Tag Archives: 2009 Reviews

Two new stars in heaven: RIP Ricardo Montalban & Patrick McGoohan

By Dennis Hartley

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

Ricardo Montalban was well known as a TV actor (Fantasy Island) and as the Chrysler Cordoba’s pitch man, but also had a number of film credits during his 66 year career. He never snagged an Oscar, but did earn an Emmy and a Screen Actor’s Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993.

He may not have been a critic’s darling, and was a frequent target of ridicule for late-night TV comics (which sometimes smacked uncomfortably of “unconscious” racism to me, like Billy Crystal’s Fernando Lamas shtick) but he always remained a classy, dependable performer with a powerful physical presence and charisma that served him well throughout his career.

A Mexico City native, he immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1940s and made a name for himself in radio, theatre, film and TV, helping break down barriers along the way. He founded a non-profit organization (the Nosotros Foundation) dedicated to helping dismantle character stereotypes and to push open more doors for Hispanic performers. Vaya con dios, Don Ricardo.

Recommended viewing:

Border Incident-A typically taut and tough little noir from the underrated Anthony Mann features an excellent performance from Montalban as a Mexican police officer who goes undercover to help U.S. immigration officials bust an exploitative human smuggling ring.

Mystery Street-This is another early 50s noir with Montalban, this time as a Boston police lieutenant investigating the murder of a young woman whose bones are found on a beach. This was one of the first police procedural dramas to showcase forensic science.

Sayonara-This uneven 1957 culture clash drama (based on the James Michener novel) was primarily a vehicle for star Marlon Brando and has not dated very well, but Montalban had a memorable (if a bit oddly cast) role as a Japanese character. Go figure.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes-Although this franchise became sillier with each installment, this entry has its moments, including a likeable performance by Montalban as the kindly carny who adopts the baby chimp who grows up to become…oh, never mind.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan-“Khaaaaahnn!!” Montalban’s turn as the charismatic leader of a renegade group of genetically tweaked supermen not only presented Shatner’s Captain Kirk with a formidable nemesis, but an equally hammy acting partner as well.

Alas, more sad news to report. No. 6 has also left The Island. Patrick McGoohan, like Ricardo Montalban, had an eclectic career as an actor (theater, film and TV) but will be best remembered for his work on the small screen. The brooding Irish actor (actually born in Astoria, N.Y., oddly enough) became synonymous with two memorable British TV characters in the 1960s: John Drake (in Danger Man, aka Secret Agent Man on this side of the pond) and the enigmatic “No. 6” in the short-lived summer replacement series which has become a long-running cult phenom, The Prisoner.

Now, there are some who may go to great lengths to convince you that “John Drake” and “No. 6” are one and the same person…but I’m not going to open that can of worms (I may have already done so). I admit to owning the series on DVD, but I can’t tell you with 100% confidence that I’ve got it all sussed, despite repeated viewings over the years (even McGoohan took its cryptic subtexts with him…erm, to his grave). Maybe that was his point? Be seeing you!

Recommended viewing:

All Night Long-This rarely screened curio is (literally) a jazzed-up retooling of Othello, with McGoohan starring as a conniving musician (he’s not half-bad on the drums). Cameos by Dave Brubeck, Charlies Mingus and other jazz stars lend the film some hip factor.

Ice Station Zebra-This all-star Cold War thriller is still best appreciated in its original Cinerama format. McGoohan plays (surprise) an enigmatic heavy (or is he?). Directed by John Sturges (who also helmed Mystery Street, on my Montalban list above).

Silver Streak-Director Arthur Hiller and screenwriter Colin Higgins teamed up for this Hitchcock homage that takes place on a train. Gene Wilder, Jill Clayburgh and Richard Pryor steal the show, but McGoohan is “on board” as The Heavy (again). Choo-choo!

Scanners-This early effort from the twisted David Cronenberg is not his best, but as far as movies with exploding noggins go, it’s a ”head” above the rest. Performances range from bad to wooden (McGoohan is the only real actor in the cast) but it’s still a cult fave.

Braveheart-We’re gonna party like it’s 1299! Mel Gibson’s testosterone ‘n’ kilts fest (file under: “Sort of” Historical Epic) featured one of McGoohan’s better latter-day film performances as Edward Longshanks-the king everyone loved to hate “back in the day”.

