Monday, June 30, 2008

Snow, apparitions, death, birth, gambling, war and beestiality: these are but a few samples of What the Crow Said

In some regards, it was as though the book itself, our book, was at once magical and realistic. Maybe 15 years ago my old buddy Rich had found it in a house under construction in a Calgary subdivision while drunk. He carried it home and, in accordance with his perverse habit, quickly removed the dust jacket and chucked it—his bookshelves are lined with such appallingly denuded volumes. He then made a pot of coffee and read it all through the night. When he split with his girl the year following she took the book to Vancouver and he moved to the Yukon, yet months later he found it again nestled between catalogues in the washroom of a mutual friend who claimed to have no memory of its arrival.

In an act he’d later regret, Rich lent the book to me not long after their reunion. It went from this point to live in the trunk of my car for years, traveling with me all over this end of the country, unread and forgotten. The car is long gone, and I assumed I’d lost the book until finally, just last year, I found it again, taking refuge in my parents’ basement following a flood. So it was only during this last week that, with the coming of Canada Day and an accompanying desire to fulfill old promises I read the damned thing, weirdly spellbound, exactly 30 years after it’s publication. It starts like this:

“People, years later, blamed everything on the bees; it was the bees, they said, seducing Vera Lang, that started everything. How the town came to prosper, and then to decline, and how the road never got built, the highway that would have joined the town and the municipality to the world beyond, and how the sky itself, finally, took umbrage: it was all because one afternoon in April the swarming bees found Vera Lang asleep, there is a patch of wild flowers on the edge of the valley.”

Vera Lang’s impregnation by bees among the grasses of Big Knife, a particularly vulnerable settlement perched ambiguously on the border of Alberta and Saskatchewan, looms indeed as an omen of all that ultimately passes in Robert Kroetsch’s What the Crow Said. Summoning up the sort of only half-fathomable eroticism that is exclusive to literature, Kroetsch describes Vera’s body as “singing like a telephone wire… her belly tightening to the push and rub of her myriad unthinking lovers,” while every other inhabitant of Big Knife is suddenly seized with the sudden awareness of a catalytic event occurring in their midst, even the boys at school who collectively guess “they were confronting a mystery greater than any they were ever expected to or would ever learn.”

Kroetsch’s narrator, not unreliable but rather openly uncertain, follows Vera’s insect tryst with stories of deaths foretold, an unyielding winter, the erection of a prairie lighthouse, ghosts, countless strange killings, a child raised by wolves who becomes a meteorological prophet, a sex-crazed Frenchman convicted of murder who invents a flying machine and escapes from jail to seek out Vera’s love letter-writing little sister, still more inexplicable pregnancies, and of course the arrival and eventual departure of the cantankerous and possibly sagely talking crow of the title. Kroetsch’s characters are perpetually struggling to come to terms with the unpredictable wrath of both nature and machine, not to mention human desire. One even goes so far as to deny the existence of gravity. Their stories emerge from Kroetsch’s adoption of magic realism, an experiment, rarely fashionable among the literati, that’s likely kept What the Crow Said from being regarded with the esteem given to Kroetsch’s best-known novels, The Studhorse Man, Gone Indian and Badlands. Yet Kroetsch deserves credit for recognizing the genre’s utter suitability for conveying of tall tales told in prairie taverns and communities whose lives depend on the caprices of weather in a place where the weather makes no fucking sense at all. And Kroetsch handles the medium with ribald comic invention, making for a very entertaining, audacious and frequently poetic read.

Magical explanations seem not to be the whimsy of Big Knifeans but rather a coping mechanism for difficult lives concerned with fertility, family, land and effective negotiation with animals. These people, mostly weak, distracted men and formidable, hard-working women, suffer to hilarious extremes. For much of the novel’s mid-section the town's men become ensnared in a game of schmier from which they are unable to escape for months, like the victims of spell that would normally be dreamed up by Luis Buñuel for the bourgeoisie of France or Mexico. The game moves from locale to locale, the men rotting away in the process. “Men lay in their own vomit, gagging and crying. Husbands ignored the entreaties of their wives, fathers denied so much as a nickel or dime to the children waiting in parked cars…” The addiction represents a catastrophe built on boredom, frustration and susceptibility to games of chance that resonates with anyone whose spent any time in a some rural Chinese Canadian restaurant with a VLT machine plugged into a corner socket, occupied for hours at a time by some hypnotized old timer unable to even remove his parka.

It’s in this manner that the greater truths are found through exaggeration. Kroetsch’s use of magic realism is come by honestly because he so clearly recognizes that the fantastical elements in his story must possess an intuitive logic. Kroetsch is of course a prairie boy himself, born 81 years ago in Heisler, and by the time of What the Crow Said was well into a career that capitalized on his understanding of Albertan vastness, xenophobia, and terror. All of this was, if I recall correctly, stuff Rich was trying to tell me when he placed the book in my hands all those years ago, back when its corners were crisp and pages un-yellowed. But sometimes a book, just like the rains that end a prairie drought, just needs some extra time to get to you.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Promise of future collaborations: tracing the progress of the Cronenberg Mortensen merger

Right from its opening moments,
Eastern Promises flows with painful, unruly rites of parturition, initiation, desecration and earthly departure. It opens with a gruesome killing, a premature birth and the tragic, confused expiration of the girl whose diary will come to haunt the film and its personae. It features bodies being branded, decapitated, displayed and disguised, as well as an attempted assassination in which the intended victim fights for his life while stark naked, a bravura sequence worth the asking price alone.

If the above reads as a particularly body conscious series of images, it’ll come as little surprise to savvy filmgoers that the director of Eastern Promises is David Cronenberg. But what’s so fascinating about Cronenberg’s progress is the way in which his films virtually always reveal something of his distinctive approach and ongoing preoccupations even when their milieus seem virtually antithetical to his established horror/sci-fi background. Set amidst London’s Russian underworld, Eastern Promises would appear even farther from Cronenberg’s comfort zone than A History of Violence, yet he brings to the proceedings more than confidence –he brings the careful gaze of one of the most passionately curious and unusual minds in movies.

