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Sunday, Dec 23, 2007


Can’t find the right gift for the cinephile in your life? Wondering what to get the film fan who has every…DVD ever made? Perhaps procrastination has put you in the precarious position of having to cater, last minute, to your resident movie maven. Of course, the biggest problem is not when to give, but what. Every year, it’s the same old gift giving grind. Well, have no fear. Even as the clock is ticking down and the stores are shuttering their doors, SE&L can help solve your mad dash dilemma. Within the 12 suggestions offered, covering three distinct mediums (books/DVDs/CDs) our crack research staff has uncovered unusual, unique, and enticing items to put under your celluloid leaning loved one’s X-mas tree. They’re guaranteed to make one’s pre-present days seem merry and bright. Let’s begin with the printed page:


BOOKS


My Boring Ass Life by Kevin Smith


Kevin Smith likes to talk. He’s the king of yak. As a matter of fact, even when he’s not giving guest lectures, chatting it up on satellite radio, or routinely contributing to his own noted podcast, the Clerks creator still moves words. And here’s proof - a year’s worth of blog journals by someone who feels minutia makes the man. Want to know his bowel regularity, or the unusual occlusions on his skin? It’s all here. Want some backstage insight into the indie filmmaking process? That’s accounted for as well. In fact, there’s not much missing from this all encompassing, thoroughly engrossing diary.

 


Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity by David Lynch


Ever wonder how much of an effect TM - or Transcendental Meditation - has had on the American auteur? This slim but substantive book on the subject will finally fill in the blanks. Lynch is not ashamed of his relationship to the controversial ‘70s movement, and when you read about the way he uses the fugue state as a means of opening up important artistic and mental portals, the results seem rock solid. As with any book on the subject, there is a nonsensical New Age quality that tends to undermine the thesis. Still, this is a key insight into a very complex man’s mind.



Diaries 1969 - 1979: The Python Years by Michael Palin


Sudden stardom. Movie set ennui. Tensions between group members. Minor bits of scandal! It’s all here in Palin’s exhaustive personal journals. While he’s not out to write the greatest entertainment adventure of all time, he is witness to the rebirth of sketch comedy as modern audiences would come to love it, and his place in Python allows him access the camps of both the inspired geniuses (Jones, Idle) and the moody madmen (Cleese, Chapman). There are also some fascinating personal tidbits, including information on dating, relationships, married life, and kids. While avoiding the controversial and the catty, Palin produces a definitive companion piece to Python’s remarkable rise.



To Infinity and Beyond!: The Story of Pixar Animation Studios by Karen Paik


They didn’t start out as an animation studio. Instead, they were tech geeks giving computer graphics a massive software makeover. Every cartoon they created, in turn, was just a means of testing out a new set of codes. That many became artform classics stands as the truly remarkable element. From their very first experiments in the format to the genre defining gems like Toy Story and The Incredibles, it’s all here - and as usual, the backstory is frequently more dramatic and defining than what’s up there on the screen. As a testament to the tenacity and talent of this group, this book is brilliant.

 



DVDs
The Poisonous Seductress Trilogy


Brandishing a sword, a battered body, and a vendetta the size of Mt. Fuji on her frail little frame, the character of Ohyaku/Okatsu starred in a trio of films in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s which more or less started the whole Pinky Violence/Female Delinquent genre in Japan. And it’s no wonder - these amazing movies (especially the first two in the series, Female Demon Ohyaku and Quick Draw Okatsu) are period piece epics as feminist wish fulfillment. Shockingly violent and disturbingly misogynistic, these otherwise formulaic films are saved by the undeniable star power of Junko Miyazono. She’s a true iconic badass.



The Other Cinema DVD Collection


They remain a ferociously independent distributor handling titles by underground artists (The Kuchar Brothers, Negativland) and wildly idiosyncratic films (documentaries about 8-tracks, short film collections about sex) that no other company would touch. The catalog contains such amazing motion picture artifacts as Tribulation 99, dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, and The Rainbow Man/John 3:16. Now you can own all 19 discs in the collection, giving you access to many unheralded gems and forgotten enigmas. Not every film here is a masterpiece, but the presentation argues for DVD’s ability to bring heretofore unknown efforts - many never receiving a legitimate release - to the masses.

