Tag Archives: 2011 Reviews

A shoeshine for your soul: Le Havre ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 12, 2011)


W.C. Fields once cautioned “Never work with children or animals.” I suppose you could say that Aki Kaurismaki has completely thrown caution to the wind with his new film. In Le Havre, the latest in a long line of deadpan character studies, the Finnish director weaves a deceptively simple tale about an elderly French author named Marcel (Andre Wilms) who is taking an open-ended hiatus from writing, opting instead to make a less-than-modest living shining shoes in the picturesque port town of Le Havre.

In a dryly amusing opening, Marcel andfellow shoe-shiner Chang (Quoc Dung Nguyen) stand impassively at a busy metro station, wistfully tracking the parade of shoes worn by passers-by, not unlike a dog who sits by the dinner table with infinite patience, fixing a Mesmer stare on your fork as if willing a morsel to fall its way.

Hell of a way to make a living, but it seems to suit Marcel just fine. He revels in the easygoing camaraderie among the inhabitants of his almost Utopian neighborhood, and is perfectly happy to come home to his wife Arletty (Kati Outinen) and his dog Laika (played by the director’s own pooch) to drink a little wine and enjoy a simple meal.

One day, as he is lunching down by a pier, he is startled by a commotion of police, who seem to be looking for somebody. While the police are still poking around, Marcel spots a young boy (Blondin Miguel), half-submerged in the water and obviously frightened out of his wits. Marcel quickly puts two and two together, but keeps a poker face until the police have left the area. He offers the boy food, and, as they say in the movies, it’s the start of a beautiful friendship.

The remainder of the narrative deals with Marcel’s efforts to reunite the boy (a Senegalese refugee who was smuggled into Le Havre in a shipping container) with his mother, an illegal immigrant living in London. As he keeps one eye on a highly suspicious police inspector (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) Marcel is aided by fellow villagers, who pull together to form an underground railroad, of sorts.

Although the story is set in contemporary times, the film reminded me of Jean-Pierre Melville’s WW2 French Resistance tale, Army of Shadows. There are parallel themes of loyalty, selflessness and the kind of collective idealism that seems to belong to a bygone era. Stylistically, however, Kaurismaki and Melville could not be any different. To say that Kaurismaki likes to populate his films with quirky characters is an understatement.

For instance, I’d love to know where he found Roberto Piazza, as “Little Bob”, a musician who Marcel recruits to perform a makeshift benefit concert. To look at this odd little gentleman, you’d never dream that he could rock out the way he does once he’s onstage (it’s like the first time you saw Andy Kaufman “become” Elvis). Little Bob also gets the best line  (“She’s like the road manager of my soul.”).

If you are not familiar with Kaurismaki’s oeuvre, this might not be your best introduction (for that, I would direct you to his wonderful 2002 film, The Man without a Past). Jim Jarmusch absolutely worships Kaurismaki; they definitely share the same sense of humor, as well as the same sense of, er, pacing…if that helps. You’re not going to see a lot of car chases, okay? And if you can settle in with this tale’s unhurried rhythms, you might just catch the compassion and humanity at its core. Think of it as a shoeshine for your soul.

…and for your dining and dancing pleasure, here’s Little Bob:

Hard driver – Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 12, 2011)


Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview is just that; it is literally “found footage” discovered in director Paul Sen’s garage at his London home. The interview runs about 70 minutes; only 10 minutes of the footage ended up being used for the original miniseries presentation. It may be a bit dubious to label this as a “documentary” when you consider that a) the tape was found last month, which allows scant time for post-production (it shows), and b) it is basically just a VHS dub of an unedited interview that was conducted in 1995 by Robert Cringely for Sen’s 1996 PBS miniseries called Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise and Fall of Accidental Empires. In other words, don’t expect a slick production (although…the press screener I viewed was subtitled “rough cut” so it’s possible the version in theaters will be polished up). That being said, as an historical document, it’s a doozey.

Famously, Jobs had a tendency to shun in-depth interviews (perhaps due to some, oh, I don’t know, control issues?) which is what makes this piece so riveting. He’s relaxed and quite candid throughout; it’s obvious that he trusted Cringely. The whole of Jobs’ dichotomy is laid out right there in that 70 minute conversation-the charisma, the vision, the shrewd intelligence -as well as the ego, the arrogance and the snarkiness. Jobs is also frequently quite funny (which I didn’t expect), especially when he’s ripping Bill Gates a new asshole with a few choice comments (“The only problem with Microsoft is that they just have no taste.”). He’s also a master of the Double Putdown, chasing his zingers with “…and I don’t mean that in a small way.”

To be honest, I’ve always been somewhat immune to the Cult of Steve Jobs. While I certainly understand and appreciate the game-changing nature of his innovations, I’ve never owned an iMac or an iPod or an iPad. But I have to say, this film was a real iOpener for me. I think I “get it” now. Oh, Bill? You can have your ring back…

Wasted wonderland: A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas 3-D ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 12, 2011)


I’ve decided not to bury the lead in my review of A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas 3-D. So let’s get all of this out of the way first, shall we? Stereotypes about Asians, Ukrainians, Latinos, African-Americans, Jews and the GLBT community abound. Santa Claus gets shot in the face. A baby ingests pot, coke and Ecstasy. Marijuana is celebrated for its recreational attributes. In a twisted homage to A Christmas Story, someone’s penis is stuck to frozen tree bark. And yet, there’s something so…good-natured about it all. And, I enjoyed the most belly laughs that I have had at a film so far this year. Sue me.