Hospital midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) has in her care a newborn without a mother or even a name. All Anna has to assist her in identifying the child is a diary written in Russian and a business card that leads her to a fatherly, blue-eyed restaurateur named Seymon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). The more sinister aspect of Seymon makes itself known soon enough, not the least through Anna’s increasing familiarity with Seymon’s obnoxious, alcoholic and reckless son Kirill (a particularly flamboyant Vincent Cassel) and the family’s stoic chauffer Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). The diary and its inflammatory contents serve as a sort of Pandora’s box, functioning both as Anna’s entrée into a dark, socially cloistered realm of immigrant crime, and as a way of flushing Nikolai out of this darkness and into a conundrum of urgent moral dilemma.

Written by Stephen Knight, Eastern Promises is a taut, layered thriller akin in many regards to his terrific script for Dirty Pretty Things. Cronenberg’s points of connection are so varied and surprising, his reigning in of the material so clean that, as with Spider in particular, the places where the screenwriter’s hand departs and the director’s takes over are untraceable. Pleasingly, Cronenberg’s work of the 2000s is consistently characterized by this honing his own voice through fruitful collaboration rather than strict –and potentially stifling– traditional hyphenate autuerism.

Yet Cronenberg’s most notable partner-in-crime these days is surely Mortensen, who gives a flawlessly committed performance here as an intriguing variation on the man who can’t escape his violent past he already inhabited so deftly in A History of Violence. Though he’s introduced as a vampire-groomed thug who unflinchingly butts out smokes on his tongue before going about his duties snapping frozen digits off a corpse like so many fish fingers, his Nikolai is a collage of masks and interior conflicts that emerge gradually as his allegiance to Seymon and his involvement in Anna’s quest become mutually compromised. More even than Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, Mortensen has become Cronenberg’s ideal alter ego, an impressively pliable, imposingly muscular junction of raw physicality, prowling anxiety, complicated sexuality and shrewd intellect. And, in any case, he’s just amazing in this film.

We can only hope for more from this pairing, though the truth is that where Cronenberg might go from here is delightfully unpredictable and may or may not include further suitable roles for Mortensen. Perhaps he’ll borrow a page from the Scorsese-De Niro book and allow Mortensen to mature into a genuine chameleon –a feat which in itself would fit nicely into Cronenberg’s ongoing study of malleable identity and the monster within.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Mongol: a kinder gentler Genghis Khan unites the Central Asian nomads, takes on Mongol hordes dressed as Slipknot

Y’all probably didn’t know this, but apparently Genghis Khan was a really cool guy. If Sergei Bodrov’s revisionist GK biopic Mongol has the right vibe, Temudjin, the 13th century Mongolian conqueror and uniter of the nomadic tribes of Central Asia most of us pegged as a bloodthirsty warlord with the usual accompanying penchant for raping and pillaging was in fact a thoughtful, almost serene upholder of a strict code of honour, respectful of his wife, generous with all his subordinates, and pretty damn cute when he smiled—which, despite countless terms of imprisonment, was often. Of course Mongol, the proposed premiere entry in a trilogy, only dramatizes the first third of Temudjin’s story, so maybe the nasty business comes later.

Savvy viewers of the ancient adventure genre will recognize the archetypical, fratricide-free first chapters, the death of the father, the forbidding storms, the trails of the boy, even the faux Nietzschean opening quote echoing Conan the Barbarian, among others films. Only gradually does Mongol distinguish itself with a peppering of anthropologic detail and historical gloss. There is something interesting in the fact that Temudjin selects his bride at the age of nine, and selects very well: not only does Börte grow up to be a total fox, she’s a profoundly devoted spouse, deft advisor (“You can’t cook two ram heads in one pot”), and sturdy bearer of children, though whether or not these kids are actually Temudjin’s—Börte spends some time as the captor of Temudjin’s no doubt salacious enemies—is never confirmed or even broached. Such willingness to avoid emotional complications is indicative of an overall tendency to render characters into flat types. Jamukha, Temudjin’s blood brother and arch enemy, is about the only character given any significant shading, thanks in part to Honglei Sun’s fun, devilishly charming performance.

Temudjin is played by Tadanobu Asano, a versatile, beguiling actor familiar from films as diverse as Gohatto, Ichi the Killer, Last Life in the Universe and Takeshi Kitano’s Zatôichi. But while the casting is certainly inspired—were it a Western film about a white guy it would surely star the likes of Russell Crowe or some other hyper-masculine beau-hunk—relatively little is demanded of Asano. Temudjin is stoic, wise, supernaturally determined, and without hubris. He’s also a supernaturally strong warrior, at one point actually tossing a spear the size of a support beam with such force that it rips through a man’s chest and impales him to a tree.

Mongol, to be sure, has all the necessary ingredients of a crowd-pleasing epic (thus the Oscar nod): white hat heroes, gorgeous landscapes, insurmountable odds, big battle scenes drenched in CGI. It’s grandiose and expensive looking, with the pumped-up violence and discreet sex that defines the Hollywood model. It’s also, you know, kinda boring, or is it just me?

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Furies: not quite as hysterical as the French would have it, but one hell of a sexy, violent, transgressive western melodrama nonetheless

The Furies, one of three westerns directed by Anthony Mann in 1950 following his triumphant string of dazzling noir thrillers, would have to be considered an exceptional movie in any genre. Set in the 1870s, it’s an epic drama about a charismatic, tyrannical widower lording over a vast New Mexico ranch, an impotent son to which he’s indifferent, and a bold, self-determined daughter whose role is uncomfortably close to that of a wife. It’s also a story about deception, sexual dominance and, as the plot would have it, good and bad bookkeeping.

At the film’s dramatic centre is a formidable woman, played by the singular Barbara Stanwyck, grappling fiercely for control of an enormous piece of property and a legacy even larger. Along its periphery are secret love affairs with Mexicans squatters, ghosts of a vanishing frontier, vestiges of colonial chaos, and long-simmering tensions that find release only in unbridled explosions of violence. It’s a marvelous, complex, perverse, horrifying—there are strong does of mutilation and humiliation—and often touching movie that, for all the issues it fails to fully resolve, should be regarded as something very near greatness.

T.C. Jeffords was Walter Huston’s final role. He brings to the aging patriarch an ingratiating blustery swagger that delicately functions as a beard for bone-deep insecurities. Owner of the film’s titular ranch but chronically foolish with money, he’s one three men to be kept, controlled or conquered by his daughter Vance (Stanwyck), the only thing standing between the Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland) family and homelessness, between T.C. and Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey), the gambler-turned-banker whose family are the rightful owners of a strip of The Furies and whose father was killed by T.C. long ago. All of these men, in one way or another, are Vance’s lovers. “I’ve always worked my own leather,” boasts Vance, who the adoring T.C. dubs a “she-fox,” who publicly taunts her father’s authority, staking claims on what’s otherwise deemed a man’s domain. When T.C. brings home a woman (a wonderful Judith Anderson) who threatens to replace Vance as matriarch—and true controller—of The Furies, Vance unleashes her wrath, suffers the consequences, and promises to tear everything away from her father.