 


Starlite Drive-In Cult Classics Collection: A Dusk to Dawn Marathon


The Pom Pom Girls…The Van…Hustler Sqaud…Wild Riders…Van Nuys Blvd…Little Laura & Big John…Madmen of Madoras (aka They Saved Hitler’s Brain)…The Devil’s Hand. Eight films…eight exploitation classics, throwbacks to a time when taking a date to the drive-in was more than just an excuse for premarital sex. Softcore sleaze, unhinged horror, and lots of brutality and violence were the trademarks of an era which saw passion pit playdates becoming the anti-arthouse of the post-modern era. Sure, the prints look pathetic, and the dated or just plain dumb dimensions of many of these films undermine their effectiveness, but this is the ‘70s baby - love it or leave it. 


The Godzilla Collection


Seven movies…seven slices of kaiju heaven. The Japanese love of big movie monsters begins and ends with this classic nuclear age icon, and thanks to the efforts of Sony and Classic Media, fans of the randy reptile have a chance to see him the way Toho Studios intended. Fully restored, complete with Asian audio tracks and loads of extras, you can experience the original Gojira, Godzilla Raids Again, Mothra vs. Godzilla, Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster, Invasion of Astro Monster, All Monsters Attack, and Terror of Mechagodzilla. With over 20 hours of building crushing, people smashing fun, it will truly be a green and RED holiday.



CDs
There Will Be Blood Soundtrack - Jonny Greenwood


As if we needed further proof that director Paul Thomas Anderson is a genius, he goes and hires Radiohead guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Greenwood to compose the score for his latest big screen epic. How a post-modern musician from one of England’s most experimental pop acts meshes with a turn of the century period piece on oil wildcatting is an exercise in harsh juxtaposition, but it works so well one hardly cares. Reminiscent of classical moments from 2001, spaghetti westerns, and other contemporary works, Greenwood uses sound as a supplement, bringing Anderson’s grandiose ideas back down to Earth. It’s a combination that’s magic to the ears.



Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story - John C. Reilly and Various Artists


The songs here are silly, suggestive, and quite scandalous. They’re also almost impossible to forget. Like a genre-jumping Spinal Tap, working within everything from pure pop to rockabilly, country and/or western, Judd Apatow and Jake Kasdan’s sonic sketches were exaggerated and amplified by names such as Van Dyke Parks and Marshall Crenshaw, and the resulting earworms are sensational. They fit the storyline and structure of the film expertly, and when they need to be, they carry the plot points all by themselves. Both John C. Reilly and Jenna Fischer do a bang up job vocally, showing that the best kind of satire is handled seriously, not sloppily.



The Kingdom: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack - Danny Elfman


While it doesn’t sound like a stretch - Elfman has been a staple of film soundtracks since the early ‘80s - the approach taken for this Peter Berg action film redefines the composer’s career. Influenced by the director and his love of the band Explosions in the Sky, Elfman used electronic minimalism, casually strummed electric guitar, and a far more ambient feel to the overall symphonics to bring depth and emotional weight to an otherwise straightforward good guy/bad guy shoot ‘em up. It’s a sound so stark, so ethereal, that one can’t imagine it comes from the same Goth groove mind.


Sunshine: Original Score - Underworld


If you can find it, consider yourself lucky. Ever since August, rumors have been circulating that the work done by this underground electronica group was involved in some complex rights issues (something about who could distribute their work internationally). As a result, the amazing aural vistas created for Danny Boyle’s brilliant sci-fi epic have become the Holy Grail for film score aficionados. There are bootleg versions on the web, as well as promised compilations from other regions. If you can locate a copy, it’s well worth the effort. This is one of the best speculative movie scores ever.

 


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Sunday, Dec 23, 2007


Many fans forget that Jackie Chan’s reputation is built on not one but two solid cinematic foundations. Sure, there’s the undeniable martial artistry and death wish stunt work, his crackerjack ability to defy gravity, physics, and human endurance to deliver some of the most mesmerizing set pieces in the history of Hong Kong action. But there is also Jackie Chan the comedian, the sensational throwback to the days when slapstick and physical humor ruled the motion picture landscape. Yet many fail to embrace that side of his performance persona. Thanks to his treatment by Tinsel Town, a myopic view that sees him as a trademark first, an actor second, he hasn’t had much opportunity to let his genial side show. Now, thanks to a return to his home turf, 2006’s Robin B Hood gives us the best of both Chans.