And I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to Mr. McGoohan than this music video gem from one of my favorite 1980s British power-pop outfits, The Times:

Art is a strange hotel: Chelsea on the Rocks **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s  Hullabaloo on October 31, 2009)

Bill and Andy’s excellent adventure.

Since 1883, the Hotel Chelsea in New York City has been considered to be the center of the universe by bohemian culture vultures. It has been the hostelry of choice for the holiest of hipster saints over the years, housing just about anybody who was anybody in the upper echelons of poets, writers, playwrights, artists, actors, directors, musicians and free thinkers over the past century.

Some checked in whenever they were in town, and some lived as residents for years on end. Some checked out forever within its walls over the years (from Dylan Thomas to Sid Vicious’ ill-fated girlfriend, Nancy Spungen). Of course, not every single resident was a luminary, but chances are they were someone who had a story or two to tell. Abel Ferrara, a director who has been known to spin a sordid New York tale or two (China Girl, Bad Lieutenant, King of New York, The Funeral) has attempted to paint a portrait of the hotel with his new documentary, Chelsea on the Rocks-with mixed results.

Blending interviews with current residents with archival footage and docudrama vignettes, Ferrara tackles this potentially intriguing subject matter in frustrating fits and starts. He never decides whether he wants to offer up a contextualized history, an impressionistic study, or simply a series of “So tell me your favorite Chelsea anecdote” stories (ranging from genuinely funny or harrowing to banal and/or incomprehensible).

The most fascinating parts of the film to me were the relatively brief bits of archival footage. For instance, a fleeting 15 or 20 second clip of Andy Warhol and William Burroughs sharing a little repast in one of the hotel’s rooms vibes much more of the essence of what the Chelsea was “about” in its heyday than (for the sake of argument) a seemingly endless present-day segment with director Milos Forman holding court and swapping memories with Ferrara in the lobby, during which neither manages to say anything of much interest to anyone but each other.

There is a lack of judicious editing in the film, and therein lies its fatal flaw. Ferrara has an annoying habit of jabbering on in the background while his interviewees are speaking, to the point where it starts to feel too “inside” and exclusionary to the viewer. This is exacerbated by the fact that no present-day interviewees are identified. While some of them were easy  to spot (Robert Crumb, Ethan Hawke, Dennis Hopper and the aforementioned Milos Forman) the majority were otherwise obscure (so who are these people, and why should we care, again?).

You get the impression that the director made this film for himself and his circle of peers, and it’s a case of “Well, if you aren’t part of the New York art scene and have to ask who these people are, then you obviously aren’t hip enough for the room.” He lures you into the lobby, but alas, can’t convince you to check in for the night.

This film is rated NCC-1701: Star Trek ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullbaloo on May 16, 2009)

Wait a sec…these guys look familiar. Where have I…

Ah! Sie sind von die Zukunft!

OK, so now I have an excuse to tell you my Star Trek story. Actually, it’s not really that much of a story, but hey, I have some (virtual) column inches to fill-so here goes.

First off, I am not a diehard Trekker (more of a Dwarfer-if you must pry). I enjoyed the 60s TV series, and if I’m channel surfing and happen upon, say, “The City on the Edge of Forever”, or “Space Seed”…They Pull Me Back In (sorry, Mr. Pacino). I never bothered with  the spinoff series, but have seen the theatrical films. I tend to agree with the “even-numbered Trek films are the best” theory.

I’ve never felt the urge to buy collectibles, attend a convention, or don a pair of Spock ears for a Halloween party. However, as fate would have it, in my life I have had close encounters (of the 3rd kind) with two cast members from the original show; encounters that (I imagine) would make a hardcore fan wet themselves and act like the  star-struck celebrity interviewer Chris Farley used to play on SNL.

In the mid 80s, I was working as a morning personality at an FM station in Fairbanks, Alaska. Our station co-promoted a personal appearance by Walter Koenig at (wait for it) the Tanana Valley State Fair, so I had a chance to meet him. The thing that has always stuck with me, however, was not any particular thrill in meeting “Chekov”, but rather his 1000-yard stare.