Back in 2004, a modestly budgeted stoner comedy, sporting a sophomoric title and starring two young unknowns, became an unexpected cult hit. Perhaps arguably, the most surprising thing about Harold and Kumar go to White Castle was that, sandwiched somewhere between the bong hits and assorted scatological references was an undercurrent of sharp socio-political commentary about racial stereotyping in America (for the uninitiated, Harold and Kumar are played by a Korean-American and Indian-American actor, respectively).

The film’s co-creators, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, officially turned their baked heroes into a sort of Cheech and Chong franchise for Gen Y with the 2008 sequel, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (my review).  Like its predecessor, it was crass and vulgar, yet still riotously funny (and oddly endearing, in a South Park kind of way). So, has the magic been recaptured in this latest installment?

I suppose that would depend on a little game of word association. If I say “Magic!”, and your immediate rejoinder is “Mushrooms!”, then I’d say you’ll probably enjoy the ride. The rest of you are strongly cautioned. For those in the latter group, I probably at least owe you a brief synopsis; the former already know that it’s not so much about the plot, as it is about the pot.

In the six years since their last misadventure, Harold (John Cho) has not only stepped away from the bong, but veered in the direction of responsible adulthood. He’s happily married, with a house in the ‘burbs and a Wall Street gig. In the meantime, Kumar (Kal Penn, who resigned from his White House position as Associate Director of Public Engagement to work on this film) has been on an opposite trajectory. He’s dropped out of med school, his girlfriend has left him, and he’s self-medicating with ganja (it gets funnier…seriously).

Kumar shows up on Harold’s doorstep Christmas week, and to make a short story even shorter, comic mayhem ensues. The duo (who have drifted apart) are reunited by necessity, scrambling to find a replacement before Harold’s father-in-law (a funny-scary Danny Trejo) discovers that his prized, personally-cultivated Christmas tree has gone up in flames (don’t ask). And yes, Neil Patrick Harris is back again for his third, erm, outing.

Hurwitz and Schlossberg co-wrote, but this time they’ve turned the helming chores over to Todd Strauss Schulson. This is the feature film debut for Schulson, who previously directed music videos and a handful of TV movies. I hope I’m not damning him with faint praise by saying that he has rendered the most visually creative Harold and Kumar entry yet, particularly with the clever use of 3-D. In fact, I think he has used it much more effectively here than Cameron did in Avatar. Go ahead…ask (“Are you high?!”). Maybe.

St. Elmo’s pyre: I Melt With You (no stars)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 17, 2011)


Time-he flexes like a whore

Falls wanking to the floor

His trick is you and me, boy

-David Bowie

 It had to happen. Hey, it happens to all of us, if we live long enough. Remember the Brat Pack? It is currently their turn. Molly Ringwald could very well be having one as we speak. James Spader? I’m sure he’s had his, by now. Charlie Sheen? No question there. Oh yeah, I think you know what I’m talking about…the Midlife Meltdown. And, in all sincerity, I do hope that the rest of Generation X is weathering that storm with considerably more élan than the four not-so-gracefully aging protagonists at the heart of Mark Pellington’s navel-gazing, plug and play Sundance-y whingefest, I Melt With You.

Co-produced by Brat Pack chairman Rob Lowe and sporting a (mostly) 80s soundtrack that could have been hand-picked by John Hughes in Heaven, the film bears more than a passing resemblance to Blake Edwards’ S.O.B. (sans the laughs) and teeters precipitously between a Janovian therapy session, an AA meeting and an acting contest. Ready to play? Excellent. First, let’s meet our contestants.

Say hello to Jonathan (Lowe). He’s a self-loathing doctor, divorced father of one and a firm believer in getting high on your own supply. Please welcome Richard (Thomas Jane). He is a self-loathing English teacher, a failed writer (is that redundant?) and a lady-killer with a deep fear of commitment, who still parties like he’s 18.

And over here we have the “responsible” member of our team, Ron (Jeremy Piven). He is a self-loathing Wall Streeter who is financially successful, has a wife and kids, and has been recently experiencing  anxiety attacks about a pending federal investigation of his investment firm . Finally, say “hey” to Tim (Christian McKay). He is the “sensitive guy”. He is of indeterminate career path and sexual orientation, but the one thing we’re certain of…he’s self-loathing.

The four have been pals since they were teenagers, and have stalwartly adhered to the tradition of an annual get-together since college graduation back in the mid-80s. “Get-together” is actually more of an operative term here; not too long after all four have converged at their rented Northern California beach house, it becomes evident that “bromantic bacchanal” might be a more apt descriptive.

Our tipoff comes as soon as the doctor arrives, with an MD bag full of pharmaceutical goodies that would make Hunter Thompson break into a cold sweat. In fact, the guys dive into this heady cornucopia with such hasty and reckless abandon that you’re not sure if the inspiration here was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas…or Leaving Las Vegas. But you know, boys will be boys, right?

And the director proceeds to pound that point home again and again, whilst setting out to show the French what a montage is all about. Music cue! Here we are, totally wasted, slam dancing to the D.K.’s! New music cue! Here we are, still totally wasted the next morning, nude body surfing while the Clash sing (wait for it) “Charlie Don’t Surf”! New music cue! Let’s roll down the sand dunes in a whimsical fashion to the strains of Adam Ant!