Thongs and Octopus are two of the most accomplished thieves in all of Asia. They are also two of the most troubled. One is a compulsive gambler, the kind that spends his money even before he’s earned it. The other is a craven womanizer, married and miserable while dating several other available ladies. Under the tutelage of their leader, Landlord, the trio makes a fine living. Too bad the cash disappears before they can really enjoy it. When a job comes along to kidnap an infant, the threesome initially balks. The $3 million payday has them quickly shifting into abduction mode. But when Landlord lands in jail, Thongs and Octopus must watch the baby for a week - and with the insane tycoon who hired them desperate for the child, they’ll have to battle the standard toddler growing pains, as well as attacks from some thugs and raids by the police, in order to survive.


Leaping from genre to genre like a freaked out frog and offering up every cinematic element in the book, Robin B Hood (also known as Rob-B-Hood) is a wonderfully overstuffed treat. Pursuing both comedy and tragedy, heartfelt redemption and cartoon like chaos, this is the kind of film that Asian audiences crave. Very much like the Bollywood productions from India that won’t settle for one type of entertainment within a single storyline, this fast paced farce is part Three Men and a Baby, part Police Story era thriller, utilizing everything from musical inserts to high speed car crashes to wow the viewer. Thanks to Genius Products, their Dragon Dynasty Collection, and its ongoing desire to provide Western audiences with the best in Eastern cinema, this new two disc DVD offers supplements and insights into why these sorts of films are so popular. It also illustrates how hard it is to pull one off.


The main element that requires getting used to is the massive shifts in tone. One minute, Chan’s Thongs and his pal Octopus, played brilliantly by Louis Koo, will be trading witty repartee and repelling off the sides of skyscrapers ala Hudson Hawk. The next, Chan will be facing a disgraced family while his partner tells his devastated wife to take a bus to have an abortion. You can have real melodrama one moment, fights with infant feces the next. These frequent filmic slaps in the face are definitely unusual to audiences used to consistent tone and narrative equilibrium. But in the fast paced production designs of Hong Kong, it is complete crowd pleasing on the grandest of scales. If you require a confrontation between father and son, or a moment of misogyny between husband and spouse, so be it. As long as it puts butts in the seats, everything is celluloid copacetic.


And there’s no denying how effective it can be. Chan is amazing here, running the gamut of emotions from good natured cut up to torn apart guardian. His last act pleading for the life of the child is almost too painful to watch. Many make little of this actor’s abilities outside of stuntwork, but Chan is a natural, adept at both acrobatics and emoting. Koo is equally good, giving a shamed sense of purpose to his outsized appetites. Even when his expensive cars are eventually towed, and his high living persona is punctured, he comes across as calculated and cocksure. It’s only when he connects with his tiny co-star that his real humanity begins to bleed through.


Director Benny Chan, working from a script co-written by his same name superstar, keeps the pace brisk and the action lively. There’s a first act hospital chase that’s filled with surprises, and a second act city street free for all that moves at the speed of a sports car. Of course, once we reach the amusement park and the strange estate of our lead villain, it’s one over the top fight scene after another. Oddly enough, the most memorable bits are the small, hand to hand moments - Chan moving about a doorway to subdue an attacker, his air conditioner to air conditioner descent down the side of a building. Even when the story gets squirrely (the whole reason for the kidnapping is telegraphed early and rather illogical), the man behind the lens keeps us connected, both visually and psychologically.


As part of the DVD, we get to hear from the filmmaker as he talks to film scholar Bey Logan. On the enclosed commentary track, they discuss the frequent forays into tearjerker mode, and explain the problems facing any film where a baby is endangered. On the second disc, Chan himself defends the need for drama and agrees with that age old adage about working with kids. We also get the standard making-of material that shows how incredibly complicated the stunt choreography is. One slip - and they happen too often for comfort - and an actor is bleeding from the head, or on their way to the hospital. It’s one of the subconscious thrills of a martial arts/Asian action film. There’s a real sense of danger as human beings, not CGI replications of same, shimmy off rooftops and flip through the air.