It was a look that spoke volumes; a look that said, “I can’t believe I’m onstage in a drafty barn in Fairbanks Alaska, fielding the same geeky questions yet again about the goddamn Russian accent. This is why I got into show business?!” To me, it was like watching a sad, real-life version of Laurence Olivier’s Archie in The Entertainer. And as a radio personality (lowest rung of the show biz ladder) and fledgling stand-up comic (next rung up), I wondered if this was A Warning.

Flash-forward to the mid 1990s. I had moved to Seattle, and found myself “between” radio jobs, supporting myself with sporadic stand-up comedy gigs and working through a temp agency. Through the temp agency, I ended up working for a spell at…at…I’ll just blurt it out: a Honeybaked Ham store in Redmond (I’m sure that there is a special place in Hell for Jews who sell pork; on the other hand, one of my co-workers was a Muslim woman from Kenya, so at least there will be someone there that I already know).

So I’m wiping down the counter one slow day, thinking to myself “After 20 years in radio, and 10 in stand-up comedy, I can’t believe I’m working at a Honeybaked Ham in Redmond, Washington. This is why I got into show business?!” Suddenly, a limo pulls up, and in strolls a casually dressed, ruddy-faced, mustachioed gentleman, getting on in years (hearing aids in both ears). If you’ve ever worked retail, you know that after a while, all the customers sort of look the same; you look at them, but you don’t really SEE them.

As I was fetching the gentleman his ham and exchanging pleasantries, I caught a couple co-workers in my peripheral, quietly buzzing. I put two and two together with the limo and began to surreptitiously scrutinize the customer’s face a little more closely.

Wait…is that…? Nah! Twice in one lifetime? What are the odds? He paid with a check. Name on the check? James Doohan. I kept my cool and closed the sale. As I watched him walk out the door, with a delicious, honey-glazed ham tucked under his arm, an old Moody Blues song began to play in my head: “Isn’t life stray-ay-ay-hange?”

You can only recycle a movie brand so many times before there is no where left to go but back to the beginning. The James Bond series reached that point with Casino Royale in 2006, 44 years after Dr. No. It now appears that the Star Trek franchise (blowing out 43 candles this year) has taken a cue from 007, and gone back to unearth its “first” mission.

Gene Roddenberry’s universally beloved creation has become so ingrained into our pop culture and the collective subconscious of Boomers (as well as the, um, next generation) that the producers of the latest installment didn’t have to entitle it with a qualifier. It’s not Star Trek: Origins, or Star Trek: 2009. It’s just Star Trek. They could have just as well called it Free Beer, judging from the $80,000,000 it has rung up at the box office already.

The filmmakers seem shrewd enough to realize that while it may not matter to casual moviegoers that the principal characters are being somewhat “re-imagined”, they still have to take steps to ensure that they do not provoke a fanboy jihad. And the best way to tap dance your way into obsessive Trekkers’ little pointy-eared hearts? Incorporate the original Roddenberry ethos. As box office numbers indicate, they have the “live long and prosper” part down, but-how does the film hold up in the “ethos” department, you may ask?

Rather nicely, actually. Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is suitably bold, charismatic, and cocky. And he is younger than usual. Spock (Zachary Quinto) is suitably hyper-intelligent, stalwart and coolly logical. He’s also younger than usual. And he is older than usual; but I won’t go into that (it’s no secret that Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance-so you can figure it out from there).

Not that the plot really matters. Suffice it to say that it involves a time-traveling Romulan (Eric Bana, heavily disguised by the prosthetic face and oddly resembling Anthony Zerbe in The Omega Man) who is stalking Spock throughout the continuum for his own nefarious reasons.

The reason  plot doesn’t matter is because the best Star Trek stories are character-driven; specifically concerning the interplay between the principal crew members of the U.S.S. Enterprise. And it is here that director J.J. Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have delivered in spades.

The actors are given just enough signature lines to establish a reassuring nod and a wink to those in the audience who are familiar with the original characterizations; yet thankfully they have been directed to make the roles very much their own, never sinking into a self-conscious parody or merely “doing an impression” of their respective original cast member.