Among the pleasures of The Furies is watching how Stanwyck and Mann collaborate, resulting in a performance simultaneously seductive and frightening. Locking eyes with each of her male opponents, Stanwyck uses that weirdly amphibian gaze of hers like some Medusa with a perm, and tosses off a peppering of sharpened jabs with her distinctive deadpan. Yet she also conveys such heights of desire and rage, and Mann frames her performance brilliantly in the film’s signature scene of sadistic violence. Mirrors, conventionally symbols of feminine vanity, here become the visual birthplace of female oppression and injury. Stanwyck’s groping for her dead mother’s scissors as her rival gloats before her makes for a majestic moment of unease.

Mann himself, traditionally deemed above all a genre craftsman, has recently been the subject of a call for reconsideration from critics who think he deserves to be elevated to auteur status. (For a strong example, see Richard Combs' piece on Mann in the May/June 2007 issue of Film Comment.) Over the past year or so, without actually trying to, I’ve wound up watching a lot of Mann films—like Raw Deal (48), Border Incident (49), a work that in its way bridges noir and western traditions, and The Naked Spur (53)—and am now more than happy to jump on this critical bandwagon, the latest driver of which is The Criterion Collection, who, with The Furies, now add his name to their list of distinguished featured filmmakers.

I’m sure some readers must wonder why I give so much ink to Criterion releases, but a quick survey of their new package for The Furies pretty much speaks for itself: besides the customarily superb transfer, they offer a beautifully illustrated box, a book featuring a smart essay and archival interview with Mann, DVD supplements like a vintage interview with Huston, a new interview with Mann’s daughter, and a surprisingly good British television interview with Mann from the 60s. And, get this, you also get a handsomely bound paperback edition of Niven Busch’s source novel. They actually give you the damned book!

My favourite extra here though would have to be the audio commentary from historian and western specialist Jim Kitses. I saw him give a talk about
Ride the High Country (62) a while back and was deeply impressed by his arguments for ever-closer readings of Sam Peckinpah's work and of westerns as a platform for every conceivable sort of human drama. I also really like his big moustache. Regarding The Furies, he laments the diminished role of Juan and the other Mexicans in Charles Schnee’s adaptation while praising the film’s other transgressive elements, emphasizes the hints of incest between Vance and T.C., directs our attention to the films’ multi-generic threads, and makes a strong case for the western as the genre that best suited Mann’s obsessive interest in familial conflict.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Building mood: Hiroshi Teshigahara's tour of the architecture of Antonio Gaudí is a sublime study in strangeness

With its broad, undulating surfaces and proto-Cubist mosaics of broken tile, its membranous mugwump spires and smooth spinal railings, its leaf storm motifs and, most of all, its ubiquity of knotty tree imagery, the work of Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí (1852-1926) seems designed to forever inspire pause in passersby, to de-stabilize our sense of passively moving through discreet, utilitarian physical boundaries. When he first laid eyes on Gaudí’s work in the spring of 1959, Hiroshi Teshigahara felt a surge of creative empowerment, later crediting the work with endowing him with an understanding that, like those between shelter and open spaces, the boundaries between artistic disciplines were meant to be questioned. It was a pivotal realization in the development of this most distinctive Japanese filmmaker—and a debt eventually paid in filmic homage.

Antonio Gaudí (1984) is an endlessly striking, audaciously hypnotic, deeply contemplative documentary study of Gaudí’s legacy, which is spread throughout Barcelona and the surrounding countryside: the Santa Teresa School, with its lithe, ovular arches; the Park Güell, with its oceanic outlines, sprawling gardens and serpentine benches; the Casa Batlló, with its skeletal formations that are said to represent the story of St. George and the Dragon; the Church of Colònia Güell, with its cavernous crypt resembling the interior of some massive sea creature; and the great, unfinished Sagrada Família, which has got to be the most tremendously bizarre, subversively sensuous place of Christian worship ever erected. Teshigahara’s cameras explore each of these places, the austerity of the filmmaker’s aesthetic beautifully complimenting the irregular and fantastically intricate aesthetic of the architect.

The film’s comprised almost exclusively of imagery and music, with little in the way of commentary or even titles to interrupt the reverie of looking, scouting, tracing. Context is not developed through biographical, historical or political facts—which can be easily found elsewhere—but rather through revealing how Gaudí’s ostentatious structures interact with the places they inhabit and the people who inhabit them. Among the film’s most inspired depictions of human activity are the images of crowds performing sardana, the ancient circle dance. Curiously, they are depicted without their accompanying music, rendering their motions primordial, trance-like, quite funny.

Above all, with Antonio Gaudí Teshigahara honours his undying awe for his favourite architect through the careful cultivation of a profound sense of utter strangeness, juxtaposing what we see and hear in such a way that it builds up a sort of roiling disquiet. Some of the glacial traveling shots arguably recall the technique of Stanley Kubrick, but more specifically they align themselves with like sequences in Teshigahara’s earlier films, such as those that focus on the weirdly sinister, ever-collapsing sands in Woman in the Dunes (64). There is finally no attempt here to place Gaudí’s work into settings that would make it easily digestible. Teshigahara’s tour of these places is happily resigned to seeing their forms as alien things—and for this reason, Antonio Gaudi makes a terrific double bill with Metro Cinema’s other feature of the week Fantastic Planet (73).

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Jim Jarmusch and the vice squad: sitting down for a hot dose of Coffee and Cigarettes

Addictive, unhealthy and socially unacceptable, the twin vices that inspire and give shape to Jim Jarmusch’s
Coffee and Cigarettes are, like cinema or conversation, capable of providing the purest of pleasures when experienced in the simplest of circumstances and with minimal distractions. Jarmusch has always been one of our finest practitioners of comic minimalism; although his films never seem bound by a rigourous, predetermined structure, they rely on formal constraints and carefully chosen repetitions to give them shape, tone, humour and, most rewardingly, meaning. The 11 short films that make up Coffee and Cigarettes give me such meditative pleasure because they feel loose enough to potentially slide off in any direction at any moment, and yet they whirl around within a tight enough thematic and visual landscape to allow me to participate vicariously in their subtlety, wit, cheeky philosophizing and finely-honed charm.