But as anyone who has been on a bender can tell you (or anyone who can read the title cards that helpfully offer “Day 1”, “Day 2”, etc.), at some point, you’ve gotta start coming down. That’s when the confessionals start. That’s when the conversation turns from “Dude! Remember that time that we…?” to “God, my life is shit!” It’s OK though, because dude, my life is shit, too. Let’s hug. “I love you, man”. I love you too, man (sob).

After a (very) long hour of such antics, the story takes an abrupt 180. Because you know what “they” say: It’s all fun and games, until someone loses an eye. Well, no one literally loses an eye, but one of our heroes (I’m not going to say who) goes a little “funny” in the head. You know what I mean, Dmitri? Anyway, he goes a little “funny”, and so he goes and does a silly thing. I can’t tell you exactly what he does, because that would be a spoiler.

Let’s just say that his actions serve to stir up a Dark Secret from the Past (you’ve seen one of these in a flick before, right?) that involves all four of the friends. There’s something about a magic ring, and the end of the world, but I can say no more, bon ami.

About this “180” in the second half. It’s tricksy and false. It is such a preposterous turn of events as to stagger belief (even within the parameters of an artistic medium in which the suspension of disbelief by the viewer is expected), and it stops the film dead in its tracks. Alas, nothing can save the movie once it has turned down this path; not even the formidable power of Carla Gugino’s amazing bee-stung lips (she plays the local sheriff, if it matters to you).

I can’t fault the cast; they are all fine actors, generally speaking. It’s just that I can’t decide which is more heavy-handed; Pellington’s direction or Glen Porter’s screenplay (I imagine it sounded like someone building a shed as he was banging it out).

The sole thing that kept me going through the last act was the anticipation of hearing the jangly power pop strains of Modern English wafting through the air…and it never happened. No “Making love to you was never second best.”? No “hmm hmm hmm” sing-along?! Perhaps it would have been more apropos if Pellington had named his film after the Sex Pistols song he uses over both the opening and end credits:

“Pretty Vacant”.

A (not so) clear-cut case: If a Tree Falls ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 23, 2011)


In the mid-90s, I worked at a Honeybaked Ham store in the Seattle area (don’t ask). Normally, I wouldn’t bring that up, but…funny story. Well, not “ha-ha” funny, but it does tie in with this week’s review.

Because you see, that was when I had my personal brush with “eco-terrorism”. I came to work one day, and espied a couple of Redmond’s finest standing outside the store, talking to the manager. Then I noticed  interesting new artwork adorning the windows, writ large in dried ketchup and barbecue sauce: MEAT IS MURDER! It was signed “E.L.F.”.  Apparently, several other restaurants down the street had also been hit (McDonald’s had had their locks glued shut).

So, as I was scrubbing to remove the graffiti, I wondered “Who is this ‘ELF’ …a disgruntled Keebler employee?” I had never heard of the Earth Liberation Front. I remember the manager saying “How much you want to bet this guy fled the scene in  leather Nikes?” “Yeah,” I snickered, whilst contemplating the dried globs of Heinz 57 on my sponge “these suburban anarchists aren’t exactly the Baader-Meinhof Gang, are they?” (I can’t say that I felt “terrorized”).

Flash forward to 2001. I turned on the local news one night, and saw the UW Center for Urban Horticulture engulfed in flames ($7 million in damage). The arson was attributed to the E.L.F. “Hmm,” I pondered, “maybe they are sort of like the Baader-Meinhof Gang, ”

Or are they? According to the FBI, “Eco-terrorism” is defined as:

The use (or threatened use) of violence of a criminal nature against people or property by an environmentally oriented, sub-national group for environmental-political reasons, or aimed at an audience beyond the target, often of a symbolic nature.

That certainly covers a lot of ground. One could argue that Johnny Appleseed was an Eco-terrorist. Sure, he’s a legendary conservationist and agrarian icon. However, he was against grafting, which resulted in a fruit more suitable for hard cider than for eating. Hence, the “environmentally-oriented”  Appleseed was “responsible” for introducing alcohol to the frontier. And it’s inarguable that much “violence of a criminal nature against people or property” is committed under the influence. OK, that’s a stretch .

Then again, there are a number of “environmentally-oriented” types doing a “a stretch” in the federal pen right now for non-lethal actions that the government considers terrorism, and that others consider heroic. This is not a black and white issue; a point not lost on the directors of If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front.

So what type of circumstance can change a nature lover into a freedom fighter? Anyone can make a statement by holding up a sign or throwing on a “Save the Rainforest” t-shirt, but what motivates someone who decides to take it to the next level-throwing on a Ninja outfit and torching a lumber mill in the middle of the night? And what would they hope to achieve? Wouldn’t that just encourage corporations to cut down even more trees to replace lost inventory?

In order to convey a sense of the humanity behind the mug shots, co-directors Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman focus primarily on Earth Liberation Front member Daniel McGowan, who at the time of filming was facing a possible life sentence for his direct involvement in several high-profile “actions” (including the arson of an Oregon lumber mill) that resulted in millions of dollars in property damage. Holed up in his sister’s NYC apartment (and sporting a house arrest anklet for the first third of the film), McGowan candidly opens up about his life and what led him to change his own M.O. for making a statement from “environmental activism” to “domestic terrorism”.

