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by Bill Gibron

18 Sep 2009

It’s safe to say that, somewhere down the line, Jody Hill is going to make a truly f*cked-up masterpiece. He’s going to drop all the idiosyncrasies and preplanned insularity, dig deep into his feverish and often fetid imagination, dump the angst-ridden Apatow shtick and come away with something truly remarkable. You can sense it in the work he’s done so far - the mean-spirited satire of The Foot Fist Way, the equally ugly honesty of Eastbound and Down. Now comes his latest big screen screed, the wickedly weird mall cop craziness known as Observe and Report. Starring funny business flavor of the month Seth Rogen and dealing once again with an isolated individual struggling to make a statement in a world that only wants reassurances, Hill definitely has his hands full. This time around, however, audiences may not be ready for the eerily familiar juggling act.

All his life, Ronnie Barnhardt has wanted to be part of law enforcement. His dream is to become a police officer and carry a gun. Unfortunately, he is stuck as head of security for a local mall, and while he takes his job very seriously, the rest of the employees think he’s a joke. When a flasher starts stalking women at the facility, including Ronnie’s dream babe make—up counter girl Brandi, the mentally unbalanced rent-a-cop vows to solve the case. In doing so, he hopes this prissy party gal will become his regular Saturday night thing. Of course, he will have to get around actual lawman Detective Harrison, a severe lack of clues, and his own inept sense of self to apprehend the pervert. To add to his frustration, Ronnie finally takes the necessary steps to enter the police academy. While physically capable, his current psychological “deficiencies” might make this a one way street as well.

It’s not Hill’s fault that Kevin James stole his thunder. Indeed, the stand-up turned pseudo-star could not have anticipated that Paul Blart: Mall Cop would be one of 2009’s surprise hits (hackneyed and horrible as it is). Indeed, as audiences exit Observe and Report (or revisit it again on home video), many will probably wonder why Rogen and company choose to ride the coattails of said slapstick slice of family farce - especially with such an antisocial take on the material. The truth, of course, is that both films found their way to market without direct correlation of competition from the other. In addition, Hill was hacking away at this screenplay long before James was jumping up and down like an overstuffed burrito in a ball pit. Still, the similarity in subject matter (and the eventual acceptance of Blart‘s mindless mediocrity) means that Observe and Report has absolutely no chance at the box office. Perhaps Warner’s new DVD and Blu-ray can solve that problem.

Clearly this film is not for everyone. It doesn’t reach across commercial boundaries to try and embrace the demographic or be everything to every viewer…and fail. Instead, Hill is like a stubborn old man, sitting on his motion picture front porch and chasing away all but the more adventurous from his aesthetic lawn. Let’s face it - anyone who uses a naked fatso running full frontal throughout the finale (in slow motion, nonetheless) is tweaking the tenets of modern audience attention spans. He’s challenging those who expect warm and fuzzy with material tepid and frazzled. Rogen is not the cuddly teddy geek he’s portrayed in numerous films. Instead, his Ronnie is a bi-polar problem with a penchant for inappropriate comments, obsessive-compulsive fantasizing, and a real love of weaponry. The minute we watch Rogen shooting targets with a massive handgun, we can guess where this contextual characteristic is going to eventually reveal itself.

There are a lot of hidden agendas in Observe and Report, from a fey Hispanic co-worker who might not be completely honest, to a police detective who’d rather screw around with Ronnie than actually solve the case. There is a classic, curse-laden crossfire between Rogen and a kiosk worker that proves that the F-bomb is still the most versatile of all putdown, and we do enjoy the drunken directness of Ronnie’s mother. Her combination of inebriated insights and off the wall warmth are almost magical. Indeed, one of the best things about Hill’s particular brand of humor is that it’s based wholly on people - problem, hate, and pain filled individuals, but human beings nonetheless. He doesn’t go for the gross out, unless it’s part of someone’s personality, nor does he dim the sentimentality to keep the anarchy alive.

This doesn’t mean that everything works in Observer and Report. Two important players - Ray Liotta’s sarcastic investigating officer and Michael Pena’s lisping security guard are significantly underused and ambiguously formulated. When each one reveals their true nature, it’s less of a surprise and more like a sudden, senseless shock. The same can be said for Faris’ fried make-up clerk. Ditz can only take you so far, and this otherwise capable actress is reduced to playing potted and prone to date-rape like sex. Hill also has a hard time keeping things straight. In one scene, Ronnie is so fascinatingly adept at fighting that he beats down a bevy of street toughs. But in a last act confrontation with the cops, he gets a few good licks in before having his clock cleaned.