The films were shot between 1986 (the year Jarmusch made
Down by Law) and the present, though most were made fairly recently, a sign that Jarmusch took plenty of time discovering the most appropriate context in which to create and present them, picking up a gag from one piece, a stray idea from another, until the final work felt like much more than just the sum of its parts. Each piece, naturally enough, centres around a table and two or three individuals, many of them familiar from Jarmusch’s previous works, smoking, talking and riding out a caffeine buzz. And nearly all, photographed in lovely black and white by some of the world’s finest cinematographers—like Frederick Elmes, Tom DiCillo and Robby Müller—feature eloquent overhead shots of checkered tabletops, dingy espresso cups, grimy ashtrays and scattered spoons that amount to the most painstaking fetishization of diner/café culture I’ve ever seen. (And as a connoisseur of the greasy spoon, I write this with absolute affection.)

The first piece, though by far the most overtly absurdist of the bunch, sets the tone nicely, with Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright meeting at a café, their familiarity with each other not especially clear, but bonding over their love of caffeine and nicotine before arranging a bizarre trade-off of personal duties, sort of a playful, banal version of
Strangers on a Train. The young Benigni is oddly handsome and hilarious, while the cooler Wright provides one of the film’s funniest recurring notions: drinking lots of coffee before bed makes you dream faster. This is just one of several epiphanies surrounding consciousness, health and bad habits that build in silly sophistication over the course of the film.

In most of the pieces the actors essentially play themselves rather than characters, and the tension between these loners, eccentrics and famous or semi-famous people that we see in the scene between Benigni and Wright is echoed throughout: Tom Waits and Iggy Pop meet "Somewhere in California" and seem incapable of getting past their discomfort with each other’s peculiar celebrity; waiters struggle to balance the implied familiarity of their roles with customers; Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA and GZA are so starstruck by Bill Murray (clumsily and hilariously disguised as a cook) that they continually refer to him by his full name; a glamorous Cate Blanchett, in the film’s most technically impressive piece, squirms in the company of her resentful cousin (also played by Blanchett, in a rock-chick get-up that makes her look like Kate Bush). And in what is perhaps the all-around best piece, Alfred Molina sets up a meeting with fellow British actor Steve Coogan (the brilliant star of 24 Hour Party People) that becomes utterly stripped of conventional niceties by the two men’s mid-level celebrity status and the ridiculous hierarchy they perceive between them. Jarmusch is something of a dramatic purist in his ongoing interest in the follies of everyday communication (witness the role of linguistic barriers in several of his films) and the episodic nature of Coffee and Cigarettes allows him to attend to such scenarios with greater focus then ever.

Coffee and Cigarettes closes with a surprisingly poignant and beautiful piece featuring Taylor Mead and Bill Rice, who sit in a dim and dusty warehouse of inky shadows, drinking bad coffee, apparently on a break from whatever sort of paid work these two old guys could possibly be doing. A man sweeps the floor laconically somewhere behind them as Mead begins fantasizing about being somewhere else, explaining that, like the title of Gustav Mahler’s melancholy song (which the two catch a few bars of somewhere in the ether), he feels that he’s "lost track of the world." Mead suggests they pretend the coffee is champagne and they share a toast to better times. And at that moment the toast seems shared by all of us, a toast to the space that Coffee and Cigarettes inhabits, a place of refuge from the noise of the world and the demoralizing effects of modern life, a place where someone like Jarmusch can produce films outside the oppressive box of narrative commercial filmmaking. A place where things can move along with the ease of great conversation or sweet music and we have the freedom to indulge in the simple pleasures of life.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Radical Adults deserve radical books to be written about them, but for now Goodbye 20th Century will have to do

Sonic Youth holds such a tremendous yet peculiar place in music as to confound any attempt to explain it to an unknowing bystander. One can certainly propose a lineage of sorts, tracing their roots in New York visual arts and underground culture in such a way that links them to The Velvet Underground and Talking Heads, yet Sonic Youth, with its core membership of Kim Gordon, Lee Ranaldo, Steve Shelley and Thurston Moore, has blazed a trail far longer than either of these predecessors. In fact I’d be hard pressed to think of any other more or less democratically-geared rock band in history that has stayed together and remained as active and engaged, as enthused and good-humoured, as prolific while, to my ear at least, never once phoning it in.

Their music rose out of a sensibility that for all its obsessive influences still feels somehow essentially sui generis, the product of suburban kids with gravely mistreated instruments dragging their enthusiasm for pop art, the Beats, Charles Manson, science fiction and the avant garde into their parents’ garage, producing growling enactments of a head-on collision between the monolithic guitar armies of Glenn Branca, ferocities deconstructed from punk rock and no wave, shuddering B-horror movie soundtracks, and a barely secret infatuation with classic rock, pop and jazz. I’ve been in love with the band since high school, and my familiarity with their work on record or in concert only makes classification feel that much more futile.

I’d never paid too much attention to their private lives or working practices, but, coming on the crest of a wave of new or recent SY-related literature—Moore and Byron Coley Abrams’ No Wave: Post-Punk Underground New York 1976-1980 and The Empty Page: Fiction Inspired by Sonic Youth are especially tempting reads—David Browne’s Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth (Da Capo, $27.95) seemed too intriguing to pass on. With a sprawling discography a quarter century of general activity under or beyond the SY moniker to draw upon, not to mention extensive interviews with SY and virtually everyone ever associated with the band, Browne’s relatively hefty tome promised something authoritative and thorough at the very least.

Though the prose is pretty baggy and the use of quotations often redundant, the facts and anecdotes collected in Goodbye 20th Century are indeed fascinating. That Gordon’s father wrote the first major study of adolescent factions, that her mother made clothes for the family, that the young Gordon once choreographed a dance based on a narrative deduced from her rearranging of her father’s jazz album covers, or that she later made a student film about Patty Hearst intriguingly conveys the roots of a highly unusual modus operandi. Reading about how ‘Teenage Riot’ was intended as a campaign song for imaginary US Presidential candidate J. Mascis, how SY were instrumental in getting Nirvana signed to DGC, how Chuck D performed his part in the ‘Kool Thing’ video while standing in a hallway between meetings, how Gordon once made dinner for Neil Young on his tour bus after buying raw meat from a roadside KFC: all of these items enliven and enrich anyone’s reading of the Sonic Youth story.