As he’s aged it’s clear that Chan is no longer the light footed, foolhardy risk taker he once was. You’re not going to see him vault between trains, or fall through panes of breakaway glass. Instead, his recent output has concentrated on bringing a balance between the daring-do that brought him fame (and undeniable fortune), and the clear limits placed on his 50-plus year body. Projects like The Myth and The Twin Effects films have shown that said equilibrium remains elusive. But by going back to the Charlie Chaplin/Buster Keaton influence of his earliest persona, and exploring every possible entertainment option, he’s stumbled upon a winner. There will be those who lament the lack of nonstop hardcore histrionics, wondering what’s happened to the real Jackie Chan. Obviously, they don’t know this multifaceted talent at all. If they did, they’d see Robin B Hood for what it is - pure Chan magic.


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Saturday, Dec 22, 2007


In a year which saw more cinematic wind and whining wasted on the War in Iraq than any other issue facing our fading nation, The Kingdom can claim all the joyful jingoistic mantle. It’s an amazing movie, a rock solid thriller as brutal as it is blind. It’s randy ra-ra Americanism is so undeniably entertaining that you don’t even mind the Red State revisionism. Peter Berg, an actor whose ability behind the lens has been uneven at best, really delivers in big, broad action movie strokes - and when compared to the self-pitying pandering that passed itself off as “War is Hell” handwringing in 2007, its cheerful chest pounding is in the right place. It may not win us any friends across the sea, and definitely paints Muslims as indoctrinating villains, but we’re so blinded by the strategic stars and stripes placed before our sense of justice that we too call for blood.


When a suicide bombing destroys a US compound inside the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the FBI wants to investigate. Unfortunately, the government of the oil rich country doesn’t allow outsiders into their internal police affairs. This doesn’t stop Special Agent Ronald Fluery (Jamie Foxx) from bringing together specialists Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), and Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman). With a little blackmail persuasion, the Feds are given five days, and the help of a local police officer (Ashraf Barhom), to observe and then leave. Naturally, the Americans’ presence, along with the evidence they uncover, puts their own lives in mortal danger. And as foreigners on unfriendly soil, there is no guarantee of protection.


On the commentary track accompanying the new DVD release from Universal, director Berg acknowledges that there will be some who take this movie the wrong way. While prostylitizing writer Matthew Michael Carnahan may have the best intentions ever for all this anti-Arab race-baiting, (he’s as insanely ideological here as he was in his overwrought scripting of Lions for Lambs), what we wind up with more times than not is mustache twirling scoundrels decked out in Middle Eastern garb. Berg apologizes for any offense to sensibility, and wants to make it clear that this is as much a tribute to Saudi Arabia as it is a critique. Constantly referencing the cooperation he received, and the concern voiced by many Muslims on set, we are to infer that the resulting film is a formidable meeting of the minds. Sadly, that’s some specious conjecture at best.

Indeed, this film is brazen in its “all Arabs are evil” philosophy and unrepentant in showing the carnage that results from such a simplified stance, The Kingdom is like a James Cameron/Arnold Schwarzenegger collaboration where neither party is participating. It’s manipulative, manic, and just a tad manufactured. It raises more issues than it ever wants to address, and boils all Muslim culture down to a series of backwards belief systems. Granted, as in all stereotyping, there are snippets of truth here and there, and when dealing with a crime that is merely mimicking actual events that have played out before, truth is a defense to such defamatory stances. But what’s most fascinating about The Kingdom is how readily we buy into the xenophobia, and how satisfying it is to see our brave men and women kick some true believer butt.


One does have to get over the hurdle of the opening atrocities, however. Without giving too much away, this pre-planned attack will shoot at single mothers, run over children, blow-up ball players and, eventually, elevate all three to something almost impossible to comprehend. The scale of this event is massive, and its impact on an audience is truly disturbing. Add to this the ineffectual CSI skills of the Saudi police (their main detecting device – beating confessions out of possible co-conspirators) and the basic mentality that what happens in the Arab world stays within the tightly wound region, and you’ve got a perfect storm of storytelling subterfuge.