What makes this all the more unusual is that Hill genuinely believes in his movies’ motives. The new Blu-ray disc has a picture in picture commentary track find the director sitting with his two main leads (Rogen and Farris) and together, they find subtext and psychological complexities that the actual film fails to address. Some of the additional scenes included do flesh out the characters, and all the Making-of material really supports the conclusions being proffered. As for the presentation itself, the 2.41:1 1080p image is excellent, giving a clear consumerism crassness to the New Mexican location. In addition, Hill’s ear for aural complements really works within the loseless Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 mix. Songs like “It’s Late” by Queen and “When I Paint My Masterpiece” by The Band really come alive with speaker sparking goodness.

And even a good digital reproduction might not help. When placed alongside the current crop of gutless comedies, films which manufacture funny stuff out of grade school level quips and uncomfortable physical crudeness (isn’t that right, Pink Panther 2?), Observe and Report is like Conan (the Barbarian, not the late night talk show host). It’s not afraid to take chances, to push envelopes, and explore elements that usually don’t make it into a satire or spoof. With a cast that, for the most part, fits perfectly into Hill’s humor ideals and a story that serves the basic needs of the underdog hero formula, a good time should be had by all. But don’t underestimate that dreaded Blart effect. Word of mouth will doom the eventual bottom line, but that doesn’t take away from what Hill has accomplished. One day, he’ll create his classic. Until then, we’ll have to put up with above-average efforts like Observe and Report. It’s very good. We’ll have to wait until Hill achieves ‘great’.

by Bill Gibron

18 Sep 2009

Believe it or not, there was a time when the name Wayans didn’t instantly incur the wrath of comedy fans everywhere. From I’m Gonna Get You Sucka to In Living Color, Keenan Ivory and his rotating band of relatives produced biting send-ups and celebrated spoofs, all with an unusual (for the time) African American slant. To call them trailblazers would do their innovations a disservice. At a time when TV and the mainstream media saw all black people as either Huxtables or hoodlums, the Wayans crew walked the fine line between stereotype and satire brilliantly.

Then…something happened. Like those stories from our youth about falling in with the wrong crowd, the various members of Wayans nation saw commercial success blind their abilities. Where once they were funny, they flopped. Where once they delivered high brow burlesque that functioned as savage social commentary, they spewed cinematic scat like Scary Movie, White Chicks, and that most miserable of motion picture experiences, Little Man. In fact, when it was announced that the formerly talented team was taking up the movie mantle of films like Step Up and Save the Last Dance, audiences and critics groaned in disbelief. Apparently, they thought they knew what was coming next.

Luckily, the next generation of Wayans seems ready to return the family to greatness - or at the very least, likeability. Their first attempt at resetting the clan’s commercial fortunes is Dance Flick, and while not a perfect comedy by any stretch of the imagination, what we do have here is something fresh, inventive, exciting, and most importantly, fun. Instead of throwing every tired pop culture riff at the screen, desperate to see what sticks, the latest members of the Mad Magazine influenced crew use the classic ZAZ formula for funny business and wind up delivering something every bit as good as Airplane! or the Naked Gun films.

After her mother’s untimely death, Juilliard wannabe Megan travels to the big city to live with her deadbeat dad. There, she meets up with several standout members of the Musical High School class, including 21 year old unwed mother Charity, her talented if slightly stuck up street thug brother, Thomas Uncles, his best friend A-Con, prissy white chick Nora, and incredibly flamboyant (and very closeted) Jack. While she dreams of a life as a dancer, the tough streets of her new urban environment constantly remind her of the struggle ahead. All that changes, of course, when overweight mobster Sugar Bear demand money from Thomas and A-Con. Naturally, their only chance of getting it is via a big time ghetto wide dance off - with Megan and the rest of Musical High as the “crew”.