What’s seriously lacking in Browne’s book however anything like a close critical analysis of the band’s work, habits or lifestyle—and when Browne does suddenly try to get a little tough on the band’s music near the end, his observations, such as suddenly deciding that 2000's NYC Ghosts and Flowers, a record so sharpened with tension as to make your hairs stand on end, was the first time the band sounded "pretentious," seem way off the mark. Goodbye 20th Century may provide constant candy for curious SY fans but it rarely digs below the surface, offering only a vague idea as to how their songs are constructed and relying on rock critic boilerplate to describe their music. Browne also seems frequently overwhelmed by the band’s prolific output, barely giving us an idea of Ranaldo or Moore’s catalogue non-SY outings. And the culture junky nerds who will inevitably constitute a large part of this book’s readership will be irked by numerous minor errors found throughout: Nick Cave being called British, Bad Brains being called “The Bad Brains,” or William S. Burroughs’ Kansas home being located in Nebraska. (More frustrating still, while old WSB appears twice in the book’s truly superb photo inserts, the guy’s barely mentioned in the actual text!)

I suppose it would have been too much to expect a book about Sonic Youth to be even half as adventurous as the band’s music—yet an inventive approach to writing about music is so welcome when one surveys the music section of any store or library. On my own shelves I can quickly pick out the music-related titles that stand out in any way, nearly all of them diverging from the conventional model, whether it’s Ashley Kahn’s
Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, wild, stream-of-consciousness memoirs from the likes of Iggy Pop or Bob Dylan, Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful or Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus’ The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad. Compared to these, nearly all of the standard cradle-to-grave/rise-and-fall bios seem dull and formally slavish, notable mostly for their various levels of banal, groupie-screwing dirt.

Reservations aside, I’m still deeply grateful to Browne for what amounts to an enormous investment in chronicling a unique, unruly, and still unfolding chapter in music history. What does come across in Goodbye 20th Century very well—besides its catalogue of dingy NYC apartments in the early 1980s—is a sense of how several individual, highly distinctive and equally opinionated artists can get together and continually work toward developing a sound all their own while still attempting to manage something akin to a career, as well as spouses, children and mortgages. More than is usually the case, for rock at least, the story of Sonic Youth is the story of extraordinary creativity being balanced with basically ordinary lives. And the result of such alchemy is genuinely inspiring.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The delicious delirium of delving into dead books: a visit to The Monkey's Paw

I’m thinking about dead books, those out-of-print, forgotten, lost or hidden volumes that slip into our hands after revealing themselves in shops or garage sales, in dust-coated boxes abandoned in attics or even floating atop the contents of trash cans. These are books not sought out, but discovered. Everyone has some hanging around: children’s books, textbooks, oddities. From where I’m seated I spot The Fabulous Flight to the Mushroom Planet, a teenage thrift store find, The Truth About American Diplomats, borrowed and never returned, The Truth About Fonzie, a birthday gift. Many seem mere novelties, but they’re also artifacts. Some contain secret knowledge from the past, ideas and voices otherwise lost.

Across from a liquor store in a Portuguese neighborhood in Toronto lives a small bookshop called The Monkey’s Paw. I was directed there by another bookseller months ago while searching for, appropriately enough, scholarship on Poe. But I quickly abandoned my hunt upon entering, as preserved biological specimens, manual typewriters, engraving plates and a few thousand carefully selected dead books caught my magpie eye. In the afterlives of dead books, this place appeared a significant junction.

I got snared by one shelf in particular: every other title struck me as a gem. I was trying to discern what linked them together, and, just to prove what a nerd I am, I think I actually laughed out loud with delight when I realized this was, as the proprietor himself labeled it, The Death Section. I left that afternoon with a copy of Paul Barber’s Vampires, Burial and Death. I darted through traffic, bought some Fuller’s Porter, walked home and nestled in for hours of folklore, forensics, decomposition and delicious, chocolaty beer. Before that afternoon I never knew getting rid of a corpse could be so cumbersome!

I returned to The Monkey’s Paw today to speak with its owner about dead books. The window display showcased a stellar crop: Clinical Assessment of Malignancy and Deception, Cornish Guernsays & Knit-frocks, Women on Heroin!, What Wood is That? and The Life and Work of Walt Whitman: A Soviet Perspective. There’s also a Remington Rand with a toy raven perched upon it. Wow.

Inside I admired a Blue Velvet pres kit, a 3-D display called LIFE OF THE SILK WORM, a sinister little volume entitled Morbid Craving for Morphia and, hung like tiles upon a narrow wall, a collection of Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Books with titles like Ventriloquism Self Taught, Sex Life in Greece and Rome and Facts You Should Know About Digestion. Ridiculous phrases like “penetrating an enigma” were being typed in my brain. This is truly the dead letter office of books.

As Nico chants above the rumble of streetcars, Stephen Fowler sits before a map of the USSR, happy to discuss his enterprise. He opened just six months ago, after moving to Toronto from San Francisco. The spirit of The Paw, Fowler says, is characterized by “the beautiful, the arcane, the macabre, the absurd.” What with the store and a family, he admits he doesn’t read like he used to, though whenever he’s got a cold, he curls up with a big book about ants.
I ask him what makes a guy enter a racket as tough as selling dead books.

“What I’m banking on,” he explains, “is that out-of-print, odd books is a growing market. I believe we’ll soon see the end of the book as we’ve known it for 500 years. Big publishing houses can’t wait for this, as it means an enormous drop in production costs. New bookstores are doomed. But old books, I mean, in the 20th century, how many books were published? You can’t undo them. They’re still out there. Waiting.”

What, I ask, is the allure of a dead book. “There’s the sense of something that’s fallen through the cracks, and you’ve retrieved it,” says Fowler. “I only stock the weirdest books I can find, and if somebody like me wasn’t salvaging and reintroducing them to others, they’d be gone. So I think of my vocation as kind of curatorial. Here’s this piece of culture I select from the morass, place on a table, and suggest that it’s a real and valuable thing.”

Of course, books also possess immediate, practical value. As we converse, a woman of Caribbean descent –let’s call her Delvina– pokes her head in asking to examine something in the window called A-Z of Jamaican Heritage. Delvina won’t come inside because of her unusual breathing problems, she explains. She peruses the book outside for some time before re-entering and informing us that governments searching for “Pharonic power” are trying to destroy her via the magic of her own people. She says she’ll buy the book later. Fowler, a seasoned bookseller, just nods like he sees this sort of thing daily.