The filmmakers parallel the timeline and details of McGowan’s personal journey with a study about the development of the E.L.F., adding present day interviews with  his cohorts and archival footage of some of the group’s early “actions” (which were more in the realm of civil disobedience and passive resistance-like sitting in the path of bulldozers and camping out in old-growth trees marked for cutting). McGowan initially became involved with the environmental movement through “mainstream” activities, like “writing hundreds of letters” of protest and participating in peaceful demonstrations.

McGowan became frustrated with what he perceived to be the ineffectiveness of such actions. He sums it up with a rhetorical question: “When you’re screaming at the top of your lungs, and nobody hears you, what are you supposed to do?”

The tipping point for McGowan came in 1999, when he participated in the WTO protests in Seattle. There, through some of the more radicalized E.L.F. members, he became embedded with the relatively small band of black-clad “anarchists” who were disproportionately responsible for most of the property damage that occurred during the demonstrations (the majority of participants made a point after the fact to disassociate themselves from the anarchists).

From there, it was a relatively small jump to the more extreme acts that would lead to his eventual arrest and prosecution (he agreed to a “non-cooperation” plea deal that saved him from life in prison but still saddled him with 7 years and a “terrorism enhancement”).

The filmmakers give equal screen time to some of the law enforcement officials and prosecutors who made the case against McGowan and his associates. Although no one was ever injured or killed as a result of E.L.F. activity (astounding considering that there were approximately 1,200 “actions” perpetrated by the group during their heyday), there are still victims; and some of them appear on camera as well to offer their perspective.

Were these people “terrorists”? You almost have to get back to defining “what is a terrorist?” Or in this case, who are the real terrorists? One interviewee offers this: “95% of the native American forests have been cut down. Trying to save the remaining 5% is ‘radical’?” That’s a valid question. McGowan himself seems to be arguing (in so many words) that in a post 9-11 world, people have a tendency to make a “rush to judgment” without considering the alternate point of view (he suggests that the word “terrorist” has supplanted “Communist” as the demagogue’s dog whistle of choice).

I wonder if the filmmakers intend McGowan’s story to be a litmus test for the viewer (how far out on the limb would you be willing to go for your personal convictions?) If so, that’s a tough one. Part of me identifies with Daniel McGowan the environmentally-conscious idealist; but I don’t think I can quite get behind Daniel McGowan the criminal arsonist. For now, I’m just content to keep recycling and doing my part to think “glocal”. And in case you’re wondering…I haven’t stepped foot inside a Honeybaked Ham store since I quit working there 14 years ago. Those murderous bastards.

Lovelorn, non-smoking Huguenot seeks same: The Princess of Montpensier **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 14, 2011)


Oh, royal houses of Europe…how I adore you. My sexy Saxe-Coburgs, my beloved Bourbons, Bonapartes and Burgundys; my saucy Tudors, Windsors and Romanovs; and I want to give a shout-out to any of you sassy Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Gluksburgs who may be in da house tonight. How much I love and admire your pomp, your pageantry…and your colorful, endearingly filthy, ever-subservient peasantry. And your rich history-so rife with war, intrigue, and refreshingly unapologetic in-breeding (*sigh*).

For the purposes of this review, we zero in on the French duchies of Guise and Montpensier. In 1570s France, things aren’t going so well on the religious front. Catholics and Huguenots are slaughtering each other like cattle over New Testament bragging rights. This is the backdrop for The Princess of Montpensier, a well-acted and handsomely mounted (but curiously detached) bodice-ripping costume drama from Bertrand Tavernier (‘Round Midnight).

The tale (adapted from Madame de La Fayette’s 17th century short story by Jean Cosmos, Francois-Olivier Rosseau and the director) centers around a fetching young aristocrat named Marie de Mezrieres (Melanie Thierry). Marie has a breathless, Harlequin romance crush on dashing war hero Duke Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel)-and the feeling’s mutual (if yet to be  consummated).

Alas, there is a major roadblock straight up ahead for the two lovebirds. Marie’s ambitious father, the Marquis de Mezrieres (Phillipe Magnan) has struck a mutually beneficial backroom deal with the Duke de Montpensier (Michel Vuillermoz) to marry her off with the Duke’s son, the Prince of Montpensier (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet)-who also happens to be the cousin of Marie’s beloved Henri (following all this so far?).

The Prince and his cousin have been friendly rivals since childhood; but now the hot-headed Henri is seething with resentment about the Prince’s pending marriage to Marie. However, since he shares his cousin’s soldierly sense of duty to wipe out the heretical usurpers, Henri puts Jealousy and Envy on the back burner and channels all that hostility into ministering their common cause (i.e. disemboweling Protestants on the battlefield).

In the meantime, Marie receives sage advice from her mother, the Marquise (Florence Thomassin) to essentially do the same; put the romantic stirrings for Henri aside and focus on her “duty” (i.e. happily submit and learn to love the Prince-like him or no). After an awkward, decidedly un-sexy wedding night, with parents and in-laws holding vigil just outside the doors of the boudoir and then studiously examining the soiled bed sheets immediately afterwards to confirm consummation, the two eventually develop a cautious affection for one another (the Prince more so than his wife).

Of course, Marie and Henri are still struggling with their smoldering desire to jump each other’s bones. Luckily, Marie soon finds a distraction-in the form of a middle-aged gentleman named Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), who is also the most interesting and complex character in the film. Chabannes, a seasoned soldier and an intellectual, is the Prince’s long-time friend and mentor, who not only schooled the younger man in the art of swordplay, but in the sciences, arts and letters as well.