Pine and Quinto are quite adept at capturing the core dynamic of the relationship between Kirk and Spock as it was originally (and so indelibly) established by Shatner and Nimoy. Karl Urban steals all his scenes as Dr. McCoy, and in the film’s most inspired bit of casting, Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) proves a perfect choice as Chief Engineer Scott. Zoe Saldana, John Cho and Anton Yelchin (as Uhura, Sulu and Chekov, respectively) round off the principal crew members, all players tackling their roles with much aplomb.

The film is not wholly without flaws (a lackluster villain, so-so special effects) but the tight direction, sharply written dialog and energetic young cast outweigh negatives. Hell, this one might even shatter my “even numbers rule” (it’s the eleventh film, if you’re counting). I know this isn’t 100% kosher, but I’m rating Star Trek 4 out of 5 possible Honeybaked Hams. And it was a pleasure serving you, Mr. Doohan. Wherever you are.

SIFF 2009: Poppy Shakespeare ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 13, 2009)

Sometimes I get a little twitch when a movie breaks down the “fourth wall” and a protagonist starts talking to the audience in the opening scene. When it works, it can be quite engaging (Alfie); when it doesn’t (SLC Punk), it seems to double the running time of the film. In the case of Poppy Shakespeare, the device pays off in spades, thanks to the extraordinary charisma and acting chops of an up-and-coming young British thespian by the name of Anna Maxwell Martin.

Martin plays “N”, a mentally troubled young woman who has grown up ostensibly as a ward of the state, shuffled about from foster care to government subsidized mental health providers for most of her life. She collects a “mad money” pension from the government, and spends most of her waking hours at a London “day hospital” (where many of the patients participate on a voluntary basis and are free to go home at night).

In an introductory scene (reminiscent of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), we learn that most of the patients in Poppy’s particular day ward appear to gather not so much for the therapy group sessions, but to swap tips on the latest loopholes in England’s socialized health care system. Poppy is a a rock star in the group, due to her savvy  in working the system (she’s “crazy”, alright…like a fox).

She is a polar opposite to Cuckoo’s Nest hero R.P. McMurphy. Rather than looking for ways to break out of the laughing house, she is always scamming ways to avoid being discharged from state-sponsored care (bye-bye gravy train). She seems perfectly happy to bide time at the hospital by day, and make a beeline to her lonely flat at nights and weekends to gobble meds and shut in with the telly. N’s comfortable routine hits a snag, however when her doctor “assigns” her to mentor a new day patient named Poppy (Naomie Harris).

Unlike the majority of patients in the ward, Poppy’s admittance for observation has been mandated by the state, based on answers she gave on a written personality profile she filled out as part of a job application (some Orwellian overtones there). She desperately implores N to use her knowledge of the system to help her prove to the doctors that she isn’t crazy. In a Catch-22 style twist, the financially tapped Poppy realizes that the only way she can afford the services of the attorney N has recommended to her is to become eligible for “mad money”. In other words, in order to prove that she isn’t crazy, she has to first get everyone to think that she is nuts.

This may sound like a comedy; while there are some amusing moments, I need to warn you that this is pretty bleak fare (on my way out of the screening, I asked an usher if he had a bit of rope handy). That being said, it is well written (Sarah Williams adapted from Clare Allan’s novel) and directed (by Benjamin Ross, who also helmed an excellent sleeper a few years back called The Young Poisoner’s Handbook). The jabs at England’s health care system reminded me a bit of Lindsay Anderson’s “institutional” satires (Britannia Hospital in particular). Harris is very affecting as Poppy, but it is Martin who commands your attention throughout. She has a Glenda Jackson quality about her that tells me she will likely be around for a while. She’s better than good. She’s crazy good.

SIFF 2009: Mommy is at the Hairdresser’s ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 13, 2009)

Mommy Is at the Hairdresser’s is such a perfect film, that I’m almost afraid to review it. It’s a perfect film about an imperfect family; but like the selective recollections of a carefree childhood, no matter what the harsh realities of the big world around you may have been, only the most pleasant parts will forever linger in your mind.

Set on the cusp of an idyllic Quebec summer, circa 1966 (my guess), the story centers on the suburban Gauvin family. Teenaged Elise (Marianne Fortier) and her two young brothers are thrilled that school’s out for the summer. Their loving parents appear to be the ideal couple; the beautiful Simone (Celine Bonnier) works as a TV journalist and her handsome husband Le Pere (Laurent Lucas) is a microbiologist. But alas, there is trouble in River City . When a marital infidelity precipitates a separation, leaving the kids in the care of their well-meaning but now titular father, young Elise suddenly  finds herself as the de facto head of the family.