Viewed as liberators – at least when it comes to the facts – Jamie Foxx and his group of high profile performers are actually quite believable as crime scene experts. Each gets their own important moment of detecting denouement, with the Oscar winner for Ray running ramshackle over the double talk speaking soldiers. It’s one of Foxx’s best performances, since it’s grounded in a reality that keeps him from being a total swaggering ass. Equally good are Jennifer Garner as a kind of forensics pathologist (she scans corpses for clues) and Chris Cooper, who’s the grizzled yet game old timer who really knows his way around a bomb crater. In combination with Bateman, whose nothing more than a computer nerd novice and a potential last act plot device, we have a no nonsense bunch who’ll get to the bottom of this case. And since the narrative is structured in such a way as to demand retribution, we can’t wait for these champions to divide and conquer.


And they do so in spectacular fashion. Over the course of his career behind the camera, actor Berg has become an accomplished filmmaker. Previous efforts like The Rundown and Friday Night Lights won’t quite prepare you for the motion picture professionalism he shows here. There are several spectacular stunt sequences that rate right up there with the best the genre has to offer, and his ability to mix in shards of humanity speaks to his growing artist acumen. In the commentary, he gives credit to his editors for making his many shots seamlessly merge together. And as part of the DVD packaging, a pair of onset documentaries goes into exquisite detail about the free for all finale, from brutal car crash to full blown bullet ballet.


Yet The Kingdom is such a strong entertainment, such a substantial us vs. them example of wish fulfillment that it’s easy to ignore the many mixed messages. Basically, the film is a brutal Wild West shoot ‘em up ported over to the Middle East and given a glossy, post-9/11 reading. It will invigorate the most dormant sense of citizenship, and have you cheering in places that should give you pause. Even the ending stacks the deck in favor of the fallen. It involves a single whispered sentiment, and how its meaning can be manipulated depending on the nature of the individual offering it. After all the cheering and jeering within the audience, it’s a weird way of providing closure. Clearly Berg and Carnahan think it’s clever. They may be the only ones to understand its true meaning. Viewers may misinterpret it as a call to arms.


 


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Thursday, Dec 20, 2007


For the weekend beginning 21 December, here are the films in focus:


Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street [rating: 10]


As the perfect marriage of maker and material, this dark, disturbing splatter-etta stands as the best film of 2007.

The reemergence of the musical as a viable, awards season showcase has been fraught with inconsistency. For every example of the genre that seems to click with voters and moviegoers (Chicago), there’s ambitious flops (The Phantom of the Opera) and pandering populism (Dreamgirls). Finding the right balance between Broadway and the big screen is never easy, mainly because the source material inherently thwarts a carefree translation. What works on a stage before a live audience turns odd and even ineffectual within the two dimensional medium. Similarly, even the most gifted filmmaker can fail in capturing the true spirit of a piece.    read full review…


Charlie Wilson’s War [rating: 8]


Witty, wacky, and wildly inappropriate for our Puritan PC times, this story of a lecherous Congressman and his anti-Commie compunction sails along on breezes of effortless engagement, filled with performances so potent they act like double shots of soothing Southern Comfort.


Politicians will forever be known as slick speaking, backslapping, good old boys, re-feeding the coffers that got them into office with promises, perks and mindless policy decisions. Anything they accomplish is instantly compromised by shady dealings, special interests, and the ever-present perfume of scandal. Charlie Wilson had that undeniable aroma. He was a loose living, morally ambiguous Congressman carousing in a town overflowing with such specious experts, and he would have served out his terms in relative anonymity if it wasn’t for Afghanistan. When Soviet forces invaded the tiny Arab country, Wilson saw it as an affront to the cause of freedom. His eventual efforts on behalf of the nation resulted in one of the first major defeats of Communism ever recorded. And according to the new political comedy by American original Mike Nichols, he had a damn good time making it happen. read full review…


Other Releases - In Brief


Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story [rating: 8]


The celebrity biopic has become the disaster film of cinematic spoof material. So forced and formulaic that it comes across like a politician’s debate answers, it’s a genre that practically parodies itself - as long as one’s working in clichés. Like the chum on any side of a format that’s jumped the shark, comedy genius Judd Apatow, and his current collaborator Jake Kasdan (son of Lawrence), are ready to pick the category’s carcass clean. The result is Walk Hard, a stunningly stupid and wildly hilarious farce that finds solid supporting player John C. Reilly playing the title character, a nimrod rube who uses the tragic death of his brother (and the resulting olfactory malfunction he suffers from) as his ticket to the top. Included along the way are spot on riffs regarding Elvis, Bob Dylan, and The Beatles, along with the typical familial farce that accompanies such rags to riches ridiculousness. While not as tight as Knocked Up or as scatological as Superbad, Walk Hard is one of the year’s biggest surprises. Yet when you consider the creative minds behind it, such a triumph is more or less a given.