While it may sound like an excuse, it is important to note that comedy, like horror and musical taste, remains a very subjective standard. Just because you think something is funny, scary, or the second coming of The Beatles doesn’t mean a group consensus will support you position. We all have private favorites and fixations, pleasures that may be unexplainable but make you feel happy - and slightly guilty - for enjoying them so. That’s exactly what Dance Flick is, especially for a film critic who’s seen more than his fair share or suburban girl meets street tough scenarios. With its combination of cleverness and crudity, obvious gags and hilarious insider smackdowns, the movie hits more targets than it misses. Even better, the cast seems really invested in the story and the situations, unlike that god-awful junk that arrives under the various “Move” monikers - Date Movie, Epic Movie, Disaster Movie - every six months or so.

There truly is an art to mixing narrative with nuttiness, avoiding the slapdash senselessness of someone like Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg. Sure, when Sugar Bear breaks into a Dreamgirls parody of the showstopper “And I Am Telling You…”, we recognize the obvious aside. But the other main song in the film (a sexually confused take on the original high school musical Fame) flows directly from the need to mock the omnipresent House of Mouse franchise. But it’s the dancing, including the numerous slapstick and physical comedy incorporated therein, that is truly wonderful, especially the moves of the incredibly talented Affion Crockett, Shoshana Bush, and Damon Wayans, Jr. A sense or reality is important to making a movie like this work and their believability as street savvy hoofers puts Dance Flick over the top.

Even better, the toilet humor and gross out stunts are kept to a minimum. Only Amy Sedaris pushes the boundaries of propriety with her leotard-challenged instructor, Ms. Cameltoé (gee, wonder what her issue is???), while other sexual or scandalous content is modulated to fit the teenage circumstances involved. Even the deleted scenes - present on the new DVD and Blu-ray versions of the film - don’t oversell the bile (for a wonderful drunken David Hassellhoff take-off) and other bad taste tricks to keep the humor happening. Still, even with the so called “Un-rated and Outrageous” edition of the film hitting home video, then new stuff is not that naughty. Instead, it’s the standard MPAA mandated labeling that occurs whenever a theatrical release is ‘embellished’ with material that did not make the final version that played in theaters.

And yet it’s hard not to argue with people who find this kind of comedy silly or stupid. Even in a wonderfully crisp, 1080p, 1.85:1 widescreen Blu-ray image and beefed up DTS, Master Audio 5.1 mix, there are always going to be viewers who cringe at this kind of kneejerk, football to the groin level of wit. In fact, format can’t make up for perceived personal shortcomings, which make grading something like Dance Flick a critical crap shoot. No matter the final judgment, someone is bound to take you for task. However, most written movie opinions also have an element of objectivity to them, and within the current crop of attempted take-offs, Dance Flick is definitely one of the best. While not quite damning with faint praise, one thing’s for sure - the new generation of Wayans have the comedy chops to resurrect their family’s lagging fortunes. 

by Bill Gibron

16 Sep 2009

It’s astonishing to think how far the martial arts movie has come in the last 30 years. While it was commonplace within the major metropolitan markets of the 1970s (thanks in no small part to Bruce Lee), it wasn’t until home video, and the ready availability of titles, that the real upswing started. By the time DVD rolled around in the ‘90s, fans were no longer happy just getting their hands on certain celebrated efforts. They wanted the original film left intact - uncut, uncensored, un-manipulated by Hollywood studios, and most importantly, un-dubbed by usually over the top Western actors. For the most part, the business model dictated otherwise, while some outsider distributors gladly fed the geek fervor. Now Blu-ray has come along and with it a bevy of new digital reproduction issues. While DVD is often seen as a consumer friendly format, the new high definition dynamic is viewed as the territory of the true film preservationist - and each new release is viewed with a jaundiced, jaded eye.

Indeed, any company that claims attention to be catering to the purist but then fails to fulfill their most-wanted wish list of disc mandates is just asking for trouble - and that’s what’s happening with Miramax right now. While it’s wonderful to finally see these four films - the new releases include The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi, Hero, Iron Monkey, and The Legend on Drunken Master on the technologically advanced system, some are grousing over the various flaws they find in the transfers and audio specs provided. Whether or not they have a point goes beyond the issue of each of the films (which are, in general, some of the best in the genre). In fact, it raises a question of what consumers want from their Blu-ray collection vs. what a small but very vocal contingency of home video nerds demand. Perhaps the best way to gauge this conflict is to rate each film individually, before addressing the actual product and presentation. We begin with one of the more unusual and unknown titles in the set:

The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (dir. Takeshi “Beat” Kitano, 2003)

As he travels around the countryside, the famed blind swordsman Zatoichi encounters a pair of geishas who were orphaned by the awful Ginzo gang. He also learns that the local village is suffering under the brutal thumb of these thugs. It’s not long before our hero is working his way on the inside, killing anyone who comes between him and the head of this sinister syndicate.