Thanks to the sensitive direction from Lea Pool, an intelligent and believable screenplay by Isabelle Hebert, and  some of the most extraordinary performances by child actors that I’ve seen in quite some time, I found myself completely transported back to that all-too-fleeting “secret world” of childhood. You know… that singular time of life when worries are few and everything feels possible (before that mental baggage carousel backs up with too many overstuffed suitcases, if you catch my drift).

This is one of the most beautifully photographed films I have seen recently. Daniel Jobin’s DP work should receive some kind of special award from Quebec’s tourist board, because watching this film gave me an urge to take a crash course in Quebecois, pack some fishing gear and move there immediately. This is my personal favorite at this year’s SIFF, and I hope that it finds wider distribution- tres bientot.

SIFF 2009: OSS 117: Lost in Rio ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 13, 2009)

SIFF’s Closing Night Gala selection this year is OSS 117: Lost in Rio, which is the sequel to OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, which was a huge hit at the festival back in 2006. Who is this “OSS 117” of which I speak, you may ask? He is the cheerfully sexist, jingoistic, folkway-challenged, and generally clueless French secret agent Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, who is played once again to comic perfection by Jean Dujardin. In my review of the first film, I described why I thought Dujardin was a real discovery:

He has a marvelous way of underplaying his comedic chops that borders on genius. He portrays his well-tailored agent with the same blend of arrogance and elegance that defined Sean Connery’s 007, but tempers it with an undercurrent of obliviously graceless social bumbling that matches Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau.

After viewing the second entry in this series, I have to stand by my assertion that Dujardin is a bloody genius. In this outing (which moves the time line ahead about 10 years or so to the Summer of Love) Hubert is assigned to assist a trio of Israeli Mossad agents as they hunt down the son of a Nazi war criminal in South America. As in the first film, the plot is really moot here; it’s all about the killer combo of Dujardin’s riotous characterization and director Michel Hazanavicius’ knack for distilling the very quintessence of those classic 60s spy capers. As I noted in my review of the first film:

Unlike the Austin Powers films, which utilizes the spy spoof motif primarily as an excuse for Mike Meyers to string together an assortment of glorified SNL sketches and (over) indulge in certain scatological obsessions, this film remains  true and even respectful to the genre and era that it aspires to parody. The acting tics, production design, costuming, music, use of rear-screen projection, even the choreography of the action scenes are so pitch-perfect that if you were to screen the film side by side with one of the early Bond entries…you would swear the films were produced the very same year.

I will say that some of the novelty of the character has worn off (that’s the sophomore curse that any sequel has to weather) but this is still a thoroughly entertaining film, and I hope that Hazanavicius and Dujardin have some more projects on the horizon. I’m there.

SIFF 2009: Mid-August Lunch ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 6, 2009)

Eccentric ladyland.

This slice-of-life charmer from Italy, set during the mid-August Italian public holiday known as Ferragosto, was written and directed by Gianni Di Gregorio (who also co-scripted the critically-acclaimed 2009 gangster drama Gomorrah). Light-ish in plot but rich in observational insight, it proves that sometimes, less is more.

The Robert Mitchum-ish Di Gregorio casts himself as Giovanni, a middle-aged bachelor living in Rome with his elderly mother. He doesn’t work, because as he quips to a friend, taking care of mama is his “job”. Although nothing appears to faze the easy-going Giovanni, his nearly saintly countenance is tested when his landlord, who wants to take a little weekend excursion with his mistress, asks for a “small” favor.

In exchange for some forgiveness on back rent, he requests that Giovanni take on a house guest for the weekend-his elderly mother. Giovanni agrees, but is chagrined when the landlord turns up with two little old ladies (he hadn’t mentioned his aunt). Things get more complicated when Giovanni’s doctor makes a house call, then in lieu of a bill asks if he doesn’t mind taking on his dear old mama as well (Ferragosto is a popular “getaway” holiday in Italy).

