Tag Archives: 2009 Reviews

Take me to the river: Sin Nombre ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 11, 2009)

Every now and then a debut film comes along that has a voice. And when I say “voice”, I mean that the director’s confidence and clarity of cinematic vision has a tangible presence-from the very first frame to the closing credits. Maybe I’m a little jaded, but it doesn’t happen that much these days. So when I saw Cary Fukunaga’s  assured first feature, Sin Nombre, it “…made my big toe shoot right up in my boot,” (as Little Richard described the first time he ever saw Hendrix live).

Defying all expectations, this modestly budgeted, visually expansive gem hinges on a simple narrative, but is anything but predictable. It’s an adventure, yet it is informed by an almost meditative stillness that makes the occasional frisson that much more gripping and real. It delves into gang culture, but it isn’t a movie about gangs. It has protagonists who are desperately attempting to immigrate to the United States by any means necessary, yet this isn’t yet another earnest message film about “the plight” of illegal immigrants. It’s a “road movie”, but the future’s uncertain-and the end is always near.

The film has two narratives, which eventually merge as one. One story begins in Honduras, concerning a headstrong teenage girl named Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) who joins her long estranged father and uncle as they journey to Mexico, where they plan to ride the rails as far north as possible before making a final dash across the border to America, where dreams of milk and honey await.

Sayra’s father hopes to use their time together to become reacquainted with his daughter. Sayra, who seems to be working through abandonment issues, is polite but keeps a cool distance from his belated attempts at offering fatherly advice and exerting parental authority. Still, Sayra, her father and her uncle begin to form a family unit, precipitated more by necessity than affection.

Another type of extended family unit is examined in the film’s companion narrative, which takes us to the southern Mexico state of Chiapas, and centers on a local chapter of the notorious “MS-13” gang. We witness a brutal initiation rite, a 13-second long “beat down” on a young inductee nicknamed “El Smiley” (Kristian Ferrer).

Punches and kicks are soon replaced by congratulatory hugs, as Smiley is welcomed as a “brother” by his new homies, and anointed a “son” by the leader, “Lil Mago” (Tenoch Huerta Mejia). We also meet Willy, known in the gang as “El Caspar” (Edgar Flores) who is Smiley’s sponsor, and a de facto big brother figure to the young boy.

While he is a dedicated and respected member of the gang, Willy vibes creeping disenchantment; we sense he dreams of a better life. He also has something  lacking in the others-a sense of conscience. This leads to a fateful conflict with Mago, a repugnant sociopath who will accept nothing less than blind obedience . Circumstance puts Willy in the same yard where Sayra and her relatives await to jump a train that will take them north; and thus their paths converge.

While this is a very human story, containing all the elements of classic drama (love, hope, betrayal, revenge, personal sacrifice), it is also about the locales, and the elegiac tone that these backdrops lend to what is otherwise a harrowing tale. As the train whistle stops its way through Mexico, the country’s rugged beauty is captured in gorgeous “golden hour” hues by cinematographer Adriano Goldman.

Goldman’s work  reminds me of Nestor Almendros, who did the magnificent photography for Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven. The Texas prairies used as backdrop in Days of Heaven are in the same neck of the woods, and some story elements (like the protagonist’s point of view) are reminiscent of that film as well. Whether or not Malick was a conscious influence on Fukunaga is a moot point, because his film stands on its own. One could have worse influences.

For an unknown cast (many non-professionals), there are an astonishing number of outstanding performances. This adds to the naturalistic, believable tone. My film going companion, a native of Mexico (she’s from Colima), was impressed by that element, and seconded the motion that the milieu was muy autentico. Sin Nombre is another rarity these days-it’s meant to be seen on the big screen.

Flowers of bromance: I Love You, Man ***

By Dennis Hartley

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

Oh, bloody hell…not another Rush tribute band.

Matt Groening once observed: “Sex is funny. The French are a funny people. Then why is it that no French sex comedies are funny?” On the other hand,  Roger Ebert once lamented about “a trend in which Hollywood buys French comedies and experiments on them to see if they can be made into English with all the humor taken out.” I generally concur with both those sentiments, but I think I have found the exception to Groening’s and Ebert’s rules- in the guise of a smart, funny and warm French comedy that has inspired an equally smart, funny and warm American remake.