Chabannes also happens to be a Huguenot-but has declared himself a political neutral in the current conflict, hanging up his scabbard in disgust after having had his fill of wanton killing in the name of God. Eager to groom his Princess for her debut before the Royal Court in Paris, the Prince arranges for Chabannes to tutor her while he is off to war. Before he knows it, the tutor finds himself falling in (unrequited) love with his student.

Tavernier’s effort strongly recalls two films-John Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) and Patrice Chereau’s Queen Margot (1994). The former, adapted from Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel, is set in England, during the much later Victorian age, but features a heroine (portrayed by Julie Christie) who, like the Princess Marie, is headstrong, intelligent and beautiful, and likewise becomes a crazy-making object of desire for three men with disparate personalities (an arrogant young soldier, a wealthy, lovelorn middle-aged landowner and a poor farmer with a heart of gold).

The latter film is quite similar in theme to Tavernier’s on several levels; again featuring a strong female protagonist (Isabelle Adjani, as the sister of France’s King Charles IX) who is forced into an arranged marriage that separates her from her true love and plunges her into the midst of royal intrigue. Chereau’s film is also set against the backdrop of the Catholic-Huguenot wars (both films also re-enact the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre).

Unfortunately, The Princess of Montpensier lacks the spark and passion of the aforementioned films . Tavernier gets the period detail right, and his film is gorgeous to look at (thanks to DP Bruno de Keyzer), but something is missing. I don’t fault the cast; it’s the characters’ motivations that elude us. There’s detachment here; it’s like watching ornately carved pieces shuffled about on a chessboard. The film is not unlike Marie herself-an obscure object of desire at once enticingly beautiful and frustratingly unreachable.

The Haole and the IV: The Descendents ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 26, 2011)


In the course of (what passes for) my “career” as a movie critic, I have avowed to avoid the trite phrase “heartwarming family film”. Well, so much for principles. The Descendants is a heartwarming family film. There, I said it. Now, let me qualify that. Since it is directed by Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways) it is a heartwarming family film riddled with dysfunction and middle-aged angst (which is how I prefer my heartwarming family films, thank you very much). Think of it as Terms of Endearment goes Hawaiian.

Despite the lush and verdant setting, Payne wastes no time hinting that there is trouble in Paradise. People who live in Hawaii get cancer, feel pain and encounter their own fair share of potholes as they caterwaul down the road of life, like anyone else. That is the gist of an internal monologue, delivered by Matt King (George Clooney), as he holds vigil in an ICU, where his wife (Patricia Hastie) lies in a coma, gravely injured from a water-skiing mishap. As he contemplates the maze of IV tubes and such keeping his wife alive, Matt, like anyone staring into the Abyss, begins taking inventory of his life up to now.

After all, what family doesn’t have its ups and downs? On the “up” side, Matt is financially set for life, as an heir to and executor for a sizable chunk of prime, undeveloped land on Kauai, held in a family trust (thanks to genuine Hawaiian royalty buried in the woodpile a ways back). On the “down” side, his workaholic nature has precipitated emotional distance from his wife and two daughters. His 17-year old, the sullen and combative Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) is at boarding school; and precocious 10-year old Scottie (Amara Miller) is in hot water for antics like cyber-bullying a classmate, and bringing disturbing photos of her comatose mother to school.

In the past, Matt’s wife has served as the buffer between him and the day-to-day daughterly drama, but now that she is incapacitated, it’s all landed in his lap. He may be a respected pillar of the community, but now finds himself akin to the proverbial deer in the headlights. After awkwardly putting out Scottie’s fires, Matt decides that he will need to enlist the assistance of her older sister for riot control.

Besides, he figures it would be best to keep both of his girls close by, should the worst happen. As if this weren’t enough on his plate, Matt is also up against a pending deadline to sell the family’s land to a real estate developer. He is being egged on by a sizable coterie of cousins who (a couple anti-development dissenters aside) are eager to milk this potential cash cow for all its worth.

Then, the bombshell lands. The bombardiers are his daughters, who let it slip that, completely unbeknownst to Dad, Mom had been getting a little action on the side with a younger man (Matthew Lillard). And he’s a real estate agent, no less (shades of American Beauty). Poor Matt. He’s no sooner steeled himself for the looming possibility of becoming a grieving widower who must stay strong for his kids, but instead finds himself cast as a blindsided cuckold.

Flummoxed, Matt demands confirmation from his wife’s friends, who fess up. Although he has no real idea what he wants to say (or do) to him, Matt nonetheless decides that he must track down his wife’s lover (it’s a guy thing). With Scottie, Alexandra and her boyfriend (Nick Krause) in tow, he embarks on the patented Alexander Payne Road Trip, which in this case involves hopping a quick flight to Kauai.

While the setup may feel somewhat familiar (like the aforementioned American Beauty meets Little Miss Sunshine), or even rote, in Payne’s hands it is anything but. Yes, on one level it’s another soaper about a middle-aged male heading for a meltdown, but every time you think you’ve got it sussed, Payne keeps pitching curve balls.

His script (which he co-adapted with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings) consistently hits the sweet spot between comedy and drama, giving us characters who, in spite of (or perhaps, due to) their contradictions and flaws, are people to whom we can all easily relate to. The film also showcases Clooney’s best work in years; it’s the closest he has come thus far to proving that he may indeed be this generation’s Cary Grant, after all.