It’s the small moments that make this film such a delight. Giovanni reading Dumas aloud to his mother, until she quietly nods off in her chair. Two friends, sitting in the midday sun, enjoying white wine and watching the world go by. And in a scene that reminded me of a classic POV sequence in Fellini’s Roma, Giovanni and his pal glide us through the streets of Rome on a sunny motorcycle ride. This mid-August lunch might offer you a somewhat limited menu, but you’ll find that every morsel on it is well worth savoring.

 

SIFF 2009: Telstar ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 6, 2009)

It’s weird kismet that I screened Telstar, a new biopic about the legendary, innovative and tragically deranged music producer Joe Meek (whose career abruptly ended when he shot his landlady before shooting himself in 1967), just one day after a judge sentenced the legendary, innovative and tragically deranged music producer Phil Spector (whose career abruptly ended when he shot actress Lana Clarkson) to a term of 19 years to life.

Similar to his U.S.  counterpart, the British-born Meek also reached his creative peak in the early 60s, and developed a signature studio “sound” that set his song productions apart from virtually everyone else’s. While the two shared an equally unpredictable and mercurial temperament, they were innovative in mutually exclusive ways. Spector’s much-heralded, signature “Wall of Sound” was generated by utilizing elaborate “live” sessions, involving large groups of musicians, state-of-the-art studios and a huge echo chamber.

Meek, on the other hand, recorded piecemeal, and produced most of his legacy in a tiny home studio, set up in a modest London flat. He would isolate musicians in different rooms in order to achieve very specific sounds for each instrument or vocal track, often utilizing overdubbing (SOP these days, but not at that time). Completely untrained (and unskilled) as a musician, his sonic experimentation was fueled by his obsession with outer space and informed by musical tonalities that came from, well, “beyond”; his resulting forays have secured him a place as a pioneer in electronic music.

(OK, now engaging Music Geek Mode). One of my prized CDs is I Hear a New World-which was written, produced and conceived by Joe Meek (and recorded by “Rod Freeman and the Blue Men”) which I described as follows in a 2003 review that I published on Amazon:

Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson drop acid in a recording studio on the dark side of the moon, and the resulting session yields something that sounds very much like this long lost Joe Meek album. “I Hear a New World” was a more literal title than you might think, as the voices in his head were soon to drown out the sounds of the Muse for the tragically doomed Meek… Informed music fans will intuit snippets of templates here and there for the Residents, Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream or even more recent offerings from Radiohead and The Flaming Lips. The fact that Meek bore a spooky physical resemblance to director David Lynch certainly adds fuel to his already eerie aura.

Telstar is named after Meek’s biggest and most recognizable hit from 1962, an instrumental performed by The Tornados (who were essentially his studio band at the time). The film (based on a stage play by James Hicks, who co-adapted the screenplay with director Nick Moran) suffers a bit from an uneven tone, but I still think it is quite watchable (especially for fans of the era), thanks to the great location filming, a colorful and tuneful recreation of the early 60s London music scene, and a fearless, flamboyant performance from Con O’Neill (recreating his stage role as the tortured Meek).

In fact, the first 15 minutes of the film are infused with a door-slamming exuberance and manic musical energy that I haven’t seen since the memorable opening salvo of Julien Temple’s love letter to London’s late 50s pop scene, Absolute Beginners. Unfortunately, the last 15 minutes are more akin to the denouement in Taxi Driver. Then again, if you are already familiar with the story of Meek’s trajectory into paranoia and madness, you go into this film with the foreknowledge that it is not likely to have a happy ending.

The bulk of the film delves into elements of  Meek’s personal life, like his stormy relationship with protégé/lover Heinz Burt (JJ Field), a middling singer/guitarist who Meek had hoped to manufacture into the next Eddie Cochran (that didn’t happen). In fact, one of Meek’s greatest tragedies was how he squandered much of his potential with missed opportunities, unfortunate judgment calls and misdirected energies. For example, Meek once turned down an opportunity to produce some sessions for a certain (then relatively unknown) Merseyside combo managed by a Mr. Brian Epstein.