Okay, so Patrice Leconte’s Mon Meilleur Ami  (my review) was not a “sex” comedy, nor was it a huge hit with critics or audiences (I caught flak from some readers for including it in my Top 10 films list for 2007). I’m not gloating here-but obviously, someone felt Leconte’s film to be worthy of a Hollywood makeover, and the latest vehicle for Paul Rudd.  I Love You, Man is all that (and a large orange soda).

Rudd is Peter Klaven, a  good-natured L.A. real estate agent who has decided to pop the question to his ladylove, Zooey (Rashida Jones). Zooey immediately phones up a bevy of close girlfriends to share the happy news. When she asks her fiancé why he isn’t jumping on the horn to tell all his pals, he mumbles some vague excuse and tries to change the subject. It turns out that while Peter is adept at meeting women, he is more diffident when it comes to interacting with the dudes; he can’t readily cough up a candidate for his Best Man. Someone is going to have to come up with an Action Plan.

Desperate to find a good bud on such short notice, Peter seeks assistance from his gay brother (SNL’s Andy Samberg), who encourages him to go on a few “man dates”. Zooey pitches in. brokering a “poker night” invite for Peter from her best friend’s reluctant husband (a skulking Jon Favreau, hilariously effective here playing a supreme dick weed). Most of these intros and invites end in embarrassment and/or some form of social disaster. Just when all seems lost, a Dude ex Machina arrives in a free-spirited man child named Sydney Fife (Jason Segel). Teach me to dance, Zorba.

In its best moments , I was reminded of Barry Levinson’s Diner, which I consider the granddaddy of all modern “bromantic” comedies, as well as one of the most keenly perceptive observations about male friendship ever put on screen. I think it’s interesting to note that screenwriter Larry Levin (who co-scripted with director John Hamburg) also wrote a classic 2-part Seinfeld episode called “The Boyfriend”, in which Jerry develops a “man crush” on one of the N.Y. Mets (this film could be seen as an extrapolation on that theme).

In its worst moments, the film threatens to lean on that tiresome crutch of cheap gross-out humor that has put me off contemporary “comedies”, but thankfully, the reins are judiciously pulled in (Woody Allen has managed to make tons of funny films over a 40 year period without one scene involving projectile vomiting-so why can’t the current crop of comedy directors take lessons from this?).

Rudd and Segel (who previously teamed up in Forgetting Sarah Marshall) play off each other extremely well, and are obviously developing a solid comedy duo franchise (I think it would be a real kick to see them remake one of the Hope-Crosby “Road” movies-or perhaps that’s just me).

Rudd continues to perfect an onscreen persona as the modern comic Everyman. Segel’s performance recalls Donal Logue’s slovenly yet endearing self-styled hipster saint in The Tao of Steve. Thomas Lennon (best known as “Lieutenant Dangle” from the wonderfully twisted comedy series, Reno 911) is a riot as a love struck stalker (no spoilers, please). Lou Ferrigno (as himself) is an unexpected delight, unveiling some previously hidden comic chops, and air guitar geeks will swoon at the cameo appearance by the Holy Trinity of Canadian prog-rock. And if you have to ask who that is-you ain’t my bro, man!

It started in Naples: Gomorrah ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 7, 2009)

Beach blanket fungoo: Gomorrah.

Here’s the paradox. Gomorrah is one of the most mundane films ever made about organized crime; yet it may be the most truthful onscreen portrayal you will ever see. Eschewing the romanticized glamour of the Warner Brothers’ gangsters, the operatic pulp of Coppola’s mob scene, or the “wise guy” poetry of Scorsese’s mean streets, director Matteo Garonne opts for a neo-realist portrait of opportunism and brutality at its basest level. Modern Naples is the setting; so if you’re looking for the Sopranos…fuhgetaboutit.

The network narrative profiles several Neapolitan characters involved with the criminal organization known as the Camorra (not to be confused with the Sicilian Mafia). There’s a young boy, recruited as a drug runner. He lines up outside of an abandoned building along with other young candidates, who each await their “turn” to audition for a job by donning a Kevlar vest and  taking a bullet in the chest at point blank range. Those who dust themselves off are congratulated for “becoming a man” and then hired.

There’s a tailor, who works both sides against the middle, designing for a mob-controlled clothing factory by day and moonlighting as a consultant for a Chinese-run black market sweat shop. There’s a mob-backed contractor, who makes backroom deals with manufacturing companies to dump toxic waste. And we follow a pair of cocky teenage pals who worship the Al Pacino version of Scarface, and fancy themselves as real up-and-comers in the local underworld.