But maybe Delvina’s somehow at the heart of these thoughts about the afterlives of dead books, the journey of rare objects holding rare knowledge trying to find precisely that individual reader who’ll summon up their wisdom and usher their dead words back into life. I think about Delvina as I head home, with more beer and more books that I wonder when for the love of God I’ll ever find the time to actually read.

Friday, June 13, 2008

It just ain't Happening: don't look, but the killer's right behind you (and yes, that's sort of a spoiler)

Having made his name—and perhaps exhausted his potential—with
The Sixth Sense, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan became the guy known for the big twist, that twist being the inevitable third act reveal that would invariably blow what was arguably an otherwise absorbing, often marvelously creepy movie. As evidenced in Unbreakable and Signs, the follow-ups to his initial breakthrough hit, Shyamalan’s greatest strength by far has been his control of atmosphere and pacing, a remarkable ability to generate disquiet, to develop an almost hushed air brimming with elements of utter normalcy that made the gradual intrusion of deliciously ambiguous threat that much more effective—and the resolution that much more of a let down. Not one of his movies has an ending worth the name.

The big twist in The Happening however happens right at the beginning, when we quickly realize that Shyamalan’s not even going to bother with building up mood at all—not to mention character development—but rather dive right into the terrible conceit driving the picture. (And yes, I mean terrible in every sense of the word.) It’s as if rather than continue to take his cues from Hitchcock, Spielberg or Val Lewton, Shyamalan decided he actually wants to be Larry Cohen, the marvelous maker of outlandish low-budget hystericals like God Told Me To and Q: The Winged Serpent. Or better yet George Romero, whose legendary apocalyptic zombie movies more or less carve out the turf for The Happening’s scrambling trajectory. Problem is, unlike Cohen or Romero, Shyamalan takes himself so goddamned seriously, even when his ideas are so impossibly lame.

It all starts with crowds of New Yorkers suddenly going catatonic in Central Park before suddenly finding the handiest way to off themselves. The suicidal impulse spreads quickly, soon erupting in other cities dotting the Northeast—though, curiously, the phenomenon never crosses over into Canada—and pundits start guessing it must be the work of terrorists with some new biological weapon that reverses our survival instinct. Along with everybody else, high school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg), a veritable cheerleader for the scientific method, grabs his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) and tries to escape to Philly, but when their train grinds to a halt in Filbert, the Moores are suddenly put in charge of a friend’s little girl (Ashlyn Sanchez) and must make their way through rural Pennsylvania while trying to figure out just what it is that’s, well, Happening!

Replete with James Newton Howard’s typically overbearing boilerplate score, The Happening is one mercilessly silly movie, which you’d hope would mean it’s also a fun movie, but what fun there is to be had is often had at the expense of the movie’s ostensible integrity. There’s a subplot about commitment anxiety that feels lazily tacked on, with Wahlberg and Deschanel, normally quite charming actors both, making what must be one of the most unconvincing young movie couples in recent memory, though it does arguably allude to Shyamalan’s own inability to commit to making something cohesive. There’s also a big-ass message to be rammed down our throats about environmental decay, yet even on the level of pure propaganda it’d handled clumsily and is devoid of any resonance in the story’s details. Wearing his influences so brazenly on his sleeve anyway, Shyamalan’s a filmmaker who might be best advised to just decide what kind of movie he wants to make—and given his way with exposition, it should probably be a B-movie—and work diligently toward it instead of fighting against it. There are far worse things in this world than a solid genre stylist—and in fact these days there are far too few of them—and if Shyamalan would just apply his talents toward something leaner, meaner and less pretentious he might just have a career yet.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Life in a glass closet: in The Walker, Paul Schrader rediscovers the drifter living among the suffocating gossip queens of D.C.

As it gracefully drifts through the salons and concert halls, the boudoirs and gay bars of Washington, D.C. high society, there is the unmistakable sense that an investigation into milieu heavily informs The Walker, while its careful attention to the habits, posturing and accoutrements of its protagonist, one Carter Page III (Woody Harrelson), tighten the focus even more upon the ways in which one very particular character carefully maneuvers his way through it. Indeed, for all the violent crime, intrigue, corruption and rapid accumulation of conspiratorial hubbub, the film’s entire murder mystery is really just a macguffin. Paul Schrader’s latest work as writer/director is dressed a thriller, but below the sleek surface it’s really a character study, and you’d be best advised to approach it as such.

You also might want to brush up on your Schrader as prep. Every movie has its lineage, but some wear theirs more than others. What led Schrader to make The Walker was a longstanding desire to revisit the loosely defined “drifter” character previously glimpsed in Taxi Driver (1976), American Gigolo (80) and Light Sleeper (92), a fundamentally isolated man who exists on society’s fringe while, by virtue of his vocation, holds a special window that allows him to see into the very bowels of his surrounding world. In his 20s he drove cab, in his 30s he was a hustler, in his 40s he sold drugs. Now he’s 50 he works as an escort and gossip queen for the aging wives of wealthy politicians (among them the wonderful Lauren Bacall and Lily Tomlin). Among the pleasures of The Walker is the recognition of  this persona Schrader so clearly feels an affinity for. The fact that Carter Page III—“Car” to his lady friends—is of oppressively “respectable” Southern breeding and super, super gay only makes the scenario that much richer: Schrader’s lifelong obsessions with the inner recesses of masculinity inevitably lead him to consider both homosexuality and father issues.

Car moves in insidious circles where it’s okay to be queer so long as you know when to stifle it, thus when the shit-storm he finds himself in while attempting to cover up an affair between a political wife (Kristen Scott Thomas) and her viciously murdered lover compels Car’s kinda boyfriend (Moritz Bleibtreau) to propose the idea of blowing D.C., moving to New York, and living in openly committed bliss, Car freaks. He’s much more comfortable living in his glass closet. Harrelson embodies these contradictions superbly—for all the eye-batting and finger-snapping, the sucked-in cheeks, sea breezes, pinky ring, moustache, hairpiece and lilting drawl, his performance never feels camp. In fact, for all the best reasons, it feels very much like what it is: a man assuming a role or type to the precise degree that he feels it will serve his needs.