National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets [rating: 4]


There was a time when action movies were big, dumb, loud, and mindless - and those were all positive attributes. Buffed up actors spouting crass one liners were the standard hero du jour, and everything had a Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok tendency to blow up…blow up real good. So it’s easy to forgive the latest installment in the burgeoning National Treasure franchise, Book of Secrets, for being so unconscionably stupid. What it can’t gain absolution from is how dull it all is. Dealing with the assassination of Lincoln, the discovery of the fabled lost City of Gold, and the role played by a member of the Gates ancestry in both (potentially), we have Nicholas Cage back as our sleepwalking savior, a treasure hunter in possession of all the possibilities and very little panache. He is joined by fellow Oscar winners Jon Voight and Helen Mirren as blindly bickering parents. Add in the nonstop, non-comic chatter of computer geek sidekick Justin Bartha and vacant love interest Diane Kruger and you’ve got a cast going nowhere fast. Even the mandatory action is lame and uninvolving. As by the book spectacles go, this is barely a pulp paperback. It’s more like an incomplete pamphlet.


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Thursday, Dec 20, 2007

Charlie Wilson’s War [dir. Mike Nichols]


Politicians will forever be known as slick speaking, backslapping, good old boys, re-feeding the coffers that got them into office with promises, perks and mindless policy decisions. Anything they accomplish is instantly compromised by shady dealings, special interests, and the ever-present perfume of scandal. Charlie Wilson had that undeniable aroma. He was a loose living, morally ambiguous Congressman carousing in a town overflowing with such specious experts, and he would have served out his terms in relative anonymity if it wasn’t for Afghanistan. When Soviet forces invaded the tiny Arab country, Wilson saw it as an affront to the cause of freedom. His eventual efforts on behalf of the nation resulted in one of the first major defeats of Communism ever recorded. And according to the new political comedy by American original Mike Nichols, he had a damn good time making it happen.


While on a ‘fact finding mission’ in a Las Vegas hot tub loaded with strippers and cocaine, Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson learns of the ongoing Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Wondering why the US hasn’t responded to such a blatant act of invasion, he soon discovers that no one considers the situation a threat. But when Houston socialite Joanne Herring asks him to look into some covert funding for the freedom fighters, their longstanding relationship fuels Wilson’s interest. Before long, the Congressman is visiting refugee camps and bringing his fight to the floor of his House Subcommittee. With the help of CIA operative Gust Avrakotos and many insider connections, Wilson discovers what the Afghanis need - surface to air missiles that can take down the plague of Russian helicopters decimating the landscape. Getting the money won’t be easy, but with his reputation both in and outside of the Rotunda, if anyone can do it, Charlie Wilson can.


At this point in his illustrious career, Mike Nichols can cruise into legend and no one would blame him for such passivity. He’s often considered the original rebellious voice of the emerging ‘60s/‘70s post-modern movement (thanks in part to his brilliant proto-slacker statement, The Graduate), but has also helmed other symbols of cinematic significance like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , Catch 22, and Carnal Knowledge. Yet when it comes to politics, Nichols is less than nimble. His tendency is to beat people over the head with his stances, showcasing how corruptible and craven the system can be (Primary Colors) vs. how righteous and reverent his characters are (Silkwood). It’s not a terrible habit - many of the movies he’s made have the same entertainment spark as his commercial successes (Working Girl, The Birdcage). But those looking for insight usually wind up settling for irony, satire strangulating even the most powerful of big picture pronouncements.