Six writers are credited (including director Garonne and journalist Roberto Saviano, author of the source book) which suggests  too many cooks peppering the ragu. I have to admit, I had to re-watch the first half of the film almost immediately, because I was having some difficulty differentiating between some of the characters; I also found it a bit murky as to who was “warring” with who, and why.

Perhaps that is the point of the film-that there is no point to the violence; no one ever  “wins” (an eye for an eye eventually makes the whole world blind). I think that the matter-of-fact depiction of violence and avarice was being posited by the filmmakers as a systemic issue, which has been enabled for far too long by the relative complacency of the local populace.

The director post-scripts with a list of statistics that enumerates the body count left in the wake of Camorra’s activities over the years; not just from bombings and shootings, but “collateral damage”- like public health hazards from the illegal toxic waste disposal.

Many are comparing this film with City of God, the popular 2002 Brazilian film about the modern crime-ridden slums of Rio de Janeiro. While it does share a similar milieu, I found it to be a much closer cousin to The Wire (the criminal cultures of the port cities of Baltimore and Naples display many surprising parallels).

Like that HBO crime drama, Gomorrah doesn’t prescribe antidotes to the societal ills that it observes, nor does it try to cloak its narrative in a morality play. It simply presents a cinema verite-style observation on The Way Things Are-the quiet desperation of everyday drudgery, punctuated by  moments of adrenaline-pumping excitement and/or heart-stopping fear (mobsters take their pants off the same way as anyone else). If you prefer tidy endings, be forewarned; for realists, this may be an offer you can’t refuse.

Pay you back with interest: The International ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 21, 2009)

Owen and Watts: Lawyers, guns and money.

Get this. In the Bizarro World of Tom Tykwer’s new conspiracy thriller, The International, people don’t rob banks…. banks rob people. That’s crazy! And if you think that’s weird, check this out: at one point in the film, one of the characters puts forth the proposition that true power belongs to he who controls the debt. Are you swallowing this malarkey? Oh, and it gets even better.

The filmmakers even  suggest that some Third World military coups are seeded by powerful financial groups and directed from shadowy corporate boardrooms. What a fantasy! The next thing you’re gonna tell me is that these same “evil bankers” will devise some nefarious bailout plan that enables them to sustain their self-indulgent standards of high living while the world’s economy collapses-and all at the expense of hard-working taxpayers. Yeah, right.

The (fictional) international bank in question is under relentless investigation by a stalwart Interpol agent (the ever-glum Clive Owen), who is following a trail of shady arms deals all over Europe and the Near East that appear to be linked to the organization.

Whenever anyone gets close to exposing the truth about the bank’s Machiavellian schemes and criminal enterprises, they die under Mysterious Circumstances (alas, it is the karma for all whistle-blowers portrayed by lower-billed actors in a conspiracy thriller). The chase leads to New York, where (for reasons I was not 100% clear on) Owen is teamed up with a Manhattan-based assistant D.A. (Naomi Watts). Complexity ensues, with tastefully-attired Eurotrash assassins lurking behind every silver-tongued bank exec.

Director Tykwer, best-known for his hyper-kinetic cult thriller Run Lola Run, seems at odds with himself. He appears to be paying homage to the smartly-written, Byzantine and deliberately paced political paranoia thrillers of the 1970s, like Three Days of the Condor and Day of the Jackal, yet he also employs structural elements more akin to the logic-defying, action-driven escapades of a James Bond/Jason Bourne adventure (an imaginatively mounted shoot-out in New York’s Guggenheim is  exciting from a purely cinematic standpoint, yet suffers incongruity with the rest of the narrative).

Still, the film involving enough to hold  your attention throughout. It’s far from a classic, but if you are a sucker for the genre (like yours truly), I think you’ll find it  worthwhile. I enjoyed the Bondian travelogue device (it even has the mandatory stop in Istanbul-complete with the requisite foot chase through a crowded bazaar).

Owen and Watts hold your attention (although I would have liked to have seen more screen chemistry between them, and would it kill Clive Owen to crack just a tiny little smile once in a while?) and there is an excellent supporting performance from the frequently underrated German character actor, Armin Mueller-Stahl.