When it was announced that Takeshi “Beat” Kitano was taking on one of Japan’s best loved mythical heroes, film fans around the world sat up and took notice. Imaginations went into overdrive determining what the man responsible for the cult legend Battle Royale would bring to the story of a blind gambler and masseuse who’s an expert at iaido style swordplay. More importantly, the new film was considered a reboot, reminiscence of what Hollywood has done recently with long running properties like Star Trek. Indeed, after 26 films and four television series (almost all dating back to the ‘60s and ‘70s) this was to be the first new title since 1989’s Zatoichi, Darkness Is His Ally. While some have complained that Kitano’s take on the action icon was muddled and unfocused, others have championed his post-modern approach and psychological realism in regards to the character. Seen now, sans all the hype and hoopla (the film won awards at both the Venice and Toronto film festivals), we can gauge Kitano’s production for what it truly is - a compelling and quite complex bit of fractured folklore.

Kitano is not a director capable of the familiar or the formulaic. No matter what he does, from standard crime dramas to depraved, gore-soaked social commentaries, he brings an idiosyncratic style and sense of adventure to his works, and Zatoichi is no different. Graced with a big budget and more modern production values (including gallons of CG blood), we get a slick, satisfying thriller made even more entertaining by Kitano’s unusual ideas. Wearing dirty died blonde hair and a flaming red sword sheath, this is clearly an update of the old Asian honor and virtue cautionary tale. Everyone Zatoichi meets has a moral agenda, looking for payback or protection from regional thugs. Dispensing his wisdom with a heavy, heady dose of violence, Kitano is clearly influenced by the Western approach to such ripe revenge flicks. As the iconic figure, the filmmaker brings an oddball design to Zatoichi’s physicality. He’s part village idiot, part outlaw assassin, and all cinematic cool. While it sometimes plays like a private joke between Kitano and his audience’s expectations, this is one cinematic update that does its subject rather proud.

Hero (dir. Zhang Yimou , 2002)

A group of assassins gather together to destroy the King of Qin. A reward is offered for their deaths. A nameless prefect from another part of the country arrives at the palace carrying the weapons of each of these trained killers. Impressed, the wary ruler wants to hear how he did it. Through flashback, we learn how our hero’s exciting exploits, and how his arrival in the kingdom may be far from coincidental.

Beautiful to look at and amazing in its stunning, stylized action, Hero argues for Jet Li’s stature as a living martial arts legend. He is so graceful here, so solid in his onscreen machismo and magnetism that it puts recent turns by the acclaimed Chinese actor (like the awful Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor) to shame. Applying a palette of colors so strong that it’s reminiscent of the old school Hollywood spectacle from a bygone era, and expertly composed and controlled by director Zhang Yimou (famed for other sumptuous efforts like Raise the Red Lantern, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower), this is moviemaking of majestic proportions. When we are not left agog by the pristine production design and costuming, we marvel at the various staged conflicts, each one bringing a new level of proficiency and polish to an already overripe genre. In fact, critics were so taken with this combination of heritage and histrionics that Oscar took notice, nominating the film for 2005’s Best Foreign Language Film.

Again, it’s not hard to see why. This is heartbreaking, highly stylized stuff, colors used as indicators of emotional subtext, the flashback approach allowing Yimou to explore different visual and narrative cues. With five main stars, including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon‘s Zhang Ziyi, Police Story 2‘s Maggie Cheung, and Iron Monkey‘s Donnie Yen, you’d figure there’d be a lot of stunt- showboating. But unlike most action films, Yimou finds a way to keep the battles tied directly to the story, letting confronts with Li and fellow favorite Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (Hard-Boiled) flow organically out of the various altercations and situations described. This is the very definition of an epic, the kind of film that employs a heighten reality and a broad sense of scope to transport audiences to a larger than life set of individuals and ideas. Yimou is clearly an artist, using celluloid as his canvas and the various actors and craftsman involved in the production as his paints. The result is like watching one of the Old Master’s masterworks come to life, movement adding yet another incredible element to an otherwise ample aesthetic stunner.