Perhaps this is why Charlie Wilson’s War feels like such a triumph. It’s the first legitimate marriage between Nichols the comedian and Nichols the commentator. Witty, wacky, and wildly inappropriate for our Puritan PC times, this story of a lecherous Congressman and his anti-Commie compunction sails along on breezes of effortless engagement, filled with performances so potent they act like double shots of soothing Southern Comfort. Nichols can be accused of pandering or taking sides. The script by West Wing/A Few Good Men scribe Aaron Sorkin is unapologetically insular in that regard. And Wilson may have been, in real life, a cad of unconscionable proportions, but the message this movie delivers is loud and crystal clear - the US funded covert war against the Soviets in the early ‘80s led directly to the rise of the Taliban, the establishment of Al-Qaeda, and the events of 9/11.


It’s not that obvious at first. Tom Hanks, handling the lead roll like he’s just been cast in The Rat Pack Swing Washington, is all beaming smiles and smacked female backsides. He’s James Bond without the continental charms and license to kill. At first, Wilson seems to be formed out of swaggers and excess appetites. Even when he takes up the cause in Afghanistan, it’s more of a show of personal power (he’s the key vote that many of his fellow politicians count on) than a real concern or cause. During these sequences of backdoor wheeling and debauchery fueled dealing, Nichols lulls us into a sense of satiric complacency. We wonder how a movie so mired in moxie is going to turn around and deliver the proper policy denouement.


And then we move to the battlefield. In one of the most effective moments in the entire film, Wilson views a Pakistani refugee camp firsthand, and the brutality and carnage is unbearable: Children missing limbs, adults minus eyes, faces shorn off by shrapnel and bodies battered by an inability to properly defend themselves. These scenes are crucial to Charlie Wilson’s War and its effectiveness. A 2007 audience, already sick to death of the morass in the Middle East, has to buy a non-Red State rationale for our lead’s heroics. Jingoism and the pull of the patriot just won’t fly. But when given a human image, and a human toll, we instantly side with the concerned Congressman. Ethics violations or not, his role in Washington has to prompt the appropriate change.


As the baffles which this character careens off of, Nichols provides two stellar stalwarts. Looking a lot less glamorous than her rich witch Texas money baroness would bear out, Julie Roberts is excellent as Joanne Herring. With untold wealth to waste and Wilson as her power pawn, she’s more than just a bank account. There’s a brilliant scene where a post-coital Herring reapplies her face, and the diligence and dedication she shows in putting on this powder and pancake façade is just fabulous. Besides, Roberts has great chemistry with Hanks. One could easily see the two helming a series of retro-romantic comedies. They’re so winning, so endearingly effervescent that you can’t help but love them.


But the real maverick here is Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s the gruff, gritty Greek CIA analyst Gust Avrakotos, the kind of man whose done it all and seen it all. His no nonsense, world weary wisdom is a breath of protocol breaching candor in rooms full of stagnant Washington air. He’s the cutting edge to Wilson’s wide-eyed optimism, the calculated con to the Congressman’s cheerleading pro. If he wasn’t already an established star, it’s the kind of performance that would elevate an actor’s game. As the fulcrum between Hanks and Roberts, the realistic against their pert smile optimism, Hoffman is sensational.


And so is the rest of the film. Nichols does a good job of balancing moments of meaning against just plain partying. Wilson is viewed as a hard drinking womanizer, but there are times when the director let’s Hanks get reflective and hurt. They work to keep the film from falling over into parody. Similarly, the last act revitalization of the Afghan forces has a wonderful Fox News fakeness to it. It makes it easy to forget that this is the same rebellion that will eventually revert to Islamic fundamentalism and provide a proving ground for future terrorists in training. Nichols doesn’t let us off the hook either. During a balcony scene between Hanks and Hoffman, a sound is heard that reminds us of why Wilson’s fervor eventually became his folly.


Of course, the movie doesn’t martyr the man. Instead, it continues his position as prescient and prophetic. A final quote before the closing credits reveals such insights, and the cleverly crafted scenes before said statement show just how shortsighted our government can be. Still, audiences shouldn’t come to Charlie Wilson’s War expecting the kind of political resonance achieved by directors such as Oliver Stone or films like All the President’s Men. Nichols is more than happy to stay solidly in entertainer mode. If some minor message gets out, all the better. Some may see this solid bit of mainstream Hollywood moviemaking as all celebrity smoke and mirrors. In fact, it’s much more biting - and brazen than that. 


 



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