The timing of the film’s release is interesting, in light of the current banking crisis and the plethora of financial scandals. From what I understand, screenwriter Eric Singer (no relation to the drummer from Kiss) based certain elements of the story on the real-life B.C.C.I. scandal. I predict that this will become the ubiquitous new trend in screen villains-the R. Allen Stanfords and Bernie Madoffs seem heaven-sent to replace Middle-Eastern terrorists as the Heavies du Jour for action thrillers. You can take that to the bank.

Welcome to the Hotel Babylonia: Waltz with Bashir ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 7, 2009)

George Carlin had an absolutely brilliant routine concerning his disdain for the rampant use of euphemisms to sugarcoat hard truths. As an example, he traced the metamorphosis of the term “shell shock” throughout the course of 20th century warfare:

There’s a condition in combat. Most people know about it. It’s when a fighting person’s nervous system has been stressed to its absolute peak and maximum. Can’t take anymore input. The nervous system has either (click) snapped or is about to snap.

In the First World War, that condition was called “shell shock”. Simple, honest, direct language. Two syllables, shell shock. Almost sounds like the guns themselves.

That was seventy years ago. Then a whole generation went by and the Second World War came along and the very same combat condition was called “battle fatigue”. Four syllables now. Takes a little longer to say. Doesn’t seem to hurt as much.” Fatigue” is a nicer word than “shock”. (Stridently) “Shell shock!” (Subdued) “Battle fatigue”.

Then we had the war in Korea, 1950. Madison Avenue was riding high by that time, and the very same combat condition was called “operational exhaustion”. Hey, we’re up to eight syllables now! And the humanity has been squeezed completely out of the phrase. It’s totally sterile now. Operational exhaustion. Sounds like something that might happen to your car.

Then of course, came the war in Viet Nam, which has only been over for about sixteen or seventeen years, and thanks to the lies and deceits surrounding that war, I guess it’s no surprise that the very same condition was called “post-traumatic stress disorder”. Still eight syllables, but we’ve added a hyphen! And the pain is completely buried under jargon. Post-traumatic stress disorder.

I’ll bet you if we’d of still been calling it shell shock, some of those Viet Nam veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time. I’ll bet you. I’ll bet you.

A rose by any other name. Whether you want to call it shellshock, battle fatigue, operational exhaustion or PTSD, there’s one thing for certain: unless you are a complete sociopath and really DO love the smell of napalm in the morning…war will fuck you up.

In a new animated feature called Waltz with Bashir, writer-director Ari Forman mixes the hallucinatory expressionism of Apocalypse Now with personal sense memories of his own experiences as an Israeli soldier serving in the 1982 conflict in Lebanon to paint a searing portrait of the horrors of war and its devastating psychic aftermath. A true visual wonder, the film is comprised of equal parts documentary, war diary and bad acid trip.

The film opens with an unsettling sequence of a terrified young man being relentlessly pursued by a pack of raging, snarling hell-hounds, nipping at his heels as he flees through a war-torn urban landscape. This turns out to be the visualization of a recurring nightmare that haunts one of the director’s fellow war vets. While lending a sympathetic ear to his pal as he props up the bar and continues to recount his psychic trauma, Forman has a sudden and disturbing epiphany: his own recollections of his tour of duty in Lebanon are nowhere near as vivid; in fact they are virtually non-existent.

This leads Forman on a personal journey to unlock the key to this selective amnesia. He confides in a psychiatrist friend, who urges him to seek out and interview as many of his fellow vets as he can. Perhaps, by listening to their personal stories, he will ultimately unblock his own.

The answer may lie in the possibility that he had a ringside seat to the horrific Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacres, in which a large number of Palestinian non-combatants (including women and children) were rounded up and summarily executed by members of the Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia while Israeli Defense Force troops stood by. What follows is an affecting rumination on repressed memory, circumstantial complicity and collective guilt.

The director generally steers clear of heavy-handed polemics; this is more of a “soldier’s story”, a universal grunt’s-eye view of the confusion and madness of war, in which none are really to blame, yet all remain complicit. This eternal dichotomy, I think, lies at the heart of the matter in trying to understand what it is that snaps inside the mind of the walking wounded (or “shell-shocked”, if you will).

How do we help them? How do we help them help themselves? With the recent distressing news about the ever-escalating suicide rates of our own American Afghanistan/Iraq war veterans, I think these questions are more important than ever, for a whole new generation of psychically damaged young men and women. In the meantime let’s continue to hope for a day when the very concept of war itself has become but a “repressed memory” for the entire planet.