Iron Monkey (dir. Yuen Woo-ping , 1993)

Our title hero is a masked avenger who is actually a well-meaning physician by day. He tends to the poor without charge while gouging the wealthy when they need medical care. One day, a fellow MD (and master swordsman) named Wong Kei Ying comes into town, along with his young son. Hoping to force the newcomer to fight, the government kidnaps the boy. The only option for getting him back? Find the Iron Monkey and kill him.

Like Robin Hood on steroids, Iron Monkey has two very strong elements going for it. The first is actor Donnie Yen, who oddly enough doesn’t play the title character. That honor goes to Rongguang Yu. It really doesn’t make a difference, however. The acting is uniformly good, as is the amazing martial artistry. The fight scenes soar with a clearly crafted efficiency and power - and that makes sense, considering whose staging the stand-offs. Indeed, the second standout facet is stunt god extraordinaire, fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping who here steps behind the camera to act as director. Though battles with producers forced him to add more comic material than he would have liked, the overall effect is one of someone who implicitly understands action. That doesn’t mean that everything functions like cinematic clockwork here. Yuen Woo-ping dives into this story with little set-up, expecting us to catch up on the characters and socio-political underpinning along the way. Even worse, rumors have the movie being trimmed by Miramax from its original 90 minute running time to a supposedly leaner 86. Gone are bits that many feel flesh out the film, including specific subplots and concepts of cultural significance.

Still, this is an entertaining effort, a very imaginative film from a man who really does understand the genre. The finale, staged among several elevated flaming wooden pools, produces the necessary jaw-dropping effect, and fans of Matrix like wire-fu will not be disappointed. As a matter of fact, even without the supposed interference from Miramax, this is a very Western film. There are similarly styled heroes in our recent folklore (the aforementioned Robin, the Hispanic hero Zorro) and we tend to cotton to characters that hide under secret, subversive identities. The whole good guy vs. the government angle also satisfies, due in part to our already in place distrust of people in power. Add in child endangerment (always a manipulative plus), some herbal medicine hocus pocus, and the ever-present death dance excitement of the choreography, and you’ve got something that delights more than it disappoints. While purists may balk at not getting Yuen Woo-ping’s complete “vision” here, Iron Monkey manages to make its case, even within the mangled material provided.

The Legend of Drunken Master (dir. Lau Kar-Leung, 1994)

When he accidentally learns that the British government is stealing rare antiquities and exporting them out of the country, Chinese patriot Wong Fei Hung decides to defend his nation’s honor. Using his expert style of martial arts (which is enhanced even more when he actually drinks), he battles the bad guys in hopes of restoring his homeland’s honor, pride, and treasured artifacts. .

Don’t try to figure out the franchise serialization of the noted “drunken boxing” hero Wong Fei Hung (the movie’s tag comes from the Zui Quan style of fighting). In 1977, a cast and crew including Yuen Woo-ping and star Jackie Chan made a movie called Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow. In 1978, they then released Drunk Monkey In The Tiger’s Eye - what many consider to be the first film to feature the noted Chinese fighter and herbalist. Then a side character in the series, a character known as Beggar So (played by Yuen’s father Siu Tien) starred in three additional films - Drunken Master Part 2, Story of the Drunken Master and World of the Drunken Master. Finally, in 1994, Chan returned to reprise the role of Hung. In Hong Kong, the film was labeled Drunken Master II. When it finally hit American shores, the title was reconfigured to Legend of the Drunken Master. Understand? Actually, you don’t really have to. With Mad Monkey Kung Fu and Return to the 36th Chamber‘s Lau Kar-leung behind the lens (with some uncredited help from his star), we wind up with one of the most mesmerizing, mindbending action films ever.

This was the beginning of Chan’s international stardom, a phase founded on such import hits as Police Story 1 - 3, Crime Story, and The Twin Dragons. Instead of the deadly serious mannerism he adopted early on in his career, Chan plays his scenes - including the fights - for laughs, emphasizing a literal translation of the title talent. Watching him act inebriated to trick his opponents is hilarious, and then once he stops the pantomime and gets to punching, the stunt choreography is astonishing. Though Lau Kar-Leung is also credited with the “action direction”, most of these sequences were coordinated and executed in collaboration with Chan’s own famous Stunt Team. This close-knit group of action artisans, many who’ve been with the superstar since the beginning, really deliver on the derring-do. While you might not always appreciate the historical aspects of the story, you will definitely find Chan’s physical acumen amazing. Indeed, at almost 40 when the film was made, he proves that his kind of talent is timeless. While some will once again scold this film for its lack of reproduction authenticity (there is no Cantonese track on the DVD), the movie itself is incredible.