This is one of the first  knockouts on the autumn release calendar, and one of the best films I’ve seen this year. There are many reasons to recommend it, not the least of which is a bevy of fine performances from the entire cast. Lillard shows surprising depth, and it’s a hoot to watch veteran character actors like Robert Forster and Beau Bridges doing that voodoo that they do so well. I also like the way Payne subtly utilizes the Hawaiian landscapes like another character in the story, much in the same manner he employed the California wine country milieu in Sideways. After all, it is only when human beings are set against the simple perfection of an orchid (or a grape) that we are truly exposed as the silly, needlessly self-absorbed and ultimately inconsequential creatures that we really are.

Nutted by reality: The Adjustment Bureau **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  March 5, 2011)


Do to others as you would have them do to you

Luke 6:31

 Do what thou wilt

Aleister Crowley

 Doo-be- doo-be-do

Frank Sinatra

There is a  contemporary film sub-genre that I like to call Guys with Fedoras. A Guys with Fedoras film is usually sub-headed under (although not necessarily restricted to) science fiction films. Think along the lines of Dark City, The Matrix, or A Beautiful Mind. When the Guys with Fedoras show up, you just know that the the rug is about to pulled out from under someone’s feet, and anything could happen.

Up is down, down is up. These guys are the reality benders, the cerebral copulators, the puppet masters. They may very well be the nebulous “they” who are so often referenced hose in the throes of delusional paranoia (or fervent prayer-in which case “they” may be referred to as “angels” or “demons” ). That is, if you believe in that sort of thing. At any rate, it does bring up interesting questions, like “What is reality?” Or, “Am I really the master of my own fate?” Or, perhaps of the most importance, “Does this explain why my iPhone picks the most inopportune moment to drop my call?”

All these conundrums and a large orange soda are incorporated into The Adjustment Bureau, perhaps best described as a “sci-fi romantic thriller”. This marks the directing debut for screenwriter George Nolfi (The Bourne Ultimatum, Oceans Twelve), who adapted from a short story by Philip K. Dick (“The Adjustment Team”). The result? Well, it ain’t Blade Runner (or even Total Recall), but it is an engaging (if not 100% original) diversion that breezes along amiably, like a lightweight mash-up of Wings of Desire, The Truman Show, and Bedazzled (I refer to the original Peter Cook/Dudley Moore version, of course).

Matt Damon settles in comfortably with his role as New York politician David Norris (a Brooklyn native) who is running for the U.S. Senate. Young, handsome, energetic and blessed with a winning persona, he looks to be a shoo-in…until his reputation is besmirched by a NYC rag (a certain Rupert Murdoch property, I believe) when they publish a revealing frat party photo from his college days.

Consequently, the mood at David’s campaign HQ on election night is less than joyous. Just prior to delivering his concession speech, he ducks into a washroom to steal a few moments of private reflection, and “meets cute” with a charismatic ballerina (Emily Blunt). Like many of us who have had the occasion to bump into charismatic ballerinas in the men’s washroom, David instantly falls head over heels-and the feeling appears to be mutual. It’s Damon and Blunt’s (and the film’s) best scene; buoyed by some well-written and delivered repartee that recalls the flirtatious and sophisticated exchanges between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest.

Before the two can arrange their first date, however, duty calls-and David has to go give his Big Speech, and Elise (the name of our washroom-lurking ballerina) has to flee before security catches up with her (don’t ask). David, inspired by the chance encounter, gives the speech of his political career; snatching a kind of PR victory from the jaws of defeat. Now, things are looking up for David…until he’s cock-blocked by the Guys with Fedoras, who now enter the picture.

Actually, they are much more subtle in their meddling ways than, say, the New York Post. You see, “they” are not out to shower malevolence onto David; in fact they are only “authorized” to make the tiniest little “adjustments”, here and there, to assure that everybody on the planet follows their destiny, as has been pre-ordained by their boss, who is only referred to as “The Chairman”. Are you following all this so far?

Now, as omniscient and all-powerful as these “case workers” appear, they can still be trumped by Chance. It was Chance that David and Elise’s paths crossed; turns out that they are not pre-ordained to be together, and this has the Guys with Fedoras’ underwear in a bunch. Any further elaboration risks spoilers; suffice it to say if Chance trumps the agents of fate, I think there is a general consensus that Love Conquers All. An existential game of cat and mouse ensues between David and the forces “conspiring” against him.

So, despite the dark and visionary sci-fi pedigree and a $50 million budget, is this sounding like a glorified update of It’s a Wonderful Life? After all, wasn’t Clarence the Angel a sort of a benevolent “adjuster”, a case worker assigned by the “boss” to nudge Jimmy Stewart back onto his Pre-Ordained Path? Although the “G” word is never mentioned, it’s clear that the “Chairman” represents You-Know-Who.

I still can’t decide whether writer-director Nolfi is telegraphing a weirdly fundamental Christian message; especially since it is implied that if David insists on pursuing and consummating the love of his life, he does so at the expense of not only the bright political future that has been pre-ordained for him, but the fame and fortune that Elise is “destined” for in her chosen profession (the catch being, he has, by pure chance, stumbled into the man behind the curtain and learned about the Chairman’s plans, while she remains oblivious).

The message seems to be that they are not allowed to have both. Mustn’t go against the will of God, you know, and give in to Temptation-or you’ll be tossed out of the garden (although, in this case, I can’t figure out if David and Elise are supposed to be Adam and Eve…or Edward and Mrs. Simpson). All that speculation aside, if you are a sci-fi fan, you will  likely enjoy the ride. It’s also refreshing to see a reality-bending thriller that doesn’t O.D. on CGI and shit blowing up (there is some violence, but none of it fatal-which is a refreshing change of pace). And hey, any film featuring Terrence Stamp playing a kind of super-Ninja adjuster can’t be all bad, right?