The whole Bolivian army: Che ***

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

-from Network (by Paddy Chayefsky)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greetings from Asbury Park: The Wrestler ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

I witnessed something you don’t see very often on TV, on  last Sunday’s 2008 Golden Globes Awards. Sincerity. Mickey Rourke took to the stage to accept his statue for his performance in The Wrestler, and delivered one of the most heartfelt monologues never penned by a screenwriter (i.e., it was  sans the usual mawkish Hollywood bullshit that you usually hear on an awards show).

The parallels between Rourke’s real-life redemption story and that of the character he plays in the film  hit me like a freight train running through the middle of my head, and I felt a lump in my throat. “Jesus H.,” I told myself, “…it’s only a stupid awards show,” but by the time Rourke proffered “Sometimes when you’re alone…all you got is your dog,” and then thanked all of his pooches (past and present) I was done for. I haven’t cried like that since  I saw Old Yeller.

It’s funny. As the lights went down in the theater at the screening of the film I had attended the night before, I had no clue that Bruce Springsteen had penned an original tune for The Wrestler (it isn’t heard  until the closing credits). Yet, from the first moment Mickey Rourke shambled onscreen as the fading, world-weary wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson, I thought to myself, “This guy just walked right out of a Bruce Springsteen song!” More specifically:

 I had skin like leather and the diamond-hard look of a cobra

I was born blue and weathered but I burst just like a supernova

I could walk like Brando right into the sun

Then dance just like a Casanova

Rourke walks like Brando right into the kliegs and gives the performance of a lifetime in director Darren Aronofsky’s grim and gritty character study (scripted by Robert D. Siegel). When I say “grim and gritty”, I’m not kidding. This film ain’t exactly a day at the beach, or even a quick stroll out on the boardwalk to grab a knish.

“The Ram” is a semi-retired, down-on-his-luck pro wrestler, reduced to co-billing at the odd exhibition match or autograph-signing down at the Legion Hall. He lives alone in a trailer park, where he occasionally gets locked out for coming up short on the rent.

Still, he remains amiable and gracious; whether playing the “gentle giant” clowning around with neighborhood ki, or offering backstage advice and encouragement to young wrestlers. Nonetheless, his pained, ravaged road map of a face can’t hide an undercurrent of quiet desperation. After a health scare puts the kibosh on plans for a career comeback, he comes face-to-face with his mortality.

He reaches out to a stripper, with whom he has been hoping to develop a personal relationship (Marisa Tomei, in a wonderful performance). She is quite fond of him, but keeps a professional distance (she doesn’t date “customers”). She encourages him to re-establish a relationship with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), which may be his toughest match-up yet.

There are really two films here. One is a fascinating, realistic backstage glimpse at pro wrestling; the camaraderie, the carefully orchestrated stagecraft, its kitschy cult of personality and the peculiarly devoted fans who fuel it.  Even though it’s common knowledge that most of the violence is “faked” in this sport, Aronofsky and his technical crew really make you feel Rourke’s “pain” in these fictional matches, particularly when he comes up against a competitor who peppers his upper torso with a staple gun.

The documentary-like feel is undoubtedly due to the fact that the cinematographer, Maryse Alberti, has been the DP for a number of documentaries (Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson, Taxi to the Dark Side, and most notably, When We Were Kings).

The second narrative centers on the rekindling of the father-daughter relationship. This part of the story is more boilerplate; but clichés  are overshadowed by the outstanding performances.  Aronofsky has previously shown a propensity for style over substance; I have to credit him  for reining in that tendency this time out and allowing his actors to stretch and breathe  (I thought his junkie-chic drama Requiem for a Dream  was the most pretentious, overrated and unpleasant film in recent memory. I forgive him now).

Sensitive viewers  be aware that there are many squirm-inducing moments; while Aronofsky has toned his visceral, “in-your-face” tendencies down a notch or two, some of the mayhem portrayed in the wrestling matches is still potentially upsetting. Those caveats aside, I would recommend this film to strangers. It’s that good (I’m sure Mickey would appreciate the support). Then again, you could save the $10, and instead enjoy a quiet night at home with your dog.

I think Mickey would be cool with that plan, too.

The Tao of duct tape: Gran Torino ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 10, 2009)

Which one of you punks knocked over my John McCain sign?!