Which does bring us to one of the bigger issues with these Blu-ray releases. Many consider this latest digital format to be as definitive as possible…this week…within the framework of the current technology and available electronics, and yet Miramax is being called out for not providing a completely polished and pristine home video experience. The biggest argument comes over the lack of a True HD 5.1 mix IN THE ORIGINAL CHINESE for each title provided here. All arguments over print quality and image transfer aside, geek nation is going ga-ga over the lack of such a sonic scenario. Sure, the English dubs get the high profile presentation, but what film fans actually want - the original movie remastered in its entirety, including its native tongue - seems like the last consideration for these releases. Instead, we get ported over bonus features, lots of arguments over picture quality, and a very vocal contingent lighting up Messageboard Nation with their complaints.

So the question becomes one of availability over perfection, the chance of seeing one of your favorite films on the best of current formats vs. waiting years for rights issues, original print locating, footage processing, and other common complications to be addressed and resolved. Those arguing the loudest will claim that it’s not worth releasing these films if you’re not going to do it right. Others, especially those who wouldn’t know 1080i from 1080p, could probably care less. What’s clear is that the martial arts movie has become such a part of our cultural discussion that when the demographic feels underserved by the studios they look to for their regular dose of foreign and other outside the mainstream fare, they want their displeasure known - and in as massive a media savvy way possible. Miramax may have dropped the ball here - that’s for others to truly decide - but each of the four films offered have their own artistic merits (and missteps) as well. Perhaps they should be judged on this basis first before being dismissed as unworthy of the Blu-ray label.

by Bill Gibron

13 Sep 2009

Some artists work in oils, or plaster. Some use a brush or a chisel. Dalton Trumbo used words, craftily painted on standard white paper with the help of a well worn typewriter. By the time he was in high school, he was a cub reporter for his local Colorado newspaper. After college, he wrote for Vogue, published his first novel, and headed out to Hollywood. By the 1940s, he had won the National Book Award for his cautionary anti-war tome Johnny Got His Gun, and was one of the industries highest paid screenwriters, famous for such films as Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Kitty Foyle, and A Guy Named Joe. When WWII broke out, Trumbo affiliated himself with the Communist Party because, as he would later argue, “it was the most liberal organization out there.” It was a decision that would come to redefine, destroy, and darken his life - both personally and professionally - until his death at age 70 in 1976.

It’s the stuff of legend, his story as mythical as any poetic Greek epic and twice as telling. When Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee came calling in 1947, Trumbo refused to do the “patriotic” thing and name names. Found in contempt of Congress, he served 11 months in Federal Prison and was systematically blacklisted from his chosen profession. Nearly a decade in the throws of radical national jingoism and un-employability, he escaped to Mexico, finding solace in his fellow exiles Hugo Butler and Jean Rouverol. During his time down South of the Border, he still created, crafted over 30 screenplays, using various pseudonyms and ‘fronts’ to keep his name off the credits. He eventually earned two Oscars - one for 1953’s Roman Holiday and again in 1956 for The Brave One. He was unable to accept either one. 

He also found an outlet for his ever-present muse in correspondence. Dalton Trumbo wrote thousands of letters over his lifetime, brilliantly crafted missives on any and all subjects, from love and life to freedom of speech and the risks of dissent. Combined with basic documentary material, these letters form the foundation of Trumbo, a terrific film that makes the wise decision to let this misunderstood man explain himself - in his own beautifully formed words. Read by actors like Josh Lucas, Paul Giamatti, Brian Dennehy, Joan Allen, Liam Neeson, and David Strathairn while using insights from others like Donald Sutherland, Dustin Hoffman, and Kirk Douglas who actually worked with the man, director Peter Askin uses Trumbo’s son Christopher’s stage play as the starting point for a vicious denouncement of ‘50s mob mentality, the power in playing the contrarian, and the personal toll such a stance took on everyone close to him.

