be interesting to see if he can avoid being typecast as a brooding psychopath in future projects (Steve Railsback remains synonymous with Charles Manson to me, several decades after his creepy channeling in Helter Skelter.)

To their credit, the director and his lead actor do not glorify Chapman or his deeds; nor on do they portray him as a boogie man. He’s an everyday Walter Mitty… gone sideways and armed with a .38. The film is a fairly straightforward docu-drama; what makes it compelling is Ball’s edgy unpredictability and the moody, atmospheric cinematography by Roger Eaton.

I can see how boomers like myself, who have the most sentimental attachment to the Beatles, would have an inherent revulsion for reliving this horrible milestone; I suspect that to younger viewers, the film’s subject matter would seem less morbid and of more objective interest. Clearly, there is an audience for this subject, because there is yet another film out about Chapman called Chapter 27, starring a porked-out Jared Leto (I have not seen it; it played the festival circuit last year and is due on DVD September 30).

So what is the point in lolling about in a madman’s head for nearly two hours? And isn’t giving attention to this loser who was a “nobody until I killed the biggest somebody on earth” (the movie’s tag line) just rubbing salt in the wounds of Beatle fans everywhere? Well, perhaps. Then again, it is part of history, part of life. Movies are art, true art reflects life, and life is not always a Disney movie, is it?

I never realized the lengths
I’d have to go
All the darkest corners of a sense
I didn’t know
Just for one moment –
hearing someone call
Looked beyond the day in hand
There’s nothing there at all

 -from” Twenty-Four Hours” by Joy Division

1980 was a bizarre yet pivotal year for music. The first surge of punk had come and gone and was being homogenized by the marketing boys into a genre tagged as New Wave. The remnants of disco and funk had finally loosened a tenacious grip on the pop charts, but had not quite yet fully acquiesced to the still burgeoning hip hop/rap scene as the dance music du jour.

What would soon become known as Hair Metal was still in its infancy; and the inevitable merger of “headphone” prog and bloated stadium rock sealed the deal with Pink Floyd’s cynical yet amazingly successful 2-LP “fuck you” to the music business, The Wall (the hit single from the album, “Another Brick in the Wall”, was the #2 song on Billboard’s chart for the year, sandwiched between Blondie’s “Call Me” and Olivia Newton-John’s “Magic”). MTV was still a year away from killing the radio stars.

The time was ripe for something new; perhaps a whole new paradigm. For my money, there were several key albums released that year that definitely lurched in that direction. They included Remain in Light by the Talking Heads, Sandinista by the Clash, Black Sea by XTC, Sound Affects by The Jam…and Closer by Joy Division.

Joy Division was a quartet from north of England way who formed in the late 70s. They mixed a punk ethos with a catchy but somber pop sensibility that echoed the stark industrial landscape of their Greater Manchester environs. Along with local contemporaries like The Fall and The Smiths, they helped seed what would eventually be referred to as the “Manchester scene” (brilliantly dramatized in the outstanding 2002 film, 24-Hour Party People).

I remember being  blown away the first time I heard Closer;  I was struck by the haunted baritone of lead singer Ian Curtis, who had a Jim Morrison-like way of chanting his dark, cryptic lyrics in such a manner that they really got under your skin. Like Morrison, Curtis’ touchstones as a songwriter seemed to draw more impetus from the likes of Conrad and Blake than Leiber and Stoller. It was more of an invocation of the soul, as opposed to merely “singing a song”.

Tragically, by the time that album had been released, and its memorable single “Love Will Tear Us Apart” was playing on the radio, Curtis had passed away, at the age of 23. Distraught over his deteriorating marriage and chronic health problems, he hung himself in his flat in May of 1980.

There is a general consensus that side effects from the myriad of anti-seizure medications he was taking for epilepsy had contributed to elevating his depression and feelings of despair. The surviving band members regrouped, dusted themselves off and mutated into a more radio-friendly synth-pop outfit called New Order (and the rest, as they say, is history).

I know that doesn’t sound like the makings of a feel good summer movie, but I can’t heap enough praise upon Control, first-time director Anton Corbijn’s highly impressionistic dramatization of Curtis’ short-lived music career. Based on the book Touching from a Distance, a memoir by Curtis’ widow Deborah, the film (shot in stark black and white) eschews the usual biopic formula and instead aspires to setting a certain atmosphere and mood. Corbijn, known previously as a still photographer, actually had a brief professional relationship with Joy Division. He snapped a series of early publicity photos for the band, which  become iconic to fans.

The film is fueled by a mesmerizing performance from the relatively unknown Sam Reilly , who actually had a bit part in the aforementioned 24-Hour Party People playing Mark. E. Smith, lead singer of The Fal). He avoids merely “doing an impression” of Ian Curtis, opting instead for a very naturalistic, believable take on a gifted but tortured soul. The fact that Reilly is also a musician certainly doesn’t hurt either (all four of the actors portraying Joy Division actually did their own “live” singing and playing).

He holds his own against the more seasoned Samantha Morton, who plays his long-suffering wife. Morton is one of the finest and most fearless actresses of her generation; she keeps getting better.  Her character  reminded me of the type of role Rita Tushingham used to tackle head on in classic British “kitchen sink” dramas of the 1960s.

In fact, the intense realism that Reilly and Morton instill into their portrayals of a struggling young British working class couple, along with the black and white photography and gritty location filming strongly recalls classics of the aforementioned genre, like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Look Back in Anger and The Leather Boys. Even if you are not a fan of the band, Control is not to be missed.