Clint Eastwood certainly knows his core audience. Just when you thought that he had ceded his screen persona as one of the iconic tough guys for the more respectable mantle of a sage lion who makes prestige films, Clint Classic is back with a vengeance in Gran Torino, armed with an M-1, a cherry 1970s muscle car and a handy catchphrase (“Get off my lawn!”).

Oh, don’t panic- Clint the Sage Director is still at the helm, and Clint the Actor is smart enough to keep it real and “play his age”. This isn’t Dirty Harry with a walker; it’s more like The Visitor…with an attitude. There’s also a Socially Relevant Message, an Important Theme, and even Redemption (if you’re into that sort of thing).

Look in the dictionary under “cantankerous”, and you’ll see a picture of Walt Kowalski (wait a minute-a 1970s muscle car and a protagonist named Kowalski…Vanishing Point reference?) Kowalski (Eastwood) is a retired Michigan auto worker and Korean War vet who has recently buried his wife, and along with her, any remaining semblance of social grace or desire for human interaction.

When he is not spurning “sympathy visits” from his adult son (Brian Haley) or his late wife’s priest (Christopher Carley) he skulks about his Highland Park house, quaffing beers whilst scowling and grousing to himself about the Southeast Asians moving into “his” neighborhood. He is particularly chagrined about the Hmong family next door; the terms that Kowalski uses to describe them are derogatory racist epithets, which I am loathe to repeat here.

He doesn’t mince words when he reacts to his son and daughter-in-law’s attempts to pump him for his thoughts on estate planning, nor when the tenacious young priest begins sniffing around for dibs on his soul; he informs all the circling vultures that he would prefer they fuck off so he can return to puttering around the house, muttering to himself and fussing over his beloved ’72 Gran Torino.

Kowalski’s mistrust of his neighbors appears to be justified when he surprises a prowler in his garage, and it turns out to be Thao (Bee Vang) the teenage boy from the Hmong family next door. Initially unbeknownst to Kowalski, the otherwise straight-arrow Thao has been pressured by his n’er do well older cousin, a Hmong youth gang leader, into attempting to steal the Gran Torino as an initiation rite.

After Kowalski inadvertently saves Thao from the gang’s retaliation by chasing them off his property with his trusty service rifle (insert catch phrase here) his porch is festooned daily by an unwanted barrage of gifts, food and flowers, which is the Hmong family’s way of informing him that they are forever indebted for his act of “kindness” (to Kowalski’s abject horror).

In further keeping with cultural tradition, Thao is ordered by the family elders to make amends for the attempted theft by offering his services to Kowalski as a handyman for the summer. Thanks to some cultural bridging and good will on the part of Thao’s sister (Ahney Her), Kowalski slowly warms to the family and becomes a father figure/mentor to Thao, teaching him how to “stand his ground” while still retaining a sense of responsibility for his actions.

There is a bit of a “wax on, wax off” vibe that recalls The Karate Kid, but screenwriter Nick Schenk (who adapted from a story he developed with Dave Johannson) delves deeper into the heart of darkness with his variation on the theme. Whereas the aforementioned film was about overcoming the fear of failure, Gran Torino deals with a veritable litany of primal fears, namely fear of The Other, fear of death, and the fear of losing one’s soul.

There is still a surprising amount of levity in Schenk’s screenplay, allowing Eastwood can stretch his proclivity (as an actor) for deadpan comedy. One scene in particular that stands out in this regard involves a parting of wisdom positing that any logistical hurdle you may encounter in your journey can be defeated with a “…pair of Vise-Grips, a roll of duct tape and some WD-40.”

The film’s only flaw (and this could be a major distraction for some) is the casting of non-professional actors in most of the Hmong roles. For secondary or background characters, this is not so much of an issue, but concerning two more prominent (and very crucial) roles, I did find some of the amateurish line deliveries to be a distraction.

Eastwood’s direction is assured, but I think the main reason to see this film is for his work in front of the camera; I would consider this one of his career-best performances and certainly his most well fleshed-out characterization since Unforgiven. All I know is-I should be so lucky to be as convincing as a bad-ass when I’m pushing 80.

Earsplittenloudenboomer: Valkyrie **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

A patchy uprising: Tom Cruise in Valkyrie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

Money speaks for money, the Devil for his own

Who comes to speak for the skin and bone?

 -Billy Bragg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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