While the various readings are indeed excellent, each performer capturing difference nuances and hidden treasures in Trumbo’s erudite and eloquent screeds, it’s the facts that remain the most startling. Following along as Askin outlines Trumbo’s rise, watching as he moves effortlessly through the various stages of Tinseltown power-brokering and his various commercial and critical successes tranforms the later sequences into a seething statement against blatant injustice. Balanced brilliantly with anecdotes and celebrations of his friendships, his three children and his amazing marriage to wife Cleo, we get the whole picture, a portrait painted in stellar sentences, expert paragraphs, and well rounded rebuttals. Indeed, one of the greatest joys this film has to offer is the sound of Trumbo’s masterful writing reimagined by actors who get to the very heart of what he has to say.

Still, some subjects deserve more time than others, and it has to be said that the blacklist seems like an afterthought most of the time. Clearly stifled by what Trumbo did (and did not) write about the experience, the documentary loses his all important voice during the height of the Red Scare reign of terror. It could just be a matter of pure audience greed - Trumbo is so dead on regarding other elements of the man’s amazing life (including his introduction to Hollywood and, as Barton Fink might describe it, the “life of the mind”) that when we don’t get the ballsy blow by blow the material suggests, it seems disappointing. Even odder is the rush toward the ending. Kirk Douglas makes an impassioned plea for his role in returning Trumbo to the land of working writer’s via Spartacus, but we hear nothing in the follow-up: how did Hollywood react? How did he manage? What repercussions remained?

Also absent, albeit not completely, is Trumbo’s late in life triumph - the film version of his prize winning tome Johnny Got His Gun. Sure, the movie gets a mention, and Sutherland is on hand for the necessary reminiscence, but like the blacklist section, we want more. As with any truly larger than life individual, 90 minutes of well-intentioned tribute just can’t cover all that needs to be addressed. Still, what’s here is choice, spell binding in its combination of philosophical strength and literary acumen. Make no mistake about it - Dalton Trumbo was a master of the English language. He could turn any subject into a blissful satiric dissertation. One highlight has Nathan Lane’s reading of a letter Trumbo sent to his adolescent son, referencing a book about masturbation. The hilarious (and scatological) language employed is like the lost sections of a great jazz improv.

Even with the gaps and passages that could go on longer, Trumbo is a triumph, a compelling look inside a time in our recent past that keeps threatening to bubble up and retake the present. If we think the blacklist and power hungry professional psychos like Sen. McCarthy are lessons already learned, think again. Indeed, Trumbo would tell you that whenever a society feels scared about the situation it’s in - either positively or negatively - the people always seek out a sacrificial scapegoat as a means of settling their angst. In the post-War world of a United States frightened by its role in the great arms race, the Communist was the easy pariah - and Trumbo and his family paid the ultimate price for their left leaning views. It’s hard to imagine a time when America kept political prisoners - detainees held under lock and key for no other reason than their opposing policy views. In 2009, we’re no further away from such kneejerk reactions. Think again. Like the great artist he is Trumbo’s work speaks as loudly today as it did 50 years ago. Perhaps we should all listen.

by Bill Gibron

6 Sep 2009

His is a world few have or will ever know: a realm of high fashion, even higher expectations, and the royal treatment for achieving both. For over 45 years, he has remained steadfast in his haute couture designs, never once straying from his desire to make beautiful clothes for beautiful people. In a business that chews up even established names and spits them out with impunity, he’s endured. In fact, for the 75-year-old Valentino Garavani (whose brand remains his internationally known first name), he is literally the last man standing, a regal, refined presence within a playground that often embraces fad, commercial cultural shifts, and whatever’s hot in any given season.

And for the most part, he has lifetime business (and personal) partner Giancarlo Giammetti to thank for it. Meeting up with the future fashion icon when the two were young men in Rome, he provided the support, the common sense, and the behind the scene acumen that helped a failing designer (his first “house” ended in bankruptcy) become a nearly five decade old institution. Now, in the mid part of the 21st century, the tide is turning. Valentino faces pressure from the creepy corporate ownership shills who only pray to the bottom, not the hem, line while Giammetti wonders if his companion can survive the continuing commercial pressures presented by the label’s new investment-minded suits.