And Schrader? While the genre elements of the story are largely perfunctory, his affection for 80s neo-noir serves The Walker’s needs quite well, from the Dutch angles and the Venetian blinds to the soundtrack filled with cooing, synth-drenched vintage Bryan Ferry. Like so many Schrader films, there are some awkward moments, an uneasy, if always interesting relationship with classicism, and traces of some half-hearted idea of what might be commercial. The Walker, for all its merits, probably never had much of a chance of making big at the box office in today’s climate, but now that it’s on DVD from ThinkFilm, it will hopefully find the niche it deserves to rest in.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Best westerns: Man with the Gun, Day of the Outlaw exude the brutality and grace of the genre's transitional period

Richard Wilson began his career under the auspices of Orson Welles, working in various capacities—producer, writer, actor—for The Mercury Theatre before following the leader to Hollywood in 1940. By the time Wilson was helming his own projects Welles was already lost in the wilderness of his unruly career, and perhaps this prompted Wilson to choose a more modest course. Man with the Gun (1955), Wilson’s directorial debut, in no way attempts to mimic Welles’ stylistic flamboyance. Rather, it’s an unfussy, well-crafted genre picture, the sort of work that doesn’t announce he arrival of a magnificent prodigy but does in fact hold up extremely well with age—and with any luck will reach a fresh audience with Fox’s new DVD release.

The story of a lone gunman hired to bring peace to a small town ruled by thugs, Man with the Gun, which arrived in theatres the same year as The Night of the Hunter, finds Robert Mitchum giving an unusually brooding performance as “town tamer” Clint Tollinger, dressed in head-to-toe gray, his face looking flat and cold—that is until the news about his estranged family he’s been searching for is finally delivered and he flies into a rage, unleashing his wrath upon the town saloon. Mitchum’s is a brilliantly measured, never ingratiating performance that only reveals all it needs to in the final scenes, making no apologies for Tollinger’s brutality.

In the first scene a man rides into town and gleefully shoots a dog. Later a whiskey seller perches on a front porch to enjoy the gunplay in the main street with a twisted smile while the local prostitutes seem increasingly aroused by the bloodshed. Violence in Man with the Gun is never excessively sensationalized nor simplified, with Wilson wisely and subtly building an atmosphere of dread rather than terror. The use of Alex North’s music creates striking juxtapositions, sounding eerily wistful in a scene where Tollinger tells the story of an unarmed man being slaughtered, or dream-like and droning during the build-up to the film’s climax. The result of such balance and elemental interplay is a bracing example of the transitional western at its best.

A blizzard slow engulfs a pioneer settlement as a pair of ranchers traverse the blank valley where a charcoal smear of trees line the horizon before distant mountain peaks give way to a flat, forbidding sky. One of these ranchers, Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan), is coming into town to kill a man, ostensibly for putting up fences on a landscape intended for open grazing, though the fact that he’s in love with the man’s wife (Tina Louise) may have something to do with it. Messy, violent death looms as an empty bottle rolls across a bar in the wintry silence, its imminent crash intended to signal gunfire. The crash is interrupted however by the arrival of a former US military captain Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives), on the lam and here to take siege of the town with a band of bush-crazed, horny degenerates. Bruhn can barely control his men, and what’s more he’s got a bullet in his chest that will likely kill him within a matter of hours. Everything seems geared toward something absolutely awful. I guess it’s just like Blaise tells his beloved Helen early on: “You won’t find mercy anywhere in Wyoming.”

It takes a hell of a movie to follow something as good as Man with the Gun. Fortunately Day of the Outlaw (59), also newly on DVD from Fox, is an even bolder, bleaker, more distinctive work, a western wrapped in bad weather, hardship, cold death and repressed longing. Maybe it has something to do with the cast and crew’s collective background in film noir (yes, there's even a part of Elisha Cook Jr.). Screenwriter Philip Yordan—Dillinger (45), The Big Combo (55)—honed Lee E. Wells’ source novel to a taut three acts of savagery, desire, desperate invention, moral realization and fatalistic suspense. Ryan’s in top form with a role very much in keeping with much of his best work—Crossfire (47), Act of Violence (48), On Dangerous Ground (52)—while using the now tangible accumulation of time and age upon his voice and visage to deepen the pathos. He’s at once frightening and deeply sympathetic, sick to his guts with heartache, a sense of futility and a suicidal urge toward pointless destruction.

Day of the Outlaw is also further evidence of the oft-forgotten mastery of André De Toth, the Hungarian-born director who pumped out a formidable stream of genre films in Hollywood in the 40s and 50s. His manipulation of time, space and sound elevates several sequences toward the cruelly sublime: letting scenes play out entirely in master shot before closing in on a character’s face just when he’s about to undergo a radical shift; allowing the violence to become more uncomfortable by letting only the whistling wind provide the score; allowing the farewell between the youngest, nicest of the degenerates and the town’s young maiden to unfold with tenderness, humour and transitory ache. It’s the kind of work that should rightfully draw even moviegoers uninterested in genre films, and deserves this advice: even if you don’t normally go for westerns, see Day of the Outlaw.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Sweat, blood and explosions: Most masculine movies from Fuller and Daves discovered on DVD

I came to the so-called masculine movie genres not as a kid, which I guess is normally the case, but as an adult movie addict, mainly out of interest in the work of certain stars and directors who churned them out during the studio era. Maybe this explains the sort of child-like glee I now feel when DVD distributors lure a few more such titles out of the vaults. From my current vantage point, I can survey the films for their glints of complexity, their often impressive craftsmanship, but I also retain a sort of delayed, innocent awe for their particular brand of high adventure, rugged romance and male camaraderie.

Hell and High Water (1954) is  part of Fox’s ongoing DVD revival of the films of Sam Fuller, the American director whose wildly dynamic camera style and bold-faced studies of desperation and moral murk have helped to maintain his cult status. In keeping with Fuller’s yanked-from-the-headlines, eruptive style, Hell and High Water actually opens with an atomic detonation, the gaudy red credits splashed across a towering Technicolor mushroom cloud. “This is the story of that explosion,” the voiceover explains.