If Sinatra is The Chairman, and The Chairman is God, then…never mind.

Ah-CHOO! Oh, crap: Contagion ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  September 17, 2011)


So you say you don’t have enough nightmarish fodder for those racing thoughts that keep you tossing and turning on sweat-soaked sheets every night…what with the economy, the Teabaggers, the pending demise of entitlement programs, the Teabaggers, the rising costs of healthcare, and the Teabaggers? Are you prone to health anxiety? Do you spend hours on wrongdiagnosis.com in a dogged search to confirm your worst fears that your hangnail is surely a symptom of some horrible wasting disease? And there’s no way in hell I can convince you the glass is half-full, not half-empty?

Bubbeleh, have I got a movie for you.

Steven Soderbergh has taken the network narrative formula that drove Traffic, his 2000 Oscar winner about the ‘war’ on drugs, and used it to similar effect in Contagion, a cautionary tale envisioning socio-political upheaval in the wake of a killer pandemic (which epidemiological experts concur is not a matter of “if”, but of “when”).

In an opening montage (entitled “Day 2”), the camera tails the person we assume to be Patient Zero, an American businesswoman (Gwyneth Paltrow) returning from an overseas trip, as she kills time at a Chicago airport lounge. She appears to be developing a slight cold. Soderbergh’s camera begins to focus on benign items. A dish of peanuts. A door knob. Paltrow’s hand as she pays her tab. A creeping sense of dread arises. The scenario becomes more troubling when Soderbergh ominously cuts to a succession of individuals in Hong Kong, Tokyo and London who have all suddenly taken extremely ill.

Whatever they have, it works fast. By the time Paltrow is reunited with her kids and her husband (Matt Damon, as the Everyman of the piece), we’ve watched several of the overseas victims collapse and die horribly; in the meantime her sniffles and sore throat escalates to fever, weakness and ultimately a grand mal seizure. Within moments of her arrival at the ER, it’s Mystery Virus 1, Doctors 0. It’s only the beginning of the nightmare. An exponential increase in deaths quickly catches the attention of the authorities, which in turn saddles us with a bevy of new characters to keep track of.

There are the CDC investigators in the U.S. (Kate Winslet is in the field, while her boss Laurence Fishburne holds meddlesome politicos at bay) and Marion Cotillard as a doctor enlisted by the W.H.O. to look into Hong Kong as  possible ground zero. There are the front line researchers doing the lab work to isolate the virus and develop a vaccine (Jennifer Ehle, Demetri Martin and Elliott Gould).

Even Homeland Security gets into the act; Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston is a liaison who suggests possible terrorist scenarios (could this be a “weaponized” virus?). Jude Law portrays a popular activist blogger who claims there is an existing vaccine that works, but that the CDC is withholding distribution for nefarious reasons (something to do with Big Pharma; certainly feasible). Law is also the recipient of a zinger print journalists will be falling over each other to quote : “A blog isn’t writing. It’s graffiti with punctuation.”

There are many threads to keep track of; fortunately, Soderbergh brings all the ingredients to a gently rolling boil by the film’s denouement without overcooking the ham, as it were. By reining in his powerhouse cast, and working from a screenplay (by Scott Z. Burns) that eschews melodrama, Soderbergh keeps it real (if a tad clinical), resulting in an effective and thought-provoking ensemble piece (by contrast, Wolfgang Peterson’s star-studded, similarly-themed 1995 thriller Outbreak plays more like a live action cartoon).

In fact, I can’t help but wonder how many of the  folks who flocked to theaters last weekend (and helped make Contagion #1 at the box office ) were disappointed by Soderbergh’s unadorned approach . Historically, Soderbergh tends to deliver either sure-fire populist ‘product’ (Out of Sight, Erin Brokovich, Oceans 11 and its sequels), or obscure experiments aimed squarely at the art house hipster crowd (Schizopolis, Full Frontal, Bubble). On occasion, he finds the sweet spot (Sex, Lies and Videotape, The Limey, Traffic, and now…Contagion).

Conceptually, Contagion is actually a closer cousin to The War Game, the 1965 film from director Peter Watkins that depicted, in a very stark and realistic manner, what might happen in a ‘typical’ medium-sized British city immediately following a nuclear strike. While the root cause of the respective civic crises in the two films differs, the resulting impact on the everyday populace is quite similar, and serves as a grim reminder that no matter how “civilized” we fancy ourselves to be, we are but one such catastrophic event away from complete societal breakdown.

Soderbergh’s film raises interesting questions, like, are we prepared for an event like this? If the virus is a new strain, how long would it take  to develop a vaccine? How much longer to manufacture 300 million doses? Surely, not in time to save millions of lives. And speaking of piles of corpses, how do you dispose of them, with one eye on public safety? Who’s first in line to receive the first batch of vaccine? Who decides? And, outside of Soderbergh’s narrative), the CDC isn’t one of those government agencies currently targeted for budget cuts by our Republican and Teabagger buds in Congress…is it? I wish I could reassure fellow hypochondriacs with “It’s only a movie.”  But the best I can do for now is: A gezunt Dir in Pupik!