I would have liked to have seen more emphasis on portraying Meek’s genius in the studio, but you can’t have everything.S till, I got a kick out of the vivid recreations of performances by early 60s rock luminaries like Gene Vincent and Screamin’ Lord Sutch (who was a major influence on Alice Cooper). It’s during those moments (and the sporadic glimpses of Meek working his studio magic) that the film really comes alive. O’Neill’s performance is a real tour-d-force.

Tom Burke is also quite good as the oddball Geoff Goddard, who worked as an in-house songwriter for Meek (as well as a kind of “medium” for helping him retrieve pop hooks from “beyond”). James Corden is quite engaging (and provides some much-needed levity) as Meek’s long-suffering session drummer, Clem Cattini. The ubiquitous Kevin Spacey (who is featured in at least 3 SIFF entries this year) is also on hand in a small but memorable role as Meek’s chief investor, Major Banks. I hope this film finds distribution.

SIFF 2009: We Live in Public ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 30, 2009)

Marshall McLuhan is spinning.

So, how many “internet pioneers” were there, anyway? Tiresome jokes about Al Gore “inventing” the web aside, it seems every time you turn around, yet another person is credited for being the “visionary” who put “us” where “we” are today (wherever the hell that is, in the virtual sense).

Take the naked guy in the photo above, for instance. His name is Josh Harris. He’s an internet pioneer. Ever hear of him? God knows, I hadn’t, until I screened a fascinating new documentary called We Live in Public. The film was a 10-year labor of love for director Ondi Timoner (Dig!). Depending on who you ask, her subject is either an unheralded genius, or a complete loon who got lucky during the dot com boom (he’s a bit of both). By 1999, Harris had built a personal fortune of 80 million dollars by cannily presaging the explosion of social networking. In less than ten years, he was completely broke and had expatriated himself to Ethiopia.

What separates Harris from the rest of the nerdy, pocket-protected web entrepreneurs is his self-styled persona as an “artist” (he apparently was referred to by some as the “Warhol of the Web”). He considered his “art” to be his life (and the lives of others), as filtered, documented and shared through the matrix of digital technology.

In December 1999, Harris bankrolled a “social experiment” that could have been concocted by Hunter S. Thompson and Jim Jones on an ether binge. Harris narrowed down scores of applicants to 100 “subjects” who would room together in a bunker-like underground environment for 30 days. Each person had to consent to having a CCTV camera trained on them 24/7. Each also had his or her own monitor, with access to “flip channels” and peek in on what any of the other 99 people were doing at any given time (showers and toilets were communal, and there were no bedroom doors, to answer the obvious question). The complex was stockpiled with food, beverages, and guns (the latter allowed people to “blow off steam”). Each person was housed in their own sleeping pod.

Harris hired psychologists, who would grill residents in stark interrogation rooms. It was fun and games for the first couple weeks, but things quickly went downhill when people started losing their sense of reality. When New York City law enforcement caught wind of these (literally) underground shenanigans, they pictured a Heaven’s Gate-type cult scenario, and Harris’ “experiment” was abruptly shut down on January 1, 2000. Orwellian implications aside, the idea itself was prescient; especially when you consider the current popularity of personal webcams and the glut of reality TV.

Harris soon took the concept to the next level when he wired up every room in his home with cameras and launched the “We Live in Public” website with his girlfriend, enabling any one with an internet connection to peek in on their daily life (with absolutely no holds barred). By the time Harris pulled the plug six months later, his girlfriend had left him, daily hits were down to a handful, and he appeared to be in the middle of a mental meltdown (watching the footage of Harris moping about, I was reminded of Charles Foster Kane’s waning days, listlessly pacing the empty halls of Xanadu).

From a purely cinematic standpoint, Timoner has assembled an absorbing and stylishly kinetic portrait; but curiously, her subject remains somewhat of an enigma by the film’s end. Is he truly a “pioneer”, or is he just a glorified exhibitionist? What did he “pave the way” for, ultimately…Katie Couric’s televised colonoscopy? Is there such a thing as “too much information” in the Information Age? Does everybody necessarily need their “15 minutes”? If so, why? Is the medium the message? And while I’ve got your attention, have you seen this video of my adorable little cat with a bag stuck on his head?