“That explosion” was actually produced in the Arctic in 1953 by then-unknown authors. Thus
Hell and High Water is about an independent international group of scientists and politicos who arrange for a decorated WWII submarine captain (Richard Widmark) to lead a crew comprised of one male scientist, one female scientist (Bella Darvi) and a whole bunch of sweaty, shirtless, slobbering, chauvinist goofballs on a secret mission to find out who is behind the bomb, how they got it, and what their no-doubt devious plans are. But the film’s real highlights come from the details and bravura miniature set pieces: from sexual harassment to manual mutilation, from a China-centric rendition of “Don’t Fence Me In” to a brutal casualty suffered while interrogating a Chinese prisoner, Hell and High Water is well endowed in character, texture and audacity.

Widmark’s character this time out isn’t in keeping with the manic, hysterical losers he made his mark with in Kiss of Death (47) or Night and the City (50), but he’s cagey, conflicted and terrifically compelling in the film’s major turning points. The only significant supplement on the Hell and High Water disc is a typically hokey A&E Biography of Widmark, which shamelessly exploits his brother’s illness and death for cheap drama, but is fascinating nonetheless. Widmark is commonly known for being as clean-cut off-screen as he was deviant on, but it’s most curious to note that while still working as a schoolteacher in the Midwest, he took his summer holidays in Nazi Germany, trying to gather material for a documentary exposé on Hitler Youth camps.

I developed an admiration for the relatively forgotten director Delmer Daves after seeing
Dark Passage (47), a brilliantly bizarre noir based on a David Goodis novel, full of hallucinatory subjective camerawork and featuring a killer cast of Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Agnes Moorhead and Tom D’Andrea. I then discovered Daves’s enormously appealing 3:10 to Yuma (57), based on an Elmore Leonard western and featuring a very seductive Glenn Ford as the baddie. I can’t reasonably expect to find anything else in Daves’s filmography to match this pair, but I’m sufficiently motivated to check out his other films.

Broken Arrow (50), however, is neither another crown jewel nor a total disappointment. Set in 1870, it’s one of the very first westerns to attempt to come to terms with the genre’s racist tendencies, a self-consciously liberal-minded picture in which a gold-hunting loner (James Stewart) is drawn out of his neutrality in the hostilities between American expansionists and Cochise’s Apaches after having his life saved by an Apache teen—while still bearing witness to Apache torture methods in a chilling nocturnal tableau.

The film carries a balance of respectful anthropological detail mixed with the usual awkward casting of whites in the major Apache roles. Stewart is as convincing as always playing the stubborn moral authority, and the film never succumbs to any overly whitewashed characterizations of the other side. In fact, the final shoot out between some whites and Geronimo’s renegade warriors ends quite brutally. Founded in a spirit of colonial apologetics that now feels a bit quaint, it’s very much a film of its time—but not one without a few teeth, and more than a few incredible vistas. 

Thursday, June 5, 2008

War Inc.: sentimental satire that doesn't take the gloves off... does feature funny poo jokes

I suppose it’s to the film’s credit that War Inc. dispenses with any doubts about its self-identification as broad satire very early in the proceedings. To the strains of a supremely winky spaghetti western strum, corporate hitman Brand Hauser (John Cusack) is seen taking out three Germans in a bar in Nunavut, taking his regular hits of ultra-intestine corroding chili sauce, and taking instructions from a former US vice president and CEO of Tamerlane, a wildly successful weapons manufacturer, over the web-phone while said CEO is seen taking a giant steaming dump. Hauser’s new gig is in war-torn Turaqistan, which is of course a stand-in for Iraq. The ex-VP is of course a stand-in for Dick Cheney, Tamerlane of course a stand-in for Halliburton, and Hauser, with his deep cynicism, digestive problems, shaky hands and increasing weariness, stands in, rather uneasily, for the repressed conscience of the American public, tacit participants in a monstrously ill-fated post-post-colonial experiment, chugging down whatever over-the-counter medication to erase their guilt.

Hauser is charged with the assassination of one Omar Sharif (no, not that Omar Sharif), a romantic, rotund Middle Eastern oil minister whose plans to lay a pipeline through Turaqistan threatens Tamerlane’s monopoly on the ravaged nation’s resources. Hauser’s to enter the country under the guise of overseer of a Tamerlane trade show, an extravaganza replete with chorus girls sporting the corporation’s generously donated artificial limbs and a performance from Central Asia’s biggest pop sensation, the nubile and talentless Yonica Babyyeah (Hilary Duff). The occupation of Turaqistan is the first such military operation to be completely outsourced to private corporations and its time to celebrate.

Sound like a smugly self-satisfying (for Liberals, at least) laugh riot yet? Just wait! Hauser’s operation is soon compromised by the entrance of funny-named Natalie Hegalhuzen (Marisa Tomei), a courageous—and foxy—journalist writing for a magazine nobody who lives between New York and Los Angeles actually reads. Hauser’s heart is swollen and his political apathy broken by Natalie’s feisty assertiveness, and though she plays hard to get, her being kidnapped by insurgents who really just want to make arty snuff videos will soon ensure that Hauser will have to save her life and make sacrifices that throw his whole killing-machine lifestyle upside-down. And there’s still the flashbacks that explain why Hauser’s so haunted, because as all moviegoers know, hitmen are really just hardened men in need of a hug.

The notion that War Inc., directed by Joshua Seftel, could function as a bitingly comic, enlightening or enraging commentary on some relevant political topic is so misguided its not even funny. At best it might have been Blood Diamond—the comedy! But really it’s no more politically astute than Grosse Point Blank, the first appearance of Cusack’s endearing hitman character, which, like War Inc., found Cusack contributing as co-scripter and co-producer and, like War Inc., featured a fun sidekick role for his sister. War Inc.’s obvious model is Dr. Strangelove, yet its story, and most especially its hero, are way too mushy-hearted to properly align itself with Stanley Kubrick’s ruthless send-up of Cold War insanity. There are to be sure talented performers at work here, and a few gags are certainly successful (okay, so I laughed at Dan Ackroyd taking a dump on the horn), but the whole is severely side-tracked by its own lack of focus, its excess of cheap potshots, and its ultimate succumbing to the very Hollywood conventions that it should be rallying against.

There’s also the niggling factor of War Inc.’s reliance on a white male American antihero to redeem an otherwise ghastly situation, not to mention the occupied country’s one-dimensional depiction as a grubby wasteland of violent, greedy lunatics. When viewed in this light, War Inc. is in its way exhibits exactly the sort of message the filmmakers are ostensibly rallying against. Ironically, those of us who share the political views of the filmmakers are likely going to be more annoyed by the film than anybody else. Those who don’t share such views probably won’t care.