Wheel men don’t eat quiche: Drive ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  September 24, 2011)

Even if it seems certain that you will lose, retaliate. Neither wisdom nor technique has a place in this. A real man does not think of victory or defeat. He plunges recklessly towards an irrational death. By doing this, you will awaken from your dreams.

-Tsunetomo Yamamoto, from the Hagakure

If there is one thing I’ve learned from the movies, it’s that a man…a real man…has gotta adhere to a Code. Preferably a “warrior” code of some sort. Not that I claim to lead any kind of Samurai-inspired lifestyle; if someone were to ask me what code I live by, my reflexive answer would likely be “206”. It used to be “907” when I lived in Alaska. Did you know that the biggest state in the union only has one area code? So technically, all Alaskans live by the same code. But I digress.

What was I talking about? Oh yeah, “code”. Steve McQueen…there was a guy who specialized in playing characters who lived by a code; he also brought a sense of Zen cool to the screen. There were others, like Jean-Paul Belmondo, Lee Marvin, Paul Newman and Clint Eastwood (before he began co-starring with orangutans). But McQueen (pardon the vernacular) was “the shit”.

Now, when one thinks of film directors whose canons abound with such characters, Jean-Pierre Melville springs to mind. Insular and taciturn, the typical Melville protagonist may be a criminal, but he is a decidedly disciplined and principled one. In Melville’s universe, honor among thieves is not an oxymoron.

One prime example is Jef the hit man, a cool customer played with steely detachment by Alain Delon, in Melville’s 1967 film, Le Samourai. Although it is  relatively static  by today’s “action thriller” standards, it has influenced a number of  film makers (John Woo and Quentin Tarantino have worshiped at its altar).

A direct descendant is Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978), a spare and hard-boiled neo-noir about a professional getaway driver (Ryan O’Neal) who plays cat-and-mouse with an obsessed cop out to nail him (Bruce Dern) and a dissatisfied customer who is now out to kill him. “Spare” would also be a good word to describe O’Neal’s character (billed in the credits simply as: The Driver), who utters but 350 words of dialog in the entire film.

And now, in 2011, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (channeling Melville by way of Hill’s aforementioned film) and leading man Ryan Gosling (channeling Delon’s character by way of McQueen) have teamed up on a noirish action thriller called Drive.

Gosling (“Driver”) is a Hollywood stuntman by day, wheelman-for-hire by night. Not unlike O’Neal’s Driver, he is a bit picky regarding who he will work with, and has a Set of Rules that must be strictly adhered to. “I give you a five-minute window,” he tells his clients, “anything happens in those five minutes and I’m yours, no matter what.” Outside of that time window, the customer is forewarned that he is on his own. “I don’t sit in while you’re running it down. I don’t carry a gun. I drive.” As for those who are tardy? There’s no ride home. Get in, get out, or you’re left holding the bag.

Yes, he’s very strict. But it’s a display of good business acumen; particularly in a “business” where a slight misstep can cost you years of your life, rotting in a prison cell. So far, by sticking with his “code” of professional discipline, Driver has managed to keep his moonlighting gig off the radar and maintain his double life with relative ease. However, the Fickle Finger of Fate is about to dip into both his personal and professional life.

On the professional side, his friend Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a retired stuntman and mechanic who throws Driver a little work on the side at his auto repair shop, has approached a shady acquaintance, an ex-film producer turned loan shark (Albert Brooks) and his mobster partner (Ron Perlman) to invest in a customized race car. Shannon envisions Driver, with his formidable skills, as a potential money-making champ on the track. Not a bad idea, but these are not the kind of guys who are likely to just write off a bad investment. These are not nice men, period.

On the personal side, Driver is developing a strong attraction to a pretty neighbor (Carey Mulligan), a prison widow with a young son. The feeling is mutual, but news arrives that hubby (Oscar Isaac) has earned an early release. While he is disappointed, Driver still continues to be a good neighbor and spend quality time with her son (you know, the code). When the safety of mother and son is threatened by her husband’s prison “creditors” after his release, Driver warily offers to help him pull off a debt-settling job.

What his film may lack in original plot ideas (Hossein Amin adapted the screenplay from a book by James Sallis) is amply compensated by Refn’s stylish execution and his leading man’s charismatic performance. Paradoxically (in true McQueen fashion) it is technically more of a non-performance; Gosling is not quite all there, yet he remains wholly present. Perhaps the biggest surprise in the film is Albert Brooks, whose quietly menacing turn as a mean, spiteful, razor-toting viper goes against type.

This is the most atmospheric L.A. noir since Michael Mann’s Collateral (which now that I think about it, is another film that has direct lineage back to Le Samourai). In purely cinematic terms, I think Refn proves himself to be on a par with modern noir masters like Mann, David Lynch and Christopher Nolan. He was smart to enlist cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, who is no stranger to the genre (The Usual Suspects, Blood and Wine, Apt Pupil, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind). The action sequences are slickly done and quite exciting (although it turns out Gosling didn’t go 100% “McQueen” on us; stunt driver Jeremy Fry is his double).

The pulsing synth-pop score (by Cliff Martinez) is very retro-80s (the Fairlight lives!). A caveat: while this film is artfully made, it does contain several shocking scenes of brutal violence,  potentially off-putting for the squeamish. That being said, if you fancy yourself a connoisseur of fine noirs and pure cinema, I would recommend that you plunge recklessly into this film. And do not think about victory or defeat. By doing this…you could awaken from your dreams.