Thus we have the set up for Matt Tyrnauer marvelous, maddening documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor. Culled from nearly 250 hours of footage and extraordinary access into the inner sanctum of the designer’s domain, what we get is part retrospective, part stark realities of the fashion world circa 2006. Valentino is preparing his Spring collection for a Paris debut. On the horizon, an all encompassing three-day celebration of his entire 45 year career. In the middle is Giammetti - sounding board, cynic, critical eye, creative force, understanding friend, endearing lover, and all around rock to Valentino’s often stubborn, strident misgivings. As a team, they work well together. The king gets to rant and rave about the important of style and substance. His long suffering significant other manages and mops up.

It’s a startling study in contrasts: the man whose eye for form and feminine aesthetic has lead to some of the most startling outfits in the history of couture vs. the former architecture student who’s built the brand into a multimillion dollar enterprise. For Valentino, it’s all heart and soul. For Giammetti, it’s all head and strategizing. What they’ve created together has managed to survive the pop art penchant of the ‘60s, the disco drone of the ‘70s, the money mandates of the ‘90s, and the media inspired hyperbole of the ‘90s. When Giammetti finally sold the company in 1998, it was the start of a trend toward cash over creativity. Less than a decade later (and even more boardroom wrangling), Valentino is basically a ghost wandering his own haunted realm.

There are really two films at work here, one very personal, one that’s all professional. We see the devotion of the workers who’ve stayed with the designer for several years, capable of translating his often ambiguous ideas into sheer fabric fabulousness. Valentino beams early on, stating with pride that everything in his collection is hand sewn. “We bought a machine once,” he laughs, “and no one ever used it.” Watching these women work their nimble if frazzled fingers over layer after layer of sheer linen, you’ll understand why. For them, and their brooding boss, it’s about craftsmanship and art, not ready-to-wear or off-the-rack. It’s the same for Giammetti, really. He wants to please his partner while making sure that the Valentino name remains vibrant and vital.

Such a dedication and devotion has lead to extraordinary wealth, almost aristocratic in its old world ways, and an insularity that buffers the legend from the rest of his mainstream mythos. Many have complained that in this failing world economy where businesses are shuttering and people are suffering, such outward opulence is a crime. No man should have a private jet, a personal pet groomer (for his six spoiled pugs), a chalet in Switzerland and a massive chateau in France (among many, many locations). Somehow, his extravagance is an indictment of the cold, commercial criminality that led to the fiscal downfall in the first place. Of course, such arguments are very shortsighted indeed. Valentino didn’t look at the failing stock markets and plummeting property values of the last 18 months and decide “Hey! I’ll live like a Lord!” He’s been flaunting his fashion iconography for longer than some of these so-called critics have been alive.

The corporate story steps in when Giammetti prepares for the 45th anniversary show. Suddenly, smiling faces turn sour as price and scope are discussed, and several are quite frank in their position about Valentino’s possible importance to the overall business model. While he remains a name, and a known quantity, the profit margin is no longer served by his hand crafted works of wonder. Instead, it’s all about licensing and logos, something that their namesake no longer cares about. As the entire fashion community turns out for his massive celebration, as his entire productive lifetime is given a literal museum-like overview, we come to understand the shallowness of the executives’ position. Without his nearly five decades of hard work and inspiration, they’d have nothing to bank on. As with most dollar and cents decisions, what you’ve accomplished is less important than what you’ve accomplished lately.

Though the issue of his “retirement” is questioned throughout, Valentino: The Last Emperor makes it very clear that our subject is ready to walk off into the faked runaway sunset. He still has the flair and the showmanship, but he looks tired and takes out his obvious frustration on anyone around him - usually Giammetti. The best thing about this fascinating film is the unspoken love the two have for each other. When Valentino is given France’s highest award, the Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, his smooth demeanor cracks when mentioning the contributions of his partner, and in a rare moment of emotion, Giammetti breaks down as well. With the connection established and illustrated, there is really no reason for more behind the bedroom door reveals.

Sure, he still lives in a sinfully excessive manner. Yes, he can be childish or even cruel in his condemnations. Perhaps he has outlived his usefulness, his dedication to couture no longer warranted in a slick high tech society. But Valentino will always remain an enduring figure of fascinating appeal. While it’s light on history, this stunning documentary is heavy on insight. It offers a window onto a world that will probably never pass this way again. Indeed, there will never be another Valentino. And there will definitely never be another partner like Giammetti. Together, they made magic. This fascination film explains how. 

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