SIFF 2009: The Yes Men Fix the World ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 30, 2009)

Live bait: The Yes Men chum for corporate sharks

What do you get when you throw Roger and Me and The Sting into a blender? Probably something along the lines of The Yes Men Fix the World, an alternately harrowing and hilarious documentary featuring anti-corporate activist/pranksters Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno. This is a more focused follow up to their ballsy but uneven debut, The Yes Men.

In that 2003 film, they established a simple yet amazingly effective Trojan Horse formula that garnered the duo invitations to key business conferences and TV appearances as “WTO spokesmen”. Once lulling their marks into a comfort zone, they would then proceed to cause well-deserved public embarrassment for some evil corporate bastards, whilst exposing the dark side of global free trade. (Most amazingly, they have managed not to suffer “brake failure” on a mountain road, if you know what I’m saying).

In this outing, Bichlbaum, Bonanno and co-director Kurt Engfehr come out swinging, vowing to do a take-down of a very powerful nemesis…an Idea. If money makes the world go ‘round, then this particular Idea is the one that oils the crank on the money-go-round, regardless of the human cost. It is the free market cosmology of economist Milton Friedman, which the Yes Men posit as the root of much evil in the world.

Of course, there is not much our dynamic duo can do at this point to take the man himself down (as the forlorn expressions on their faces during a visit to his grave site would indicate); but the Idea survives, as do those who would “drink the Kool-Aid”.  And thus, the fun begins.

Perhaps “fun” isn’t quite the appropriate term, but there are definitely hijinx afoot, and you’ll find yourself chuckling through most of the film (when you’re not crying). However, the filmmakers have a loftier goal than mining laughs: they want to smoke out some corporate accountability; and ideally, atonement. I know that “corporate accountability” is an oxymoron, but one still has to admire the dogged determination (and boundless creativity) of the Yes Men and their co-conspirators, despite the odds.

Case in point: the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India, when a Union Carbide pesticide plant mishap exposed 500,000 people (200,000 of them children) to a toxic gas. Between 8,000 and 10,000 deaths occurred within 3 days. Since then, an estimated additional 25,000 Bhopal residents have since died from complications due to exposure. Union Carbide eventually paid an insurance settlement to the Indian government of 470 million dollars in 1989 (it sounds like a lot of loot…until you split it 500,000 ways). To add insult to injury, Union Carbide pulled up stakes (read: fled the scene of the crime) without ever cleaning up the site; to this day residents are drinking groundwater leached by toxins.

In 2004, BBC News did a special report on the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, which included an appearance by a spokesman for Dow Chemical (the corporation that had just recently acquired Union Carbide at the time of the broadcast). The spokesman, a Mr. “Jude Finisterra” made an astounding, headline-grabbing announcement: In an effort to truly atone for the Bhopal incident, Dow Chemical was going to invest a tidy sum of 12 billion dollars to clean up the area and compensate the victims.

For several hours, all hell broke loose; Dow stockholders panicked and dumped over 2 billion dollars worth of stock in record time. To anyone with a soul, it was too good to be true-corporate criminals coming clean on live TV, in front of 300 million viewers? There’s hope for humanity! Well, not exactly. “Jude Finisterra” was really a member of our intrepid duo.

But the point was made; in fact, the real beauty of the ruse didn’t come into full flower until the Yes Men were “exposed”. When the real Dow Chemical spokespeople jumped into the fray to denounce the prank, they only made themselves look more ridiculous (and culpable) by essentially saying “Obviously, we would not commit such a large amount of money in this manner (i.e. of course we would never publicly take responsibility for the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people).”

The most distressing thing to observe is how quickly the MSM jumps in to toe the corporate line; in the case of the Dow sting (and later in the film, when they pose as HUD spokesmen, announcing that the government agency will provide housing for all the Katrina victims it had originally displaced in order to clear the way for redevelopment by private sector contractors) the newspapers and TV news anchors condemn the “cruel hoax” that gave “false hopes” to the victims of Bhopal and Katrina, respectively.

When the concerned Yes Men travel to Bhopal to personally apologize to the residents for their “cruelty”, they are greeted with open arms; one Bhopal victim tells them that even though he was admittedly disappointed, he was, for an hour or so, “in Heaven”. By the end of the film, the Yes Men may not actually “fix the world”, but they certainly succeed in giving it hope with their sense of compassion and infectious optimism. And for an hour or so, I was in Heaven.